(Continued from “GMT+1: Florence and Bologna”)
The economy flight with Turkish Airlines could compete with business arrangements of many other airlines. A handed out menu was followed by a hot meal, real (non-plastic) cutlery and a complimentary pack of hazelnuts. That in addition to having a full row of seats to myself – perfetto! I knew things would straighten out as soon as I’d leave that Bologna place behind.
No matter how perfect the flight was, I got all impatient towards the end. If there is a favourite city in anjči’s world, then its name is Istanbul. Having been there last in 2007, I fell in love at first sight. I especially loved Istanbul’s contrasting scenes: the simple and the sophisticated, the hawkers and the chic shops, the Christian and the Muslim. Asia and Europe, Orient and West. Istanbul was the name. I couldn’t wait to see my Istanbul again.
The plane soared over a few packed beaches into the Atatürk Airport. I was back in Istanbul! Or was I? There seemed to be no end of the passport control in front of me. I was only grateful I did not have to go through an equally long visa-on-arrival procedure next door. Gulf Arabs were rubbing shoulders with Maghrebians, Eastern Europeans, Asians and Heaven knows whom else. Not even with all its tourists was Tuscany match to this great mix of nations.
About 40 minutes later, I was safely exiting the airport and looking forward to a taxi ride to the hotel. And what hotel! The business part of my trip had kicked off, and I was booked into Swissotel Bosphorus for two nights. It may not be anything luxurious for frequent business travellers, but is the height of heights for a budget lodger like me. At least there would be decent air-conditioning inside!
The taxi driver began by introducing himself. His name was Nihat. He wanted to know where I was from, and I told him I was from Greece. The passport controller at Istanbul made no mistake about Latvia, but I didn’t feel like explaining the exact coordinates of my little-known homeland to the rest of the Turkish population.
Must be hot in Greece now, right, said Nihat? I guess a toddler wouldn’t suggest otherwise. After covering the mandatory weather talk, Nihat wasted no more time and went straight to business. “Are you married or are you single?” He asked. “Yes or no?” Was I back in Greece or what; every self-respecting Greek male would start with the same question. I laughed and said I wasn’t married. To be on the safe side, I added that I wasn’t single, either. For the rest of the journey, I could see Nihat struggling to put the two together, unsuccessfully. Next time I’ll just say I’m married, I guess.
Swissotel Bosphorus was en route the Bosphorus Bridge, which meant we had to cross central Istanbul from west to east on the way from the airport. My heart was pumping faster as we passed Istanbul’s familiar landmarks. The old walls of Constantinople, Aya Sofia, Blue Mosque, Galata Bridge, Dolmabahçe Palace – my mind was flooded by memories. In the packed Sunday traffic, I was enjoying the ride unreservedly and kept screaming out the names of the city’s sights in the order of their appearance. Nihat was much entertained.
At the hotel, I was able to talk a receptionist into exchanging my 7-months-since-invaid new Turkish lira into Turkish lira per se. Yes, the “new Turkish lira” is in fact older than “Turkish lira”. Not to be confused with the “old Turkish lira”, which boasts zillions of zeroes and is the oldest of them all. The old and the new are no longer in circulation but can be exchanged into Turkish lira (are you still with me?) at the branches of the Central Bank of Turkey. Or at Swissotel Bosphorus in Istanbul. If you’re staying in one, of course.
There I was – in my all-time favourite city, 70 euros richer and with four hours of free time. My colleagues in London hadn’t even taken off yet. It was my evening! I shot out of the hotel like a bullet and almost ran the 3km to Galata Bridge. Just like last time in Istanbul, the impressions all blended into a crazy whirlpool. Fishermen crowding at every stretch of the shore. Families grilling in the parks – was barbequing a national sport in Turkey? Lines of cars dominated by Istanbul’s unmistakeable yellow taxis. The troubled Bosphorus. Many tourists among notably more locals. Oh, Istanbul. Oh, Constantinople!
The euphoria continued when I reached the Galata Bridge. The bridge (Galata Köprüsü in Turkish) spans Golden Horn, a historic inlet that joins the Bosphorus Strait at the point where the strait meets the Sea of Marmara. Only the large posters on the bridge had changed (telling me that Istanbul was European Capital of Culture 2010) – everything else stayed the same. Timeless Istanbul! I came just in time to capture a spectacular sunset over the Golden Horn. If I could be more ecstatic, I’d throw myself into the water. In fact, I was dangerously close to doing so. The city amazed me just like the first time.
Sailing into Istanbul sunset
Sunset over the Golden Horn I
Sunset over the Golden Horn II
Sunset over the Golden Horn III
On the other side of the Galata Bridge, I realised I had been running straight for an hour and hadn’t eaten since morning. I sat down on the steps of the Yeni Mosque with a serving of boiled corn freshly bought from a stall nearby. Boiled corn always reminds me of the only family holiday we ever had with my parents – in Crimea, Ukraine, back in 1992. The taste was so good that I had to have another piece. Oh, Istanbul – the city where even the simplest things taste so incredibly delicious.
It was getting dark, but I absolutely had to see Aya Sofia. I ran up the hill to Sultanahmet, responding to endless greetings from shop owners and balancing my way to avoid knocking over the passers-by. There she stood – the magnificent church-turned-into-mosque and now a museum. A museum to cultures too rich to erase – and rich enough to co-exist.
I nearly cried as I stood by the monumental building again. Memories ran overflowing through my mind. I remembered seeing a kissing couple next to Aya Sofia three years ago. They could not have chosen a spot more memorable. The moment was not narrowly ruined by a random passer-by, whose “why don’t you go somewhere more appropriate” was indeed redundant.The mighty Aya Sofia
Having blown a kiss to the glorious Aya Sofia, I spent some time photographing night-time Istanbul. While crossing the Galata Bridge in the opposite direction, I suddenly seemed to have entered a war zone. Or was it one? People were shooting low-flying fireworks right off the bridge, in celebration of somebody’s wedding. That could only happen in Istanbul! Or on Crete, perhaps.South of the Galata Bridge
North of the Galata Bridge
Wedding fireworks, a drop in the ocean
Back in the hotel, I appreciated the mixed kebab at Cafe Swiss restaurant. What a fantastic end to a wonderful day! Not even Bologna could ruin it (it was the last time I mentioned it, I promise).
Day 4: More Istanbul
I spent most of Monday in Istanbul at work meetings. Yes, despite the popular opinion, blogging and photography are not actually what I do for the living. The meetings were held at part of the city called Levent, well covered by Istanbul metro. After finishing for the day, my colleagues and I decided to show some consideration for the client’s budget and took the metro to Taksim – from where there was only a short walk to Swissotel Bosphorus.
Locally dubbed the M2, the Istanbul metro was built in 2000 and is currently made up of 10 stations. The single line connects the Atatürk Oto Sanayi station at Maslak in the north to the Şişhane station at Beyoğlu in the south of the city. Compared to the rest of Istanbul’s public transportation system, the metro was truly impressive. The air conditioning was certainly something not one London Underground line could ever dream of – but then again, it gets much hotter in Istanbul in the summer than it does in London.
Throngs of people were making their way out of Istanbul’s Taksim station. A major shopping and leisure district, Taksim is considered to be a heart of modern Istanbul. It is nothing unusual to see Taksim full of people. This time, however, the metro exit was something beyond imagination. The skies seemed to have burst open with rain, pouring out the heat of a full day. Tourists and locals alike dashed for shelter – including the metro station. After running the risk of suffocation for about 10 minutes, we finally exited into the rain, grabbed the first passing taxi – of which there is a legion in Istanbul – and reached the hotel. It was admittedly rather an unglamorous retreat.
Having waited off the peak of the thunderstorm in the hotel, we made our way to Istanbul’s main artery, the Istiklal Avenue (İstiklâl Caddesi) in the historic Beyoğlu district. The pedestrian avenue houses numerous boutiques, bookstores, art galleries, cinemas, theatres, libraries, cafés, night clubs, patisseries and restaurants. No wonder the name of the dining place where we eventually settled escapes my memory; I think it was Konak, though. The dinner came in form of a huge tray loaded with mixed kebab, and my stomach danced with joy in response. Turkish cuisine firmly tops my personal list. There is simply no better taste in the entire gastronomic universe.
After the dinner, we wandered purposelessly around central Istanbul for about an hour. The rain had stopped, but passers-by were still cautiously aiming their transparent, plastic umbrellas at the skies. Old trams were dragging past; retail stores lining up both sides of the Istiklal engaged themselves in avid trade, rivalled closely by equally ardent street vendors. The entire avenue was decorated by what looked like Christmas lights. I don’t think they celebrate Christmas in Istanbul though; the time of the year was wrong, too.
Phone booths off the Istiklal
Twilight on the Istiklal
At last the purpose of our walk was found: 360 Bar atop one of the buildings on the Istiklal! Past the unassuming entrance sign and an unfriendly lift, out came the bar with possibly the best views over the night Istanbul. In front of us stood a building with a church-resembling structure; far in the distance, Aya Sofia, Blue Mosque, Yeni Mosque and other timeless examples of Muslim architecture rose their spire-like minarets, lit colourfully in the dark. Add the mighty Bosphorus with countless boats, reflecting Istanbul’s shining landmarks. Oh, the glorious city.
View from the 360 Bar
Day 5: Goodbye, Constantinople – Hello, Tiflis!
I had no business meetings scheduled for Tuesday. In fact, the only thing I had scheduled for Tuesday was a flight from Istanbul to Tbilisi and a dinner with the client there. That’s right – I was going to Tbilisi, Georgia! A new country to add to my “been there” list. Having briefly lived in the Soviet Union (albeit on the verge of its demise), I was curious to see another former Soviet republic.
My flight to Tbilisi was not until the early afternoon though, and I decided to dedicate some more time to my old love, Istanbul. It took me three years to revisit; Heaven knows how long it will be before I go there again. 6:30am it was. 6:30am to wake up to spend as much time in glorious morning Istanbul as possible.
I took a taxi to the eastern side of the Galata Bridge and made my way slowly across. The city was still asleep. Only a handful of fishermen were on the bridge, and hardly a car was passing by. The freshly risen sun over the Bosphorus was casting its soft morning light onto the European side of the city. The ever-so-busy cafes, restaurants and bars under the Galata Bridge looked empty and relaxed. I could just stand there forever – stand there admiring my beautiful Constantinople!
One flew over Istanbul
Morning on the Bosphorus
Galata Bridge, ever so empty
From the bridge, I continued to Sultanahmet, by the route somewhat different to that I took on Sunday night. The streets were slowly awakening to the new day. The fountain in the Sultanahmet Park between Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque came to life only minutes after I came – blurring the clear reflection of the magnificent buildings with its joyful streams of water.
Blue Mosque reflection
Before the fountain…
As more and more tourist groups came my way, I left Sultanahmet and repeated the route I walked on my first morning in Istanbul three years ago – along the coast back to the Golden Horn. Heavy boulders on my right lined the shore. Some locals had put up their tents on the rocks, surrounding their DIY households with mini portable cookers and pet dogs. Had it not been for the noise of the endlessly zooming cars on the adjacent road, I would not mind living there myself!
Where the Bosphorus begins
I almost ran across the Galata Bridge (for the fourth time in two days), jumped into the first taxi and caught up with my colleagues, already departing for the airport. My Istanbul mission was over (view my full photo set for Istanbul). I am counting the days till my next visit to the world’s most photogenic, most amazing, most unbelievable city. Till next time! (Continued in “GMT+3: Tbilisi”)