In and Around Istanbul

With several days to spend in and around Istanbul, we decided that we’d like to venture outside the city and see a bit of the rest of Turkey on at least one occasion. And being nearly surrounded by water, with numerous boats at our disposal, the best option seemed to be taking a marine excursion that was a bit lengthier than just a ferry ride straight across the strait. The logical choice seemed to be a cruise to Bursa, a city of about 3 million located about 60 miles away.

Boat to Bursa…errr Mudanya

We already had some familiarity with Bursa, because it’s regarded as the birthplace of the traditional Turkish art of shadow puppetry. In particular, the city is associated with two popular recurring comic characters in these plays, Karagöz and Hacivat. A few years ago, we presented their putative origin story in a production with our touring educational theatre company.

According to one tradition, shadow puppetry in Turkey got its start when a ruler who was sad because his wife died, had a shadow puppet constructed to resemble her. Another legend states that Karagöz and Hacivat were construction workers engaged in the construction of a mosque, but their amusing high jinks were such a distraction to the other laborers that they were executed — then later immortalized as shadow puppets.

Bursa even boasts a shadow puppet museum, and we thought it would be really cool to go see it. Trouble is, the boat does not really land in Bursa, which is a landlocked city — the boat docks in Mudanya, about 15 miles away. So by the time we’d taken public transit from the Mudanya harbor to the shadow puppet museum in Bursa, it would be time to turn around and head back to the harbor to catch our boat back home. So we had to pass this time.

So instead, we spent the better part of the day strolling through Mudanya, and getting a taste of smaller town Turkish life. First we meandered along the waterfront for a mile or two (where boys were swimming in one location despite the sign saying “It is dangerous to swim in this field”). Then we headed up the hill into the more remote parts of town.

At one point we passed through a little open-air mall with many tables and chairs where men were sitting, drinking tea, chatting and playing a board game. When we were in the middle of it, it occurred to us that it was indeed just men — it was in fact a male-only club or gathering spot of some kind. (Segregation by gender seems to be rather common in Islamic society.) But nobody let on at being terribly aghast seeing Kimberly intruding onto their testosterone turf.

Making our way back down to the terminal, we had a while to wait before our boat back to the city. So we opted to have a cup of tea in one of the waterfront cafes — for one thing, it was the only way we could access a bathroom for free, and we were beginning to need one. We settled on a cafe called Yıldız (“star”), which had nice ambiance, a good view of the waterfront, excellent tea, and an extensive dessert menu with photos that was just too enticing to resist.

Ultimately, we settled on having our tea with a slice of something called pistachio honey cake, which was deserving of intergalactic renown. It was served on a plate adorned with a little design in confectioner’s glaze that appeared to be, for some reason, a spider’s web. Or maybe it was a compass rose. Or the steering wheel of a ship. Or maybe it was supposed to be a star. Anyway, the cake was so outstanding that we almost ordered more. In the end, two cups of fine tea and a slice of outstanding cake set us back about $2.50. We told you things were cheap in Turkey.

Then it was back on the long boat ride back to Istanbul. As on the boat ride out, it was a bit of a letdown, because all of the seats were on the inside. There was no standing outside, feeling the ocean spray in your face, and getting a glimpse of distant lands and seagulls. From the inside, vantage points were rather limited, depriving us of one of our reasons for taking a boat trip in the first place.

The next day, we again were on the loose in Istanbul, patronizing another hilarious street ice cream vendor for another superb ice cream cone. We also returned to the Grand Bazaar, which this time we found to be more appealing; maybe it’s just because it was less crowded, and with fewer tourists gumming up the works, it felt like a more authentic Turkish experience. In any case, we suddenly noticed the Blue Eyes. These look somewhat like stained glass, with an eye design in blue and turquoise. As we’d later learn from a crash course at Google University, these are sort of a good luck charm in Turkish lore. And now that we’d spotted a few of them for sale in a stall at the Bazaar, we suddenly started seeing them everywhere.

Likewise the cigarette packages. Not being smokers, we seldom have cause to pay attention to tobacco. But after we’d passed a few cigarette vendors, it dawned on us that there was something odd about the packaging. All of them, regardless of brand, featured a plain black background with a photo on it. And as we observed the photos more closely, we saw that they were mostly rather disturbing — they all depicted the harm that tobacco does to the body. Some showed decayed lungs, or rotten teeth/ gums, or premature babies on incubators. And one took a more humorous approach, depicting a young couple in bed with a look of frustration, accompanied by a warning that smoking is detrimental to the libido.

For the past few years, Turkish law has required cigarette manufacturers to post photos like this on their packaging. (Later on, we noted similar policies in other countries, including India and Cambodia.) It’s still not known whether this actually helps reduce smoking, but it’s an approach worth considering.

Another fascinating thing that caught our eye was prayer in the street. Literally in the middle of the street. When the appointed hour would come for a group prayer, the men in the street (and again, it was men only) would just kneel down on the pavement and let ‘er rip. Now we only witnessed this on little streets without much traffic, but still, it takes a lot of trust in providence to assume you’re not going to get run over in mid-prayer.

As we mentioned before, our hostel was within walking distance of many major historic sites and tourist draws. In fact, one of them was only a block away: the Basilica Cistern, which was used as the enormous municipal waterworks beginning in the Sixth Century. It’s a human-made cavern containing more than 300 ornate pillars, plus a couple of Medusa heads. It’s figured prominently in a number of books and films, including Dan Brown’s Inferno and the 1963 James Bond flick From Russia With Love (which took considerable liberties both with the cistern’s location and its history).

Unfortunately, the cistern was closed for repairs. Just like the one we encountered in El-Jadida, Morocco. Ah well, something to look forward to the next time we come to Istanbul.

In the End there are Birds

May 26-27, 2022

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