Best of both worlds in Istanbul

RAGHUVIR SRINIVASAN | Updated on August 31, 2011 Published on August 18, 2011

Worth millions: Houses at the Bosphorus Strait. - Raghuvir Srinivasan   -  Business Line

A Turkish folk dance with a man using his waist as a face.

Given Turkey's strategic location, the country believes it is part of both Asia and Europe.

So do Turks consider themselves Asian or European?” I casually ask our host Adnan Aykac over lunch at Matbah Restoran, in Istanbul's Ottoman Hotel Imperial, which serves authentic cuisine from the Ottoman era.

Aykac, General Manager (Northern and Eastern India) for Turkish Airlines, appears momentarily taken off-guard but recovers quickly: “Oh, we are both,” he smiles, “though the younger generation today think of themselves as European.”

He couldn't have put it better. Turks have always had the luxury (or is it confusion?) of mixed heritage: European and Asian, though one is tempted to think that it is more of the latter than the former. But there is no doubt what the youngsters consider themselves to be. They dress, eat, speak and behave more like the Europeans do.

Indeed, Istanbul, or at least the modern part of it, appears more like a European city than the throbbing port city of an ancient country, which is what it actually is. Make no mistake, if you expected head-scarves, women with hijab or men with flowing beards, you'd be disappointed.

Turkey is a secular, progressive and modern country with Muslims accounting for more than 95 per cent of the population. The credit for this secular ethos goes to the founding father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, but that's another story.

The sights and smells of Istanbul can be from any city in Western Europe. The broad, clean pavements lined with bistros, the familiar signs of a consumer culture such as McDonalds and Burger King or the night-clubs and pubs that dot Istiklal Street off Taksim Square where hip youngsters sway to a mix of Turkish and Western music with free-flowing beer…. it is the Turkish name-boards and the never-too-far-away Bosphorus that remind you that this is Istanbul.

The Bosphorus Strait — which connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, which further offers a gateway to the Mediterranean — is what made Constantinople, as Istanbul was known in history, a strategic city. Today, the Bosphorus neatly divides Istanbul into Anatolia (the Asian part) and Rumelia (European part). Ruled for centuries by the Romans, Istanbul was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1453 and was ruled by them till the early part of the 20{+t}{+h} century when it was declared a secular republic by Ataturk.

The city therefore combines the best of Christian and Muslim architecture. The unique Ottoman architecture is apparent in the mosques which have thin minarets. The Blue Mosque, so called because of the blue tiles inside, is an amazing piece of architecture and is still used for prayers. The minarets of this mosque, situated atop a small hillock, are prominent on the Istanbul horizon.

Talking of mosques, don't miss visiting the Hagia Sophia, originally a cathedral built in 360 AD by the Greeks but later turned into a mosque when the Ottomans overran Constantinople in 1453. The Ottoman rulers blanked out all evidence of the edifice as a cathedral, removing the bell and the altar, and built minarets around it. It remained a mosque until 1931 when Turkey was proclaimed a secular republic and Ataturk ordered the building to be converted into a museum.

Though ravaged through history by earthquakes, fires and even rioters, it was restored each time. Today, it is an example of the confluence of architecture of two religions with its massive dome, restored mosaics and tall columns.

If you are in the vicinity of the Hagia Sophia, visit the Basilica Cistern which is a large underground structure built during the Byzantine period (in the 5th century) and used as a reservoir. The cistern is a large rectangular structure that stands on 336 stone columns, each nine metres high. You have to go down 55 steps etched in stone to reach the floor of the reservoir.

Another popular attraction is the Topkapi Palace, built by the conqueror of Constantinople, Sultan Mehmet II in 1459. It was the main residence of the Ottoman rulers for over 400 years, till the 19{+t}{+h} century. The palace has four main courtyards with several small buildings that served as bakeries, hospitals and one of them as the mint. Those of us used to the grandeur of Rajasthan's forts and palaces may not find the Topkapi palace interesting but its claim to fame is that it holds Prophet Mohammed's cloak, and the Shiite holy leader Imam Ali's invaluable swords.

Large parts of the complex are off limits to the public but the place is worth a visit. Istanbul is also vibrant with innumerable eating and drinking joints. Turkish cuisine is high on cheese and meat, especially beef, but there are enough vegetarian choices too. For instance, there is the dolma, which means the “stuffed thing” in Turkish. You could have dolma made with grape leaves stuffed with risotto or meat, eggplant or tomato dolma and even stuffed cabbage. I had eggplant stuffed with risotto for lunch at the Matbah Restoran, and it was delicious. Unlike Western cuisine, Turkish cuisine is high on spices and comes quite close to Indian taste buds.

Then there is also a popular Turkish dessert made with the chicken breast called Tavuk Gogsu. It is a kind of milk pudding; of course being a vegetarian, I kept far away from it, but its deliciousness has been acknowledged by connoisseurs of food!

Keskul, the dessert that I had that afternoon, is a Turkish almond based milk pudding that is garnished with desiccated coconut and dry fruits and nuts. The delights of bakalava are anyway too well known to be detailed here.

No visit to Istanbul can be complete without a cruise down the Bosphorus Strait. You can cruise on a ferry sipping Turkish coffee as you cleave your way between the European continent on one side and Asia on the other. The magnificent waterfront houses worth millions of dollars and the several palaces and other historical structures that dot the Bosphorus on both sides provide an excellent backdrop for a photo you can place on your mantelpiece.

You need at least four days to explore Istanbul fully. For those who can afford no more than a flying visit, it will pay to fly Turkish Airlines the next time you visit Europe or North America from India. The airline which flies daily between Delhi and Istanbul offers convenient connections and whats more, if your connecting flight is more than eight hours away, the airline will take you on a free city tour. Visas are available on entry for Indians holding a valid American, British or Schengen visa.

Fact File:

Places to see: Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia museum, Topkapi Palace, Basilica Cistern and many more.

Things to do: Cruise down the Bosphorus, shop in the Spice market aka Egyptian Bazaar, get lost in the Byzantine lanes of the Grand Bazaar with its numerous interesting shops or simply hangout at Taksim Square and its night clubs.

Places to eat: Leisurely brunch at the Maiden’s Tower, bang in the middle of the Bosphorus. The tower is 2,500 years old and offers a stunning 360 degree view of Istanbul. Istanbulin Restaurant for dinner.

Eat traditional Turkish or Continental cuisine even as you are treated to an evening of Turkish music, songs and yes, belly dance too!

Published on August 18, 2011
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