Istanbul

Kim Waddoup

As the days get shorter in Moscow and the temperatures drop, a change in one’s surroundings for few days can help to keep seeing the positive side of life. Where better to take a short break than Istanbul, where there is always something new to discover and the weather is more hospitable with temperatures between 13-18C.

Three-hour direct flights with Turkish Airlines from Vnukova are comfortable, with a choice of three departures per day. There are a vast number of packaged tours available, but we chose to have a custom designed package from one of Turkey’s leading boutique travel companies that allow you to state your preferred requirements and receive a detailed offer.

Visas, if required, are a simple formality of buying a visa sticker as you arrive. Istanbul’s Ataturk airport is modern and functions well. Our driver met us at the airport and we were whisked off to the hotel.

For sixteen centuries as the legendary capital of the Byzantine, Roman, and Ottoman Empires, Istanbul has long entranced the civilized world. The only city to span two continents, it physically and metaphorically bridges the cultures and philosophies of Europe and Asia, Occident and Orient. Historically a tolerant melting pot—as the centre of Christendom for over a millennium and Islam’s seat for another 500 years—it remains home to the Patriarchate of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Sephardic Jewish heritage sites, and legacies of numerous ethnic groups. Flanking 30 kilometres of the Bosporus strait between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea, it is a linchpin for trade routes in all directions. Though no longer a capital, Istanbul is the cosmopolitan heart of the Turkish Republic, its financial

centre and most populous city. The mushrooming population exceeds thirteen million, crowding cobbled-lane waterfront villages and glass-and-steel corporate districts, spirited premier soccer matches and haute couture boulevards. Byzantium, New Rome, Constantinople, Old Stamboul. Its name has changed, but its glory endures.

There are many ways to explore Istanbul but for ease and comfort we chose a private tour with a private guide. Volkan was the most amazing source of information with incredible indepth historical knowledge and such a love of his home city. His narration and stories brought the history of this city to life with facts and humour.

The ‘must do’ list of sights to see is almost endless but should include: Hagia Sophia the golden-domed Byzantine church that was the centre of the Orthodox Christian world until it became a mosque in 1453 (and then a museum in 1934). Be amazed by its riot of mosaics—masterfully detailed down to the blush in Mary’s cheeks—then walk next door to Topkapi Palace, to see the Ottoman sultans’ treasury. Then maybe on to the pavilions, where the sultans imprisoned various family members in luxurious cells or the famous Harem of the Topkapi Palace where the wives of the sultans lived, a womanly and sensual place.

Don’t miss Matbah, a lavish, garden-style restaurant where the chefs have replicated centuries-old recipes with creamy bitter-almond soup and the honeydew melon stuffed with minced beef, rice, almonds and raisins are sweet and salty without too much heft.

Istanbul’s legendary Spice Bazaar is a must where a hall filled with multi-coloured dunes of saffron, cloves, tea, nuts, dried fruits and lokum (Turkish delight). Sweet scents draw you ever deeper into a maze of alleyways clogged with chattering vendors. Buy a bag of sumac, a sour and locally popular spice, which most stores will vacuum-pack for you. Also recommended is a tour of the Tunel district is also something you must do, to visit the magnificent Pera Palace and the Nu Terrace.

Each of Istanbul’s conquerors left their marks on the city, often right on top of each other! Strolling through the Sultanahmet district, ancient Byzantiumis several meters beneath your feet, right under Roman Constantinople, which is under the Ottoman Empire! Descend into the Basilica Cistern, a vast, column-ribbed subterranean chamber that provided water to the city during the 6th century. Not far from the cistern is the impressive 17th-century mosque of Sultan Ahmed I, with it’s amazing domes and arches, often called the Blue Mosque.

Modern Istanbul also offers all the facilities of a modern city, if you prefer there are mega-stores, extensive shopping malls and a vast array of different shops still offering highly competitive prices. After the sunset call to prayer, Istanbul changes and the evenings and nights offer such a vast choice of bars, restaurants, lounges, cafes and nightclubs.

A traditional Turkish tavern is called a meyhane, and the Kumkapi district features many where locals go to socialize and sip raki. Try to start each day with Turkish coffee and a simit (sesame seed bagel) with cheese, it helps get into the atmosphere of Istanbul and in the evenings explore the nightlife in the alleyways around Taksim with bars and clubs to suit every choice.

Where to stay. For this trip we decided to mix old and new, to sample the history of Istanbul coupled with chic accommodation. Our first hotel was the House Hotel Nisantasi, voted one of the best boutique hotels in Europe by Conde Nast. Located in Istanbul’s most fashionable district, the design is amazing, a concept from one of Turkey’s leading designers. Within walking distance of the Bosphorus, it is bright, cheery and has wonderful service. For the last night we moved to the House Hotel Bosphorus in the Ortakoy area, a historical mansion with magnificent views over the Bay. The deluxe suite here is ingeniously decorated in a modern style that complements the origins of the house. Again, wonderful service in a lovely area.

However all good things must come to an end and after a last Turkish Coffee on the balcony overlooking the Bosphorus it was time to return to Moscow! All travel arrangements in Istanbul were organized by Matiana Travel, Turkeys leading boutique travel company who can design and arrange custom-made tours to suit your exact requirements.