Intrigued by my enthusiastic reviews, my boss and his partner visited Istanbul earlier this May and, as it often happens when visiting a new place whose non written rules and behaviour are unknown to us, they merrily walked straight into a riot. It was one of the series of protests that erupted in the spring after the funeral of a teenage boy shot in the head during the Gezi Park riots, further bolstered by the Soma mining disaster. My boss and his partner escaped relatively unscathed, apart from some mild poisoning due to tear gas (and my monthly review didn’t suffer much from this potentially career-limiting advice, I shall say). However two people were killed, and many more injured.
The epicentre of all the city’s rioting is the now famous Taksim Square and its park, Gezi. With the exception of Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Taksim definitely is the square most talked in the last years and has become the symbol of the resistance, carried forward by large swathes of the Turkish society, against a government perceived as divisive and increasingly brutal. I will not enter into politics, this is not the purpose of this blog and, besides, I know far too little about Turkish politics to form an opinion, but there’s no way to deny that a government whose police kills protestors during manifestations has some serious explaining to do.
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The boroughs around Gezi Park and Taksim are numerous, but the most important, in my opinion, is Beyoglu. It hosts the largest part of Galata, the old Genoese settlement, and also Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul’s very own Oxford Street.
Unlike the posh district of London this side of the town hasn’t sold itself to developers and international retail franchises. Yes, there are your usual boutiques and rags sellers – H&M, Zara and so on – but this area retains a very distinctive feel. It is, unlike Sultanahmet, quite secular in the sense that uncovered women clad in Western clothing are the norm rather than the exception, and also multi-confessional, with churches sprouting here and there – one, dedicated to Saint Antonio from Padua, is on Istiklal itself.
It is a generally wealthy part of town, with many majestic palazzos and clubs and bars aplenty, but it’s also a part of the city that is very much lived by the Istanbullus: some bars might indeed be swarmed by tourists, but turn a corner and you’ll see shisha bars and tea houses flocked by the local youth. Move away from the main roads and you’ll see glimpses of a local culture that is thriving with colours and, I’d say, also open defiance to the current establishment.
Graffitis are abundant, especially in some alleys turned into makeshift backyards and some of them have a distinct political feel. Irony is heavy and ever-present, as testified by the one boasting the CS gas as the “best remedy against nasal congestion”. The police indiscriminate attitude towards the use of CS gas has seen them throwing canisters in enclosed locations such as tube stops; civilians, especially elderly, have been reported to have died, overpowered by the intensity of the gas.
Taksim Square and Gezi Park are remarkably underwhelming, at least in my opinion. They have an extremely relevant political significance, now, but this doesn’t change the fact that they aren’t the most stunning square or park in the city. I don’t mean to lack of respect to anyone, but my initial thoughts were “All this mess for this place?”.
However, it’s immediately visible how this is the one of the few wide open space in the whole borough, in a heavily built-up area. How could anyone plan a shopping mall in lieu of it is beyond my comprehension.
It’s perfectly logical to visit Beyoglu from Galata Bridge, climbing up the hill and then following Istiklal Caddesi up until Taksim. However, I also dearly recommend to explore the part of the city limited, to the east, by Inönü Caddesi and, to the south-west, by Siraselviler Caddesi. It’s a remarkably beautiful part of the city: lively, filled with cafés and bars, well off without being excessively wealthy and really photogenic. Walking down its winding roads one might be lead to think to be in Genoa or Nice… Just better.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.