By Kaveri Jain
Turkey had been on my bucket list for a long time, so when the opportunity of a family trip came along, I just jumped at it. Driving from Istanbul’s Ataturk airport to our hotel, I was reminded of my own city Delhi with its sea of people and crazy traffic, and immediately felt comfortable and welcome.
We were booked at the Shangri-La Bosphorus hotel, which is literally on the Bosphorus and where the view from the room is surreal. With one part in Europe and the other in Asia, the only thing that divides the city of Istanbul into two continents is the breathtaking Bosphorus (also called Bosporus). After a hot cup of Turkish coffee, which was prepared in a cezve, a small pot with a long handle made of copper, we left the hotel and took our first walk towards the Bosphorus. The constant chatter, tea sellers and small food stalls selling everything from Turkish delights to sandwiches and chips gave it all a festive feeling.
We decided to take a ride across the waters. Sitting on the ferry and watching the sky change colours from a blue hue to an orange and finally a deep red I felt like I’d just fallen in love. My first magical sunset was followed by a quiet dinner at our hotel’s very famous Chinese restaurant Shang Palace.
Our first stop the next morning was Dolmabahce Palace, a short walk of 10 minutes from our hotel. Audio guides helped us understand its history: this palace was home to six sultans, and the founder of the republic himself: Ataturk.
A short cab ride to Taksim Square later, we found ourselves in the most bustling part of the city. This square – the centrepoint of modern Istanbul – is a common meeting point for locals, overloaded with countless restaurants, shops and hotels. The very first stall that caught my attention was the ice cream stall. The juggling show before we could finally get hold of the dondurma (thick Turkish ice cream) was comical to say the least.
Tucked away on a side street near Taksim Square, we walked into Zencefil, famous for its vegetarian fare. We had delectable homemade lemonade, carrot soup, stuffed dried eggplants, smoked bulgur with vegetables, spinach pie and their pumpkin cheese cake. We were so stuffed that a stroll around Taksim was imperative. The colourful graffiti, street musicians playing lovely melodies made our evening just perfect.
After a tiring day, all one dreams of is a hot bath and Turkey is famous for its hammams, after all. But for me, it was a strange experience. The first 15 minutes in the steam room relaxed me, but sitting naked with two other women did make me uncomfortable. It was very bizarre to lie on a marble slab, and allow a total stranger to scrub and soap my body. Before you can decide whether you hate or love this traditional Turkish bath, you need to experience it at least once.
Our next morning began at Hagia Sophia. This splendid church-turned-mosque-turned-museum is among the world’s greatest architectural achievements. Climbing up the spiral ramp to get to the gallery and gaze at the splendid Byzantine mosaics, taken into a forgotten era, I was mesmerized.
The next stop was the Süleymaniye Mosque. This was designed by the famous architect Sinan for Süleyman the Magnificent, and is a great tribute to both. This mosque is more than a place of worship. It’s a complex of buildings containing a hospital, a kitchen, a school and more. We stopped for quick bite at a quaint coffee shop in the Alley of Addicts – it got its name during the Ottoman dynasty, because the coffee shops here sold opium and hashish as well as coffee. Did I get a chance to have some? I’ll leave you guessing!
Finally we reached the most awaited Grand Bazaar: who wouldn’t want to shop in this never-ending 500-year-old market? Also called Kapali Carsi or Buyuk Carsi, this market has over 4,000 stores, restaurants, cafes spread over 61 covered streets, and is worth a visit. To savour the flavours of authentic Ottoman Empire cuisine, we had dinner at the very famous Asitane restaurant. Although the menu largely consisted of all sorts of meats, we did find enough vegetarian fare and enjoyed a lavish meal. The menu was painstakingly created, with details of each dish showing the date when first records exist from the recipe.
The Blue Mosque is an imperative stop for tourists; the blue tiles all over the walls are a marvel in themselves. The Mosque was built between 1609 and 1616, and just like many other mosques, it also comprises a tomb of the founder, a madrasa and a hospice.
Topkapi Palace is another must-visit attraction. The palace complex consists of kiosks and pavilions contained by four lush green courtyards where generations of sultans had their principal residence for almost half a century. The harem, an adorned ‘cage’ of the sultan’s women, the treasury storing the crown jewels and the weapon’s room boasting the Ottoman’s fine craftsmanship take you back in time. An exhibition of the world’s fourth largest diamond here surely deserves a special mention. And the final walk towards the edge of the Palace that leads to breathtaking views of the Sea of Marmara, Bosphorus and Golden Horn completes this magical visit.
If you think Istanbul is fascinating above ground, the underground Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan) will make you think again. This exquisite piece of Byzantine engineering was used centuries ago to bring drinking water with aqueducts from current Bulgaria to Istanbul. Very close to the Topkapi Palace, the Basilica Cistern mesmerized us with its dimmed light and classical music playing in the background: an unexpectedly romantic experience for me!
For the best views in Istanbul, we went for a meal to the 360 roof-terrace restaurant, perched on a 19th century apartment building in Beyoglu. True to its name, it has a 360-degree view of all of Istanbul. The food was a combination of fusion Turkish mezze and modern international cuisine. A few cocktails turned our evening vibrant and fun.
On the final day in Istanbul, we spent some time at the Galata Bridge, where the locals gather to fish right off the bridge. Walking around the pedestrian avenue Istiklal Caddis that’s full of bars, restaurants and stores, we spent the afternoon eating an array of mouthwatering desserts: baklava, pistachio cake, tahini ice cream, asure, and the special kunefe, which is a sweet and savoury Levantine cheese pastry. After picking up a few souvenirs from a shop located inside the Galata Tower, which stands sentry over the approach to ‘new’ İstanbul, we left for the Dervish Experience at Hodjapasha.
The whirling dervish has become an iconic image synonymous with Istanbul, but its roots lie with Sufism and the Mevlevi Order, which was formed in 1312 in the Turkish city of Konya. The Hodjapasha is a former hammam dating back to the heyday of the Ottoman Empire, which was renovated to become one of Istanbul’s most interesting cultural centres.
Sitting under the dome of the main bath and watching the dervishes whirl in such a historic setting made the experience even more special. This was the perfect end to an unexpectedly magical holiday.
I would have loved to spend more time to explore the outer reaches of the city, specially the Asian side, but I know one thing’s for sure: this city will call me again.
Photo credit: Pixabay.com. First published in eShe magazine’s April 2019 issue