If one were to describe Istanbul, it would be difficult to find enough adjectives to do justice to this amazing city. Built on seven hills with the Bosphorus on one side and the Maramara sea on the other, Istanbul is a blend of history, culture and ancient architecture with just the right touch of modernity that makes it ‘heartbreakingly charming.’
I visited Istanbul during the month of Ramadan and had expected my holiday to be a little dull. But on arrival, I felt the throb of a civilization akin to ours, filled with warmth and spontaneity; the beginning of an experience that was exciting and wonderful.
The drive to the hotel situated on the banks of the Bosphorus was very “Indian” in that it was marked by vehicular noise and disorder. Since it was early evening the restaurants and cafes too were bustling with people breaking their fast and the spirit was festive and fun-filled. Most of the roads were fairly mountainous and the bylanes that led to these tumbled out of smaller hillocks. Also, a number of bylanes had steep stairways alongside that served as walkways. Small three-four storey buildings surrounded the by lanes and interestingly some of them had common clotheslines that ran across, complete with laundry drying.
Next day, a ride on the hop-on and hop-off open-top bus took us from one end of the city to the other, giving a glimpse of Istanbul.
The first stop
The Sultanahmet area with its famous monuments was the first stop; here there are innumerable restaurants and cafes serving cuisines ranging from the local to Indian, Chinese and Italian. Above these eating places are the homes of the restaurant owners. Here, most of the windows are boarded up, allowing the women of the house to only peek at the noisy street below. All homes sport some version of the ‘Turkish evil eye’ which is either put up by a window or by the main door. One can absorb local flavor here.
In the midst of this hustle-bustle stand two of the most stunning monuments of the city — the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. The former, a Museum today, was originally built as a patriarchal basilica and remained the largest Cathedral in the world for a thousand years. Even though the bells and altars were replaced by minarets and mihrabs during the Ottoman period, its Christian origins are still evident in the beautiful mosaics of the Mother and Child that have been uncovered.
Across the street is the Blue Mosque, which legend says was built to outdo the Hagia Sophia. This monument is painted in the most iridescent blue hues; quite unlike anything one had ever seen before. Decorated with a variety of blue-green tiles, from the Iznik region, and adorned with motifs such as carnations, roses, the cypress and various animals, the Blue Mosque, like the Hagia Sophia, is a testament to the artistic skills and workmanship of the artisans of ancient times.
A visit to the Grand Bazaar or Kapali Carsi at one end of Sultanahmet is a must for all tourists. This indoor market has 4,000 stalls situated in 58 lanes selling everything from silver and gold jewellery, leather goods, colour scarves, shawls, kilims, carpets and Turkish sweets and jellies. Along with deep pockets, you’ll need good bargaining skills here. Only the stoic can return empty-handed from here.
Not too far away is the Egyptian Spice Bazaar, an indoor market selling spices and condiments. Nearly every store proudly advertises that it is its “ginseng” and other “specially-brewed aphrodisiacs” that were used by the sultans to remain virile forever!
Istanbul’s two famous palaces —the Topkapi and Dolmabaceh — relive the glory of the Ottoman empire. The jewels and costumes on display at the Topkapi palace are evidence of a royalty that lived a luxurious life. The traditional royal hamams have been replaced by large bathing houses in the city centre which are still used, mostly by women, as socializing spots.
At the Dolmabaceh palace, on the banks of the Bosphorus, the hierarchy among its women occupants is evident from the décor of the rooms and their proximity to the Sultans. This palace has modern relevance as Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first President of Turkey, spent his last years here. The Galata Tower is another must-visit tourist spot. Built in 1348 this tower stands atop a hill and gives a panoramic view of Istanbul.
It has been reinforced and reconstructed many times; in 1794 it was destroyed in a fire, and in 1832 its conical cap was blown off during a fierce storm. The sight from here is spectacular and you can see the city of Istanbul from the Maramara sea right up to the Strait of Bosphorus and the Golden Horn. The skyline is dotted with domes of many mosques all painted in shades of brilliant blue and crisscrossed by television cables and laundry lines.
Culturally, Turkey is supposed to be the home of the Sufi movement and watching a performance by the whirling dervishes at the Old Istanbul Railway Station is a treat. It started with an instrumental recital by some older Sufi men and the music was very Hindustani. Prior to the actual whirling, the performers paid tribute to a strange-looking, furry, vivid pink fabric. Then, they began whirling at an incredible pace and soon all one could see was an ocean of white fabric devoid of any human figures.
Next on the list was belly dancing; I was directed to the “Gazala night club”, reputed to be one of the best in Istanbul.
The main performer was incredibly talented, and her dance, far from being obscene, was subtly provocative and displayed a perfect blend of technique, style, control and coordination.
Istanbul offers an interesting food experience to visitors. Several restaurants on the Bosphorus provide diners a breathtaking view of the Strait, the Bosphorus bridge which is beautifully lit up and the Asian side of Istanbul.
The food is delicious and most upmarket eating places serve fusion cuisine and by 11 p.m. turn into nightclubs, while the mid-and lower-range restaurants concentrate on Turkish meats and breads. The Taksim area has many mid-category cafes and restaurants.
Despite a few blips like boarding the wrong tram and being cheated by a taxi driver, five days in Istanbul provided an unforgettable experience.
– Nandana Sule Mariwala