In what other city could you do this – arrive in its European airport and later, depart from its Asian one? A city which has its roots in Asian history but a modern European outlook. A culture based on a strict Asian religion, which is nevertheless quite secular and liberal. Istanbul takes the cake – or should that be the Baklava?
The easiest and cheapest way to transfer from Istanbul’s Atatürk airport to the old part of town (Fatih) is by train and tram. Customer service people at the station showed us how to purchase the tokens we needed for both train and tram, while a Turkish passenger kindly helped us to negotiate the transfer at Zeytinbürnü and kept an eye on us all the way in to Eminönü. This was just the first of many acts of kindness we received from the local people during our holiday in Turkey.
Our hotel – the elegant Legacy Ottoman – was very well positioned, with easy access to the Spice Market, the Galata Bridge and the Bosphorus. On our first night there we took a stroll to the Galata Bridge area where the fish sandwich vendors line their boats up against the wharf. The mackerel is cooked on hotplates on the boats, while the sandwiches of thick Turkish bread, onions, lettuce, and fish are made up at the stalls. This is a popular snack dinner for many Turkish people, not just the tourists.
Next morning we were amazed at the spread of foods offered on the breakfast buffet. Apparently no Turkish breakfast is complete without several types of cheese, olives and breads. And I could not believe the amount of cakes or sweets provided – the Turks certainly have a sweet tooth!
The Spice Market was first on our list to explore – alleys full of stalls selling colourful fruits, sweets (Turkish delight – lokrum), cakes, teas, preserves and spices. We were surprised to discover the lokrum comes in many varieties – some more like a soft nougat than the jellied substance we were aware of. Further afield we found streets where only a single type of merchandise was sold – hardware, clothing, manchester, lingerie, jewellery and so on.
We were in Istanbul to connect with an eleven-day Gate 1 coach tour which began with a visit to the Sultanahmet Mosque – known as the Blue Mosque. It is so called because of the beautiful mosaic tiles that cover the walls and domes. It was built from 1609 to 1616, during the rule of Ahmet I. The mosque has one main dome, six minarets, and eight secondary domes. Because it is a place of worship, women must cover their heads with scarves and wear modest clothing, while the carpeted prayer area is cordoned off for tourists. Shoes are removed at the door and carried with you in the plastic bags provided.
Just a short walk away is the pink Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia) church/mosque, which was a museum at the time of our visit. Built in 532 as a Greek Orthodox cathedral and briefly used as a Roman Catholic basilica, famous in particular for its massive dome, it remained the world’s largest cathedral for nearly a thousand years, until in 1453 it became a mosque under the Ottoman Empire. It was restored and opened as a museum in 1935. Both Christian and Muslim features were retained or exposed, such as the ornate mihrab where the altar used to be and the beautiful mosaics representing Christ and various saints, angels and religious figures. There was no requirement for women to cover their head when visiting the building and we were free to walk anywhere as it was not used for large services – though that has changed since it reopened as a mosque this year.
Not far from the museum is the Basilica Cistern, an underground chamber approximately 9,800 square metres in area – capable of holding 80,000 cubic metres of water – although the depth is only a metre or so today. It was so named because it was built underneath an ancient basilica. The cistern supplied the water for the Palace of Constantinople and later the Topkapi Palace. The ceiling is supported by 336 marble columns with both Doric and Ionic capitals. It is thought they were repurposed from other existing buildings. Three columns are of particular interest – one with ‘hen’s eye’ carvings and two with the bases displaying the head of Medusa. These were discovered when restorations to the cistern cleared out tonnes of mud which had kept them covered. Walkways allow tourists to wander in a circuit around the cistern, examine the columns and feed the fish that inhabit the waters.
Between the Cistern and our hotel lies the Grand Bazaar (Kapalıçarşı). This is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 covered streets and over 3,000 shops. It commenced construction in 1455 as a textiles market in a domed building and a later domed building was a market for luxury goods. Smaller stalls and shops sprang up between and around these two until it became what you see today. Many of the stalls in the bazaar are grouped by type of goods they sell, such as jewellery, hand-painted ceramics, carpets, embroideries, spices and antique shops. The complex also houses two mosques, four fountains, two hamams, and several cafés and restaurants.
Of course any trip to Istanbul should include a visit to a hamam – or Turkish bath. Fortunately there is a hamam in the Legacy Ottoman hotel. First we endured a sweating session in the sauna, followed by some time in the steam room. Then into the main bath area – not a bath in our terms, but a ceramic-tiled room with a central tiled massage table where we lay on heated tiles, naked except for a discreet towel. There our masseurs scrubbed us all over with a large rough loofah and washed us down with bowls of scented warm water. Then, creating foam with the aid of soapy water and pillowcases, they gave us a foam massage from head to foot and finally washed us down completely with more bowls of water. We came out feeling somewhat battered and looking like boiled lobsters, but very clean!
Our last day in Istanbul was at the end of our coach tour, where we had visited Gallipoli, Çanakkale, Troy, Pergamum, Ephesus, Pamukkale, Antalya, Cappadocia and Ankara, the capital. As we journeyed back to Istanbul we crossed the huge Bosphorus suspension bridge and then boarded a private ferry for a Bosphorus cruise.
This took us north along the European side passing the Dolmabahce Palace and further north, the Rumeli Hisari Fortress and under the Fatih Bridge.
Coming back down the Asian side we saw the Selimiye Barracks (where Florence Nightingale worked), the Maiden’s Tower out in the middle of the passage and finally, at a distance, the Topkapi Palace, before docking once again at Eminönü.
A farewell dinner with our new tour friends at our hotel rounded off what had been a most interesting and enjoyable tour of Turkey.