I spent a really enjoyable 3 days in Istanbul recently and would definitely recommend a visit for anyone interested in learning about the incredibly rich history in this multi-cultural and multi-dimensional city of the world. The people are really nice, the food is so tasty and sweet and if you like bustling streets, this is for you.
What’s to like
People, history, mix of cultures, tolerance, women’s rights, fresh bread, fresh fruit, kebap meat, old buildings, nice prices, Turkish delights, airline.
What’s not to like
Traffic, street dogs, rubbish, role of women, government authority, raki, crazy driving
Istanbul is one of the oldest cities in the world. It straddles two continents, Europe and Asia; it is known by two historic names, Constantinople and now Istanbul; it’s a melting pot of two cultures, Eastern and Western; two religions, Christian and Muslim, but one country, Turkey. I was there for 3 days with work, visiting the biggest hardware manufacturer in Turkey, Casper.
It was great getting a direct flight from Dublin, 4 hours to Istanbul. Turkish Airlines were really impressive – cheap fares, friendly service, seat back screens in economy, real cutlery for the meal, complimentary newspapers. The taxi ride from the airport was fun, four of us squeezed into a small yellow Fiat and plunged into rush hour traffic. When we hit a bumper to bumper queue, our driver did a u-ey and started driving against the oncoming traffic, dodging buses, cars and the odd truck. We weaved our way back up the off ramp and finally got back to driving with the traffic flow. Not to mind the fact we could only find one seatbelt between the three of us!
our driver did a u-ey and started driving against the oncoming traffic
The hotel was sweet – the Ritz Carlton was recommended to us by our Turkish colleagues. It’s a five star hotel, with lots of security and staff swanning around even before you arrive at reception. I was lucky to get an upgrade to the Club Lounge on the 12th floor, which meant I had free unlimited access to the lounge with beautifully fresh food and a full bar (champagne, whiskey, wine, beer, spirits) – just help yourself. All with beautiful views of the Bosporus and city beneath. Pity I didn’t really get to enjoy it, as we were out for dinner or out visiting our partner the next day.
The other main benefit I read in the welcome letter was that I could have taken a Fiat 500 for a complimentary drive around the city. Given the way they drive here, where lanes or indicators meant squat, I stuck to walking.
Running is my favourite way of discovering a city. The freedom to run around and explore the streets is so much faster and efficient than walking or taking a bus. You can soak up the sights, sounds, hills, shops, traffic, buildings – you end up with so many questions: what is that old building? What is behind that wall? What does that sign mean? How far is it to the other side of the river?
My goal for the run was to attempt a trans-continental run.
My goal for the run was to attempt a trans-continental run. I looked at the map and realised I could cross the Bosporus Straits from Europe to Asia if I crossed one of the big bridges. So I ran down to the river, past the big hole which is the building site of the new Besiktas stadium. I ran past ferry stops, bus stops, lots of security guards and walled buildings, plus police with machine guns, water cannons and Alsatian dogs. I didn’t stop to chat, I was just hoping the dogs wouldn’t bark.
Running to Asia, all before 8am was a bit optimistic, as the bridge was huge and I couldn’t get up onto the ramp. After running back along the same route, I met the team for breakfast (Turkish bread is really fresh and the juices are great), we got picked up and headed out to the customer HQ, Casper. It was a long day of meetings, but very interesting to hear how they are the #1 PC and laptop manufacturer in Turkey and the main brand you see in retail stores. They are now moving into tablets and smartphones. We got a factory tour which was cool to see the assembly lines and repair centres. A lot more manual than we expected – no mad robots, just lots of young men (no women) in white coats a work stations on the line.
That night, we walked through Taksim Square and were surprised by how busy the streets were. It was like there was the weekend or a big holiday festival. A good buzz on Istiklal Street, but also a lot of poverty and begging. We had a great meal in a local kebab house, Adana Il Siniri, with super mezzes, lovely kebab meat, the local spirit, raki and some sweet baklava. After a few expensive beers in the disco bar in the hotel, it was off to bed.
Dolmabache Palace & Ataturk
Friday I didn’t have to work, so after a relaxing swim and fresh breakfast, I made a list of tourist sights I wanted to see. Close by was the Dolmabache Palace, which was (one of) the homes of the Sultans and Khalifs of the Ottoman Empire. It was hugely impressive, with over 260 rooms, including an amazing grand memorial hall, with the biggest chandelier in Europe and some amazing Baroque style architecture. Very European rather than Eastern but seriously grandiose – gold leaf paint, marble floors and a 100 year old Ericsson phone!
The founder of Turkish Republic was a man called Mustafa Kamal Ataturk
The founder of Turkish Republic, and leader of their revolution which ended the reign of the Sultans and the Ottoman Empire was a man called Mustafa Kamal Ataturk. He did in Dolmabache in 1938 and all the guides spoke of him in reverential terms – it sounded a bit over the top at first but then they listed his achievements and you have to admire what we did: ending the Ottoman Empire, improving rights for women, establishing a democracy, making a secular state where multiple religions can co-exist, changing the language to Latin alphabet and even moving the weekend to Western norms.
The Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii)
Istanbul has 1,000s of mosques so you hear the calls to prayer throughout the day. The biggest mosque is the Blue Mosque, which is visible from many parts of the city due to its prominent location on a hill overlooking the Bosporus, as well as it’s unique design with 6 minarets (apparently, one minaret is standard, two is snazzy and four a big deal, so six was actually a mistake by the architect, unique on this planet). I arrived at night, so got some cool night shots where the lighting really highlights the white stone and colourful lights against the dark blue sky.
Smelly socks is the whiff which hits your nasal passages as you enter
Inside, it has a huge dome and central praying area. In all mosques, you must remove your shoes and women must cover their heads, shoulders and legs, so any cailín showing a bit of flesh is quickly provided with a lovely shawl to cover their extremities. Smelly socks is the whiff which hits your nasal passages as you enter – how many pairs of feet thread the carpet each day I wonder? I think 30,000 people can attend prayers on popular days so that’s a lot of BO!
This mosque had amazing decoration inside, lots of blue tiling giving its name. The main praying area is a huge carpeted space where men kneel, bow, pray to Allah. Women are not allowed in their – they had their own separate hidden area at the back. For a tourist, there was lots of information explaining the mosque and also Islam, which was great to see. I learnt lots and answered some basic questions for me.
Wandering through the streets, you see a kaleidoscope of colour in the shops selling spices, teas and fresh fruit. A photographers and food lovers delight! I found the Grand Bazaar late in the evening, so things were winding down, but it was cool to see the huge array of carpets, watches, handbags, clothes, teapots and other things which you could haggle over. Running short of time, I never got to see the Spice Bazaar.
On my final morning, I spent an incredible few hours in the Hagia Sophia, which really is up there with any large historic building I’ve been in. It’s a basilica, grand mosque and museum all in one! Its origins stretch back to the 5th century, when the Byzantines build a basilica. The decorative art, mosaics and huge dome are all feats to behold. It’s a wonder of the world how they engineered and built such a massive dome using such basic equipment (but lots of manpower & maths brains I guess).
It’s a basilica, grand mosque and museum all in one!
In the middle ages, the Ottomans defeated the Byzantine’s so the Sultan converted this treasure into a mosque, adding minarets, Islamic art and decoration to replace the Christian artefacts. This art is also so impressive, with gold leaf mosaics and painted ceilings. Islamic religion does not permit any physical representation of the prophet Muhammad or Allah, so no paintings but some intricate patterns and colours.
We all know Tramore people all over the world, with 1/3 are in Australia, the other 1/3 in Dublin and the final 1/3 still in Tramore. Not too many are in Istanbul though, so it was fun meeting up with Micky Dunphy and his girlfriend Dee on Friday night. They’re both out there teaching for 6 months – living in Europe, working in Asia. We randomly crashed a Turkish birthday party and must have looked like the friends that nobody invited, but were welcomed, had some cake and met a stand-up comedian who was doing some crazy dances.