Life doesn’t get any more surreal than when you’re cruising down the river that straddles and bridges the gap between two continents, and between two very different cultures.
I love travelling. I’ve left pieces of my heart in all the places I’ve been to and am looking forward to falling in love with the places I’ve yet to see. But I know for a fact that Istanbul, and Turkey as a whole, will always hold a special place in my heart.
For one thing, the people we met were so warm and hospitable. We booked our tour through Chora Travels who were kind enough to arrange all the pick-ups, transfers and domestic flights for us on top of booking all our hotels.
The Turkish people also had a unique sense of humour and an innate playfulness that I didn’t really expect. For example, our driver was chatty and kind enough to tell me that apparently there were a lot of Filipino women working for the hammam places. Thank you. That’s good to know if I ever want or need a career change.
Our hotel could not be closer to the Hagia Sophia if it tried, any closer and we’d actually be in Sultahnamet Square. Although we arrived really late due to stupid European air restrictions they welcomed us with warm smiles and hospitable greetings. They even booked our sunset Bosphorus cruise for us before bringing our bags to our room.
Restaurants open until late in Istanbul on a Friday night. As the owner told us when we asked about closing times, he’ll close when people stop coming to his doors for a meal or when he feels like it. What a marvellously relaxed way of running a business. He gave us free baklava, cocktails with sparklers on it and a cup of Turkish tea that just hit the spot in all the best ways.
When I was in high school my social studies project involved making a replica of the Hagia Sophia. At the time all I knew of it was that it represented wisdom, and that it was the bane of my life as I was born without the artistic gene. So I was really looking forward to visiting this church to see how my art project measured up. Newsflash: it doesn’t even come close to capturing the opulence and beauty of the original.
I love Istanbul’s history. I love the blend of Christian and Muslim influences and how in an almost strange way the city has made that dichotomy something to be celebrated. You can see elements of both in Hagia Sophia’s interior.
We also briefly visited the Blue Mosque, which was an actual working mosque and thus was closed to the public during prayer times. Having briefly experienced what it felt like to be all covered up in that blistering heat I can now empathise and sympathise with those who are obliged to wear it out of respect for their culture and religious belief. More power to you, I don’t know how you do it.
My second favourite part of our blitzed tour through the city was the Basilica Cistern. Its always fascinated me, especially since I read and then saw Dan Brown’s Inferno. Spoiler alert: they’ve taken out all the water so the term “sunken palace” doesn’t necessarily apply anymore but damn it didn’t take away from the atmospheric feel of the place.
Something you must experience at least once in your life and then NEVER EVER AGAIN is to ride the Istanbul tram at rush hour. It gives new meaning to the term “being one with humanity”. Believe me, there’s nothing like being pressed up against a stranger’s armpit to create the illusion that unity can be achieved in this world.
There’s always that one moment when visiting another country where the inevitable disappointment sets in because reality doesn’t quite live up to the pictures. The Galata Tower is one such experience. Sometimes I think Instagram has both enhanced and ruined travelling for everyone.
On one hand its great to be able to see other people’s travel photos and draw inspiration from it, but sometimes when a place becomes so instagrammable that its filled to the brim with tourists that you can hardly see the structure or take a decent photo yourself I curse all our addiction to social media.
By far the best moment of the tour was taking a cruise down the Bosphorus. Istanbul is the city where East meets West, where Europe ends and Asia begins, and that’s reflected in everything from the food to the architecture. On one hand you get beautiful minarets and lighted mosques, on the other hand its also really easy to find and order spaghetti bolognese.
Watching the sunset over such a beautiful city, and seeing it with the lights shining bright, is something truly spectacular to behold. I couldn’t stop taking photos of the distinct skyline, and of the Galata Bridge when the cover of night takes away the dirt and grime that would normally be visible in the light of day.
To add icing to the cake you are then able to get a delicious meal of mixed grills and kebabs for the hefty price of 70 Turkish liras, which is like 5 GBP.
There’s so much more to see in Istanbul. In hindsight I should have stayed at least two full days not only so that we can see everything but also because the heat takes a lot out of you so you feel exhausted a lot of the time.
A city is only as good as the people who live in it, and going back to what I said at the beginning, I have never met a group of people who were so eager and willing to please. People who work in the tourism industry in Istanbul give everything they’ve got to making sure visitors have an awesome experience, and that, among other reasons is why I’m definitely going back to Istanbul someday.