Call it by any name – Turkey still remains a wonderful city with a mix of the old and new. Divided into the Asian and European sides, this populous city has so much to offer. We landed at Ataturk Airport on a sunny muggy afternoon. Etihad is the way to go – leave from Bangalore via Abu Dhabi. Excellent in-flight service and a little nodding off and we were there! Turkey welcomed us with its balmy heat and noise and wonderful smiling people.
We had no car booked so checked around in the airport for transport to our hotel which was in Kadikoy on the Asian side. Thinking we had a wonderful bargain, we jumped into a cab and said Kadikoy ahoy! He charged us 100 Lira (roughly translates to INR 3000)!! We realised that we could have just taken a bus to the Eminonu Ferry stop and then ferried it to Kadikoy and it would have cost us under 40 lira! Anyway, you live and you learn. The transport system is fantastic – don’t get fooled at the airport with touts showing you maps and giving you yarns about how long it will take you to get to your hotel. Just take a Havas bus to a ferry point that will then have other boats which will take you to the Asian side. Closest ferry to the airport is Bakirkoy.
We checked into our very quaint hotel which involved a steep climb up a narrow lane. If you stuck your head out of the window whilst someone held your legs, you could see the azure blue waters of the Bosphorus River! But truly it was a nice and clean little hotel.
Istanbul is flanked by the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. So the ferry is the easiest form of transportation. Quick, easy and painless – you can have the most amazing Turkish tea (black, strong and as sweet as you want it to be) and cheese toast while making these crossings!
We headed off into the great unknown (we knew nothing about Istanbul) after depositing our bags in the room…ferry across the river to Eminonu. We then decided to do the Bosphorus River sightseeing trip. It is basically a boat ride for about 3 hours for TL25 per person. The one we did was not so great – we could barely hear the guide on the PA system. Unsure what it was all about actually! But the boat ride itself was soothing and very scenic.
We did a ferry ride to Uskudor as well. Lovely little lanes with shops and lots of good and cheap eating places called Doners. Turkish food is pretty amazing – toast, Patso (hot dog and French Fries), Kumpir (baked potato with different fillings), roasted Chestnuts or Kestane sold from little carts, Ayran (a yoghurt kind of drink), Simit (sesame bagel).
Next day all rested we headed off in the ferry to Eminonu which is the main ferry station. From there we tram’med it to Sultanahmet station…hopped off and walked to the Blue Mosque. We could not go in as it was prayer time but peeped through the windows. The stained glass is simply superb. The dome is not really blue but sorta looks bluish with the sun shining on it – or so I thought. We had a drink called the Salep – sweet and warm and sprinkled with cinnamon. Yummy! Probably loaded with calories but when you’re on holiday, who cares!
We strolled across to the Hagia Sophia – formerly a Church converted into a Mosque and now a museum. The interiors are full of fabulous mosaics and pillars. Don’t miss the Apse mosaics.
Then onto the Basilica Cistern in the same area. This underground tank provided water to the Great Palace of Constantinople and later on to the Top Kapi Palace. Supported by 336 marble columns, it can hold up to 80,000 cubic metres of water. An underground place, it can be creepy for those with claustrophobia and is awfully damp. You can see the two heads of Medusa on 2 columns – one upside down and one sideways. Why or what is the significance?? – anybody’s guess!
Take the tram to Beyzit station from Sultanahmet to go shopping. The Grand Bazaar is a labyrinth of shops and can be quite chaotic. I think we walked around the same shops without even realising that we were walking in circles! You get everything here – from carpets to stained glass lamp shades to jewellery to Turkish delight and Baklava! For those who invest in carpets and lamp shades, they have a system to FedEx it to your country. Very useful even though it’s a bit pricey. The Bazaar is one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world. Covers an area of 31,000 sq metres and has over 3000 shops! Open between 9 am and 7 pm on all days except Sunday and public holidays. You really have to bargain hard else you are liable to get cheated. Make sure you buy the Turkish Blue Eye – you get them as keychains, bracelets, wall hangings, brooches etc.
Taksim Square was wondrous and so different. Branded stores, scores of people window shopping, quaint buildings interspersed with new buildings, cafes, noise, street musicians, memento stores, carts selling Chestnuts! We took the ferry from Kadikoy to Kabatas. Then the Funicular (underground railway) from Kabatas to Taksim. It’s a very steep climb and you can feel it sitting on the train. It’s actually like an incline elevator but only on a train! Similar to the ones in Hong Kong and Budapest.
Bit of adventure in Taksim Main Street. One poor soul had decided he wanted to end his life and was perched atop a 6-storey building threatening to jump. It was a nail-biting half hour before the cops convinced him he has a lot to live for. However it was an eye-opener for me – hundreds of people stood below, mobile phones trained on him wanting to record him plummeting to his death! Ghoulish that was! Am glad he changed his mind.
We visited some Greek Orthodox Churches as it was Easter time. St Antonio Church in Taksim is a good one to visit. All Greek and Latin to me as I didn’t understand a word, but the mood was sombre and prayerful.
Note: You must have good walking shoes as there is a lot of walking to be done! Keep hydrated (Turkish tea is a good option) and wear a hat so you don’t get too tanned.
We left Istanbul after 4 super days, but I think in order to do it justice, you must stay at least a week.