Direct flights operate from Delhi and Bombay and it takes less than seven hours to reach Istanbul. Having read Orhan Pamuk, Istanbul was on my bucket list. I wanted to live and breathe in the imagery his words created.
The conflict between secularism and political Islam, and the influence of the West that Pamuk’s books talk about can be found in every corner. Walking along the Bosporus that separates Asian Turkey from European Turkey, I only thought of Kemal and his Füsun.
Istanbul is beautiful beyond words.
I was travelling with a group of journalists and bloggers, and we got the opportunity to fly with Turkish Airlines – Business Class. The staff was sweet and the food just kept coming in.
The Turkish Airlines is also looking to expand in India as euro-centred growth isn’t enough. It fits with Turkey’s plan to project its capital Istanbul as a major global traffic hub. Authorities are hoping that the new airport, which is 85 percent ready, will open one of its three terminals on 29 October on the Turkish Republic Day.
The new airport will replace the ageing Ataturk. At 67.6 million square metres it would be the largest by size in the world. After all phases are complete, the airport will have three terminals, six runways, and annual capacity of up to 200 million passengers.
We were staying in Istanbul’s historic hotel called the Pera Palace Hotel. The hotel was right out of the sets of Wes Anderson’s movie The Grand Budapest Hotel. From the colours of the oldest patisserie to the electronic elevator and the ancient phone in the hallway, the past has been preserved there with great care.
One of the oldest hotels in Istanbul that hosted passengers of the Orient Express, the Pera Palace was also the first building in Turkey to be powered by electricity, other than the Ottoman palaces.
Suites in the Pera Palace Hotel are named in the honour of past celebrities who have stayed in the hotel. For example, there is the Agatha Christie Room, the Greta Garbo Corner Room, the Ernest Hemingway Suite and the Alfred Hitchcock. It is believed that detective fiction writer Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express in this hotel.
The hotel is walking distance from Taksim Sqaure and Istiqlal Avenue.
After lunch on our first day, we went for a walk around the buzzing street of Istiqlal. The street runs from Taksim Square all the way to the Galata Tower. It’s packed with restaurants, shops and cafes. It has a footfall of some three million people every day. You can get a microscopic view of Istanbul there.
While walking on the street, I heard someone playing “Tango” from the movie Scent of a Woman. As I walked closer to the sound, I saw two young Turkish women playing it on their violins for the crowd. It’s my all-time favourite movie, and it was overwhelming to watch someone perform this on my first day in Istanbul. The city was full of such surprises.
I found Istanbul a place for shopping cheap. Word of advice. If you suck at bargaining in flea markets, instead of Grand bazaar, spend your money either on local brands in shopping malls or head to the Asian side of Istanbul (Kadikoy).
We did some shopping in Capacity Shopping Centre and Carousel Shopping Centre in Bakırköy. We also went around in its narrow lanes and found really cheap stuff to gift friends and family.
After dinner across Marmara sea, we went to Ortakoy, which to me was like the South Delhi of Istanbul. Ortakoy is just the area for people who are looking for a place to party. This is where the hip young professionals of the city hang out.
Another word of advice. Make sure to have a reservation. It was a Saturday night and we didn’t have reservation, so we were denied entry inside a club called Sortie. We managed to get inside a place near Sortie for an entry fee. A thing to be noted: These places are more expensive than the ones in Istiqlal and Taksim.
Istanbul’s Old City
The next day, we went to the Old City. Here you have most of the tourist attractions like the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and the Grand Bazaar.
Sultan Ahmed Mosque or the Blue Mosque is a historical mosque in Istanbul. It is called the Blue Mosque because of the blue tiles on its walls.
Hagia Sophia is considered one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. It was once a church and a mosque, but is now one of the world’s most visited museums. The calligraphy and the mosaics there are stunning.
After this I said goodbye to the group that I was travelling with and headed for my own solo trip.
Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence
This is a must for Pamuk fans.
Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence is a story of Kemal and his love for Füsun, and is set in mid-late 20th Century Istanbul. There are several books that have inspired movies, but how often does a novel lend itself to a museum. The Museum of Innocence in Istanbul – based on the book, and opened by Pamuk himself – has been created with such detail that it makes you wonder if the events of the story were actually real.
My hostel’s manager guided me through the route to the museum. I ditched the cab that day and took the tram to the station closest to the museum and walked the rest of the distance.
There is an installation using 4,213 cigarette butts, which is strange yet powerful. Pamuk succeeds in reducing the distance between his fictional characters and the readers. For a moment I felt it was all real. Füsun did smoke those cigarettes and Kemal saved the butts one by one.
After my trip to the museum, I was walking down the lane to the tram station, when a man insisted that I eat at his shop and try the deep-fried chicken-cheese roll. I obliged to his persistent requests.
I sat by the cobbled street, sipping my Turkish Chai and eating the roll. In that moment, I felt I wasn’t alone. I also tried talking to the boys sitting across me on the other table. We talked in our own version of sign language and laughed.
Turkish people are warm. I met several on this trip who understood English.
The Asian Side of Istanbul
After my trip to the museum, I went to the Asian side of Istanbul, to Kadikoy.
Travel is really cheap in the city. I took the tram closest to the ferry terminal. The Bosphorus costed me only 6 Turkish Lira.
The Asian side is a bit different, a little more crowded with cramped spaces. But the people are warm. There are some cool places to sit by and enjoy a pint of beer and even cheap stores to shop from. For a jewellery fanatic like me, it was paradise. I bought some really cheap junk jewellery from Rosa and Uzak İşıklar.
Back from Kadikoy, I walked through Spice Bazaar and back to my hostel. I have never used my feet so much. However, it was all worth it. The best part about Istanbul is that everything is walking distance.
Time to Say Goodbye
Having covered the places I wanted to, on the fifth and the last day of my trip, I asked my hostel manager for a few recommendations. She asked me to go to the Süleymaniye Mosque.
On my way to the mosque, I stopped by Istanbul University. I was just curious to see what was the university like. Outsiders weren’t allowed in from the main gate, so I went from another lane to the back of the university. It had various departments, canteens and photocopy shops, just like the ones we have.
The Süleymaniye Mosque is an Ottoman imperial mosque located on the Third Hill of Istanbul. It is the second largest mosque in the city, and one of the best-known sites of Istanbul.
Even outsiders could enter the praying area, which was separate for men and women.
For my lunch, I wanted a place with a view. And there were several cafés that allowed a view of the Bosporus. I went to one of these and had a plate of lovely arrabiata pasta. I payed only 20TL for it. And then it was time for me to go back to my hostel.
I asked for directions, and walked, walked and walked. Can you believe that I reached my hostel in 20 minutes? That’s what I love about Istanbul: Tourist attractions are within walking distance, and the walks aren’t boring. You will have amazing scenery, winding roads and quirky cafes on streets. If hungry, you can just stop for a roll or a kebab.
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