In 2014, Turkey was quickly becoming one of the top tourist targets in the world. Now, the media makes it out to be another type of target. It was the sixth most visited country in 2015, but is now looking at losing up to $12 billion compared to last year. Not to mention, with everything that is going on politically--Turkey's everyday citizens and beautiful landscapes need some positive press. I'm not going to include "The Big 5" destinations that everyone sees in their inflight magazines or travel brochures. You will learn there's far more to this country than suppressed journalistic freedoms, terrorist attacks and threats, autocratic leaders, and regional "disputes" that could be said about lots of countries (and are definitely still ongoing here and are real issues). It's a place with an immense history and beauty that has been the center of the world for millennia. Napoleon once said, "if the Earth were a single state, Istanbul would be the capital." Istanbul was my home for 3 years and the rest of the country lifts the city to its place of prominence.
First off, 'The Big 5'. Let me break them down:
Sultan Ahmet, Cappadocia, Ephesus, Pamukkale, Bodrum & Fethiye are the biggest draws. Most people fly into Istanbul and stay in Sultan Ahmet, then visit Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and Tokapı Palace. However, there are so many places that you wouldn't normally find when wandering the old-stone streets of Sultan Ahmet.
Families' then move to Cappadocia. Here you stare at Phallic rock formations, hike through underground cities and ancient Christian valleys. Then you finish it up like any destination worth its weight--wine, sunsets, and tacky pottery (some is quite beautiful, actually).
If you're here in the summer (or British, Russian or German) then you may just head to one of the Turkish Riviera's beautiful turquoise beaches. Bodrum, Fethiye and Antalya are the most famous with their own bits of culture to keep you interested, but what makes these places really worth their salt is setting up camp on the beach and letting the sea slightly cool you from the scorching sun until you recharge with fresh fish and cold drinks.
Turkey's most well-preserved ancient city, Ephesus (Efes, in Turkish) was the Greek capital of Asia Minor and once the 2nd largest city in the world. It's an open museum that is as interesting as it is beautiful. As far as ancient cities go, if Rome is New York then Efes is Chicago. Which is to say that it may actually be better (I come from Chicago and am incredibly biased). It's massive and definitely worth shelling out the extra cash to get the full history. A bonus section shows old apartments from the time and detail the extravagance of the upper class and the depression of the lower. Very close is the Temple of Artemis, or really, a column from it, that was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
About an hour or so away, you have Pamukkale and Hierapolis. Pamukkale, or Cotton Castle, are limestone baths that give the appearance of sitting in bathtubs in the clouds the way the Gods are always depicted in Greek myths. It's connected to Hierapolis, the original Florida. An ancient city that people have been flocking to in retirement since the 2nd century BC. The hot springs amongst the ruins are the only ones that I've discovered.
Now that you're caught up on the must see destinations, I'll give you the first place on my list--Kumkapı. Those that have been to this neighborhood know it for its square filled with fish restaurants to lure in tourists. On the other hand, trickling through the windy ravines of streets that flow from this reservoir of rakı, mezes, and fresh fish is evidence of Istanbul's diverse ethnic and religious origins. Still boasting a large Armenian population, it also possesses some of Istanbul's most original churches and mosques.
On my trip I came from the seaside at Yenikapı and I think it's the best way to encounter the neighborhood, though it's probably the opposite that most people will use. When you cross the concrete underpass by Kennedy Caddesi you'll encounter the Armenian Patriarchate and a large Armenian Orthodox church. Together, they represent much of pre-WWI Istanbul with an infusion of traditional architecture of the Ottomans mixed with an Armenian Apostolic style.
As you walk one more block inland you'll notice a stark contrast in the upkeep of the buildings. With run-down shops and homes, the business spills into the street where you can find a plethora of supplies. Anything from socks to booze, and even pork, can be haggled for while strolling down the street; make sure to grab some fruit from the street vendors for your walk.
That walk should take you up the hill a bit more towards Beyazıt and you'll end up at Mother Mary Church. Unassuming from the side, with a plain brick wall, but it's stunning on the inside and a gorgeous classical exterior that helps it sit like an island oasis in a concrete sea of dilapidation and gentrification. If checking out old churches is your thing also check out Aya Kiryoki and Rum Kilise for larger and grander structures, but with slightly less "je ne sais quoi" to them.
Turn towards the Old Town and you'll run into the main square that's filled with restaurants and not so passive waiters trying to get you to sit down. Kumkapı Historical Restaurant is the most famous, but in my opinion you really can't go wrong where ever you go here.
Once you're refueled head out towards Marmara University's campus and check out Sokollu Mehmet Paşa Camii just passed the police station. It's beautifully ornate with a piece of the Kaaba on the inside. You can chat with the caretaker who speaks enough English to give you an idea of the history and meaning of the place, while he'll also throw in pictures of all his grandkids to show you.
When you finally get a word in, ask him how to get to Küçük Aya Sofya and he'll point you there. Close to Sultan Ahmet, you'll come across the church-turned-mosque that actually predates the larger Aya Sofya by a year--being finished in 536 AD--and was used as a template to help them prepare for the much larger and more famous follow up. Due to Islamic law all the interior mosaics have been covered, but the current interior's design can be traced back to as early as 1506.
From here you can follow the path near the water or the streets next to the parks and end at Bukoleon Sarayı, the remnants of a palace from the 5th century. It was one of the few palaces still standing when the Ottomans sacked the city and a wall remains to this day. It's a last little photo-op before heading back into the much more dense Sultanahmet district.
A middle-aged man passes under a vivid yet rustic sign that reads BÜYÜLÜ FENER, which fits like a puzzle piece among the colors of cafes and apartments that flood this block in Balat. He pushes open a glass door that rests under a row of rainbow stained glass. Once inside he’s greeted with a welcome from the owner, Gediz, as he scans the walls and shelves. This isn’t your typical antique shop, which pop up all over the neighborhood.
A Unique Antique
Not just because Gediz is the only female owner in the area, but because instead of the other shops where you feel like you’re walking into an old Ottoman tea house, here it’s like you’ve entered the Art Director from Turkish Mad Men’s supply warehouse. On the walls are rows of small tube TVs, record players, and typewriters flashing with vibrant colors. One of the record players spins a song from the 1960s that only the Turks seem to recognize.
A Piece of our Past
The man’s eyes stop on an unassuming collection of retro cigarette packages. “Can I buy just this one?” he asks. Gediz tells him of course, but that it’s not worth much without the rest of the collection. “That’s fine. They used to sell this box in Cyprus when I was a kid there. So, when I saw it it immediately brought me back to my time there as a child.”
And that’s why people come to Büyülü Fener (magic lantern in Turkish), not necessarily to find the next rare find of the antiquing world, but to bring back a fond memory or experience. Gediz told me that what really separates Büyülü Fener from the other antique stores is that hers isn’t one; it’s a nostalgia shop.
Balat a Microcosm of Praxis
In a city that is rapidly modernizing, the gentrification can be dispiriting. And, when your commute consists of passing block after block of Soviet-style apartment buildings, you want to find the colors, diversity, and romance of the storied Istanbul. That’s what propelled Fener-Balat to become such a hotspot for tourists, expats, and locals alike. Büyülü Fener fits this neighborhood aesthetic perfectly. It’s what drew Gediz here in the first place. Cihangir had become flooded with overpriced housing and Karaköy had been overrun with chain stores, making a small business nearly impossible. But here, every business is personally owned and new people are moving in droves, but they haven’t destroyed the neighborhood’s character. In fact, as long as they adapt to their surrounding culture they can help enhance it. The neighbors across the street are Bulgarian immigrants on the first floor, Syrians on the 2nd, and from eastern Anatolia on the 3rd. Imams walk the street and wave at the employees from the nearby Ecumenical Patriarchate. Women with head scarves will chat with their neighbors in mini-skirts. Gediz says there’s a weird balance where if you don’t judge, no one will judge you. This is why Fener-Balat is where the city on the cusp of two worlds analogy comes alive. When you live in a sterile apartment and work a sterile job, it feels like the old Istanbul is dead, but you can still find it here.
I always assumed that antique shops were a staple of the neighborhood, but apparently, I was wrong. Büyülü Fener was only the 5th and opened a little over 2 years ago. Now there are 19, with that number changing every day. While the store may be new, Gediz tells me that opening it has been her dream since she was a teenager. After daring the corporate world for many years, while simultaneously filling her apartment to the brim, she decided to pursue her dream to open her own place and live the laid-back lifestyle of Balat.
A Bit of Nostalgia
She began collecting when she was 16. At first, it was anything that interested her, but then it slowly morphed into attaining collections as well. The evidence is on display everywhere. There’s an eclectic record collection with many hailing from Turkey’s rock heyday in the 1970s summed up with a Barış Manço print in the front row.
Apparently records are making a comeback and many people who buy them don’t even own the players. However, she still sells them, and they all work because Gediz and different specialists team up to restore all the gadgets and electronics in the store. She will buy paintings and photos that barely get settled on the wall before they’re sold. Retro gas lamps are probably the highest selling item for locals, but tourists love trinkets because they can fit them in their suitcase. There are collections of old soda bottles, miniature alcohol bottles (still full), postcards, and a slew of things that you didn’t even know would make you feel nostalgic.
The nostalgia bug hits me hard when I see an old tin toy car that looks like a larger version of a Hot Wheels toy. Across from the entrance, you’ll notice a giant one, like a Cadillac version of all those Fisher-Price commercials I saw as a kid where you actually can ride in the car. Not one to show bias, a miniature burgundy stroller, perfect for a toddler to play house in, rests opposite the car and in front of the original signage for Balat Hastanesi.
I bee-line my way towards the sign and begin sweeping through the box of Swiss and Turkish postcards underneath it, I can’t help but read all the messages people wrote their loved ones that now live on through the curious eyes that pry into them. It seems every item in the store has a story. A special one sits in the corner of the store on a 1950s era stove top. An old cast iron sauce pan lacquered in floral patterned paint looks banal at first. But, Gediz tells me these were exclusively made in Western Europe and discontinued there about 40 years ago with the development of lightweight cooking materials.
She lifts up the top to an engraved “Made in Turkey”. “It’s the only one I’ve ever seen in all my years of collecting that was made here,” she says. So, maybe the rare finds are here as well.
The Business of Antiquing
I finally ask her how she knows what to buy and that it will sell? She says it’s impossible to predict what items people will buy, so she gave up trying. Instead, she buys things that she’d want to decorate her home with and that sometimes that’s beyond just an eye for commerce. “It’s hard for me to sell some of this stuff because I like it and I become sort of attached to it,” Gediz tells me. She then shows me her favorite item, a toy robot resembling R2D2 and when you open its head there’s a cassette player inside. I ask her how much she would charge for something like that. “It’s not for sale. This is still part of my personal collection.”
If you think you can pry it from her, come to Büyülü Fener in Balat from 10-7 any day but Monday and try.
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