If you ever get a chance and haven’t been to Turkey yet, I recommend to go there and explore its mystical beauty with your own eyes. A couple weeks ago I was able to see more than just Istanbul’s airport and, therefore, fortunate to experience Turkey as a country with many of its different facets. I was able to feel the vibe of its hospitable people and charming culture - which is definitely worth writing about.
I visited Turkey for a couple days, specifically Izmir & Istanbul. All in all, it was a very short but amazing visit - despite COVID restrictions.
As a side note, I am already familiar with the Turkish culture not only because of my Turkish friends from Germany but also because the majority of foreigners living in Germany (my second half) come from Turkey. As a result, the presence of Turkish culture is noticeable everywhere you go in Germany, you have the Turkish stores, Turkish kebab stands, the flea markets that many Turkish people love, the Turkish Associations (in German: Tuerkische Vereine), the several Turkish academic organizations and so much more.
Absorbing the Atmosphere in Izmir
The atmosphere in Izmir is more than fascinating. Izmir lies right by the water, precisely the Mediterranean Sea and has many hilly regions nearby. It’s quite a small city that does not have too many tourist attractions. Yet, it is still very attractive for those who enjoy being in a very calm place close to the water & the mountains. Even the locals like to go here and take a break from the busy city life. It's the fresh breeze running through your face whenever you walk along Izmir's seaside promenade that is unforgettable, making Izmir very enchanting.
My first encounter with one of the natives in Izmir was quite interesting. It was with a taxi driver, probably about 55 years old, who drove me from the airport to the hotel- I have taken the taxi in many places overseas but this experience was, by far, way different. The seatbelt did not even work but, of course, I took it with humor, ready to just see how this "ride" will go. This taxi driver was so friendly and hospitable, he hardly spoke English but he asked me something with one simple word: “Chai?” he asked while nodding his head up and down & from side to side, while looking at me through the rearview mirror and expecting a response. I understood he wanted to know if I like/want chai which is the spicy black tea that is a very common drink in Turkey that they like to serve in a very small Turkish 4.5 oz. tea glass with one or two sugar cubes on a saucer.
It's not the first time I had Turkish chai but since I do like tea and am a fan of vanilla chai tea latte whenever I go to Starbucks, I nodded and said: “Yes, chai is good.” To my surprise, not even 5 minutes later, he made a quick stop at a tiny “chai station” , kind of like a chai drive-thru and ordered one chai for himself and one for me and even brought it to me while I was still sitting in the taxi. During the 30 minutes drive, he held his chai in his right hand and held the steering wheel with his left hand. In-between he would check his phone, send text messages and even make a phone call here and there- almost like a magician juggling all three things at once. It was amusing.
For the most part, the friendly taxi driver drove a bit fast and that's when I had to watch out that my own chai won't spill. I also started noticing how people drive in Turkey. A lot of them just drive and ignore the lines in the middle of the road (I tried to film this but didn’t have much luck with catching it well enough).
Another thing I observed about Izmir was that the corniche/seaside promenade (the walking area right by the water) gets more crowded the later & darker it gets. Izmir's inhabitants enjoy the night life, it seems (see image below). Interestingly enough, I also spotted several young couples sitting around in various spots, oftentimes they were either arguing or crying together. Not everyone I saw wore a mask but pretty much every grass spot was taken by the time the sun went down.
In some spots you could even hear live music where someone would play the Turkish guitar & sing to it. This actually contributed to a quite laid-back ambience for everyone nearby.
The Clock Tower
The most popular spot in Izmir is The Clock Tower that is located at Konak Square and is surrounded by 4 small fountains. It stands in front of a mosque and a building that represents the Governorate of Izmir. The Clock Tower embodies everything that has to do with Izmir and is often compared to being "the pearl of Izmir". Once you dig a bit deeper into its history, you will discover that it was built as a special gift of friendship between the German Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II and Sultan Abdulhamid II of the Ottoman Empire in 1901. Besides many tourists, many locals come here just to hang out and relax, not only absorbing but also indirectly contributing to its mystical atmosphere.
Sight-seeing in Istanbul
Istanbul is a very huge & vibrant city, full of life, where you can see neat alleys packed with different shops & various attractive bazaars, several seagulls at its ports and pedestrians from all walks of life who come and go. This city definitely appears to be in strong contrast with Izmir.
The most amazing discovery I made in Istanbul was that you can see more than 2 mosques no matter where you stand & wherever you look. At one spot I even saw 5 of them. I never experienced this before in my life. If you visit the popular Hagia Sophia Mosque, surrounded by several gardens, you will be just a couple footsteps away from the Blue Mosque that is across from it and currently getting remodeled. The Hagia Sophia Mosque is absolutely magnificent with its Byzantine architecture. It maintained its Christian & Muslim elements. It used to be a church, then it became a mosque and in 1934 it officially turned into a museum. The Christian images from the Justinian era are displayed at its entrance area, while the names of the main prophets written in Arabic calligraphy are visible as decorative ornaments hanging close to its ceiling.
Besides the beautiful mosques, you also have the unique Bosphorus bridge in the midst of Istanbul that symbolically & physically connects Europe with Asia, a spot that every local is very proud of. During the day this bridge is white but if you fly over Istanbul during the night that is when you can see that the bridge glows in so many different colors.
Getting around in Turkey is not easy. Be prepared with people not knowing enough English. This also means having a friend who can translate for you is definitely a big help.
Truthfully speaking, there is so much more that can be written about Turkey & its culture. Hopefully, my little insight will make you at least more curious about Turkey, its people and its amazing culture.
Insider tip: If you want to try a Turkish sweet with your chai, definitely stop by one of the baklava shops in the area that make baklava fresh on the spot. You have so many choices to choose from: baklava with walnuts, chocolate baklava and regular baklava with pistachios and so on. If your Turkish friend offers you baklava, definitely don’t refuse. You won’t regret it one bit.