The International Writers Magazine: Istanbul
Istanbul, (not Constantinople)
This time last month I was wandering carefree through the stalls of the sprawling Grand Bazaar in the very centre of Turkey’s coolest city, Istanbul. The Bazaar itself and surrounding markets are a veritable maze – without a breadcrumb trail to lead me out I was hopelessly and happily lost very quickly.
Bargaining with the best of Istanbul’s traders for a wide variety of Turkish goods swiftly became a favourite pastime whilst I was there and (were it not for my boyfriend) I could have spent many more an hour weaving through the stalls, lusting after (and too often buying) beautifully hand painted bowls and shining cashmere scarves. Outside of the summer months the traders are relaxed and smiling, quick to offer a little glass of tea (taken black with a cube of sugar at least 5 times a day) and a square of dusted Turkish delight in return for a browse of their wares.
For the unseasoned traveller, Istanbul is a wonder. It is relaxing, beautiful, exotic and familiar all at once. ‘Westernised’ to the perfect point, it’s a great balance between tourist destination and undiscovered territory, making it feel safe and exciting all at once. Granted, it does take a bit of getting used to, but the initial fear that shook me as I was hurtling from airport to hotel at about 100 miles an hour, my life in the reckless hands of a cursing youth in a rickety minibus, soon evaporated within a few short hours.
Istanbul itself is set in a C shape around the bluest of blue seas – the Marmara. The seafront is a huge harbour called the Bosphorus, along which you can take boat tours really cheaply and it’s almost worth it just to get a proper look at the blubbery masses of jellyfish which float menacingly alongside. It’s also a great way to see the sights from the water and you can have a nose at the spectacular mansions belonging to some of the wealthier residents of the area. The fishermen line the main Galata bridge night and day, catching mackerel and other fresh fish which you can buy 5 minutes later, grilled whole and stuffed into a bap with fresh lemon and salt as you please. As a huge fish and seafood fan these were a highlight of my trip and they were also cheap as chips at around about £2 for a bap and a can of coke. You can’t go wrong.
Istanbul is a historical city and two of the main attractions are the ancient mosques in the centre of town: the Blue Mosque and the spectacular Hagia Sophia. These two beauties attract the most tourists, but equally stunning and easily missed - although practically next door - are the Topkapi Palace gardens. By mistake I stumbled wide-eyed upon this eden on my very first afternoon in the city and wandered happily around the immaculate lawns, admiring the flowers and pavilions with the locals young and old. The grass looks like it has been trimmed with the aid of nail scissors and a ruler, but everyone is welcome to sit and picnic or nibble on a barbecued corn on the cob which you can find on every corner.
|On my first full day in Istanbul, I decided that the Topkapi Palace itself was a good place to start. The palace boundaries stretch far and wide and my guide book advised half a day to explore the entire grounds; Sultan Mehmet, who built the palace, evidently did not do things in halves. Buy the Museum Pass and it will not only get you into most of the main museums and attractions in the fast-track queue, but will allow you access to the Harem part of the Topkapi palace, where the Sultan’s many wives and eunuchs lived. For me, this was the most fascinating exhibition within the palace and revealed the most about the ancient Ottoman culture, especially where women were concerned.
For example, the Sultan’s mother, or ‘Valide Sultan’, had the largest room in the palace apart from the Sultan himself and also controlled the treasury, whilst the Sultan’s ‘main’ wife and bearer of his heirs also had much more power than you’d expect a woman to hold in the 15th century. She dictated not only when he could go to bed, but who he went to bed with, setting out time slots in which he was allowed to sleep with the other wives...
||The Blue Mosque and the Haghia Sophia were truly stunning, but if you’ve only got the weekend to explore and want to choose one or the other, I’d personally advise spending your precious time in the Haghia Sophia. The Blue Mosque is interesting and certainly beautiful but the Hagia Sophia is absolutely awe-inspiring and much more interactive.
It was actually a Christian cathedral until the city was conquered by Sultan Mehmet, and he tried (not very successfully) to mosque-ify it. Where the whitewashing has faded over the thousands of years, today you can clearly see the intricate mosaics and paintings of Mary and the Christ child and other Christian relics, and it’s definitely worth going upstairs to get a closer look at the dome ceiling and to see where some naughty Viking vandals broke in and chiselled graffiti into the marble balconies all those years ago.
I stayed in the centre of the old town, or Sultanahmet, within the Sirkeci district, in a lovely little hotel called the Orient Express that had an indoor swimming pool - just in case it rained. Of course it didn’t rain. It’s Turkey (even in March). The breakfast was spectacular. I suppose it can be described as a mixture of continental and English cooked breakfasts, with random additions like an abundance of olives and about 20 different types of cheese. Why not? My favourite parts were the strong black coffee on tap and the orange juice press. It was situated next to a tower of oranges that literally defied gravity, and you were encouraged to slice them in half and squeeze ‘til your heart’s content (or the glass was filled). Much fun and deliciousness was had by all once we took the plunge and actually tackled the press, much to the bemusement of other guests. It’s my firm belief that breakfast makes a hotel.
||I managed to fit all of Istanbul’s main sights into the first few days because everything is situated so closely together, and with time left over my boyfriend and I were content to wander along the Bosphorus in the sun, munching our mackerels and chatting to the fishermen and the locals. They’re a friendly bunch and though I was prepared for all sorts being a London resident myself, I can honestly say I never felt unsafe. We took extra precautions to be inconspicuous and zipped up on our first day or so but quickly realised that we needn’t have bothered.
Constantine left his mark all over this historic town but Istanbul has moved on decidedly since. Its two thousand year old crumbling walls have many a story to tell and the historian in me greedily consumed them. But this wonderful city has much more to offer you than history alone. It’s certainly Istanbul, not Constantinople.
© Keeley Graham April 2014
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