“The difference between a tourist and a traveler is that while a tourist sees all the sights, a traveler truly experiences a place. The tourist simply stays on the outside, looking in,” says self-proclaimed travel-addict Kathy Karbach. Travel should be a multi-sensory experience, wherein you adopt the local pace, sample new foods, learn to appreciate foreign customs, gain different perspectives… and embrace the smells that define a place.
As mentioned in our previous post, of all our senses, smell is the one most closely linked to memory, so staying mindful of the complex fragrances around you while travelling can preserve your adventures for years to come. With the end of summer fast-approaching, we recommend that you make the most of your getaways and embrace this often-neglected side of experiential travel!
Today, Aera team member Ben takes us on a olfactory journey through the cobbled, maze-like streets of Istanbul. Try conjuring up these fragrances, and then go outside to seek the defining smells of your own city – or wherever your upcoming travels lead.
The invigorating scents of freshly ground Turkish coffee mixed with just a hint of earthy cardamom envelops you in an aromatic blanket as you raise a frothing porcelain cup towards your lips and breath in deeply. The barman brings you a glass of sweet sherbet – a simple mixture of vanilla, honey, and ice-cold water – as additional refreshment from the heat, and you exhale a contented thanks. You alternate sips between the two, enjoying how the honey’s light floral scent interplays with the coffee’s deep warmth.
Once sufficiently caffeinated, you step out from the peaceful side-street café and into the river of pedestrians flowing into Istanbul’s famed Egyptian Spice Bazaar. The aromatic cacophony of spices winds through the narrow alleyways and hits you from blocks away: sweet nutmeg, warm and tangy dried cloves, woodsy anise seed, and the pungent sting of freshly ground paprika.
Inside the covered market the smell is almost overpowering, and yet if you concentrate, you can pick out individual notes out among the array of unknown. The briny scent of olives combines with the slightly-sweet, slightly-piney fragrance of dried figs - and dates adds depth to the scene. The roar of smell is more deafening than the crowd of afternoon hagglers.
Outside again, you cross a pigeon-filled square to the ferry docks and gaze out across the Bosporus, from Europe to Asia. Crisp notes of sea salt rise from the teal water alongside the pungent aroma of fresh sardines from a passing fisherman’s skiff. These in turn collide around you against the warm scent of terracotta roofs and pavement baking in the Mediterranean summer sun.
Smells of baked potatoes, fried fish, and fresh bread billow from steaming food carts dragged onto the crowded sidewalk. And yet through it all, you catch an impossibly sweet whiff of caramelized sugar and trace it like a bloodhound to a baklava shop on a nearby street corner. As you open the door, the irresistible fragrances of freshly baked filo dough pastries, boiling rose syrup, and crumbled pistachio wash over you in waves. You immediately find ways to rationalize an afternoon ‘snack.’
Walking inland from the ferry docks, you pass the entrance to Gülhane Park, Istanbul’s oldest. The open gates release a surprisingly potent fresh smell of unripe walnuts, mowed grass, blooming daphnia – and something far sweeter. Interested, you look around for the source of the smell and find the culprit underfoot. Midnight black mulberries dropped from the treetops dot the hot asphalt, slowly melting in the hot sun and leaving aromatic black freckles across the ground that will continue to scent and stain the park for months to come. Upon exiting, a vendor calls out from behind a fruit stand piled high with impossibly fragrant pineapple, orange, and scarlet pomegranate. As you walk up the hill towards Sultanahmet Square, the mere smell of the fruit leaves a citric, sweet-sour taste on your tongue.
Stepping into the colossal chamber of the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul’s most famous building, you realize that you’ve been holding your breath. Your first inhale surprises you – even inside this cavernous space, faint fragrances of frankincense, myrrh, and candle wax dominate. The sourceless smell, an irremovable remnant of the temple’s fifteen-hundred-year history as a place of worship, seems to reverberate off the cool marble walls and instill a vague sense of reverence. In each doorway, a faint odor of soot remains discernible.
The sky outside has transformed into a brilliant gold as you exit the Hagia Sophia and cross into Sultanahmet Square. Smells of roasted chestnuts and corn tempt you from all directions, but instead you find a café where you can sit outside and enjoy a tulip-shaped glass of Turkish black tea while watching the crowd. If Turkey were distilled to one scent, it would be this – the tea seems to explode with warm, woodsy notes reminiscent of rich soil after a hard rain.
The sickly-sweet, almost medicinal smell of hookah smoke drifts languidly out of the café’s interior as you watch crowds of generously perfumed, well-dressed locals enjoying the traditional evening stroll so important to Balkan culture. Suddenly, echoing voices signaling the evening call to prayer erupt from minarets surrounding the busy square. You watch as lights turn on amidst the surrounding buildings, and note a cool, light aroma of magnolia blossoms flooding the twilight.