I’ve been trying to find the best way to describe how I felt the first morning I woke up and looked out the window to Istanbul as the first light of the day unfolded…
As we were landing in Ataturk airport we saw the snow covering it, my first thought was “damn I didn’t bring my coat” but it wasn’t until we took the cab to our airbnb flat, in Karaköy area, that I felt the cold penetrating my bones. Once we found the right building, it was already dark, windy and snowing, the lift didn’t work so I had to climb the stairs to the fourth floor, relieved once our host opened the door and helped us in.
That evening we didn’t see much of the city, snow covered the view and our only worry was to find a place to eat, luckily I found a Cafe Nero! nearby, bought coffee and a sandwich to take away, we ate and slept…
The next morning I woke up early, we had the flat to ourselves so it felt more like waking up at home, instinctively I went by the window, wanted to see what was waiting for us outside, the stunning view left me breathless, the Golden Horn inlet, the buildings, people outside, the cars on the street and the architecture so different to what I’had seen before, the mosques around, I was beyond excited! and couldn’t wait to get out there to start walking.
Let me give a bit more of context about this experience, back in Perú it is rare to see people from this part of the world, we understand and know their culture from what we learn in school, what we see on the news and eventually some films, maybe a popular song here and there, other curious people would find videos to discover further, and lucky people like me, who can travel and meet people from other cultures would have had a previous knowledge about culture, religion, traditions etc. But all those only build a foundation, not an entire idea of what we can actually find in a destination so “exotic” (to us) like this one.
Following our host’s suggestions, we made our way to Galata Kulesi (tower) where we found a nice little cafe (Nikol Basoglu), a few stores and of course a place to exchange our pounds for Turkish Lires. Everything felt different, it was the first time I was visiting a country with a culture so different, language so different and with hundreds if not thousands of historical heritage, I couldn’t contain myself to go and explore deeply.
We asked for directions to get from the cafe to Taksim square, the waiter was super kind and tried his best to give us the right direction, however we still got lost and walked in the opposite direction, that was new to me, getting lost in a new city is something unthinkable given my proved track record in other cities. Here there was an added element to our complex situation, I tried unsuccessfully to ask a few locals for guidance, mind the (language) gap, English is not so popular after all, people genuinely tried to help us but it was hard to understand each other, we finally got someone who spoke English and showed us the right way.
Istiklal street is the main street in the centre, the one taking you from Galata area to Taksim square, there are famous schools, banks, diplomatic buildings, lots of stores, great restaurants and bars all along, the place to be when in Istanbul!. We walked all along, once we finally reached Taksim square it was obvious to me I needed to get a proper winter coat, so instinctively entered the first store and got a nice warm jacket which was my best friend for the entire trip, and which I still use often even though it’s been already four years now!
The morning walk and adventure getting lost in this part of Istanbul deserved a nice lunch which of course was at a Kebab place, remember I told you in this post how I had to give away my kebab in London? well, in Istanbul I ate lots of kebabs! cooked in different ways each more delicious than the other, paradise!
That evening we decided to go to 360 a rooftop restaurant and bar to have dinner and get unbeatable views over Istanbul. How exciting was this city! and we had explored just one small area, I crafted the route for next day, which would take us to visit the famous Blue Mosque, Aya Sofya and maybe also Topkapi Palace, all we needed to do was to go across Galata bridge in direction to Eminönü area.
Now if you are wondering if I remember all this names and places without looking at a map, you are right! the fact that I got lost on the very first morning was reason enough to carefully study the city map that evening, I would not under any circumstance get lost again, I would get to record this city in my memory for ever! (and I did!)
The next morning as planned we walked across Galata bridge in direction to Eminönü, first we saw a beautiful Yeni Camii (New Mosque) I was intrigued to see how it looked on the inside, but at the same time I was also aware that it was prayer time so I hesitated to enter. You see, in Cusco city (where I come from) there are special hours to visit churches, and tourists are not allowed in during mass. However, a man saw us there trying to decide and told us ” you can enter, this is a place for everyone, just take your shoes off”, we went in.
Needless to say that I was blown away by the art inside, the architecture so different to Latin America, the colours, the patterns, the carpets and how people use the space, we looked around, amazed, at the same time being mindful not to disturb people praying.
Next we took the train to the Blue Mosque area, we could enter first to Aya Sofya, which is absolutely incredible inside, the paintings, architecture, lights are just magnificent, combining silently and discretely traces of christian presence, which were preserved to show the different times this building has been part of, it is so big and impressive, with tall roofs that make one feel so small, it is a piece of art that no one should miss to see when in Istanbul, and because pictures talk better than words I will let you see what I mean here.
Once we finished the visit to Aya Sofya, we headed to the Sultan Ahmet Camii (mostly known as Blue Mosque) but it was still not open to visit, so we decided to go and see the famous Grand Bazaar, which is nothing less than one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with more than 4000 thousand shops. Here one can see more jewelry and gold together than one can possibly imagine, but to me what was delightful and attractive were the lamp shops, the colours, the design and the delicate way in which they are displayed make you feel you are dreaming, so even if you don’t intend to buy any, you’ll find yourself standing in front of them without even realizing it.
The colours, scents of the spices, teas and other things you can find at the Grand Bazaar are something out of this world, the sensation that suddenly you’ve stepped into a time tunnel and appeared in a time hundreds of years ago.
One can quickly discover how the trading works here, first potential client looks at something interesting, then the owner offers tea, client sits thinking “what a nice gesture” and while sipping the tea, the owner shows kindly one item after the other “no hurry, no worry, just look” ask for different sizes, colours, textures, prices, and before the potential client realizes, he/she’s become a client and makes an offer (it is a must to negotiate the prices) the negotiation goes on for a while, and when the client is convinced that the right price has been settled, proceeds to pay, leaving behind a happy business man, and carrying a bag of something that wasn’t meant to be bought in the first place, but hey the experience was so incredibly enjoyable that one or two things won’t break the bank, right? The thing is that this situation will effortlessly and undeniably repeat several times along the course of a week or more, which is the average time of a traveller in Turkey. Mind the cup of tea!
After this incredible experience we finally made our way to a restaurant nearby for lunch, patiently waiting for the Blue Mosque to be open for visitors. By now we had already got used to the calls for prayers, but Istanbul had quite a surprise for us before enchanting our minds with the beauty inside the Blue Mosque.
When we went back to the entrance area of Blue Mosque, the call for prayer started, but it was not just any call for prayer. It started from Blue Mosque, followed with what seemed a reply from Aya Sofya, and it went on for a few minutes, I just stopped there and couldn’t contain myself, unable to understand the messages, but the whole environment was so out of this world, it seemed like a chant, it seemed like a conversation, all at once, simply unforgettable. It is incredible how some things can touch your emotions like that, without even understanding what is being said, the again one must be open to surprises.
Finally, the compensation for our patience, The blue Mosque opening doors for visitors. When I am super excited about something I tend to concentrate more on my emotions than on my physical sensations, like if body separates from mind, but at that time wearing only socks covered by a plastic bag (because shoes are not allowed in) I definitely felt my feet freezing slowly until we couldn’t bear it anymore. Without wasting time on words that would not make justice to the beauty of Sultan Ahmet Camii I will simply leave pictures for you to appreciate it.
If you plan to visit Istanbul, make time to see the city at least for about 4 days, or even more if you visit during summer, I was left with the feeling that there was so much more to see and explore, but we had a packed trip so couldn’t devote more time to this magnificent city. Which of course means I will have to come back! Fyi I have found this quite useful link for information to visit Sultan Ahmet Camii.
That night we went back to the little cafe near Galata tower, then had an early night because the next day we had to catch a flight to Izmir, for a day trip to Ephesus, which was my “not to be missed place” if visiting Turkey, since I love ancient places and even more remains of ancient Greece.
And, because you have been reading the blog for quite a while by now, I will leave you to a rare footage of Diana, my friend since high school, the only one who has stayed close to me, with whom it was an absolute pleasure to travel, and who knows me more than anyone else, she’s seen my bravest, darkest and funniest times… Di I love you, please forgive me to share this photo 😀
Until the next post, in the meantime… Hasta pronto! See you soon! Auf Wiedersehen! A presto! Au revoir! Adeus!