When it is a special vacation you should allocate enough time to really immerse yourself and completely enjoy the experience. Having not taken off for more than a week in many years, 2010 presented me with a rare scenario, two weeks left to take or loose it. Not a chance! Betsey and I got out the imaginary dart board and came up with London and Istanbul. London to visit relatives we had not seem in awhile and Istanbul to see where West meets East and explore a new place. The plan unfolded as a stay in London for a few days, fly off to Turkey for a week and then back to London to finish. And for the most part it fell into place, with some minor adjustments dodging volcano ash clouds and threats of airline strikes. In a nutshell, it was fantastic! From the hotel (The W) to the city to the food to the sights, it was just one adventure after another.
Taksim Square and Sim Moda Evi
Our first assignment was to visit Taksim Square and track down Ismail Bali one of the best known bellydance costume designers in Istanbul and sample his wares and skills. It worked, Betsey was taken back and fitted for a couple of beautiful and unique outfits that just dazzle!
Next stop, the Grand Bazaar. With 58 streets, over 1200 shops and attracting anywhere from 250,000 to 400,000 daily visitors this is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world. Founded in 1461 it seems to be a logical choice as Istanbul had been a major end point of the Silk Road. Its cobble stone streets contain every kind of trade store you can imagine- jewelry, pottery, spices, carpets, clothing and it just goes on and on. This has got to be where the term 'hustle and bustle' got coined, as it is everywhere. From the hawkers and merchants welcoming you into their stores to the gold and stock trading that is done right in the alleyways to the throngs of people looking for the ultimate bargain, you are taken away to another time and place while tempted to loosen the purse strings and delve into the hustle all around you. It is addicting and can create unplanned consequences (we have rugs to prove it), but that is what adventure is all about.
A great spot to get a 360º of both new and old town Istanbul is the Galata Tower. You can access it from several points and I suggest that you include a trip on the underground funicular Tünel from the Karaköy tram stop. You head for the pedestrian underpass, making sure that you get your token in advance as you will find that some of the public transport systems have their own token currency. Once you exit, veer to the left and round the first corner for the lower Tünel stop, get in queue and off you go. Once you get to the top station and you exit, go right and then right again and it is a nice downhill walk to the tower.
The tower standing at 205 feet, was built in the mid-14th century by the Genoese who controlled this part of the city while the Byzantines controlled the historic core of Constantinople. Primarily a tower of a defensive nature, it also was a show of power to those traveling in the region. There is an interesting historical feat involving the tower and Hezarfen Ahmet Çelebi, a 17th century aviation pioneer. Inspired by the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, he built a set of wings to hang glide across the Bosphorus and made it to the Asian side at Üsküdar several miles away. And, according to local legends, he either was awarded a sack of gold from the sultan or the clergy had him exiled to North Africa (man was not meant to fly) or maybe both. How little has changed!
Sirkeci Train Station
On October 8th, 1883, the first overland voyage of the Orient Express arrived in Istanbul at the main train terminal, Sirkeci. Eighty hours and 1923 miles after departing Gare de l'Est in Paris, France, the discerning traveler of the day disembarked at this terminus of the Orient Express in the equally mysterious " Orient," having traveled through Munich, Vienna, Budapest and Bucharest. Guests were advised to carry a gun with them which gives us a glimpse into the frontier nature of heading " East." The service ran to and from Istanbul until May 19, 1977 when it was suspended and Budapest became the terminus. Service was disrupted during the two World Wars and routed around Germany for part of WWII. The train cars have become legendary and tell tales of the changing political climate of Europe in the 20th century, with many having been restored to their original elegance and working the tracks for the Venice-Simplon Orient Express luxury train. Betsey and I were fortunate to have spent our honeymoon riding this historical work of art between Victoria Station in London and Venice, Italy. The train rolls through pastoral countryside, alpine valleys surrounded by snow peaked mountains and gently passes through the vineyards of Italy before you disembark. A civilized scene for the most part, however the train gets a festive uplift from the Parisians when they board and the bar car is where they all migrate to. If you go, make sure you do not miss a visit to the bar car and share some spirits with your fellow passengers.
The station today is a mere shadow of its former self, but you can feel the history when you stroll in and if you let your imagination take you away, you can still hear the steam whistles beckoning travelers that it is time to head West. Efforts are underway to restore the historical section of the station and there is a small museum that holds artifacts of those days gone by.
As Istanbul is a meeting point for East and West, the Galata Bridge is where New and Old Town meet. On one hand you have the 3000-year-old historical center of Istanbul surrounded by fragments of the original Byzantine wall and containing all of the well known sights, while across the bridge and centered around Taksim Square is the New District. Called " Pera" by the locals, it includes most of the top-rated hotels, good restaurants, which Betsey and I will testify to, and a lot of hustle and bustle nightlife along the Bosphorus Straits. But when you want to soak in the history of the area and see a window into the past, Old Town is where to go. We started at Hagia Sophia.
Dedicated in 360 and rebuilt three times, Hagia Sophia started as the Cathedral of Constantinople, an Orthodox Catholic Church. In 1453 as Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks, Sultan Mehmed II ordered the church converted to a Mosque. The last transformation was in 1953 when the new Republic of Turkey secularized the building and opened it as a museum one year later. Standing as the largest Cathedral for over 1000 years, its architectural " firsts" included the use of pendentives which allowed the dome to be constructed over a square base structure and the inclusion of 40 windows to bring in light. It is an impressive sight as you stand on the marble floor and gaze upwards.
Built between 1609 and 1616, the Blue Mosque was financed and built by Sultan Ahmet I, one of the few Sultans that spared his brother's life on ascending to the throne, going against centuries of tradition. The design was modeled after Hagia Sophia and shows a few centuries of architectural advancement in its design and construction. Four massive " elephant feet" support the dome allowing for a spacious open floor plan without the thick walls that prior domed buildings required. While Hagia Sophia was a breakthrough with 40 windows, the Blue Mosque boasts 260! If you are at any view point on high looking towards the Old Town skyline, you get a sense of the similarities of these two outstanding structures. Check your pictures carefully before declaring which one is which (ps...count the minarets.)
Legend says that the Sultan asked for a gold minaret (altin) but the architect thought he said six (alti), which explains the extra 2 towers. To add to the intrigue, legend also says that this caught the eye of the clergy at Mecca which had an equal six towers and they scrambled quickly to construct a seventh tower to maintain their prestige. While the first event is mostly explained as the Sultan wishing to flaunt his wealth, the second is contradicted by historical fact in that Mecca had seven towers a century before the Blue Mosque was built. In either case, the mosque and grounds are another example of East meets West as the two forces react and interact throughout time.
Our favorite spot hands-down was Topkapi Palace! Topkapi means " cannon door" and refers to one of the gates along the old Byzantine wall that runs along the Sea of Marmara, as the palace was built on the ruins of Byzantium, an ancient Greek settlement. Construction started under Sultan Mehmet as the administration center in 1459 and continued on through the years under different reigns of Sultans. Süleyman the Magnificent was the first to use the complex as a residence and it was enlarged and enriched by each Sultan, which gives the complex a sense of being a historical walk through time. The grounds are meticulous, the tile work is everywhere and of the highest quality and the treasures displayed are mind bending. Four inter-connected rooms contain priceless artifacts collected over the years starting with the imperial thrones, moving on to jewels and gold, cumulating in the last room containing the fabled Topkapi dagger. Of all the art and treasures I have been fortunate to gaze upon, this one took my breath away. Created at the palace workshop for the shah of Iran, it never made it to the intended recipient as he was killed in an uprising and it now lies on a burgundy pillow dazzling the tourists. Jewel-encrusted, the three emeralds in the hilt of the dagger draw your eyes in. Not to be outdone, the Spoon maker's pearl-shaped, 86 carat diamond is on display. And as you have guessed by now, it too comes with a legend. It was said to be found just lying in the dirt by a poor farmer who bartered it to a spoon maker for wooden spoons. It then passed to a jeweler for 10 silver coins and how it ended up in the royal treasury is anyone's guess, but given the size it must have attracted royal attention and found its appropriate home.
Topkapi Palace is an all-day affair so we suggest you get there early to soak it all in. I will let a handful of pictures do the rest of the tempting and give you a taste of what you can expect.
As the Ottoman Empire declined in the late 19th century, Sultan Abdülmecit I decided to build a new palace to counter the impression that the empire was backwards and not in step with modern times. Dolmabahçe Palace became a synthesis of East and West design with style elements combing Baroque, Rococo and Neoclasical mixed with traditional Ottoman architecture that leaves you perplexed at times as you wander the grounds and interior. Especially inside the palace where you can go from rooms filled with gold and crystal to indistinguishable hallways and sections. The empire had to borrow heavily to finance the construction and it caused intense discontent with the populace. Completed in 1856, it contains 14 tons of gold leaf, the world's largest Bohemian crystal chandelier at 4.5 tons and 750 lights (a gift from Queen Victoria) and the largest collection of Baccarat crystal, including an opulent staircase with crystal banisters.
The grounds were reclaimed from the Bosphorus at first to create an imperial garden, and then gradually became the site of summer palaces and eventually was the chosen location for the new palace. Dolmabahçe literally translates as " filled gardens" and has a more open feel then Topkapi and takes advantage of the cool breezes from the straits. This was also the final residence of Mustafa Atatürk, the hero of modern Turkey and its first president, and has been preserved as part of the national heritage collection. It is a nice afternoon visit but be prepared for a lengthy stand in line to get into the grounds, especially if there are school groups, as they get the right of way!
Bosphorus Strait from the Space StationOn our last day, with a bit of time before our afternoon departure to London, we hired a taxicab to drive us along the Bosphorus Straits going towards the Black Sea. This body of water separates Europe from Asia, is the narrowest international waterway and connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara which then leads to the Dardanelle Strait, the Aegean Sea and finally the Mediterranean. The shores are lined with summer palaces for the rich and famous on the Asian side and the European side is a mix of neighborhoods and waterfront activities that support the local fishing industry. It was a nice drive and a chance to get off the beaten tourist path.
If you go... We have some recommendations if you decide to take the plunge and visit this city of amazement and history.
Hotel - We chose the W Istanbul, a Starwood property located among the historic Akaretler Row Houses that were the main quarters for the support staff of the nearby Dolmabahçe palace. If you are looking for a change of pace from the cookie cutter hotel, this is the place to go and it greets you as soon as you step inside. From the billowing fabrics floating above you propelled by the entrance way breezes, to the avant-garde interior decorations and a staff that is attentive as any we have seen, this is a great choice. And one of the concierges, Cem Manglay was the best we have ever had the pleasure to deal with and was an integral part of our wonderful stay.
Carpets - Located in the Grand Bazaar, Kemal Erol is a good choice and where we picked up two tribal design carpets. It has been featured in National Geographic Traveler and the owner is a character. (PS... These are our recommendations with no commercial attachment or compensation)
Restaurants - Sidika is just up the road from the W and a local favorite, serves meze style with a very accommodating owner who steered us through the menu. Our favorite dish was calamari and a must-have if you go.
May our paths & errands meet
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