Istanbul: New love in an Old City
21 January 2015
“I would give you the entire Bosphorus if you were to give me your beautiful wife!”
Of course, the man said that in jest, with a twinkle in his eye. He was the owner of the coffee shop in which we took a brief respite from our touristic duties, savouring a steaming hot cup of apple chai. In the city that straddles two continents, both Asia and Europe, Istanbul is clearly teeming with culture. This melting pot of civilisations, spanning across many hundreds of years, have left an indelible mark on the people living there, their culinary influences, as well as numerous historical sites and buildings that would certainly pique the interest of even those who would rather toss out their history books at school than to sit through a lesson in class.
My wife and I were at Istanbul just when winter was about to pass the baton over to spring. We decided to stay at the Sultanahmet area, which was also referred to as the Old City. The two major sites where everyone had to take a photo or the trip would not be deemed complete, are the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Of course, it does not matter which time of the day you were to take a selfie with either building in the background - it would still be a grand snapshot.
The Hagia Sophia is now a museum, after having the church being turned into a mosque when Sultan Mehmet II took control of Constantinople, certainly beggars belief until you step within its hallowed hallways. Oh, if only the walls could talk! Constructed close to 1,500 years ago, it has seen its fair share of wars and earthquakes, standing even until today. Once you have savoured the historical significance of the site, make the trek opposite (do take the route through the beautifully manicured garden maze rather than the sidewalk, and carve out time to make pit stops at the numerous street vendors who peddle their wares which comprise mostly of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice and oven baked simit - a kind of Turkish bread) to the Blue Mosque. The architecture within is splendid, evoking but as with all mosques, it would be wise to be respectful of the worshippers there by adhering to the dress code. Do take note that there is an entrance fee for the Hagia Sophia, but the resplendent Blue Mosque is free.
Instead of taking a taxi around the city, I would recommend walking, where hopping onto the city’s rail system to get from one point to another would certainly allow you to immerse yourself in the culture and warmth of the people, never mind that English is only spoken in smatterings. From the city center itself, you will be able to visit nearby attractions such as the Galata Tower, which still stands proudly today despite being built in the 14th century - back then, it was the tallest tower in Istanbul. When you make your way to the summit via an elevator, the view is literally breathtaking, as you take in the air from the Bosphorus while drinking in the beauty that is 360-degree panoramic vista of Istanbul before you.
Once done, it would be wise to get lost in the wonders at the Grand Bazaar. One of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world, there are 61 streets for you to explore with over 3,000 shops peddling their wares, ranging from hand-woven kilim to delectable Turkish delights, spices and flavoured teas. Haggling is more than welcome and highly recommended. I remember a carpet trader wanted to sell me a flying carpet, where with a twinkle in his eye, the threw the carpet before me, and in a momentary suspension of reality, it unfurled and looked as though it was really flying - before gravity announced its presence, of course. Before you make your way there, however, you can pick up some balik ekmek (fish sandwich) along the way, and they are as fresh as can be in order to energise yourself considering the enormous amount of walking that you need to do there.
At the end of the day, when you are done with the sights, sounds, and taste of Istanbul, it is time to wind down for another adventure beckons tomorrow. Head to a nearby reputable hamam (Turkish bath), where you will have the knots and tiredness kneaded away by deft yet strong hands. At times, you might feel as though you are a piece of meat being tossed around on the cool marble slab, but the invigorating and refreshing feeling after washing all that stress away is incomparable - especially when you end it with a piping cup of tea and a wide-faced smile from your masseur.