As promised, here are pics from our food journey in Istanbul. Unfortunately, I didn’t photograph everything we ate, but there are some interesting things here….enjoy!
For our last evening in Istanbul, we decided to test the phrase we saw screaming out from many touristy t-shirts- ‘Istanbul never sleeps’, the declare!
We had studiously avoided any sort of organized tour on this trip and had snobbishly given a pass to the aggressively advertised Bosphorus Tours. So we started the evening by taking a regular passenger ferry over to Uskudar, which is over on the Asian side of Istanbul. Only about 30% of the city’s population lives here and we saw it buzz with the life of returning workers, lovers and families out for the evening, occupying its many endearing little parks and fountains. As everywhere in the city, open spaces were an integral aspect of life and well-used.
We then took another ferry and crossed over to Kabatas(h), which is on the European side but across the Bosphorus from the old city where we were staying. We headed back to Istiklal Street near Taksim Square, where we had spent an entire afternoon two days ago. At night, this commercial spine of the city was as live as it had been on the Saturday afternoon we were here last. Shops were open till about eleven and the cash registers still ringing. Entire families were out on a Monday night to enjoy themselves.
We made for the Cicek Passaji, a quaint old passageway full of about a dozen restaurants, and pubs where we proceeded to polish off some kebabs with an excellent Turkish dry white wine. Live music, sung by a band of musicians playing violin, a sort of mandolin, a tambourin and a sort of clarinet, filled the air. To my ears, it sounded very similar to the bard type of singing in Rajasthan, melancholy and joyous at the same time!
As we paid up short of midnight and dashed out hoping to still catch public transport back to the hotel, we saw the streets still full and merriments in full swing. We literally ran to catch the funicular back to Kabatash and then the tram back to Sultanahmet (will write separately about public transport), which had been our ‘home’ stop for our stay in Istanbul.
Adieu Istanbul! Happy to have been here…
Istanbul has been an important trading hub for centuries and its bazaars are an important aspect of its ecosystem. We walked through a wholesale market not unlike Delhi’s Chandni Chowk to get to the Spice Bazaar, or as the locals call it Misir Charsisi, referring to the historical trade with Egypt in spices. Akin to Khari Bowli, which is located at one end of Chandni Chowk, the Spice Bazaar sells an amazing assortment of condiments. We got educated about several varieties of saffron and the shopkeeper actually dissolved a few grains of the fiest Iranian saffron in water to show us how magically the colour seeps out compared to Turkish and Spanish saffron, which are considered inferior. Indian Saffron, to my amusement, was not saffron at all in this market, but a name used to refer to haldi, or turmeric!
The Spice Bazaar, the Grand Bazaar as well as some other smaller little markets on the way are indoor bazaars that pulsate with activity inside beautiful living Ottoman structures, replete with details in paint and tilework, period light fixtures and much more. Well ventilated, the bazaars do not feel claustrophobic and an entire industry of cafes, food stalls and nargili (hooka) places thrive inside.
We ended up buying some ceramic work and were lucky to find English speaking locals who helped us find a good price and refer the right shops. Carpet and kilim traders were out to get us (in a gracious nice way, none of the pushing and shoving type of touting here!), but we escaped them after a short session of looking at some gorgeous old used Armenian and tribal kilims that had been brought in from the villages for restoration! Did not seem polite to photograph those, but they were similar to the durries we get in India, but with richer colors.
Advice to visitors here. Haggling is fine! We saw some kids for India doing it desi style and it worked pretty well!Find out prices from at least 3-4 shops if you want to buy ceramics, carpets or anything substantial price wise.
Very small things can endear you to a city. Istanbul is very much a tourism-oriented city. At every corner, you get accosted by a smiling man asking you to come and eat in his little streetside/rooftop cafe. “Biradar (brother),” he calls. And if you refuse, he says, “Maybe tomorrow?”. Don’t break his heart by refusing him, be polite and say, another time! To me, this ritual captures the essence of this genteel culture, this fascinating mix of East and West, this city that was the seat of Christianity for a thousand years, then the seat of Islam for another several centuries. With a predominantly Muslim population, today Turkey holds forth as a beacon of tolerance and modernity in a world that is increasingly suspicious, divided and myopic in the way it views other cultures.
Today was our best day here so far. We had no game plan in mind and the entire day unfolded beautifully and effortlessly, starting with a long walk by the Sea of Marmara (marble) along the Golden Horn and right next to the old city walls. We saw the locals enjoy their Sunday in the most simple and delightful ways, fishing, sunbathing, strolling.
We ambled through Gulhane Park and into the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, which has an impressive collection of Antiquities art, especially of the necrophiliac kind!
We visited the Topkapi Palace next, which was the seat of the Ottoman Empire in its hey days. In terms of scale, it was larger than Fatehpur Sikri perhaps, and much more ornate. Items from the royal treasury and armory were in display and despite the tourist hordes, it was fascinating. The palace is located at the highest point in the city, so the views were rewarding by themselves.
We took in a show of whirling dervishes in the evening at a charming theater called the Hodja Pasha. It used to be a Turkish hammam, and now the ladies and gents bathing chambers have been converted into performing spaces. The dervishes whirled beautifully in their pristine white flowing robes, just as I had imagined them. I don’t quite think this is supposed to be a performing art form though, considering about 40% of the audience was dozing off!
As we got off the tram to head back to the hotel, we were captivated by the lighting on the two jewels of this city- the Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque, the latter we hadn’t seen yet. To our delight, it was still open and we had a peaceful viewing and opportunities for some night time photography.
Before I sign off, I have to say I love how the public spaces are used by residents in Istanbul. We’ve seen birthday celebrations replete with confetti happening on the streets. Lovers cuddle and families picnic in the gardens everywhere. Well-maintained infrastructure and efficient and low-key policing facilitate this, but it is also about a culture of using the city as a canvas for your life. How I wish we did this more in Delhi, which in my opinion rivals Istanbul in its legacy and character!
Way back in SPA when I was an undergrad architecture student, I remember clearly marking out the Hagia Sophia (or the Aya Sofya as the locals here call it) as an architectural building I had to visit within this lifetime. It featured among more obvious ones like the Parthenon and Stonehenge, which I haven’t got to yet! What impressed me even then was its history. It’s been a church and a mosque and way back in 1935, Mustafa Kemal Attaturk (yes him, the guy who established Turkey as a republic) ensured it became a museum, in the spirit of bequeathing a monument with such a tremendous history to the public at large.
We spent an entire morning here today, mesmerized. A massive structure that has seen fires, additions, demolitions, modifications, excavations and restorations from 360 AD till the present, the Aya Sofya is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture. It has one of the most massive domes in the world and was the largest cathedral in the world for some 1000 years!
I will not bore you with facts. Here are some images that might give some idea of what it felt like being in here. The dark inside of the museum contrasted hugely with the bright summer sunlight out there in Sultanahmet Square. But it was the inside that blinded you with its beauty, its perfect proportions and intricate details.
We sat on the Turkish Airlines flight this morning, the same one we took exactly a year ago on our way to Barcelona. I remember sort-of celebrating our anniversary at Istanbul airport while we waited to board the onward flight. I also remember staring out the window when the plane landed, longing to get off at Istanbul. The birds eye view of the city taunted me, its intricate maze of streets, its domes and spires, its Europen style ordered layouts, its vast water bodies.
So when Rahul and me planned, for the umpteenth time, a getaway for just the two of us this summer, Bangkok and Pattaya and even the European cities just didn’t cut the ice. Both of us sort of zeroed in on Istanbul as our first choice, did the needful to get visas and bookings etc. Today, as I sit here having just checked into the hotel, hearing the sounds of the old city around me, I feel like we completed a journey begun a year ago on our tenth anniversary. This evening, we shall go out to celebrate our 11th, in a city full of smiling, laughing people, proud of their culture and immensely hospitable.
We’ve already experienced that here. When you ask a doorman for directions, and he takes you inside, gets someone to type in your destination on Google maps and give you a printout, even though he knows you are taking your business elsewhere, that’s true hospitality. Another elderly gentleman distributing pamphlets to advertise his street side eatery actually stood out and stopped traffic to help us cross a tricky intersection. A bunch of young men on the tram kept everyone entertained with their presumably witty conversation; even without understanding, it was hard not to laugh along. People stood up to offer their seats to women, elderly and kids without the slightest hesitation; fathers out with their children are as common a sight as mums and kids; women in headscarves and women in business suits converse animatedly- I see many, many signs of a tolerant, progressive and socially adjusted civilization. Hope to discover more as we explore the city…..