Istanbul, Turkey

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It is unbelievable but I did visit Istanbul virtually by mistake, en route to a region that was about to explode in civil war, but, luckily, the crisis was averted and I was asked to return home. Anyway, I had one day in the ancient city and even managed to familiarize myself with its famous drink, raki.

The first thing that struck me in Istanbul, which is probably the largest city in Turkey, but not its capital, is that it doesn’t look like a Muslim city. Men don’t wear anything specific, women are mostly without scarves (with some exceptions) and look pretty and happy (with some exceptions). Because of the short duration of my visit, I didn’t go to see museums or other places that interest a regular tourist, but opted instead for a taste of the country’s traditional liquor, called raki. Being already familiar with the drink’s cousins in Cyprus and Iraq, where they are known as ouza and arak respectively, I asked my Turkish colleague to take me to a typical Turkish place which serves the drink. We settled for a small restaurant on Istiqlal, a pedestrian street in Istanbul’s Beyoglu district.

The waiter didn’t speak any English (or any other language that I speak) and my friend was too shy to assume responsibility for the correct translation of the names of fish and other dishes on the menu, so the guy brought specimens of the starters and main courses, and we just pointed to what looked like the best food for us.

I also ordered a bottle of raki. The drink was pretty strong: about 45 degrees or percentage points or whatever, and because of the Asian (and American) custom of drinking first and eating later, we managed to empty half of the bottle before the starters arrived. Mixing the raki with water turns the drink into a milky solution with a medical taste of aniseed, often used to make liquid medicines said to stop coughing. We didn’t cough at that time so the strength of the drink went straight into our heads, which was quite a problem for me on the following day as a plane was taking me back home.

Conclusion: Istanbul is a nice place to have a drink, but try to avoid flying the day after! Incidentally, when I landed and was passing through passport control, a border guard asked me why I flew to Istanbul for only one day. “To have a few drinks,” I replied, and it was probably the first time I did not lie to an official regarding my travel objectives 😉

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