Falling in love with Istanbul/Constantinople

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Middle East » Turkey » Marmara » Istanbul » Beyoglu
March 17th 2011
Published: April 28th 2011EDIT THIS ENTRY

I had heard before that Istanbul was a pretty special place that you had to see. I am now also firmly of that opinion myself. Originally (arguable) Byzantium, then Constantinople, Istanbul has only been known exclusively as Istanbul since the creation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. Up until this point many 'westerners' still referred to it as Constantinople, almost 500 years after the 1453 Ottoman conquest.

It was the center of Western civilisation after all, where throughout the middle ages it was both Europe's largest and wealthiest city. It has served as the capital of the Roman Empire (330–395), the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire (395–1204 and 1261–1453), the Latin Empire (1204–1261), and the Ottoman Empire (1453–1922). Now it is the biggest city in Turkey and sees itself as through much of its history at the meeting point of 'east' and 'west'.

This (its history), its superb location, amazing architecture/treasures (even though the Ottomans along with other invading parties including the Crusaders have destroyed a lot of formerly amazing architecture/treasures), frenzied, energetic and full of life atmosphere, fascinating mix of people/civilizations, mouth-watering street food, fantastic nightlife, all add up to a city that is unique and that possesses an x factor that doubtlessly must turn 99 per cent of its visitors into admirers.

I started off there before the break of dawn after an overnight bus ride from Sofia. It was a rather big bus station that I found myself in and I also found myself rather lost. After about half an hour I managed to find the exit, to where I was to make my way to the hostel address I had jotted down from. With the help of a nice 'Istanbuler' who had no doubt seen the forlorn and exhausted look on my face, I managed to get to where I needed to get to. I was also treated to a nice introductory talk on Istanbul and Turkey, by a man that had spent a long time in Los Angeles and through his business, knew both Istanbul and Turkey's role in global politics very well. He kept me awake anyway.

Eventually I found a place where I possibly could stay, having found the first three places fully occupied. I just had to wait until 1pm before I would get confirmation. Better than nothing and with the weather outside very inviting, I set off on my first walk around Istanbul's nooks and crannies. En route I met a French girl, with whom I had brunch which was my first excellent Turkish street food. It was a baked potato stuffed with every imaginable ingredient you could think of - a very nice way to start the day.

After brunch I said au revoir to my french friend who was keen to shop and not to keen on my idea to walk across to Asia. An hour or so later I found myself on the bridge connecting Europe to Asia, after having had more problems arriving than I had anticipated. With cars whizzing past me and rubbish flying in my face I stepped on to the narrow path that separated the bridge's railings and the traffic. The next ten minutes were bliss, it was a beautiful day, the wind was blowing in my face and the view of Istanbul was just stunning. I was also really sold on the idea of walking from Europe to Asia and with me being the only person around the adrenalin was kicking in as I realized that I probably was doing something I wasn't allowed to do.

This turned out to be the case when just as I was about to get past the halfway point to the halfway to Asia point, a box appeared, out of which a frantically gesticulating security guard/police officer sprung forth. There was to be no walking to Asia today, too many people had used the bridge to commit suicide apparently. I promised him I wouldn't top myself, but it was no use and I think he must of seen the disappointment etched into my face as he sympathetically said I could hang around the box taking photos if I would like. I did this for a bit, admiring the views, before I begrudgingly accepted that my cross continent walk had been thwarted. I almost threw myself off the bridge right there, just to illustrate that one guy sitting on a bridge in a box wouldn't have stopped my suicide attempt. But then I thought again, obviously.

On the way back to the hostel that I had left well behind me in my quest to walk from Europe to Asia, I managed to get lost in a park which ended up in me inadvertently transgressing the law again. I needed to get back to the main road so I had walked in this direction and found myself in an overgrown kind of garden area splotted with a few ruins here and there. It turned out that this was a forbidden area, but the police/security men were all good about it, showing me how to get back on the main road, via a diversion that saw me almost where I had started an hour or two before.

At this point I decided I wasn't going to experiment anymore and took the most direct way back to the hostel. On the way there I came across a student demonstration that was being forcibly broken up by police. Around 100 students were pushed, dragged and shoved into two bus sized paddy wagons. The students had planned to make the square I was at, there home for the foreseeable future, I guess until student rates had been cut. The police were not to happy with the idea and had disrupted proceedings pretty early on in the piece, with the students having been there for about an hour before they tuned up -, according to the person who I had talked to. Anyway by the time I left all that was left in the square to hint at what had gone on was a half-pitched tent.

As tired as I was, I arrived at the hostel feeling fairly alert. The feeling subsided fairly quickly however after I was finally allocated a bed and I had a couple of very nice hours of sleep. Afterwards I began meeting what was to be a succession of very cool people. Sometimes when you travel/backpack you come across places and people where everything just gels. I ended up spending the following 4-5 days with a Canadian from Quebec, two Americans, a Japanese guy, a Turk and at times a couple of other Americans and Germans. They were a lot of fun and another reason that I enjoyed Istanbul so much.

So what did I do in Istanbul. As I have already mentioned, I ate street food, a lot of it. The street food in Istanbul is amongst the best that I have found. During my time there I ate mussels stuffed with rice and various spices, sweet corn mixed with spices that made it perhaps the most tasty sweetcorn I have ever eaten, fish sandwiches that were served off the boat and at a rate that meant the fish was about as fresh as you could get. kebab/doner - although in this case I have to say that the Turks that moved to Germany have outdone their former countrymen, fresh fruit juices using fruit that I had never had before and now can't remember the name of, Turkish pizza, Turkish sweets and lots of them. olives that were probably the nicest I have tried since I scoffed back a jar of them as a three year old. Burek although I'm not sure that's what the Turks call it and of course the stuffed potato I mentioned before. There was actually probably more street food that I tried, but it has slipped my mind now. In any case it was four days of heaven.

The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul is something else. it is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with more than 58 covered streets and over 4,000 shops which attract between 250,000 and half a million visitors daily. We spent a fair chunk of time walking around its streets being haggled but in not to much of an annoying way. In fact it was amazing to see the vendors pick out, with 90 per cent accuracy, what our native languages were, what countries we were from and then proceed to give their sales pitch in that language based on where we were from. It was funny that 99 per cent of them seemed to have relatives living just down the road from where ever we happened to be from. They had problems guessing where I was from and I managed to pull off Spanish, Argentinian. Brazilian, Italian and German. In each case they still had a brother or sister across the road from where I was from. In the Italian case I'm not even sure if the town I mentioned existed....

We walked around Istanbul non-stop for three days, in which time we took in some of the major tourist attractions, landmarks and city features. The highlights of which for me were walking over the Valens Aqueduct, relaxing at the Turkish bath Çemberlitaş Hamamı, and the boat ride and the views that came with it from Europe to Asia and Asia to Europe.

The Valens Aqueduct was completed in the 4th century by the Roman Emperor Valens and subsequently restored by several Ottoman Sultans. What was the major water providing system of the then Eastern Roman capital became a major highlight of my time in Istanbul, because we managed to climb atop of it and be treated to some of the most spectacular views over Istanbul that you could find. We didn't think that you could go on it, in fact legally you can't, but we spotted some Turkish teenagers on it and asked them how they had gotten up. They took us to a spot and showed us the tricks of the trade and then we were all teenagers for an hour or so. With everyone on the best high you can get in life, i.e a natural one, we sat on top of the ancient aqueduct and paradoxically with the chaos of Istanbul swirling all around us, completely relaxed and enjoyed one of those unforgettable moments that you feel lucky to have experienced.

The historical Turkish bath 'Çemberlitaş Hamamı', was another treat. I spent a couple of hours there enjoying what the Ottomans had created in 1584 for a bit of R&R. Well actually the bath was established by Nurbanu Sultan, wife of Selim II and mother of Murat III, for the purpose of bringing in revenue to support the Valide-i Atik Charity Complex in Toptasi, Üsküdar. In any case it was one of the best R&R sessions that I have ever had.

I will copy and paste a description of the bath "Each of the warm areas of the bath are roofed by three domes. The toilets are reached from this area and have been built as extensions from the building proper. One enters the hot, bathing area from this transitional warm area through a wooden door in the area built under the middle dome. The plan of this hot area is unique as it does not entirely conform to traditional layouts for this bathing area. This can be explained with the fact that the architect Sinan both liked to innovate in his work, and also to the fact that Sinan was closely involved with the construction of the structure. This space is shaped like a square on the outside, but the inner dimensions are in the shape of a circle formed of twelve columns, becoming a twelve-cornered polygon. The architect beautifully situated the domed, private bathing cubicles, the halvet, in the space made up of the four outer corners outside of the polygon. Four antechambers are between the cubicle spaces. One enters the hot section by passing through these antechambers. The large dome covering the hot section is supported by high arches on top of columns with baklava shaped heads. The cubicles are separated from the main area by marble slab walls topped by tulip shapes. These dividers have inscriptions carved into each side. The private cubicles are entered through arched doorways at their front sides. Couplets are inscribed on the front and the triangular shaped upper elements are covered with blossoms. The bath has 38 washing stalls. The multi-faceted central stone platform is directly beneath the wide dome. This broad heated platform is illuminated by the glass globe ‘elephant eyes’ fitted into the overhead dome that catch the light from all directions. This building dates to Sinan’s last period, one in which his long experience and great skill allowed him to combine functionality, elegance and tranquillity without abandoning his basic style that is devoid of overly decorated elements. For these reasons the architecture of his bath remains a focal point for Turkish and foreign researchers, universities, photographers, filmmakers, media professionals and students.'

Well done if you managed to read that. from a layman's perspective, the Turkish bath is where you lay on a hot slab and then wash yourself with water - a great experience!!!!

The boat rides were a highlight just because Isanbul's location is so stunning. I was also lucky to have had the best weather you possibly could have hoped for. It was 20 to 25 degrees the whole time I was there, a week or so earlier Istanbul had been completely covered in snow and I'm sure a couple of weeks later it would have been a lot hotter than 20-25 degrees.

Another massive highlight I had in Istanbul was a night out that I had there. After smoking the mandatory shisha, and eating the mandatory kebab, we went down one of Istanbul's countless alleyways which seem to be jammed pack with people every night of the week. We had a few drinks at a tourist pub and were feeling very merry when we happened upon a place with a live Turkish band. The singer was amazing and the atmosphere was very intimate with the band all of 30 centimeters away from us. Me and David, the Quebecer were on could 9 when about 7 absolutely flawless Greek girls turned up. Things got really good when these flawless girls started dancing and beckoning us to join them. By the end of the next two hours we were outside on the street with about 50 people dancing in the streets. An unforgettable night!!!

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