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Published: December 22nd 2015
Maybe it will happen when you are standing on the Galata Bridge. The bridge crosses the Golden Horn from Karakoy to Eminonu where the Ottoman Sultans ruled for more than 500 years. The bridge will be busy, as always. Throngs of pedestrians mingle with fisherman and vendors for space on the wide sidewalks. Boat traffic of every size and variety vies for the narrow space below as they have since time was recorded. Occasionally a fisherman will have luck and pull a sardine sized fish from the gray waters below. Vendors sell steamed mussels and small bait fish to all who pass.
Rising up from the bridge on either side, the hills climb sharply from the water. At the base of the hill on the “old” side of town several gaudily decorated and heavily rocking boats are loosely tied to the pier. They sell fried fish sandwiches, probably mackerel, to crowds of devoted fans. The cooks work at unbelievable speed to turn out the sandwiches for the never ending line of hungry patrons. Cement stairs serve as benches to enjoy the simple and simply delicious snack. At the base of the “new” side of town, a busy fish
market sells the latest catch to the bargaining masses gathered to find the best choices. Vendors constantly sprinkle sea water on the shiny silver fish to keep them fresh and delicious. The famous Istanbul cats wander everywhere looking for sneakily gained snacks.
It is best to be here when the sunset call to prayer begins. Like a massive, medieval battle of the bands, the call beckons the faithful from amplified speakers on every mosque in the area. The sound is exotic, chaotic, alluring and even a little frightening as it echoes for several minutes off the hills and through the narrow streets of the area. For the perfect end to the show, the sky glows a burning orange behind the giant Suleymaniye Mosque atop the tallest hill to the west as the sun retires after another glorious day.
Maybe it will happen to you when you are in the Egyptian (Spice) Market not far from the New Mosque. If it is a Saturday, the crowd will reach a critical mass where movement is barely possible. The excited voices of the crowd mix with the shopkeeper’s calls to enter their shops and sample all that
The Blue Mosque
The Sea of Marmara beyond
they have on offer. Taste, Smell and Sight are all pleased here. Towers of colorful spices of every variety, piled high to perfect peaks are beautifully displayed. Every color of the rainbow from blue to purple and yellow to bright red are all here. A feast for the nose as much as the eyes, the aromas are as various as the colors. Magical blends, pre-mixed for the visitor make easy work of creating delicious treats at home.
Teas of every variety are the specialty of another shop. Black, White, Green, Herbal, Hibiscus, Rose, Mint, Ginger and Chamomile are only a sampling. Exotic blends with names drawn from the faraway places of your travel imagination. Teas to help you stay awake, sleep better and live longer are all advertised under the glaring lights.
As you slowly make your way, stay within the vendors reach. They will provide samples of delicious treats as you go. They pass trays of dried fruit, exotic nuts and all sorts of honey covered goodness. The best of all are the many varieties of everyone’s favorite, Turkish Delight. This legendary sweet made from a gel of sugar and starch is flavored
with everything from rosewater to lemon or orange. Filled with dates, pistachios or hazelnuts and sprinkled with powdery sugar they make a delicious treat to remember your visit to this exotic wonderland.
Maybe it will happen as you walk down famous Istiklal Avenue. High atop a hill in the Beyoglu area of the city, Istaklal is a people watchers paradise. Three million people walk this mile long pedestrian avenue from Taksim Square to the Funicular near Galata Tower every day. They pass boutiques, art galleries, cafes, bookstores, patisseries and restaurants, all housed in gorgeous multi-storied buildings from the late 19th
and early 20th
century. When Istanbul is called the Paris of the East, this is the boulevard they are speaking of. Roasted chestnut carts are positioned well and a restored historic tram rings its bell to warn walkers of its proximity as it makes its way through the middle of the crowd. Guitar, horn, violin and even bagpipe players entertain along the way. Musicians dressed as Native Americans, a gypsy woman selling an armful of roses and even a man walking a group of geese are included in the group.
The side streets nearby
Underground Well built by the Byzantine Empire in 537.
can offer quiet respite if needed. Lined with seafood restaurants, galleries, Turkish baths called hamams or simple tea shops where you could even partake in smoking a nargile or Turkish water pipe. The smell of apple scented smoke is prevalent in the early evenings as students from nearby schools mix with tourists to enjoy a warm drink and a scented smoke. Wonderfully restored hotels offer rooftop terraces where commanding views can be had all the way to the Bosphorus.
Maybe it will happen as you take the ferry from the busy harbor along the Golden Horn. The 20 minute ferry ride across the Bosphorus to Asia costs less than 1 dollar and provides unparalleled views of this massive city of 14 million.
Passing the Topkapi Palace where Ottoman Sultans kept court at the tip of the peninsula, it becomes clear why this city was the perfect spot to center an empire. Istanbul rises on seven hills above the Golden Horn, a narrow body of water that provides a natural harbor and perfect protection from invaders on three sides. Istanbul straddles both sides the Bosphorus Strait which provides the only path between the Black Sea
and the Sea of Marmara (and the Mediterranean Sea beyond). Controlling Istanbul meant controlling the riches of trade between Eastern and Western civilizations. Roman, Latin, Byzantine, Ottoman and finally Turkish rulers have held this as the center of power for their empires for more than 2500 years. The capital has moved on to Ankara, but the spiritual and financial heart of Turkey still resides here.
Children laughingly feed seabirds that fly along with the ferry as it crosses calm seas on the short journey. While most use the ferries as transportation to their homes in distant parts of the city, it seems that many are, just like us, enjoying a sunny afternoon on the water in mid-December. The return trip provides stunning views of another beautiful sunset and opportunity to view the city as the lights turn on like millions of stars on a crystal night.
It happened to us as we entered a seemingly ancient ruin of an old building called Buyuk Valide Han (Great Mother Inn) not far from the Grand Bazaar. We passed through the cavernous arched doorway hidden by a green tinged ancient metal door. The doorway led to an
inner courtyard filled with tiny shops not meant for the tourist trade. An ancient stairway, its steps well worn by millions of users over hundreds of years, drew us to a dimly lit second floor where dark and dusty stone passageways lead to tiny shops where craftsmen labored over open fires creating glass and metal creations of great beauty. It was as if we had entered a time hundreds of years before present day.
A grizzled old man stood in the shadows of a corner. He showed us an ancient set of rusted keys and conveyed that he wanted to show us something. His smile and excitement were contagious enough that we followed him to a tiny, nearly hidden door nearby. He unlocked and opened the door and motioned for us to enter.
We climbed the twisting stairs that had no rails and were curved from centuries of wear. We nervously moved toward the light coming from above, reassured only by the sounds of faint laughter drifting from somewhere near, and finally arrived on the roof of the ancient building. As we passed on to the roof the most glorious view imaginable awaited us.
The New Mosque
From Galata Bridge
The entire city seemed laid out below. The Golden Horn, Galata Bridge and Tower, Bosphorus and multiple immense mosques with towering minarets seemed to fill the horizon. Well-dressed teenagers who knew of this enchanted place were busy taking “selfies” with the incredible backdrop behind them. A couple of backpackers arrived soon. We spent nearly an hour enjoying this spectacle as the clouds seemed to magically part and what had been an overcast day became sunny with just the perfect white clouds to provide contrast. We had found our corner of Istanbul.
Istanbul is often described with the clichéd phrase, “City where East meets West”, but it is much more. It is a city where opposites not only attract, but also collide to create a truly special and unique destination that everyone should see. Young meets old, modern meets ancient, quiet meets boisterous, intellectual meets physical and artistic meets practical. It is a city filled with friendly people who have hosted visitors for centuries. Maybe you will find what you are looking for in one of the places that we have seen or maybe you will find your own special place in another corner of this fascinating city.
On the Bosphorus
Istanbul is now and always has been a place of discoveries and adventures and it won’t disappoint if, maybe, you decide to visit this incredible destination.
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