Behind the bright lights of shops selling well-known fashion labels on the one mile long Istiklal Street linking Taksim Square to Tünel, lies a warren of Taksim backstreets containing a surprising wealth of cultures. But you have to know where to look. Next to traditional Turkish restaurants featuring linen-covered tables and the wailing sounds of fasil music accompanied by the clinking of rakı glasses, are thriving reminders of the former Ottoman Empire, home to Turks, Armenians, Jews, Greeks and Albanians, and many more.
Included in this multicultural mix were the Çerkez people. Known in English as Circassians, their presence in Turkey goes back to the time of the Sultans when the women were prized for their pale skin and high cheek bones. Later, large numbers of them came to Istanbul after they fled Russia during the 1917 revolution. Many continued on their way to Europe and America, but the White Russians who stayed settled in the Asmalı Mescit neighbourhood of Taksim.
I often go to Taksim to catch an exhibition at Pera Museum or Salt Gallery. Afterwards I head to the cosy Erra Goppa restaurant for lunch. The menu changes daily but always features the Çerkez staple fıccın, a flat pastry meat pie. If I’m lucky Çerkez tavuğu is on the menu, chicken cooked in a spicy walnut sauce. Before heading home I like to window shop to see what’s new before popping in to one of the numerous retro fashion stores and bookshops in the area. If I’m there at night I eat at Fıccın, another establishment serving Circassian food, with a good wine list.
Taksim never sleeps and at night the area is a vibrant mix of bars and clubs, gypsies and roving musicians. I love dancing and my favourite place to go is called Babylon. Even though it’s no longer located in an old Byzantine cellar it’s a great place to dance into the early hours under the spinning silver disco ball. On the way home I might stop for coffee and baklava before heading home to sleep as the sun comes up. Despite the passing of time, the Bohemian air the White Russians brought to the city of Istanbul is still very much in evidence.
If you enjoyed this post, check out my category “Discover Istanbul” (see drop down Categories menu on the right hand side towards the top of this page). I’m sure it’ll inspire to you to go exploring!