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A travel homecoming in Turkey

  • Story Highlights
  • Rick Steves produces 30 guidebooks on European travel
  • Since 1973 he's spent 120 days a year in Europe
  • His company, Europe Through the Back Door, conducts European tours
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By Rick Steves
Tribune Media Services
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(Tribune Media Services) -- Sitting down in the yellow "taksi" at Istanbul's Ataturk Airport and seeing the welcoming grin of the unshaven driver who greeted me with "Merhaba" (hello), I just blurted out, "Cok guzel." I forgot I remembered the phrase. It just came to me -- like a baby shouts for joy. I was back and it was "beautiful" indeed.


Istanbul's Blue Mosque has a fresh new carpet.

I went through a decade-long period of annual visits, but it's been years since I wished a Turk "merhaba," that local aloha or namaste. My first hours in Turkey were filled with deja vu moments like no travel homecoming I've ever had.

The taksi turned off the highway and into the tangled lanes of the tourist "green zone" (just below the Blue Mosque with all the tourist-friendly businesses still lined up with a "Yes, Mister" readiness). I saw the dirty kids in the streets and remember a rougher time when they would earn small change hanging out the passenger door of ramshackle vans. They'd repeatedly yell the name of whichever neighborhood was coming up, in a noisy scramble to pick up passengers in the shared minibus taksi called a dolmus. (A dolmus is a wild cross between a taxi, a minibus and a kidnapping vehicle, literally, and so appropriately named a "squish.")

While Turkey's new affluence has killed the dolmus, the echoes of the boys hollering from the vans bounced happily all around me: "Aksaray, Aksaray, Aksaray." . . "Sultanahmet, Sultanahmet, Sultanahmet." My favorite call was for the train station's neighborhood: "Sirkeci, Sirkeci, Sirkeci."

As most tourists do, I visited the famous mosque. Stepping out of my shoes and into the vast turquoise (a color early French travelers took home -- as the "color of the Turks") interior of the not-quite-rightly-named Blue Mosque, something was missing. Yes, gone was the smell of so many sweaty socks, knees, palms and foreheads soaked into the ancient carpet upon which worshippers did their quite physical (as Mohammad intended) prayer workouts. Sure enough, the Blue Mosque has a fresh new carpet -- with a subtle design that keeps worshippers organized just as lined paper tames handwriting.

Prayer let out and a crush of locals headed out the door. The only way to get any personal space was to look up. And that breathtaking scene played again for me -- hard pumping seagulls powering through the humid air in a black sky coming into the light as they cross in front of floodlit minarets.

Walking down to the Golden Horn bay and Istanbul's churning waterfront, I missed the old Galata Bridge -- so rusted with life's struggles. But the vivid street life -- boys casting their lines, old men sucking on water pipes, sesame rings filling cloudy glass carts -- has retaken the new bridge.

And on the sloppy adjacent harborfront, the venerable "fish and bread boats" were still rocking in the constant churn of the busy harbor. In a humbler day, they were 20-foot-long open dinghies -- rough boats with battered car tires for fenders -- with open fires grilling fish literally fresh off the boat. For a few coins they'd bury a big white fillet in a hunk of white bread and wrap it in newsprint and I was on my way ... dining out on fish.

A few years ago, the fish and bread boats were shut down because they weren't licensed and didn't pay taxes. Now, after a popular uproar, they're back. A bit more hygienic and no longer wrapping in newspaper -- but still rocking in the waves and slamming out fish. (The 3 lire or $2.50 sandwich remains the best poor man's meal going.)

In Turkey, I have more personal rituals than in other countries. I cap my days with a bowl of sutlac. That's rice pudding with a sprinkle of cinnamon -- still served in a square and shiny stainless steel bowl with a matching spoon not much bigger than a gelato sampler.

And I challenge a local to a game of backgammon -- still a feature in restaurants, teahouses and cafes. Boards no longer smell of tobacco with the softer wood inlays worn deeper than the hardwood. And now the dice are plastic with obedient dots rather than the tiny handmade "bones" of the 20th century with dots that didn't line up. When I spun the dice and paused, a bystander moved for me. As before, if you don't move immediately, locals move for you. There's one right way ... and everybody knows it.

Today in Turkey, the people, like those dots, line up better. There's a seat for everyone as public transit is no longer such a "squish." Fez sales to tourists are way down, but scarf wear by local girls is way up. There's rigidity to the chaos and each of my deja vu moments shows a society that stays the same, while enduring great change. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, Wash. 98020.


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