What took us so long? That was the question in mind as we gazed, gawked and grazed in what must be one of the most fascinating countries in the world. We have been living on Crete for two and a half years and so close to Turkey but it never seemed to show up on our travel radar – that is, not until our interest was peaked by several friends who came back from their holidays in Turkey with intriguing tales to entice us. So, in less than two hours flight time, we arrived in Istanbul for a whirlwind tour of the “Tourist Triangle” (Istanbul – Cappadocia – Ephesus).
If you want to spend your holiday in a serene, restful and predictable place, DO NOT go to Istanbul. But if you’re ready for non-stop sensory overload, then this is your place! The sights, sounds and smells of this bustling city are nothing less than electric and somewhat overwhelming to a Westerner. It has a way of pulling you into its charms, though, and if you take it for what it is, you will return home with far better memories and more than a few entertaining stories than if you spent a week on a cruise ship.
We stayed in the Taksim/Beyoglu district across the river from the old city following some good advice from a former resident of Istanbul. In contrast to the touristy Sultanamet district that gets somewhat sleepy at night, Taksim is the heart of the city and it pulses with local culture, cuisine and entertainment as well as historical architecture and venues of its own. We stayed at the comfortable Dila Suites just a few blocks off the busy, pedestrian street – Istiklal Caddesi, and enjoyed our first dinner at the popular restaurant Libiderya that boasted exquisite cuisine from a rooftop terrace overlooking the river and the city. The next morning, we ate breakfast on Dila’s rooftop terrace and tanked up on some STRONG Turkish tea before heading out to explore the old city.
The Grand Bazaar – a jaw-dropping, chaotic montage of over 4000 shops, banks, restaurants and workshops in an enormous covered complex that spans over several kilometers of lanes – the oldest mall in the world and still the grandest. We did our part in bantering and buying and gladly exited after about an hour of shopper’s overload. Outside the bazaar Richard’s eyes glazed over, he shook his head and said, “Now I know where the word, ‘bizarre’ originated!”
The smaller and tamer Spice Market was a phenomenal collection of spices and teas and everything in-between including the sweet Turkish delight (lokum) – a translucent jellied jewel flavored with rose, almond or orange and laced with walnuts or more preferably, pistachios. We loaded up on teas (rose, pomegranate, Turkish, orange, jasmine) and other edible souvenirs before winding our way through the cramped backstreets up to the Suleymaniye Mosque. Arriving just as the call to prayer bellowed over the loud speakers, we entered the spacious interior and had a hushed conversation with a young Islamic man who educated us on the ways of Islam. (Side note: Very interesting how our prejudices create blinders and we are prone to believe that the minority of violent extremists represent the entire Muslim population.)
A short walk’s distance put us in the heart of the historical center, Old Istanbul, the location of the Hippodrome, Aya Sofya, Topkapi Palace and the beautiful Sultanamet, simply known as the Blue Mosque.
The Blue Mosque was built by Sultan Ahmet I, who wanted to build a monument to rival the grandeur and beauty of its venerable neighbor, Aya Sofya, a Christian cathedral built during 500 AD by the Romans. Everything about the mosque is on a huge scale. Giant pillars supporting the huge dome, six sky scraping minarets and a huge, symmetrical inner courtyard are just the beginning of its grandeur. Once inside it’s easy to see why its widely known as the Blue Mosque. Tens of thousands of tiny tiles, mostly in shades of blue, cover every surface except the huge carpeted prayer space.
If the Blue Mosque is awe-inspiring, then its neighbor, the Byzantine Aya Sofya church is nothing less than breathtaking. Built by Emperor Justinian in the 6th century A.D., it was the world’s most impressive building at the time and was the largest church until St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome was built. What’s astonishing is the magnitude of the size of the dome and the expansive interior covered with 30 million gold tesserae(tiny mosaic tiles). When you stand under the magnificent dome it’s clear why Mehmet the Conqueror declared it a mosque after he took over the city of Constantinople in 1453.
Continuing on towards the river, the next stop is the opulent Topkapi Palace. It was built by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1478 and continued to be the seat of all ruling Sultans for 380 years. The expansive complex with 400 rooms, 4 courtyards, 9 Turkish baths, 2 mosques and a system of kitchens, treasuries and workshops make it a city in itself. Of particular interest is the Harem (which actually means “a place forbidden”) and was the private living quarters for the sultan, his wives, children, concubines and servants, all of which could total up to hundreds. The palace itself is the focus of many colorful stories of intrigue and passion, power and cruelty. http://www.lonelyplanet.com/turkey/istanbul/travel-tips-and-articles/76134
After a long day of sightseeing and a sumptuous lunch topped off with pistachio baklava, we treated our tired toes (and the rest of our bodies) to the luxurious experience of a Turkish bath at the Cemberlitas Hamam. We went our separate ways (men and women are separated in the traditional style) into large, misty marble slabbed rooms where the grime of the city and weariness in our muscles were soaked, scrubbed and massaged until our skin tingled and our legs felt like jelly. Ahhhh-some! An amazing “must-do” experience when you visit Istanbul!
The rest of our time in Istanbul was spent poking around Taksim, more shopping and lots of experimenting with local food and drink (not too crazy about Aryan but the Salep was great!) Next course – traveling to the interior of Turkey – Cappadocia!