We came to Istanbul with the relaxed mood and curious eyes of the travelers, then we went from one surprise to another, like what Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel Prize-winning Turkish writer once wrote: “To love the little streets of Istanbul, appreciate the trees that bring unexpected charm to the ruins of the city, the first and foremost condition is you must be a stranger to this place.”
Is it a surprise when you just have breakfast in a few minutes ago, and now walking on the sidewalk of Europe? Is it a surprise when you just talk to a man on the road and realize that he has a tall appearance like that of a Westerner but he was having a warm conversation with strangers just like the culture of most Eastern countries? Is it a surprise when you stand under the architectures with the European-style, but decorated with colorful motifs and colors of Asia? Is it a surprise when you just enjoy a romantic dinner on the Bosporus, then realize why all the tables, chairs, windows are facing the sea: that is to admire the magical beauty that is not easy to be found in another city?
Napoleon Bonaparte (the first emperor of France) once said: “If the earth is a state, Istanbul will be the capital”. That’s enough to see the importance of this intercontinental city. However, Istanbul is not the capital of Turkey as many people mistakenly believe, although it was once the capital of many of the most powerful empires including Rome, Byzantine, Latin, and Ottoman. Currently, Istanbul is one of most tourists attracting cities in the world thanks to its unique geographical position between two continents – Europe and Asia, with the European coast where most of the city’s outstanding works are concentrated and a humble, quiet Asian shore.
To us, Istanbul is like a signature cocktail (*) mixed with many flavors by the hands of the sophisticated local bartenders who know how to combine local ingredients in the best way. I wondered if there was a miracle that would take us back to Istanbul in just 24 hours, where would we go? The images of a city with an ancient but no less modern traits in my mind came out one after the other.
5 pm: I saw the road leading to the beautiful Golden Horn port under the glittering sunset. On one side was the blue bay, on the other side was the long wall. On the sea side, there were many people staring at the towering bridge, others were walking, some were bathing. On the opposite side, there were some hills hidden behind the wall, some lovely houses, and some cafes. I sat in the car, watching the scenery through the glass window, feeling I was like the main actress in a romantic love movie, waiting for the male lead to gently kiss on my dreamy face.
6 pm: I saw the yacht carrying us along the Bosporus – the 33km strait, the intersection of the Black Sea and Marmara Sea. It was a windy late winter day. The yacht shook violently due to strong waves. But on both sides, life was still calm and peaceful. Each of the unique buildings that passed our eyes was extremely brilliant: European fortress, Maiden’s Tower, Dolmabahçe Palace, Küçüksu palace, Ortaköy cathedral, Yavuz Sultan Selim – the largest suspension bridge in the world crossing the Bosporus trait, connecting the two continents … The seagulls were fluttering peacefully between the blue of the sky and the Mediterranean Sea. What a beautiful sight! Although I was afraid of the cold, I still extended my hand to say hello to the seagulls. Unexpectedly, a brave and friendly bird swooped in, perching on my outstretched arm, chirping something as if it was responding to me: “merhaba” (hello), then continuing to spread its wings and flying high.
9 pm: It’s dark, we walked along the bustling Teşvikiye Caddesi street, across Nişantaşı City – one of the best shopping centers in Turkey and in Europe, joining the people, shopping for some discount items. Before the trip, my best friend told me that the winter was going to be over, most of the stores would have great discounts on winter-autumn clothes, remember to make room for suitcases to shop. We continued to go along the sidewalk, sometimes up the hill, sometimes down the slope. This afternoon, I was talking to a new Turkish friend to know that Istanbul was built on the hills. No wonder, there were such steep slopes that made me so tired walking! Meeting a dwarf who worked as a hostess at a nearby restaurant, dressed in ancient costumes as if he had just stepped out of the fairy tale “Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs” that every girl is fascinated with, I eagerly reached him to ask for taking a photo. He happily told me to stand next to him and posing continuously. I must say, all the Turkish people I met were extremely hospitable.
9 am: Had a good night’s sleep. The next morning, we would have coffee and have breakfast at a cafe by the bay, then went to Sultanahmet – named after King Ahmet after The Ottoman Empire occupied Istanbul. The square was very crowded with people and tourists. On every trip, spending a certain amount of time doing nothing but just observing the people you meet is a hobby. There were idle people who are also silently watching the movements of life. Someone was walking the dog. Someone was stopping to buy a bag of hot chestnuts on the side of the road. Several groups of people were gathering to take pictures around the Theodosius stone pillar towering in the middle of the square. According to historical studies, the stone pillar was made in the 15th century BC by the order of the ancient Egyptian king Thutmose III, sent to Istanbul by the order of the Emperor Theodosius – 390 AD. The square also had the Wilhelm water tank built by King Wilhelm (German Empire) for the second time coming to Istanbul, commemorating the relationship between the two empires, the snake stone pillar built in the temple of the Apollo in Delphi, Greece in 479 BC to commemorate the victory of the Greek army before the Persian Empire (Iran), and the Constantinus stone pillar remodeled by King Constatine VII engraving the symbol depicting the victory of Basileios. The relics of the ancients were so magnificent, making visitors like us leave with deep admiration and many question marks. How was the Theodosius stone pillar 30-meter-high and nearly 200-ton-weight brought here and how to put the stone pillar upright? If those mighty empires still existed, what would the world be like? When will Turkey, with a long history and continuous efforts, be able to join the European Union? …
11 am: After walking around, we were tired. Then, we would need a kepap loaf in front of the Grand Bazaar market gate. If you want a snack, you can buy grilled corn or bagel bread sold on street vendors. Istanbul is located on the silk road, so it is no wonder that the trading activities here are very bustling. The market is always full of people, not only tourists but also locals. The shop keepers were nimble and professional, constantly inviting us to buy their goods. The market had everything: carpets, ceramics, porcelain, cooking materials, kitchen utensils, clothes, jewelry … Turkey is also famous for thousands of cakes, candies of all shapes and colors, which are called Turkish Delights. If you love food but haven’t tried Turkish Delights, it is a pity. We thought we’d just see it out of curiosity, but we ended up being seduced by the happy guy at the sweets shop. He invited us to try it out freely. It was so embarrassing. I was so excited that I tried too many types, about two or three dozen types until filling up my stomach before deciding to buy. The guy still kindly invited us to drink some water, “to purify the taste buds” – he said. Finally, I chose to buy some cakes as gifts and some flower teas and some typical Turkish spices. An Indian man who came to shop there, seeing me pointing at the glass case of curry powder, raised his index finger, wanting to say “it’s delicious!” By this point we no longer kept our intention of saving money but turned to tell each other “next time we come back, remember to bring a lot of money because we wanted to buy everything we saw!”
5 pm: The Basilica of Hagia Sophia in the old town of Sultan Ahmet is a destination not to be missed. The cathedral was built under Justinian Emperor in Constantinople in Byzantine architecture with high arched ceilings, surrounded by windows. Natural light flooded in, illuminating the cathedral, making the scene in front of our eyes even more sacred and fanciful. Opposite Hagia Sophia is the Blue Mosque – the church was built during 1609-1616 and lasted for 40 years under the reign of King Ahmed I, as a historical witness of “sorry to Allah” due to failure with Persia, and to reaffirm the reigning power of the Ottoman Empire. It has the peak architecture of the prosperous period of the Ottoman mosque, combining the Byzantine Christian architecture and traditional Islamic architecture. It was considered the greatest mosque of that period. The exterior of the cathedral is lined with white marbles. Under the sunset, the marbles were magically glowy blue. Taking off our shoes, adjusting our clothes, and entering the cathedral with all our respect, we were impressed with the green color made up of over 20,000 Iznik bricks. You will easily find Iznik bricks everywhere as if they covered the whole city. This type of brick is made in the Iznik region. Each traditional Iznik brick usually has 4 colors: turquoise, dark blue (cobalt), malachite green (the color in between green and blue) and coral. Pottery artisans took 70 days to make an Iznik brick. On each brick are hand-drawn lines that form the tulips – the symbolic flower of Turkey, when put together. Currently, the Iznik bricks are also sold as lovely souvenirs. Touching each brick, we felt as if all the ups and downs in the country’s history were reproduced honestly and clearly.
Every day is unique. We choose to go, capture, write, and feel this life by all our senses. How about you?
*signature cocktail: the word “signature” is used to denote a special type of food/ beverage that is only available in the menu of a specific restaurant/ place, differing from other restaurants/ places.
In this post, the photo of Theodosius stone pillar is a collected photo, not the photo we took because the pillar was too high.