The two main areas of Istanbul, Sutanahmet and Taksim, best reflect the multiple identities of Istanbul. They bring alive its unique mix of the old and the new.
We stayed in two hotels in the Taksim area. Taksim square and the road which emanates from it, Istiklal Cadesi, ends in the Beyoglu area. Our first hotel, the stately Marmara Istanbul, was bang on Taksim Square. The second one, the hip Marmara Pera, was at the Beyoglu end.
One could call this the ‘new’ face of Istanbul. Istiklal is a sort of a walking street which is lined with old buildings which one associate with 19th and early 20th century Europe. These buildings had been converted into fancy shops (clothes, books, antiques, shoes) which housed most international brands.
Kainaz took advantage of the cold to make me buy her some nice European looking stuff such as a woolen cap and a light blue trench coat. The styles were different from what you get here. Apparently she had to dress up for coffee! The irony is that I had bought the most ridiculously expensive jacket in the history of jackets from Ed Hardy as an anniversary gift but the annicersary (22nd October) was right at the end of the trip. I couldn't have her becoming an ice maiden before that could I after 7 years of sticking together through years of counting the change.
Istikal Padesi had a range of eateries - Mac Donalds, Starbucks, Burger King, etc and local kebab, kofte, piaz, delis, doner (Turkish shwarma) & oil dreched burger stalls and fancy restaurants including those in Cisek Pasaji, a very elegantly restored flower market.
There were some grand churches and an ambling tram reminiscient of late 19th century Europe.
The street was crowded late into the night with hip, smartly dressed young Istanbullus walking purposefully. It is a young and lively place and fitted into our image of Western Europe. A number of cities in the world have these ‘be there or be square’ places. The ones which come to mind are Colaba in Mumbai, Park Street in Calcutta, Sukhomvit in Bangkok and Thamel in Kathmandu and, very losely, Baga at Goa.
The Taksim area was home to Kainaz and me for 6 days and was clearly our preferred part of the city. I loved the wonderful mix of modernity in a classical shell
Orhan Pamuk, in his book, Istanbul, refers to Taksim and Beyoglu as places where the Greek, Jew and Christian minorities of Istanbul used to live. This probably explains the West European feel to the area. He also says that the houses here were ransacked during riots in the 1950s. My guess is that the government must have restored this area since then. If they have, then it is a wonderful example, which I wish could be done in India. They look very different from the filth, poverty and ruins which Pamuk writes about. The change, obviously, is dramatic since then.
The other key area is the old city or the Sultanahmet area. In fact this seemed to be the preferred base of most tourists that we met. It had most of the ‘must sees’ of Istanbul within walking distance.
You first come across the Haghia (pronounced Aia) Sophia which was built by King Justinian. It was apparently the principle Church of Christianity when Constantinople was the centre of the Christian world. This was later converted into a mosque when the Ottomans took over and you see Arabic inscriptions inside the church. Haghia Sophia was converted into a Museum by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic in the middle of the twentieth century. I felt that this was a nice solution to the religious impasse between the Christians who built the Church and the Muslim majority who occupied it over the centuries.
I wonder if anyone in India would come up with such an enlightened solution for the Babri Masijid Ram Janmabhoomi complex. This could turn this area of religious dispute into a monument for the world to admire.
Close to the Haghia Sophia is the Topkapi Palace. This is where the Ottoman Sultans used to live and rule the world. It is a huge complex built over 4 courts (areas). Kainaz had decided that we should explore the palace ourselves with the help of the Lonely Planet which her colleague Shushobhan had lent us to discover Turkey with. We decided on this was after we felt that we were quite rushed by the tour guides in most of the other places and could not really take in the atmosphere. I was a bit sceptical about the absence of guide but must admit that she made the right decision.
Well we ended up spending a full day here walking from court to court, awestruck by the Sultan’s reception room, the library, the huge, huge Royal kitchen, the treasury which had a throne which Nadir Shah had taken from India and the 86 carat Spoonmaker’s diamond which nearly blinded one with its brilliance.
We then bought another ticket to go to the harem and spent an hour there lost in the inner world of the sultan. We looked at the empty rooms and windows and wondered about what must have happened behind its closed walls. I am sure they must have a lot of interesting stories of the sultans and his favourite women. I wonder who ruled whom. But most have taken some skill to manage them.
In between all this we had a lovely lunch at the very posh, hundred year old, Konyali restaurant (estd 1907) in the Topkapi palace complex. It was a classy, fine dining experience which we enjoyed by the Bosporus. Loved the lamb goulash. We shared a main dish with fries, tea and ayran (butter milk). It was too expensive to order 2 dishes or wine! But that's what happens if you gate crash into the Sultan's party.
If we had gone in a guided tour then they would have crunched all of this into an hour. Well, as they say, the wife is always right.
The Blue Mosque, which was built by the Ottoman Sultans to over shadow the Haghia Sultan, is synonymous with Istanbul. This is a marvel in medieval architecture with its imposing dome and delicate mosaic work. Inside the mosque there was a lovely, red carpet which was heavenly to walk on. The mosque was meant to inspire awe... and it did!
In between the Blue Mosque and the Haghia Sophia you come across what the tourist books describe as the ‘Hippodrome’ where chariot races used to happen. I was looking forward to seeing a Coliseum like structure out of the Gladiator or Asterix comics. Actually it is a regular metalled road with an ancient column. A bit disappointing to say the least.
Soon after the Blue Mosque and the Yerebetan Sarnic you come to another 500 year old marvel, the Grand Bazar. This was a bazaar set up by the Sultans for people to trade. It is divided into various sections such as those for carpets, porcielen, antiques, etc. This is quite an interesting Bazar to look at with its ornate columns and ceilings. It gives you a feeling of the past far away from the glass and chrome malls today. Haggling is common here. We were called into a carpet shop, where we sipped some apple tea, saw many carpets and then firmly said no and left. It is fairly genteel and well organized. You don’t feel pressured unlike what people claim about the market in Cairo. One good place to eat here is the Pedeliza restaurant which we discovered thanks to the Lonely Planet book.
What to buy? Here’s a commonly known secret. Take in the atmosphere in the Grand Bazar and then head to what I call the ‘good bazar’ for shopping. This is the Spice Market or the Egyptian market which is a couple of tram stations away from Sultanahmet. It is less grand, has fewer shops, but has the same stuff as the Grand Bazar at half the price and is about 400 years old. The tram station for this is Eminonu. The Bosporus cruise starts from here too so you can always check it after the cruise. We did most of our souvenir shopping – tee shirts, apple teas, spices, dry fruits, evil eye trinkets – from here. The salesman are quite friendly, they push their stuff but aren't overbearing. We might a friendly young man called Jeman whom we bought most of our stuff from.
Close to the Grand Bazar is the Cimerlati Hamam allegedly designed by Sinan, the architect who designed the Blue mosque. More on that later but it is definitely avoidable unless you are a masochist. I am still too shaken by it to write about our harrowing experience there. Both Kainaz and I needed some stiff vodkas to recover from it that night.
As you see, most of the tourist spots – Haghia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Yerebatan Sarnici, Topkapi Palace, Grand Bazar - are within walking distance of each other at Sultanhamet which is also known as the ‘old city’. There are a number of restaurants and hotels there. As I said earlier, most people we met were staying there.
However, the ‘new city’, the Taksim area seems more like a modern city. What I would recommend is to stay at Taksim. Go over to Sultanahmet to take in the sights and then come back and walk the streets of Istiklal and Beyoglu from Taksim in the evening.
So here you have a quick overview of Istanbul. It is almost as if it is a tale of two cities – the modern, buzzing, European Taksim and the Ottoman palaces and Occidental, medieval, majesty of Sultanahmet. Why choose between the two? After all you can get the best of both the worlds at Istanbul.
1. The two, Taksim and Sultanahmet, are fairly well connected by public transport. You go by an underground metro from Taksim to the next stop, Kabbatas. Here you buy another ticket or Jeton and take the tram to Sultanahmet Station. The same works while returning. The locals are very helpful and they help you out if you think you are lost. That’s how we came upon this route. Each way takes half an hour and a round trip costs 5.6 Liras or 3 Euros or about Rs 180 per person. A taxi would take much more. The trains and trams are crowded by are a cake walk for anyone who has travelled on Indian trains or buses.
2. The only toursity place which is slightly away from Sultanahmet is the Dolmabahace place. This is the ‘modern’ palace where the Sultans lived post the 18th century. You can only go here with a tour group which, in a hurried 45 minute round ,shows you the opulence of the palace including the world’s largest chandelier. Turkish Nobel Prize winner, Orhan Pamuk, in his book ‘Istanbul’ says that he used to sneak kisses with his first love and muse. here. I wonder whether that’s why years later you now need to go with an organised group and can’t walk around by yourself.
3. Some indicative prices of things mentioned:
- Dolmabahace tour/ Blues Mosque + Haghia Sofia/ Topkapi Palace – each half day tour costs about 52 USD per person
- Entrance to Yerabatan Sarnici is about 20 Turkish Lira or 10 Euros per person
- Entrance to Topkapi Palace (should be done without a tour) is about 20 Lira/ 10 Euro pp and the entrance to the Harem is another 15 Lira/ 8 Euros pp
- Hamam (hamam+ soap+ oil massage) – 80 Liras/ 40 Euros pp down the drain. This price fluctuates and was higher the next day. This is also the only place in Turkey where tips are openly solicited
- Turkey tee shirt – 20 Lira/ 10 euro in Grand bazaar. 10 Lira/ 5 Euro in the Spice market. 8 Liras after bargaining.
-- Cisek Pidesi dinner lunch with vodka, no dessert - around 35 liras (17 euros)