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There are many such tours on offer, but the tour we chose online, ahead of our arrival in Istanbul, was with Taste of Two Continents. We were not disappointed. Our guide, Ibrahim, met us outside the Legacy Ottoman Hotel in the old city, a stone’s throw from the Spice Market and the Galata Bridge, at the beginning of a five-hour walkabout that took in both the European and Asian halves of the city, on either side of the busy Bosphorus straits – Sultanahmet, to the west, and Kadikoy, to the east.
We began by the Spice Bazaar, exploring the stalls in the warren of small streets alongside, tasting as we went, before entering the bazaar itself, for an introduction to the real Turkish Delight (needless to say, we were back the next morning, to load up on sweets and spices).
Then, down to the Galata Bridge, and out to the ferries, for the short trip across the water to the Asian side of the city. The rain clouds were gathering as we crossed, and the rain fell intermittently – sometimes a few drops, a drizzle, sometimes a downpour – throughout the rest of the day, but on we went, our small group kept entertained and informed by the ever-lively and engaging Ibrahim.
The food, I have to say, was for the most part absolutely fantastic – colourful, flavourful, infinitely varied. This was not a tour for sissies, however – Ibrahim made sure that we sampled some of the local specialties which were, in some cases, pretty awful, at least to a Western palate.
Pickle juice, for example, and minced offal confections that were frankly too off-putting in the description to allow for even the smallest of nibbles. But we were pleased to be given the information, and the opportunity to experiment – willing to give the pickle juice a try (it’s as bad as it sounds) and happy to pass on the offal, with no offence taken.
Along with the food, in all its glorious abundance and variety and profusion of flavours, what strikes you too is the sheer industry of the people. Everywhere you turn there is someone turning meat on a grill, carving up cheese in a tin, pushing a rickety, overloaded cart down the colourful, cobbled streets, doing the hard sell with a customer.
If the food isn’t for sissies, neither are the people. Blunt and down to earth, to the point of rudeness at times, people work hard for a living, and are not ashamed of it.
After five hours of walking, talking, listening to Ibrahim’s jokes and stories, absorbing as much as we could of the history of the city all spiced up with the history of the food – stopping here, crossing over there, trying this or that specialty or delicacy – we were happy but exhausted. And just when we thought we were done, Ibrahim sprung his surprise – a much needed sit-down for a few plates at the famed Ciya Sofrasi, featured in Netflix’s Chef’s Table.
Somewhere towards the end of the day, we stopped at a stall selling one of Istanbul’s signature street food dishes – mussels on the shell. We’d been warned to be careful – the mussels aren’t always fresh, and can cause some serious tummy ructions – but Ibrahim, of course, knew where to take us.
The mussels were so darned good that after we had finished eating at Ciya, stuffed as we were (stuffed like the mussels, no pun intended), back we went to the mussel stall, to be met with a huge grin and another round of mussels.
Did I say that this was a good way to be introduced to the city? Let me correct that – it’s the best way!