Incredible Istanbul

Part Europe, part Asia, a buzzing metropolis with a whopping 17 million residents, Istanbul is one of those world cities that really does have an identity all of its own. Strategically positioned as a link between Russia, Europe and the Middle East, Istanbul is bursting with self-confidence and energy and showing enormous economic growth, but it combines all this with old-style warmth, friendliness and immense charm.

No shanty town here then.
No shanty town here then.

We arrived early on the morning of May 1st, and headed for the airport bus that would take us to Taksim Square. From there we were due to take a funicular followed by a tram to Sultanahmet, the old town, where our hotel was based. But today the bus wasn’t going to Taksim Square, we were told. It was Mayday, and there were demonstrations, but the driver would drop us off at Levent. Seeing that this was still on the underground route, this posed no problem. The air was cool and the mist swirled, as we sat on the bus, trying to understand our surroundings. Over a bridge on the Bosphorous – leaving Asia for Europe I thought excitedly – but all we could see was a white-out through the windows. We got off at Levent and my well-travelled partner worried that, especially after an overnight flight, we were vulnerable, and could be in a shanty town riddled with crime for all we knew. Looking for the underground station, I spotted a likely looking set of buildings ahead. I gasped – no shanty town this, it was a Harvey Nichols, an off-shoot of London’s most elegant store. Our first impression was of worrying that we could get mugged, only to find ourselves in the most exclusive and desirable area in town. But Istanbul’s like that – full of pleasant surprises.

Oh all right then, spoil me.
Oh all right then, spoil me.

Cat Lovers

You can tell a lot about a people by the way they treat their animals. The French adore their dogs, but take no responsibility for them fouling the streets. Cypriots consider it morally unjust to neuter a cat, but think nothing of running them over. So strong is the Indians’ belief in karma that when New Delhi’s monkey population grew out of control, even killing a minister, they simply introduced an attacking species to deal with them. And Istanbullus? Shortly after our Harvey Nichols revelation, we were waiting for a tram near a café, where an extremely handsome ginger cat was sitting at a table, as if expecting coffee and fresh rolls for breakfast. The owner came along, and I braced myself for the harsh shooing away that would surely follow. Instead, he petted the cat and put down some food for it (in a near flowerbed, not on the actual table). Turning, he caught my eye and we exchanged smiles. He loved the cat. In that instant I decided: I loved Istanbul.

Worship
Worship

Later, walking through a park, we spotted another cat, sitting in calm contemplation, face pointing towards the sun. A group of men walked past, smiling fondly at it. And during the rest of our week, I noticed simple acts of kindness towards animals everywhere we went: the old man feeding a kitten some milk on a busy shopping street, the couple giving a pack of puppies fresh meat to chew on, piles of cat biscuits left out on pavements… And the cats themselves live without fear, to the extent that they approach you, demanding kindness and cuddles, as if they’ve never experienced a harsh word, or the business end of a size eleven boot, in their lives. In Cihangir, the residential area popular with expats, the streets are full of veterinary surgeries and pet shops. In short, Istanbullus love their four-legged friends, and especially, it would seem, the feline variety.

A fine lunch
A fine lunch

On the harbour

Surprisingly, there are few cats around on the main harbour, Eminönü, Istanbul’s marvellously busy harbour full of cruise boats, ferries, fishermen on the Galata bridge, and a bunch of floating fish sandwich shops, bobbing alongside the quay. If you don’t mind queuing, for a mere four lira (around £1.50 UK/$2.30 US), you can buy a slab of bread filled with salad and freshly grilled mackerel, and eat it as you watch the boats go past, and all of humanity (remember, there are 17 million of them) getting on with their day to day lives. It’s a wonderful experience.

Still dreaming
Still dreaming

Up the Bosphorous

We took ferries to the Asian suburbs of Kadiköy and Üsküdar, and went on a cruise up the Bosphorous, where I indulged in a little fantasy house-hunting. The sea is an integral part of Istanbul, and there are moments when you feel disorientated: is that bit of land over there Asia or Europe? Is that the Golden Horn, which divides the European part, or the Bosphorous, which divides the two continents?

Water, water, everywhere...

The Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque

Mosques Galore

Istanbul is an exciting, mysterious place, full of hints as to what you might find should you cross a certain bridge, or take a certain ferry. And although the Blue Mosque is its most famous, there are mosques everywhere you look, until they become disorientating. The Blue Mosque is the one with six minarets, I kept reminding myself, which means that one’s got to be the New Mosque, (built in the late 16th century), or perhaps the Süleymaniye Mosque, which is actually far more visible.

Aya Sofya
Aya Sofya

Sight-seeing

Of course, everyone gets worked up about the Aya Sofya, otherwise known as the Haghia Sophia (in Greek), the Sancta Sophia (Latin) or the Church of the Divine Wisdom (English). Completed in 565, it was converted to a mosque in 1453 and then turned into a non-denominational museum by Atatürk in 1934. It’s striking and extraordinary, even if, personally, I just can’t get that excited about churches. Another Istanbul landmark is the Topkapi Palace, which we visited on a rainy day, along with just about every other tourist in town. The queues to visit anything were enormous, the lay-out misleading and the architecture nothing really that special. The Basilica Cistern, however, the underground reservoir built by the Byzantine emperor Justinian in 532, was spookily fascinating and well worth the entry fee.

Shoptastic!
Shoptastic!

Shopping

And the shopping, needless to say, was great. First there’s the Grand Bazaar, that sells everything from jewellery to leather, ceramics to carpets, with a whole lot more in between. It’s confusing and busy and exhausting and overwhelming, and, unlike my partner, I loved it. The spice market wasn’t as big or quite as spicy as I’d been expecting, but it’s still well worth a visit. Our hotel was close to the Arasta Bazaar, a small strip of upmarket shops that I came to know quite well. But there are shops everywhere, and after a few days your eyes settle and you start to pick out the things that really appeal, from hand-woven carpets and cushion covers, to semi-precious gem-stones and evil eye amulets, intended to protect the wearer from bad luck.

A local market
A local market

The locals' Istanbul

But I have to say I enjoyed the locals’ Istanbul the best, and catching a ferry or tram to a residential part of town just for a look around. In the easily-pronounced Kocamustafapaşa, for example, a residential area just west of Sultanahmet, we stumbled upon an incredible market, full of fresh produce, and I had one of my many fantasies about living there, and enjoying the simple luxury of fresh fruit and vegetables daily. I pictured myself jumping off and on the trams, funiculars, trains and buses, all of which, by the way, are squeaky clean and amazingly efficient, and becoming a knowledgeable devotee of baklavas and Turkish Delight.

Yum
Yum

Fantastic Food

You don’t need to spend much money to eat well in Istanbul, though of course you can, if you really want to. We’d dine on our fishy sandwiches by the harbour or in one of the many, fantastic restaurants serving mezze and grills, and then by early evening we’d steal into our favourite café by the station and order çay, or tea, with our supper substitute, a selection of baklavas and Turkish Delight. On their own they’re too sweet by far for my taste, but knocked back with the sharp, strong tea that’s always served in a glass, they’re delicious.

Usually, after some time away, I start looking forward to going home, and seeing the garden, my ageing cat and to being my own cook again. But not this time. So reluctant was I to leave, my beloved practically had to drag me out of our hotel and onto a tram as I wailed: ‘Do we have to?’. There’s no other city in the world that compares to Istanbul: its location, its pace, its energy and its warmth. For three days on our trip it poured with rain, but in all honesty, nothing could dampen my spirits.

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Comments 9 comments

roc6 profile image

roc6 5 years ago from Cape Town, South Africa

Nice hub, I just love the Grand Bazaar, the Blue Mosque and the Tokapi Palace. The Bazaar with all the exotic things in it, bargaining with the locals.


Riviera Rose profile image

Riviera Rose 5 years ago from South of France Author

Hir roc6, thanks for commenting. Maybe I was a little harsh on the Topkapi palace - it was pouring with rain and just about every tourist in town had chosen that day to visit! And yes, the Grand Bazaar, I think I could move in... ;)


Saleemayoub profile image

Saleemayoub 5 years ago

I have been to Istanbul before at very early age, but your hub brought back vivid feelings I had of it. I read this one because I am going there in few days. I am planning to make the best of it. Thanks


Riviera Rose profile image

Riviera Rose 5 years ago from South of France Author

Hi Saleemayoub, thanks for commenting. So jealous that you're going to Istanbul soon, I really haven't stopped thinking about the place and how much I loved it since. I hope you have a wonderful, wonderful time there, and look forward to reading your hub about it!!


greatstuff profile image

greatstuff 4 years ago from Malaysia

Your hub brings back fond memories. Unfortunately we spent only 2 days in Istanbul. Our holiday package was 10day trip around Turkey, so didn't had time to explore the local's Istanbul that you had experienced. Must go back!! Great hub.


Riviera Rose profile image

Riviera Rose 4 years ago from South of France Author

Hi greatstuff, thanks for your comment. There's so much to see in Istanbul but like you did, I'd love to travel more around Turkey itself. One of these days... :)


secretanatolia 4 years ago

http://turkeyonroad.blogspot.com/ I understand you my friend ?stanbul is the one of best cities I have ever seen. You can get more introduced from that site about bosphorus and istanbul.


Funom Makama 3 profile image

Funom Makama 3 4 years ago from Europe

I have transited via Istanbul on several occasions, but have never for once entered into the city. I hear its a lovely place to be and visit and from what my Syrian and turkish friends do say, It is the center of modernization and civilization in the heart of a Muslim community. Definitely, I will visit it someday. This hub is just beyond words and I really rate it highly. Good job Riviera Rose and thanks a lot for the great info.


Riviera Rose profile image

Riviera Rose 4 years ago from South of France Author

Thanks Funom Makama, you really must try to visit next time - it's so worth it. I'd go back in a heartbeat if I could!

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