Istanbul Not Constantinople

Shhhhh….It’s 3:00 a.m. in Turkey and I’m very quietly writing this post while the rest of the Six sleep peacefully in our magical cave hideaway in Urgup, Cappadocia. At home, I’m a creature of the night, but on the road, my opportunities for nocturnal activity are limited. By the time the sun sets, I’m usually exhausted and can do little but crash into my appointed bed/bunk/air mattress for a brief sleep before rising to meet a new action-packed day. Tonight is different though; we have found a wonderful place to hole up for a few days and do nothing but relax, work on schoolwork, and eat feta cheese. I can sleep in tomorrow, which means I can stay up and write this in the wee hours of the night tonight.

I’d love to tell you about Cappadocia (wow!) and our cave, but they will have to wait. First I must tell you about our brief encounter with Turkey’s magnificent capital, Istanbul. If, like me, you are old enough to remember the 1990 They Might Be Giants version of the classic song, you can’t say “Istanbul” without putting “not Constantinople” at the end. You remember, “It’s Istanbul, not Constantinople. Why did Constantinople get the works? That’s nobody’s business but the Turks.” The modern day Turks are descendants of the Ottomans who seized Constantine’s capital and Justinian’s glory in 1453. They renamed the city Istanbul to shake off any European associations and established one of the world’s great empires from its center. Today the bustling, elegant city, long known as the “Paris of the East” is a fascinating blend of traditions, architectures, peoples, and flavors, and so much more than any combination of eight silly syllables can convey.

We arrived in the city exhausted after our three day airline ordeal with no place to stay. We weren’t particularly worried. We had called a few hostel owners who explained that their establishments were full but that they would be happy to find us a place once we arrived. This has worked well for us before, so we went with it. We took a cab from the airport to Sultanahmet District, the heart of Istanbul’s tourist activity, and dropped our bags (the few that had made it from South Africa) on the doorstep of the Antique Hostel. We waited while the owner called his friend who ran a guesthouse down the street and were happy to learn he had space for us. As we walked the block and a half, we couldn’t believe how quaint and quiet the street was. Situated in the shadows of the Hagia Sofia and lined with brightly colored centuries old buildings, it seemed an anachronism, a page torn from a history book rather than a modern city setting.

Our spirits sank slightly when we realized we would be paying 90 turkish lira (about $70) per night for six bunk beds in a room with no heat, a single stool, and a grody bathroom across the hall, but even this unpleasant reality could not diminish our enchantment with the city. For two days we did nothing but meander through cobblestone streets, chat with ubiquitous but charming rug sellers who invited us to stay in their homes (anything for a sale), soak up the Turkish atmosphere, and stumble upon some of the world’s most magnificent buildings: Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sofia, and the Blue Mosque. This truly is a place like no other.


Istanbul street IMG_4932.JPG

We were careful, however, not to enter any of the magnificent structures: we’re saving that distinct pleasure for our time here with Tom’s parents later in the month. Instead, we limited ourselves to a few exterior photo shoots and booked bus tickets to Cappadocia, the land of fairy chimneys and bizarre rock formations 11 hours to the east. Before leaving, we scoured the beguiling streets of Sultanahmet for a suitable yet affordable place to stay with grandparents, fully aware that bunks and moldy tiles would probably not be their first choice. We eventually passed up the neighborhood’s many hostels and scored a great deal with a little boutique hotel that’s just opened for business. We have high hopes for our time there when we return to the city on the 20th.

As we were with Hanoi, Tom and I are fascinated with Istanbul and can’t wait to explore it further. The kids are less impressed, but they’ve become tough judges after all the places they’ve been in the past seven months. The only down side their parents can find so far is the cost. Turkey has high hopes of being admitted to the EU and as such has taken on the annoying habit of pricing things in Euros rather than lira. Given that the Euro is currently kicking the dollar’s butt, this makes things all the more expensive for Americans. We heard stories of Southeast Asian-like prices but have found things here to be more like Australia, i.e., almost as expensive as home.

Oh well, nothing’s perfect…except maybe this view!

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul

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9 thoughts on “Istanbul Not Constantinople

  1. Awesome They Might be Giants quote! I can’t teach about turkey in my classroom without that song making its way into my classroom!

    Turkey is the vacation spot of my family in Europe. Last year when I was in The Netherlands visiting, plane tickets to Istanbul were 19Euro!

    Too bad about the prices of things.

    Well, you all still amaze and are inspiring me to get off my butt and travel-if only that teacher salary could be a little more!

  2. hi, after seeing you on oprah, i have read all of you blogs from around the world. these are amazing and often funny stories of your adventures. now that you are in turkey, i would like to say that it has been one of the greatest places i have been in the world. the greek island of rhodes is by far the best place in the world and highly recommend staying there for a day. it is by far the best island to visit near the turkish coast. the wonderful medieval city of rhodes in the northern part of the island has breathtaking view, and is lovely. I also visited the acropolis of lindos on the eastern side of the island. this is a great island that has beautiful history and lovely beaches if you wanted to relax on the mediterranian sea and experience the greek culture.
    have fun

  3. Is it hard to leave your friends that long? My dad has talked about doing this for 3 years and I think I’ll miss them.

  4. Wow, you have such an amazing family! I think it’s wonderful that you are traveling the world and volunteering at the same time! I am 15 years old and have always loved traveling. When I saw your family on Oprah, it inspired me to want to see much more of the world and volunteer my time on the way! I wish all the best for your family and that you are kept safe and happy for the duration of your travels.

    Best Wishes


  5. Hello again all,
    Since you will return to Istanbul, I would recommend you to go to Beyoglu and eat at Haci Abdullah restaurant. There you will find original Istanbul cuisine. As you know Turkey is a home land of different cultures and civilizations you will find many different tastes everywhere. But being an Istanbuloit I suggest you go to this restaurant and taste hunkar begendi, ayva tatlisi or whatever you like from the menu, real Ottoman/Istanbul cuisine. From Istiklal street in Beyoglu towards Taksim, on the left Sakizagaci Cad. No:17. Beyoglu is great a place to visit itself, but try to avoid on weekends because it is very crowded. Another must see is the Bosphorus of course. You can make a “vapur”(boat)(you can take the tour from either Eminonu or Karakoy or Kabatas, which are close to Sultanahmet) tour, and eat fish and sea food at Anadolu Kavagi. You should also go to Buyukada where you can make a fayton(phaeton) tour, it is the only transportation on the island. Well I think I missed Istanbul (I live in Montreal) :)) I hope I gave you some useful tips. Have a nice vacation.

  6. The hotels in that area are mostly old and dirty.. As Funda said its better to stay somewhere in Beyoglu… Taste history in the morning and back to live life afternoon…

  7. May god bless the Holy City of Constantinople, Constantine the Great and all those who come in the name of the lord. Thanks be to god for all that is Holy.

  8. Hi, Istanbul (not Constantinople) has been one of my favorite places in the world for years, though i’m only eighteen now… it is not until recent days that i got to know the great They Might Be Giants!!! you can imagine how excited i was when i heard that song… i’m looking forward to go there and maybe live for a while ! ps i’m from China!

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