Love at First Sight

Love at First Sight

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As soon as I arrived in Istanbul, that very first day, after our tiring 16 hour bus ride from Trabzon, when we got dropped off by a clueless taxi driver at a side street off of İstiklal Avenue and had to walk for another kilometer, and ask a kebab stand owner for directions, I had already fallen in love with this city. Bam! It’s happens so fast. It’s the same feeling I got when visiting my home city again, St. Petersburg and first stepping foot in London. Just like those places, Istanbul immediately felt comfortable and home-like to me. Once again I thought to myself: “Wow, I can really live here.”

While I can’t wait to tell you about my (yes, I declare it mine now) Istanbul, I should give Trabzon it’s due-diligence and tell you about a true gem that remains hidden there – the Sumela monastery. We were debating for a while about how to get to Istanbul. Of course, flying is the obvious choice, given that Istanbul is a major hub between Europe and Asia. We also heard that Turkish long-distance busses are quite nice and are a very popular transportation option between the locals. Sold!
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But we decided to break up the trip and check out Trabzon and the monastery for a couple of days and we are so glad we did.

Trabzon is surprisingly modern and progressive, though I’d suggest to still cover-up and behave mostly as a woman there (the Black sea coast is mostly traditional and conservative). We were happy to be back in Turkey, enjoying juicy kebabs and smuggling in alcohol into our budget hotel in a black bag. The next day we saw jaw-dropping Sumela. It’s worth not only a stop on your route to Istanbul, but a trip to Turkey just to marvel at this man-made wonder, which unquestionably naturally fits in high up on the mountain side in a particular spot chiseled out of the rock.
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Istanbul
“What are you going to do in Istanbul for 3 WEEKS?!?!?” is the question we kept receiving from friends and family back home. The simple answer was always: “uh, live?”
It felt right to slow down here, rest our feet, enjoy this city that serves as an entry way between Europe and Asia, and just…live. And live we did: we rented out a place on Airbnb (and got very lucky to rent from an awesome fellow world traveler, Aylin), made new friends (this was done through CouchSurfing as Istanbul has one of the most active groups in the world), slowly took in the sites enjoying every moment, strolled though bazaars, ate late-night kebabs, drank wine on our balcony overlooking Galata tower:
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….you know, lived!

It’s just what we needed at that point on our trip and we couldn’t have picked a better place.
My favorite Istanbul memories that filled up my backpack:

Hagia Sophia
My favorite attraction in Istanbul. While it’s a tourist trap, it’s totally worth a couple of shoves and eye rolls to enjoy this beauty. Hagia Sophia was originally built as a Byzantine church, that was eventually converted into a mosque under the Ottoman empire. Now it’s a museum.
It’s a whimsical spot where Christianity meets Islam and it’s peaceful, beautiful and diverse hosting two, seemingly contrasting religions under one roof – really makes you admire, think and dream: people should take note.
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New Connections
Kathleen: a petite, smiley blonde from New Zealand, who teaches full-time, carries tiny liquor bottles with her anywhere she goes in Istanbul and bounces between Italy (the country she calls her home now) and where work and travel opportunities meet.
Kat: from Australia and is a fellow world traveler for the time being.
I loved making some girlfriends in Istanbul and trading our travel stories that are so different and similar at the same time.
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Değer: a genuinely kind hearted, single father, who manages to be the life of the party and intuitively looking out for everyone’s well being. He parties hard and works even harder. Değer thinks I should be my king’s (aka Aaron’s) queen…whatever. It’s an inside joke, actually. Ha – we managed to create inside jokes in our time in Istanbul. I guess we did LIVE there after all.
Simih: full of stories and surprises, he kept the conversations alive being as open as a book and equally as curious about the people he is meeting as if to add and fill up pages of that book.

Massive mosques
They provide serious competition to some of the beautiful Christian cathedrals I’ve seen in my lifetime (the treasures of Russia).
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Crowded bazaars
Turks love their bazaars, where you can find anything from exotic spices to handmade light fixtures.
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Boat trips
Ferries are a common and cheap way to get around the city. We would often take the ferry to get to the Asian side from the European side we were staying on. Many commuters get to and from work by ferries. They are efficient, on-time and leave every 10 minutes. Wonderful views of the city are an added bonus!
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Whirling Dervishes
Seeing the traditional, religious whirling dervishes was another highlight in my memories of Istanbul. It is a prayer/meditation practice as well as a beautiful, mystical dance.
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Cats
Istanbul is full of cats. While muslims don’t keep pets, stray cats are taken care of what seems to be everyone in the city – they get food on every corner and rule the neighborhoods in packs.
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