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Since 1st March, 1999
 
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Travelling through time

Having read Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk’s books, I knew that the Bosphorus, that most majestic of waterways, was the heart of Istanbul and the pride of Istanbullus, as residents of the city are known. But I didn’t know that it is also the second busiest waterway in the world. People commute across it, between the European and Asian sides the way Londoners and Parisians travel on the metro.

Speaking of London and Paris, how grey and muddy seems the Thames, and how like a provincial rivulet the Seine seems when compared with the great Bosphorus, glittering in the sunshine and filled with ocean liners, cargo ships, boats and ferries.

I was not prepared for the beauty of the Bosphorus (or “Bossie” as my 15-year-old son named it). Its glory is best appreciated on a six-hour cruise. Instantly, you start fantasising, as one is wont to do on holidays, about winning the lottery and buying one of the old Ottoman mansions that line the waterfront.

Istanbul, the former capital of the Byzantine Empire, is right up there, in my view, with the truly great cities of the world. It has the most spectacular skyline, some of the world’s most important mosques, palaces, museums, lots of nightlife, neighbourhoods like Beyoglu that are as lively and vibrant as the Latin Quarter in Paris, great food, and — the icing on the baklava — its people are so warm and friendly that the son and I commented on their loveliness, every day.

Of course 10 days is a touch excessive. One week suffices to see all the main tourist attractions. But we didn’t want to rush around ticking off places on a list. We wanted to get a feel of the city, sit in cafés like the locals drinking endless cups of apple tea, wander in the markets, and soak in the atmosphere.

Beyoglu is a great place from which to explore the city. It reminded me of Montmartre, located on a hill with narrow winding lanes lined with bakeries, lokantas (traditional Turkish restaurants with pre-cooked dishes kept warm in bain-maries so that you look, point, and get the dish on your table by the time you’re seated). There are also trendy coffee bars, boutiques and bookshops.

We stayed at Izaz, a building comprising four elegant studio apartments in Balik Sokak, the fish and fruit market which never seemed to sleep. Sitting on my tiny balcony, I used to look down on elderly men sitting outside a café drinking apple tea and playing back- gammon while next door, a barber tended to his customers.

Izaz is just a minute’s walk from Istanbaul’s widest and liveliest street, Istiklal Caddesi. When you are perambulating this pedestrianised street with a tram running through it, remember to look up to enjoy the 19th century architecture of the apartments above the shops and restaurants.

On most days, the boy and I would turn off Istiklal and walk down the steep Yeni Carsi Caddesi for the short tram ride to the Old City of Sultanahmet where great monuments and museums are located.

The Ayasofya, built by Byzantine emperor Justinian, is the city’s crown jewel. The largest enclosed space in the world for a thousand years, this cathedral was the heart of Eastern Christendom before Mehmet the Conqueror took control of the city and turned it into a mosque. The ceiling is higher than most European cathedrals.

Next door is the Blue Mosque, which was intentionally built larger than Ayasofya as a symbol of Islam’s superiority over Christianity and the Ottomans’ superiority over Byzantine. Unlike the Ayasofya, which is a museum, the Blue Mosque is a functioning mosque.

As for Topkapi Palace, where the Ottoman emperors lived, it’s a fascinating place though not as grand as I’d expected. But the much hyped ‘harem’, for which you pay extra, was disappointing.

Nearby is the Basilica Cistern, an ancient underground aqueduct built by the Byzantines, forgotten by the Ottomans and then discovered only in the 19th century when an anthropologist — a Frenchman I think — noticed that poor Istanbullus would drop buckets into holes in their homes to get water. The underground cistern was used for storing water and supplied water for the Topkapi Palace.

You go down under the city’s streets and walk along an elevated wooden pathway that runs through the forest of marble pillars holding up the domed ceiling. Below the water actually has fish swimming in it. It is dark, spooky and atmospheric. The son loved it.

We packed in a lot and you may not have as much time. So, apart from the monuments and museums, Istanbul Modern art gallery, the Spice Bazaar (where a strange Turkish Viagra is sold) and the Grand Bazaar, here is a list of must-dos.

Take the Bosphorus cruise, catch a ferry for a pleasant ride to the Asian side, eat baklava every day, and grab a pide — an oven-baked ‘Turkish pizza’. Also, enjoy dinner on the rooftops of the fish restaurants of Nevizade in Beyoglu and sit for a while in the overpriced café at Topkapi Palace purely for the fabulous views. And make sure you visit another institution — the 200-year-old confectioner Haci Bekir — to bring home a suitcase load of pistachio locum or Turkish delight which Haci Bekir is reputed to have invented, Mashallah.

TRAVEL TALK

Getting there: Delhi-Istanbul on Turkish Airlines cost around Rs 42,000 (return fares). September to November is a good time to visit.

Where to stay: If you want to stay where the main sites are, then Sultanahmet would be ideal. Beyoglu is also a great area but it means making a short trip across the Galata Bridge to Sultanahmet. Izaz studio apartments in Beyoglu cost approximately 100 euros per night. For five-star luxury, try Pera Palace Hotel in Beyoglu. For details visit: www.izaz.com and www.perapalace.com