Istanbul the Crossroads of Europe and Asia
by Michael Morcos
As the European summer draws to a close, the thoughts of many living on the old continent are of the back to school rush and the looming Christmas period. The crowds from around the world disperse, and while most of Europe begins to wrap up the southern countries enjoy a late burst of sun like nowhere else. The Mediterranean shimmers to a different light whilst the shadows of the picturesque houses along the Adriatic lean further and further away. Romantic is Europe’s forte, and Southern Europe in September and October is perfect getaway, where one can witness the slow pace of the continent that few tourists see.
The crossroads between Europe and Asia, where east meets west; Istanbul’s location between the continents spawns new nicknames on a seemingly annual basis. We finished our cruise here, which only led to another adventure that very few cities can offer. Istanbul is just one of the many sides to Turkey, and goes against the grain to what can be expected in most parts of the country. After a relaxing cruise I knew traveler within me would want something to sink its teeth into, and a few days in Istanbul provided the perfect finish.
Whilst the capital status belongs to Ankara, Istanbul is Turkey’s largest city and also one of the world’s largest based on both size and population, with around 14 million people residing here. The sounds of mopeds and scooters battling with the frustrated traffic is a 24 hour affair, the smells of herbs and spices being cooked up on the streets and in the bazaars sizzles through the night and the people work hard yet party even harder as socializing and family outings are common sites amongst the locals. New York has the nickname of the city that doesn’t sleep, despite the fact that most establishments are closed at 2:00am. At 2:00am in Istanbul the night is still young, if it even ages. Istanbul quite simply doesn’t sleep.
A brief description of Istanbul could leave many observers pondering. In a city so crowded, how is the safety? Hygiene? Crime? All of these points spring to mind when a booming metropolis catches the eye. It is safe to say that Turkey’s largest city is an exception to the rule. Istanbul is filled with people all day and all night, that’s for sure. The people however are amongst the many bright spots this city has to offer. With a thirst for a happy life, quality service, family and friend’s time and plain old talking, the people of Istanbul embrace and give back, and a sociable tourist can find himself swapping contacts details several times during a short trip.
We stayed at the Premist Hotel in Old Istanbul, which proved to be a perfect location and close to almost everything in the city. We were greeted by immaculately dressed porters and soothing mannerisms which dissolve the heat and the outside world. After studying the city beforehand I decided that once rested, I wanted to head straight to Hagia Sophia, also known as the Church of the Holy Wisdom, and acknowledged worldwide as one of the world’s truly great buildings. Rebuilt between 532 and 537 after a destruction and fire destroyed the original two respectively, Hagia Sophia originally dates back to the 4th century, and is regarded as one of the best remaining examples of Byzantine architecture found today.
The churches principle dome is held on pendentives:, each of which is intricately decorated. The domes incredible weight goes through the pendentives and onto four huge piers at each corner, which allows for the dome to seemingly float on top of the four arches. Hagia Sophia is an inspiring place which one could visit time and time again to immerse themselves in the history of the changes the structure has endured.
Heading across the park to the nearby Sultan Ahmed Mosque, more commonly albeit unofficially known as the Blue Mosque, Istanbul offers another view of the city’s grand history. It was built to rival the Hagia Sophia, and its blue tiles from which the mosque gained its unofficial name sharply contrast against the white marble, whilst the blue tips of the six minarets stand out above and beyond, piercing the clouds. The buildings inch perfect proportions can be viewed from inside the courtyard when entering from the Hippodrome. The interior is arguably overshadowed by that of Hagia Sophia, however the tinted windows do create a wonderful effect throughout the room while the tiles that run along the walls are one of the standout points from the inside.
For those looking to delve deeper into Istanbul’s intriguing history, look no further than Topkapi Palace museum, which was home to the Ottoman Sultans for 400 years. Here you can view the magnificent courtyards – two of which were exclusive to royalty and VIP’s only – and learn of the endless and balmy stories that surrounded the rulers. The Istanbul Archaeology Museum which sits behind Topkapi Palace can – and should – be visited on the same day. Around three to five hours is sufficient to cover the two depending on your interests. The Archaeology Museum is three museums in one complex: The Archaeological Museum (in the main building), the Museum of the Ancient Orient and the Museum of Islamic Art. All three are worth your time and we spent a few hours exploring the vast array of of Turkish, Hellenistic and Roman artifacts, including Glazed tile images from the Ishtar Gate of Babylon, 800,000 Ottoman coins, seals, decorations and medals, as well as the Statue of Alexander the Great.
Those going to Turkey will no doubt have heard of the famous Turkish Delight, a sweet treat which is made by mixing honey and grape molasses together with some little flour, beet sugar and also starch, to create a soft jelly like texture which is covered in various shells including walnuts, pistachio and coconut. We headed to the oldest Turkish Delight maker in the city, Haci Bekir, who have been producing the famous sweet for 5 generations since 1777. The store is still in the exact location and building it was when Bekir Affendi opened the doors over two hundred years ago. Here one can not only buy and taste this local treat, but also learn how to make it. Whlst my efforts didn’t match that of the experts, we came away with great memories, souvenirs for the family and a sugar hit to help us march on through this wonderful city.
We rounded off a long day with a wonderful meal in the Fenerbahce district of the city. With fantastic views along the marina we encountered Divan restaurant, one of Istanbul’s most highly regarded restaurants. Offering fine international cuisine and well renowned for its service, it’s difficult to find a disappointed punter in the house, as Divan serves up nothing less than the freshest produce and arguable the best restaurant view in the city.
A late night stroll around the very touristy but nevertheless entertaining Taksim Square didn’t disappoint, which is a huge plaza surrounded by shops, bars and restaurants and hotels. The square is a popular location for public celebrations and events like New Year’s Eve, and is near to the second oldest subway line in the world after the London Underground.
With little time remaining, and after finishing up by visiting the Grand Bazaar, strolling the magnificent Istiklal pedestrian street and eating ate at the under the bridge restaurants at the lively harbor, we went off the beaten track and headed to the Asian side of Istanbul, which unfortunately doesn’t receive the touristic attention the European side, but is littered with delights of its own. Start with a pick-me-up at the famous coffee shop at Moda pier, which overlooks the Marmara Sea before exploring the nearby Kadıköy Daily Market which offers local fresh produce, handicrafts and a row of books stores and pastry shops. For those who enjoy a photo opportunity, head to the harbor where you can find magnificent views of the city.
After a rollercoaster ride around the city of two continents, we were taken by limousine back to airport by our package providers TravelXclusive, whose professionalism and attentive personal care made both the planning and exploring of Istanbul all the more memorable, and ensured that this visit to the old city certainly won’t be the last.
Air France has daily flights to Istanbul from Paris and departures from major Canadian cities. Air France and the SkyTeam Alliance offer 15,000 daily flights to 1,024 destinations in 178 countries and connections from the best hubs in the world. www.airfrance.com