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Travel: Falling in love with Istanbul

October 03, 2013 18:05 IST

Travel: Falling in love with Istanbul

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Lakshmi Sharath

Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,

Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God's great Judgment Seat;

But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,

When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!

Sipping a hot cup of Turkish coffee, I see the Bosphorus strait from my hotel room and wonder if Rudyard Kipling had kept Istanbul in mind when he wrote The Ballad of the East and the West. His ballad may recount another tale, but in Istanbul the twain does meet and even better it takes just a bridge across the strait to cross the two continents of Asia and Europe.

For a city that has a timeless spirit to it, one can probably spend an eternity here, but I have just under 48 hours.

I am spoilt for choices, but time is a constraint. Churches from the Byzantium era to the old walls of the Constantinople to the monuments of the Ottoman dynasty jostle for space in the mind’s eye.

Do I choose between bargaining in a century old market or throw modesty aside and experience a bath in a Turkish hamam?

Is it going to be the vibrant night life or a musical Turkish night with a belly dancer?

Given the time constraint, I stick largely to the tourist circuit and these five experiences stay in my mind.

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Image: ourists, with the Hagia Sophia museum (L) and Blue Mosque (R) in the background, look at the old city from the historical Galata Tower in Istanbul
Photographs: Murad Sezer / Reuters

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Hagia Sophia

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In many ways for me, the 1500 year old Hagia Sophia seems to symbolise the transition that Istanbul has been through.

An ancient orthodox church-turned-cathedral-turned-mosque-turned museum, this 6th century monument, Aya Sophia takes you through the turn of history in this city from the era of Byzantine Emperor Justinian to King Mehmet 11 of the Ottoman dynasty.

The relics and symbols of both faiths reside in this marvellous piece of Byzantium architecture. The glittering mosaics and the marble pillars hold your attention, but what really takes my breath away is the massive 105 feet dome towering 180 feet above my head.

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Photographs: Migowa/creative Commons

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The Blue Mosque

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There is nothing really blue about the Blue Mosque, at least if you look at this 17th century mosque from the outside, with six beautiful minarets surrounding a single dome, standing up to the sky. And yet the moment you step inside, the warm sunlight filters through the 200 stain glass windows and treat you to a brilliant display of over 20000 handmade blue Iznik tiles that give the Sultan Ahmed Mosque its popular name.

Istanbul’s favourite landmark was supposedly built by the same masons and craftsmen who worked on the Taj Mahal as well. While the lamps inside were once studded with gems, the mihrab is carved with marble.

The names of the Caliphs and verses from the Quran are inscribed on the tablets on the walls. The mosque, located in a park across the Hagia Sophia, houses the tomb of the king, Ahmed 1.

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Photographs: Lakshmi Sharath

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Bazaars

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Istanbul is wrapped in an ancient time wrap and even the bazaars here seem to have an old fashioned charm. Perhaps it has to do with Istanbul’s ancient history as a trading port, but spices are still the flavour of the season here.

The Egyptian Spice Bazaar is an assault on your senses. Besides the spices, stacks of dry fruits and herbs are sold here along with some exotic varieties of tea.

I spend my afternoon in an older bazaar, the 600 year old Grand Bazaar where James Bond rode his bike through.

I am greeted by courteous men with sharp business acumen.

Feeling a little refreshed after a cup of hot apple tea, I walk around the labyrinthine network of little lanes where more than 500 vendors sell anything and everything from ceramics to carpets, glass rugs to jewellery, this is the bargainer’s paradise. It is easy to lose your way here – I just did.

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Photographs: Muscolinos/creative Commons

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A cruise across the Bosphorus

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This is probably the shortest and the most scenic route between Europe and Asia.  Cruising down the sapphire blue waters, you hear little nuggets of history as you sail across the continents.

The cruise stops at some of the popular landmarks and lets you take some pictures as well. You have a choice between a short trip that lasts for a couple of hours or a longer cruise that ferries you beyond to the Black Sea as well.  And then of course, the most romantic option is the moonlight cruise.

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Image: A ferryboat moves along the Bosphorus and past the city's skyscrapers (rear) in Istanbul
Photographs: Murad Sezer / Reuters

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The Grand Cistern

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It is a surreal and an eerie experience down under in an underground cistern built beneath the city of Istanbul. Built in the 17th century, the cistern was once a basilica filled with gardens and surrounded by a colonnade.

Watching the dark waters reflecting the eerie lights, we walk around until we reach a pillar, where the carved head of Medusa sits upside down, resting on the ground. It is one of the haunting memories that still play in my mind.

There is so much to Istanbul that it cannot be restricted to a mere list of sightseeing spots. It may be a potpourri of the west and east, the old and new, the contemporary and the traditional, the quaint and the kitsch, but it is a city that draws you like a magnet again and again. I am for one heading there soon.

Lakshmi Sharath is a travel writer and blogger from Bangalore and she blogs at http://backpakker.blogspot.com.

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Photographs: Lakshmi Sharath

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