In all fairness, I can’t say that the highlight of my time in Istanbul was experiencing a riot/protest but it was definitely a memorable moment. Having mostly grown up in Canada means that I had minimal exposure to those with an opinion strong enough to warrant taking to the streets. We Canadians just don’t do that kind of thing, riot or protest (of course, there are always a few exceptions – here’s looking at you, Vancouver. And Montreal. And Toronto. Okay, maybe it’s just where I live in Canada…). But not only does Istanbul now have a bit of a reputation for such activities, there is even a street in particular that is popular for that kind of thing – Istiklal Caddesi.
Istiklal Caddesi (Istiklal Street; Istiklal means Independence) is in the Beyoğlu area of Istanbul. With the exception of a historic tram, it is a pedestrian-only street about 1.5 km long. It is an excellent place to stroll, people watch, eat, and shop. The street includes bookstores, music stores, galleries, boutiques and shops, cafés and restaurants, theatres, churches, and embassies/consulates. Building styles range from Ottoman to Neo-Gothic to Art Deco to modern. You can find probably anything along this street or on one of its branching side streets. It was on one of these side streets that has a presumably fantastic* afternoon tea, at Pera Palace Hotel. Istiklal starts near the Galata Tower and ends at the infamous Taksim Square. At a moderate pace, it takes about 20 minutes to walk the length of Istiklal. Places, especially restaurants, are opened late so you can pretty much explore at any time of day.
My sister and I were in Istanbul June 2013. On our second day, a Sunday, we figured that we should go check out Istiklal area and Taksim Square. It was in the news lately and it would be pretty awesome to see it for ourselves. To be safe, we picked that early Sunday afternoon because in our minds, logically-speaking, that time frame was not exactly prime protest-riot time. And for a couple hours, we were right. The area was calm and lovely. We found an awesome book store and browsed for almost an hour. When we went back out, it was busier outside than it had been when we first stepped into the store. Continuing down the street, we noticed that a few American stores and fast food joints were boarded up or had their security grill down. The French Embassy was covered in graffiti. Cops in riot gear were popping up along the streets. We agreed that we’ll take a quick peep at Taksim Square which was close by at this point and then we’ll leave. Famous last words.
I got my sister to take a picture of me inappropriately grinning while surrounded by the crowd and police in the background. Then we started to hightail it out of there. Too little, too late. All of a sudden, the crowd around us started to chant slogans of some sort. The atmosphere was both thrilling and unnerving because we had no clue what they were saying in Turkish – was this crowd pro-government or anti-government? At this point, I noticed pretty much all stores were shut and then I realized that we were walking down an enclosed street with one crowd behind us and a slowly approaching crowd in front of us. Crap. Thank goodness one store saw our dilemma and just before they slammed down the grill, they waved us over to hide with them. It’s amazing how a grill makes one feel safe! The grill was the open kind so we were able to see what was going on as the two factions drew closer and closer together. I think the Turkish men with whom we were hiding were rather amused at our being stuck with them. I was rather amused, too. Then suddenly, one of the guys said “bye!” My sister and I were a bit confused – why is he leaving this free entertainment? Then suddenly we heard, “Bang! Bang!” And that was when the chaos erupted.
In the first few seconds of early chaos, we learned that while an open grill is great for seeing the action, it doesn’t do squat in protecting you from tear gas. A cloud of it was rushing down the street right towards our faces. As it were, it turned out that we were not in a store but rather one of the many passageways scattered up and down Istiklal. It was a veritable stampede through the passageway out to the open street on the other side. Tear gas moves quickly – either that or a stampede doesn’t move as quickly as one would think. Either way, getting that stuff in your throat is a burning and choking sensation and getting it in your eyes is a pervasive burn. Tears do nothing to ease the painful burning and rubbing just makes it worse. I could have kissed the guy who saw my distress and poured some sort of water solution into my eyes. At that point, I didn’t care what was in it as it provided instant relief. But at that point, my sister and I decided that we had had enough of Istiklal Street for one day.
So did being caught up in a protest and tear gassed negatively impact our view of the area or Istanbul? Oh hell, no! In fact, we went back to Istiklal Street twice more! Once we did have to hustle it out of there as another protest seemed imminent, and another time it was a fantastic experience of eating our way through the area. The next time I am in Istanbul, I plan to spend as much time as possible on this street and in the side streets that just teems with hidden corners waiting to be explored.
*I am assuming it’s fantastic because the truncated version we got was still pretty good. And it was truncated because of the dearth of tourists at that time due to the political protests in the area.
Question: I will be back in Istanbul this August. Does anyone have any suggestions on what should not be missed in this part of the city?