I remember the first time I saw Istanbul. I had rolled into the Sirkeci train station on the night train, looping around between the Bosphorus Straight and the old town walls of Sultanhamet in the early morning light. Even though I was still technically in Europe, I felt a little uncertain as I headed out of the train station, not quite sure how familiar it would feel, balancing between Europe and the Middle East, with minarets modern skyscrapers mixed together in the city skyline.
I was there to join an eight day tour of Turkey that I had booked as part of a trip to Eastern Europe, Turkey and Greece. The tour was a budget, backpacker style trip and I had booked in in order to get a good overview of the country and to meet some fellow travelers along the way. I had also booked the tour because I felt a little intimidated about traveling in Turkey as a single woman on my own, but right from the start I could see that I had nothing to worry about in Istanbul, or at least nothing more than I would have in any other major European city.
As I made my way to the hotel, I was immediately struck by the how orderly and clean it was. To be honest, I had sort of been expecting some sort of dusty, chaotic, developing world vibe with crazy scooters whipping past and vendors sprawled willy nilly across the crumbling pavements but instead I was greeted with beds of well watered flowers on the boulevards, modern shops with window displays that would make a Parisian shopkeeper jealous and gleaming electric trams gliding silently past. Having come from Romania and Bulgaria, it definitely felt like I was taking a step up in the world. Now, the city certainly does have a few rough edges, but Turkey is very proud of its status as a modern, European nation, and this status is very well showcased in the central part of the city.
But if I was impressed by the walk from the train station to the old town, nothing could have prepared me for the sight that awaited me at my hotel. My tour started at the And Hotel (possibly the hardest hotel in the entire world to Google), which was a fairly run of the mill three star tourist hotel in Sultanhamet. After leaving my bag at the desk I was told that I was welcome to go up to the breakfast buffet on the rooftop terrace if I wanted. I went to the top floor, stepped out onto the deck and was literally speechless for several minutes.
That’s the Hagia Sophia, the 1500 year old church turned mosque turned museum which is so close that it almost feels like you can reach out and touch it from the tables around the edge of the terrace. A half turn to the right gives you a commanding view of the Blue Mosque. A bit to the left and the Topkapi Palace complex is laid out in front of you with the waters of the Bosphoras in the distance.
I only had three days in Istanbul, two at the beginning of my tour and one at the end, but I loved every minute I was there. Many of the major sights are in a fairly compact area and it’s possible to see quite a bit in a short period of time. The Hagia Sophia was probably my favourite, built by Emperor Justinian in 537 and still standing after almost 15 centuries of earthquakes and wars. It’s dome was the largest in the world until the completion of the Duomo in Florence in 1436. Could you even imagine something being built today no one being able to match it until 2913? I can’t even get my head around it.
Now don’t get me wrong, Istanbul may have the trappings of a modern European city, but just below the surface is an exotic heart. No where is this better showcased than in it’s markets and bazaars. The Grand Bazaar, which is only a few minutes walk from the old town core, is it’s most famous market. It’s impossible to describe the size and the scope of it; you just take a deep breath and dive right into its hundreds of laneways and thousands of shops. There are entire sections of the Grand Bazaar devoted to different wares, jewelry, leather goods, ceramics, antiques, books, lamps and of course row after row of carpets.
As much as I enjoyed the Grand Bazaar, I found it a bit too overwhelming to do any actual shopping. I actually preferred the atmosphere at the nearby Spice Bazaar, which was equally chaotic, but more of a place where city dwellers actually did business. There I found amazing displays of spices and every other kind of food you could imagine, as well as some household goods and excellent restaurants.
And speaking of food, Istanbul is also where I first fell in love with Turkish food. It started with that first Turkish breakfast at the And Hotel; fresh, hot bread drizzled with honey, plates of slices cucumbers, tomatoes and melons, grapes and figs, soft white cheese and fresh pastries. I loved pretty much everything I had there, from grilled vegetables served with fresh yogurt, chicken donar kebaps served on soft pitas, simple grilled fish at seaside restaurants, thin savoury pancakes filled with spinach and cheese or Turkish style pizza topped with egg. (Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!)
But even better than the main course was the sweets. As a certified sugar addict, I was in heaven in Istanbul. I never understood the appeal of Turkish Delight until I tried the real thing and I quickly became a lifetime convert. And that was just the beginning. Shops would feature case after case of every kind of sweet imaginable; all homemade and amazingly fresh. Bakeries featured every form of backlava you could think of, all sticky sweet and drenched in honey syrup. I have no idea how all the young Turks around me managed to stay so fit and healthy looking because if I lived in Istanbul I’d probably gain about a pound a day just from the sweets.
So how much do I love Istanbul? So much that I’m planning to take the kids there this summer! It’s only for a day and we’ll only be able to get a taste of this amazing city, but it will have to do for now. And I guess I’ll have to find out how much Turkish Delight I can pack into my backpack for the trip home!