Istanbul. The name conjures up images of a warm, mysterious, alluring place with small hidden alleys and bustling harbors crowded with small boats holding spices, fish, and exotic fabrics.

It turned out to be something else, something like a padded bra - full of promise from afar, but closer inspection reveals a fairly different reality. Not necessarily disappointing, just different than expected and advertised.

It has its charms - the history and architecture, the quality of the fake brands, the seafood, the Galata Bridge (bars and restaurants on the lower deck of a bridge = a great concept), the sea views from almost everywhere, Istikal Caddesi, and the many rooftop terraces - but they are drowned out by the near-constant hustle, rip-off restaurant charges, unending masses of people crammed onto the metro, and pretty much only men, mostly idle, on the streets and in the stores.

It is a city of contrasts, which you might expect as East meets West here:
  • From the many minarets around the city, you hear the Call to Prayer. It may as well be a Call to Prada, as every few steps you are asked to buy knock-off designer shoes or bags. It was annoying and repetitive - although one wiseguy did offer the best line of the week: "Excuse me, would you like to come in and buy something you don't need?"
  • The friendliness of the people is apparent, but underneath it in many commercial aspects is a real sense of being ripped off, whether it's a waiter, a taxi driver, or a corner store owner. Not all, by any stretch, are scam artists - but enough that it makes you leery at all times.
  • Women in tank tops and shorts walk alongside those almost completely covered.
  • The scenery is jaw-dropping at times, as is the litter in the parks and water.
More tomorrow in a new post. For now, some photos...

Sunset on the Bosphorus, as enjoyed from the Galata Bridge

This stuff was on sale everywhere. Stiff competition, I suppose.