If you are planning to travel to Turkey
but are concerned by what you might have seen on TV about the recent demonstrations on May 31, don’t let the news reports stop you! I am writing this blog from Istanbul after being here for the first anniversary of the Gezi Park protests. What started out last year as a sit-in occupation of a local park to stop government from cutting trees for the development of a new mall in the heart of Istanbul, has now turned into a longer-term social movement for democracy calling for change of an increasingly autocratic prime minister.
So we joined the gathering this year around Taksim Square to see for ourselves the local conditions for the safety of our travelers coming here this season. Upon arrival we stayed at the Senatus Hotel in the historic touristic Sulthanamet district and then moved across the Golden Horn to the Galata-Beyoglu neighborhoods closer to Taksim where the anniversary protests were centered.
On May 31 the afternoon of the planned Gezi Park protests in Taksim we stepped out of The Vault House Hotel a block and started walking up the popular pedestrian promenade of Isiklal Caddesi towards Taksim. Even though polis were at every corner and down every side street, we found ourselves walking amongst the usual crowd of shoppers and sightseers, elders, expectant mothers and families with kids in strollers, except this time mixed it was a mixed crowd with protesters and press carrying helmets, gas masks and Turkish flags moving toward Taksim.
The crowd chanted arms raised a high. They were not just young anti-government resisters, but a cross section of smart looking Istanbulis of all ages there to be part of the popular sentiment for democracy and against government corruption and heavy-handed suppression of peaceful public gathering.
After 30 minutes of a gathering crowd the police called out to disperse and shortly thereafter they pushed back. At that point as observers it was time for us to withdraw so we walked back to our hotel.
Later that evening on late night we saw cadres of polis chasing down protesters swaying their clubs under clouds of tear gas and water cannon showers.
Apparently crowds were chased not far from our hotel, but we never even knew it. Other tourists staying in the popular Sultanahmet historic district went about the usual evening routines dining alfresco and walking amongst the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofia beautifully lit up in the night sky completely unaware and unaffected by what was happening in another part of the city in Taksim Square.
So if you saw news reports about what happened that night it was indeed a regrettable polis response for those brave Turks who showed up to remember the anniversary of the popular protest. But daily life has resumed everywhere in the city, and it is perfectly safe for travelers to walk everywhere and enjoy this global metropolis.
Anne, Tarek and Kurt Kutay
Keeping it wild,