“Happy birthday, Dave!!!”
It was our first night in Istanbul, and I had already fallen for the city. My birthday wasn’t for another couple of weeks, but Lauren had decided that things could wait no longer. Apparently I needed to do some pre-reading.
Pre-reading? For a birthday present? What the hell?
In two days, I was booked on The Other Tour.
Booking me on a tour was a brave move. I’m not overly fond of organised group trips – most of the ones I’ve been on have just been bland, expensive ways of being herded too fast around things I could easily have arranged for myself.
My first inkling that this might not be the case came with the disclaimer on the website advising that the tour was challenging, and not for everyone. In big bold letters it said:
“PLEASE DO NOT JOIN THE TOUR JUST BECAUSE IT IS HIGHLY RATED ON TRIPADVISOR”
Ok, that boded well.
Being told to brush up on Istanbul’s history, religions, culture and minorities to make the tour more interesting also sat well with me – most tour guides steer away from controversial subjects to avoid offending anybody, at the expense of the real story.
As it turned out, there was little chance of that..
I warmed to Fethi instantly. Young, smart and completely irreverent, he was a man of strong opinions. Swear words fell from his lips like rain, especially when discussing religion. Articulate and informed, I learned more about his home city in a few hours than I ever would from a guidebook.
The Other Tour is his brainchild, an attempt by Fethi and his family to show visitors a side of Istanbul away from the vendors and mosques. We didn’t spend any time in Sultanahmet whatsoever, and he faithfully pledged that we would not enter a carpet shop under any circumstances. A typical tour this was not.
The experience ran from 9am until somewhere close to midnight. In the heat of early September that’s not a short day, yet Fethi’s energy levels never seemed to drop. How he does this three times a week, I have no idea – although he won’t be for much longer. Not because he’s sick of it, but because he’s moving to New York to set up a similar tour… and from there, the world. Entrepreneurial spirit, much?
The usual itinerary went out the window on our tour, a public holiday meaning that some of the regular highlights were closed. It didn’t matter. We quickly left the tourist areas behind, heading for the expensive parts of town along the Bosphorus for a coffee – and to board our private motor launch. As you do.
Ninety minutes later, with his trademark mixture of information and abuse, Fethi had taken us from Ottoman artists to world-class yoghurt, invading armies to his interpretation of Islam in a secular nation, all while working on our tans on the front of the boat.
Before we got too comfortable, we were whisked away to Küçük Armutlu. A Kurdish immigrant neighbourhood occupied two decades ago in protest at perceived government inaction, it was the scene of lethal battles between residents and police for many years. Even now, electricity and water supplies to the area are kept deliberately unreliable, and tanks have been left in the streets as a less-than-subtle reminder of the power of the state.
Unsurprisingly I didn’t see any other tourists as we walked down the quiet streets. Conversations died as we approached, children stopping their games to retreat inside until we had passed. Compared to other neighbourhoods the unease was palpable.
To lift the mood a remarkable lunch was laid on at Fethi’s parents’ house, on the top floor of a crowded suburban neighbourhood. There’s nothing like vast quantities of delicious homemade food to make me happy (and lethargic). Hummus and vine leaves, spicy lentil soup and strong coffee, baklava, orgasm-inducing deep fried eggplant and much more. Burp.
Onwards we went, Fethi rightly judging that much walking would be required to keep people from nodding off. For me this ended up being the most fascinating part of the day, as we spent a few hours learning the history of the old Jewish quarter and other neighbourhoods around the Golden Horn.
We sat in a smoky cafe learning to play the board game okey and drinking warm, sweet salep. Due perhaps to the time of year I wasn’t able to find that delicious beverage anywhere else during my time in Istanbul – initially a disappointment, but now an enduring memory.
We somehow gained entry to the grounds of Fener Rum Erkek Lisesi, a breathtakingly gorgeous private school with an incredible view. Fethi knew the caretakers, or something. It was probably safest not to ask.
And finally, the last stop before dinner – and the one I was least looking forward to. It was time for a traditional Turkish beating massage. Soap. Steam. Large hairy men pounding you to within a inch of your life on a marble slab, lying there virtually naked and trying not to scream too loudly.
It definitely had all of that – and yet, somehow, was still an enjoyable experience. Once the initial awkwardness had worn off, and my arms had been returned to their sockets, I could see the appeal. In fact, it’s even something I’d volunteer to do again – and that surprises me.
By early evening the “official” part of the tour was over, and we decamped to a restaurant near infamous Istiklal Street for dinner and drinks. A group of elderly men played strange, beguiling songs from a small stage. We drank raki. Platefuls of food were piled onto the table. We drank more raki. Fethi came out with a few disturbingly accurate personality assessments.
And then we drank more raki.
Dropped back near my hotel around midnight, I gave Fethi a hug as I stepped out onto the street. Despite doing this multiple times a week, he had managed to make the day seem more like showing friends around his city than anything else. For someone as cynical about group tours as I am, that was a remarkable achievement.
Going on the Other Tour was probably the best birthday present I’ve ever had. It ticked all the boxes – experiencing a new city, trying new food and drink, hanging out with locals, and was something I would never have bought for myself.
Which brings me to the big question: was it worth it?
Because this tour ain’t cheap. At 200 euros, it’s far from it, in fact.
The thing is that it’s hard to put a value on the day, because it’s one of the very few tours that you couldn’t easily recreate yourself. With a detailed set of instructions from somebody in the know, it might be possible to have a somewhat cheaper version of many of the experiences – but without Fethi’s insight and colour, they would never be the same experiences.
On that basis, then, I’ll answer the question with a guarded yes. It’s a hell of a lot of money to spring on a one-day tour – even if that day did last for 15 hours – but then again, this is a tour like no other.
I guess that’s why they call it the Other Tour.
What do you think? Would you ever consider paying that much for a one-day tour?