Under the spell of Istanbul

Posted on 28 May 2013

I’m back in Istanbul, Turkey for the first time in over 40 years. I can’t believe I was last here as a 10-year-old on a family holiday with my parents and siblings. Revisiting Turkey is a very nostalgic experience. Istanbul and I have grown quite a bit in the interim!

Everything about Istanbul seemed so exotic and magical through the eyes of a child. Will it live up to my memories? I can’t wait to see the golden bejewelled thrones of Topkapi palace, the exquisite blue mosque, the great dome of Aya Sofya and the famous 15th century grand bazaar (Kapali Carsi) – where I bought a replica of the famous Topkapi dagger, my first tourist souvenir in 1967. We grew up with a fabulous Turkish hookah:a talking point back in our family home.

The memories came flooding back on a ferry ride from the golden horn down the Bosporus underneath Istanbul’s famous suspension bridges. Staring out at the dreamy city skyline of mosques, palaces and domes, I remember sipping sweet lemon tea (and sipping raki!) in a glass with my father on deck – and wishing “When I grow up I want to see the world”. When we got off the ferry my father used a Turkish/English language guidebook at a restaurant on the Bosporus – and mistakenly ordered enough fish ‘n chips for a whole tour bus! The waiters thought the rest of the tour party was behind us! Years later, I’m visiting my sixtieth country in my life as a travel writer.

under the spell of instabul 2

Maiden's Tower, Instabul. Image by jellybeanz

A boat ride is still the best way to see all the landmarks of Istanbul – and get a feeling for the unique geography of this waterfront city of peninsulas, rivers and sea. We break for breakfast at the Maiden’s Tower (kiz kulesi) – a 12th century Byzantine fortress built on a rock in the middle of the bay. According to legend, a nobleman whose daughter was cursed, imprisoned her in the tower – but there’s no avoiding fate and she was killed by a serpent hidden in a fruit basket brought over from the mainland. Good job we aren’t poisoned by brekker! Over a glass of lemon tea, we’re told the croissant originated in Turkey – shaped like a crescent. Is this fact or fiction?

After all the years under the bridge, Istanbul slowly weaves its magic. This exotic crossroads of east and west once known as Constantinople and Byzantium was ruled by Alexander the Great, the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. The silhouette of minarets, domes, basilicas and palace ramparts on the hill of old town overlooking the Sea of Marmara is an incredible sight. We spend the day exploring the Sultanhamet district – the heart of the old city. We buy freshly squeezed pomegranate juice at the stalls on the old Roman hippodrome – and stand entranced in the famous blue mosque (named after 21 000 gorgeous blue arabesque tiles) and Hagia Sophia (AD 537), the great church famous for its basilica, mosaics and holy weeping wall!

under the spell of instabul,3

Topkapi Palace, Turkey. Image by Carmen Alonso Suarez

Istanbul casts its spell. Walking around Topkapi, my sense of childhood wonder returns inside the old imperial palace (1478) of the Ottoman Sultans, courts, treasury and harem (once guarded by castrated eunuchs) – a fabulous fortified complex with imposing gateways, council halls, courtyards, pavilions, gardens and stables. Four thousand people used to live in this royal city within a city. You could spend a day lost in the Topkapi museums of Sultan’s costumes (they wore enormous kaftans) armoury, holy relics (John the Baptist’s skull and hand) and Sultan’s thrones. The most spellbinding exhibits of all are the kasikci diamond – a glittering 86 carat diamond -and emerald Topkapi dagger – as fabulous as it ever was in my imagination.

When travelling abroad, I always try to see the world’s great cities from a different point of view – whether from the air, sea, hilltop, belfry or underground. I once did a “Third Man” tour of the sewers of Vienna to see the medieval foundations of the modern city. So In Istanbul I go underground to walk through the city’s old Byzantine cistern. Istanbul was under siege over the centuries so Emperor Justinian built this amazing network of aqueducts and underground reservoirs in AD542 to ensure the water supply.

Escaping the hot summer’s day out there, the cisterns are cool, clean and atmospheric – and not at all dank or smelly. Deep beneath the city streets, I walk along a softly illuminated wooden walkway across giant pools filled with ornamental fish lined with hundreds of ancient columns and capitals. The Turks call the cisterns saray, meaning palace, so these are very grand cisterns. The only water serpents are cast in stone – the snake-entangled medusa heads on the old columns underwater. You can even enjoy a glass of lemon tea or sweet Turkish coffee and pastry at the underground cistern café!

We enjoy exploring the delights of Turkish cuisine with its Aegean squid, shrimp and sardines, spicy lamb and chicken dishes, marinated in olive oil, zesty lemon juice, yoghurt (a word of Turkish origin), crushed almonds, pistachios and walnuts, dried fruits, tarragon and saffron. For meze or starters, we share piquant platters of dips like ezme (spicy tomato), fava beans, humus and eggplant (babaganoush) – and shrimp and chilli peppers. The spice route from the East ended in Turkey – so expect pide breads (like a doughy pizza) with dolme (spicy stuffed vine leaves), spicy kofte (meatballs), lamb and chicken kebabs, and cracked bulgur wheat. Street stalls sell simit (a sesame bagel), corn on the cob and rice-stuffed mussels (you pay per shell once you finish).

under the spell of instabul 4

Kumkapi. Image by jordillar _fotos

We were in the right place at the right time – for the start of the annual fish festival in Istanbul. The fish market down on the waterfront of the old town was filled with fishmongers shouting “Balik, balik” (fish, fish). We dine at one of dozens of local seafood restaurants in the vibrant Kumkapi quarter – where street buskers play violins, tambourines and lutes to all the diners sitting at a long row of al fresco tables on the street. We feast on delicious cold and hot mezze, calamari, shrimp and sea bass. But leave room for dessert. Turkey is renowned for its sweet pastries – baklava and kadayif stuffed with almonds, pistachio and walnuts – as well as halva and sutlac (rice pudding in rose syrup) and Turkish delight. Watch out for the tatlici (sweet shops).

under the spell of instabul 5

Asitane restaurant, Turkey.Image by ellainne_dickinson

Dinner at Asitane, one of the top restaurants in Istanbul is the highlight of our culinary adventures in Istanbul. Asitane is the ancient Persian name for Istanbul – and the cuisine served here is edible living history. The unique restaurant which recreates the royal Ottoman cuisine of Constantinople in its heyday has received rave reviews from critics in the British and US press for reinventing exotic recipes from the Sultan’s palace of 500 years ago. Set in a courtyard restaurant next door to the famous Chora Church in a sanctuary from the tourist crowds, Asitane tempts visitors with authentic dishes layered with subtle spices and exotic flavours – and authentic live music.

Graham Howe visited Istanbul as a guest of Turkish Airlines – tel: 011 578 8004 or visit www.turkishairlines.com– and touristanbul, visit www.toursistanbul.com

yoast-primary -
tcat - Beyond Africa
tcat_slug - beyond-africa
tcat2 -
tcat2_slug -
tcat_final - bookings