Describing "The Other Tour" isn't easy - but imagine if, instead of conceiving an iPhone, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs decided to design an Istanbul tour - and to conduct it in person. And imagine that, instead of being born in California, he'd been born Fethi Karatas in Turkey.
Such a tour would be "different" because Fethi - like Steve - "thinks different(ly)." Looking for an ordinary cellphone? - you won't appreciate an iPhone. Looking for an ordinary Istanbul tour of the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace or Chora Museum? - pass on "The Other Tour."
Istabul is, I am convinced, after our recent visit, unlike any other city in the world, where so many cultures and religions live side-by-side in the closest I've seen to harmony anywhere. And there's no way you're likely to appreciate it without the direction of Fethi Karatas. He'll take you to its diverse neighborhoods where you'll meet friendly residents you'd never otherwise meet because, frankly, those neighborhoods are a bit scary to conservative Western eyes, educated by media to suspect people who dress differently and pray differently than we do.
Example: Fethi explains that, back in the 1970s, a group of Kurds - an ethnic group aggressively ignored by a former government - went to an Istanbul area hillside without streets or power lines or water service, and in a series of night-time "assaults," threw up what would be a concrete-block "Hoover-ville" to establish a fact on the ground...and resisted a progression of eviction efforts. That was 40 years ago, and many of the houses still look like they were erected in those early overnights. Fethi not only walks you through them, he introduces you their residents - even took us to a schoolyard where we could watch (and photograph) the well-dressed children and their mothers picking them up at the end of a half-day session (because, as Fethi explains), the government is reluctant to invest in sufficient classrooms for people who pay no property taxes.
You'd never know that - you'd never see that - and you'd never understand that side of Istanbul on any ordinary tour.
Fethi takes you on a private powerboat ride on the Bosphorus, showing and explaining the historic mansions built to accommodate Islamic standards of separation of the sexes...their value today accentuated by the expensive yachts moored just offshore of them. He'll briefly dock and treat you to a special Asian-side yogurt available nowhere else in the world. And pour you some local wine as the boat captain cruises back to the Europe side.
Lunch is really special - prepared by his doting mother in her home. I guess vegetarians might be accommodated, but Istanbul can be a bit challenging for vegans and dieters. since the Turks are not an agrarian people (although I judge their tomatoes the best in the world). But Fethi's mom lays out a spread proven to tempt exceptions for even devoted PETA supporters...and the temptation is worth it. You simply won't find a better, more authentic meal in Istanbul.
You see the side of Istanbul Fethi sees - and you hear his opinions about it, occasionally peppered with language and explitives rarely heard in hyperpolite "guided tours" reciting litanies of facts out of Wikipedia. Want to see the tourist sites? - download a few apps to your iPhone - you really don't need a guide. Want to learn about Istanbul, the Ottomans and its many cultures and history from an informed, frank but admittedly personal point of view? - this is for you.
While I took a pass on the Turkish bath (I was the only male in the group, and decided to skip it), the ladies loved theirs. Over some deep-fried little fish at a cafe near the bath, I spent an enjoyable hour discussing Fethi's plans to take "The Other Tour" international, similarly uncovering the "real" sides of cities tourists miss with conventional tours.
Our evening ended in a restaurant with a great semi-pro band and waves of great Turkish foods and breads and salads and wine. And a bit of dancing, too.
All through the long day, The Other Tour is organized like the D-Day invasion. The van is ALWAYS there. NOTHING is transparently skipped because of traffic, because his drivers know back alleys and side streets like a London cabbie knows "the knowledge" (their tough test for a hack license). Even the breaks were well planned and interesting - like, at the end of the day, a stop at a small tavern with a back room where Fethi taught us the Turkish board game, "O-Key" (pronounced like "okay.")
The Other Tour is different, more expensive, and more extensive than any we found on Tripadvisor. It's not for everyone. Fethi know it, and puts himself - and you - on trial for the morning. If you don't like his choices and style, you can bail - or he can ask you to leave - at noon, no charge.
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