Istanbul blues

"If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul."  - Alphonse de Lamartine
the Bosphorus
 I've just finished reading Elif Şafak's "The bastard of Istanbul" and it brought back all my beautiful memories about Istanbul... My love for this city began long time before actually seeing it; in the 1990's after reading Kenize Mourad's "Regards from the dead princess" the beautiful story of the author's mother, who happenned to be the grat-granddaughter of one of Turkey's last Sultans. The way she got me through Istanbul, its palaces and the Bosphorus made me fall in love with the city.
We visited Istanbul in April 2007, the weather was perfect, not too warm, not too cold. Our hotel, Yigitalp, was on the old part of Istanbul (doubles from €65, incl. breakfast). It was a modest hotel a block away from Ordu Cd (one of old Istanbul's main streets, between the tramway stops of Laleli and Aksaray: 4-5 stops from Sultanahmet and 2-3 stops from the Grand Bazaar (going around by tram was very comfortable and safe). The hotel was perfect for us because we never spent much time in there but they got us daily brakfast, a free shuttle from the airport, a Bosphorus cruise tour and a welcome cocktail.
The city was marvellous, just the feeling of being at the gate between Asia and Europe, the mix between old times, modernity, Islam, Catholicism, etc. The bridges, the mosques, the boats, the food, the music, the Adhan (call for prayer) from the minarets, the spices it's all so different and fascinating.

Valens Acqueduct
We started by touring the old part of the city, from the 4th-century Valens Acqueduct (Bozdoğan Kemeri) which supplied water to the city until the 19th century.

inside Süleymaniye mosque
 After getting lost in the streets for a while, we finally got to Süleymaniye Mosque (Süleymaniye Camii) Istanbul's most important mosque, built around 1550 by the most famous architect of the time, Sinan. The complex of the mosque includes a former hospital, schools and baths. Both Sinan and Süleyman the Magnificent are buried there.
Süleymaniye Mosque
A short walk from the Mosque is Beyazit square, a very busy spot of the city where the University is. In a corner of the square there's the Grand Bazaar (Kapalı Çarşı); the huge labyrinth of shops selling carpets, fabrics, jewelry, crafts, leather and antiques, be sure to walk around, bargain and take care of your wallet (pickpockets!).

inside the Grand Bazaar

We had been walking aroud the whole day so we decided to relax in one of the less famous Turkish baths in the city: the 17th-century Sultanahmet Hamami, which are also cheaper that the more famous Cemberlitas and Cagaloglu. The full service in a hamam includes relaxation in the hot steam room, soaping, peeling and massaging; after we changed in the locked cubicles located in the entrance hall (you are provided with a cloth to wrap around yourself and slippers), we had some relaxing time in the hararet (hot room), after it we had our soaping and massages in the marble plinth in the centre of the haratet. The massage was very vigorous (more than the ones in Budapest), but we even went back for more the following day since our bodies felt great after these massages! After the massage we relaxed a bit more in the hot room, we got towels, changed and left feeling so relaxed and ready for more sightseeing.

the Blue Mosque
Sultanahmet Mosque: built around 1600, it is known as the Blue Mosque because of its beautiful Iznik tiles,and its beauty was considered in those times as an attempt to rival the Mecca. Don't miss its marvelous dome.
Haghia Sophia
Byzantine mosaics in Haghia Sophia
 Haghia Sophia: one of the most beautiful buildings of the world. The "Church of Holy Wisdom" was built in 537 and turned into a Mosque by the Ottomans in the 15th century. There's an entrance fee and a queue but it's byzantine mosaics, the vast nave and the ablutions fountain make it worth it.

inside Topkapi Palace
Topkapı Palace (Topkapı Sarayı): it was the residence of the Ottoman sultans from 1465 to 1853. The huge complex includes 4 courtyards, a harem, a school and a library, it has breathtaking views of the Bosphorus, beautiful rooms covered with Iznik tiles and the collection of precious objects (Treasury).

You'll be visiting a lot of mosques in Istanbul so a good guide book will be useful to read some of their history and to help understand the architecture (like the muezzin mahfili, the mihrab, the minbar, the minarets) and the rites (the call to prayer, the ablutions, etc.). I used the DK Eyewitness Travel Istanbul guide and it was great. As a sign of respect, be sure to be dressed properly: shoulders and knees covered, scarf to cover women's hair. You must enter the mosques without shoes on so bring socks, keep silence and avoid prayer times.

Eminönü: it is the last part of old Istanbul that you'll visit before crossing the Galata bridge. It is the departing point of the ferries that cruise the Bosphorus and the Marmara sea and it's always crowded during the day. When we visited Istanbul in 2007, we spent a long time here because of Balik: during the day, fishermen boats would dock in the waterfront selling fresh mackerel grilled sandwiches (balik, that is) at a conveninent price, they were so delicious that they quickly took over kebab as our favorite food in Turkey. I just read now, sadly, that this is now banned but you can still find mackerel grillers in the area.

Galata tower
We had great food in Istanbul, unfortunately some of the places we visited are now closed and I can't remember all the names, apart from Balik at Eminonu and kebab all over the city, we had a good fish dinner with the beautiful view of the Golden Horn in one of the restaurants under the Galata Bridge, great service but very touristy (last time I trusted a guidebook on restaurants!); and a delicious coffee with a wonderful view of Istanbul at Lebiderya Kumbaraci, a restaurant in Beyoglu. I've been told to try the restaurant 360, maybe next time!

We spent some time walking around Beyoglu, the modern part of Istanbul. After crossing the Galata bridge, we visited the Galata tower, the shops on Istiklal Caddesi and Taksim square. It is a very nice area but I think I prefer old Istanbul better.

We also took a cruise of the Bosphorus (kindly offered by our hotel) that brought us to many small towns on both the Asian and the European sides of the Bosphorus, up to Poyraz, less than a mile from the Black Sea, on the way back we spotted the beautiful Dolmabahce Palace (the residence of the Sultans from 1853 until the fall of the empire). That was as close as I could get to it, unfortunately there were some riots in Beyoglu on the day we were supposed to visit (our last day in Istanbul) and the bridge was closed, ferries weren't running and there was no way of getting there... I was so disappointed! especially since it was the spot I wanted to visit the most after Kenize Mourad's book... but this means I have to go back, I hope very soon...
Bosphorus bridge from the boat

houses on the Asian side

me in Poyraz
Dolmabahce Palace

Sorry for the long post! Hope you enjoy it!

Visit the new folder "My Maps" to see the places described in this post in a map: http://www.tfoodie.com/p/my-maps.html

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