As the call to prayer rang out over the evening skies of Istanbul I had a serious case of goose-bumps. Here I was in Constantinople – the ancient city that featured in ALL my history books, the gateway to the East, the Guardian of the Bosphorus. Wow.
What did I expect in Istanbul? After reading online travel blogs I was a bit worried about getting a taxi. Horror stories crop up on every Google about having to haggle about the fare after the fact. Dire warnings pop up about not taking public transport and Western women being harassed by fundamental “policemen”. Instead I stepped off my amazing Olympic Airlines flights (there’s another blog all of its own) into a very modern, clean, bright airport terminal. Passport control and my visa purchase were quick and easy procedures. Outside the arrivals hall a line of well-kept looking yellow taxis were waiting to whisk us away to our hotel. No hassles, no haggles, no bargaining. So far so good.
It is such a beautiful city but I couldn’t decide which was more fun – sightseeing or people watching. I was fascinated by the variety of tourists there. Many tourists from Arab countries such as Qatar or UAE visiting and doing just the same things as I was doing – cruising on the Bosphoros, eating hot roasted chestnuts in the park, visiting the Blue Mosque. I was struck by how beautiful and mysterious many of the Muslim women looked with their beautiful scarves and dark exotic eyes.
As a woman one of the highlights was visiting the Grand Bazaar. Oh my – I even saw people with wheelie suitcases going shopping. Well why not – with over 4000 shops in this centuries old bazaar you could “shop till you drop”. Dotted around the Bazaar are numerous places to rest a while and enjoy Turkish coffee. Mmm – well I am not that sure about Turkish coffee. I think I still prefer my Americano. However Starbucks never serves coffee in cute little brass coffee cups so that wins hands down.
And the food – the food – the food – fish so fresh it was practically dancing on the plate, tiny tomatoes as sweet as grapes, light fruity wines from Antalya, the biggest stuffed baked potatoes I have ever seen. This seemed to be a big favourite “fast food” in the markets. Take one giant baked potato, scrape out a bit of the inside and then choose your toppings from chopped olives, fresh yoghurt, chopped herbs and goodness knows what else until it is piled high into a heavenly potato mountain. Did you notice I liked the food?
Public transit – fabulous! We took the tram which was really easy and quick because the traffic is awful in Istanbul. It was brand new, clean, air conditioned and cheap – about a dollar a trip. We got lost a couple of times and wandered into some really strange areas of the cities. One street was Plumbing Street – every shop had a selection of toilets, sinks and taps spilling out onto the narrow cobbled streets. The next street was Electric Avenue – every conceivable wire, cable, electrical connection that you could think of. We got some strange looks from the tradesmen sitting in their doorways – and jeez I thought I was blending in. I did feel perfectly safe however.
Would I go back to Turkey? In a heartbeat. It’s exotic, cosmopolitan, exciting and refreshing. They say East meets West in Istanbul. They do more than that – they embrace!