Istanbul. Random memories and soul topographies

Sometimes, all you need is less.

I don’t have any photos from my trip to Istanbul. And that’s not because I couldn’t – on the contrary, I could have spent all my ten days spent there only taking photos – but because I wouldn’t.

I felt like no photo could possibly catch my fascination for this city, with all the contrasts, all the surprises, all the beauty mixed with kitsch, constantly unfolding in front of my eyes. So, instead of having a collection of incomplete images of what I experienced, I tought – let’s try to remember as much as I can, without those (sometimes) misleading references that photos can be.

It was early morning – my first morning in a completely unkonwn, by then, Istanbul. My friend whom I was visiting needed to go to work so I had a full day ahead of me until evening, when we’d meet for dinner. “Any suggestion on how to spend my day today?” I asked him while we were getting ready to go out. “Just take that street with the tram, the street we walked on last night, and go until the end. You’ll see” he answered. What an odd guy, he could have tried a bit harder, at least give me more hints, couldn’t he, I thought to myself while saying goodbye in a hurry.

The tram street (Istiklal) was right on the next corner. As it goes straight for quite a while, I was confident I wouldn’t get lost soon, so I started to pay attention to what was happening around me, and I got distracted right away – by the contrasting houses, by the colours, by how many people were passing by, by how European most young women were dressing, by a bookstore with more books in English than most others I’ve seen in many other cities…

As I was walking down the street, though, the ambience started to change, and soon there were mostly modest blocks and cheap convenience stores, and only locals, some of them sitting right in the middle of the sideway, on their funny little chairs, having their tea from those tiny glasses with metal handles, and chatting loudly, while passersby and cars were hurrying in all directions. I started to feel overwhelmed… until I saw the sea.

Right in front of me, all of the sudden, the narrow street was opening towards the waters of the Golden Horn, and there was a park in front, and the hill topped by the famous mosques – right on the other shore.

I sat on a bench while listening, for the first time in my life, to the call to prayer coming from all directions (I later learned that Istanbul has no less than 3113 mosques, I wonder how many did I hear at that time), sounding misterious and exotic, and watching the boats crossing, and the moscs shining in the morning light.

I don’t think I have ever had such a surprise in an unknown city, so I thanked my friend for having offered this – instead of names which I would have forgotten, or touristic tips I wouldn’t have taken anyway. I was right in the heart of the authentic Istanbul, feeling like the city is mine and I can find my way anywhere.


Cover photo: a detail of Imaginario cartografico, an imaginary city by Ricardo Almeida (Codigo visual II). I took the photo in Porto, in the GUD art gallery.


A few things on Istiklal. Tram, passages, palaces, bookstores and a beautiful café

Indepence Street (Istiklal Caddesi in Turkish) is the busiest avenue of Istanbul, comparable to Barcelona’s Ramblas in terms of local notoriety.

The crowded street and its nostaljik tramvai, photo via Wikipedia.

It runs from Taksim Square to Galata Tower and, especially in weekends, it’s quite a challenge to cross it, as three million people pass it daily. Known as the Grand Avenue during the Ottomans, it later become Grand Rue de Pera, favourite place for the French Levantines to take a walk, and has its actual name after the creation of the Republic of Turkey. There are many places to see, as well as cafes, bistros and restaurants to enjoy.

SALT photo Iwan Baan via website
Istiklal. SALT, photo Iwan Baan, via SALT’s website.

Istiklal is an array of churches, consulate buildings, innovative art galleries such as SALT Beyoğlu or Zilberman, the Atlas Arcade with its historical cinema, built in 1870, the Flowers Passage (where after the 1917 Russian revolution formerly wealthy Russian women were selling flowers), plus several English-language and second-hand bookstores like Homer, Turkuaz, Eren, Arkeopera, Denizler or Robinson Crusoe – my favourite, back then.

The elegant dark-wood-and-glass façade or Robinson Crusoe was a true landmark on the street, and the reason I went in. They opened back in 1994 but, due to rent and expenses skyrocketing in the area, they relocated and today small branches can be found on Çarşı Caddesi and inside SALT Galata. Nevertheless, Robinson Crusoe is rated by most sources, includin Time Out Istanbul, The Culturetrip, Spotted by Locals or Like a Local, as one of Istanbul’s best.

Image via Pinterest.

During all my ten days spent in Istanbul I passed Istiklal on daily basis, sometimes only to cross it and get to yet another great place which is Café Kafka, an oasis of silence with a cutr tiny balcony on its first level, and great Turkish coffee.