Have you ever felt like you have met someone through someone else’s description or stories or photos and then you meet them in person and they are not at all what you expect?

That has been my experience with Istanbul.

From our bird’s eye approach, thanks to Turkish Airlines, the Mediterranean coast seemed just about right. The airport was modern and even chic – a first clue. The shuttle drive in felt closer to a James Bond street chase but between the harrowing corners and frequent veering, the old city sights emerged and drew us in.

Turkish hospitality is known the world over and we saw it firsthand. The Neorion Hotel sits in the centre of the Sultanamet District on the European side of Istanbul. The staff welcomed us with a beverage of choice, a tourist overview of sites and transportation and complimentary appetizers. We were shown our room and found, of all things, Turkish Delight! After a brief explore, we made it an early night in order to be ready for our tour of the city the next day.

Leah Mortensen was a little girl when we first met her. Istanbul is now her home of 11 years and so we asked her to show us around. Hosting tours is just one aspect of her business and if you are planning a trip here, we highly recommend hiring Leah for the day. (

Over 31 million tourists visited Turkey last year and most of them come to Istanbul. The city can feel overwhelming but it is a thriving, working, cultural centre and really needs to be approached in small bites. And that’s exactly what we did. Leah took us through the back door to meet goldsmiths and textile dealers, artisans and coffee roasters. The purpose was not to buy but to connect with the traditions and family side of an economy that depends on its “east meets west” Spice Road trade.

Not only did we touch aspects of the Turk and Kurdish way of life but we also managed to pick up SIM cards for the phone and IPad, exchange our Jordanians dinar and Israeli sheckels for euros (we used the ATM at the airport to get Turkish Lira) and quiz Leah on transportation when it comes time to fly again.

The lesser known sites are often less busy and they provide greater accessibility to artwork that is often created specifically for that setting. We visited a tiny out-of-the-way mosque on our way to the spice market. The glazed tile work in its usual cobalt blue and burnt red floral motif invited us for a closer look as we begin to appreciate the intricacy of Islamic art. The call to prayer is live in this city; one of the few remaining non prerecorded calls in the Islamic world, we are told.

I like surprises, and Turkey has begun well.

About sandi

Sandi makes her home on Vancouver Island.
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