The many faces of Istanbul

Shabnam Minwalla | Updated on July 27, 2018

Climb up, slide down: Balat is great for views but rotten for Kolhapuri chappals and creaking bones.   -  ISTOCK.COM

Balat may be an unconventional choice of stay in the Turkish capital, but its rich history and warm residents add to the city’s magic

The apartment stands out on Airbnb for a simple reason. It’s completely free of furry brown sofas, shaggy black rugs and red-tiled bathrooms — those standard features of “vacation rentals”. Especially the ones in Istanbul.

Instead, Turquoise House has exposed brick walls, stained wooden ceilings, splashes of cool turquoise and hot pink. The hipster-meets-Ottoman vibe is designed to hook a certain kind of traveller. And we are hooked.

There’s only one hitch. The apartment is in an area called Balat; not exactly in the thrumming heart of touristic Istanbul. “But so what,” I declare. “It’s just 20 minutes away from the Grand Bazaar by taxi. And I’ve heard about Balat before. Somewhere…”

So we take the plunge, and hope for the best.

After all, Istanbul is an old friend. About 20 years ago, we stayed in a bed and breakfast in bustling Sultanahmet, famous for its touts and other attractions. We ate breakfast on a terrace overlooking the Blue Mosque, and visited the Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace. We crossed from Europe to Asia by ferry, drank gallons of apple tea but skipped the Turkish hammam.

Then, about a decade ago, I revisited the city through that most evocative book — Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul. Pamuk takes his readers past twilit lanes, crumbling wooden mansions and the shimmering waters of the Bosphorus. He scrapes the kebab-and-kilim layer off the palimpsest to reveal a city steeped in melancholy. His Istanbul is preoccupied with the past — forever yearning for the glittering age when Constantinople was the grandest megapolis in Christendom; the golden centuries when Istanbul was the capital of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled over swathes of Asia, Africa and Europe.

Over the years, I’ve been following the Inspector Cetin Ikmen series by Barbara Nadel. The smoke-dried policeman is a perceptive guide to modern Istanbul with its malls, modern apartment blocks and lingering memories of glory and mad sultans. So I turn to Ikmen once the tickets are bought and the Balat apartment is booked.

Balat — the right choice?

Belshazzar’s Daughter starts — as so many crime novels do — with a horrific murder. So far so good.

The uh-oh moment comes on page three. An Englishman named Robert is walking home through a squalid, ramshackle street. “Balat. He tramped its filthy streets, its winding labyrinthine alleys six days a week…”

I stiffen. Now I know where I’ve encountered Balat before. It’s the setting for a grisly murder of an old Jewish man. And if Nadel is to be believed, it’s a quarter packed with bellowing drunks, raddled prostitutes and dispiriting poverty.

Not the ideal location for a family holiday.

Mercifully, Google offers reassurance and a fascinating history. In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain issued the Alhambra decree to give Muslims and Jews an ultimatum: Convert to Christianity or leave your homeland, or stay back and face execution. In response, Sultan Bayezid II sent ships to Spain and 60,000 Jews sought safety in Istanbul. They settled along the Golden Horn — close to the city’s powerful Greek community.

“The Fener-Balat quarter, once the Little Greece of Istanbul, is now one of the city’s trendy design districts and regaining the international feel of the past,” enthuses The Guardian while describing the city’s funky shops, cafes and Ottoman houses, painted in pretty blues, reds and greens.

I feel optimistic.

We spend our first days in Turkey in photogenic Cappadocia — wandering the hilltop caves, rock-cut chapels and underground cities. Then we fly to Istanbul. Our host, Ozkan, says it’s best that he sends a car to the airport. We soon see why.

The car zooms past soulless blocks and the walls of Constantinople into older, crowded areas. We drive past miles of shops selling puffy white wedding gowns. And then turn onto a stern street lined with purveyors of prayer books, embroidered caps, prayer beads, white robes and black abayas. This medieval corner of Istanbul is worlds away from the buzzing, glamorous Istikal Caddesi — just across the Golden Horn.

Staple Istanbul: The city has its regular tourist attractions — aqueducts, cisterns, iskender kebabs, and also shopping on Istikal Caddesi.   -  ISTOCK.COM


The driver zigzags through skinny, dilapidated lanes. Then he stops in front of a blue house — incongruous amidst the backdrop of grimy brick houses, sombre robes and headscarves. There’s no sign of Ozkan. So we wait on the narrow pavement in a huddle of luggage and embarrassment.

Faces peer down from windows. A middle-aged man in a grey t-shirt ambles up. He speaks no English. We speak no Turkish. Still, he manages to communicate that his name is Imam and he is very cross with Ozkan for keeping us waiting. From a window across the street, a white-haired woman mimes, “Would you like some tea?”

We politely decline. Three passers-by offer seven suggestions when my husband asks for the nearest grocery store.

A plump, bearded man asks, “Indistan or Pakistan?”

“Indistan,” we reply.

He nods sadly. “I wanted to visit seven years ago but didn’t get a visa.”

We apologise.

The woman across the road lowers a basket with a bottle of cold water from the window. She invites us for tea again. Imam comes around again to apologise for Ozkan’s tardiness.

A young man seeking parking, deposits his car on a patch of the pavement and checks on us. “Why here?” he asks wide-eyed. “I hope you are saving a lot of money. It’s so far from the hotels and shops.”

Ozkan arrives a whole hour late to a chorus of disapproval. The entire neighbourhood is looking out for us — and we’re no longer uneasy straying beyond Lonely Planet-land.

Straight down the road

Our host maintains that his apartment is excellently situated for sightseeing in Istanbul. Lots of people have ventured here before us — including James Bond on a motorbike. The opening scene of Skyfall was shot just 20 metres down the road.

Ozkan also points the way to the gentrified bits of Balat. “Straight down that road,” he proclaims. Even though we soon realise that it’s impossible to find a straight road in Balat. Just as it’s impossible to find a flat road in Balat.

The path to dinner involves squiggles, sharp descents and adventure. When we finally get there we eat a hearty meal of pilav, dolma and lentil soup at a classic Turkish point-and-order restaurant. While heading back, we stumble upon our favourite Balat moment. An auction is underway in a drab shop filled with lidless kettles and nameless tools. Up front, an enthusiastic young man extols the virtues of an ancient tape deck to a rapt, tea-swigging audience. Next on the block is a tarnished sword. “Genuine Ottoman,” the auctioneer intones again and again, before switching his energy to a pair of battered, red boxing gloves.

Worth a bid: An ancient tape deck, a ‘‘genuine’’ Ottoman sword and a battered pair of red boxing gloves were up for auction at a drab shop in Balat. Vivek Ramakrishnan


The gloves attract three bids. My husband looks greedy and starts wondering if he should take up boxing. It’s time to beat a hasty retreat. Our way back to the apartment involves a few wrong turns and a nasty slope that would make a Mount Everest-regular wince. But we find Turquoise House eventually — much to the relief of our local guardians.

When Emperor Constantinople decided to shift the capital of the Roman Empire to Byzantium in 330 AD, he made sure that like the original, Nova Roma was also built on seven hills. Balat perches on the Fifth Hill of Istanbul. Which is great for views — but we soon realise it’s rotten for Kolhapuri chappals, creaking bones and cab drivers.

On one memorable evening, we hop into a yellow cab on the Eminonu Docks. We’re on the home stretch — a steep street barely wide enough to accommodate a bicycle — when our path is blocked by a bossy garbage truck. There’s no way we can pass. So our cheerful driver reverses all the way down, finds an alternative route and toodles along. Till he takes a turn and gasps.

The road rises in front of us at an angle of 70 degrees. “My friend,” the cabbie exclaims. “It is impossible.”

So it’s back to mountain-climbing.

Little wonder, then, that we start to explore the flatter areas behind the apartment — a conservative quarter full of mosques and beards. We visit the Wednesday Carsamba market and ogle the sacks of dried fruit and flower teas. We gloat over the deal of a lifetime — two Zara skirts for 15 lira ( ₹225). And watch the Turkish mamas stock up on exuberant peppers and aubergines.

We become regulars at Selamat Dondurma (for Turkish ice cream), Oz Karadeniz Pide (for flatbread with toppings) and the local baklava shop. Everywhere we are welcomed with cries of “Indistan!” On Thursday evening, we munch on pide and watch resplendently robed elders promenade to the famous Ismailaga Mosque. And women in voluminous black abayas hurry home with their brood and trolleys of groceries.

Of course, we regularly venture into the Istanbul of aqueducts, cisterns, iskender kebabs and Evil Eyes. We eat fried fish near the Karakoy Dock and Turkish delight at the Spice Market. We shop on Istikal Caddesi and buy a kilim at the Grand Bazaar. We cross from Europe to Asia, eat waffles and attend a jazz concert in trendy Kadikoy — where there’s not a headscarf in sight.

There are clearly many Istanbuls in Istanbul.

I manage to get pickpocketed, and spend an hour at the local police station. The cops are friendly. We end up talking about their fictional colleague, Inspector Cetin Ikmen — and somehow I feel better about my foolishness.

Of course, we spend a lot of time wandering our historic, unique corner of Istanbul. We visit the Kariye Museum — church with glowing mosaics. We climb Ladder Street, with its painted houses. We stop at the tiny, tucked away Church of St Mary of Blachernae, one of the most important shrines of the Greek Orthodox Church — and drink at the holy spring that grants health and luck.

All too soon, it’s time to leave. As we wheel our bags outside Turquoise House, our friends wave. Imam delivers one last volley in rapid-fire Turkish. Little boys on creaky cycles grin. And we feel we’ve uncovered one more layer of this magical city. This time we’re leaving behind not just palaces and bridges but friends.

Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and author. Her latest book is What Maya Saw

Published on July 27, 2018

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor