There are cities that you love, cities that you feel that they belong to you as time goes by and then, there are cities, like Constantinople, you fall in love with them immediately – by Maria Th. Massoura
Friday afternoon, in Constantinople. We take the bus from the airport to Taksim Square. We find the hotel, a strange four-storey, rectangular building, in a small street where Greeks used to live. We leave our luggage and, in a hundred meters, we find ourselves in the huge square filled with people. In order to cross the street, in places where there are no lights, you just need to have good reflexes and simultaneously say your prayers.We move towards the largest pedestrian street in the city, Istiklal Caddesi. I have been told that it is busy but I wasn’t ready to experience such a situation. We disappear in a 2 km street full of people. It feels like being in a demonstration.
The scenery was exactly the same until 11 at night when we were out. An illuminated street with shops open, a lot of people and the air full of smells of baked chestnuts. Small carts selling very small chestnuts, perfectly aligned onto a warm plate. In the side streets of Istiklal, many restaurants and small cafes, full of people of every age. At one of those you can listen to live music played by two guys with a guitar and a saxophone. Another place further down reminds me of the “Kala Kathoumena”, a cafe in Nicosia . A lot of people were drinking beer in a nice atmosphere. It seemed to me that the people there were happy.
The next day, 10 in the morning, we go to Sultanahmet, the old town with its sightseeings being more touristic than Beyoğlu where we stay. I take pomegranate juice from a street seller and I queue up in order to enter Hagia Sophia. As I enter there, a great feeling fills me up. It’s something you can’t give an explanation. Hagia Sophia, huge and imposing, gives off a strange energy. I look around. Τhe church is filled up with people, tourists and Turks. Above,a huge dome with Arabic letters. I’ve never seen anything so magnificent. Yes, everywhere there is a “smell” of Byzantium. Stunned, I stand in a corner for an hour leaving my memory to travel in history
Coming out of Hagia Sophia, I walk across a garden to the Blue Mosque, or else, the Suleymaniye Mosque. At the entrance, a guy gives me a plastic bag to put my shoes in and I cover my waist and legs with a long sheet. The temple is gorgeous. The walls seem to have been painted with a very fine brush.
If there is something that I am embarrassed of doing is to bargain. It is necessary to do it, though, when you’re in Kapalicarsi, i.e. the Grand Bazaar. Fortunately a guy from our group,is an expert on the subject. We get through one of the many entrances. The bazaar is a labyrinth, full of small shops grouped into categories. The carpets are all in one place, the jewelry in another, ceramic and lights in another. I spotted a porcelain nargile. I call a friend and he starts bargaining while I stand nearby watching. When I consider the price to be normal – half the original – I say OK. However, my friend goes on bargaining to get free tobacco, too. ”Pretend that you’re leaving” he says to me. I turn back pretending that I didn’t like the price and begin to walk away. Our vendor immediately shouts “Ok ok. Forty lira and a packet of tobacco”.
Out in the street, the area is also full of shops. You can buy pyjamas, pepper mills even the most perfect replicas of mobile phones. We arrive at a place, where the scene is completely Ottoman.Women covered with hijabs, men with moustaches. They say that if you don’t live the street culture, you don’t learn the secrets of the city. We stop at a small street shop, with two very low tables and low chairs. We order chicken “gyros” with pieces of pepper and tomatoes inside. If there’s something that really made me a huge impression in Istanbul is the food. Wonderful flavours nicely prepared. The guy gets huge pieces of square pitta bread, fills them with “gyros”, adds pieces of skinned tomato and gives them to us. We take pickled peppers from a glass container and eat them with “gyros”.
The next day, we make our way down to Ortaköy. We take a ferry, next to Ortaköy Mosque and sail at the Bosporus. On the left, we can see the European coast and on the right the Asian. We pass under the bridge. On the way along, we see the magnificent Dolmabahce Palace, huge luxury holiday homes with swimming pools and the city’s most famous clubs, such as Reina. I felt that I made a journey in time.
In the last afternoon, we go to the Spice Market, or else, the Egyptian Market near Galata bridge. By getting inside, I don’t know what to choose. Colorful pyramids of spices, “pastourma” hanging from the ceiling, huge cubes of cheese, all sorts of Turkish delights piled together like lego. The vendors call me to try their products. I get into a store with the most charming young seller and fill my bag with all kinds of spices and Turkish delights. The evening ends with eating perfect fish at open markets, next to the fish market, just down from Galata Bridge. Fresh bream with seven euros and divine blue fish with ten.
There is an American song of the’50s which goes like that:”Istanbul was Constantinople /Now it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople/Been a long time gone, Constantinople/Now it’s Turkish delight on a moonlit night”. As, I’m on the plane back, I can’t still decide if these lyrics irritate me or not. Past Vs. Present.
The only thing I am sure about is that this city pulls me like a magnet, with its mysterious aura, the contrasts, the colours and aromas.
- A convenient place to stay is the area near Taksim Square.
- At the southwestern edge of Istiklal Caddesi is the Tünel square .Full of cafes and restaurants, it is the most alternative place of the city.
- A hip area is Cihangir, between Taksim Square and Kabataş.
- An excellent gallery is Istanbul Modern in Karaköy with a nice cafe inside for a snack and lunch.
- Topkapi is an imposing, worth visiting place with many stories and tales (www.topkapisarayi.gov.tr). However, you will need at least half a day there.
- If you are a lover of the great Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, visit the Museum of Innocence located in the Beyoğlu area based on the description of the homonymous book. It contains aspects of the everyday life and culture of the locals at the time described in the book.
- The Ecumenical Patriarchate is located at Fanari, www.patriarchate.org.
- It is worth going for a day excursion to Pringiponisa, a group of nine small islands in the sea of Marmara. To get there, take the ferry from Sirkeci/Eminönü ,Kabataş or Yenikapı.
- Posh areas are Nişantaşı and Bebek. Go to Abdi Ipekci and İstinye Park Mall for shopping or window shopping with famous brands such as Gucci, LV, Armani, Cartier, Tod’s etc.
- Before visiting Istanbul, get in the mood by reading books by Orhan Pamuk and listen to music by Omar Faruk Tekbilek.
- You will try delicious sweets in Constantinople. You will find top Baklavas at Karaköy Güllüoğlu’s. I tried wonderful Kazan Ntipi at one of the many Saray confectioneries located at various places in the city (the best ones are in the beginning of Istiklal street and at Nişantaşı). Don’t forget to try the profiterol in the historical Inci, now in a new location near Istiklal.
- The street food culture is rich in the city. For example, try the famous ice cream, the freshly baked cookies dipped in molasses, the ‘simit’ and ‘ midye dolma’, mussels with spicy rice with a bit of lemon and served with their shell.
- If you want something non-traditional, go for coffee with a sweet and light snacks in one of the trendy House Cafés found in various places e.g. at Istiklal Avenue, on the banks of the Bosporus, at Ortaköy and at the ‘chic’ Bebek area.
- Turks drink a lot of black tea. It is sold it in the streets. I got a glass on the cruise along the Bosporus. However, it is a newly brought habit from Russia.
- You should try wonderful kebabs with pistachio at Hamdi’s (Kalçın Sokak 17, Eminönü), a restaurant on the right side of the Egyptian Market which serves Southeastern Turkey cuisine. Ask for a table on the terrace. The view of the old town and Galata bridge is breathtaking. On the ground floor, they sell Baklava.
- You will find very good fish in many restaurants, such as Vira Vira (34345 Arnavutköy Mh., Beşiktaş), Giritil (Cankurtaran Mh., Keresteci Hakkı Sk No: 8) and Cibalikapi (Balikçisi (5 Kadir Has Caddesi)
- A visit to Haci Abdullah’s is a must. (Sakizağaci Caddesi 9A – a side street at Istiklal Avenue, towards Taksim). Classical Ottoman cuisine with dishes like imam bayildi and wonderful stuffed vegetables.
- Although I haven’t gone there, however it is on my list for next time. The 360 Istanbul restaurant (Istiklal Caddesi, Misir Apt Beyoğlu, www.360istanbul.com K:8),is located on the roof of a building with incredible view to the Bosporus and the surrounding area. It is better going at night. The food is fusion with flavors from different parts of the world, while appetizers are served more. You may go there for a drink too.
- If you want culinary experiences of a high level, the hot restaurants in recent years have been Mikla (Meşrutiyet Caddesi 15, www.miklarestaurant.com) on the 18th floor of Marmara Pera Hotel that serves a mix of local and Scandinavian cuisine (the chef is Finn) and Mimolett (Sıraselviler Caddesi 55/A, Modern, Beyoğlu, www.mimolett.com.tr) with Mediterranean cuisine.
- You should certainly go to the popular club/restaurant/bar, Reina (www.reina.com.tr). It is on the Bosporus and its location is astounding.
Published in “Isterografo” magazine in my personal column “Symveni Tora”, in October 2010. It was written in a hotel at Ismit.