I describe Istanbul as a city of civilizations - lost and often found again. Living on the edge of what we call the east and at the entrance of Europe, the city has it all, the new world as well as all the charms of the so called old and lost world. The city was founded by Constantine, who is largely credited with making Christianity a world religion, to replace Byzantium and was initially named Nea Roma, though soon it took the name of Constantinople. When Mehmad II captured the city a few centuries later, he developed it into a cosmopolitan city, inviting people from all over to come and settle down here, including from Europe. Somewhere between the 10th century to the end of Ottoman Empire in the early 20th Century, the name Istanbul became the de facto name of the city. Interestingly, the name has Greek origins and Istanbul simply means 'in the city'.
|Kid playing with pigeons outside a mosque in Istanbul|
The visit to Istanbul happened absolutely by chance, as I was trying to book the cheapest flight to Milan. Two options were good, via Zurich (which would have given me a chance to meet Eliane after almost 10 years, I hosted her in India as part of AIESEC) or via Istanbul (ah, I had always dreamt about the city, for so long). Picking Istanbul wasn't difficult, and since I already had the visa for Italy, getting a Turkish visa wasn't difficult (Italy visa was quite a challenge though). Oddly I could spend only one day in the city, but I did elaborate research on what all I could do in that one day. Memorized the map of the old town, names of the places, means of travel and so on. Joined a few travel forums (mainly tripadvisor) and trust me these were extremely helpful with tips, suggestions etc.
The fact that it was my first trip abroad, and that too to Istanbul, made it all so romantic. Of course, I was a little confused as I landed at the Ataturk airport, but nothing was difficult to know or get. Leaving my bag at the Cloak room (I can't recall the name that they have for this facility, I was free to explore the city for one full day. I had an evening connecting flight to Milan.
Taking a metro and then a tram from the airport, I thoroughly enjoyed the cool and crisp morning air. I was tired from the overnight flight, but never realised it.
The first stop was the Blue Mosque, a place which was thankfully not so full full of people. I was expecting more conservative tourists, but the place was almost like any other European city. A few Sundays back I was scolded by an Imam in Ahmedabad mosque for wearing shorts and coming to the mosque, there were no such constraints there. The mosque is huge and built in the style of most Turkish mosques, even the newer ones somehow look ancient. The mosque, of course, isn't blue. There are different versions on how it got its name, the official name of the place is actually Sultanahmet.
|Hagia Sofia from a distance|
From the Blue Mosque, I could see the Hagia Sofia. The landmark monument was something that pulled me more to Istanbul than any other place. Its a stunning structure - mammoth and built almost like a fortress. It was made in the days when Istanbul was Constantinople, named after the illustrious and often controversial Constantine. Built as a Church it was widely famous even then; after the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans, the city was renamed Istanbul and Hagia Sofia was converted into a mosque.
Much later when Ataturk took over the reins of the country, the building was converted into a Museum. In its heydays as a church, the building was famous for its frescoes, some of which survive even today. These are absolutely wonderful, being a history buff I was completely mesmerized by these. Its an awesome experience to walk up on the upper levels of the mosque, its a ramp without stairs (if I remember correctly) and almost dark. One can see the Blue Mosque through the tiny openings on the upper levels and just behind the Hagia Sofia domes. Everything was just exceptional.
|Ceiling of Hagia Sofia|
Next was the Topkapi Palace, which is just walking distance from Hagia Sofia. Its beautiful and extremely ornate. I vividly remember the circumcision room with beautiful tiles of the process etc, something new for me in a palace. Topkapi palace opens into the ever so beautiful Bosporus, with its stunning blue waters and cool wind. I wished I had money to dine at the open-air restaurant there.
|Looking over Istanbul...|
I had a day long pass that I could use for all public transportation in Istanbul and I made full use of that. Taking a tram to the Bosporus, I got down and walked across to the other side. I walked below the bridge, and I recommend everyone to stop for a while and eat some food. The smell itself is so delicious; but I am a pious Hindu and ate nothing, just enjoyed the aroma of cooked meat.
My target on the the other side was Galata Tower. Located in the middle of old houses and on a small hill, it gives traffic view of the city. By the way I was completely exhausted with all the travel and walking and took a small break just below the tower. Somehow I was besotted with the tower, no one actually recommended it to me. And it just doesn't disappoint. A lift takes you to an upper level and a few steps away is the beautiful city right in front of you. There is amazing wind there and the view is terrific. I could see most of the city landmarks that I had just been to.
Walking back was nice as the sun was already setting and I was walking downhill. This time I took a tram and went all the way to the Basilica cistern, the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city of Istanbul. One of the most famous column inside is the one with the inverted Medusa head. The lighting inside is beautiful and the pictures from the place were amazing.
|At the Grand Bazaar|
I was ready to go back to the Airport, but there was no way I could leave the city without visiting the Grand Bazaar. I entered it through one of the closest entry points and walked inside for about an hour. Did most of my seniority shopping and even managed to take find a shop-keeper who could speak broken Hindi. It was already dark by the time I reached outside the market (its a closed market place) and I immediately took a tram-Metro to the Airport. The evil eye I bought there is still in use at home :)
Evening was fun, I missed my flight!!!
More interesting turn of events waited for me at the Airport, I had calculated the time of travel etc very well and was at the Airport well before the departure of my flight, which was expected to leave at 10:30 PM. I was stunned when I was told at 08:00 PM that my flight was ready to depart and there was no way I could be allowed to get in. This was a shock and something completely unanticipated. I was left with no choice but to reschedule my flight to next morning with an additional expense of 50 euros. Thankfully I was not asked to book a new flight! However, it was the hardest to explain to M how I missed my flight. She was furious but thankfully the balance in my phone was limited and I was spared the spanking (well, not literally) till the next morning!
I slept comfortably at the airport on a cold bench, I was completely exhausted after my long and eventful day. God had better plans for me, and I did not miss my flight the next morning. I could leave Istanbul, with a promise to return. Hopefully soon.
Turkey Beyond Istanbul
Italy is full of wonders and there is much to be explored beyond Istanbul. One of the things right there on my list is Cappadocia! Read this wonderful guide: Hot Air Balloon Ride in Cappadocia
Note: I wrote this years ago, but never posted as I had lost all pictures during the trip itself. Recently found these which I had uploaded on Facebook and completely forgotten about. The images are of extremely poor quality and my writing is so different, from a different age altogether. But what the heck, I am sharing it nevertheless...