Istanbul, not Constantinople - my own Turkish delight
Istanbul, a city soaked in history, is a sprawling metropolis of almost 14 million inhabitants. Strategically perched between the Black Sea to the north and the Sea of Marmara to the south, it sits on two continents separated by the Bosphorous.
Founded around 660 BC became one of the most important cities in history. Anciently known as Constantinople for many centuries, it served as imperial capital for the Romans, the Byzantines, the Latin and the Ottoman empires. Christianity flourished during the Roman and Byzantine times before the Ottomans conquered it transforming it into an Islamic stronghold.
Due to its strategic location, it has always fostered an eclectic and diverse population pretty much until the current Turkish Republic was established in 1923. Only then did it become known by its current name of Istanbul, the capital being transferred to Ankara.
With that richness in history, that aura of mystery, the whiff of adventure and the interest for the unknown, I booked a break to this fascinating city.
An early rise one freezing Saturday morning in February got us in Heathrow’s spanking new Terminal 2 at around 8 am in time to explore the new facilities. Opened in June 2014, this new addition to London Heathrow houses the Star Alliance airlines that operate there. Our carrier on this occasion, Turkish Airlines. Well, when going to Turkey…
After a slightly delayed pushback, we took to the skies at the touch of 12.20 noon. Not long after, we started to enjoy their now legendary onboard hospitality in addition to their fantastic catering service.
Three and a half hours or two films later and we were landing at Istanbul Atatürk Airport. Not the nicest airport around and pretty chaotic too, but I suppose that just adds that bit of adventure to this trip. Although, after a 4.30 am rise, a three and a half hour flight, two hour plus time difference, at 6 pm we were not in that much of a mood for adventure. Nevertheless, it is what it is.
We reached the taxi rank over an hour and a half after landing and here is where the real adventure started.
The crossroad between Asia and Europe
Death Alley Driver
Turkey and Istanbul in particular is notorious for its driving practices. Or lack of them. We were about to discover that in spectacular style.
Regardless of what you are about to read, unless you are extremely proficient in Google map reading, I would strongly recommend you catch a cab into the city if you are a first timer to Istanbul, especially if you arrive at night. That said, always make sure you use the yellow taxis that are [dis]orderly lined up outside once you leave the arrival hall. There are other options, but are very dear and probably won’t provide that adventure addition I am about to describe below.
Brushing up on my precariously learned Turkish phrases, I managed to draw a taxi-driver’s attention and he promptly ushered us into his vehicle, bags safely tucked inside the boot.
Once we left the airport’s perimeter road and hit the E-5 motorway, we embarked on a mad race against … well, pretty much the rest of Istanbul, quite honestly, whether it was moving or not.
It felt as if we had been suddenly thrust inside a racing car in one of those videogames. The way the driver swerved between cars, trucks and motorbikes defied any conventional law of physics. Hard shoulders, double lines, speed limits were no obstacle for this driver. Exits which normally are meant for one car at a time suddenly tuned double lanes. Distance between cars? C’mon, gimme a break! Indicators? A bothersome distraction.
For once, Istanbul’s notorious traffic would have been a welcome respite with this driver from hell.
I think we made it to the hotel in just less than half an hour.
Upon arrival, and after having the boot checked at the hotel’s entrance, our speed-thirsty chauffer helped unload our bags; I paid and thanked him. Not necessarily for his service but more for delivering us alive and in three pieces.
That was our first introduction to this charming, historic but equally mad and chaotic city. Fair to say, despite this brush with hair-raising excitement, the driver did switch on the taximeter and as advised by some friends and the guides I had researched, the fare came up to 65 Lira (approximately £17.00/US$26.00). In my opinion, more than reasonable.
This trip's flight review
- Flight check: Turkish Airlines Economy class - Great...
Turkish Airlines, a Star Alliance member is among the world's leading carriers. With a comprehensive global network, they have won several accolades thanks to their catering and inflight service.
Where are you, oh Istanbul?
What Middle Eastern city you find more interesting?
Hagia Sofia (Ayasofya)Click thumbnail to view full-size
Once our senses had returned to average human levels, and we had completed our check-in at the Istanbul Ritz-Carlton on Süzer Plaza, a 10-minute stroll from Taksim Square on the Biyoğlu side of Istanbul, we decided to call it a night. It was past 8.00 pm and not familiar with the surrounding we thought it prudent to rest our bones and recharge energy for the next day.
And recharge we did. After gathering some strategic information at the reception and concierge desks, and following a hearty breakfast, we walked down Dolmabahçe Gazhane Cadesi (Street) towards Kabataş where we would catch the tram towards Sultanahmet on the Fatih side of Istanbul, the historic quarters of the city.
Public transport in Istanbul is pretty straightforward, inexpensive, and quite comprehensive.
On the metro, tram, buses and funiculars you have the choice of purchasing tokens (cash is not accepted) worth TKL4.00 per trip or buy an Istambulcard (similar to the Oyster in London or the Octopus in Hong Kong) that costs TKL7.00 and you can charge with a minimum of TKL10.00. With this card, a single trip will cost you TKL2.90 and any transfer done within 30 minutes TKL1.90.
Once we negotiated the language barrier and availed ourselves to our travel cards, we boarded the modern trams and headed towards Sultanahmet. Rolling through the Galata Bridge, we could contemplate the Golden Horn to our right and the mighty Bosphorous to our left catching a glimpse on its eastern banks of the Asian side of Istanbul.
Alighting at Gülhane, we were right in the thick of it. Hagia Sofia, The Blue Mosque, The Basilica Cistern, and further inside, the Grand Bazaar.
A short walk uphill through a relatively busy Alemdar Caddesi, negotiating crowds walking haphazardly on narrow pavements while at the same time avoiding being hit by the close-passing trams saw us arrive at Sultanahmet Park.
For the Sunday we planned to visit Hagia Sofia, – they close on a Monday – the Blue Mosque and the Basilica Cistern. In addition, we would explore any interesting looking street in the perimeter.
The entrance to Hagia Sofia (Ayasofia) already had a respectable queue that fortunately moved quickly.
It took us fewer than ten minutes to reach the ticket booths where, after paying the TKL20 entrance fee, we followed the throngs of visitors inside this impressive work of Byzantine art.
Construction started around 537, where until 1453 it served as an Eastern Orthodox Cathedral. From then until 1931 it became a mosque. After being secularised, it finally opened as a museum in 1935. Interestingly, between 1204 and 1261 it also served as a Roman Catholic cathedral under the Latin Empire. Talk about religious practicality!
When it became a mosque, this was the main one in Istanbul until the construction of the larger Sultan Ahmed Mosque in 1616 also known as The Blue Mosque.
Despite its secular nature since becoming a museum, in 2006, the Turkish government allocated a small prayer room for Christian and Muslim museum staff. Since 2013, the muezzin calls to prayer from its minarets twice a day.
Speaking of which, hearing this call for the first time since we arrived was an impressive and humbling experience. Thanks to the powerful PA system, the chant reverberates throughout the area, and added to the calls from other mosques, creates a soothing yet powerful mystical feel, regardless of what god or deity one worships.
At that time, we were headed to the Blue Mosque.
Sultanahmet, where history is made
Blue MosqueClick thumbnail to view full-size
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Alas, being prayer time, we were not allowed in. We’d have to wait until past three pm to enter the mosque. We decided then to grab a pretzel (in some cases the sheer size turns it into a lunch in itself!) from one of the many street vendors around the park.
Hunger pangs calmed, we headed to the Basilica Cistern, a mere five-minute walk from Sultanahmet Park.
Again, queues were not very long and in a few minutes, we were at the ticket booth. A TKL30.00 gives you unlimited access to this wonderful work of roman engineering.
Built in the VI century during the Byzantine Emperor Justinian rule, it is the largest of several ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city.
Before being converted into a cistern, a great Basilica stood in its place, hence the name.
This cistern provided a water filtration system for the Great Palace of Constantinople and other buildings on the First Hill, and continued to provide water to the Topkapɪ Palace after the Ottoman 1453 and into modern times.
The underground chamber has an area of about 9,800 square meters and capable of holding 80,000 cubic meters of water!
On the northwest corner of the cistern, the bases of two columns reuse blocks carved with the visage of Medusa. According to traditional tales the blocks are oriented sideways and inverted in order to negate the power of the Gorgons’ gaze.
This was one visit my son did enjoy.
By the time we left the cistern, prayer time was over so we quickly headed to the Sultan Ahmed Mosque.
Whether you are Muslim or not, going to pray or not, you must follow basic rules of attire and behaviour. Firstly, everyone, and this by the way, goes whenever entering any mosque, must remove their shoes beforehand.
Women must cover their heads as well. Hijabs are available to borrow at the entrance if needed. Alternatively, a good-sized modestly coloured pashmina can also be used. Suffice to say, no revealing clothing is allowed, and this goes for both males and females.
Once inside, the sheer size and beauty of the mosque is simply mesmerising.
Sultan Ahmed mosque or Blue Mosque as it is popularly known because of the blue tiles that adorn the interior was built between 1609 and 1616 during the reign of Ahmed I. This was his way of reasserting Ottoman power.
Built on the site of Byzantine emperors, the Blue mosque is opposite the Hagia Sofia (Ayasofya), which at the time was the primary imperial mosque in Istanbul.
Whether you go to pray, visit as a tourist or just curious about its intricate and elaborate architectural beauty, the Blues Mosque is equally inspiring as it is impressive.
After a half-day of cultural and historical nourishment, our earthly and corporal needs were in need of attention.
We walked down past our original alighting tram stop and ventured into the narrow streets lined with souvenir, carpet, and delicacy shops, not to mention the never absent bagel and juice vendors.
Our eyes and noses happened upon a Turkish coffee shop where we indulged in some strong Turkish coffee (for me), a çay (for the better half). A glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and a chocolate and strawberry tart was the young pretender’s poison; obviously at this stage, he was eating more with his eyes than anything else, bless his heart...
Liquid intake restores, we continued our walk down Ankara Cd towards Eminönü where we caught the tram back to Kabataş.
Before darkness took over, we decided to explore our way towards Taksim Square from there rather than going straight to the hotel.
We took a long winding road from Kabataş until we finally reached Istanbul’s main square.
Famed for its shops, restaurants, hotels and its many leisure outlets, Taksim Square is considered the heart of modern Istanbul. It is the main transportation hub of the city and a popular destination and meeting point for both tourists and locals. Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue), a long pedestrian street flanked by shop after shop after, yes, more shops, ends (or begins, depending on your point of view) at Taksim Sq. Another feature of this area is the Nostalgic Tram that runs from the square along the avenue, ending at Tünel, the second oldest metro line in the world after London Underground (tube).
Sadly, the weather was not favourable and imminent rain meant we needed to find shelter pretty fast.
Debating between the various Kebab and Döner outlets as well as other traditional or mainstream eateries, we ended up discovering Selvi, a family run, very unassuming little restaurant. This place, we later discovered, has some pretty good reviews on Tripadvisor, and with good reason. So, if you’re in Istanbul, do check this little gem out and you will not be disappointed!
To give an idea, three very hungry people (us) wolfed three dishes each - an immorally huge escalope chicken with an exaggerated lashing of mashed potatoes, stuffed oversized aubergines, impossibly flavoursome falafels, pan-fried fish fillets amongst the items we ordered. All that washed down with a large can of Efes beer, a soft drink and mineral water cost us the abominable sum of 65 Turkish Lira, something like US$26.00 (or £17.50). Each dish was nicer than the next!
At the hotel, we ended at the Atelier Lounge for a Margarita and a Rakɪ, Turkey’s national alcoholic beverage. That set us up for the night.
The Basilica CisternClick thumbnail to view full-size
The second day saw us planning a visit to the Grand Bazaar and Topkapi Palace. Following the same route we did yesterday on the tram, this time we alighted at Sultanahmet stop, one stop after Gülhane.
After lazily exploring side streets, never far from a typical Turkish café, carpet trader or souvenir shop we finally reached the Grand Bazaar.
This gigantic maze of shops and stalls and any corner or nook where one is enticed to part with one’s lira following friendly barter, is one of the largest covered markets in the world. Located inside the walled city in the Fatih district, the Grand Bazaar totals 3000 shops arranged over 61 covered streets, it can attract close to 400,000 visitors a day!
I can proudly say I polished my bartering skills, at first much to the embarrassment of my better half, until she became more acquainted with the way of shopping in these premises. It is definitely a place to go when in Istanbul and a good way to familiarise oneself to the culture of trade and barter, very common in the Middle East. If you are lucky and willing to bargain on some good stock, you may be invited to a glass of çay (tea) while negotiating a decent price compromise.
Whilst we didn’t end up remortgaging our lives at the Bazaar, we did leave with some souvenirs; we’d like to believe at throwaway bargain prices.
Topkapı Palace, our next destination beckoned a few minutes’ walk, but before, nutrition took precedence. A hearty chicken kebab skilfully cut and wrapped at a loudly attended hole in the wall opposite Sultanahmet Park calmed our hunger pangs, and damn good they were!
This palace was once the Sultans’ main residence for over 400 years during the Ottoman rule. After the XVII’s century, Topkapı lost its importance and the Sultans preferred spending their time in their new palaces along the Bosphorous. Some functions however still remained at Topkapı, like the library, the mint and the imperial treasury.
After the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, the new government transformed it into a museum of the imperial era. Amongst its many important items, it contains the Prophet Muhammad’s cloak and sword.
A visit to a typical Turkish bath followed. A rejuvenating, cleansing and invigorating experience. It was the perfect reward after a hectic day of sightseeing. The only problem was, we were so relaxed, we needed to be careful not to fall asleep as we walked back.
Again with the weather not allowing for much exploration, came nighttime, we played it safe and dined at our newly discovered gem from the previous night. Warmly greeted by the same waiting staff we enjoyed new dishes and it was hard to tell what food we enjoyed the most. Again, the ridiculously cheap bill just made the experience all the more enjoyable.
Food glorious food!Click thumbnail to view full-size
Thus ended our flash weekend break in Istanbul. The last day saw us braving the relatively easy metro to the airport. The braving bit was not so much because of the intricacy of Istanbul’s underground transport, which, I have to admit, was quite a challenge when we weigh my precariously learned Turkish phrases with the staff’s total lack of English. In the end, we managed to make our way. The main challenge was the snow that befell the city just minutes before we made the ten-minute walk from our hotel to Taksim’s metro station. Again, what is a trip to a newly discovered city without the element of adventure?
Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport is not the most modern, pretty and organised of airports. It is not the worst, though. We were lucky however to avert the ensuing chaos that snow had befallen on it; long queues, cancelled flights, indifferent staff. Our flight to London left with a slight delay, but left we did. Again, a three and a half hour flight on a modern, well-appointed A330 with great entertainment, fantastic food and efficient staff ensured we arrived safely into London.
Istanbul is a mesmerising city, where West and East collide frantically in a somewhat organised chaos. For a city its size, it is relatively safe, bar the odd pickpocket (common sense must prevail, dear traveller), inexpensive, clean and quite easy to navigate, so long as you keep your distance from the drivers. This is a city where car rules. Public transport is comprehensive. Accommodation caters for all wallets and food is fantastic. Locals may not seem overly friendly at first, but once you get the hang of its culture, you do warm up to the Turks.
It is a place I will definitely endeavour to return and I would not hesitate to recommend it.
The Grand Bazaar
Eat, drink and be glad
As the saying goes, when in Rome... Well, the same applies to Istanbul. Here is a list of the typical fare one must try when in Turkey:
Rakɪ - the national alcoholic drink.
Boza – Fermented bulgur refreshment.
Sahlep – Mostly a winter drink in colder parts of the country.
Ayran – A yoghurt based drink.
Salgam – made from dark turnips and violet carrots and sira.
Çay – Turkish tea.
Türk kahvesi – Turkish coffee.
Simit – a circular bread similar to a pretzel covered in sesame seeds.
Börek – savoury pastry filled with minced beef, cheese or spinach.
Köfte – beef or lamb meatballs.
Şiş Kebabs – skewered meats, usually lamb, chicken or fish.
Döner – slow cooked meat sandwich with vegetables, spices and yoghurt.
Mantı – beef or lamb boiled dumplings.
Baklava – pastry desert; nutty, syrupy and usually topped with ground pistachio.
Lokum – also known as Turkish Delight.