Stuffing ourselves silly with street food aside, we did a lot of waiting while in Istanbul this past September. Waiting for Syrian and Indian visas. Waiting for letters of reference from our native country consulates to furnish visa applications. Waiting for our laundry. Waiting for a pharmacy to scrounge up the inventory for our comically large order of malaria tablets to take with us to Africa.
There's plenty in Istanbul to keep a tourist gainfully unemployed -- The Blue Mosque, Haga Sofia, cruises on the Bosphurus, whirling dervishes... among countless other worthy distractions -- but we had already done a respectable chunk of those last time around. And after the break-neck pace of the last few stops in Eastern Europe, we quite relished the idea of dropping gear and allowing ourselves a gentle steep in whatever Istanbullus got up to during the quieter hours of the day.
For a large part, this meant whiling away many langourous hours on tea and tavla (backgammon), be it at swish cafes in European-style neighbourhoods, or on low stools and tables in the peaceful backstreets around a mosque, hunched with our knees almost up to our shoulders, day and night alike. Babs was devastatingly good at the game -- it took me until Goreme to start turning the tavla tables on him.
Watching locals play provided much entertainment as well. Sometimes there's money on the game, other times one's reputation (often a more serious bet than all the lira in the world). Either way, it made for a lot of stylish dice throwing, triumphant tavla-piece-clacking, Turkish trash-talking and cursing, and a seemingly inexhaustible amount of shisha, ciggies and strong black sugary tea served in svelte glasses. I didn't understand a word of the back and forth, but the body language of the players and their spectators was fantastic to watch.
A tip if you want to go shopping for, say, a Turkish carpet or lantern or other classic souvenir, and want a few minutes of undisturbed browsing before the traditional product parade begins: Find a store that has a tavla game raging on outside, and slip inside. It might just be one of those games where the owner decides he has more riding on the tavla board than you!
Dessert in Istanbul also seemed to be an all-hours-of-the day affair, even though it was Ramadan at the time. At Olimpia Patisserie in Taksim we assembled a little sampler made from signature local ingredients: semolina, pistachios and pomegranates. I was especially amused by the nazar boncugu semolina cakes. The striking blue-eye design, found on all manner of trinkets all over Turkey, is to ward off the curse of the evil eye, believed to be caused by envious gazes. But surely this sugar syrup-soaked cake is more like to invoke envy than to nullify it?
When our butts got numb sitting, we undulated through and around both the European and Asian sides of the city. We people-watched, went panning for gems in second-hand bookstores and book exchanges, and poked around and inside buildings that caught our eye.
When each little bout of waiting was done, we'd lope over to wherever we needed to be using the city's fascinating array of amazingly affordable public transport: metro, buses, commuter trains, trams, ferries, funiculars, and even cable cars. I loved the ferries for the scenery and fresh air, but the most-amusing-mode-of-transport award goes to the cable car. Through the cabin porthole the world takes on that hazy glow of photos from the 1970s.
If you plan to be in Istanbul for a few days, then do as the locals do and buy an Akbil stored-value travel card. While you can buy tokens to get around, for whatever reason the different transport systems use different tokens that look similar enough to the naked eye, but have minute variations that get picked up and rejected at the turnstiles. You could, like us, end up with a few annoyingly odd tokens at the end of your sojourn, but I suppose as far as traffic-related accidents go, such a situation might attract a few envious gazes.
Siraselvilar Caddesi 117
Taksim, Istanbul Turkey
+90 212 292 2342
(Additional branches at Ihlamudere Cd. 154, Besiktas, and Nujkuyusa Cd. 329, Baglarbasi)