By Thomas G Mattson
"Turkey is more like another planet than any other country on Earth" -- these words, said to me by an old lady in Italy, stayed with me, and I could not shake them. So I found myself on the first bus from Athens, Greece to Istanbul, Turkey: a 20 hour odyssey that seemed to leave behind one continent for another, trade a homogenized Western world for an older, more mysterious Eastern one.
To visit Istanbul is to swim in heightened senses. The place is so strange and so foreign compared with what you have known, and even seen on the rest of your Eurotrip, that the thrill and excitement of it do not leave quickly. Swooning before the central bazaar, the city's main artery and visual feast, duck inside a white-curtained passageway and find yourself transplanted into the real-life version of "Aladdin." Spices, smells, candles, rugs, jewelry, the clamor of insistent buying and selling, the bazaar is a maze of Willy Wonka-type wonders, one you could easily spend days in.
One of the most immediate thrills of the exotic to meet you when you first arrive is the warbling religious prayer emanating from sound speakers at the city's central mosque several times per day. As this mighty reminder that you are in a religious Muslim country reverberates throughout the city, you will see the confluence of energies halt for a few moments as many of the denizens turn and face the nearest Mosque to pause and pray.
Head down to the river bank which, in one of the apparent signatures of Istanbul, is teeming with activity. This time the heady commotion of commerce surrounds fishermen, moored on their boats to cement embankments. Small charcoal fires burn away on the little ships, where the fishermen cook the haul of that morning, and sell them in little fish sandwiches to the throng of buyers around them.
Perhaps most fascinating, take a little detour and walk away from the city's center, only 10 minutes or so, and you'll be shocked and amazed to find yourself transplanted back to what appears to be 14th century medieval Ottoman times; only it's not an anachronistic illusion: the streets really are cobblestone, you mix company with ox and horse-drawn carts, denizens chop wood with axes and wash their clothes in round basins with washboards, the houses are wood-slatted shacks, the smell of burned leaf-fueled fires permeates the air, and the dirty faces indicate a sometime hardscrabble life. But the people are exceedingly kind and generous, and it must be said that a true happiness and old-world kind of camaraderie imbues the community.
The antiquity of childhood Arabian stories comes alive in a real-life trip to Istanbul. The magic and mystery are vivid and immediate. As you prepare to leave the city, you may hear the elliptical warbling of the religious prayer one last time. And you realize these memories are etched to last a lifetime.