A ROMANTIC WEEKEND IN ISTANBUL
“Istanbul is such a romantic city in the rain,” says Yusef, as he holds the hotel front door open and we lift our umbrellas to shield us from the drizzle.
I ponder this sentiment as we patter down to Eminönü in search for coffee. I’m in Istanbul for the next four days. It’s my first visit to the former Constantinople as well as the country itself. My knowledge of the city’s history & culture is embarrassingly limited as I recall scrolling through the Lonely Planet website on my phone whilst waiting for my outbound flight from Schipol Airport. I had never linked Istanbul to romance but I’m about to discover what Yusef means.
The sky is steely grey, suggesting that more rain is imminent. A couple of hours earlier, we were roused from our slumber with the first call to prayer, the chanting from the minarets echoing as an unfamiliar alarm clock. The appetizing aroma of freshly baked simit (Turkish sesame bagel bread) wafts tantalisingly close from a cart rattling over the drenched pavement.
The glow of the coffeeshop is an inviting beacon and we throw ourselves inside. A chalkboard drawing of the Sydney Harbour Bridge sits in the front window, a promising sign that our coffee will taste excellent in this modern kahvesi. I opt out of a Turkish coffee, not feeling particularly confident in my ability to down the bitter, thick sludge this early in the morning.
After fuelling ourselves with caffeine, our feet take us towards Galata Bridge. Clouds blot the horizon, a pale apricot tinge slowly warming up the sky. As we start walking over the bridge, I let out an involuntary gasp. Tens of men line Galata Bridge holding fishing poles, their lines cascading down into the river, dancing up and down like the strings of a marionette.
I study some of the fishermen as we pass by, the scene leaving me wide-eyed and fascinated. Furry grey eyebrows arch over hooded eyes, cigarettes dangle from the corner of cracked lips and stained fingers deftly attach bait to fishing hooks. Buckets of cloudy water reveal small silver sardines (hamsi in Turkish), the prizes of a man’s patience. The raucous caws of circling seagulls pierce the early morning air. A bell rings and the call of “Çay! Çay! Çay!” makes my head swivel. A boy of about 12 years old pushes a cart with an orange esky, dispensing paper cups of hot tea in the brisk morning in exchange for silver lira.
I soon discover that magic is not only found on the streets of Istanbul. On the shores of the Bosphorus, there’s plenty of pizazz to be found in the architectural wonder of Dolmabahçe Palace. The final residence of the Ottoman sultans shunned minimalism in favour of an opulent neoclassical exterior that would have every little girl truly believing that it’s possible to find Prince Charming. Crushingly, photos are not permitted inside the palace.
While it’s tempting to sneak a quick smartphone snap of an embroidered tapestry here and a plush carpet there, the black half dome CCTV cameras act as a deterrent and so we pack the lenses respectfully away. Instead, we chuckle at the hospital scrub booties we’re required to wear over our shoes as we walk along the designated path inside.
The palace’s interior contains matching opulence and grandeur, replete with extensive gold and crystal elements. Floor to ceiling window panes filter dusty sunbeams into formal dining rooms, swathes of hereke carpets with swirling faded colours line the women’s quarters and Egyptian alabaster decorates the Sultan’s private hammam. We take a peek inside a modest bedroom, the final resting place of Turkey’s modern father, President Atatürk, the clock on the bedside table displaying the time of 9:05 in the morning, the exact moment when he drew his last breath.
Standing at the top of the famous Crystal Staircase, I can’t help but have a Cinderella moment, sans twirling ball gown and glass slippers. However, the ultimate fairytale feature comes in the form of the world’s largest Bohemian crystal chandelier in the Ceremonial Hall. Originally believed to be a gift from the British monarch, Queen Victoria, such a magnificent piece can only conjure images of decadent soirees and elegantly dressed duos waltzing around the ballroom all night long.
My head still swirling of gilded ceilings and glittering crystal, we leave the palace behind and head for the hills of Şişli. Modern affluence reigns supreme in this elite neighbourhood, the streets lined with high rise hotels, sleek boutiques and fine restaurants. We stumble across a sidewalk cafe with an impressive cake display and diners on wooden seats basking in the morning sun.
Soon, we find ourselves in one of those scenarios on your travels that is terribly awkward at the time but becomes a fond memory later on. The cafe’s menus are in Turkish and most of the wait staff speak no English. Even the Google Translate app on our phone fails to help us and we feel atrociously rude. We’ve found ourselves literally lost in translation.
Eventually, a young man with pale blue eyes and a warm smile is brought to our table. Wiping his hands on his apron, we deduce that he must have been dragged out from the kitchen to help with our order. He patiently explains the key breakfast items to us in broken English before we happily select his recommendation of traditional Turkish menemen breakfasts – baked eggs with tomato and bell peppers and a side of toasted sourdough – and leave behind a significant tip, hoping it will somewhat make up for our inconvenience.
We meander down to Beyoğlu hunting for the famous historic passages (“pasaj” in Turkish). İstiklal Caddesi is a hive of activity. The main pedestrian boulevard is overflowing with couples laden with shopping bags, adolescents shuffling along in giggling groups heading towards the theatre and sturdy young men wheeling trolleys of deliveries to age-old eateries.
We turn towards Çiçek Pasajı (Flower Passage), our eyes immediately drawn upwards to the spherical lamps perched underneath intricate arches. Stone columns frame delightful mezzanines and wisened sommeliers and waiters wait patiently in the shadows of their establishments. Our feet take us down Avrupa Pasajı (European Passage) where antique shops hold heaving shelves of eclectic trinkets, antique jewellery and yellowing, dog-eared posters. I can’t help but think that the pasaj remind me of the covered passages of Paris, history seeping from the corridors and its merchants wistfully clinging to nostalgic romantic relics of the past.
A visit to Istanbul would be incomplete without a visit to the most famous 17th-century mosque, the Blue Mosque. Having been raised a Catholic, I hold vivid memories of attending 9am mass every Sunday with my family as a child. Whilst my attendance waned as I grew older, the sense of awe and calm I feel each time I enter a place of worship, no matter the religion, has not lessened. I am humbled by the opportunity to visit this grand mosque, taking particular care to pull the loaned blue head scarf to the edge of my scalp and wrapping the ends around my shoulders as shown at the entrance.
Standing inside the imposing structure, I stand motionless feeling the plush red carpet underneath my toes. The dimness from the low lit chandeliers softly illuminates the vast space. I crane my neck upwards to gaze at the 20,000 tiles and striking blue paint which adorn the soaring domes. I’m not sure if its the community of people who gather together united in common belief or the grand space making one feel that they are being connected to a higher power; the space inside the mosque feels peaceful and what I consider a place of solace. I’m no less astonished by the power of faith which brings people together.
Exiting the precinct, we stand in the courtyard between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia. My boyfriend is snapping a photo of me with the minarets of the Blue Mosque in the background when we’re interrupted by,
“Oohh a beautiful photo of a beautiful lady!”
The complimenter is a man in a navy checked blazer flashing us a gap-toothed smile.
“You want me to take photo of you both? Blue Mosque is very beautiful, no?”
We decline his offer and smile politely, nodding in agreement to his statement. Thinking that he’d be on his way, he asks us if we would like a tour of the city. Again, we shake our heads and start to walk away from our persistent companion but he falls into step beside us, questioning if we’re married and bizarrely suggesting that his son could one day marry our future daughter.
Suddenly, we’re following the chatty gentleman. Exchanging a puzzled look with my boyfriend, he motions me to fall into step behind him. Gobsmacked, I follow like a meek lamb. Despite the fact we’re in a public space and in broad daylight, I can’t help but feel apprehensive. Notions of daylight robbery rush into my head, my eyes dart furtively for an escape.
The Istanbullu’s intention becomes clear once we arrive at the front of a boutique store, a mere 100 metres from where he found us taking photos. He hands us a card and shakes our hands before turning on his heel and walking back in the direction from which we’ve come. We’ve been told that the boutique is his cousin’s shop, a bearded man who takes little notice of us from behind the shop counter as we courteously browse the shelves of colourful glass-blown vases and multi-coloured patterned neck scarves.
Exiting the shop, I breathe a sigh of relief, realising this was a ploy for our business and not to rob us of our money or cameras. I’m all for meeting the locals but this type of adrenaline rush was not exactly the romantic city encounter I had in mind!
Fellow travellers had warned me of the traders and trinkets inside the famed Grand Bazaar. Istanbul was a key stop for merchants along the legendary Silk Road connecting Europe with ancient cities from the Orient in the Far East. I imagine merchants arriving into the city, exhausted from long, arduous journeys. Their mules laden with rolls of silken fabrics, sacks of exotic spices such as saffron and cinnamon, woven hereke carpets, succulent dates and delicate porcelain. I recall Yusef’s enthusiasm for the Grand Bazaar as we sat in the foyer on our first evening sipping thick Turkish coffee, traditionally brewed in a copper pot and accompanied with sweet biscuits. “I guarantee when you visit the Grand Bazaar, you will want to take a piece of Istanbul home with you.” He’s not kidding.
The modern day Aladdin’s Cave is a shopaholic’s haven. All your senses are triggered concurrently so it’s an overwhelming experience to say the least. Veritable piles of kilim (a flat-woven carpet) and halı (knotted rugs) stack neatly up to the roof and hand painted lamps twinkle mischievously from half-hidden nooks. We walk by dusty pyramids of Turkish delight and sniff curiously at the tantalising scents of unfamiliar spices in earthy hues. The moment you begin peering at an item then the shop owner has pounced on your presence and begins to insist that their wares can be purchased at the best possible price. Constant scrutiny begins to unnerve me and so we shuffle under the bazaar’s archways towards the exit.
The other unmissable experience in Turkey is a traditional Turkish bath. My boyfriend has already encountered the rub-a-dub-dub scrub down on a previous visit to Istanbul, rating it as one of his top travel experiences to date. I’m curious and apprehensive at the thought of another woman dousing me in soup and rubbing me down, given that I’m more than capable of doing these tasks myself.
My boyfriend and I part ways at the reception of Cemberlitas Hamami. I’m handed a towel, a pair of cotton knickers and a locker key before being led upstairs to the changing area. I strip off my clothes, don the cotton knickers, slip my feet into a pair of rubber slides and wrap myself in the towel. A petite woman leads me downstairs, through a dark stone tunnel before emerging into a wide, softly lit cavern. I’m told to sit on one of the wicker chairs lined up against the wall, but no sooner do I sit, I am beckoned by an older woman through another wooden door. I let out a small gasp and catch the woman’s smirk, a knowing look of this all-to-familiar reaction of countless visitors. The ladies hammam is a round room with pale pink marble walls.
Towering columns spiral upwards supporting the dome ceiling approximately 30 metres above. I spy smaller caverns off to the side of the room and hear running water, strangely reminding me of Myrtle’s bathroom from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry. A round altar-like stone takes up most of the space in the centre of the room. I’m instructed to lay down on my towel on my stomach. The air feels warm and moist. A few more ladies walk in and lie down on the stone like me. I suspect that these women are all tourists like myself and I can’t help but think that we must look like young virgin maidens lying on an altar waiting to be sacrificed to the gods.
We lie on the warm stone, the heated air opening our pores and preparing our skin to be cleansed. Several minutes later, I hear sloshing. I glimpse a lady walking towards me carrying a cloth and a bucket of soapy water. She wears a shower cap and has also stripped down to a pair of black cotton knickers. Before I can say “bubble bath”, the woman has dipped the loofer into the suds and starts scrubbing my back in a manner that has me feeling as if my skin is akin to a dirty saucepan. The loofer-cloth utensil is sandpaper rough against my clogged skin and my attendant shows no signs of going gently. The foamy suds engulf me and I’m doused in warm water before being led to one of the side caverns. The lady motions for me to sit down in front of her where she begins to wash my hair. Having my hair washed and my head massaged feels oddly soothing and ridiculously indulgent. All too soon, I’m sent out of the hammam, my skin tingling with its cleanliness.
On our final morning in Istanbul, we head to the Hagia Sofya. The epitome of Byzantine architecture has miraculously withstood several earthquakes as well as years of war between the Byzantine crusaders and Ottoman armies. Otherwise known as Aya Sofya, the building was firstly a Greek Orthodox Christian cathedral and later an Ottoman imperial mosque. Nowadays, the magnificent construction is a museum and continues to undergo painstaking restoration. The domes soar into the heavens, lifting your gaze upwards towards the golden roof. Colossal slabs of marble worn down over the years from millions of footsteps reflect a dull sheen from the low-lit circular chandeliers in the main hall.
On the upper level, I stand on my tiptoes to peer out of a tiny window. Two silvery humps making up the lower domes are topped with golden spires and perfectly frame the Blue Mosque and its minarets in the distance. My eyes drink in the meticulous detail of the Deisis mosaic, the exquisite handiwork evidence of a master’s love and devotion to his craft and faith.
Our last meal in the city during our weekend in Istanbul remains a highlight etched in my memory. Searching for gӧzleme, my boyfriend takes us out to the suburbs of Beşiktaş and off the tourist map. He’s hunting down a recommendation he discovered on FourSquare and is determined to get a fix of the Turkish snack before we leave. Striding down a warren of streets, the area feels like a gentrified entertainment quarter. We pass numerous kahvecisi and kebapçisi, where locals sit brooding over their smartphones in one hand whilst sipping çay in the other. Music blasts from a pub as a dark haired man navigates a trolley of silver beer kegs into the back of an open lorry.
Eventually, we stop in front of a small, unpretentious cafe. We’re the only lunch patrons on the small verandah, the clock having just struck 1:00pm. Peering at the laminated A4 menu, it’s all in Turkish. A petite girl wearing a red zip-up fleece appears, her bushy dark ponytail and long eyelashes surrounding a surprised look. Clearly, the appearance of two famished travellers was not what she expected at this time of the day.
Thanks to Google Translate and the young waitress shyly pointing out the Turkish words for “meat” and “vegetable” (for vegetarian) on the menu, we reassuringly give her two thumbs up, ordering one of each of these gӧzleme and a cup of çay. A matronly woman dressed in starch white and a white bandana scarf emerges from the cafe’s sliding doors, a stern look on her face. Despite her expression, we gather that she is equally surprised to see us in her shop. Some more menu pointing and thumbs up gestures for extra confirmation are exchanged before she dons an apron and steps behind the counter.
The makeshift kitchen bench is at the front of the restaurant and we watch in amazement as the woman rolls the levened dough, sprinkling the toppings and folding it over with expert hands that have clearly made this traditional dish for many years. Several minutes later, the gӧzleme arrives at our table, the dough perfectly crispened and the fillings steaming hot. My boyfriend and I argue over which gӧzleme tastes better (the vegetarian, hands down) and needless to say, we don’t leave a crumb behind. We stuff some extra lira into the chef’s hand refusing her change and depart with big grins and satiated bellies. The blatant surprise on her face from the simple generosity of her foreign benefactors is the type of encounter that steals my heart and reminds me of my love affair with travel.
All too soon, Yusef is loading our bags into a taxi and bidding us goodbye, “I hope you had a wonderful time in Istanbul and you will return again one day.” As our taxi whizzes along the highway, I gaze at the sinking sun over the horizon with boats floating on the Bosphorus. My mind drifts back to the night we arrived in Istanbul. As our taxi whizzed through the streets of Sultanahmet, I caught my first glimpse of the Blue Mosque.
The street lamps lit up the majestic building against a velvet night sky, the mosque looming over the Old Town like a guardian of the night. In that moment, even before the rain, I had a feeling that I would fall for this Turkish delight. The layers of this beguiling metropolis are as addictive as the honey drenched baklava I’ve devoured during my visit. I smile to myself, knowing that it’s the profound love I have for this city that will have me returning to Istanbul one day.