Istanbul, from the Bosphorus

Byzantium and Beyond

27th March 2015

Istanbul is one of the world’s most exciting cities: a throbbing metropolis of 16 million people that has been inhabited continuously for nearly 3,000 years. Olivia Greenway explores its past and its present…

Situated on the Bosphorus Straits where the Sea of Marmara leads to the Mediterranean and the West, and the Black Sea leads to the East, Istanbul has always been an important trading port.

First named Byzantium by the Greek king who founded it in the 7th century BC, the city eventually fell into Roman hands and was renamed Constantinople in 330AD. In 1453, it succumbed to the Ottomans, became the capital of the Ottoman Empire and was renamed Istanbul. When the Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923, the capital moved to Ankara, leaving behind a magical and beguiling place where east and west meet. It’s a Muslim country, of course, so calls to prayer are five times a day in this city of 3,000 mosques. However, there are significant minorities here of other religions and nationalities, including non-practising Muslims.

Fortunately, many of the historic buildings built by the Greeks, Romans and Ottoman sultans have been added to the UNESCO World Heritage list, and for tourists it’s an increasingly popular destination: a new three runway international airport is on the cards for 2017, for example, and Turkish Airlines, part owned by the Government, is expanding rapidly. Presently, they travel to 200 destinations; by 2023 it is targeted to be double that.

There are three main areas of Istanbul of interest to most visitors: the historic district, south of the Galata Bridge; the more modern part, further north; and the less well-known Asian side of the Bosphorus.

To get your bearings, and have a wonderful bird’s eye view of this sprawling city, start at the Galata Tower. Although it’s in what I have called the ‘modern part’, the tower itself is over 700 years old and at 62 metres tall affords a panoramic view from the balcony. It’s also very useful for orientating yourself; wherever you are in Istanbul, you should be able to see the Tower, and it is illuminated at night.

Near here is Taksim Square, the heart of modern Istanbul, with shops, restaurants, luxury hotels and the Monument of the Republic, inaugurated in 1928 to commemorate five years of independence. It is here, too, that public marches and gatherings, – most of them peaceful – take place.

Nearer the Tower you’ll find the enchanting antiques and bric-a-brac area: mostly tiny shops, crammed to the rafters with stuffed birds, postcards, pocket watches, old coins, oil paintings, discarded furniture and the like. Start around Nakliy Tapilir Street. Shopkeepers are friendly and don’t mind a bit if you’re ‘just looking’.

All over the city you’ll see street food vendors. Try a bag of fresh roasted chestnuts, or a charcoal grilled sweet corn cob or tuck into crispy ringed savoury biscuits – simit – covered in sesame seeds for a true taste of Turkey.

Turks have a serious tea addition. They drink it in small tulip shaped glasses several times a day, with or without sugar, but never with milk. And when they’re not drinking tea… they’re drinking coffee: boiled in a copper pot and served very thick. Add a few sugar lumps and when you get to the ‘sludge’, stop and take a sip of the water that is usually served with it. Try to find Mandabatmaz, a humble place down a side street just off Istiklad Cd, not far from the Galatasaray tram stop, that sells both. They serve the best Turkish coffee I’ve ever had, and, at around 25p a cup, it’s ridiculously cheap in comparison to a latte back home.

Wine, by contrast, is expensive and heavily taxed, although artisan producers are now delivering some very good wines – and as production is small and not exported, you do need to sample some. Try Sensus Wine lodge, near Taksim Square, that has good quality wines for a fraction of the price of the average restaurant. Indigenous grape varieties produce very drinkable reds and whites and Sensus offers a choice of 400. Wooden boards of cold meats and assorted cheeses are served with a glass or two.

The majestic Galata Bridge that links the more modern city with the old town passes over a body of water called the Golden Horn. As you walk across, you’ll see from both sides of the bridge, at road level, scores of fishermen with their long rods, sharing the space with several lanes of traffic and a tramline. Underneath and undercover are numerous restaurants, mostly serving fish dishes. Despite having heavy river traffic, the frequent tides mean the water is relatively unpolluted and the fish is of a high quality.

The Blue Mosque

Once in the old quarter, make your way to Sultan Ahmed Mosque, named after the eponymous ruler but popularly known as the Blue Mosque after the tiles that adorn the internal walls. Dating from the 17th century, its distinctive domes and slim minarets mark it as one of Istanbul’s most recognisable landmarks. It is still used daily by hundreds of Muslims for prayer. You must, of course, remove your shoes and women must cover their heads.

Immediately opposite the Blue Mosque is the Hagia Sophia. Formerly a Christian church, it was built in the 6th century, a brilliant feat of mathematics and engineering. After the Ottomans invaded, it became a mosque in 1453 and the Christian motifs were covered with whitewash. It was secularised in 1931 and turned into a museum. Wonderful restoration has revealed frescoes hidden for 600-odd years. Try to visit earlier in the day before it gets too busy.

For lunch, check out the nearby Koftecisi café, where the owner is the meatball king. After a lentil soup, enlivened by fresh lemon juice, tasty skewered lamb meatballs and a hot spicy sauce are served with a small salad of carrots, tomatoes and lettuce. Waiters in smart white coats dart about this very busy place; queues form outside at weekends.
Next, duck into the Grand Bazaar, and lose yourself in its labyrinth of 4,000 stalls. Cheap imports from China mean that if you are after genuine products, such as beautiful Turkish embroidered pieces, you need a reputable shop. I was very tempted by a hand-embroidered bedspread covered in pomegranates at Muhlis Gunbatti. This, the largest shop in the bazaar, measures only around 12 feet square; the owner has been trading here for over 50 years. Other items that might catch your eye elsewhere are brightly painted pottery, decorative ‘Tiffany’ style lamps and soft pashminas.

And just a short walk away is the Spice Market, or Egyptian Bazaar, where you will get your proper Turkish delight. At Harem Saray, they let you sniff and taste and they will happily vacuum pack your herbs and spices to take home. Herbal medicine is mainstream in Turkey and not marginalised as it is in the UK.

Don’t miss the underground Basilica Cistern. Used to supply the city with water in the 6th century, the Basilica is a former reservoir. The cavern is atmospherically lit and only the slightly cheesy music detracts in this wonderful space. Towards the end of the waterway, you will find Roman heads of Medusa, one upside down and one sideways. Die hard James Bond fans may find it familiar: this spooky spot was used in the filming of From Russia with Love in 1963.

Back in the fresh air, retrace your steps to the waterside and catch a cheap ferry (£2 return) across the Bosphorus to the Asian side. It’s only a fifteen-minute journey, but it’s important to at least see some of the waterway on which the city was founded and to get a taste of the mystical east. Many tourists never cross the river, preoccupied by the attractions of the European sections of the city, but those who do should find it quietly delightful.

If you have never been to Istanbul before, prepare to be bewitched. And take someone you love.

Where To Stay

Istanbul is a particularly great choice for a special occasion, such as a honeymoon or anniversary. Try the Ciragan Palace hotel, slightly out of town but with a commanding view right next to the Bosphorus, large outdoor and indoor pools, extensive gardens and a superb spa. About a ten-minute walk from the Galata Bridge, is the Pera Palace Hotel; Agatha Christie was a regular guest, and, in fact, wrote Murder on the Orient Express here. The hotel has a well-regarded restaurant and lovely tearoom, making it the perfect place for a romantic meal. More affordable, and right in the old town, is the friendly boutique hotel Empress Zoe.

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