Rough Landing in Istanbul

We didn’t face a really hard time on our journey until we arrived in Istanbul. While travel days and arrival days are always tough, coming from comfortable and easy Budapest to 5x larger Istanbul was a tough challenge to bounce back from. Looking back, that seems crazy to say – we were living our dream, had a home in Istanbul for three weeks, which is one of the places we were most looking forward to on Leg 1. It felt a bit ungrateful to be miserable. But I don’t know that there’s any other way to arrive our first week in Istanbul.

Our Apartment*

On arrival in Istanbul, we found a taxi fairly easily at the airport and the driver took us directly to our place (apparently taxi scams are common in Istanbul; we only had one bad taxi experience our whole 3-week stay, so I’m not sure it is much worse there than anywhere else, but important to be on the lookout for). I was so glad that the fare was what I expected that I over-tipped the driver, but it is always nice to pass on feelings of gratitude I think.

We were met by the world’s nicest Airbnb host, Besim, who was a bright spot in our whole stay. He gave us tea and then took us to the apartment. “Dismay” is probably the best adjective to describe our first feelings about it. It had two large steps up to a heavy iron door, then 2 stories of spiral staircase to another metal door that is the entrance to the apartment. Within the apartment, two bedrooms, a hallway kitchen, and the bathroom are on one floor and the living room and terrace are up another spiral staircase. The other bright spot besides Besim was the view from the terrace was utterly spectacular. The other struggle (beyond the August heat and humidity and the strange layout) was that a cat lives on the terrace, desperately wants to live inside the apartment, and I HATE CATS.

The Cats

Did you know that Istanbul is full of stray cats? It’s a thing. Here’s their Facebook page. And honestly, these are clean, sweet cats. But they are still street cats. And they are everywhere. On every street corner and alley. Inside the Hagia Sofia. And in restaurants and bars. They’re like mascots. That was the most disturbing thing to me, besides our Airbnb cat’s obsession with getting inside our apartment: enjoying dinner out and all the sudden feeling something furry brush against my leg is basically my nightmare. And it happens all the time in Istanbul.

So of course a stray cat came standard with our Airbnb apartment. Besim introduced her as “Hitler” and she had a cute little black mustache on her upper lip. We ended up renaming her Charlie since – if I was going to receive some forced exposure therapy – there was no way I was going to develop warm feelings toward something called Hitler. Honestly, she wasn’t that bad. She was pretty good company in the evenings when we used the terrace. But (huge but) we had to be super-careful about opening the door, because she’d try to run in, and we couldn’t even have the upstairs window open, because she could jump through it. This made the upstairs living room pretty much unusable in the afternoons and evenings – it was just too hot and stuffy. And that room held the only suitable table for Chad’s work, which meant he had to work in the mornings.

“our” cat, Charlie (named for Chaplin)

The Weather and Geography

The heat and humidity was the other big challenge we faced when we arrived. I knew it was hot there in August. That’s why our initial plans had us arriving in Turkey in September. But, when we added in all the Brain Bar stuff to our journey, we had to get out of the EU Schengen zone within a 90-day window, which added two hot weeks to our time in Budapest. August is also very much the high season, and the crowds of tourists were definitely way worse in mid-August than toward the end of our stay in early September.

The weather caused problems in apartment too. There was a door between the kitchen and the stairwell that we had to keep open to maintain airflow – our 3rd floor apartment got really hot, really quickly without it. But that made half the kitchen space inaccessible, so cooking was a huge challenge. Also, the first few nights Chad barely slept due to the heat because there wasn’t an outlet that would reach to position the fan to blow good air on us. Luckily we were able to borrow an extension cord and that at least brought us sleep.

In addition to the hot weather, Istanbul is very hilly and has limited trees and green space. With Chad needing the mornings for work time, this made it a little difficult to get out and explore the way we wanted – walking up a steep hill with no shade in the blazing sun with 80% humidity is not really conducive to being in a great mood. The city is also huge and many places we wanted to go to involved taking multiple busses or long uphill walks, which required a pretty large chunk of time to go places. Compared to our experience in Budapest where the main metro line was 5 minutes from our place and a large train and bus station from which we could get nearly anywhere direct was only 10 minutes’ walk.

Extremely steep hill, with trailing cat – pretty typical Istanbul walk for us

Speaking of Transit

We actually weren’t too far (maybe 10 minutes) from a main street where we could catch several different bus lines, but their transit system is pretty confusing. Also, there are very few streets in the old parts of the city that can even handle busses – streets are too narrow, too steep, in too much disrepair or all three. So even when we’d take a bus, it often involved an extended walk on either end. I don’t know what we’d have done without Google maps, but even its information wasn’t always reliable. We got used to the transit eventually, including having to wave down busses to get them to stop (at the predefined bus stop, and even then, they only stop if the driver wants to). And I will say having an Istanbulkart – a public transit pass that you scan each time you ride that you can load and reload with credit at most markets – made things easier than they could have been. We also occasionally used the metro and the funiculars, but again, these required lots of walking to reach and often the metros required going up or down several stories worth of escalators.

Of course, Chad and I both enjoy walking in general and often just rely on our feet to get us where we want to go. But even this was tricky in Istanbul because the sidewalks are either a) non-existent, b) full of surprise pitfalls like holes, bumps or actual pits, or c) taken up by stores, restaurants or bars expanding their footprint into the outdoor space. So you mostly walk in the street. Which is full of cars. Being driven badly. It just feels dangerous. And I don’t know how anyone could get around Istanbul in a wheelchair. Accessible features were nil.

Conclusion

So were our three weeks in Istanbul completely awful? Actually, no. And I’ll tell you more about that in my next post: How We Came to Love Istanbul.

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*Perhaps the trouble started months before in March when we received a message from our original host for the Istanbul Airbnb we’d booked 6 months prior stating that her building would not allow her to have her apartment on Airbnb before and so she was forced to cancel all forthcoming reservations. My guess is that a bad egg ruined it for all the rest of us. The timing of the cancellation was pretty bad too because it came just as I was leaving my job and having some anxiety around being “unemployed” for the first time in my adult life. I didn’t have a ton of time and energy to spend on finding the new place so we chose one from our prior saved list that was in the same general area and also offered a terrace, which is the feature we were most sad to lose from the first place, and booked it. Lesson learned – it is worth the obsessive time I typically spend picking out our Airbnbs.

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