They are the best of destinations and the worst of destinations, these two mega-cities in the Mediterranean. Their current struggles are not unlike those they have faced throughout all of history– challenges of economy, democracy, and humanity amid uprisings and downfalls. My husband and I recently had the opportunity to visit both cities briefly, spending roughly thirty hours in Istanbul and forty in Athens. In light of all that is newsworthy about these two cities, you may be asking: are they travel-worthy?
The answer is complicated by what any given traveler hopes to find by journeying here. If your goal is to experience ancient historical sites, then of course, no such exploration of the Mediterranean is complete without these two cities. If your objective is more cultural in nature, you may find yourself leaving with more questions than answers. In my short stays in both cities the people often felt distant and wrapped in thick armor against everything– including outsiders.
Anger and Apathy
Our driver from the airport to the Intercontinental Hotel in Istanbul was a chatty fellow. He professed a love of America, having worked as a driver for the consulate. He particularly loved Ms. Clinton he admitted and asked if we loved her too. As he was pointing out noteworthy sites along the route, he suddenly burst into outrage at those in his country with anti-American sentiment, shouting, “People in my country and other Islamic countries are wrong to hate Americans. Many countries are not Islamic. America is not the only one! Why do they hate only America? Why not Canada?” I was quite taken off guard and unclear about what set off the rant, but relieved that his anger was not directed at us.
In Athens, the emotional contrast was stark. Even hawkers on the street seemed half-hearted in their efforts. At one sidewalk taverna the host asked us how we were. After replying that I was wonderful, I asked how he was. His answer spoke volumes about the attitude we saw throughout our visit, “Not good; not bad,” he said. Apathy and resignation were the primary emotions we experienced from shopkeepers, restaurant wait staff, and riders on the Metro trains. When describing the personality traits of Athenians, a tour guide we later enjoyed in another part of the country told us, “They have no personality. Their living conditions make it impossible.”
Security and Services
Despite three alerts from the U.S. State Department Safe Traveler program in the weeks before we arrived in Turkey, security upon arrival seemed fairly lax. Airport passport control officers were no sterner than in any other country and customs inspections were non-existent. Arriving travelers leaving the baggage claim area were simply herded past a single customs official en masse. I am not sure we saw a uniformed law enforcement officer at any point in Istanbul, other than at the airport.
In Athens, the only law enforcement we saw was a pair of motorcycle officers posing for a photograph with female tourists. The handsome young officers smiled broadly as a pair of smiling ladies
stood close for the photo. It was a striking moment contrasted against the blank faces of so many Athenians. We saw no sign of banking distress, Metro trains ran on time, albeit without any visible ticket enforcement, and the monuments we visited were all open and well-staffed.
Both cities have reputations for expressive street painting. In Istanbul vibrant and colorful wall art is a part of the cityscape. Multi-story murals depicting life as the artist envisions it wrap apartment buildings and shops. Only occasionally did we see true graffiti, but even that was bright and meaningful.
I was not prepared for the volume nor the hopelessness of graffiti in Athens. It covers every reachable space, and while there are some colorful and artistic displays, including on some of the Metro cars, they are rare amid the seemingly mindless monotone squiggles. Black is the predominant paint used for words like “wolf” and “wake up” that repeat block after block, building after building. It’s as if the mere act of defacing something was the full extent of the effort–with apathy swallowing any shred of creativity that might have lent true meaning to the act.
Before our America-defending driver dropped us at the hotel in Istanbul, he gave a stern warning not to venture into the neighborhood after dark. “Not good at night,” he said. Bordered on two sides by Taksim Gazi Park, part of Taksim Square, the site of terror-related explosions in 2010 and 2014 as well as violent May Day protests for the previous three years, one could argue that perhaps it’s not so good during the day either.
Our only brush with crime however was a taxi scam. After visiting the Spice Bazaar, we attempted to negotiate a taxi fare back to our hotel with one of only three available drivers near the market. The three drivers colluded and agreed on an outrageous 45 Turkish Lira– triple what we had paid for the ten-minute ride to get there. With a little more familiarity, we’d have simply found a bus stop and skipped the taxis. But with less than an hour until our shuttle to the cruise port, we caved to their demands. Less than five minutes into the meterless ride we found ourselves being forced out of the cab in a tunnel beneath– you guessed it– Taksim Square. “You walk,” he said, pointing to the nearby escalator that serviced the Metro station. “No, you drive to hotel,” we attempted weakly, but he was in control of the situation and we all knew it.
It was a tense walk, skirting the park, rather than crossing it, with more than a couple of backward glances. Lesson learned and no real harm done.
In Athens, pickpockets at the metro stations are a standard warning to tourists. We watched from a distance as one man quietly stalked a crowd of people waiting to transfer from train to bus, apparently looking for an unsuspecting mark.
To Go or Not to Go
In Istanbul, the experience of visiting sites like the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, and the Grand Bazaar cannot be duplicated elsewhere. And it’s not like there’s another Parthenon to see somewhere else, right? I would not be the first, nor likely the last, writer to say though, that a day or two are sufficient for either city. Use them as beginnings or endings for your Mediterranean journey as we did on our Silversea cruise and you will not likely be disappointed. In our short visits we managed to squeeze in all of the big attractions we set out to see, as well as a few we hadn’t planned on. We had time for tasting baklava, drinking a Greek beer at the foot of the Acropolis, and buying a pair of handmade sandals. We had time to watch the flurry of ferries crisscrossing the Bosphorus and time to contemplate life today and in millennia past in two of the world’s most fascinating cities.