My first visit to Istanbul is a breath-taking experience. For all the right reasons.
Sailing up the Sea of Marmara in the early morning light, the verdant hills of the Sultanahmet start sliding into view. I squint against the brightness and scan the horizon with intent. Then it appears. The glistening dome of the Blue Mosque catches my eye and I experience a quick intake of breath. Though it doesn’t look as blue as I imagined, it is a striking and awe-inspiring structure even from this distance. Quickly, all sorts of minarets and spires come into sight reaching up beseechingly to the sky. It is not long before the Golden Horn is before us spilling out into the sea. More of the city appears as we get closer and closer to our dock.
The European side of Istanbul is where the old town and historic buildings lie. The Hagia Sofia and Blue Mosque are virtually all within yards of each other with the Grand Bazaar less than a mile away. The Sultanahmet attracts tourists by their thousands, if not millions. I cannot wait to get my walking shoes on and explore this enchanting city.
And soon the incredible Bosphorus Suspension Bridge is in sight, with its striking design based on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. To think this one structure connects the European and Asian continents has captured the imagination of the world.
We disembark to start our Istanbul adventure. Strolling through the non-descript Karaköy neighbourhood with its office blocks and utilitarian shops, we soon reach the old Galata Bridge that spans the Golden Horn. Water now comes into view and we begin to traverse the bridge. Lining the edges are local fisherman – I look down and can clearly see dozens and dozens of jelly fish, their iridescent shapes spookily floating about in the clear water.
As soon as we are midway across, we notice stairs going down to another, lower level. Just above the water is another section of the bridge. Here there are restaurants and tea houses getting ready for their first customers. We settle in and have a Turkish tea.
Emerging back up to the road level, we make our way past the buckets of bait and fishing lines towards the Eminönü section of town. This bustling recreational zone near the water is full of families buying treats and walking along the promenade and enjoying the cool yet sunny morning.
As we walk up the hill towards the Fatih district, we pass vast numbers of stationers and wedding invitation shops. Soon signs appear to direct us to the Grand Bazaar.
I don’t think anything can quite prepare you for this incredible structure with its ancient warren of walkways and wonderful shops. Building began in 1455 at the beginning of the reign of the Ottoman Empire after the defeat of Constantinople . They say that the rituals around bartering began at the same time as the construction of the bazaar and are still thriving to this day.
We have arrived quite early, so the bazaar is bustling but not too busy. I am amazed at how wide the main isle is the takes you through the centre of this shopping mecca. The designs and décor above our heads are striking and colourful. And, of course, there are dozens and dozens of pashmina, souvenir and jewellery shops. There are upmarket luggage, watch and leather outlets as well. I even spot children’s toy shops and eateries offering Turkish snacks.
I will be buying pashminas today for various relatives who have asked for them. I make my first attempt at bargaining, to the amusement of my husband. There is astonishment from the vendor as I offer half of the price he is quoting. I move on to the next shop as my husband is giggling at my efforts. This does not stand me in good stead with the vendor.
We approach another shop and I am soon ushered inside by a friendly attendant. I quickly discover that there are many suitable shawls and scarves here. Once hubby and I start discussing the various options for different people (with the salesman dutifully pulling out shawls for us to look at) I know my bartering position won’t be very strong. I have shown too much interest!
But we happily part with our money on finding three pashminas which are just the colours needed.
It is soon time to have a bit of lunch. I leave the bazaar not having experienced it thoroughly or having done nearly enough shopping. But we soon discover a local restaurant that makes the best spicy lentil soup I have ever tasted. The waiter seems very impressed when we attempt a few words in Turkish. Everyone is pleased!
There will be another blog about our discoveries in Sultanahmet and also a previous cookery experience in Kuşadasi. Watch this space!
I travelled on the ship Azamara Quest on an Eastern Mediterranean itinerary.