Istanbul (not Constantinople)

It’s taken me ages to finally sit down and write about my recent trip to Istanbul. I’ve been quite busy with bits and pieces – funnily enough even though I’m not working at the minute I still never seem to have any spare time! Anyhoo I digress, Istanbul! If you’ve never been before I highly recommend it. I have been several times but it was always on a work trip to visit factories and then there was never any time to really explore the city as I would then be off to another factory in Poland straight after, so it had been on my list of places I really wanted to explore and get the chance to just soak up the atmosphere, and drink it all in. So earlier this year when Steve was working away I decided to organise a little mystery holiday. All I had told him was which dates to book off work and what clothes to pack. It was so hard for me to keep my trap shut as anyone who knows me will tell you, I’m useless at keeping surprises as I get so excited like a little puppy and just want everyone else to be excited too so it was torture to not let the cat out of the bag for about two months! I just about managed it though! We stayed in the Pera Palace Hotel which is in a great loctation to discover Taksim, Pera and Beyoglu on the European side of Istanbul.

The Pera Palace was built to host the passengers of the Orient Express in 1892, and was allegedly the location where Agatha Christie penned her 1934 novel “Murder on the Orient Express”. The hotel is also featured in Ernest Hemingway’s novel “The snows of Kilimanjaro”. Both novelists were regular visitors apparently, and there are even suites dedicated to both in their honour. We were already pushing the limits of our budget staying for just a couple of nights so unfortunately we didn’t get to stay in one of the suites! We arrived at about 3pm so decided to explore Taksim and Istikal which is like the equivalent of the Champs-Elysees in Paris for the shopping on the main high street, crossed with Le Marais with it’s many sprawling side streets, cute and quirky shops with interesting bars and restaurants at every turn.

The first thing that hit me as we turned onto the street was just how incredibly busy it was, and then how weirdly familiar yet also foreign it felt at the same time. There were groups of young women all dressed in their best to go clubbing with their girls, young men arm in arm, wearing make-up and holding hands. Families going out for dinner. At the same time you’d see women wearing the full burqa, and many others wearing very modern or western style clothes with only their hair covered with a hijab. It was loud, and bright and the air was filled with an intoxicating scent which was a mixture of  herbs and spices, sweet turkish delight and pastries, and mouth-watering charcoal grilled meat. Mix this in with the hauntingly melodic call to prayer that you could hear coming from several mosques around you, to quote a line from Terry’s chocolates – it really was full of Eastern promise…

I don’t know about where you’re from, but I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen a kebab shop with a chandelier in it in my neck of the woods! We wandered down the lanes and found some really nice bars and had a couple of cocktails before heading back to the hotel for an early night as we had an early start the next day exploring the old town. We had booked a guided tour of the old town which included the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sofia, Topkapi Palace, the Basilica Cistern and the Spice Bazaar. Our guide Mustafa was really knowledgeable and friendly, before entering each site he would tell us some of the history, gave us time to ask questions and then left us to explore on our own. The best part of the whole tour was that we got to queue jump which really saved us loads of time in each place. I was most looking forward to going inside the blue mosque as I’d seen many pictures of it and lots of people had said how beautiful it was, however, whilst we were there it was under renovations so most of the big dome was covered with construction, but we did get to see some of the newly restored ceiling which really was stunning.

The Hagia Sofia which was originally a Greek Orthodox Church, and then was converted into a Mosque when the Ottoman Empire came into power, and was then subsequently secularised by President Ataturk and turned into a museum in 1935.

The Topkapi Palace was built in the 15th century and was the main residence of the Ottoman Sultans. Following the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1923 it was also converted into a museum by President Ataturk.

 Next on the stop was the Basilica Cistern which was the largest of one of the many Cisterns that was used to store water in the city. It was built in the 6th century ad. The Cistern has been featured in quite a few movies, the most famous ones include the James Bond movie From Russia with Love (1963), and it featured in Dan Brown’s novel Inferno as well as the movie of the same name. It was really atmospheric and unusual, it doesn’t take so long to get around and would definitely recommend it.  The acoustics are amazing in there!

After the Basilica Cistern it was time for a well-deserved lunch. Mustafa our guide took us to his friend’s little restaurant which was superb, not too touristy and incredibly tasty!

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The last stop of a very full, busy but exciting day was the Spice Market – which is exactly what it says it is – a spice market! You can also buy lots of gorgeous Turkish delight, textiles and leather there.

Our last day we spent exploring the Grand Bazaar, a boat ride on the Bosphorous and then walked across the Galata Bridge up the hill into the Galata area and the Galata Tower – disclaimer I didn’t go up it as I thought it was going to be lots of windy little staircases and I get quite claustrophobic in small spaces, particularly when there are a lot of people. As it turned out it was actually a lift so I’m a bit gutted I didn’t get to see the views for myself.

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The Grand Bazaar is everything you think it’s going to be and more, with the stall holders trying to entice you into their shops to buy. My favourite line of the day was “How can I help you spend your money?”.

From the market it was a 15-20 minute stroll down-hill through another market area, down to the Bosphorous strait where East truly does meet West.

After our cruise it was time to head back to the hotel to freshen up for dinner, but not before crossing the Galata Bridge on foot and soaking up some of the atmosphere down by the water.

Dinner was hands-down one of the best dining experiences of my life! We found this tiny little kebab restaurant right near our hotel. It looked really quirky from the outside, and at first the menu looked a little scary, but we decided to give it a go. 

It seriously didn’t disappoint and was the perfect jewel in the crown to end our city break before heading down the coast to Olu Deniz for a few days of sunshine, which I will tell you more about in my next blog post.  

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