Irresistible Istanbul

Any trip to Turkey without visiting Istanbul is futile. However, if first impressions were to be believed, I would probably cancel my tickets and get back to Antalya, where we came from. But first impressions of a city as big as Istanbul can go awfully wrong. I am glad they did. I have visited this magical city twice and if given a chance, would not decline the opportunity again.

The city is built on seven hills and one of the reasons why the first impression went awry was a fact that the taxi driver, whom we hailed was a crook. Tourists usually judge the city by the way taxi drivers behave and I had completely judged the whole of Istanbul, because of this one man. My bad ! This fellows’ meter was running at the rate of knots and a usual 25 to 30 TL ride was charged at TL 70. Moreover, to make matters worse for us and as an easy escape for him, the driver dropped us at a street parallel to our hotel. There was a sheer descent of at least 200 meters from the place where we alit and where the hotel was situated. We had to carry our bags all the way down to our hotel. Well, this was the only bad experience we had and our opinion about Turks did not get a bad dent anymore, apart from this stray incident.

The hotel was good and we were bumped up into a sea view room. After a forgetful lunch at a random restaurant, Verina and I wanted to try out some local Turkish delights. We went to a nearby cafe- a franchise of Lavazza, the famous coffee provider. I was given a practical demonstration of what we call in marketing terms “Customer Delight” by a true “Turkish delight”- the petite lady at the counter. She cut every possible Lokum at her disposal for us to taste. Lokums are chewy like our Indian halva, but the sheer variety of flavors, spread neatly in her shop was mindboggling. She threw in a couple of good-looking Baklavas too, along with two cups of coffee.

This was my first taste of the black strong beverage called Turkish coffee. The lady gave us each a cup of coffee accompanied with some water and a piece of lemon. She also said that Turkish coffee is supposed to be consumed alternatively with water as the brew is strong. This drink tends to get onto you. Few initial gulps felt strong, but then as I went for the second cup, I was liking it and longing for more. I think that is the kind of effect coffee has on people.

After a good night’s rest and an ordinary breakfast, we embarked on a full day tour of Istanbul. Our tour was called Bosporus tour, named after the famous strait which divides Asia and Europe. The full day tour begun at 8:30 am, when we were picked up from our hotel. On our way, we met this Australian couple, who was en route to London, stopping over for a few days in Istanbul. After a few chit chats on Dubai and cricket, we parted ways as their tour was for half day and ours full day. We met many interesting people on this tour- an Iranian working with KPMG, who was always ready to please the two old Mexican American ladies, two old retired Spanish teachers, an Indian couple, a British Nurse, who was always bitching about others, a British African from Birmingham, who was so fed up with bread that she longed to eat some spicy African food. And yes, we had a bubbly tour guide- Ahlam if I remember well. She had a weird way of pronouncing Blue Mosque, she called it Bullu Mosque and that it what Verina and I remember of her.

Bosporus is a strait which divides Asia and Europe. Our first visit was to a grand palace called Dolmabache Palace. Inside this magnificent palace, we had a slugfest with one of the other groups, and Ahlam, told us to be together so that we could defeat the other group. There were gifts received by the Sultan from all countries and we were surprised to find a well carved wooden elephant gifted by India. After a whirlwind tour of the palace, we ventured to a quiet garden called Yildiz garden across the road. One of the reasons ,we don’t prefer city tours is the pace at which they are conducted. For lazy people like me, this is a bane. After some unnecessary shopping stops ina bazaar, where beautiful models walked the ramp for us with expensive jackets on, we were taken to a bustling part of the city for lunch.

We had pre ordered our lunch and taken the safe option of chicken. Turks penchant for bread with every meal baffles me. Looking back at our eating habits and use of rice in every thing possible, drove the hard fact that every nation is different and should be respected.

Post lunch we were taken on a one and half hour cruise on the Bosphorus. This was worth it as we could see the full coastline of Istanbul and sheer size of the city baffled us. There are two bridges which connect Europe and Asia, and there is a ferry crossing too. Images of Istanbul from the cruise were that of a chaotic city which was always at work- like Mumbai. The city had a clear divide between the elite and the common man, and this was very evident. At one side, there were plush bungalows of the worlds who is who , whereas the rest of the city had commoners going about their day to day business. I guess all big cities have these divides and this is what makes the city so attractive. Istanbul for me was just like Mumbai , a city which attracts people like a magnet , where one can live on no money, little money or even loads of money.

After whirlwind stop at Pierre Lotti and a cable car ride, Ahlam made arrangements for us to be dropped off at Taksim square, where I met Mansoor, my friend from good old sports direct days. It was 5 years since I had seen him. He was now the son in law of the city, marrying the love of his life.Taksim square reminded of our own Commercial street, but a much crowded version of it.

Mansoor had made some plans for us- oh boy what plans…. First he took us on the famous Istiklal street. According to him, this place never sleeps- any time of the day or night, one can find people just walking around. On our way we ate roasted chestnuts and sheep liver sandwich which was delectable. He had earlier warned us that the sheep liver would not be tasty for us as we were not used to the taste. Little did he know that we come from a place where we eat pork intestines is a delicacy. I have never understood the taste of it. But the sheep liver was good.

We then waded into the narrow streets famous for its roof top and street bars. There was a match going on between GalataSaray and some English club and hence the streets were jam packed. Nevertheless, our guide, Mansoor took us through some places, where as normal tourists we wouldn’t have gone. Our next destination was Ortakoy, from where Mansoor said we could click some amazing snaps with the bridge as a background. He was right. The views were breathtaking, but not the photos. We had amazingly delicious waffles here. We had a good evening so far, even though Mansoor made us walk for about 10 kms. It seems people in Istanbul are used to walking as the weather is good and moreover the city is made up of slopes. I said to him that in Dubai, we take 1 year to walk 10 kms. We could not walk a step more. After a nice lunch of pide and Ayran, Mansoor dropped us to the doorsteps of out hotel.

No visit to Istanbul can be complete without visiting Hagia Sofia, Blue mosque and Basilica cistern, which are a stone’s throw away from each other. Not enthusiastic museum buffs, we thought we ll just quickly tick these off and figure out other things to do. That wasn’t the case though. The exterior of this famous monument looks shabby but, once you get in, you will realize why it is one of the most famous monuments in the world. The interiors will blow your mind off. The sheer magnificence of this building, I believe is the fact that it reminds us of peaceful co-existence of two religions – Islam and Christianity. A painting of Mother Mary holding Jesus and versus from Quran exist in the same building, side by side and opposite to each other. The interiors have weathered many invasions, conversions from a basilica to a mosque and now a museum. We both were fascinated and spent 3 and half hours absorbing every bit of history it had to offer.

Travelling is a good teacher. We had promised a charming gentleman- the restaurant usher, who spoke many languages, knowledgeable on many topics and was a smooth talker. He had almost wooed us the previous day with talks about Sharukh Khan and Salman. We did visit him for dinner. Anyways, I would like to narrate one small incident about refugees here. Three small very cute girls were going restaurant hopping selling their chores. One of the girls was very enterprising. She came to Verina, made her wear the crown she had made, kissed her and even asked me to take a picture. Well, these kids should have been playing at their backyards or watching TV like how we spent our childhood, but they were working- in an unknown territory, far from their homes, perhaps without parents. We felt bad for them. Hope they are healthy and hearty now.

We were leaving the next day and the initial impressions of the city were being replaced with fond memories. We were both considering the possibility of visiting again. We were back in the same alleys after three years.

A whirlwind trip inside Grand Bazaar, followed by Spice bazaar had our hands full- with shopping bags. After a quick lunch at Spice Bazaar we headed to Galata Tower on a Funikuler, a metro like vehicle which runs up and down the slope. The area around Galata Tower is nice and we could see many brides and grooms taking pictures. The Turkish style of wedding is similar to what we have back home- suit, gowns, flowers etc

Our trip was coming to an end and we were sad, not only because Istanbul had rubbed its magic on us, but also because of refugees, of all things wrong with this world. We were helpless though. Apart from donating a bit of money, our influence on this deep worry was not going to make the world a better place, but we did what we could. A scare of traffic jam, almost ruined our trip back to Dubai. The sound advice from our Hotel staff saved us from this peril. It took us 4 and half hours to reach the airport- the same amount of time to get back to Dubai from Istanbul.

Warm and organized life in Dubai welcomed us. I think I was looking forward to it.

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