Wow! No wonder this city has been chosen as the European Culture Capital for 2010!
17.03.2010 - 25.03.2010 15 °C
We didn’t know what to expect from Istanbul, but after a crazy six weeks in India, anything would have been a relief. Well Istanbul turned out to be way more than anything, it turned out to be excellent. Right from the beginning, we knew it was going to be a world of difference from what we’ve experienced in India.
Although we were each hit with a expensive $60 entry visa, waited in an never-ending customs line, and then confronted with relatively cold weather, they would be the worst of our suffering in Istanbul. The city is so clean, modern and so easy to navigate through. And even as the fourth largest populated city in the world, it doesn’t feel crammed at all. We made our way from the airport to our guesthouse via public transportation and it was a breeze, even with our heavy backpacks. Passing by the many kebab houses, chestnut vendors, mosques and beautiful little boutiques, walking on romantic cobblestone streets without barely anyone bothering us, was all very pleasant.
As soon as we arrived at our guesthouse and settled in, we went for our first non-Indian meal for what seemed like forever. We finished off our plates like over-starved carnivores. It was as if we just got out of prison or something. It was disgraceful, really.
Attacking the Grand Bazaar, the largest shopping area in the world, was our next mission. Shopping in Istanbul proved to be so different than in India. Though the vendors could still be pushy, it was not overwhelming and some of them even find creative ways to humor you: “Sir, do you want to buy something you don’t need?” or “Sir, can I please help you spend your money?” The place was also very clean and pleasing to the eye. The bazaar was a huge maze full of colorful shops selling pretty jewelery, gorgeous lighting fixtures, apple teas, Turkish delights, and the “evil eye” in every shape and forms. The evil eye, also known in Turkey as the Eye of Medusa, is believed to actually protect you from the evil of others. Our first day in Istanbul also offered us something we haven’t seen in a while: western prices! Ouch!
During the next couple of days, we stuck to our neighborhood of Sultanahmet where most of the major tourist attractions of Istanbul are located. Sultanahmet was the heart of both the Byzantium and the Ottoman empire and that is why it is also the home of many places of worship and palaces.
We saw the gigantic Blue Mosque with a pristine and gorgeous inside. Though the sunlight obstructed our view a little, everywhere you look was magnificent with incredible details.
Neighboring the Blue Mosque was the Hippodrome of Constantinople which used to be a social center during the Byzantine empire. An obelisk was taken from Egypt and placed here.
Next to it is the colossal and magnificent Aya Sofya, originally an Orthodox Catholic basilica, later converted to a mosque, and finally became a museum. With its two levels of beautiful architecture and history, this place is definitely one of the most extraordinary and breathtaking sites we’ve seen on this trip.
Almost as impressive as the Aya Sofya was the Topkapi Palace. The four hours spent there allowed us to see many spectacular things. I’ve never seen so many sapphire, rubies, topazes and diamonds. One diamond was as large as my palm! Unfortunately we were not allowed to take pictures of these riches.
Not too far from the palace was the Basilica Cistern, the biggest cistern in town. The entrance will fool you as it is this little simple building, but the magic is all underground. The cistern was once used to store water for Constantinople’s citizens.
Though not part of the popular tourist maps, we also went to see the gate of Istanbul University and the Bezayit Camii.
Having exhausted the sites in our neighborhood, our fourth day saw us venture in the area of Western District. We traveled by metro along the ancient Wall of Constantinople to the area where the gorgeous Chora Church is located in. What this church lacks in size, it sure makes up in beauty with many spectacular depictions of Jesus’ life.
Having left the church, we ventured through the steep streets to discover this very different neighborhood. Its residents are still very traditional and almost all the women wear the customary hijab. Everyone is very humble looking and the streets and shops are more what you’ll find in a rural town than the ones we’ve seen in downtown Istanbul. Laundry is hanging from every single laundry line and women are dusting their carpet carefully using their curtains on their face to hide it. You can feel that religion is very important here and people are very kind, friendly and no one is trying to sell you anything. For example, we were just standing looking at a magnificent city view at a local Mosque when this young woman,being very hospitable, offered us her lunch! We appreciatively declined but were totally amazed by her kindness. Instead we had lunch at this small, family run, chicken kebab restaurant where the whole family kindheartedly tended to our every need. We left this side of town with a lot of warmth in our hearts and too much food in our stomachs.
The afternoon was spent in the crazy and crowded Spice Bazaar where we overdosed on sweets, mostly Turkish delights. We ended up buying three boxes to sustain our newly found addiction.
In the evening, we crossed the Bosphorus river to the Kadikoy district for dinner. We chose this trendy area, where young hip locals flock, to enjoy mezes (cold appetizers) and down them with the local liquor, Raki. We did as the local and sat at one of those rare empty tables outside which are kept warm by tons of radiators lining the streets. The meal was alright but the service was awful. The waiter tried to force us to order way to much food, rushed us during the whole meal, and then wanted us to leave tip even if we were already charged us 12% for “service” (the locals don’t even tip).
We still haven’t had enough of the mosques so the next day we hunted down another one out along the Marmara Sea; Kucuk Aya Sofya Camii. This little mosque was so pretty and in some areas of it you can still see the preserved walls and floors of the original construction. We stroll along the water where some old man kept on nagging us to buy some of his tea and another would offer to allow us to shoot a gun at some balloon for a small fee.
After a quick stop at the ruins of the Bucoleon Palace, a Byzantine structure built in the 4th century, we returned to the Spice Bazaar area to visit the local’s favorite mosque, the Yeni Camii.
We then crossed the Galata Bridge, by foot this time, to discover that the bridge itself is quite lively and entertaining. Tons of locals congregate on it with their fishing poles hoping for the catch of the day, and some were obviously luckier than others. There’s also a level below the bridge with restaurants one after the other serving fish and seafood of all types. They also have the most relentless and sometimes rudest staff at the front trying to get people to come in with all kinds of tactic, mostly bullying.
After we finally made our way to the other side, we climbed the steep cobblestone streets and went up to the top of the Galata Tower for magnificent views of the city. That night, we couldn’t stop marveling at how impressed we were of this city, not only it is clean and beautiful, you never run out of stunning things to see.
The next day, we left Europe behind and took the extremely pleasant ferry ride to the Asia side of Istanbul. It was a bright sunny day which only made the many coastlines of Istanbul look even better with the mosques and palaces lining the horizon. Kadikoy was the first neighborhood that we explored and since it doesn’t have any historical monuments or major sites to visit, we just lost ourselves in the neighborhood. There was one main street with businesses and banks then you had many tiny streets with colourful markets of fresh produces and many lovely restaurants with terraces. We did as the locals: though it wasn’t summer weather, we still sat outside at this locally renowned restaurant to enjoy a lunch of mezes, perde pilav and the tastiest lamb kebab we’ve ever had. After lunch, a Dombus (minivan which waits until its full of passengers before heading to its destination) drove us to another Asian neighborhood called Uskudar. There too, we just roamed the streets passing through crowded parks with mostly men sitting around, all dressed up, holding their rosary, sipping on some tea, and gossiping the day away. We also stopped to visit two small mosques, Atik Valide and Cinili. Though all the mosques are similar, they still always have a touch of uniqueness and are always impressive to see. On the way back to the ferry, we stopped for some dessert where I tried the dondurma, a local chewy ice cream that you eat with a fork and knife! Though the Asian side of Istanbul has a slower pace of life, it is not very different from it’s European side.
Though we’ve seen so many great things already, the city still had amazing things for us to discover. On our second to last day, we visited the Dolmabahce Palace which is loaded with riches and extravagance. Unfortunately we were only allowed to take pictures of the outside, and it was really beautiful, but the real gem of it is the inside. The palace was the most extravagant building I had ever entered before in my life. A guided tour was mandatory inside which was a shame since it didn’t allow us enough time to soak in all the grandeur, gold, crystal and wealth of the whole place. The Dolmabche Palace was unlike any I’ve seen before. It was absolutely splendid!
We spent the afternoon strolling down the very wide Istiklal Caddesi street with tons of western shops, more doner kebap restaurants and, of course, tons of sweets shops to lose your mind and waistline over. We couldn’t resist and bought more Turkish delights, candies and ice cream.
Having done a pretty good job at discovering Istanbul in the past week, we took a break on the last day and just took our time and returning to our favourite spots… and bought more Turkish delights.
In terms of food, we did not lose any weight in Istanbul, of that I am sure. Every morning our guesthouse provided us with a very traditional breakfast of bread, cheeses, olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, jams, yogurts and hard boiled eggs. Turkey is obviously known for its doner kebaps and kofta (lamb meatballs) and they are everywhere you turn and are served in various forms and with different side dishes. They were just so good that we just kept on having it over and over again. We also enjoyed discovering mezes of all kinds from hummus to vine leaves, to yogurt based dips and more. We also tried Turkish pides which are simple boat shaped thin crust pizzas but it just tastes amazing. Fried sardines was another delicious discovery. As for desert, if you have a sweet tooth, Istanbul will be your heaven. Turkish delights, candies, chocolates, cookies, pastries, cakes, ice creams, baklavas (chocolate baklavas!!)… they are everywhere you turn and they look so mouth watering (and taste even better) it is impossible to resist. Their teas and coffees are also delicious especially the Turkish coffee which comes with a whole elaborate plate of mint water, almond liqueur and a bite-sized Turkish delight.
We were so extremely pleasantly surprised with Istanbul and are so glad we stayed a whole week, but it’s time to move on again. Next destination: Cairo, Egypt.
Observations in Istanbul:
- You haven’t tasted a real Turkish delight until you have a fresh ones from Turkey, the taste and consistency of what we have back home doesn’t even compare to the ones here.
- Istanbulites (is that what they are called?) tend to dress in very somber monotone color.
- Touts range from decently polite to bouncer-like intimidating. But a lot of them still sell the useless gadgets we’ve seen all around India.
- Locals love to eat on outside patios even when it’s only 10C!! And shops and restaurants owners will keep their front door and windows open at that temperature.
- The people in Istanbul are the kindest and most courteous, but you always have the exceptions: merchants!! They will approach you even if it’s obvious that you’re not interested, then when you confirm that you’re not interested, they’ll almost insult you and make you feel like you just wasted their time.
- Men here walk around with their rosaries everywhere, sometimes more than one.
- There’s stray cats everywhere!! But the locals take care of them and leave food and water outside for them.
Thanh and Mark!
***Please click on the following link if you are interested in seeing more pictures of Istanbul.***