When the East meets the West, a masterpiece is born: Istanbul.
This extremely crowded, fascinating, lively, cosmopolitan, chaotic, but in its own way orderly metropolis is home to 15 million people.
Three bridges link it to two continents: Asia and Europe; to two opposite yet complementary cultures, making this city truly unique.
It has one foot in its imposing past and the other in today’s world. The legacy of the glorious capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, later of the Ottoman Empire, is evident, but it is also the city that can rewrite itself and challenge the future by opening the largest airport in the world and building bridges and infrastructures on the par with the most advanced capital cities in the world.
My personal “source of inspiration for my travels and ideas”, Italian singer-songwriter Franco Battiato, sang: “Venice instinctively reminds you of Istanbul: same palaces on the sea and red sunsets that lose themselves in a void“; a comparison that brings us back to the magic of ancient Constantinople, which is now Istanbul. I felt a feeling of familiarity in seeing that style again; a style which still lives on today, mainly in Southern Italy, as testimony of ancient dominations and cultural contaminations.
Istanbul is its people; generous, hospitable, deeply religious, but respectful of others and their ideas. I reflected on how many stereotypes and ways of saying we have about the Turks in Italy; we say: “You smoke like a Turk”, “You curse like a Turk” or “You do Turkish things” (meaning crazy things). I can confirm, regarding the former saying, that they do smoke a lot; the rest is a myth!
The city can be enjoyed around the year; they say that the Bosporus changes its colour according to the seasons, the weather and the time of day and that no two images are the same.
Istanbul is a city with about 3,000 mosques and their minarets define the city skyline. Wherever you are, you will hear the song of the Muezzins five times a day, calling the faithful to prayer – namaz. The use of the veil is not mandatory for women, but they are free to decide based on the dictates of their religious conscience. The great statesman Mustafà Kemal, known as Ataturk, is credited with secularising and westernising Turkey by giving equal rights to women, including the right to vote.
To understand Istanbul, you have to immerse yourself in their chaos and live their everyday life. Even as a tourist, you have to take the time to sit in one of their countless cafes and sip their national drink, Turkish tea. The tea is very strong, prepared with two special kettles, stacked on top of each other. They are very proud of their tea, which is served in glasses which enhance the amber colour of the beverage, and with lots of sugar.
Another very popular drink is Turkish coffee, nothing to do with our coffee, but let’s remember that coffee came to us from the Turks and that the word Moka, which for us is both the coffee machine and the quality of coffee, derives from Mokha, a city in Yemen, a former Ottoman territory, where Arabica coffee was produced.
In winter you can enjoy a Sahlep, a hot drink made from orchid bulbs and milk, with a sprinkling of cinnamon. Delicious! There are similar versions in other Arab countries, under the name of Sahlab; I have tasted it in Egypt with grated coconut or pistachio on top.
Don’t forget to try the baklava, the typical Turkish dessert, made of sheets of layered dried fruit and honey. It should be eaten in small quantities, as it is very sweet; I tried it in a chain of bar-restaurants served with clotted cream. Simply divine!
Then there are the Turkish Delights or Lokum, jellies in different colours and flavours, such as pistachio, dates and hazelnuts and served in small squares. Very moreish!
WHERE TO STAY IN ISTANBUL:
For size and population Istanbul is the largest city in Europe, so the choice of Hotel location is critical if you don’t want to spend hours in traffic.
You have a wide choice of finely decorated hotels and apartments; the only flaw is that in the old city centre they almost never have an elevator.
- SULTANHAMET: this is the tip of the historical peninsula, the old Constantinople. This is the ancient heart of the city, and for me also the most charming neighbourhood, located in the Fatih district on the European side of the city. The presence of the Blue Mosque gives it a deeply religious feel; the Muezzin will remind you of the time of day but it is Western enough to never feel out of context. Here you will also find the Topkapi Palace, the Basilica of Saint Sophia, the Basilica Cistern and the Grand Bazaar. This would be reason enough to choose this as the location for your hotel, the choice is vast and affordable, including on New Year’s Eve
- BEYOGLU: it’s perched atop a hill; what an effort! Start in the famous Taksim Square and follow the Istiklal Caddesi, the city’s longest pedestrian street until you come to the famous Galata Tower; you will find a number of Art Nouveau buildings, home to hotels, restaurants, cafes and shops, which are what give this part of Istanbul a strongly European feel.
- BESIKTAS: the upscale quarter overlooking the Bosporus, home to embassies and sumptuous palaces with very Western customs.It is connected to Taksim Square via a funicular; here you can catch the underground and reach the main places of interest.
Here you will find luxurious hotels overlooking the Bosporus, but you will also find beautiful apartments to help you feel a bit more at home.
A WEEKEND IN ISTANBUL
Planning a weekend in Istanbul is feasible and cheap. You need a lot more than a weekend to visit the city, there’s so much to see. However, we often don’t have many days available and we have to make a decision on what to see and do.
As previously mentioned, it is the largest city in Europe, so getting around can be time consuming. However, every time you travel to get somewhere you will see the city under another perspective.
Below I have provided you with the things you mustn’t miss and, above all, what can be done in just a Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Let’s start with the first tip: the main monuments are always very busy and you risk going in and not being able to see them, so it would be best to leave them for the mornings, if possible.
I have prepared a three-day weekend itinerary split as follows:
In Turkish AYA SOFYA means divine wisdom; it later became Saint Sophia.
Its grandeur is immediately apparent from the outside; for a thousand years, until the construction of the Basilica of Saint Peter, this was the world’s largest Christian Church. However, something unexpected will catch your eye, something that you wouldn’t expect to see in a Byzantine building: four towering Minarets.
Before you go in let me warn you that there is a long queue. However, there is a Fast Track system and, pay a little extra, and the ticket seller will let you in immediately; it’s worth it Bless him.
In its 1500-year history it has gone from being an Orthodox Basilica to a Roman Catholic Basilica, then to a mosque, and it was then converted to a Museum during the secularization of the Turkish State.
It was built by Emperor Justinian to replace the previous buildings, that of Constantius II and Theodosius II later, both having gone up in smoke.
The project was huge, it was said that Justinian received it from an angel in a dream; in actual fact he wanted to compete with the Temple in Jerusalem.
When the works were finished, he was quoted with saying: “Oh Salomon, I have bettered you”.
Let’s say that cost and time were no object!
In fact, it took only 5 years, 10 months and 10 days to erect, with its 56-metre high dome measuring 32 meters in diameter, and the central nave measuring 70 meters made of marbles and precious materials from all over the Empire: green marble, red marble, porphyry, gold and silver slabs.
Let’s imagine how grand it must have been using our imagination!
The Golden diamond-studded altar, the frescoes, most of the mosaics and the silver iconostasis are gone.
Today we can see the mosaic of the Virgin Mary sitting on a throne decorated with precious stones.
At the top you can see the Deisis, or at least what is still visible of the beautiful mosaic representing Christ between the Virgin and Saint John the Baptist.
You must visit the Wishing Column, it took me a while to find it, but it seems to bring good luck and will grant you your wishes. Do we want to challenge lady luck? No, is my answer! We have to queue here too. Basically, you need to place your right thumb in a hole and rotate your hand 360° without removing your palm. It seems easy, but everyone ends up looking like a contortionist!
Time passes, situations change and so do intended uses. With the fall of Constantinople, Sultan Mehmed II transforms it into a mosque. He paints over the Byzantine mosaics; just writing about this makes me shudder.
Huge chandeliers appear. In the 19th century eight medallions are hung on the wall bearing the names of Allah, the Prophet, the four Caliphs and Mohammed’s two grandchildren.
Thanks to Ataturk, the building became a Museum in 1935 and work began to restore the ancient structure, resulting in the reappearance of the old floor and mosaics, of which little remains due to deterioration over time.
It is in any case not to be missed which is why I have put it firmly at the top of the list of places to visit.
At this point I would say that if you arrived in the morning, settled in and immediately went to the Hagia Sophia, it will now be late afternoon, soon to be evening.
My choice for a welcome to Istanbul is:
Dinner on a boat: leaving from Karakoy you will enjoy a three-and-a-half-hour dinner with a show and, more importantly, you will sail along the Bosporus. There’s a pick-up and drop-off service. You need to book online. It’s not too expensive, about 27 euros per person, but you get a different view of the city from the boat; a wider perspective that is difficult to get even walking around on foot. I recommend it!
– BLUE MOSQUE
SULTANHAMET CAMII is the most important Mosque in Istanbul.
I have three pieces of advice here:
1) Be careful what time you go! Remember that first and foremost it is a place of worship and is closed to visitors during religious services, that is five prayers a day, plus an extra one on Fridays.
2) Watch what you wear! Clothes must be suitable; no shorts, miniskirts or low tops.
3) No romantic effusions! Avoid holding hands, hugging and kissing as they will be frowned upon.
We stand in a long line, there’s no Fast Track queue jumping here, entrance is free but you need to wait patiently. Your wait will be rewarded.
The Blue Mosque was built by Sultan Ahmet I and completed in six years in 1616. This technically makes it older than St. Peter’s, completed in 1626, but we know that it took them just under two centuries to finish St. Peter’s.
Ahmet I wanted to build something impressive, which would reassert Ottoman power after the war with Persia, and which would surpass even the nearby Aya Sofya.
It is called the Blue Mosque, because blue is the predominant colour of the 21,043 beautiful Iznik ceramic tiles which decorate the walls of this incredible mosque and which are illuminated by its 260 Windows. What can I say, a masterpiece! You need to go in to admire the enchanting vaults and walls.
The other characteristic is the presence of six Minarets; you will read everywhere that the whole thing seems to be the result of confusion over the language used. In order to create something unique and majestic that differed from the nearby Aya Sofya Sultan Ahmet wanted the minarets to be in gold. The word “altin”, gold, differs by only one letter from the word “alti”, six, and the architect understood six, so voila! And this is where the problem stems from. It couldn’t have six Minarets like the Mosque of the Prophet in Mecca, so he decided to offer a seventh Minaret to the Mosque of the Prophet itself.
– BASILIC CISTERN
After the Blue Mosque I highly recommend a visit to the Basilica Cistern, that is YEREBATAN SARAYI.
Once again there is a queue to get in and an entrance fee.
You will need to walk down some stairs to reach this underwater world of soft yellow lighting, which illuminates 336 columns and measures 143 meters in length and 65 meters in width.
I found the place to have a magical atmosphere; it’s very humid and you need to avoid walking, but it gives you the idea of a city and of a world that no longer exist. A scene of the James Bond film “From Russia with Love” was filmed here.
The Byzantine cistern was built by Constantine and placed inside a basilica. It supplied water to the Great Palace, where the Byzantine emperors used to live.
Its characteristic columns come from different palaces and you need to stop and look at the foot of the two columns that have two Medusa heads at their base; one is upside down, the other is in profile. The Medusa was a monster in Greek mythology, with snakes in place of hair and eyes that turned anyone who looked at her to stone.
The Wishing Column is also noteworthy.
We leave the Basilica Cistern and set off towards the Grand Bazaar. Take the tram from Sultanhamet.
The adjective Grand does not convey the idea of how easy it is to get lost in there; how you come in through a door and, without a doubt, will end up leaving from another, without even knowing where you are!
Its Turkish name is Kapalicarsi, that is covered market, and it is one of the most ancient and largest covered markets in the world, with 4,000 shops.
Going through the Bazaar is a sensory journey, your eyes are drawn to the colourful panes of the glass mosaic lamps and the splendid tiles. Your palate will be tantalised by the small samples of Lokum, or Turkish Delights, you will be offered; as they explain the different types to you, you’ll be spoiled for choice by all the colours and flavours. Your ear will be distracted by the constant chatter of the Bazaar, the lure of the vendors, who will try to sell you everything from jewellery to clothes, “designer” bags, perfumes and pearl encrusted tea glasses: Basically, you will find whatever you are looking for and you will take it, there is no escape!
It’s now time to go to the new city in BEYOGLU and visit Taksim Square.
Apart from the national monument, sculpted by Pietro Canonica, I wasn’t particularly impressed by anything I saw, but for the Turks this is the square! So, it needs to be visited.
It means Independence Street. In theory it starts at Galata Tower and ends in Taksim Square but both sides are very similar. It’s a long pedestrian street, packed full of people, locals and tourists alike, especially at the weekend. Is full of beautiful Art Nouveau, Neo-classical, and Neo-Gothic buildings with countless shops, restaurants, cafes, cinemas and bookstores. A number of narrow streets branch off of the side streets; here you will find one restaurant after the other and restaurateurs ready to capture you with their offers.
And now, dear reader, I leave you to continue the tour and choose your restaurant or club. Have a nice evening!
Once again, we start our tour early, don’t forget there are queues everywhere.
PALAZZO DI TOPKAPI
I recommend going to Topkapi first thing in the morning. The queues are huge as always and start from outside. You not only queue for tickets but also to access the inside.
It was built by Mehmet II following the fall of Constantinople and conquering of the city. This has been the Sultans’ residence for around four centuries and each Sultan added their own improvements and extensions. Nearly all the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire lived here.
It’s not like Versailles Castle and its ample and luxurious rooms, like the Hall of Mirrors. Let’s get this idea out of our heads.
Topkapi reflects the way of life of a people of a nomadic origin; it consists of kiosks and courtyards, like marble tents.
Access is through the Imperial Door where you will immediately find yourself in the Court of the Janissaries, an elite unit of Christian captives, converted to Islam and at the sole service of the Sultan. This unit grew in number over time and gained more power.
The Church of Sant’Irene looks out onto here but I didn’t manage to see it.
The Second Court is that of Ceremonies, and is where the Divan, the Imperial Council used to meet to discuss matters of state, especially taxes on goods. The Italian word dogana (customs) comes from Divan, as the latter represented both the administrative act of the State and the piece of furniture on which the visir sat while doing his accounts. The word ‘divan’ comes from diwan.
The Harem is to the left of the Court of Ceremonies,
The guide I consulted says that the wives and concubines lived in the Harem and that it took in around a thousand beautiful women. White women stayed around nine years while black women stayed for five years. They were watched over by the famous eunuchs, or castrated men, the only ones to be allowed in. The black eunuchs stayed inside the Palace to guard the women, while the white ones stayed outside.
I immediately thought about how so many women could live together. An Italian saying goes: Too many roosters and daytime never comes! But who were the concubines?
I was curious and decided to find some more information on this topic.
The women were both Asians and black women, but the most popular were the Circassians; I didn’t even know who they were until now. These women are Caucasian, from Circassia, a territory that is now in the Russian Federation and faces the Black Sea.
They were taken as little girls and then raised. Obviously, it wasn’t a summer camp or a study abroad holiday; these girls earned their keep by working but they were guaranteed the same education given to the males of the Palace and they had to learn Turkish.
The most beautiful and talented girls were taught the arts, such as dancing, music, writing and embroidery and were called Kadin, or Lady. They were the favourites and those who gave the Sultan a son became his wives.
The Sultan chose one every night and the concubines danced in the Dance Hall hoping to be chosen.
When you are in the Third Court spend some time in the Chamber of the Relics; there is the stick used by Moses and then the relics of the Prophet, a tooth, a beard and something else but I couldn’t understand what it was. I must say that in that crowd the guard was kind enough to let me lean down and have a good look at the relics; in that moment of confusion I wouldn’t have understood much otherwise.
You can see the kitchens, the Hammam, but, above all, go and see the Treasure.
The Treasure is the pièce de resistance of the Palace. It’s a case of “seeing is believing” without being able to touch like Saint Thomas.
There is a throne covered in gold and precious stones, the legendary dagger, Hancer, with its gold and diamond sheath. And should the precious sheath not be enough, its hilt is made of emeralds and has a a watch set in it. Also to be seen: the golden candelabra with their 6666 diamonds that weigh like a small adult, 48 kg that is! Here you will see one of the largest diamonds in the world, the kasikci – 86 karats surrounded by 49 diamonds. This is the diamond of the spoon merchant; since the tale is that in the 17th century a man found it among the rubbish and sold it to a junk shop for only three wooden spoons.
There’s obviously a lot more; this is the sort of place that leaves you with one certainty: there is so much out there you will never own!
I would say that after feasting your eyes on such beautiful artefacts it’s time to feast your eyes once more on a panoramic view of the city. Take the tram to Karakoy; now muster all the energy you have as there’s a steep climb ahead.
Also known as Galata Kulesi; I love medieval towers and there is the most incredible view of Istanbul from this tower.
Be prepared, as always in Istanbul, to be very patient! I had to queue for ages to go up, but this is due to the fact that only a limited number of people will fit in the lift and that the space above, on the circular terrace, is tiny.
Galata used to be a Genoese enclave; this is where they set up their centre for maritime commerce with the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.
It was built by Rosso Daria in 1348, its original name was: “Christea Turris”, the Tower of Christ.
Under the Ottomans it became an observation point, with its 66 metres in height it was the highest point in the city.
You just have to get on and enjoy the breath-taking panorama of a city where the modern has merged with the old, where Ataturk bridge does not steal the show from the mosques in Sultanhamet.
THE WHIRLING DERVISH
Since you are in Galata you can’t miss the Whirling Dervish show at the Galata Mevlevi Museum. Check the times, here the show is on Sundays, but it can be seen elsewhere every day.