Among the big cities of Europe, four are worth a week of visits: London, Paris, Rome and Istanbul. And of these, Istanbul offers the most thrills at the best price. Every time I visit, I just go out and walk around.
Istanbul’s historic and tourist center, between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, is virtually traffic-free, with flowering trees, refreshing fountains and a mix of strolling visitors from across Europe and the Middle East as well as premises. I take a minute to sit on a bench and marvel at the almost Parisian elegance of the scene.
As the sun sets and the time for evening prayer approaches, I walk through the teeming streets to the iconic Blue Mosque. The outdoor courtyard is packed with families – loyal parents and kids looking for entertainment.
Wandering under stiletto-shaped minarets, I listen to a hard-working loudspeaker—attached to the minaret like a religious crow’s nest—sound a call to prayer. Noticing the twinkling lights hanging in honor of the holy month of Ramadan, I think, “Lovely – they draped Christmas lights between the minarets.” (A Turk might come to my house and say, “Lovely – he draped Ramadan lights over his Christmas tree.”)
The Blue Mosque offers you a warm welcome. Stepping out of my shoes, I step into the vast space – more turquoise than blue – hoping for a deja vu that never comes. Something is missing. Gone is the smell of countless sweaty socks, knees, palms and foreheads that had soaked the old mat from the energetic and physical prayer workouts of the faithful. Sure enough, the Blue Mosque has a fresh new carpet – with a subtle design that keeps worshipers organized the way lined paper tames written letters.
As the prayer service ends, I am caught in a sea of Turks surging toward the door. It’s the kind of moment of connection with humanity that I’m looking for. This is the closest I can get to the exhilaration of body-surfing over a mosh pit. As I surf the stream of devotees through the door and down the street, the only way to gain personal space is to gaze skyward. In doing so, I enjoy another treasured memory – another deja vu of Istanbul: loudly pumping seagulls flapping their wings in the damp air of the dark sky before bursting into the light, crossing and then circling the lighted minarets.
The Hippodrome – a long oblong square shaped like a hippodrome, as was its vocation 18 centuries ago – is invigorated by the multi-generational friendliness of the Ramadan crowds emptying out of the mosque. While the crowd seems to regain energy, I am out of breath. But before returning to my hotel, I look for a tea house to follow my end-of-day ritual.
I established this ritual during visits to Turkey as a backpacking student and return to it now. I end my day with a bowl of sutlac: rice pudding sprinkled with cinnamon. It is always served in a square steel bowl with a matching teaspoon. Another part of the ritual: I don’t let a Turkish day go by without enjoying a game of backgammon in a tea room with a stranger. Looking at the board tonight, I notice it’s cheap and mass produced, almost disposable. Today’s dice – plastic and factory-perfect – make me long for the tiny handmade “bones” of the 20th century, with their disobedient dots. But some things never change. To test out a fun cultural oddity, I roll my dice and pause. As I knew this would happen, a spectator moves in for me. When it comes to backgammon, there’s a right way…and everyone knows it. And in Turkey, perhaps because of its ruthless history, when starting a new game, the winner of the last game plays first.
With every game of backgammon, I think of one of my most prized possessions at home: an inlaid, hand-hewn backgammon board, with small rusty hinges held in place by hasty thumbtacks, and white wood and soft worn deeper than harder, darker wood. Twenty years after bringing this backgammon board home, I open it and still smell of tobacco, tea and the soul of a traditional Turkish teahouse.
There is almost nothing in my world that is worn or enjoyed long enough to absorb the smells of my life and my community. It reminds me of the cost of modernity. At home, the feel and smell of my old backgammon board takes me back to Turkey. And when it does, it reminds me how much, in the face of all this modernity, the fading but resilient charm of traditional cultures – all over the world – is something to be valued.
Edmonds resident Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guides, hosts travel shows on public television and radio, and organizes European tours. This article was adapted from his new book, For the Love of Europe. You can email Rick at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow his blog on Facebook.