Recently we visited the land where East meets the West. You guessed it, our visit to Istanbul. This city has always intrigued me as being a popular tourist destination which can satisfy most visitors who are seeking a taste of history, culture or some culinary adventure.
Istanbul is unique and very interesting because it hosts an European side and an Asian side.
Both sides are unique in their own right. The European side is the historic centre that is surrounded by an area called Sultanahmet where all the museums, historic palaces and monuments are located.
The Asian side is the heart of modern Istanbul. Here you will walk the famous Istiklal Caddesi which is also known as Independence Avenue. This street is lined with shops, banks and international brand name stores alongside churches and modern architecture. It is colourful as well as very crowded specially on a saturday night when it fills up with the younger generation (the hip crowd) all dressed up ready to ‘paint the town red’ so to speak. Taksim Square is the heart of modern Istanbul where public events, parades and even demonstrations take place.
The five days that my companion and I spent there flew by so fast because we wanted to experience every thing we set out to do. Our first stop was a visit to Haghai Sophia – church of the holy wisdom which is over 1400 years old. It is the biggest Cathedral in the world that became a mosque and is now a museum. It is an excellent example of Byzantine architecture. Make sure you watch the video presentation before you begin your tour as it gives you a brief insight into the history of this monument and you can understand things better when you actually see it.
Then we visited The Blue Mosque which is walking distance, less than a block away. This is a must see for tourists. It is a very good example of Ottoman architecture. It is the Sultanahmet Camii or Blue Mosque. It gets its name because of the blue-green hand painted Iznik tiles which cover the floral designs that decorate the inside of the mosque. It also has very impressive stained glass windows from which natural lights pours in. Reverence is a must in the mosque as this is a place of worship for muslims. Respect also is important, everyone has to take off their shoes and carry it in a plastic bag when they enter the mosque. Both men and women should have their shoulders and knees covered. Women have to cover their heads and wear clothes to their ankles.
Our next visit was to the famous Topkapi Palace the first Ottoman palace built by Mehmet ll. This was the residence of the Sultans and their harems. The outside of the palace looks very plain but when you go inside it becomes very interesting as you walk into history as you enter the various palace pavilions. These Pavilions display the collections of the sultans. The most interesting displays were the imperial costumes and the Treasury pavilion which had a display of coins, jewellery and a stunning 86 carat diamond. The above pavilions do not allow any photographs to be taken.
The most interesting part of the palace complex is the Harem which is a maze of about 400 rooms around courtyards. The rooms are lavishly decorated and there is lots to see and the place is covered with mystery and intrigue which is left to ones imagination.
The Grand Bazaar is a place to visit which sells carpets, to dried fruits and everything in between. It is one of the world’s oldest covered markets with thousands of stalls. Some say this place is good for buying herbal remedies for colds.
The Bosphorus River cruise was one of the highlights of our trip. We passed through picturesque palaces like Dolmabahce Palace the summer home of the sultans,the Beylerbeyi Palace and stunning scenery of Asia and Europe on either sides. If we have to do it again we would take the ferry that stops at different places like Sariyer and go to Rumeli Kavagi and visit the surrounding quaint places by the waterfront.
A visit to all the above was possible because we strategically picked a hotel close to all the popular sites. We walked most of the days and did not take a guided tour either. What we did do however was do a lot or reading, research and watch DVD videos of Istanbul. The only public transportation we took was our travel to and from the airport when we used the train. A useful tip is buy a travel card called Istanbulkat and a Museum card which allowed us entry to the different sites without waiting in line.
The people of Istanbul are very hospitable and friendly. They went out of their way to help us when we asked for directions as the streets are not demarked well if one is used to following a grid system and it is possible to get lost. This is what happened when we went to Choira Church which was a few miles away from the other sites mentioned above. While doing much uphill on foot we were totally exhausted, when an elderly farmer went out of his way to show us a short route to our destination. This church was converted into a mosque by the Ottoman rulers and is now a museum. The interior is covered with fine mosaic and frescoes which is in good condition. This is a beautiful of example of a Byzantine architecture.
Now the food in Istanbul is interesting too. There are plenty of foody places which serves kebabs and sandwiches filled with falafel. However my travelling companion is always on the look out for sea food places and the most interesting sea food places were next to the waterfront. There were floating food stall on small boats selling delicious fried fish from the tuna family, it looked like mackerel to me, in a sandwich with a layer of tomatoes and lettuce served with french fries. Fried or grilled fish sandwiches are always fresh as fish is easily available.
For me the deserts in Istanbul was what I truly enjoyed. Who can resist the rich pastry layered bacclava filled with nuts and pistachios. There were so many varietes to choose from, I must have tried most of them in our short stay there. Turkish delight was also an interesting treat. It was the first time I was introduced to Turkish delight of different fruit flavours. Drinking tea is also a favourite past time and the elderly Turkish men love to relax smoking the hookha.
Now, will we visit Turkey again ? I would like to say “Yes” however, we would like to travel to the outskirts of to Cappadocia and Ephesus.
So now I sign off till our next adventure.