Istanbul was Constantinople
Now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople
Been a long time gone, Constantinople
Now it's Turkish delight on a moonlit night
April 16th meant two things to me this year: Easter Sunday and Turkey's constitutional referendum. While my family in the US was busy biting the ears off of chocolate bunnies, I was watching history unfold right in front of my eyes in Istanbul. Things seemed normal on that sunny day, almost unusually so; results from the vote came in that night and President Erdoğan proclaimed victory without any noticeable public opposition. I was surprised that Turkish people seemed to accept the news that Erdogan squeaked out a "yes" win to give him what amounted to dictatorship powers, especially under dubious circumstances. When I talked to a few young, educated locals, though, I learned that people were mad but they were helpless to react out of fear of being arrested, hurt, fired, or worse. And this made me sad, because Turkey is a beautiful country with a rich history and the potential to be a progressive place. Erdogan's hold over the secular country has meant drastic changes recently and here are my observations on the country from an urban perspective, from how Erdogan wants to deter large protests by replacing a beloved park with a mall to posh bus service to concrete jungles. Enjoy!
1. Welcoming public spaces
As I mentioned in my first post on Istanbul, city parks and landscaping throughout Turkey is simply amazing, and finding a spot to sit and enjoy the scenery is never a challenge. Public parks are meticulously cared for and a welcome respite for tourists and locals alike. Mosques act as a magnet for locals, serving as the place for people to congregate when meeting a friend, strolling with children, kneeling in prayer, and mourning the dead.
2. Historic (and new) tram systems in Istanbul
To see how Istanbul's streetcars have changed over a hundred-plus years, look no further than the quaint 19th century İstiklal Caddesi tram then the modern 1992 T1 across the Bosphorous. (Sadly, the vintage, saccharine-sweet street trolley was closed for renovation when I visited, but there is a great story and photos here.) Near the İstiklal Caddesi tram is the Tünel, or a short underground railway for funiculares, in operation since 1875 and the second oldest underground railway in the world (after London).
3. Gezi Park & Taksim Square
Taksim Gezi park is to İstanbul what Central Park is to New York City, or Tiananmen Square is to Beijing, and so on. This park is one of Istanbul's last green spaces and has served as a public gathering place since 1939, although the site was originally part of an 1806 barracks complex. (Tragically, urban planners demolished the lovely onion-domed barracks buildings to open the park.) Taksim Square is best known for recent violent protests in 2013 over plans to redevelop the site, changes that would replace green space with a shopping mall, mosque, and residences. Although President Erdogan claimed redeveloping the site to include rebuilt Ottoman-era barracks was "key to preserving the country's heritage," Istabul's residents saw this move as an authoritarian grab to tear down trees and limit public gatherings. The May protests got out of control with police killing seven people and injuring thousands more, and similar protests broke out across the country. Reading various articles about redevelopment plans, it seems that decreasing pedestrian entry points and making the square more austere and less welcoming, not to mention resurrecting Ottoman history and adding a mosque, would work in favor of the growing anti-secular, pro-Islamic dictatorship of President Erdogan.
4. Antalya is obsessed with tactile paving
While textured ground surfaces for visually-impaired pedestrians can be found in urban areas all over Turkey, it was especially prominent in Antalya's old town. To be honest, it was a bit overdone and many of the strips had loosened and become a tripping hazard. I don't know the reason behind so much tactile paving and I didn't see a single blind pedestrian, although this document notes that the European Blind Union convened there in 2007, likely prompting the city to spiff up its sidewalks.
5. Many pedestrian-only areas...
While cars rule most of Istanbul and other major Turkish cities, visitors in the older parts of town are sure to run into some quiet, cafe-lined car-free sections. And although I tragically didn't see it myself, the Princes’ Islands southeast of Istanbul are mainly car-free with horse-drawn carriages (phaetons) being their signature form of transit.
6. ...But way more pedestrian-unfriendly areas
Like I said in number five, cars rule Turkish cities. Especially in Istanbul, drivers are aggressive, traffic is unbearable, and pollution casts a grimy pall over the city. Wide, clear, and continuous sidewalks aren't as ubiquitous as one would imagine in a "cosmopolitan" city like Istanbul and crossing busy intersections can be a daunting experience. Being a pedestrian in Turkey isn't the most fun experience: clearly-marked crossings for pedestrians are largely ignored, cities erect long fences in medians to prevent jaywalking, and curb cuts are marked "handicapped" (what about those of us with roller bags or bad knees??).
Surprisingly, I didn't see many signs of cycling in the city. I saw nary a bike lane or place to securely park a bike in Istanbul, although I did see a few spandex-clad cyclists fighting traffic and exhaust in what looked like a miserable ride. Turns out Turkey's capital city does have a bikeshare program, although I would have been wary about using it. Outside of Istanbul, I saw a few random bike lanes here and there but nothing beyond that. Bicycles don't seem to be something locals use for transportation.
8. Buses & trains
Turkey is a large country and traveling across it takes time. Fortunately, Turkey has many affordable and reliable bus companies to get visitors around, and I found their on-board service to be unexpected, quirky, and welcome. (Okay, there's nothing super exciting about free sugary drinks and processed snacks, I've just never received beverage service on a bus.) Buses were modern (faux wood floors!), clean, and (mostly) outfitted with power outlets and wifi. As for trains, I didn't get a chance to take any long distance train trips in Turkey; when I looked into Turkey's trains, it seemed like a hassle to buy tickets (not available for purchase online) or not pet-friendly.
9. Don't flush the toilet paper!
Turkey is one of ten European countries where toilet paper cannot be flushed because of its less than stellar sewage system. That said, I quickly learned that toilet paper is to be deposited in the waste bin next to the toilet, which is a bit too unsanitary for my taste and made for one disappointing public bathroom experience after another (this is a great primer on Turkish toilet etiquette). Also, water is clean and sanitary but not suitable for drinking (per the opinion of tourists and locals), meaning bottled water is the unfortunate way to go.
10. Concrete jungles
The historic fabric of Istanbul is slowly giving way to bland concrete boxes, and the rest of the country is no exception. When taking the bus around the western region, I passed through many cities that seemed to pop up out of no where: soulless stretches of asphalt lined with boring concrete building after another, their only difference being their gaudy pastel color. And with rusty mechanical equipment and wires everywhere, modern Turkish cities can be quite the eyesore (in my opinion). Thankfully, sprawl doesn't seem to be a huge issue and much of the country's non-urban land remains unspoiled by development.
11. Plenty of water fountains
This probably has something to do with the country being Muslim and requiring prayer-goers at mosques to wash themselves before entering, but seeing a place to drink a quick sip of water or wash my hands was always a welcome sight.