The first time we ended up in Türkiye was back in the winter of 2013 and to be perfectly clear, we didn’t go to Türkiye, we went to Thailand for two weeks and had an overnight layover in Istanbul on our way back. And so, Türkiye was an afterthought. We didn’t pack for it, we didn’t plan for it, we weren’t giddy about our brief visit, and that, of course, was a mistake.
On our way to Bangkok, our layover in Istanbul was just a few hours during which I managed to stuff myself full of complimentary Turkish delight samples laid out at every duty-free shop. I tried the jelly-like ones flavored with rosewater, bergamot orange, and lemon, rolled lukum full of chopped pistachios, dates, and hazelnuts, and soft pillows sprinkled with powdered sugar, covered by layers of nougat, or decorated by dried fruit… If there was a sample of it anywhere in that airport, I ate it and loved it. Settling myself down for a nine-and-a-half-hour flight to Thailand while experiencing the most intense sugar rush of my entire adult life was quite a feat. And so, I was very much looking forward to our longer layover on the way back.
After two weeks of vibrant culture, stunning beaches, and delicious food in Southeast Asia, we flew back to Istanbul for our 14-hour layover. Immediately, the lack of planning for Türkiye almost derailed everything. In order to exit the airport, we had to purchase a Turkish visa which was approximately $20 each and had to be paid for in cash. We had no cash on us so I found an ATM and faced with a screen asking me how many Turkish liras I wanted to withdraw, I confidently punched in 2,000 Turkish liras. A thousand Thai bahts were about $30 and that conversion was stuck in my head, despite the fact that we were no longer in Thailand. Mercifully, ATM rejected my request, or I would have been stuck with over 1,000 USD worth of Turkish liras for one overnight stopover.
And immediately after that fiasco, the lack of packing for Türkiye threatened to wreck the rest of the night. Despite the long flight and an overnight layover, our checked-in bags remained in the airport only to be reunited with us in Chicago. And so, we walked out into the crisp December air wearing nothing but shorts and t-shirts. To somehow not completely freeze my literal butt off, I found an extra pair of baggy cargo shorts in Victor’s carry-on and layered it on top of my leggings. I looked ridiculous. I quickly talked myself into a convoluted idea that locals have no idea about fashion trends among foreign tourists and as long as I looked confident, everything would be fine.
We were strolling Sultanahmet district, enjoying the mesmerizing glow of illuminated minarets of Hagia Sofia Mosque, when a passing by Turkish man nodded at me and with a slight smile said, “Nice pantaloons, Madame!”
I almost died.
To calm down and regain my composure, we ate a piping hot meal in a small restaurant, a combination plate of stuffed eggplant, kebabs, potatoes, and stewed vegetables. It was our first taste of local food and while we had far more creative and delicious Turkish meals since then, this one still holds a special place in my heart.
In the morning, we visited two icons of Istanbul - Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, two of the most beautiful mosques in Istanbul, and possibly the world. Hagia Sophia was a historic Byzantine church, then turned into an Ottoman mosque, and at the time of our visit, a museum. Now, in 2023 it’s back to being a functional mosque, where locals and visitors come to pray under an iconic dome, surrounded by beautiful mosaics. The Blue Mosque, officially known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, is an Ottoman architectural masterpiece, renowned for its stunning blue tiles that adorn its interior, six majestic minarets, and impressive domes.
It was a rushed visit to both locations, and honestly, I felt a bit overwhelmed having crammed so much of Istanbul’s rich history and culture into a few early morning hours. In the airport, while I was, far more selectively than last time, sampling Turkish delights, Victor brought up a new concern.
“What if we ruined Istanbul for ourselves in this short trip by rushing through a few iconic sights? What if we saw the best of the best and the next trip here, in comparison, will not be as fantastic? Doesn’t this city, and in fact, this country, deserve a much longer, far more thorough visit?” he mused out loud.
I wanted to reassure him, but my mouth was full.
Nine years later, in 2022, Victor made it back to Istanbul for one week, in order to spend some time with his parents, who arrived from Belarus to meet him.
“It’s not going to be like an actual trip,” he tried to comfort me, while I counted and recounted my vacation days from work and kept coming up painfully short, “It’s just to see my parents. Just so happens it will be in Istanbul!”
He left, promising to bring me back every kind of Turkish delight available. Over the next week, he sent me dozens of pictures of friendly Istanbul cats, delicious meals, and incredible sights. On the phone, Victor breathlessly told me about their visit to Topkapi Palace, the primary residence of Ottoman sultans for centuries, and all the exquisite Ottoman architecture, ornate courtyards, and a remarkable collection of art, manuscripts, and treasures found inside. He and his parents crisscrossed the city, visiting Sultanahmet district, the Galata Tower with panoramic views of the city, and the Grand Bazaar with the incredible selection of teas, spices, textiles, and of course, Turkish delights.
“Has our previous visit ruined Istanbul for you, even a bit?” I asked.
“Türkiye cannot be ruined,” he told me confidently, “There is always something new to see. And we will see it all!”
And so, this year, we both went back to Türkiye to travel through the south, learn all about its rich history and culture, visit ancient ruins and gorgeous beaches, experience all the flavors of Turkish cuisine, and explore every bustling market. And to eat all the Turkish delights, of course.
And so, a lot of posts about Türkiye coming up. Prepare yourselves.