Here We Go Again!
This was the fourth time I’d make a dash into the city during a layover in Istanbul and, according to my calculations, the fifth time here, in total. Could be sixth – I’m losing count! In fact, there aren’t many cities in the entire world (outside of the USA, of course) that I’ve visited this much. When you’re traveling the world, you start to rack up a lot of layovers at IST. Its airport serves as a mega hub of Europe, Africa and Asia. IST literally serves just about the entire planet – their slogan is “The world’s meeting point!”
The constant challenge in seeing the city on layover is being able to leave and return in time for your next flight – as Istanbul’s new airport is quite a ways outside of the city. Depending on traffic, you run the risk of sitting in gridlock for an hour or more. A trip into town on layover is not something you should ever chance – you must do some serious calculations and leave a pretty thick “time buffer” if you’re going to attempt to get all the way into town and back. The run, which requires a visa for most, is not for the faint-hearted.
I’d been quite lucky on my last two layovers here – arriving early Sunday morning when the streets were absolutely empty. This time, however, we’d land smack-dab in the middle of rush-hour, on a weekday. We’d have around eight hours to make it into the city and back. And although I worried we’d hit traffic on the way in, I figured the roads would be pretty clear by the time we had to head back for our 1:50AM flight on to Cape Town. So, let the adventure begin!
Partner in Crime
This was one of those rare trips where I actually had company. If you’re a regular reader to my blog, you know that 99% of my trips are solo. I’d come to absolutely adore traveling alone: having to worry only about you definitely has its benefits. But alas, this time I was happy to be traveling with my buddy Dave. It had been over a decade since we travelled internationally together, and, besides spending quality time with him, I was really looking forward to showing him one of the most magical cities in the world.
The Quick Exit
I’d just about memorized the details and every last step to get in and out of the enormous city of an airport that is IST – and I seemed to get better and faster with this bear of a process each time. Just getting out of the airport can take an hour. But this time was different – in a good way.
Every single time I’ve arrived at IST, as a connecting passenger, I’d always been forced to walk the half-mile (or more) from the aircraft to security, where everyone coming in has to be re-screened just to enter the terminal again. This is common in most international airports. This process alone usually takes me at least a half an hour. But for some reason, this time, we were parked in front of the airport, without a jet-bridge, and led right into the international terminal. I’m still not sure if we were supposed to come in this way or not – perhaps I accidentally just got away and slipped through a random door? But, boom! We went directly from plane into the middle of the international terminal within 60 seconds. This was amazing! I’m sure Dave didn’t quite understand my excitement, but this was really such a blessing.
Per my usual tactical plan, it was a beeline over to the Turkish Airlines lounge to stash our bags in their convenient, self-serve lockers. Then, to the terminal exit and over to immigration. Soon we were out on the curb, jumping into a cab. We’d touched down at 6:25PM and were out and rolling down the highway by 7:10PM. Really, this was an amazing feat, and if you’ve ever attempted to go into the city on a layover at IST, you know getting out this quick must have been an act of God. This certainly was a record for me.
My favorite thing to do on a layover in Istanbul is to jump onto a public ferry and head across the Bosphorus Strait. The capital is divided by this channel of water, but so is the entire continent! Istanbul literally lies in both Europe and Asia, and the fact that you can cross continents in 14 minutes via public transportation will always thrill me. I don’t think I will ever tire of this. I’m also sure that Dave got pretty sick of my over-enthusiastic “Can you believe we’re crossing continents” exclamations – but I was really excited.
The traffic wasn’t too bad, but definitely jammed up once we pulled into the city. By the time our cabbie dropped us at the Eminönü ferry terminal, it was already 8PM and the sun was dropping quick. I’d almost memorized which exact ferry building to enter for our boat, but had to ask one last time. I won’t forget on my next trip – I made a note it was the terminal closest to the Galata Bridge. Thankfully, this time I’d remembered my Istanbulkart – the plastic, refillable card that gives you access to the city’s amazing public transportation web. Buses, trams, subways, and even boats – this city has the best network to get around.
A few minutes later we boarded our boat and were cruising the Bosphorus, just as the sun was disappearing. Talk about perfect timing!
I was still a little sore and stressed from the 13+ hour journey (we’d just arrived from L.A.) – but the cool breeze and smell of the sea helped awaken all my senses and gave my body and brain a reset. Minutes later we were arriving in Asia, pulling up to the neighborhood called Kadıköy – a place I’d gotten to know during the last two layovers here.
The bayside concrete walkways were humming with commuters, smells of tender meat emanating from doner kebab stalls and little carts with men selling grilled corn on the cob and roasted chestnuts. This city has a vibe that enters my bloodstream almost immediately, makes the hairs on my arms stand at attention, and just in general, makes me all tingly and happy inside. I could tell that Dave was experiencing this same effect, too.
Dave and a Haircut – Two Bits
Dave had missed a spot on the back of his head when he buzzed it the day we left. A big spot! I noticed the “stripe” at LAX and asked if he was growing a mullet. He was bound and determined to get this very noticeable strip of hair on the back of his head cleaned up ASAP. Lucky for him, we’re literally at ground zero for those world famous Turkish barbers. And sure enough, we hadn’t walked but three of four blocks before running right into one.
Cat’s in the Cradle
While Dave was getting re-buzzed, I snuck around the corner to see if I could find my lost love. I’d met her on the street during my last run into town, and although we spent just a few precious moments together, I’d never forgotten her. I was hoping and praying that I’d run into her again. And my biggest hope was that she’d remember me.
I’d run into this kitty on my last layover, just six months ago. I’d passed through a little alley/walkway on the way to breakfast and there she was – perched upon a ladder. We became instant friends and her purring was a loud as a small motorcycle. What really cemented our connection, was that she would be waiting for me an hour later, when I passed her way on the way back from breakfast. We exchanged another few minutes of love and when it was time for me to leave – which was very hard to do – she’d pounce onto my feet, clawing my ankles as if asking, or begging me really, to not leave her. It broke my heart to say goodbye as she followed me down the alley. I promised to return to this exact same spot next time I came to Istanbul. Now was the moment of truth.
The ladder was still there, but sadly, my kitty was not. There were three of four others on the wall, but not mine. I hung out for a few minutes hoping she’d appear, but no dice. Maybe next time. I hurried back to the barber, not wanting Dave to think I ditched him.
Back to Europe
It was getting late, and I wanted to show Dave the famous Hagia Sofia mosque, so we headed back over to the European side via ferry. But not before stopping at Moda for some Turkish treats. Dave had the baklava and I had a scoop of tuti-fruti. I’d passed Moda a half-dozen times, gazing through the glass windows at all those desserts, but this would be the first time I’d actually stop and partake of the shop’s ooey-gooey goodness, thanks to Dave’s insistence that we stop. I’m glad we did!
When he Plays Piano in the Dark
It was tough to get a good look at Hagia Sofia in the dark. The entire complex was surrounded by a new, portable security fence which helped to disorient me a little. We walked the perimeter and although we couldn’t “see” much, we did enjoy hearing the call to prayer while we were there. We experienced Hagia Sofia with our ears instead of our eyes. This was certainly a new way for me which both delighted and disoriented the senses.
I’d worked up quite an appetite and couldn’t wait to enjoy some Turkish meatballs. We ducked into a restaurant just before they closed and ordered a quick bite. The clock was ticking and we needed to be on the road and back to the airport soon. The meatballs were just what the doctor ordered and while waiting for our Uber out on the street, I finally succumbed to the infamous Turkish Delight. I couldn’t believe I’d been to Istanbul five or six times and never tried this – I think it all looked just a little too exotic for me. There’s a lot going on inside each roll. But wow, it changed my life. I chose a purple one that contained nougat, nuts, some chocolate and “forrest berries,” whatever that meant. Dave had a couple pieces but I ended up inhaling about 85% of the diabetes roll. It was soooo good and, unfortunately, will now become a “must-have” on my future trips here. I was only disappointed I didn’t have a chance to grab a fresh pomegranate juice, which is usually one of my rites of passage each time I’m here. Once I’m done with all 193 countries, I’m definitely coming back to Turkey and spending at least three or four days here in Istanbul. I fall in love with this city more and more each time.