Gadi has already traveled to 110 countries – plenty more than I’ll be able to accomplish in this lifetime! You can pretty much point to a country on the flight map, and chances are he’s been there. He’s even been to places in India, which I’m yet to visit! His next destination is a toss up between Azerbaijan and Moldova. He speaks about 8 languages, a number which he considers unimpressive! Gadi is an inspiration. He’s also my fellow passenger on flight TK004.
At Atatürk International, we part ways. His connecting flight to Tel Aviv departs in 45 minutes, whereas I have a full day’s layover in the city. Before I begin my sojourn, however, I must deal with rush hour in Istanbul!
A single change of trains and a journey time of about 50 minutes gets you into downtown Istanbul. The Istanbulkart is easy enough to procure and offers a hassle-free way to get around, using the many modes of transit the city offers. Be warned though – trains are crowded throughout the day, even so on weekends!
I alight at Sirkeci, one of two main stations in the city, built to be the terminus of the Orient Express. Despite reduced use today, the grand, late 19th-century structure has been restored to its original state and still houses the restaurant that was named after the storied train. The Orient Express is long gone but the station’s very location remains symbolic to this day. Situated steps from the waterfront, at the point where the Sea of Marmara meets the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn, it helps establish your bearings and contextualise the city’s many waterways, its European and Asian halves, the north from the historic south.
The impressive Galata Tower provides the backdrop, as massive ferries glide through the deep blue waters of the Golden Horn, arriving and departing in quick succession from the many piers at Eminönü, discharging thousands of commuters in their wake. The morning light is perfect, the view is fabulous, and the non-stop activity simply mesmerizing – I could stand here for hours!
Hunger calls eventually and I head over to a plaza located diagonally across from the ferry docks. The Rüstempaşa Camii (camii = mosque) flanks the plaza’s west side, whereas on its east side sits the very graceful Yeni Cami or New Mosque. On its south side is the building that houses the city’s legendary Spice Bazaar or Mısır Çarşısı. Spread across the plaza are several attractive, bright red carts, hawking essentially the same thing at this time of day – Simit – the Turkish answer to the bagel, and a delicious one at that! I pick up one, head over to a local teahouse and order some Çay (pr. chai) for what is essentially breakfast #2!
The Galata Bridge sits to the north of the same plaza, spans the Golden Horn, and connects the city’s south to its north. Once across it, I make my way to the Tünel, a subterranean funicular railway that runs from the waterfront to the neighbourhood of Beyoğlu. Built 8 years after the London Underground opened, it also happens to be the second oldest underground rail line in the world!
The journey is short and within minutes I am deposited some 200 ft higher at İstiklâl Caddesi or Independence Avenue, the city’s most visited thoroughfare. The wide pedestrian-only affair is lined with curio stores, boutiques, restaurants and confectioners, all housed in late 19th and early 20th-century buildings, of varying architectural styles, a lot of them of historical and political significance.
The most intriguing structures, however, are the many pasajis (arcades) and hans (old traveler inns) that make up the innards of some buildings. Occupying prime place amongst these is the gorgeously renovated Çiçek Pasajı or flower passage. The flower shops are long gone, of course, replaced instead by wine bars, cafes and restaurants, in what is one of the most exquisite settings possible!
Adjacent to Çiçek Pasajı lies Balik Pazari, literally Fish Market! The lane that houses Balik Pazari has its share of fishmongers for sure – it is rumoured that most local seafood restaurants buy their fish from here – but more than anything this is a street full of fresh produce, with a colourful array of shops selling the most enticing selection of fruits and vegetables one can hope to savour.
As with most places in Istanbul, it also has its fair share of eateries, and after surveying the street from end to end, I make my way to Sampiyon, a restaurant recommended to me by my Turkish colleague. The specialty here is Kokoreç, lamb intestines roasted on a charcoal fire, chopped finely and seasoned, then served on flatbread. A side of Ayran (a yogurt drink) helps wash it all down. The overall result, divine 😉
İstiklâl Caddesi runs on a north-south axis, spanning about 3 km in all. On its northern end lies Taksim Meydanı or Taksim Square, considered to be the very heart of modern Istanbul. Apart from a monument dedicated to the Republic and a few large Turkish flags, the square is unremarkable – not something you’d expect from an otherwise fascinating city!
However bland it might be, Taksim Meydanı does serve a purpose – that of being a major transportation hub. Amongst the various transit options available here is a heritage tram, which starts at the square and runs the length of İstiklâl Caddesi. The Istanbukart is accepted on the trams, and a ride on one of them offers a whole new perspective to the city’s most popular avenue.
I hop off the tram at Bekar Sokak, a street that intersects İstiklâl Caddesi, about halfway down the avenue. Bekar means ‘bachelor’ in Turkish, ‘useless’ in Hindi – go figure 😉 At the bottom of that street is an institution that does not distinguish between bachelors, married men or divorcees, and certainly doesn’t pass judgment on one’s relative usefulness. It is only rumoured to do one thing well – serve outstanding food!
A copper dome covering an expansive hearth forms the centrepiece of Zübeyir Ocakbaşı, a traditional Istanbul Kebap house, and another valued recommendation from my colleague. The roasted eggplant mezze is devoured in no time, obliterating any hint that a meal was consumed just a couple of hours prior. Next is the entrée – a mixed Kebap plate of Adana and Çöp Şiş (pr. chirp shish), with an accompaniment of soft bread, akin to the Indian Roomali Roti. The verdict – definitively the best Kebabs I’ve had in a while!
Call me gluttonous, if you will, but in a city that abounds in food – all of it of exceptional quality – and takes great pride in serving up the same, it would be a real shame not to indulge. Fact is, food is central to the Istanbul experience, even more so – if you can believe it – than in any major Indian city!
At the south end of İstiklâl Caddesi lies Tünel Square, named so after the funicular that terminates there. The heritage tram practically drops you off at the funicular’s doorstep, but not wanting to repeat any one thing, I choose instead to walk down to the waterfront, along Galip Dede Caddesi, known locally as ‘Music Street’.
A plethora of record shops, dozens of stores selling musical instruments, and several independent galleries line the steep cobble stone street, which is pedestrianized for most part. Interspersed between them are souvenir shops, cafes and grill houses, with the lofty Galata Tower dominating the proceedings. And as with every other inch of this great city, the street is awash with colour and brimming with life.
The waterfront, as I’ve been referring to it, happens to be in the neighbourhood of Karaköy. Possibly one of the most rustic parts of the city, it is made up several interconnecting bylanes, each housing a different set of merchants – hardware, sanitary fittings, painting supplies, cabinetmakers, plumbing, electrical, and what have you! Think Home Depot, if you will, spread across a few thousand independent stores! Or Kotla, if you happen to be from Delhi, with some of the accompanying chaos but none of the resultant clutter!
Despite being well off the tourist circuit, Karaköy is one of the most fascinating areas in the city, meriting more than just a casual glance.
Back on the south side, things are looking a lot busier than how I left them this morning. Across the wide plaza, the number of food carts has doubled, now hawking everything from chestnuts to grilled corn, with the odd Simit vendor still discernible; the pedestrian traffic to and fro the piers hasn’t let up in any way; and the bazaars are teeming with activity, having seemingly met their desired quorum of footfalls.
The crowds are everywhere, and the sight repeats itself every corner I turn, every new street I enter, as I make my way south through the Spice Market. Make no mistake – Istanbul’s bazaars are packed to the rafters and you will be left jostling for space!
Reminiscent of our crowded galees back home? For sure it is, but where Istanbul gets it right is precisely where Indian cities have got it all wrong! The Turks, and quite possibly the Ottomans before them, have pedestrianised a vast majority of the narrow streets that make up the old town, so while you do have to assert yourself amongst fellow-beings, you don’t have to deal with the threat of a motorized vehicle, honking incessantly, ready to plough you down!
Through one of these densely packed alleys, I find my way to Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi, the oldest coffee roaster in town, shove my way to the front, only to be informed that they don’t sell coffee by the glass! Taking note of my disappointment, the young lad working the packing station directs me towards Tatlıcı Safa, a sweet shop located diagonally across. Here, I rest my weary feet, and recharge with a Turkish coffee and two varieties of Baklava – enough caffeine and sugar to get me going again!
Most of us know it as the Grand Bazaar, but the Turkish word for it is Kapalıçarşı, meaning ‘covered bazaar’, and for good reason, for this is one of the world’s largest covered markets, and likely its oldest too! Construction began in the middle of the 15th-century, shortly after the Ottoman takeover of the city (then Constantinople) and the entire market was finally completed in 1730. The 76-acres of covered space spans the equivalent of 61 streets, and houses within it a staggering 3000 shops!
A labyrinth of graceful vaulted passages, replete with colourful ceiling frescoes, threads together the many markets within – jewelry, carpets, leather and furniture, amongst them. As tea-runners hurry along on their rounds, tourists gape wide-eyed at the countless offerings around. A vendor takes advantage of the momentary lull and slips into a game of backgammon. For my part, I simply photograph every architectural detail I catch a glimpse of!
It’s all to easy to fall in love with the environs here, but equally easy to get lost. For a landmark considered to be the city’s most visited, it is also a rather humbling one – probably no one could ever attest to having seen it all!
On its eastern extreme, the Grand Bazaar stretches almost as far as Divan Yolu, meaning ‘Road to the Imperial Council’, a major artery that connected the city to Rome, in Byzantine days. Today, it carries tram route T1, and provides access to 3 major city landmarks – Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Along its course lies the Column of Constantine (the oldest structure in the city, dating from 330 AD), several mausoleums, and a breadth of other buildings in every architectural style imaginable, ranging from early Ottoman to more contemporary European.
Sandwiched between the Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sophia is Soğukçeşme Sokağı, a tiny little street that winds its way up from Divan Yolu. Historic latticed-wood homes from the Ottoman days flank one side of the street, and on the other is a beautiful restaurant, which shares space with a Roman cistern.
The quaint cobble stone street attracts its share of newly weds too, who are drawn in by its charm, using it as a setting for their photographs!
As a city, Istanbul boasts the crowds and bazaars synonymous with Asia; the plazas and cobble stone streets that can only be likened to Europe. But it is the Islamic influence, above all, that defines the city’s skyline. The minarets, domes and turrets of the city’s many fine mosques, lend even more character to an already appealing sightline, and expectedly, are the subject of many a photograph. Within this fine collection of mosques, Sultanahmet Camii, popularly known as the Blue Mosque, easily rules the roost!
Built in 1616, and sporting no less than 6 minarets, it is considered to be the last great mosque of the Classical period of Ottoman architecture. The Pope made a visit here in ’06 – only the second time in history a pontiff has entered a mosque! In short, you have little reason not to go, and when you do, make sure to time it around Azan, as I did, when the call to prayer is being made.
I scan my Istanbulkart at the Sultanahmet tram stop, and realise that I have sufficient balance for a few more rides. Having pretty much exhausted every form of road and rail transport available, I retrace my steps to Eminönü, select a destination and pick out a ferry from the half-dozen lined up at the piers. Within minutes, I am heading across the Bosphorus towards Üsküdar, on the Asian side…
…only to depart, moments later, on another one heading back to the European side! And then it strikes me – in a matter of hours, I will be in continent #3!
Even Gadi, who by now is probably fast asleep in his home in Tel Aviv, would be proud!
Next stop – Nairobi 😉
A full set of Istanbul pics can be seen here.