Travel notes from Istanbul

By Shayantani Sarkar

The Blue Mosque in IstanbulAs a child, Istanbul had chiseled a special place in my mind. My introduction to Turkey was through the travel shows hosted on television back in the 1990s. It is fascinating to see a country straddling two continents. I was intrigued with the language, culture and cuisine. To see the magical Blue Mosque come to life from history books was a coveted dream. I had spent months planning; in the process I discovered more of Turkey and was enthralled with it.

Though Istanbul is not a favored travel destination like other parts of Europe, Turkey draws huge revenue from tourism. The tourist season starts from the middle of June and lasts until November 10. However mid-July to September is considered the peak season. One can get reasonable rates from October till November. It starts raining around the second week of November; the weather gets cold and uninviting. We had planned our trip from Dubai, and Turkish Airlines is the undeniable choice from any part of the world. I had scheduled my trip in early November to avail of the best deals.

My flight reached Istanbul in the early morning. It was a dull and grey sky. The rains were expected in a week's time and that also meant the end of the tourist season in Turkey. Opting for cabs after a long flight is a comfortable choice, but not when you are travelling on a budget. We availed the bus service from the airport to Aksara and then a cab to reach the Sultanahmet area in the old town of Istanbul.

Istanbul's places of interest are located around the Sultanahmet area and it is sensible to choose an accommodation in that area. The chilled air numbed us as we walked to our hotel, a couple of yards from where the cab dropped us.

After considerable Internet research I listed the hotels from where we could have an uninterrupted view of the Blue Mosque. We were staying in Sultanahmet Hotel — most hotels in the old town will let you glimpse the Blue Mosque from the terrace. The Turkish couple running this place was friendly and warm, and they served excellent breakfast. After completing the brief check-in procedure I rushed to the terrace to view the Blue Mosque.

Local commutes are inexpensive as you can either walk or avail of the tram services. There are endless places of interest to be covered in Istanbul. As I was travelling with my little daughter, my choices were limited and more suited for her.

Since the Blue Mosque — also known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque — was very close we covered it first. The Mosque and Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofia) are just across the courtyard and can be covered on the same day.

The Mosque is influenced by both Byzantine and Ottoman architecture. The interiors are made of Iznik tiles, which has impeccable ornate design influenced by the Tulip era and the predominant color is blue; hence the name. A local guide suggested that the designs were heat-fixed on the tiles to make them long-lasting. Visitors are expected to cover their heads and remove their footwear as a mark of respect. The mosque has six minarets and a story suggests that the Sultan had requested his architect to make gold (altin) minarets, but the architect misconstrued the order as six (alti) minarets.

A view of the old city from Galata BridgeRight across the courtyard is the Hagia Sofia (also known as Aya sofia) Church, which epitomizes Byzantine architecture. The church has ethereal mosaic work, and ostentatious chandeliers. It is also lit naturally by 40 arched windows.

Down the lane from Hagia Sofia is the Basilica Cistern — a subterranean structure which was initially built as a reservoir. The cistern holds 336 columns arranged in 12 rows. The dimly lit aisle and the damp air led us to the columns that have the base as the visage of Medusa.

Weary from our long flight and first day's visit, we decided to call it a day.

We chose to cover Topkapi Palace and the Harem on the second day, and it took us half a day to complete the tour. The royal residence overlooks the strait of Bosphorus, the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara. The palace and the harem gave us a glimpse of Sultan's private life. The kitchen in the palace is elongate and opens into the courtyard. The museum is irresistible as it displays the gold, enamel washed studded possessions of the Sultan and the last Mughal throne which was gifted by Nadir Shah.

A lot has been said on the internet about how dangerous Istanbul can get at odd hours. Initially I was skeptical about moving out in the late evenings. The local people are extremely helpful and also curious to figure out which part of the world we hailed from.

Shopping can be real fun as Istanbul is a tourist's paradise and there is a huge range to choose from. Colored lamps, Turkish carpets, towels and wall hangings are just a few of them. Bargaining is highly recommended.

Chatting with a local shopkeeper I discovered that good silk carpets are centuries old and were brought into the family as dowry. These carpets were sold by the family in the market during difficult times. Carpet-buyers should have a discerning eye to select the original carpets from the fake as there are many Chinese substitutes available at cheaper rates.

We had been to Grand Bazaar and I could not take my eyes off a familiar face surrounded by Indians and foreigners alike. I got close to the troupe. Shopkeepers in hushed voice muttered that he was 'a Bollywood hero.' I took a closer look to see it was Salman Khan shooting for Ek Tha Tiger.

Sufi music is mystical and replenishes the soul through chants, prayers and whirling dances. It is a wonderful way to connect with the supreme power and words fail to describe the spiritual experience. There are regular evening shows and tickets can be booked a couple of hours before the show begins. We had been to Hodjapasha to augment our soul. As kids are not allowed, after a lot of pleading we got a seat near the doorway, so that we could rush out if my kid got cranky.

Cruising along the strait of Bosphorus offers an insight into the lives of the Turkish people. At Eminönü port there are many cruise liners. If you find them expensive there are traditional versions like Şehir Hatları, which are equally good. However, they are only available during the day and don't provide lunch onboard. They stop in Anadolu Kavagi, a small fishing village on the coast, for lunch.

Cruises start from the Eminönü Bridge. Eminönü is frequented by tourists, locals and friendly seagulls. From here, one can view the cone-topped Galata Tower, which dominates the skyline of old Istanbul. We voyaged past the Dolmabacche palace, Maiden's Tower and Bosphorus Bridge into the Black Sea and back.

Istanbul is an epicurean's delight. Turkish Dolmas (vegetables stuffed with meat), usually served as a meze (sort of an appetizer, along with cheeses and salads), are a must. The Pudding House in Sutanahmet area is a hot favorite. In most eateries Turkish women make fresh Gözleme, the Turkish version of the Indian aloo paratha (fresh bread stuffed with potatoes and herbs). Turkish sweets and candy sticks are all over the place and they are worth trying even they do not suit your palate.

We spent the fourth day in Istiklal Caddeci or Istiklal Avenue the busiest part of the town where locals go shopping. Not touristy, but noteworthy for the modest prices in comparison to the Sultanahmet area. Hopping on a tram is an easy way to move around, and if you are tired of walking relax in Çiçek Pasajı (Flower Passage) with a pint of beer or refreshing Turkish tea.

On the last day of my trip I tried the famous Turkish ice-cream, not so much for its taste but for the selling tactics.

Interestingly, the ice-cream vendor was curious to know where we were from and I promptly replied "India", to which the vendor said, "You mean Hindustan?" I said yes with a surprised smile and, as he handed me a dollop of ice-cream, he added, "Yes, Indira Gandhi's country."

Hindustan, a name so familiar yet infrequently used in the urban world, surprised me when the ice-cream vendor said it. Istanbul is a perfect blend of East and West. The language is similar to Hindi and most of the words can be easily comprehended.

I boarded the airport shuttle feeling depressed that my vacation was over. On my way back I took a last look around but soon the raindrops on the windscreen made the city imperceptible. I closed my eyes and smiled. Perhaps it's time to think of a new travel destination.

Shayantani Sarkar has lived across the length and breadth of India, but spent her initial years in Kolkata, the city that influenced her as a person. She works in the IT industry and loves her work. She is passionate about travel and photography and reading Paulo Coelho. She relishes good food and gets high on Latin music. She lives in Bangalore. Read her blog to discover more.

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