Ah! That was quite a book!
I had just finished reading the last page of ‘The Museum of Innocence’ by Turkish author Orhan Pamuk and now every inch of me was yearning to explore Istanbul and all the fascinating places where Kemal Bey the protagonist went in search of his lost love, Fusun. The pulsating Taksim where he courted his lover, the elite Nisanantasi where he stayed and of course the romantic Bosphorous which gave Istanbul its unique charm. Although my flight to Istanbul was still a few hours away, my heart was already there.
Flying into Istanbul can be heady and disorienting. Seeing the two continents of Asia and Europe together is an experience that defies description. As the flight touched down, somewhere in between fairytale castles, grand domes, towering minarets and the meandering Marmara Sea, I knew this trip was going to be something else.
Turkey is a fascinating country poised at the cultural crossroads of Asia and Europe, defying the age old adage that ‘East is east and west is west and never the ‘twain shall meet’. It is bordered by eight countries (Greece, Bulgaria, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq and Syria) and four seas (Marmara, Aegean, Mediterranean and the Black Sea). The Sea of Marmara, Bosphorous and Dardanelles together form the Turkish straits that divides Asia and Europe. The predominant religion is Islam and the country has some of the most beautiful mosques of the world. The society is largely liberal and only a fraction of the women wear head scarves or don the traditional dress.
Cruising the Bosphorous is the best way to get acquainted with charming Istanbul. Depending on ones budget, it is possible to choose from the local cruises to the luxury ones. While the local ones gives you a deeper glimpse into the local life of the people minus the frills, the luxury ones offer dinner buffets while sailing, belly dance shows etc. I boarded a cruise from Eminonu, the main pier from which most cruises depart.
It was a perfect evening; great company with the other ladies travelling with me and having a private ferry with a guide cum opera singer who regaled us on board was an added bonus. With Asia and Europe on either side, we drifted along with the chirpy seagulls past the stunning Topkapi and Dolmabache palace, the mid Bosphorous Maiden’s tower, Selimiye barracks where Florence Nightingale worked, Mecidiye Mosque, the Bosphorous Bridge etc. It was interesting to see the chic café scene on the shores and the daily life of Istanbullus.
The enchanting Boshphorous cruise
Scenes of grand old monuments from the Bosphorous cruise
After disembarking at Eminonu, all of us ladies rushed off to the Spice Bazaar which is right there. Entering the bazaar gave me a feeling of entering a primitive setting. A wide variety of spices, dry fruits, tea, cheese, caviar, blue pottery, ceramic, for some reason ‘Turkish Viagra’ and other interesting souvenirs on display. Some interesting things we picked up were ‘Love Tea’, a collection of spices that formed a breakfast mix, Turkish apple tea, Turkish coffee and boxes of Turkish delight in various flavours (local Turkish sweet) and several varieties of cheese.
A variety of dry fruits on display at Spice Bazaar
One tip to note is that while most tourists would prefer to buy souvenirs and ceramic plates from the big brother ‘The Grand Bazaar’ because of the greater variety; it is sometimes easier to negotiate prices at the Spice Bazaar.
Colourful ceramic plates on display at the Spice Bazaar
Istanbul abounds in history. The following places are an absolute must visit in Istanbul :-
1. Topkapi Palace – Built by a 23 year old sultan Mehmet II, who captured the Roman city of Constantinople in 1453 and made it the capital of the mighty Ottoman Empire, under the new name Istanbul. The beautiful palace gardens soothed our senses before we were attacked by the dazzling array of jewellery on display from the original royal treasury. The brilliance of the Topkapi dagger, the gold plated throne of Murat III and several pieces of scintillating jewellery had us totally floored. Not to be missed is the Sultan’s harem where he had almost 300 concubines … a witness to his extravagant lifestyle and opulence!
2. Hagia Sofiya (Ayasofiya) was earlier a Church built by a Christian emperor and remained the most impressive monument and the crowning glory of the Byzantine Empire for over a millennium. In the 15th century Sultan Mehmet converted it into a mosque adding the minarets, tombs and fountains. When Turkey became a republic, Hagia Sophia was converted into a museum and several original Byzantine mosaic was revealed from underneath the Ottoman plaster. We were enchanted by the large inside dome of the mosque designed to represent heaven, the ornate chandeliers and the beautiful Byzantine mosaic work that has been restored.
3. Blue Mosque -With a cascade of opulent domes and minarets stretching skywards, Istanbul’s Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Mosque) is one of the most fantastic mosques of the city’s skyline. This was built by Sultan Ahmet I as Islam’s answer to Hagia Sophia. Dominated by the blue iznik tiles and blue light coming in through the windows, this was definitely a highlight of my trip.
4. Dolmabache Palace – The grandest of Ottoman palaces, Dolmabache Palace is another interesting place that one should try and visit. It is as grand as a palace should be; 285 rooms, 43 large salons, a 4000 kg Bohemian glass chandelier and overlooks the Bosphorous.
5. Close to Dolmabache, the Istanbul Modern Art Museum is also worth a trip. Art lovers can buy ‘Ebru’, a famous Turkish form of art that involves printing multi coloured patterns on paper after handmade or natural inks are dripped or sprinkled with handmade brushes onto the surface of thickened water. Street art is also very popular in Istanbul and lovely landscape paintings of the city can be purchased for a steal.
Day Trip from Istanbul:
Since I had some more time in Istanbul, I tripped it to the lovely Princess Islands. The group of nine islands off the Asian coast of Istanbul in the Sea of Marmara is a one hour ferry ride from Istanbul and a refreshing getaway. The island derives its name from princes and princesses who were exiled there. Now it is a haunt of the rich who have built summer houses.
Sea gulls seen from the ferry en route to Princess Island
No cars are allowed on the island; only horse carriages and bicycles. I took a ride around the island on a quaint horse carriage and saw some amazing old Victorian style wooden mansions, whitewashed bungalows overlooking the dazzling blue sea and monasteries.
A horse carriage ride with my Istanbulu friend Burcak at Princess Island
Accommodation on the island is expensive, so a day trip to the islands is the best bet. For sea food lovers, don’t miss out the super large fish sandwiches served in the restaurants.
Feasting on Fish sandwiches before heading back to the ferry
At the clock tower in Princess Island
For a taste of the non touristy Istanbul, I spent some time with friends from Istanbul. I spent a lot of time in Taksim and Istiklal street, the buzzing downtown of Istanbul that is largely pedestrian and bursting with life 24/7. For shopaholics and those into designer brands, this is the place to be. If you get tired walking at Taksim, take a ride on the historical tram that gives you a good overview of Istiklal street. Do check out the various street food on offer like oysters served in their shells, water chestnuts, doner kababs, ayran etc. Most of the 4 – 5 star hotels are in this area and staying in this area is advisable in terms of connectivity and accessibility to the important places in the city. Most of the youth hostels are located at Sultanahmet which is also very well connected.
Having a typical Turkish breakfast is a ‘must do’. A very traditional breakfast would involve your host laying down a large round tray containing an assorted bread basket, several types of cheese, various dips, boiled eggs seasoned with herbs and the ubiquitous olive oil. The typical way would be to break the bread in bits, dip it in olive oil and have it with cheese and the various dips. No gastronomic experience is complete without having Turkey’s famous local alcoholic drink ‘Raki’. A regular scene in Istanbul would be friends sitting together in road side cafes and sipping Raki and smoking ‘Nagile’ (water pipe).
A typical Turkish breakfast consists of yummy fare like this
An array of delicious local cheese on display at the Spice Bazaar
My stay in Istanbul ended with a stay at a warm and hospitable Turkish family’s place. Despite a language barrier, we got along fabulously and experiencing the local lifestyle was an unforgettable experience.
With my host Burcak (extreme left) and her lovely family.
I learnt for instance that while bathing, separate towels are used for the upper and lower body and for the hair. Also like in Indian homes, leaving shoes outside the house before entering is a practice. Joint family system is common and offers the elderly and young parents a support system. At the end of my stay with them I was richer by a gift of hand woven Turkish towels, a bag and loads of love that I received in my brief stay there.
Prelude to the Turkish style of applying henna. The perforations on the cloth is used for the henna design.
Istanbul is truly captivating; a perfect getaway for those seeking the buzz of Asia and the sophistication of Europe in a platter. As Alphonso de Lamartine said ‘If one had a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul’.
Istanbul at a glance:
Getting there : Istanbul is connected by direct flights from most major metros. It is also called the ‘Gateway too Europe’, so you can combine a stopover in Istanbul with Europe.
Where to stay: Taksim is the place to stay if you have a reasonable to high budget. Low budget travellers can check out hostels in Sultanhmet.
Must see :-
- Blue Mosque
- Topkapi Palace
- Hagia Sophia
- Dolmabache Palace
Interesting things to do:
- Live life King size with a typical large spread Turkish breakfast.
- Try the Turkish coffee with Turkish delight. After that get an astrologer to tell you your fortune from the coffee mug.
- Go shopping at the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar. Turkish rugs, ceramic, blue pottery, evil eye, cheese and spices are popular buys.
- Take a tram ride at Istiklal street.
- Must experience the vibe in Istanbul’s Taksim street, with lovely cafes and a pulsating night life.
- Visit Nisantasi for upscale shopping. If you are a fan of Orhan Pamuk, his house is out there.
- Have a ‘fish meal’ in one of the sleepy cafes along the Bosphorous and wind off with a bottle of ‘Raki’, the local alcohol.
- Drive on the bridge that connects Asia and Europe.
- Enjoy the sunset over the Kiz Kulesi (Maiden’s tower) where legend has it that a princess was locked up to prevent getting bitten by a snake. Sit on the Turkish rugs spread out at the promenade and watch boats bobbing up and down under a starlit sky.