By: Joanne Miller
It has been the capital of the Byzantine, Latin, Ottoman and Roman Empires. Founded on two continents, the city’s western half lies in Europe and its eastern half in Asia. JOANNE MILLER took to the cobbled streets of fast-paced Istanbul – a city that has endured more name changes and political coups than any other.
Two bridges act as gateways across the glittering Bosphorus and the bustling port, connecting east with west, and history and tradition with modern-day living in a place of constant reinvention.
The ancient quarter of Sultanahmet is the city’s most architecturally and culturally rich centre, so nearby accommodation is an obvious choice. The Hagia Sophia, Basilica Cistern, Blue Mosque, Grand Bazaar and Topkapi Palace are all within a short walking distance of one another.
The Hagia Sophia was once considered an architectural miracle, with its soaring domed spaces and exquisite mosaics. Its incarnations, depending on the ruler at the time, have included church, mosque and now museum.
The Basilica Cistern is a spectacular example of ancient engineering and a retreat from Istanbul’s searing heat, as its Sunken Palace always remains dark and cool.
The Sultanahmet, or Blue Mosque, is one of Islam’s greatest temples, with its kaleidoscope of stained glass windows, mosaic domes and giant wrought-iron chandeliers. As with all places of worship, you have to remove your shoes and be modestly dressed to enter.
You have to visit the Grand Bazaar to appreciate this 500-year old plaza, but not on a Sunday when it’s closed. If you happen to buy anything that’s reckoned to be over a century old, you’ll need the necessary paperwork to export it, so be sure to ask your willing merchant.
Topkapi Palace was the indulgent home for many of the Ottoman rulers during their 400-year reign. It’s only open on certain days and you should never attempt a visit over the weekend, unless you enjoy queuing with 400-plus other tourists. Its verdant gardens surround ostentatious, elaborately tiled architecture. It’s worth a well-timed visit during the week, so check your travel guide.
Dance Like A Dervish
When you tire of the grandeur of ancient architecture, Sultanahmet is the place to witness the whirling dervishes. Traditional music builds in volume and tempo until each one surrenders to a hypnotic dance. It is truly mesmerising and a privilege to watch. Note: modest dress is expected, and talking or clapping is discouraged. There are many performances offered in the area, but choose one of the smaller operators located in Sultanahmet’s backstreets, rather than the museum, for a truly authentic and personal experience.
Just like Singaporeans, Istanbullus are obsessed with food and constantly discuss what they’ve eaten or plan to eat. Turkish cuisine is sumptuous and not for the carb-conscious. Bread (enough to feed a family of eight) is served at every meal. If you only experience one meal in Istanbul, be sure to set aside a morning (preferably on a weekday to avoid the crowds) at Rumeli Kale Café for the best traditional Turkish breakfast. Tip: Try the clotted cream and honey.
A stroll alongside the picturesque Bosphorus is perfect for walking off breakfast gluttony. Just two minutes’ walk from Rumeli Kale is Rumeli Hisari – a historic castle and gardens to explore and climb for a well-earned view.
Speaking of the “Bossy” (as the vast water inlet that separates east and west is affectionately known), travellers and locals alike cruise the waterway by ferry to marvel at the scenery and architecture on both sides. Tip: It can get very windy and chilly on the boat, despite seemingly picture-perfect, mild conditions, so bring a thick jacket and scarf.
Turks love strong tea, despite offering tourists delightfully sweet, hot apple teas. (Word is that they wouldn’t be caught dead drinking it themselves). Turks aren’t particularly big on alcohol, although they produce some magnificent wines – Corvus Vineyard was a notable discovery and regular haunt while we were in town. As a Champagne devotee, I was disappointed to learn of bubbly’s apparent failure to make any real impact on the Istanbul scene. You’ll struggle to find it in most restaurants; when you do, expect to pay through the nose and for it to be served warm to cool-ish.
Buyer Beware: The world’s oldest shopping centre, The Grand Bazaar and its 4,000-plus outlets are closed on Sundays. That’s when film crews descended to shoot the latest 007 film, Skyfall. Take note of the Sunday closure when planning your trip, as you must this labyrinth of outlets run by the most charming of merchants, all vying for your business. It sounds obvious, but beware of shady carpet, jewellery and ceramic merchants selling less-than-authentic pieces. Long after the deal has been made and the holiday is over, their “silk rugs” are all too often revealed to be cotton, spray-painted with a silk-like finish.
Lamb Sandwich Quest
Australians and Brits love a good lamb sandwich (kebab), especially after one too many cleansing ales. After some time in Turkey, it became clear that kebabs as we know them Down Under evolved from Turkey’s kebap of meat, yoghurt and salad served on a plate with pita wedges.
On the advice of locals, we endured a nail-biting cab ride to Devali, the pride of a small fishing village. The kebap was delicious and moreish, but the meat, sauce, salad and bread were served separately. What’s with that?
Celebrity foodie Anthony Bourdain had raved about Durumzade, so after another harrowing cab ride across town at an ungodly hour, we reached the tiny eatery. Struggling to speak a word of Turkish, we opted for slapstick-style hand gestures to place our order. To our elation, our kebaps came rolled in toasted pita bread and paper. We savoured every last mouthful of the very tasty but dry version of the kebab we know. Locals washed theirs down with the preferred accompaniment, ayran – a warm, sour yoghurt drink.
It seems that the majority of Turks regard eating a kebab as we do it – rolled up in pita bread and waxed paper – as a tad uncouth, reserved for the young and night-clubbing set. After all, Durumzade is located down an alley in a sea of grimy pubs and nightclubs. Our go-to kebab joint will forever remain the somewhat ironically named Ankara (Turkey’s capital) in Perth, Western Australia.
Istanbul traffic is awful on a good day and vile on a bad. Local drivers are impatient and aggressive, especially the cashed-up Range Rover and Hummer set. Cabbies are notoriously dangerous behind the wheel: handbrake stops are common and most cabs are devoid of passenger seatbelts. Such maniacal driving forced me to avert my eyes, which had a direct correlation to my vice-like grip on my poor man’s thigh. Savvy locals opt for the fabulous, Italian-designed water taxis.
Tip: Beware of sly taxi drivers who conveniently “forget” to start their meters or attempt a smoke-and-mirrors trick, dropping beneath their feet the 50/100 Turkish lira you’ve already handed over and giving change for a 20. If you query it, they’ll produce a 20.
Istanbul’s traffic gridlock means you should choose lodgings close to where you plan to be most of the time, otherwise you could spend the better portion of your holiday stuck in a jam. High on the backpacker list, Istanbul has plenty of cheap, not so cheerful, but very convenient accommodation. Sultanahmet and Ortakoy are popular.
Luxurious options abound too. We had the good fortune to hire a spacious two-bedroom apartment (www.homeaway.com) that could easily have accommodated extra bodies on the numerous super-plush sofas, located in the exclusive French quarter of Nisantasi, just a short stroll from cafés, high-end shops and clubs. Our stay cost 200 euro (S$320) per night for three adults.
Making The Pilgrimage
We left Istanbul mid-holiday, with our sights set on Gallipoli for the ANZAC Day commemorations to honour our fallen soldiers. To avoid logistical hassles or getting lost, we chose UK-based tour operator, PP Travel, and spent two long days on a bus with young and loud backpackers. Tip: Find a tour bus with an older set, or hire a car and drive yourself; but note that many of Gallipoli’s backstreets are closed by the police in the lead-up to ANZAC Day.
We left Istanbul at 7am on 24 April and didn’t arrive at ANZAC Cove until close to 8pm, despite promises by the tour company that we’d arrive earlier to secure prime vantage spots on the lawn. We then had to settle down for the night on cramped grandstand seats. Thank goodness it wasn’t raining.
All night, guest speakers and a big band shared tales of honour and bravery to keep everyone’s spirits high. As dawn broke over Anzac Cove and The Last Postplayed, an avalanche of tears streamed from the staunchest of faces. The dawn service was relatively brief but poignant, commencing with a montage of voiced obituaries. The haunting karanga (calling to soldiers’ spirits), sung by two female New Zealand Defence Force officers, was spine-tingling.
After the dawn service, we made the trek up to Lone Pine for the 11am Australian memorial service. Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, received a standing ovation as she took to the stage beside the solitary pine tree. The sense of camaraderie and pride was palpable.
Conditions at Gallipoli can vary from blistering heat to bitter cold. On our visit, the temperature dropped to zero overnight and rose to 30 degrees Celsius the following day, uncomfortable for us and thousands of others who had to wait in the sun until 2pm for our buses back to Istanbul.
Tip: Pack sunscreen, wear light but insulating layers for both heat and cold. There are plenty of vendors selling food and drink. Tour groups and young backpackers abound, with a scattering of grey nomadsincluded in the mix. Patience is definitely required for this experience.
Peak travel season in Istanbul is May through to August. We visited in April and the mornings and evenings were particularly crisp, so avoid winter unless you really do like the cold. Our relaxed itinerary meant that ten days in Istanbul wasn’t enough to see everything we had planned to see.
Treat yourself to the best Turkish breakfast at Rumeli Kale Café. It’s not easy to find, so take a cab. Address: Yahya Kemal Cad. 10, İstanbul – Avrupa. +90 (0)212 265 6563 | kalecafe.com
Try a kebap,Istanbullu-style, at Durumzade or Develi. Kalyoncu Kulluk Cad. 26/A, Beyoglu. develikebap.com
Head to House Café in the stylish French quarter of Nisantasi for quality food, drinks and service, as well as some fabulous people- and dog-watching. Its sister café is located on a waterfront at Ortakoy. thehousecafe.com.tr
For fresh tapas and extraordinarily good yet cheap wine, head to Corvus in the Nisantasi quarter. corvus.com.tr
To experience a taste of Ottoman lifestyle, visit The Four Seasons on the Bosphorus, or head to its sister hotel in Sultanahmet for Season’s Sunday brunch from 11.30am until 3pm. It’s a bargain at 99 Turkish Lira (S$67) and one of the best ways to spend an afternoon in the cultural quarter.
fourseasons.com/bosphorus | fourseasons.com/istanbul