February 10, 2011

One City – Two Continents

Istanbul is a great destination for a city break with a difference. This booming metropolis of almost 12 million souls combines modern cosmopolitan attractions with exotic Asian flavours and awe-inspiring historical relics.

Approaching by air, it’s easy to see why the city’s strategic location has been crucial through its history as Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul. Ocean-going ships ply the narrow straits of the Bosphorus between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean – while smaller ferries shuttle from the city centre to Istanbul’s eastern suburbs on the westernmost fringes of Asia.

We start our visit by touring the city’s best known monuments, conveniently clustered around a park containing the remains of a hippodrome built by the Roman Emperor Constantine in the 4th century AD, when he made Constantinople his new capital.

The breathtaking Hagia Sofia was built as a Byzantine Christian church in the 6th century, and remained the world’s largest cathedral for a thousand years. When the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453, it was converted to a mosque, but today it serves as a museum that graphically reflects Istanbul’s colourful history.

On a marble ledge high up in this ancient holy edifice we are intrigued to spy traces left by an early disrespectful visitor from Northern Europe, in the form of Viking runic graffiti. Dating back to the 9th century, the runes read simply “Halvdan was here!”

Islamic and Ottoman heritage

Across the park lies the stunning Blue Mosque, built for Sultan Ahmet I in the 1600s. With its six towering minarets, graceful domes and elegant courtyard, this must be one of the world’s most picturesque places of worship. Its name comes from the ornate blue tiles that decorate its interior.

We next head for Topkapi Palace to sense the splendour of the Ottoman Empire. This complex of opulent buildings was laid out in parkland by successive sultans from the 15th century. Highlights include exhibitions of the Sultans’ robes and treasures, as well as a huge harem that housed as many as 1,000 concubines – and a small army of eunuchs.

Built as a Christian basilica almost 1,500 years ago, Hagia Sophia encapsulates Istanbul’s colourful history. Istanbul’s labyrinthine - A dramatic historical TV soap opera aired during our visit, featuring the intrigues within the harem of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, has attracted criticism for inaccuracies, but Turks are still clearly proud of the military and cultural achievements of the Ottomans.

Turkish delights

Turks are also justifiably proud of their cuisine. Street sellers offer chestnuts and corn; cafés offer sweet baklava pastries with sludgy Turkish coffee; and waiters prowl the streets enticing tourists into their restaurants. Kebab houses offer shish, doner and chicken dishes that greatly surpass the versions sold in Finnish suburban kebab houses. Mixed meze starter trays and aubergine dishes are also well worth trying.

Tasty fresh fish dominate the menus of waterside restaurants beside the winding natural inlet known as the Golden Horn. In a popular fish restaurant in the seedy seaside district of Kumkapi we enjoy a buskers’ jam featuring emotional vocals, traditional drums, violins, clarinet, oud and zither.

After a hard day’s sightseeing, what could be more welcome than a relaxing Turkish bath? Shunning the pricy tourist baths we opt for a local backstreet bath-house. The staff and other bathers speak no English, but the welcome is as warm as the steam room. After sitting on hot marble slabs in a washroom smelling faintly of sulphur and mould, we are treated by a burly bath attendant to a thorough soapy rubdown and a vigorous joint-cracking massage. We accept the refreshing tea offered after our ordeal and watch the regulars smoking their nargile bubble pipes.

Istanbul is also a shopper’s paradise – if you’re prepared to haggle over prices with pushy stallholders. The Grand Bazaar is a labyrinth of covered alleys containing some 4,000 stalls offering rugs, jewellery, lanterns, handicrafts, trinkets, souvenirs and plenty of other things you probably don’t need. But it’s certainly a memorable experience to forage through this vast and amazingly colourful market. The smaller Spice Bazaar specialises in nuts, spices and other local delicacies including countless varieties of Turkish delight in handy gift packages.

Read more on Helsinki Times: One City – Two Continents


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