Lifestyle

It’s Istanbul, not Constantinople

by
April 20, 2017

Loking over the Straits of Bosporous.

Shopping in downtown Istanbul.

Topkapi Palace.

TURKEY may not be as attractive to tourists as it once was.

A mixture of deadly terrorist attacks, political turmoil and a failed coup attempt is not exactly rolling out the red carpet for visitors.

Those realities have contributed to a sharp decline in foreigners visiting Turkey in recent years.

But there are plenty of rewards for those willing to take the risk and experience this cultural melting pot with its rich history and stunning architecture.

In May last year my wife and I finally got there, after years of waiting, planning and distractions taking us to other corners of the planet.

Especially to Istanbul, an amazing, bustling metropolis, with its 14 million residents, which is – all at once – Turkey’s economic, cultural and historic centre.

Its foundations date back to centuries before the birth of Christ and encompass multiple empires of Romans, Byzantines and Ottomans.

As one would imagine, a visit to modern Istanbul provides no shortage of historical attractions.

From Topkapi Palace, the mysterious home to Ottoman sultans for centuries, to the insanely busy Grand Bazaar — there really is something to pique the interests of those of us who aren’t exactly history buffs.

At the top of every to-do when in Turkey list is Hagia Sophia.

The former basilica-turned-imperial-mosque is now a museum and sees close to 10,000 through its doors every day.

Except the day we were there – it was closed to visitors for fumigation.

You know the old travel story: You should have been here yesterday (or tomorrow).

But I can tell you anything you need to know about Topkapi, a stone’s throw from Hagia Sophia.

This huge palace served Ottoman sultans for nearly 400 years and is still home to an array of priceless artefacts, including Ottoman treasures and jewellery, weapons, porcelain, armour and Islamic calligraphic manuscripts and murals.

It’s a lot to take in, and even if you’re not a religious person, it’s surreal to be standing within touching distance (if not for the thick glass and armed guards) of sacred relics such as the staff of Moses, David’s sword and hair from the beard of Muhammad.

Even if artefacts and historic buildings are not your thing you could not help but be awed by the fabulous lush gardens and sweeping views of the Bosporus Strait will provide plenty of photo opportunities.

And all for just $A14.

Also nearby is the Sultan Ahmad Mosque, better known among westerners as the Blue Mosque.

Entry here is free and, once again, even if you’re not a Muslim (many visitors are not), it’s worth walking around the grounds and inside the mosque to see one of the city’s most photogenic buildings up close.

A five-minute tram ride away from all this ancient obsession is a living, thriving setting straight out of the pages of One Thousand and One Nights.

Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is an underground market that is nearly a metropolis in its own right.

One of Istanbul’s must-dos, it features 61 streets and 4000 shops, with up to 400,000 visitors daily.

There really is just about everything.

But if there’s one thing to know as a tourist: never accept the initial price.

Traders here are known for their bartering and even a mug (such as me) punter would be able to nearly halve the price of a tea set (and I did).

It might also be worth keeping your belongings close at hand — the market is a known haven for pickpockets.

If you want to avoid history altogether, or are just more interested in experiencing contemporary Istanbul, there’s no shame in staying central and checking out Taksim Square and Istiklal Avenue.

There are plenty of food options available (do I even need to mention the kebabs?) but if you’re going to try anything, I implore you to sit down and gobble some baklava.

Incredible.

A visit to Istanbul wouldn’t quite be complete without a cruise on the Bosporus itself – the Holy Grail of the Gallipoli campaign in World War I, reach it, cross it and capture Istanbul, knocking the then Ottoman Empire out of the war.

We booked a sunset cruise on an agency website I cannot recall and, after a lengthy and nervous wait at the dock wondering whether the boat existed; we boarded and enjoyed the 90-minute ride.

Despite spending three days crisscrossing Istanbul (in Islamic means ‘in the city’ or ‘to the city’) in trams and on foot it is only when you go to sea and look back over the megalopolis you get a true hint at its sheer size.

We travelled several kilometres along the strait and stopped on both the European and Asian sides of the continent.

Wherever we looked, as far as the eye could see; there were apartment blocks, restaurants, mosques — you name it.

Before too long we were back on dry land and, a day later, we departed Turkey with photos and memories to last a lifetime.

And the unfulfilled need to return at least once – to see Hagia Sophia from the inside.

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