I was stuck in Istanbul for a few days more than I’d planned, hoping to get my Iranian visa. While there, I was staying in the modern centre of the city. Since I didn’t feel like doing a lot more sightseeing, I just kept wandering around Istanbul’s buzzing centre, particularly through the most lively and famous of all its commercial streets: Istiklal Caddesi.
Istiklal Caddesi is a pedestrian walk with a very commercial feel. No cars are allowed in Istiklal, but a single old tram line still covers the length of the street, adding to it a nostalgic and atmospheric feel.
Thousands – or even millions – of people flock every day to Istiklal to shop in its fancy boutiques, bookshops and art galleries, have a chat over a narghile (water pipe) in a laid-back café, or have dinner in some of the busiest restaurants in Istanbul. The crowd is quite mixed between wealthy Istanbulites and tourists. Arab tourists in particular, most of them from Saudi Arabia, come to spend their petrodollars in Istiklal.
İstiklal Caddesi is also a popular venue for all sorts of protests, marches, parades and gatherings in the city. Every day, I came across some kind of protest: women for abortion, political protesters from Azerbaijan and many others whose claims I didn’t even understand, most times only followed by a handful of people.
But on Sunday, there was a much larger parade going on: Istanbul’s gay pride. The demonstration was massive but pretty calm, by no means as crazy as it gets in Madrid. The most interesting thing, however, was seeing Arab women, who are regular shoppers in Istiklal, fully covered in their black niqabs, stare at the gay pride parade with great interest while taking tons of pictures with their mobile phones, astonished at something they had perhaps never seen before. 🙂
Istiklal is the main hub for nightlife in the city, with as many nightclubs as stunning rooftop bars. It is also the setting for the most famous Istanbul rip-off, targeting single foreign males. It works like this: “by sheer chance” you run into a Turkish guy in the street, who strikes a conversation and invites you to join him for a drink. He takes you to a nightclub and several women immediately move to your table and order drinks. Then you’re presented with a huge bill (~500 €) and scary-looking guys accompany you until you pay up. It is so common that guidebooks and hostels inform about it, so I was warned. It happened to me every day. The conversation almost always went like this: the guy says something in Turkish, like asking for directions or a light. When you don’t answer in Turkish, they say “Oh, you’re not Turkish! (forced surprise face). You look Turkish. Where you from?” Then, they ask you some questions to assess if you’re the right person for the scam: “you live here? this your first time Turkey? Come alone?.” Reassured by my answers, they mentioned their relatives in Spain or something they know about your country and, finally, suggest to go for a drink.
On a particular day, it was kind of funny because I had this same conversation with three different guys and always the guy would say he had some relatives in Sabadell (a city in Catalunya). I thought it was funny that they always mentioned a largely unknown city like Sabadell, probably to make the story plausible. When the third young guy on the day said he had a cousin in Catalunya, I interrupted: “Let me guess. In Sabadell?” “yes! Sabadell, how you know?” I was laughing and told him that everybody says Sabadell, and that they could probably say other cities in Spain, if only for a change, like Toledo, Sevilla, Valladolid, etc. “Be creative!” :-). He was roaring with laughter, shook my hand and said “I only knew two cities Spain. Thank you for teaching me more cities”. An hour later, on my way back through Istiklak I heard “Hello! Hello!” I turned and saw the second and third young guys I had met that day, with another friend. They were greeting me and laughing. I ran into those kids almost every day since in Istiklal, and they always laughed and greeted me very nicely. 🙂