Category Archives: Istanbul

Bookish Istanbul

Took a little break from blogging. On Friday, I spent a few hours with a friend, discussing our nascent business opportunity and touring the Alderwood/Mimico landscape of her childhood (and first novel.) On Saturday, Zouheir and I kinda lazed around, attempting to get over the jetlag and digestive disruption that are still present after our return from Istanbul. We also took a trip out to the consignment fabulousness that is The Singing Lady to look at a couple of round tables for our study.

Today, I spent most of the morning organizing my outstanding TIFF schedule, namely, queueing online for tickets to the Jason Reitman Live Reading of Boogie Nights, and preparing my list for placing my Daytime Ticket Package order tomorrow morning.

But back to Istanbul.

In most European cities where English is not the first language, you can get by with basic English and some hand-waving. I was a little surprised to find that, in Istanbul, very few service workers seemed to speak any English.  I ascertained from Turkish friends that students learn English in school, but typically not from particularly well-qualified teachers. So in was lovely to run across some English bookstores.

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At Galeri Kayseri, the charming young shopkeepers were excellent salesmen. One noted me browsing a series of mysteries set in Istanbul (Barbara Nadel’s Inspector Ikmen Mysteries) and quickly pulled out the first of the set, Belshazzar’s Daughter. The other fellow grabbed a copy of The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin, saying that I might enjoy a historical mystery. Finally, as I was at the cash, the first guy hands me a copy of Portrait of a Turkish Family by Irfan Orga, exclaiming that customers had emailed them to rave about this autobiography. It had been blurbed by Harold Nicolson and Sir John Betjeman, so I kind of HAD to buy it. As I finally protested that I could not possibly buy a large coffee table book on Istanbul, he took my credit card and while it was processing, asked me “Are you a teacher?” I replied, “No, I just like to read.” He grinned back at me.

The other bookish outing was a trip to the Book Bazaar. Adjacent to the Grand Bazaar near the Beyazit metro station, vendors have new and used books, antique and reproduction prints, and other paper items.

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I picked up a novella by Orhan Pamuk (The White Castle) and a print that humoured me.

The one other bookish purchase I made was after the visit to the Topkapi Palace, the home of the Sultans for more than 400 years up to the time of the move to Dolmabahçe Palace in 1856. In particular, I was rather intrigued by the harem (family living quarters) and picked up the exhibition catalogue which had been reduced from 100 TL to 25 TL ($13) at the museum shop.


In preparation for my trip, I picked up a couple of novels set in Turkey. Before we left, I read The Oracle of Stamboul by Michael Lukas. Set during the tenure of Sultan Abdul Hamid II (late 19th century), it’s the story of a young Jewish girl from Constantia (on the Black Sea in what is now Romania) who travels to Istanbul with her father and discovers that she has a special gift. A charming novel of magical realism, it served as an excellent introduction to the period.


I’m currently finishing up The Flea Palace by contemporary Turkish author Elif Shafak. Each chapter, some of the very short, are all titled with the flat number and names of a family living at the Bonbon Palace, a rather run-down apartment building in modern Istanbul. Their stories intertwine as they seek a solution to a common problem: people dumping garbage in their garden. We learn their stories, what has brought them to Istanbul and to their current circumstances. She is an important voice in modern Turkey and I will certainly read more of her oeuvre.

Istanbul – Getting around

We did most of our travelling in Istanbul on foot and on the metro. My Up Band registered 8 to 12 km per day which pretty much blew my daily goal out of the water. We were in a very walkable neighbourhood with shops and restaurants close by.

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One of the traveller’s best friends is a clean, efficient metro system, and Istanbul has this in spades. Made up of subways, tramways (streetcars), buses, ferries, and a funicular, we used it extensively to travel throughout the area. You can buy an Istanbulkart at local street level vendors and then load it up at the metro stations. Without a card, a ride is 3 TL ($1.50) and transfers cost the same. WIth a card, the initial fare is under 2 TL and transfers are even cheaper. It makes sense to have each person carry their own card to effect the savings for transfers.

The stations are clean and well-lit, the subway cars are modern and air-conditioned, pristinely clean, with stop announcements and excellent signage.  The funicular takes you from Taksim metro station to the Kabataş ferry terminal and other important sights in that area.

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The other thing I loved about the metro system is that there is lots of art. Everywhere.

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I didn’t take a photo of the card readers, but I grabbed this one online. When you press your card onto the reader, the screen tells you what you just paid and how much is left on your card. These are on buses, in metro stations, and at ferry terminals.

Istanbulkart reader

As I mentioned in my previous post, we used taxis a few times, but unless you are going to a well-known venue or somewhere local, the drivers were not very knowledgeable and rather difficult to deal with, not only because of the language barrier. That being said, a 45 minute ride to a restaurant one night cost 45 TL which is $22, pretty cheap for that length of a ride.

Renting a car? We didn’t even consider it. Between the construction and roadwork throughout Istanbul and the sheer volume of traffic, It’s not for the faint of heart.

Turkish word-of-the-day: Füniküler = funicular

Turkish pronounciation-of-the-day:  ş is pronounced sh, which is why author Elif Şafak’s name is written Shafak in English.

Istanbul – How we got there

We’ve wanted to travel to Istanbul for a number of years, but it was always second to Beirut, Zouheir’s home town, and we hadn’t managed to get there either, mainly due to security issues that would arise every time we got serious about booking travel.

Earlier this year, we traveled through Istanbul on our way home from Malé and decided to get serious about spending some time in Turkey. So we booked our flights to Istanbul and told Zouheir’s siblings that we were planning to be there and would love to see anyone who wanted to join us. Our boys were unable to join us on this trip due to academic responsibilities.

Zouheir’s younger brother, Jacques, who lives in Brest, France, and some of his family decided to join us for the week. His sister Marie-Louise and her family (who live in Lyon) were spending time in Lebanon this summer and joined us for a few days, as did Zouheir’s cousin Pierre who lives in Beirut, but who I knew from his days in Montreal.

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Most of our group in front of Blue Mosque

We travelled on Air Transat which is unusual for us. Normally, we fly Air Canada because Zouheir has frequent flyer status which provides for excellent amenities, but the difference in ticket price was too great to justify. We opted to pay $200 (total) to upgrade ourselves to Air Transat’s Options Plus program which helped us get through check-ins quickly, book seats in advance, and get some on-board amenities. They were direct flights, stopping in Montreal each way, and the long leg averaged 8 hours flying time.

We booked a three-bedroom apartment in the Şişli area that was satisfactory but not without it’s problems, including lack of basic supplies (bath mats, coffee maker) and terrible wifi. On the plus side, it allowed us to walk to the metro, shops, restaurants, and cafés, and so was very convenient.

Living area of apartment
Living area of apartment

Our flight there was uneventful, and we had pre-arranged transportation to the apartment from the airport. This was an unknown (at the time) godsend as it turned out that the taxi drivers that we encountered had great difficulty finding our apartment, and most other places that are at all off the beaten path. Coupled with language issues and what appeared to be a stubborn streak in these men, our experience with Istanbul taxis was uniformly negative. (Even when presented with a GPS map on a cellphone, they preferred to stop the taxi, get out, talk to another driver, and continue on, circling helplessly around.)

Turkish word-of-the-day: taksi = (you guessed it) taxi

Our flight home was delayed by six hours because of this happening on the incoming flight. (For the first time in my life, I stretched out over three seats at a relatively empty gate waiting area and napped.) We arrived at 1:30 am yesterday morning, and Alex picked us up at Pearson. We got into the express lanes on the 401, not knowing that there was road work going on and we weren’t able to get off the highway until Leslie, a long, slow 45 minutes later. It was just us and a lot of tractor trailers. It felt like we’d been travelling for days by the time we hit our beds.

Istanbul was a fantastic experience, and I’ve got lots of posts and pictures to come. It’s truly a timeless city, from the Roman aqueducts and cisterns, through Byzantine mosaics and palaces, to a thoroughly modern transit system and textile industry.  European and Asian. Religious and secular.

I’ll leave you with a couple of shots of a lunch we had on the rooftop of the Cozy Pub, overlooking the Bosphorus and the Blue Mosque.

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L to R: Me, Marie-Louise, Cecile, William, Chrisophe, François, Joan, Solveig, Eli, Jacques, Ann-Dominique
The view from the roof at the Cozy Pub.
The view from the roof at the Cozy Pub.