After a long 14 hours red eye from Bangkok I arrived in Istanbul early morning.
Every time when I return to Europe I feel excited, peaceful and I have a sense of belonging hard to describe or explain.
I was recently asked what place do I call home. I was taken by surprise not by the question, but by realizing that I did not know the answer.
After living in Canada and coming to terms with the fact that I will grow old shovelling snow, walking in the bitter cold, or simply watching hockey, I decided to move. Again. This time I chose a much warmer place, but further away from Europe. I chose Australia, the lucky country. And once again, like a school girl who learns the alphabet quite sure it will be useful to her the whole life, I was learning the Aussie ways.
Only that this time I could not fool myself. I could not say without any doubts that Australia will be the place where I will raise kids and hopefully grankids.
So, I guess I cannot yet call Australia my home, same as I cannot call Canada my home anymore.
But, the happiness I feel each time I am in Europe tell me that, although I do not live in Europe for now, Eastern Europe was and remains my home.
I will always love the food markets, the music on the streets, the warmth of the people, what Italians simply call: la dolce vita.
With these thoughts in mind I stepped off the plane ready to discover Istanbul, the only city in the world on 2 continents, a place where Christians meet Muslims, where Asia meets Europe, where the Black Sea meets the Marmara Sea, where the old city meets the new city, where young people still play stones or chess drinking Turkish tea. Istanbul is a bit like myself, vibrant and a mix of everything.
The traffic is heavy. But, if in Bangkok the drivers make their own rules, in Istanbul the pedestrians are the dictators. No matter if you are not supposed to cross the street, you should be bold enough to do it. Rarely, someone will honk you and if they do, a true Turkish man will shake his head, mumble something and continue to cross the street same as before.
The public ferries in Istanbul connecting the Asian side with the European side, are very comfy and always on time.
For the Bosphorus Cruise, I took the public ferry and it cost me 25 TL. The ferry took 1 ½ hour each way , it passed the Galata tower, Dolmabahce palace, Ortakoy mosque, Bosphorus bridge, Beylerbeyi palace and it stopped at Anadolu Kavagi where I had 3 hours to relax and visit the place before embarking to return. The ticket does not include the hop on hop off option, so if you want to stop at the other places in between, this is not a good option and you will need to take separate ferries.
It is a beautiful cruise, and I was quite surprised by the greenery along the way, by the beautiful luxurious mansions on both sides of the Bosphorus and the elegant restaurants rights beside the water.
I stayed at Q Hotel Istanbul, located in Sultanahmet, in the old part of the city. The old city is surrounded by 1600 years old walls. The hotel was very clean, comfortable and the breakfast delicious.
I loved going to bed in the sound of violin playing on the streets and walking up at 5.30 in the morning by the calls to prayer. If Salzburg, in old times, because of Mozart was named the city of music, in present times, the old city of Istanbul seemed to be quite as musical at any time of the day.
The city was packed with restaurants and, even if you were not hungry, after being fiercefully followed and persuaded by the army of ‘go-getters’ found in front of each restaurant, you’d end up eating . And, why not? Eating is one of the biggest pleasures in life and, something tells me, the Turkish cuisine is one of the reasons.
Each restaurant had at least 10 waiters even if it only had 5 tables. Royal treatment at its best.
On the Asian side, in Kadikoy I have tried Ciya Restaurant which serves traditional Anatolian cuisine. Enough to say that after sampling more than ten types of different delicious vegetarian appetizers with Ayran (the Turkish traditional drink – a mixture of yogurt with salt) I was quite convinced that I could easily become a vegetarian. But their famous dish, stuffed pork intestines stopped me right on time.
Their Iahmacun pizza, a turkish pizza very spicy which always comes with yogurt, was also to die for.
Then, on the banks of Bosphorus for 20TL, quite a bargain, it was time for freshly caught fish. Yummi!
Another favorite of mine was cigkofte, another vegetarian dish I tried at Anadolu Kavagi, a village at the northern tip of Bosphorus, at the intersection of Marmara Sea and Black Sea. Former a fishing village and now, a touristy destination, the place still keeps its old charm. The atmosphere is very laid back and the main attraction is what is what is left of an old castle, which is not much really. But, the scenery was amazing.
Istanbul is famous for its Blue Mosque, which takes its name after the blue green Iznik tiles adorning the walls of its interior. The entry to all the mosques is free and you are given everything you need to cover your legs, head and shoulders. During the prayers, which take place 5 times per day, Muslims and Christians keep silent, as a sign of respect.
At night, Blue Mosque is a sight to behold, lit and with seagulls circling the minarets and the dome.
But my favorite was another mosque not so famous as the Blue Mosque but equally as beautiful: Rustem pasa camii mosque, located in the Spice Market. The mosque dates from 1560 and although the entrance is not grand, inside you can see amazing Iznik tiles, blue, yellow, red, white and green.
Suleymaniye mosque is the largest mosque in Istanbul, but after Blue Mosque and Rustem Pasa Camii I did not find it that special. However, the mosque, finished in 1558, is considered Mimar Sinan’s masterpiece.
Aya Sophia or Hagia Sophia is an architectural masterpiece withstanding the test of time. Built during Constantine the Great between 306-337, it covers an area of 7000 m2. It is considered the greatest work of Byzantine architecture and it was symbol of Constantinopole. The name comes from the 2 greek words: hagia meaning divine and sophia meaning wisdom.
When Constantinopole was conquered by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II this Christian church was turned into a mosque and different sultans added four minarets and it became a symbol of the Islamic cult.
Topkapi palace is another must see in Istanbul. Build in the 14th century it was the residence of the ottoman rulers from 1450 to 1850. You can visit the clocks’s chambers, with unique clocks made by watchmakers who grew up in whirling dervish and made only one clock during their entire life.
The treasury section was impressive with all kinds of gold plated objects encrusted with precious stones. The 48 kg candlesticks decorated with several thousands diamonds were a beauty.
The harem’s quarters is a maze of 400 halls and apartment and more than 200 courtesans of the sultan were living there. Harem in Arabic means forbidden. The concubines were highly educated women and were living in tiny cubicles some of them their whole life behind the walls of the palace without seeing the sultan not even once. Only the four chief wives were living in grand suites.The ruler of the harem was the sultan’s mother and for the women of the harem the road to the sultan ran through his mother’s quarters. Some things never change…
It took me almost 6 hours to have a glimpse and if you want to listen to the audio guide the whole place can probably take an entire day to see properly.
No trip in Istanbul will be complete without visiting the bazaars.
I have decided on three of them: the famous Grand Bazaar, the Spice Market and Sali Pazar.
Grand Bazaar was build in 15th century and has more than 20 entrances, covers 65 streets with more than 4000 shops. It is very pricey and it is not the best place if you are looking for a bargain. But, its paintings on the walls and the grandeur of the building are impressive.
The Spice bazaar or the Egyption bazaar has everything you might associate Turkey food with: spices; exotic fruits; millions of kinds of natural tea – with my favorite being the apple tea; turkish delights; sponges; baclava, turkish pastry and many others. In one of the shops, I was explained that cheap Pashmina’s scarves found everywhere in the world are actually not made in Turky and what was even more surprising, are not made out of pashmina. The genuine Pashmina is forbidden and it comes from the back of the baby goats, as opposed to Cashmere which comes from the old goats.
The genuine shahtoosh is also forbidden and comes from antelope and a scarf can be even $500 .
I have also learnt about their traditional rings with 2 stones inside: one red which you will wear if married and a green one if you are single. It made me smile as I remembered a sign saying: Married but looking.
I wonder what color one should wear for that.
Sali Pazar is another traditional market, on the Asian side. I would lie to say I know how to get there again. I have no idea how I got there in the first place. All I remember is that as soon as I got off the ferry at Kadakoi I was lost and after walking clueless for half an hour and trying desperately to ask for direction in English and getting answers in Turkish, I was literally taken by hand to a shuttle bus. And, here I was standing in a packed bus, clearly the only crazy foreigner.
Once there, I was in shock. As far as I could see there were tons of people selling everything one can dream of. I was lost and my first thought was how in the world will I find my way back to the docks.
To my delight, the prices in this market were by far the cheapest I found in Istanbul and if you are patient, which I am not, you can renew your whole wardrobe. The market takes place every Tuesday and Friday.
There is also a vegetable and fruit section where everything is fresh and tasty. The fresh garlic, the spinach, the countless types of olives, just made my day and I wished to be back in my own kitchen… or maybe not :)) Maybe a way better option would have been to be invited in a Turkish home at dinner time.
Once I was done with all the shopping, I hoped on the shuttle where, to my surprise, together with everyone else I was offered a free ride. You see, the driver was too busy talking on the phone.
Like all the women, I love spas and I was eager to enjoy the famous hamami, which is nothing else than old Turkish public baths.
If you think that having a private large jacuzzi in the comfort of your own quarters is expensive you are wrong. For 50 minutes in a hamami in Istanbul I paid 100 Euros. That’s right. 100 Euros cost me a trip to Aya sofya, the most luxurious and clean hamami in Istanbul. Situated between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia the building is from 1500, but it was recently renovated and transformed into the splendor it is today.
You can read more on how to make the most of this amazing experience in my latest book, A Fool in Istanbul – The adventures of a self-denying workaholic.
One of my highlights in Istanbul was the Hodja Pasha Dance Show at HodjaPasha Dance Theatre. The ticket is around $50 and it’s worth every penny. The show has instrumental live turkish music, traditional Anatolian dances, dances of Balkan region, Gypsy dances, and Belly Dancing. It was just amazing and the vibe and the energy in the room were contagious. I was so proud of being born in the Balkan region, so proud to be Romanian and many times I had to resist the urge of going on stage and start dancing. The costumes and choreography were beautiful. It was one of my best evenings in Istanbul and I highly recommend it.
I loved everything about Istanbul.
In this amazing place, having a Turkish tea in a small restaurant overlooking the Bosphorus and listening to Turkish music makes you think that life is worth living. It makes you aware that there are still places in this the world where people without having much, without being obsessed with money, know how to enjoy the simple pleasures of life.
The lascivious looks on every man in Turkey if will not flatter your ego at least will make you smile. The stray cats and dogs hiding behind tons of carpets at every corner will add to the charm of your everyday walks.
The typical street sellers always trying to offer you a “much better” price than anyone else will sometimes annoy you, other times amuse you.
Whatever you might feel in Turkey, one thing is guaranteed.
In Istanbul, you will feel fully alive enjoying the best that life has to offer: food, stories, lust, music, and fashion.