ISTANBUL - Forget about the grand bazaar, Topkapi Palace, and the Bosporus. This time I came to Turkey to eat.
Kumkapi is an area with fish restaurants that is among the largest in Europe. Fans of fish and seafood will find more than 60 restaurants concentrated on three streets.
Oh, the flavors, the smells, the commotion. Groups of street musicians moving from restaurant to restaurant contribute to the atmosphere. They go from table to table, playing whatever the restaurant patrons ask for. Every group of musicians has oud players, violinists, drummers, and Turkish xylophone players, and the mood is merry.
And do they ever know how to prepare fish, those guys in Istanbul, everything from a large selection of appetizers (mezzes), on to the desserts, which are a complete caloric catastrophe. OK, you don’t go to Okyanus, Aquarium, or Champari to diet.
And the price? The price is right for anyone. You can eat really well, and you can eat a lot, for 20-30 Euros (USD 25-35). And that includes a glass of Raki, the Turkish version of arak.
One of the most interesting things in Kumkapi is the camaraderie of the chefs, which crosses the borders between restaurants. Sometimes the chef of one restaurant will go from table to table in neighboring restaurants offering the patrons his own creations.
When I asked what this unusual custom was all about, I was told that on that particular evening the chef had prepared his own specialty, something that the others didn’t have, and that he had come to present it to his neighbors. Because the chefs of the other restaurants do that on other evenings, this has become an accepted custom for all of them. That means, by the way, that if you ask for fish that they don’t have on that particular evening in the restaurant you are in, the chef simply goes to one of his neighbors and gets the dish from him.
There are excellent restaurants in other parts of Istanbul as well, such as “Julia’s Kitchen” in the grand bazaar, which serves really good kebab balls, as well as an apple-cheese cake whose reputation precedes it.
The French Quarter also has a well-developed restaurant area. The city and several entrepreneurs have turned a street at the foot of the Galata Hill and two cross streets into a rather authentic Parisian quarter. But it isn’t totally authentic, since the waiters and owners of the restaurants, all of which have French names (Désire, La Terrace, La Vie, La Brasserie) insist, for some reason, on speaking Turkish.
There is another small difference: While there is an abundance of wines and cheeses, and a singer perched on a high balcony singing classic French chansons, not all of the food here is strictly Parisian or Lyonnais.
Slalom in a cab
Every time I’m in Istanbul I am impressed by the city’s cab drivers. They are the best, the most acrobatic I’ve ever seen, veritable virtuosos. They drive at dizzying speeds, executing slaloms in the crowded traffic, and I doubt whether even Schumacher, Alonso, or Raikunen could compete with an Istanbul cab driver who knows all there is to know about control on the road.
A driver in Istanbul is capable of getting into a chance “opening” in crowded traffic, no matter how narrow, and of getting out of it on the other side none the worse for wear. He also knows how to get along with the Turkish pedestrians, who dash out onto the road and turn it into a combat zone. Only a person who has sat next to a cabbie on one of the sharp descents from Galata Hill to the Golden Horn in a car with a manual transmission can understand what I mean.
Traffic lights? Let’s not get into that. The local cabbies appear to be color blind.
I have no idea how you say “bedlam” in Turkish, but I would suggest that the word should be “Topkapi.” It is hard to imagine greater chaos than what goes on at the famed palace-museum in the heart of Istanbul. During the scorching summer months thousands of tourists, including Turks from all over the country, are forced to stand in line for an hour and a half to two hours to buy tickets.
In Istanbul they have still not discovered the dividers that make orderly lines possible, so that dozens - no, hundreds - of infiltrators enter from the sides, making the wait longer for those who behave in an orderly fashion. After you finally manage to purchase your ticket and enter the area of the museum, it is hard to see many of the exhibits because of the crowds.
And this, perhaps, is a good reason to go to Istanbul now, when the summer is over, and the vacationers gone. The lines at the Topkapi Palace must surely be much more tolerable right now. Either way, you can always take comfort in a good meal at one of the local restaurants.