Two days in Istanbul

10 Mar

Istanbul was a revelation for me. It was by happy chance that we spent two and a half days there on route to our holiday in Germany and Switzerland with H’s family.

Hagia Sofia

Hagia Sofia

After arriving at our hotel at 6:30am (6 hours too early to check-in), we suited up against the 1 degree chill, stashed our bags, steeled ourselves with breakfast and headed out to make the most of it.  The Rast Hotel where we stayed is in the middle of the Old City (Sultanahmet) which meant easy walking distance to many of the must-do tourisity things.  We started at one of possibly the most iconic landmarks of the city, the Blue Mosque, where I was struck by how beautiful the interior was – so intricately decorated with patterns and verses.   The nearby ancient (and slightly crumbling) Hagia Sofia by contrast was striking because of the astonishing clash of Christian imagery and Islamic ornamentation.  I suppose that’s what you get when you transform a thousand year old cathedral into a mosque for a 500 years, then into a secular museum!

Spice Bazaar - TeaWe then wondered into the labyrinth of the Grand Bazaar – not a bad place to get lost for a few hours! I had imagined a somewhat chaotic market, but instead got a vast indoor maze of well- established shops selling every kind of trinket and luxury from lamps, carpets, pashminas and ceramics to knock-off designer handbags.   The stall holders pounce on you if you so much as glance at their goods for longer than a second so browsing became a balancing act between feigning disinterest and taking photos.  After spotting many people drinking Turkish tea out of those distinctive bulb shaped glasses (there are runners all over the bazaar with trays of tea glasses supplying the stall holders, who must be thirsty from all that haggling), we found a spot with low chairs and tables serving an impressive range of teas and coffees.  My apple tea came in what looked like a coffee bodum with actual bits of apple being squashed at the bottom, dee-lious.   Many twists and turns later we found ourselves at the Spice Bazaar, the second biggest covered market in Istanbul, in the Eminönü district.  I just loved being surrounded by the pyramids of spices and teas that I wished I could scoop up with my fingers.

IstanbulDay two saw us do a full day tour arranged through our hotel, starting with a boat trip up the Bosphorus River; then a bus trip to a high point in the city and down a cable car (I think I missed the significance of that detour), a bizarre fashion show at a leather goods shop (no mystery what the motivation behind that was); lunch in the old city; on to the Dolmabahce Palace (which was the highlight for me); and then finally over the bridge to the Asian side of the city where we stopped at a lookout point long enough for more apple tea.  It was quite exhausting but possibly the best use of our limited time.  Our whistle-stop, strictly guided tour of the Dolmabahce Palace was breathtaking.  It’s almost sad that there’s no one to actually living in all that opulent luxury (a four-tonne crystal chandelier hangs in the grand reception hall!) to appreciate it.

The last stop on our sightseeing agenda was visiting the centuries old Basilica cistern underneath the old city where 336 marble columns support a vast chamber that can apparently hold 100 000 tonnes of water.  Downlighting and haunting background music add some drama to what was essentially a Roman reservoir J.

The Food

Forget the Döner andkebaps, I think the most awesome street food that we ate was lunch on our first day at the Eminönü waterfront:  Balik Ekmek (fish bread) is literally a freshly caught fish, grilled on the boat bobbing next to you and stuffed in a roll of fresh bread with token onions and lettuce – who would have thought it could be so tasty?!Turkish Delight

On the other end of the culinary scale was a memorable meal at a very nice restaurant down the road from our hotel (thanks Trip Advisor) where I had a spiced chicken breast served with saffron rice with juicy apricots and pomegranate seeds, nuts and drizzled with honey.   My mouth waters…   Lamb dominates every menu in Istanbul, but since I’m not a fan I’ll skip to the sweet stuff: Try pomegranate and pistachio Turkish delight, honeyed nougat or any of the tantalizing varieties of baklava that gleam from the shop windows.  It was sugar heaven.  Special mention too must go to Salep – a hot milky drink sold by street vendors pushing great copper urns. To my South African palate it can only be described as being like warm liquid milk tart.

And finally…

The Cats

I’ve heard about cat colonies, but this is first time I’ve seen so many cats “owning” an urban area.  I wouldn’t be brave enough to ask these bad boys if I could share their bench!

Istanbul Cats

Istanbul Cats


All too it was time to swallow the last of our Turkish Delight and head for Munich, which couldn’t be more different… (coming next).

3 Responses to “Two days in Istanbul”

  1. Anne March 17, 2013 at 8:21 pm #

    That chicken with saffron rice sounds like a dish worth trying to emulate! Istanbul sounds like a fascinating place to visit – your pictures are like windows into another world.

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