The newspaper in the airport talks about a Chagall exhibition, an opera performance and a Bach Festival—a reminder that we’re about to land in a city that famously straddles Europe and Asia.
At Istanbul airport, an anxious-looking Murat, who will be our guide for a week in Turkey, is waiting for us. “Are you Jains?” is his first question. Murat’s two passions are the food and the history of his city and, visibly relieved to learn we’re adventurous carnivores, he now starts looking anxious again. “Only two-and-a-half days in Istanbul, we have to hurry, hurry, hurry…”
A Pluralistic Culture
An hour later, luggage hastily deposited in the hotel, we are at Istanbul’s historic core, Sultanahmet Square, plunged into that seamless juxtaposition of civilisations and epochs, Orient and Occident, that mesmerises us throughout our stay in Istanbul. Here, serenely facing each other, are the Basilica of Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, built a thousand years later. These are monumental emblems, respectively, of Emperor and Sultan, signature landmarks of a city that was the capital of two great world empires—the Roman Byzantine and the Ottoman — for over 1,500 years. The great square between the two monuments is unmistakably an Asian maidan; the touts are persistent, the hawkers raucous and food vendors carry their wares on baskets on their heads. But in the winding cobblestone streets radiating off Sultanahmet Square, Istanbul is a Mediterranean city of chic pavement restaurants and elegant houses painted in pastel colours. At one of them, like a poster girl for the city’s multiple identities and cultures, sits a demurely headscarved girl in an all-concealing overcoat, smoking a cigarette and sipping a glass of wine.
The Hagia Sophia
There are many jaw-dropping sights inside Hagia Sophia, but none more so than the glowing mosaic of the Madonna and Child, flanked by two huge gilded roundels calligraphed with the names of Allah and the Prophet Mohammad — a cameo that captures the historic moment when Roman Constantinople metamorphosed into Ottoman Istanbul and Hagia Sophia church into Aya Sofya mosque. In 1453, within hours of Mehmet the Conqueror’s triumphal entry into the city (wearing sky-blue boots, according to a contemporary account), he headed to Hagia Sophia to offer Friday prayers. Mihrab, minbar and minaret were quickly added. But the next thing Mehmet did was to present a sceptre to Hagia Sophia’s patriarch, personally escort him to his new church, and issue a decree that the city’s Greeks, Armenians and Jews would have full freedom to practise their religion and livelihoods.
That inclusive, pluralistic culture was to prevail through much of the Ottoman era, when the greatest mosques were built by a Christian-born Armenian, and Greeks, Italians and Spaniards rose to become grand vazirs and admirals. In 1923, the Ottoman empire came to an end, and in 1934, the Republic of Turkey, in an unequivocal demonstration of its secular ideals, put a swift end to the church-mosque squabble by turning Hagia Sophia into a museum. A lesson here for us?
Reeling from the sensory overload of Hagia Sophia, with its soaring 56m-high dome, its gilded mosaics of saints and emperors, and its walls covered in the soft purples and greens of translucent marble, we cross the square to the Blue Mosque as the call to azaan floats out from its six pencil-slim minarets. Exquisite Iznik tile panels — a riot of tulips, carnations and lilies — cover the walls, intricately painted blue arabesques adorn the ceiling, all bathed in light from over 250 windows.
It’s late afternoon by the time Murat calls a halt for lunch. He orders us a delectable meal: lamb grilled with thyme and patlican dolma (aubergine stuffed with pine nuts, tomato and rice). Meanwhile Murat, with the smug air of a man about to conjure rabbits out of a hat, waits to be served. Ten minutes later, he’s ploughing into butter chicken, biryani and naan; yes, the restaurant has an Indian cook, thanks to the demands of British tourists. Back at Sultanahmet Square, we see a wilting Gujarati tour group thronging the bhutta vendors, but they’re herded into their bus before we can tell them pure vegetarian food is available just a few steps away.
The Basilica Cistern
By now we’re wilting too, but the next thing we see would perk up the most jaded sightseer. Buried deep beneath the ground, just off Sultanahmet Square, is an extraordinary feat of Roman engineering: the Basilica Cistern, built in the sixth century AD, its cavernous expanse able to hold 80,000 cubic feet of water to keep Constantinople’s taps and fountains running. The Ottomans were unaware of its existence until a Frenchman in the entourage of Suleiman the Magnificent saw people living in the houses built over the Cistern drawing up water, even fish, through holes they had cut in their basements. Now beautifully restored, its vaulted ceiling held up by over 300 columns, you can explore its subterranean depths on walkways built over the water. Relics of the city’s past continue to be unearthed. Recently, excavations for Istanbul’s metro line uncovered the remains of a pre-Roman harbour, complete with 90 shipwrecks — victims, perhaps, of a tsunami that struck 2,500 years ago.
As dusk falls, we head towards Istiklal Caddesi, the long, pedestrianised thoroughfare where Istancool congregates. Once a neighbourhood colonised by Istanbul’s European residents, Istiklal and its side streets are lined with the grand façades of palaces built by the British, French, Dutch and Italians to house their embassies to the Ottoman court, now reduced to consulates or cultural centres. In between them are glittering shop fronts, trendy bars and eateries with some intriguing items on offer: lady’s thighs, virgin lips and harem navels — artfully shaped koftas and pastries, invented in the kitchens of Topkapi Palace to feed the fantasies of bored princelings.
An aura of intrigue still hangs over the jewel-like rooms in the harem section of Topkapi, where from the mid-16th century onwards, a series of ruthlessly ambitious valide sultans (queen mothers) were often the real power behind the Ottoman throne. Among them were the Ukrainian-born Roxelana and the Italian-born Nur Banu, who had rival princes slaughtered to ensure their own sons succeeded to the throne. Among the opulent jewels on display in the Treasury is the 86-carat ‘Spoonmaker’s Diamond’, so named because a sweeper found it among garbage in the Grand Bazaar and, believing it to be an interesting piece of glass, exchanged it with the spoonmaker for three silver spoons.
The Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar, a sprawling labyrinth of alleys, is the sort of place where you might still stumble upon hidden treasure amidst the Byzantine icons and gold jewellery. There are carpets and copper pots, ceramics and calligraphy, old books and miniatures, attars and spices, spilling out from over 4,000 shops. We had to tear ourselves away to watch a belly-dancing show lined up for us by the conscientious Murat. On a harem-like stage bathed in dim red and purple light, the belly dancer dutifully goes through her gyrations, 12-pack abs rippling and quivering. But the real Thousand and One Nights ambience had been left behind at the bazaar.
On our last day in Istanbul, we take a leisurely boat trip on the Bosphorus. Between the deep blue of the sea and the bright blue of the sky, the magical skyline takes shape, as do the layers of its history. Domes and minarets; crenellated medieval castles and opulent Turco-Baroque palaces; tiny fishing villages and elegant yaalis (wooden waterfront mansions); Europe on one shore, Asia on the other — the city that bridges epochs and cultures and continents. It’s true, the travel writer’s clichè: you cannot go to Istanbul without falling under its spell forever.
An hour’s flight to Kayseri the next morning takes us to the fantasyland of Cappadocia in the Anatolian Plateau. It’s one of those Ten Places to See Before You Die, with its eerily eroded landscape, underground cities, cave houses and rock-cut churches. Volcanoes that erupted 30 million years ago have created this unearthly landscape. Over the millennia, the volcanic ash that covered the land became compressed into a soft tuff which, in a process that is still going on, is eroded by rain and wind into cones, columns and canyons. Often, a harder piece of basalt rock remains balanced on top of the tuff cone to form what the Turks call Fairy Chimneys.
Legacies of successive civilisations live on in Cappadocia, as in Istanbul — pottery is still made with clay from the Red River, as it was by the Hittites who lived here in 2000 BC; the region’s wine-making tradition dates from the same epoch; and ancient cave houses are still in use for storing citrus fruit through the winter.
Derinkuyu and Göreme
Two musts in Cappadocia are the World Heritage Sites of Derinkuyu and Göreme. Derinkuyu is the best preserved of several underground cities dating back to the Hittite era, built to provide refuge to about 20,000 people during invasions. Descend 60 metres underground (unless you suffer from claustrophobia) to explore its warren of bedrooms, community halls, kitchens and stables, secured by impregnable round stone doors that can only be opened by those inside. The ventilation shafts waft in fresh air even at this depth. The Göreme Open Air Museum, a cluster of churches and monks’ cells hollowed out of the tuff, dates from about the ninth century AD, when this was a great centre of Christianity.
As I wait in a long queue to enter a chapel with beautiful Byzantine frescoes, the guard at the ticket counter spots me. “Indian? Original Indian?” he asks, and breaks into song. Finally, my Raj Kapoor-Awara Hoon moment in Turkey… One more must in Cappadocia: a hot-air balloon flight might be a travel-poster platitude, but it really is a magical experience to watch the sunrise as you float over Cappadocia’s fantastically sculpted valleys, skimming the tops of Fairy Chimneys.
After two nights in Cappadocia, we are on a six-hour road journey over the Taurus mountains to the Mediterranean resort of Antalya-Belek, stopping en route at Konya to see the tomb of Rumi, its conical, fluted green dome dominating the city skyline. At the Mevlana Museum within the tomb complex (in Turkey, Rumi is called Mevlana), in a circular hall where dervishes used to whirl, you can see the original manuscript of Rumi’s Masnavi. Busloads of devout Turkish villagers and Sufi pilgrims from all over the world throng the courtyard outside, among them a mournful-looking London-based Gujarati girl who’s come here for the third year running “to pray for a husband”.
Thanks to Murat’s strict time management, in five packed days, we’ve managed to sample the cosmopolitan sophistication and historic riches of Istanbul, the natural wonders of Cappadocia and the fervent spiritual atmosphere of Konya. Now, in the 36 hours that remain, he wants us to experience Hedonistic Turkey.
We arrive at the seaside resort of Antalya-Belek to find hordes of Russians and Germans hard at work doing just that. When they’re not worshipping sun ’n’ sand by the deep blue sea, they’re navigating the smooth green sea of impeccably manicured golf courses, or gorging on seafood. But there’s a lot more to Antalya. We make short excursions to see the stupendous Roman amphitheatre at Aspendos (second century AD), where opera and ballet are staged in summer; and to explore Antalya’s charming old harbour of Kaleici, with its old Greek and Ottoman houses, its magnificent 13th-century Seljuk minaret and mosque, and its great Roman arch built in honour of the Emperor Hadrian. You can still see the wheel ruts of Roman chariots on the pavement below the arch.
On our last evening, cheered on by Murat, we shed our inhibitions and our clothes and indulge in the ultimate sybaritic Turkish experience—the hammam. Like everything else we’ve seen, tasted and experienced during our seven days in Turkey, it is deeply addictive…. Rewind to Day One and play it again, Murat, at slow speed.
Istanbul: Several airlikes like Etihad and Turkish Airlines run direct flights to Istanbul from Delhi and Mumbai.
Antalya: Plenty of coaches and dolmuses go from Cappadocia to Antalya via Konya.
The city is well served by public transport options such as buses, metrobuses, subway trains, trams, funiculars, ferries, and seataxis. You can pay and use almost all of them via a single payment system, the Istanbulkart. You can buy it at newspaper stands, and ticket booths, special vending machines or manned kiosks at busy city areas like Taksim, Sultanahmet Square, the ferry terminus at Eminonu or the intercity bus station at Esenler. You can use them on buses, trams, metro and ferry, and the fare is automatically deducted when you slide your pass through the ticket machine.
The quickest way of getting around the city’s traffic-choked streets is by tram. The main tramline has stops at most major tourist sights and service is at about five-minute intervals. If you don’t have a pass, buy a jeton (token) at the booth.
A more pleasant way to get around — to explore waterfront areas like Ortakoy, to cross the Golden Horn (the estuary that cuts through European Istanbul) or go to Asian Istanbul — is by ferry, from the terminus at Eminonu, where boats depart at about 20-minute intervals.
Cappadocia Dolmuses and public buses connect all villages, towns and tourist sites in Cappadocia. Your hotel is best placed to advise you on schedules and fares, or on renting a car.
Antalya Taxis can be quite expensive here, given the large distances. But dolmuses and trams connect the city well.
What To See and Do
Istanbul For a sumptuous hammam experience, head to the 270-year-old Cagaloglu baths, which is walking distance from Sultanahmet Square. Prominent visitors to its opulent marble chambers include Florence Nightingale and Cameron Diaz. There are separate sections for men and women. In other, less luxurious hammams, men are given a cotton towel to wrap around their waist, but women aren’t, so take a swimsuit if you’re shy about sitting around nude.
Take the ferry to Ortakoy, and sit at a quayside bar or café on the Iskele Meydani Square with its charming village-like atmosphere. The square, dotted with craft shops and fish restaurants, is flanked by the pretty baroque-style Mecidiye Mosque jutting out on the waterfront, and the Bosphorus Bridge. A lively street market springs up here on Sundays.
The Galata Tower, whose conical roof dominates the skyline in the Beyoglu neighbourhood, was built by the Genoese in 1348. Take the lift to the top of the tower for a breathtaking panoramic view of Istanbul’s main monuments. You can walk here from Istiklal Caddesi.
Spend a couple of hours exploring the Eminonu neighbourhood. The 16th-century Rustem Pasha Mosque, built by the great Christian-born Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, is a little jewel, its walls covered with the very finest examples of Iznik tile work, in both floral and abstract patterns. Above it looms the magnificent silhouette of Sinan’s masterpiece, the Sulemaniye Mosque, where his patron, Suleiman the Magnificent, is buried. Closer to the waterfront is the fascinating Spice Bazaar (Misr Carsisi), built in the early 17th century. Dried fruit, nuts, honey, spices, coffee, caviar, cheese and confectionery are on sale, as well as kitchen utensils and caged songbirds.
Cappadocia Avanos on the Kizilirmak (Red River), with its handsome stone houses, is a thriving crafts centre for Hittite-style pottery and Ottoman-style ceramics and tiles.
About 5km from Avanos is Saruhan, an impressive Seljuk-period (12th century) caravanserai, with magnificent stone carving (the Seljuks ruled Anatolia, with their capital at Konya, from the 11th to the 13th centuries). The hypnotic and moving Sema ceremony of the Whirling Dervish Sufi order, founded by Rumi, is held in the caravanserai every night. Zelve has a veritable forest of spectacular Fairy Chimneys and honeycombed cliffs housing the ruins of an old Byzantine monastery.
You can watch Anatolian carpets being woven (they’re tied with the famous Gordian knot, which makes them much stronger than Persian carpets) and wine being made at Ürgüp. Try the pleasant local red wine, Kaleci Kalesi.
Take a hot-air balloon flight over Cappadocia witha skilled and experienced pilot.
Antalya Do not miss the Antalya Archaeological Museum. Among its many treasures is a spectacular collection of Roman marble sculptures and friezes, many excavated from nearby sites like Perge. You can see impressive Roman remains in situ at Side, 70km from Antalya, where Antony and Cleopatra used to tryst on the beach.
What To Buy
Hazelnuts (findik), pistachio and fragrant apple tea from the Spice Bazaar, as well as the excellent olive oil soap sold there. Also pick up a bottle of tangy sweet-sour pomegranate molasses (naar eksisi), which adds a fantastic zip to salads and curries.
Carpets and ceramics are Turkey’s most famous art forms, and there are plenty of both available at the Grand Bazaar. If you see something you really want, offer to pay about half the price first quoted and bargain hard, but with good humour. The Pasabahce Glassworks, established in the 19th century, continues to flourish, producing exquisite Ottoman-style chasm-i-bulbul vases and bowls as well as superbly elegant modern glassware. Their main showroom is at 150A Istiklal Caddesi, with outlets at malls and department stores. Also look out for the excellent Turkish Angora white wine at the airport duty-free shop.
When To Go
Istanbul The peak tourist season is July/ August, but Istanbul can be uncomfortably warm and humid then, tourist spots overcrowded and hotel discounts hard to come by. Spring (April-June) and autumn (September- mid-November) are best; winters are cold and wet.
Cappadocia Spring and autumn are the best seasons. The rocky land radiates scorching heat in summer and winters are freezing.
Antalya This is a year-round destination. Summer is best for the beach, but winters are mild and balmy, and an added attraction is skiing in the Taurus Mountains just an hour away.
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