24 hours in Istanbul
I am in a taxi, hurtling down narrow streets at great speed, passing parked cars and people with millimeters to spare. It’s 11pm and we are trying to find a restaurant that has been recommended to me. There are two branches and the first one we visit is closed. My friendly taxi driver is happy to drive me to the other branch. We attempt to hold a conversation about why I must go to this restaurant..lots of sign language, a little English on his part, and no Turkish on my part. We manage somehow. He tells me not to worry, if this second one is closed, he will find me somewhere else with good Turkish food. By this stage it has been about 10 hours since I last had something to eat, and that was a dodgy roll at the airport that I forced myself to eat a few bites of. All day I have been thinking of eating some real Turkish food in Istanbul. I have pictured plates of food overflowing with succulent and tantalising foods that are bursting with colour and flavour. Spices, dried fruit, sweets dripping in syrup. But now I am so hungry that the hotel restaurant is starting to sound like a reasonable option. “Good thing I have a recommendation” I tell myself. “Otherwise I might have chosen one of these other great looking places we are passing that are bursting with people and energy.”
So the second branch is open and the taxi driver and I are both equally happy. He promises to come back for me in an hour and I happily walk into the restaurant. I sit at my table and ask for the seven course tasting menu (remember, 10 hours no food, the hour trip from the airport that took two and a half hours…). Ah, sadly the restaurant is about to close the waiter tells me. But he can find a few things for me to eat. I agree. Bring me whatever you can/recommend I say. The owner comes over and we have a nice chat. He is very welcoming and that stops me from feeling quite as disgruntled as I really wanted to feel. The food comes out and…..I am disappointed. There is nothing wrong with the food. It is perfectly fine and some of the things are pretty damn tasty. But there is no atmosphere in this about-to-close restaurant and I feel like I am eating the left over scraps. The chef manages to coax a few coals back into life and grills a lamb kebab for me. It is cooked beautifully….but is a bit lacking in flavour (compared to what I have been imagining all day as I held on to my hunger). Let’s face it, nothing was going to be able to live up to my expectations which are unreasonably high (when it comes to food) on the best of days. Dessert was a highlight, though somewhat spoiled by the now empty restaurant and hovering waiters. It’s all over in half an hour and I wonder if I should wait for my friendly taxi driver or just take one of the 100 other taxis that are cruising past. I decide to go for a little walk. I want to get a proper feel for this city. My experience so far has not made me feel like I am actually here, in this city, getting to know. I should have trusted my instincts when it came to picking a restaurant. My instincts are rarely wrong when it comes to picking a good restaurant. Or I should have accepted the offer to go to dinner with that very nice Frenchman I sat next to on the way from the airport to the city – he was meeting a local friend in the city and I am sure it would have been a more fun experience. Boring conservative me!
So there I am at midnight, strolling around the streets of Istanbul. I don’t feel in the slightest bit anxious. There are a few people around and lots and lots of stray cats. Then all of a sudden heaps of people appear as a nearby jazz concert finishes and my taxi driver appears. I am glad I spent that 15 minutes walking around to get a little feel for this tiny part of this immense city.
As we drive back to my hotel we come over the crest of a hill and the view below of the Bosphorous that divides the Asian part of Turkey from the European part, the twinkling lights and the gorgeous mosque that sits right on the water make my breath catch in my throat. I could get to love this city. I must come back again and give it a proper chance.
The nicest thing I eat in Istanbul is the amazing Turkish ice cream at the airport. So good I went back for a second one. Ice cream that you can bite despite having the silkiest texture of any ice cream I have ever tasted. Yum!