Our booth is drafty with an evening chill. Techno music and wafting strawberry hooka smoke fills the air. Our meals are an unfamiliar combination of meat and vegetables and now we’re enjoying a dessert of bananas smothered in honey and grated pistachio nuts.
Our first night’s dinner in Istanbul is at “The Barbeque.” While the restaurant manager’s pants may be a size too small and collared shirt buttons stretched to their limit, he shakes hands heartily and seems truly concerned about his guests’ comfort — be they dining in booths or lounging on bean bags with a hooka pipe.
This is Istanbul.
It’s both modern and ancient, eastern and western, conservative and progressive — a UNESCO site with a unique collection mosques, churches, ruins and bazaars.
On another night we wander at the whims of our tastebuds until finding a comfortable place and menu displaying something appealing.
February night shivers have us seeking a table inside.
Upon entering, we realize everyone inside is a local. At first uncomfortable, the waiter tries his best to be friendly, the way you might treat a 6-year-old with his underwear outside his trousers. We enjoy a meal of piping hot flat bread with anise seeds and grilled vegetables. After paying, the waiter comes back with two bits of penny candy which we take as reward for good behavior; confirmation that our presence was welcome.
The desserts in Istanbul are colorful to say the least. Nuts are immersed in flavored jellies of bright orange, green and red. Shredded coconut or powdered sugar is added and rolled into three-inch tubes or cut into chunks from giant blocks. This is Turkish delight or Lokum.
On this occasion we’re in search of something more substantial to be consumed with a cup of Turkish tea.
We settle into a booth in a busy cafe and admire the cream-colored walls with dark stained woodwork and crystal chandeliers giving the impression of an old English guesthouse in some distant colonial town.
The tea comes piping hot in little wasp-waisted cups. Chocolate cake comes sweating, just having been removed from the fridge, layered with cream and chopped nuts. Pastries feature finely grated pistachios and thick cream.
We sit and talk, enjoying our culinary treat for a good long time.
Besides enjoying exotic culinary fare, shopping is another pastime not to be missed in Istanbul. The Grand Bazaar is the biggest event of it’s type in the world under one roof. It’s home to 4,000 shops lining 60 roads and alleys where you’ll find everything from wooden spoons to gold jewelry.
Hawkers harangue passersby, arabic music blares from every third shop and there is a constant drone of conversation from the relentless march of visitors. Many roads in the Grand Bazaar are covered by old brick and concrete vaulted archways. Some goods seem out of place: Chinese knock off Izod sweaters and Bulova watches to name a few. But that’s easy to overlook amidst the chaos of this shopping colossus.
Walking north from the Grand Bazaar takes one to the Spice Bazaar, also known as the Egyptian Bazaar. Much smaller than the Grand Bazaar with only a few hundred shops, the Spice Bazaar is more cozy and relaxed, and the vendors have a sense of humor. An unbelievable volume of tea and spices are piled everywhere. It’s an intoxicating sensory overload.
Eventually, we leave the crowd striking westward through the alleys and streets. Suddenly we’re the only westerners in sight, and nothing is labeled in English. Vendors are surprised to see us. Happy for the rare chance to practice their English skills, they’re proud to show us their fruit, nuts, wares for life’s daily needs, more heaping piles of spices and one impressive display of pig feet and goat heads.
Beneath the superficial tourist activities lie the city’s grand history — intriguing and hiding in plain sight.
Visitors can take a boat tour on the Bosphorus waterway and miss the significance of that being where Alexander the Great built a pontoon bridge, marching his Macedonian army into Asia Minor before building his empire which stretched to India.
Ruins are everywhere. The city was pagan Roman for several centuries, then Christian Byzantine for nearly 900 years and has been Muslim Turk since the Ottoman conquest, when in 1453 walls of Constantine the Great were breached. It was Constantine who reunited the Roman empire, made it christian and renamed this city Constantinople. His defensive walls held against all threats to the city for more than 1,000 years until Sultan Mehmed raised a 27-foot cannon, hurling a 600-pound cannonball one mile, into the great walls.
There are a few “must-see” sights including the Hagia Sofia and Blue Mosque dead center of the Hellespont in the oldest part of town. The Blue Mosque, or the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, is what you would expect in a mosque, but it’s big. It’s the Hulk compared to the Bruce Banner- sized average mosque. It has a broad central dome surrounded by a diminishing series of half domes supporting the wings of interior space. From the outside it’s like a cascading waterfall of domes and arched windows with minaret spires at the courtyard corners.
Inside it’s obvious why it garnered the the nickname Blue Mosque. The endless vertical interior space is absorbed into blue light from the stained glass in those arched windows seen outside. It creates a melancholy, if not purely etherial atmosphere. With the blue diffused light,and shadows created by the massive columns and arches, nothing seems sharply in focus when one’s eyes stray away from the blood red carpet. There is even a physical vagueness to the carpet as we remove our shoes to enter, with the plush red spongy under our feet.
Leaving the Blue Mosque, the cold rain is a stark contrast to the earthly disconnect of the mosque interior and has us seeking the comfort of a nearby cafe and cup of steaming Turkish tea.
Visiting the Hagia Sofia is a major event. When finished in 537 AD, it remained the biggest cathedral in the world for almost a thousand years. Even today it dwarfs all structures within sight. Lacking the usual ornate artwork of the surrounding architecture it looks old, which adds to it’s awe- inspiring presence. Outside, the pink and maroon paint is faded and pale. The giant silver dome with ring of arched windows and bright gold spire, sits like a crown, impervious to time.
Inside we walk a peripheral ramp to the upper gallery surrounding the interior. From the balcony looking across the cavernous space beneath the dome, sunlight streaks through the windows. The plastered walls are covered in gold and black paint. In places the original gold leaf mosaic tiles are visible, adding sharp detail to the ancient design. Paintings adorn the walls of saints, sovereigns and the occasional Christophany, in the Byzantine style with halo and wide eyes.
These are rare architectural elements in Istanbul, as the human form is forbidden in Islamic art.
On ground level, the interior is covered in gray granite and exotic marble, some with red and white stripes. From the worship area, the dome seems a distant thought, almost not part of the structure, yet we’re under cover and protected from the elements. It’s cold but the 15-foot wide chandeliers keep the shadows at bay. It’s a quiet place, offering a gracious sense of security.
Having seen the usual sites, our curiosity draws us to the outskirts of town by train where, after about 20 minutes we get off at the deserted Yedikale station. Walking through a chain-link gate and a station house that could pass as an ancient ruin, we soon find our goal — the ancient defensive walls of Constantine built to protect the seat of wealth, power and culture between two continents. Our first point of contact is Yedikale castle, a fairly intact large stone structure near the Sea of Marmara waterfront. Next to the castle, traffic flows through an ancient gate.
Our explorations take us through other gates,fortified walls and offer a view of cargo ships entering and leaving the Bosphorus waterway.
After entering a quiet suburb, we find a small market offering everything from cheap flyswatters to livestock for the evening meal. The locals look at us with curiosity as we observe their quiet existence around the timeless walls like countless generations before them.
Direct flights from Frankfurt International Airport are available for under $200, and many hotel options for under $100. Public transportation is simple with information available online and around town. For the tech savy, there are a few good, and free, tourist apps.
Istanbul definitely offers a break from cookie cutter tourism — a chance to discover the real, unpolished life of a truly unique place.