On Friday, June 13th, Rebecca and I flew 5 hours to Istanbul, Turkey. She flew on the red eye flight with Turkish Airlines the night before and I met her later at the Movenpick Hotel. Istanbul is the world’s 5th largest city and home to 14 million people so it is a very busy place. We tried our first Turkish cuisine at the hotel before setting out for the afternoon. We took the metro to Taksim Square, where the much televised protesting had taken place. The Square naturally draws you down İstiklâl Caddesi, a pedestrianized shopping street lined with many shops, cafes, and restaurants. The street gently slopes down toward the sea through the neighborhoods of Galatasaray, Beyoglu, and past the Galata Tower. We arrived at the seaside of the Bosphorus near Galata Bridge. The Bosphorus is a 32 km strait that divides Istanbul in two and is where the Asian continent meets Europe. We took the locals’ lead and grabbed a couple of Efes beers to go and a plate of watermelon from a street vendor then sat down to watch the boats go by. We strolled across the Galata Bridge before catching the metro back to our hotel’s neighborhood where we found a small doner kebab shop for a late bite. Many of the locals were watching the World Cup as we had our dinner.
The next day, we joined a half day city tour called Istanbul Classics. Our first stop was the famous Hagia Sophia (or Church of the Divine Wisdom in English). The church was consecrated by Emperor Justinian in 537 then converted to a mosque in 1453 by Mehmet the Conqueror. It was the centre of the Byzantine Empire and was also the world’s largest cathedral for over 1000 years. The next stop was the Sultanahmet Mosque which is also referred to as the Blue Mosque because of the thousands of blue Iznik tiles inside. We were then taken to a local shop and were given a demonstration on Turkish rug weaving. That concluded our tour so we asked our guide for a recommendation on a nice Turkish lunch. His recommendation was excellent and we dined on the rooftop terrace of NAR Lokanta. We started with some local appies and decided to try some more traditional dishes. I had the kuzu kusgomu, grilled marinated fillets of lamb served with aubergine puree and rice pilaf. Bec opted for the saray mantisi, Ottoman imperial style manti (otherwise known as Anatolian dumplings) served with its own cooking liquid and topped with butter, yoghurt and tomato sauce. We washed it down with a bottle of Turkish sauvignon blanc by Sarafin.
After lunch we ventured into the massive Grand Bazaar. It is one of the world’s largest and oldest covered bazaars with over 3000 shops on 61 streets. The bazaar can see 400,000 visitors in one day. Sometimes James Bond can even be seen riding his motorcycle on the roof! After the bazaar, we found a rooftop terrace to have a couple of cold efes’ and I enjoyed a glass of local raki. It is very similar to Albanian raki, the only difference being that it is flavoured with anise and is served with water which gives it a cloudy colour.
We then wandered back towards Hagia Sophia where we relaxed (and maybe napped) in the shaded park. Feeling rested, we headed to the Basilica Cistern, the largest surviving Byzantine cistern in Istanbul. After the cistern, we strolled through Gulhane Park near the Topkapi Palace down to the seaside. From there, we started back toward the Galata Bridge stopping at various street vendors selling all kinds of delicious snacks. By the time we reached the bridge, we had made a meal of balik ekmek (grilled mackerel sandwich), stuffed mussels, corn-on-the-cob, pickles, and cherries which was the perfect way to end the day.
On Sunday, we slept in a little after our big sightseeing day. We arrived at Topkapi Palace around noon. Topkapi Palace was the seat of the Ottoman Empire between the 15th and 19th centuries. We toured the Harem section of the palace which was home to the sultans and their families. We had a great lunch at Konyali Lokantasi overlooking the Bosphorus from a seaside cliff. After lunch, we toured the Imperial collection including the treasury and armory. Being ‘museum-ed out’, we decided it was time for a break. We stopped in at the rooftop terrace of the Seven Hills Restaurant. The terrace had great views of the sea and the Sultanahmet area. Later that night, we caught a cab to the neighborhood of Ortakoy and had a fabulous seafood dinner along the Bosphorus. This time we went for a local red wine, Kayra, and were not disappointed. We decided to share the copra, or sea bass, as it reminded us of our time in Albania.
On Monday morning, we made our way to the famous Galatasaray Hamam which was established in 1481. A hamam is a public Turkish bath where you change into a peştamal (bath wrap) and are then shown to the hararet (steam room). After relaxing on the göbektaşı (heated raised platform) for about a half hour, you are then given a proper wash, exfoliating scrub, and massage. We made our way back to the hotel after stopping along Istiklal Caddesi to buy some Turkish delight to bring back to the UAE. Rebecca packed up and started her journey back to Abu Dhabi. I would be staying another 3 nights to attend a workshop.
Istanbul is a world of its own and it seems we only scratched the surface. We both really enjoyed the historical sites, great markets, tasty food, fabulous wine, and the pulsating culture of the city.