I have loved a lot of the places I’ve traveled as a Peace Corps Volunteer, but Istanbul was so wow the first time that I had to go back.
Turkey was my first trip out of Macedonia, an adventure sweetened by spending it with my two cousins, one of whom was living there at the time.
This time, I enjoyed Istanbul with friends who I met in Kocani, where they completed volunteer terms last year.
I’m traveling with another volunteer, who finished service in November, and we stayed near Taksim Square at an Airbnb, courtesy of a referral credit. (Shameless plug: want to use Airbnb? Sign up through me here and get a credit for your first stay and give me credit for my travels. Fala!)
It was a hip area with lots of shops and restaurants, and with three metro lines to get us wherever we needed to go. (The Istanbul metro is top notch. User friendly, lots of maps, and with English repetition and translations on most signs.)
We spent one day with my friend Ali, who shuttled us around to all the main sites, sharing what history he knew and making up what he didn’t. (Everything was built in the 6th century and I always added that it honored the great Sultan Ali.) We walked through the exquisite Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque, free entry), walked past the Hagia Sophia (closed on Mondays), and then stopped at our favorite site in that area, the Basilica Cistern (20 lira entry).
The Blue Mosque wowed me just as much as the first time, but the Cistern was the crowd pleaser. The light, the soft music playing, and the calm vibe were perfect. I also enjoyed a silly photoshoot with the medusa heads located in one corner. One is upside down and the other sideways, so we tried to make the ladies feel included.
We had some traditional köfte for lunch (at the original place, Ali said), and then went for a boat ride on the Bosporus. The boat picked up near where Ali went to high school, so we got to hear about how his rival high school used to row down the water past their school and how after graduation, some people jumped in to celebrate.
Turkish hospitality (which makes Macedonian hospitality seem small) meant Ali took us all the way back to the door of our Airbnb and insisting we stay with him next visit.
The next day, we went back to the Hagia Sofia (open on Tuesdays, 40 lira entry), and enjoyed wandering the historic structure. We made a wish in the weeping column, which someone unfortunately translated as the Sweating Column on the sign, and though we were impressed by the interior, my favorite moment came after we exited.
We walked out as the call to prayer started, and as we paused to take it in, the call from Hagia Sofia paused and the imam from the Blue Mosque picked it up. A third mosque nearby sounded next and all three alternated to the end. It was a beautiful experience.
With the touristy business out of the way, we went to the Asian side of Istanbul to meet another friend, Çan, and Iris. (After seeing us off at the bus station, she flew to see Çan the next day.)
We wandered a hip neighborhood, walked along the water, tried what Çan calls “food of paradise,” and then went for a beer together. It was a casual, wonderful afternoon, and a nice little baby step away from Macedonia and toward home.
[Quick sidenote: There has been a travel ban in effect for Peace Corps Volunteers to go to Turkey for the past year and a half, which prevented a second visit I had planned while my cousin was still living there, so I was happy to return to the beautiful country. Several people asked if it felt safe going there with recent events, but you can find danger anytime you step out your door. I never felt unsafe for a moment, and I’m a big believer that you shouldn’t let fear stop you from living. Of course, I was also with friends and didn’t go looking for trouble either, I should add since my mother is reading this.]
Oh! And my favorite Turkish soap star, who I watched religiously all through Peace Corps training in Macedonia, is starring on a new series, so I got to watch her in all her glory. It was weird to hear her real voice speaking Turkish, since I’d only ever heard the Macedonian voice that dubbed over hers. She’s perfect in both languages, obviously.
It was a great way to start my trek, which will tentatively include Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, before a long flight to the west coast and a road trip back east. I’m missing my Macedonian life, but it’s pretty great to go places without having to fill out a Peace Corps permission slip.