*First installment of my summer travel flashbacks: keep in mind I'm not the expert, these are just my unseasoned impressions.*
There's a legend about Istanbul that, like all mythic tales about the city, is recounted as historical fact. Constantine apparently had a prophetic dream that he would found a city "across the from the blind." Coming upon the crescent-shaped valley among 6 hills, he saw a settlement of people nearby. Wondering why they hadn't settled instead in the lovely bay near the water, he said, "why, they must be blind!" and realized that THIS was the location of his great city.
And its true, then as now, that the scenic appeal of Istanbul is absolutely undeniable. The outline of the city- straddling the outrageously blue Bosporus that divides two continents- appears exactly as it looks on any map. The water and the many landmarks make it easy to get oriented to the layout of the city. However, it doesn't prepare you for how tremendously dramatic it all is! Walking up a dusty alley or some stairs, or exiting onto a dingy rooftop, you constantly find yourself confronted with what looks like the entire world! It's supremely strange to find yourself simultaneously gazing upon two continents, when all you wanted to do was get some tea.
Actually, tea, or "cai" is very easy to come upon in this city. Alcohol is banned within certain distance of a mosque, so in the mosque-heavy area I stayed, Sultan Ahmet, you were much more likely to encounter young couples and resting waiters sipping on tea from tulip-shaped glasses. As one man told me, "if someone offers you tea, you just accept! Its like an informal gift." After getting over my apprehension of boys shouting at me all the time ("Hey blondie! I have a question for you!") I eventually had many cups of tea with various locals. It turns out that quite a few people speak English- or maybe that was just the people that wanted to talk to me. ;)
At any rate, one cannot live on tea alone (although some college students seem to.) Luckily, the street food in the parts of the city I found myself in were supremely vegan friendly. Roasted chesnuts were a common sight, as were vendors selling grilled sweet corn.
There were also tons of "simits"- round, sesame seed crusted pretzel-like things that go for about 1 turkish lira [YTL]. Unfortunately, considering how many of them I ate, these weren't vegan like I was told. Oh well! I will definitely get around to veganizing these one day, as they are like an awesome mix between sesame seed bagels and pretzels.
I got so swept up in walking around Sultan Ahmet watching the food vendors, honeymooning couples, and dramatic scenery. If I close me eyes I can still picture it: the smoky sweet smell of chesnuts and corn, the bright blue sky studded with towers and domes, a flowered green veil catching the sunlight and drawing attention to a sweet couple... and of course, the dozens of omnipresent cats skirting around benches and rolling around in bushes. Of course, this innocent scene is just one side of Istanbul. Outside of Sultan Ahmed's sleepy Disneyland is a bustling city with a seedier and more serious side. But for the first couple days its extremely difficult to step away from the pleasure and dusty beauty of Sultan Ahmet.
But, step away I did, and the more citified Taksim, just a trolley ride away, one can find all sorts of vegan goodies. Fast food places have heated metal trays filled with meats and pastries, but also packed with vegan eggplant salad (a sweet-ish concoction that often had red peppers as well), cucumber and tomato salad, and plenty of fried goodies: zuchini, potatoes, falafel, ect. A lot of these restaurants showed up in other parts of Eastern Europe, but it was never as good as in Istanbul!
In addition to fast-food, there are a few Vegetarian restaurants in Taksim too. I convinced a friend to show me one, where I indulged in Potato pie and cherry soda. Unfortunately, the winding alleyways of Taksim don't make it convenient to find the same place twice- but I saw plenty of vegan options on the menus I checked out. And Dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), cucumber salad, baba ghanoush and hummus are regular features in the appetizer section of most menus.
And you don't want to miss Taksim at night: in stark contrast to Sultan Ahmet, its packed with rowdy families eating seafood and taking shots of raki, hipster college students filing into clubs like "Peyote" (which plays awesome music) to drink huge beers, and fancily dressed twenty-somethings roaring through the alleys on motorcycles to dance the night away at a rooftop bar.
So whats the connecting thread between the two Istanbuls I saw? Cats.
I was sorry to leave gorgeous, romantic Istanbul, but I had to move on to dirty, sexy Budapest. Even leaving Turkey was pleasant though, as Turkish airlines has a fabulous vegan meal. :)