Istanbul's name conjures a picture of intrigue, romance and Eastern promise. It’s the backdrop for many a mystery thriller – from Murder on the Orient Express (the train which ran from the French capital to Istanbul) to the latest James Bond adventure, Skyfall.
The train still runs, but only once a year and at a cost that’s more than most people earn in a year. We settled for something far less romantic, and flew into the city from Paris, with Turkish Airlines.
Our hotel was in the Old Quarter, a place of narrow, steep, cobbled-streets and mishmash pavements where every step could be a trap. Some of the shops are below ground level, shopkeepers are always men – even of lingerie shops. Tables at roadside cafes edge onto the walkways and sometimes onto the road.
From our top floor hotel room we look over TV aerials on to decrepit rooftops, a distant sea and a minaret, from which the amplified voice of a Muezzin regularly calls his flock to prayer.
Istanbul population of 13.5 million makes it Europe’s biggest city, and it dates from around 660BC when it was called Byzantium. It was re-established in AD330 as Constantinople and has been the capital of four empires: the Roman, Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman.
Hagia Sophia is one of the largest and most spectacular buildings in the world. It is a miracle of Byzantine architecture with the main dome 32 metres in diameter. Built in the 6th century as a church, it became a mosque and is now a museum.
The Sultan Ahmed Mosque is also another feast for the eye. Known as the Blue Mosque for its blue tiled interior, it dates from 1609 and is another example of building genius.
On a walking tour, the heat can be oppressive and you’ll need to carry water. Istanbul is a shopping paradise and you’ll probably spend more time than expected in the Grand Bazaar, one of the largest covered markets in the world.
Brightly lit stalls sell jewellery, trinkets, clothing and a few things that you might never think of – a belly dancing costume or a balalaika. Prices are rarely displayed and the vendors not only expect, but enjoy, bargaining.
After a couple of hours roaming the alleyways you’ll be glad to sit and enjoy a coffee, or what the locals drink – tea served in small glasses. If you’re with a guide you’ll probably also be taken to the Spice Bazaar, a gourmet’s paradise where the delectable aromas are sure to get your nose twitching. Sample the sickly sweet baklava and, of course, the turkish delight.
The Bosphorus Strait is the only sea route connecting the Black Sea and the Mediterranean and is one of the busiest waterways in the world. Two bridges plus numerous ferries connect the European and Asian sides of Istanbul and the waterfront is a non-stop kaleidoscope of sound and movement.
In our three-day stay, we walked in this amazing city until we almost dropped, but we only saw a fraction of the delights. You’ll never tire of its history, vitality and culture.
- The Dominion Post