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Istanbul

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Exotic is a word
  that can only really
  be attached to two
  of the more popular
  weekend break
  cities — Marrakesh
  and Istanbul
...”

ISTANBUL IS THE MEETING PLACE OF EUROPE AND ASIA and, of the two, it is the one that stirs the emotions more with its extraordinary colourful history spanning millennia. It is a history that includes the building of one of the world's greatest empires the fabled Ottoman Empire and the sophisticated society that revolved around the Topkapi Palace which, apart from brief intervals, was home to all the Ottoman sultans for nearly four hundred years. Add to that romance and the association of the Orient Express and, of course, Agatha Christie.

Istanbul is very much a living city; without missing a beat it absorbs changes that would destroy the heart of lesser cities. Modern fits in with old; the mix of people is ever changing but the spirit is so strong visitors become instantly immersed in the vibrancy of the city.

Life revolves around the street scene: people are bustling; shops spill out onto the pavements with their wares. Aromas of spices, coffee and foods add to the atmosphere. The buildings also jostle — the old houses, many still to be restored, are cheek-by-jowl with the modern, where next door may be an elaborately stone-covered ancient kiosk with an exotic flowing roof. On the roads, the handcarts and sack barrows compete for room with cars, taxis, old dolmuses, buses and trams, as well as with the ubiquitous DHL delivery vans. All move slowly so pedestrians, often laden with goods to the point of nearly toppling over, weave a living pattern between the vehicles.

It is sad that over the last twenty years or so all the workshops and little boats selling food cooked on braziers along the Golden Horn have disappeared. However, other features have come to the fore with the restoration of many Ottoman palaces, mansions and houses — some into delightful hotels. The whole city also appears to be much cleaner and tidier with an evident better spread of income and wealth.

We arrived at the new, conveniently small Sabiha Gökçen airport on the Asian side of Istanbul just an hour's taxi ride from one of the Turkish Touring and Automobile Club's restored Ottoman period hotels, the Yesil Ev. This hotel is practically next to the Topkapi Palace and the Aya Sophia Mosque. Now a museum but formerly a Byzantine church and Ottoman mosque, The Church of the Holy Wisdom — known as Hagia Sophia in Greek, Sancta Sophia in Latin and Ayasofya or Aya Sofya in Turkish — is universally acknowledged as one of the great buildings of the world.

Not only is the Yesil Ev a beautiful and quiet location, it is well-located for the large majority of places that most people will want to visit.

More than worthy of mention was the wonderful lunch we had in the Sarnic Restorant (Cistern restaurant — dramatically set in an old Roman cistern tucked away behind the Aya Sophia Mosque). It was a typical Turkish meal starting with quite the lightest and subtly seasoned borek (cheese pastry) I have ever tasted. Borek can often be quite heavy but the chef had devised a method of cooking this popular Ottoman speciality by baking it first in a shallow water bath before finishing it off in a hot oven. The result was delicious cheese custard surrounded by flaky filo pastry. This, together with a speciality of Istanbul — Tavuk Gogus; a peculiar but nevertheless delicious milk pudding made with chicken breast — was a novel experience.

A ten minute walk from the Yesil Ev takes you to the Grand Bazaar. Expectations are always very high for the first time visitor — and very few, if any, will be disappointed. Most are invariably overwhelmed by the sheer size of this ancient complex that, jam-packed with vast volumes of merchandise stacked to the ceilings, over-lit gold and the frenetic pace of the trading, throbs with the pulse generated by so many traders, their bright and colourful stall fronts set out under the flags and banners hanging from the roof.

The cacophony of the traders' non-stop banter — naturally in every language where money is possessed: English/German/French; you name it — and their highly-inventive sales patter all vie for your attention and simply beggars belief. Perhaps we look English as they all correctly assumed so, and one silver-seller called out that he had sold a piece to our Queen yesterday — Her Majesty was on an official visit to Istanbul at the time.

The art of negotiation is exercised to extremes here and, even for small-price items such as pashminas, one enters into the spirit of the occasion. The banter is good humoured; we were always prepared to walk away from any deal (and frequently did so), but always in the knowledge that traders would invariably improve their terms.

On the Golden Horn side of the Grand Bazaar is the Spice Bazaar, sometimes referred to as the Egyptian Bazaar. Here you are truly spoilt for choice with the many different spices assailing your senses, dried fruits making your mouth water, assorted nuts tickling your tongue and the sweetness of Turkish Delight in its many flavours and textures together with all manner of delectable delights. The traders are only too happy to invite you to try all sorts of intriguing treats. One appealing sack offered a colourful sweet for me to taste but fortunately I was stopped just before I popped it into my mouth — It turned out to be a type of mothball! Quite how they came to be on sale on the spice stall, I shall never know…

If you have more than a weekend, the Asian side of the Bosphorus has a different atmosphere and some relatively undiscovered treasures. Although it is built up all along the shoreline with a busy road threading its way through, there are what were clearly Ottoman villages just waiting to be rescued. These clusters of tremendously emotive and romantic wooden Ottoman houses are, to a large extent, in a very sad state of repair. It would be wonderful if the Touring and Automobile Club could undertake a project to restore some of them — others would surely follow.

Less glamorous and a little further inland in some former barracks is the rather forbidding-looking Florence Nightingale Museum — too forbidding for us as we were seeking the Hidiv Kasri (Khedive's Palace). This striking art nouveau building is set in a beautifully tranquil and cool tree-covered park overlooking the Bosphorus, and was built in the early 20th century as the summer palace for the last Egyptian Pasha.

If you want to escape the bustling Istanbul for a true haven, this is it. You can dine in very elegant style or, better still, sit under the trees in the café and enjoy a light lunch. However, do wander around the palace as it is an absolute treasure — not least the loos, which is where the euphemism 'Throne' was surely coined.

In Istanbul you can never tire of the atmosphere and the many sites on offer; those on the tourist trail as well as one's own discoveries. For example, the former village of Ortaköy has some interesting art galleries as well as the familiar clusters of wooden Ottoman villas, shops, coffee houses and cafés. Walk down to the shore and there, at the water's edge, you'll be rewarded by the sight of the baroque Grand Imperial Mosque of Sultan Abdülmecid (Büyük Mecidiye Camii). So much to see; so little time. Which is why we'll be returning in the Autumn. — Tim and Bonnie Stevens

Useful Information / Links


Hotels

Touring and Automobile Club
The easiest way to describe this organisation is one man's vision for a smaller
version of The National Trust in Turkey. Responsible for the restoration of some of
the most beautiful Ottoman mansions in Turkey,
some of which are now charming hotels and apartments.

istanbulyesilev | ayasofyakonaklari | turing

Airline

Pegasus Airlines is a low-cost operation that has the approach of a good scheduled
airline. No charge for allocating specific seats or for a generous baggage allowance.
They fly the usual 737s, but with leather seats. They are the second largest airline in Turkey, carried over 4,000,000 passengers in 2007 and are growing rapidly.
Flies to Istanbul from many European cities — flypgs

Tim and Bonnie Stevens flew London Stansted/Istanbul/Kayseri through the new Istanbul airport which is modern, small and efficient and a better bet than the much larger Ataturk Airport. The only downside is that it is on the Asian side: an hour by taxi at 35 Lira (£15). A shuttle bus service is also available. Note that, depending upon the time of day, Istanbul's traffic can be as bad as anywhere and involve much longer journey times.

Tourist Office

Turkish National Tourist Office (UK) — Telephone 020 7939 7778
gototurkey