The prospect of a day’s wandering around Istanbul is something to set the heart racing. Approaching from the sea, your initial romantic vista of Islamic spires and domed promise gets grittier as you get closer; and that basically sums up Istanbul – gritty romanticism. Mrs Chrisparkle and I enjoyed a week’s holiday there in 1999 so it would be interesting to see to what extent, if at all, it had changed over the thirteen years. Well, some aspects had changed a lot, and others have stayed the same, and both are for the better. My memory from the 90s of the areas round the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofya is one of rather murky seediness; and if you went to a restaurant in the tourist areas you would get 100% ripped off mercilessly. It would be done with charm and a smile, but boy would your pocket feel it.
I am happy to report that the Sultanahmet district where the major sights are located seems to be much better laid out, with more pedestrianised areas, it’s much cleaner and much smarter; and fearing a rip-off it was with great trepidation that we took lunch at an open air restaurant close to the Blue Mosque – regrettably I do not have its name – but it was a lovely civilised lunch with omelettes and tea and salads and chicken and all sorts of nice things – and it was incredibly cheap. I was amazed there was no attempt to sneakily extort some extra cash out of us. What hasn’t changed is the indomitable cheeky spirit of the Istanbul traders, who spin eloquent and complex stories to convince you they’re your best friend in order to get you into their shop or restaurant; it’s very good-hearted and sometimes extremely funny. So if you get approached in that way just smile and chat back and if you don’t want to do trade with them, simply refuse in your friendliest, most polite manner, whilst still enjoying the banter.
But I’m ahead of myself. Our ship docked north of the Golden Horn so we decided to take the tram at Tophane stop. The tram is a really easy, quick and safe way to get around town. You need to have two one lira coins to travel – you simply insert them into a turnstile machine and it lets you in. Then you can do whatever journey you like. We got off at Sultanahmet because it’s halfway between the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofya, two places we were determined to visit; and also close to the Basilica Cistern.
Smilingly refusing offers of guides, we approached the Blue Mosque. It’s a huge complex, built in 1616 to intimidate the Christian Aya Sofya church at the other end of the park. Outside it’s grand and imposing, if austere and grey. Once you go inside, the colours are magical. The ceiling domes are lively and covered with brilliant patterns, the carpets are a vivid red, and of course it boasts those beautiful blue Iznik tiles that give the mosque its commonly known name (really it’s the Sultan Ahmet Camii Mosque). You can wander fairly freely all over the place and visitors are welcomed. It’s one of the highlights of the Islamic Architectural World.
To break up seeing two big religious buildings consecutively we thought we’d next head for the Basilica Cistern. Originally a vast underground storage tank, it was built by Constantine in the 6th century. We remembered this very fondly from our 1999 visit. It can be very hard to locate because it’s completely anonymous and undistinguished from outside. In fact your best bet will be to find the bunch of tourists looking lost and confusedly holding maps upside down and it will be a small door nearby. Once you find it, you get plunged into darkness, down some narrow tricky steps, but eventually you get into the basement. There 336 individual pillars greet you, with lights at the bottom of each of which gently illuminate the whole pool and it’s an amazing sight. You can walk around, and see it from different angles, and simply allow it to take your breath away. The upside down Medusa heads are entertaining; that way round, according to legend, because the builder wasn’t paid and he took suitable revenge. Never swindle a tradesman. You can understand why they use the place as a film location – its atmosphere is a mixture of calm and spooky, and strangely joyous. There’s even a neon-lit café near the exit which looks completely incongruous.
Emerging slowly into the light we were a little peckish so we took our small picnic of stuff nicked from the ship’s buffet into the nearby park area and had a short rest. We gently ignored the chap who tried unsuccessfully to convince us he was a student at Cambridge University studying ceramics, who wanted us to visit his shop. I’m not sure Cambridge has a school of ceramics. Then it was time to join the crowds trying to get into the Aya Sofya. Unlike the Blue Mosque, where you can get in for free with no queueing, the Aya Sofya has an entrance fee and a long line. If you choose to engage the services of a guide you will avoid the queue – it’s up to you. We preferred to rely on our trusty guidebook and remain independent. Aya Sofya was inaugurated in 537 and was a major site of Christian worship until it became a mosque in 1453. It was deconsecrated in 1934 and has been a museum ever since. It’s a wonderful place, luscious on a grand scale with just as much to thrill you on the upper floor as on the ground floor. Blues and golds adorn the inside, with fantastic columns and domes, and the eye-catching Islamic calligraphic roundels that dominate the view. Not only do you have the traditional mosque features to enjoy like the mithrab and minbar, there are also the superb Orthodox mosaics. The dark, wide ramp which leads you upstairs also looks as though it has seen some history. You can spend an easy hour wandering round, and there are loads of photo opportunities. It’s got to be one of my favourite tourist sights anywhere in the world.
Outside, we had a brief chat with a nice chap who assured me was studying hard at Oxford University but just this week was temporarily assigned to directing tourists to his brother’s carpet shop. Because he made me laugh I will give his website a plug. Then it was time to take a look at the other open air sights of the area. Alongside the Blue Mosque is the At Meydani or Hippodrome, the original Byzantine chariot racetrack. There’s not much left to give you an impression of racing champs, but it still boasts the Egyptian Obelisk, transported from Luxor, the Serpentine Column from Delphi and the Column of Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, and they’re all worth a look. The four bronze horses that originally decorated the stadium now stand guard over St Mark’s in Venice.
A couple of stops on the tram take you to Beyazit, which is perfect for the Grand Bazaar. Even if you don’t want to do any shopping, you just have to go to the Grand Bazaar. It’s a vast complex of narrow alleys and streets, all undercover, and every trade you can imagine is represented there. Souvenirs of course are everywhere, but there are also high quality jewellery outlets, clothing stores, carpet warehouses and numerous other places. The cheeky cheerfulness of the traders is unmatchable, and you’ll engage in all sorts of bartering, fibbing, flirting, teasing and joking as you go around comparing prices and quality. Mrs C and Lady Duncansby bought a couple of colourful scarves with which they are very pleased – although Lady D was mortified at the ruthlessness of Mrs C’s bargaining skills – and we also got some Christmas tree decorations, as is our usual habit when travelling abroad. I think we wandered around for about an hour and it was a damn good laugh. It’s quite easy to get lost in there though – you need to keep your wits about you as to whereabouts you are, and you may not leave the bazaar the same place you went in, so be warned!
We did, however, escape via our original entrance, he says smugly, and it was conveniently close to Istanbul University’s main building area to get a feel of the student vibe. There’s a rather grand ornamental archway construction overlooking a park, but behind it are some narrow streets thronging with shops and businesses, populated by students piled high with text books and bearing earnest looks on their faces.
Time wasn’t on our side but I love going round mosques and I did want to have a look at the Suleymaniye Mosque. It’s another huge complex, built in the 1550s and, if anything, it’s a lighter and brighter than the Blue Mosque, although it lacks the latter’s predominance of tiles. It felt like a relaxed, friendly place; and some little kids were having a hoot playing outside where you’re meant to wash your feet. Inside its patterned archways are particularly appealing, and the grounds outside also beg for some gentle strolling if you have the time. Being located high on a hill it offers great views of the city; but that meant we needed to drop down to sea level so we could get a tram from Eminonu back to the ship. This took a little longer than we expected, and resulted in our pace and anxieties stepping up a level as we tried to beat the clock.
Nevertheless it was still interesting to pass by some more commercial districts – areas mainly of wholesale outlets and offices, but also some market stalls too. “Where are you from?” called out one man selling his nuts. “England”, I quickly replied, not having the time for too much badinage. “Ah, Leicester City” he romantically sighed as if referring to his own personal Shangri-la. The narrow streets were thronging with people; the wider streets with cars. Despite our proximity to Sultanahmet, I sensed we were in an area where tourists fear to tread; which made it all the more fascinating. Bright red Turkish flag design bunting hung from lamppost to lamppost. It created a colourful contrast with the grey squares and buildings around. If only we had longer time to linger – but the ship was not going to wait for us. Eventually we located our tram stop – we merely needed to cross about eight lanes of unpredictable heavy traffic to get there. Fortunately Hermes’ winged sandals appeared on our feet and the god of travel saw us safely across. A couple of tram stops and we were within sight of the ship. Our personal fitness regimes paid dividends as we strode briskly on and with minutes to spare we boarded the Magnifica. Dubrovnik was beckoning.