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Istanbul - A Turkish Delight
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Istanbul - A Turkish Delight

by Sandi Butchkiss

Turkey has so much going for it - ancient treasures, glorious history, scenic beauty, rich diversity of cultures - why it’s not right up there on the tourist map alongside Greece, Spain, France and America, is a mystery. Turkey’s most fascinating city, Istanbul, surely rivals Paris, Rome and London on the basis of unique sites and exotica alone. One can only assume this unique metropolis, straddling two continents, must lack the funds for advertising and PR. It’s in the rare position of being surrounded by three bodies of water whose names alone conjure up visions of flying carpets and wish-giving genies– the Sea of Marmara, the Golden Horn, the Black Sea and the Bosphorous.

Back in 1200, Istanbul was Constantinople, lauded as one of, if not “the” richest cities in the world. Like any glittering object, it was the source of irritation to numerous surrounding factions of barbarians, Mongols and crusaders who marched in, conquered and finally caused its downfall and destruction. Thanks to the Ottomans, who took over in 1453, and Suleiman the Magnificent, in particular, who reigned from 1520 to 1566, the empire’s tentacles reached out in so many directions, it stretched all the way from Algiers to the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf. It was the creative Ottomans who gave storybook titles to their pashas and potentates, such as Aga, Caliph, Sultan and Grand Vizier. These same fellows also devised the world’s most exquisite calligraphy, gave us an identifying skyline of architectural magnificence, rich with mosques and minarets, and last but certainly not least, established the harem. Here, in these pleasure palace annexes, as many as two hundred damsels at a time were fed, bathed, clothed and kept sparkly clean and fetching enough to satisfy the sultan’s whims at the drop of a turban. All other hanky-panky was impossible under the watchful eyes of the sultan’s mother and her alert team of eunuchs.

The magnificent mosques and fantastically graceful calligraphy are living legacies. But as for the harems, only the stories, paintings, a few photographs and buildings remain, as all the rest was abolished in 1924 in the name of decency, upon the creation of the Turkish Republic.

Istanbul proper, with its 15 million plus denizens, blankets both sides of the Bosphorus. But you can still be steeped in the atmosphere and flavor of days gone by when you tread the ancient cobblestones in the old part of town, Sultanahmet. Kick off your shoes and walk the carpets of the religious in the fabled Blue Mosque. Join the others to gape and gawk at the awesome splendor of Sophia. Spend half a day strolling around the marvelous Topkapi palace with its priceless treasures and dazzling views. Lose yourself in the labyrinth of the six hundred year old Grand Bazaar, vaulted-ceilinged covered market housing a thousand and one shops and stalls overflowing with ceramics, carpets, gold jewelry, carpets, handbags, carpets, leather, slippers, handicrafts and carpets.... where at any of the charming cafes dotted around the market you can pause for a Turkish coffee or popular apple tea, have a smoke, play a round or two of backgammon and sit for as long as you like without a hassle.

After hours of haggling you can unwind in the oldest Turkish bath in town, the 300 year old Cagaloglu. Enter through a simple door on the outside and you’re suddenly in another world. A huge marble wonderland where the baths and massage are nothing like the spa back home. And the adjoining restaurant with its blazing fireplace in winter and little open-air garden in the warmer months, serves some of the best, most authentic cuisine in the city.

As for the most breathtaking site of all, there is simply no way to prepare you for this incredible experience. Again, not a hint of what lays before you is evident at the entrance. An ordinary door leads to a narrow staircase that goes down, down, down, deep below the street above. And then, you see it; the spectacle of the Basilica Cistern. Built thousands of years ago as a water catchement for the city, its 322 soaring pillars stun your senses with an other-worldly vista that will stick in your memory forever. This ancient cistern, the exotic Spice Market – with its aromas, halvah, budget caviar and saffron threads – and the backgammon cafes and parks are just more reasons why Sultanahmet delights even the most jaded traveler at every turn.

But for those who won’t be happy until they’ve seen the city’s modern side, simply take ferry or taxi across the Golden Horn to Beyoglu, the hip and trendy quarter. Here at its center is Taksim – a vast, bustling square from which everything radiates. A short walk away are all the glitzy international hotels, endless world-class designer shops, a proliferation of cafes, clubs and jazz bars and the car-free pedestrian-crammed shopping street known as Istiklal Caddesi. At its end is the legendary old Pera Palace Hotel. Built over a hundred years ago to cater to the glitterati who traveled into town on the original Orient Express, nothing really has changed since. The chandeliers and wonderful elevator are all original, and the bar is still packed most nights. After sipping your raki, you might ask to see the suite of Agatha Christie, just one of the numerous notables who have slumbered between the sheets of this grand old inn.

Off in the nearby warren of side streets, in what were formerly warehouses and small factories, is the newly gentrified Cukurcuma, with its intimate cafes, local design shops, antique stores and home furnishing showrooms.

Of course, you can’t say you’ve been to Istanbul without a boat ride up the Bosphorus, sailing past original wooden waterside villas known as yalis, homes to the wealthier inhabitants, old mosques, a palace or two, charming villages and local markets. Get off in Bebek for an excellent seafood meal served in one of the boats permanently tied to the dock. We were only in Istanbul for 6 days. So this is just a tiny taste of what to expect in this marvelous city on the sea. I advise you to make the trip yourself and discover your own finds and make your own memories.

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Where to stay

The old world charming Sultanahmet Palace Hotel Directly across from the Blue Mosque. Good value for the money.

The chic & stylish Four Seasons just down the street. Ensconced in an old prison Very chic and pricier than most.

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Where to eat

The stunning Sarnic, in yet another thousand year old cistern Lit by candles and fireplace...a treasure in Sultanahmet

The intimate & trendy Caffe Della Suda in Beyoglu

Any of the string of delightfully local cafes in Mis Sok, off the Istiklal Caddesi in Beyoglu near the Pera Palace

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