Turkish Delights : Istanbul

The mild lamps dangling from the sky high ceiling creates a twinkle in your eyes. The poetic blue grandeur of the prayer hall of the Blue Mosque bewitches you. The blue and red tulip patterns on the ceiling are subtle yet magical.

You step into the courtyard of this 400 year old mosque and you are out of a blue dream. The only other distraction: the horn of ship sailing in the blue sea in the backdrop whilst the pleasant evening air tickles your face. 
We were in the historic city of Istanbul, once renowned as Constantinople. An important destination on the Silk Route. The city spread over two continents was once the pearl in the crown of the Roman(later Byzantine) Empire until the Ottoman’s invaded the city.
The Bosporus which connects the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea, divides the city into two sides (technically three) i.e. European and Asian. Our love affair with the city began as our jovial young taxi driver took us to our hotel passing the tiny zig zag traffic laden streets at the Old city centre i.e. Sultanahmet. Whilst the lorries ahead of us, off loaded the goods at luxury in middle of the street, we were lip syncing to a Turkish song with the taxi driver. (I hummed a Bollywood version one) We knew we were somewhere close to home.
Being the Research guide for the group, I had mapped a list of places to see and boy , was it long! Dev and Preeti were equally delighted by the familiar vibrant atmosphere of the city. The hawkers, hand carts, loads of people, the usual tourist touts, ugly hoardings of politicians,(they are having elections) it seemed so welcoming. 

It was early evening after we got the first glimpse of what marvels the city held for us. Most of the attractions were closed after we stepped out of the Sultanahmet mosque (Blue Mosque) and brushed up some history lessons at the Hippodrome and Obliex adjacent to it. 
Since there was not much to visit and no particular route in mind, we ventured into our favourite activity. Roaming the city aimlessly on foot and sampling some local cuisine.
There is more to Turkey than the infamous doner kebab. There can be a whole chapter devoted to it. But here are the highlights: Vegetarians take a back seat. You can enjoy some Meze(assorted dips) and bread. There are lots of other interesting Kebabs (Andana, Iskender) although they are primarily Beef and lamb.
Sample Turkish parathas – Gozeme with feta and spinach, mushroom, beef (Only if they made chicken for me…sob sob) and try some clay pot cooked stews. Thanks to the surrounding water bodies, there is fish available in plentiful. Locals in large numbers drop their fishing lines very casually while standing on a bridge well into late evening. Infact, grilled fish with finely chopped parsley, onion, tomatoes and spices wrapped in a bread is a local street food favourite. (try near Galata bridge)The streets are scattered with hand carts selling roasted chestnuts and corn on cob and Turkish sesame pretzel like bread ‘Simit’. 
Did I make your taste buds water? There is more.
The hotel treated us to a hearty breakfast of different cheeses, eggs, fine dryfruits (one of the best I have eaten) and honeycomb every morning along with staple continental fare. The turks take their breakfast seriously. To hell to our London healthy dietary restrictions! Hubby and I muttered as we stuffed ourselves. We actually realised what a good tomato tastes like, the ones we buy even at a premium store in London seem to lack real flavour.

We started our action filled next morning, we wanted to knock off major attractions off our list. We joked with vendors on our way as we went around looking at their fare on the streets. They called out, ‘’India’’?, ‘’UK?, sir come here. We will come again, we would say. 
One cheeky chap said, ‘’My grandfather said the same thing.’’ He paused. ‘’Twenty years ago but never came back’’. We found Turkish folks very jovial and friendly. And handsome. (beautiful…wink wink) Yes, all the four of us were shamelessly acknowledging the good looking faces.

The remains of the marvellous durable Roman architecture is evident in the city. The Basiclia Cistern , a 6th century massive underground water storage tank is a fine example. If this

wasn’t enough, the Hagia Sophia is a fine example of early architecture brilliance. It does not require a great effort to imagine how the interiors must be in its glory days. (History Gyaan : From the date of its construction in 537 until 1453, it served as an Eastern Orthodoxcathedral and seat of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, except between 1204 and 1261, when it was converted to a Roman Catholic cathedral under the Latin Empire. The building was a mosque from 29 May 1453 until 1931. It was then secularized and opened as a museum on 1 February 1935.)
Apologies for the boring historical fact, but Hagia Sofia reflects more than architecture I think it is a fine example that the status of the place is that of a secularized museum at present date.

Although, 90% population in Turkey, is Muslim, the state is strictly secular. The women in Istanbul seemed to embrace modern outfits, no veils and men wore smart suits.
The Topkapi Palace, the primary residence of the Sultans for 400 years is spread over a few acres is adjacent to Hagia Sophia. It is now serves as a museum of possessions of the Sultans and some important relics of the Muslim world. Forget the museum, stroll around the gardens of the palace on a sunny day.

The gardens are lined with lovely, heavenly smelling flowers, you cannot resist but smell them. In fact they can been seen on major motorways at Istanbul.

So much for the main attractions, there are several other mosques adorning the hills of the Golden Horn area, a natural harbour , Chora Church, the walls of city from Roman times, the modern Taksim square lined with modern shops and cafes, the Galata tower and you could understand why a technically 3 day trip did not seem enough.

The Bosporus cruise at sunset time seemed like a perfect thing to do to view the beautiful city skyline. Sahlep, a thickly brewed warm drink of orchid powder, wheat, honey and milk topped with cinnamon(heaven) kept us company while enjoying the slightly cold air on the strait. Istanbul has a good network of water transport which locals use heavily apart from trams and newly built metro. Yes, we tried it all!! The most annoying part if any at Istanbul was the metro. Imagine walking down three to four flights of escalators to reach the underground!

“Dance, when you’re broken open. Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off. Dance in the middle of the fighting. Dance in your blood. Dance when you’re perfectly free.”

These are words of Rumi, a Persian poet and Islamic jurist.

Watching a performance of the whirling dervish, made me realise what perhaps Rumi must have meant. Afterall, the Mevlevi Order, Sufi order are supposed to be his followers. Admit I watched him perform at a touristy café but nonetheless it was brilliant. It was a lovely musical evening with some soothing Turkish music and nargile. (sheesha) and the stunningly lit blue mosque in the backdrop.

Have I missed the desserts? Move over Turkish delights aka Lokum….there is more baklava than you can eat. There are confectionary shops with a colourful array of sweets displayed everywhere. The cafes serve a variety of sweets with tea and coffee open till midnight. One such Café was Hafiz Mustafa, their Menu card was a fat laminated magazine itself !! The sweets were laden with dryfruits no kanjusi here. A must try is Kunufe, a sweet cheese pastry served hot in a pan.
What will you buy at Istanbul? Rather ask what you will not buy at Istanbul. Carpets, Ceramics, Spices, leather,Tea and Coffee. P and D spent half a day at Grand Bazar, one of world’s oldest mall to buy a carpet for their new home. I had fun haggling after a long time.

Half a day at Grand Bazar meant we were left with limited time to pursue the Prince Islands, a small cluster and weekend getaway for Istanbul locals. We reached one of the Islands, a vehicle free place much like apla Matheran (with concrete roads) around dusk and strolled around admiring the white washed mansions. After eating hurriedly some amazing grilled fish at a restaurant overlooking the sea, it was time to catch the last ferry.

‘’Mosafir?’’, asked an elderly gentleman on the ferry boat to hubby and we got into a small talk with him. He had been to the islands for a couple of hours on the weekend with his buddies. ‘’You have come from Hindustan? That is quite far from here.’’

Well, only around four hours away from home. In fact both homes which lie on either side of this beautiful city as I witnessed the borders of the two continents from the Galata Tower.

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