Circa 2014 and it was Istanbul calling .Turkey was and still is one of the most unusual places I have ever been to .
My decision to visit Istanbul came close to the heels of the country undergoing a massive unrest and thus it was no surprise that I had my own share of valid trepidation. Much of my apprehensions were mitigated as I was very kindly provided a more lucid picture of the ground reality by many of my colleagues . It was comforting and exciting at the same time.
Thus I decided to embark on my very own mission Istanbul (a forgettable Bollywood movie) and added Cappadocia to the itinerary.
The key to plan before landing into Istanbul is to determine which one of the two airports (Yes ..Istanbul boasts of 2 major airports – Ataturk International on the European side and Sabiha Gokcen on the Asian side) you are using as the city bustles with 13 million and more inhabitants and planning your airport transfers in advance is a wise idea.
As I was still moulding myself into a seasoned traveler I settled in on being extravagant and booked an advance airport transfer from my hostel. (I realised it was an unncessary step on my way back as tram and metro system from and to the airport are pretty convenient.) Neverland hostel was my abode for the next few nights .
The striking points of the hostel were total absence of elevator in a tall building and refreshing smell of turkish coffee (more so because it was complimentary )! I was led to my dorm and was quickly greeted by a German traveler. After a pleasant banter comprising of our backgrounds and travel plans , he kindly invited me for a drink. Not a bad start ! I met another hostel dweller , an Austrian cyclist who travels with yeah you guessed it right ,his cycle ; and a Swiss girl who was studying in Istanbul . We formed an impromptu group and went to one of the open air pubs in Istikal Street.
Istikal Street is the main street of Istanbul and is lined with international brands , shops , restaurants , eateries , pubs , etc. It somehow serves as a concoction of old and new Istanbul as you can find quaint coffee shops , signature sheesha parlors and book stores in the by lanes of the street . Approximately 3 million people traverse this street on a good day ! A walk through the 2 km long Istikal Street will lead you to the famous Taksim Square. Taksim Square has witnessed many famous demonstrations and is symbolized by the statute of Ataturk – the founder or Turkish Republic. I walked the historic street and observed families , students , couples , tourists imbibing their share of the history almost everyday of my stay in Istanbul.
Needless to say , it is the emblem of not only Istanbul but also of Turkey as a nation. On a side note – you will be in for a surprise if you expect a noticeable blue dome , as the name suggests. The Sultan Ahmet mosque or Blue Mosque as it is widely known was constructed in 1616 and is a fully functional mosque even today.
I went to the perennially popular site with my new found partners . Its hard to resist the unmistakable aura of history, the overall feeing of time travel , the rushing memory of bland pages of history book which talked at length about Ottoman and Byzantine empire, and to come to terms to the fact that you actually are now a partaker of those history lessons. Sultan Ahmet mosque sure nestles unimaginable history in those concrete walls adorned with hand painted blue tiles . The mosque has 5 domes and 6 minarets . It is highly recommended to have a look at the mosque at night when the domes are bathed in blue lights. The entrance to the mosque is free however it is worth noting that the mosque closes everyday for prayers during noon and for extended period on Fridays. Ladies have to cover their heads before entering the mosque and the scarves are available for free at the entrance . You are also required to be barefoot inside the mosque and avoid flash photography. The queue for entrance is a fast moving one and it is not recommended to fall for traps aka people ensuring you a “jump” and expediting your entrance .The mosque is undoubtedly a tourist attraction and I saw women in all possible attires (from hijab to head scarves , shorts , dresses ,etc .)around the area .
Facing the enormous Blue mosque is the famous Hagia Sofiya museum .I was deterred by the long queue to enter and thus foolishly decided to give it a pass.Hagia Sofiya was originally a church which was constructed thrice and was open to public in …wait for it 537 .( I don’t know how to calculate time anymore).The church was converted into a mosque in 1400s and subsequently into a museum in 1900s .It is the most formidable example of Byzantine architecture. The entrance to the museum is 40 TL.
After visiting the 2 main symbols of Istanbul , we thought of doing the famous Bosphorus cruise. We used the efficient tram system of the city and made our way to the Eminonu ferry terminal.
A 2 hour cruise along the Bosphorus is the choicest and most economic way to experience both the continents’ Istanbul astrides .
We randomly chose a ferry in the slew of boats offering the same service . I noticed Turkish families and groups of men having a gala time aboard. The cruise takes you through the mighty Bosphorus and covers both the continents. It glides under the famous over 5000ft long Bosphorus Bridge (commonly known as First Bridge) and a little under 5000ft long Faith Sultan Ahmet Bridge ( commonly known as Second Bridge).
The Bosphorus Bridge is the world’s first trans continental bridge and it vows you with its majesty and augustness as you sail under it. I enjoyed the breeze , gaped at the urban and more modern Asian side of Istanbul , soaked in the sun set behind the charming skyline of the European counterpart and watched in awe the magnificent Suleymaniye Mosque change its colours at dusk. The old Galata Bridge stood oblivious to the ticking of the clock . We walked under the bridge and treated ourselves to the unmissable Balik Ekmek. The upper level of the bridge was lined with fisherman waiting for their turn of fortune. I thanked my good fortune as I walked past them.
- Suleymaniye Mosque at dusk
We then made our way to the iconic Galata tower .
- Galata Tower in the background
The cobbled streets and stairs leading to the tower were marked with college students well..just being themselves (read alcohol) , mesmerised tourists strolling and watching the vista in amazement , locals scurrying away to home and business owners arming for the crowds . The 67 m high Galata Tower is a strong landmark of Istanbul and it is advisable to have patience if you desire to reach the top as you would have to battle long queue of visitors longing for the sunset view. The entrance fees is 18.5TL . I decided to give it a pass and satisfied myself by admiring the colourful sights , tinkering sounds , apple infused smell of sheesha in the air and queer ambience of the neighbourhood.
My day came to an end with tired feet and excited soul. As I made my way up the stairs , I could not wait for the next day and the anecdotes it had in store for me. More on it coming soon.