A honeymoon in Turkey..Part I: Istanbul

Arriving in the great Turkish metropolis of Istanbul that summer was a serious blow to the senses. There was so much to see in this historic city, where East meets West, that a planned three day stay had extended to five and then one more night as we dived deep into its splendour.

Because we were on our honeymoon my new wife and I had treated ourselves to one of the finest rooms on the very top floor of the five-star Marmara Hotel in Taksim Square. One of highest buildings in the heart of ‘modern’ Istanbul it boasted epic views out towards the Asian shore that glittered in the distance.

From our rooftop perch we could also see the majestic city walls of the old city that had once kept Arab armies and Crusader invaders at bay.

And between our hotel in Beyoglu and Sultanahmet, the centre of ‘Old Istanbul’, lay the powerful Bosporus, the river that divides the city as it runs from the Black Sea into the Sea of Marmara.

We spent most of our summer mornings in the city strolling over the Galata Bridge, passing by the fishing men dangling their hooks in the fast flowing waters below, before were were plunged into the cacophony of noise and colour of Sultanahmet.

This is where some of the grandest relics of the ancient world rise up into the sky and first up on any itinerary has to be a visit to the Hagia Sofia with its striking ochre coloured walls that sit squat and brooding in the light.

Built over 1,500 years ago, the beauty of its hulking exterior that was further complicated by the addition of four massive minarets when it was converted into a mosque in 1453, is only superseded by the unbelievable vastness if its interior. Despite the hundreds of visitors scrambling though its great Imperial Door every day (hint arrive early to avoid the crowds!) there is almost a reverential silence that hangs in the air as you gaze in awe at the great gilded dome rising majestically into the heavens.

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The majestic interior of the Hagia Sofia

To full appreciate the history of the place it is worth hiring the services of one of the many enthusiastic guides that loiter near the entrance but even a casual stroll along the balconies towering metres above the stone floors will reveal all sorts of secrets if you have a closer look around.

There are ninth century Byzantine mosaics and even graffiti left by touring Vikings scratched on some of the 40 massive ribs that support the dome.

It is a stupendous building, one of the great buildings of the world and an age will pass before you wander slightly overwhelmed back into the sunlight. And when you finally emerge to catch your breath you will find yourself in the centre of what used to be the ancient capital of Constantinople.

The outline of the hippodrome where chariots once raced still exists and can be seen clearly among the buildings that eventually grew up around it. There are still monuments that once dominated the track including the Obelisk of Theodosius that was carted here from Egypt by the Byzantine armies and the strange Spiral Column that rises up out of the ground just to the south.

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The cooling Basilica cistern

It was hot while we were in Istanbul so we bypassed the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts to step into the cavernous underworld of the Basilica cistern. This immense water storage facility was built nearly 1,500 years ago to supply water to the city and its cool sanctuary from the broiling summer heat was a welcome relief.

Its colossal roof is held in place by no fewer than 336 immense columns, some of which are immaculately carved and it was great fun to look out for the two famous Medusa heads that adorn two of the columns at the far end of the cistern.

Back out into the blazing sunshine and it was time for a refreshing drink in one of the many restaurants under the Galata Bridge. Sitting on a Buddha bag, drinking a cool iced tea while smoking a lemon-infused hookah water pipe and watching the sun go down was a sublime experience that will live long in the memory.

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The Galata Bridge over the Bosporus with the restaurants on the lower tier

Early the following  morning  called for a visit to the immense Blue Mosque, another Istanbul  jewel in a heavily  laden crown  of attractions  and this one came with the added heavy weight of a working every day place of worship.

Unlike other working mosques around the world here visitors of other faiths are welcome although not during prayer times and they must enter through a particular door. The effort is rewarded with the grandeur of its construction, and the vision of the tens of thousands of blue tiles that give its name.

And as so often happens in Istanbul the pleasure and peace to be found within such magnificent structures is instantly replaced by the manic hustle and bustle outside on the city’s teeming streets.

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The Blue Mosque dominates the Istanbul skyline

I passed on the opportunity to visit the famous Kapali Çarşisi (Grand Bazaar) the best known of Istanbul’s markets where 4,000 stalls in over 60 streets sell mainly tourist-friendly goods and plasma TV screens to settle for a traditional Turkish bath which has got to be experienced at least once in Istanbul.

Shed your inhibitions (and your clothes!) and allow the masters go to work on those aching muscles and you will emerge a new man (or woman) after an hour of pummelling.

We spent days wandering through Istanbul that brought us from the sprawling Topkapi Palace with its extraordinary harem (which would require an entire day to visit properly) to the shores of Eminonu, where you can take various boat trips over to Asia.

One of my favourite out of town excursions was to the extraordinary Rumelian Castle, a fortress built on a hill overlooking the Golden Horn.

Built by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II between 1451 and 1452, before his army’s conquest of Constantinople, the fortification has dozens of stone towers  placed on the walls. Almost a forgotten gem of an attraction we pretty much has the place to ourselves as we scrambled along the walls while massive cargo ships slipped past in the river below.

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The extraordinary Rumelian Castle overlooking the Golden Horn

At night we dined on the rooftop terrace of the Seven Hills Restaurant in the heart of Sultanahmet with its extraordinary 360 degree view and while we could have happily spent the rest of our honeymoon in this dazzling city it was time to hit the road for another adventure.

 

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