My stronger than ever love affair with the city of three names, over three different visits
True to its tagline from the get go: Where East meets West
Istanbul Ataturk Airport is one of my favourite airports in the world. Not for its comfort level or facilities offered, but for the incredible diversity of people that can be found navigating through its organised madness. While it certainly doesn't follow the organisation level found in most European capitals' airports, it is by no means disorganised for Asian and Middle Eastern airports' standards.
Being a major hub for international flights from all around the globe, the airport represents the city's essence (and commonly used slogan since its Silk Road days) in a nutshell: Where East meets West. It is a people-watching enthusiast's paradise, hence my distinct liking to it - and even the weariest traveller will quickly take notice of its immediate display of multiculturalism, as European backpackers zig zag through the immigration queues among the diverse crowd, ranging from orthodox religious pilgrims to fully clad business men. It felt like a whole decade had gone by, but just about two and half years since my previous visit, I was back in Istanbul in many aspects, my second favourite city in the world.
It was in fact, my third visit to Turkey's cultural and economical capital (the actual capital is Ankara; not a bad place, but certainly not the country's heartbeat), and interestingly enough, it would be an entirely different way of experiencing it than the previous two visits.
Love at first sight, even on the "beaten track"
My first visit to Istanbul was back in 2007, when I did the most common tourist activities along with my partner at the time. It was also my first time into a predominantly Islamic country, so everything felt beyond exotic and new. Waking up with the call for prayer at 5 AM was a joy back then.
Most of our time was spent in the Sultanahmet area and we experienced the Istanbul most people experience, visiting the many outstanding sights and putting our bargaining skills to the test at the Grand Bazaar. Visiting all major sights such ad The Old Hippodrome, The Blue Mosque, The Aya Sophia and the Cistern complex were all a part of our itinerary, finished off by celebrating New Year's eve right on Taksim Square. I absolutely loved it then, but it was only in my second visit that I would get to know the real Istanbul.
The real Istanbul, entirely off the beaten track
It was in the second half of 2011, only a mere six months into my 2.5 year long trip around the world, that a truck driver had dropped me off at the highway that linked Ankara and Istanbul. I had been hitch hiking since Armenia, through Georgia then all across Turkey. I had been in Turkey for nearly a month. With a much deeper understanding of the country's past and current situation, I made my way into the busy city centre.
This time around, my experience was as different as it could have been. I stayed with locals, and everything about my visit followed what local Istanbulians did in their everyday lives. I enjoyed the city's amazing nightlife; navigating through the many bars and clubs throughout the jam-packed alleyways around Istiklal Cadessi.
I visited Art galleries and went grocery shopping in local markets in the Asian side, using commuter ferries to cross into Kadikoy. I enjoyed a whole lot of doing nothing and people watched, while sipping authentic Turkish coffee in Ukudar or drinking pomegranate juice while walking along Bebek's promenade.
I can't say that it was a better visit than the first, for it was only a possibility due to having already visited most of the amazing sights Istanbul has to offer, but I was exposed to an entirely new side of the city that certainly contributed to my making it a city so close to my heart.
The third visit: Trying to mix the best of both worlds with a greater understanding of the city but very limited time
This time around though, all would be very different. I would be accompanied by my mother, who is fairly well travelled, but had never been to Asia or to the Middle East, and although extremely fit, the pace of our visit would have to be taken into consideration. To make things yet harder, we would only have two full days! How could I show her the best of my beloved Istanbul and all its incredible sights, neighbourhoods and markets while giving her a bit of a local taste of it as well? I had to plan well ahead to try and optimise our time, and to compromise on a couple of things.
We picked a hotel in Sultanahmet. Although it is an amazing part of town, it is lined up with tourists all day long, which I tend to find exhausting. But its convenience and atmosphere (perfect for a first time visitor) made it all worth it. I had planned to spend the entire first day going through the must-see sights, and hopefully cross into the city's centre the next day, hoping to even make it to the Asian side. Now I see that it was a bit ambitious, but we did very well overall.
We had no time for local transportation, so a taxi driver took us directly into Sultanahmet. I could already see mum was intrigued by the mix of people she saw at the airport. I loved it. She was in for a treat so much larger than she could have imagined!
We dropped off our suitcases in our room and walked straight into the Sultanahmet Square, by the Old Hippodrome. Observing her jaw drop at the sight of The Blue Mosque and Aya Sophia filled my heart with joy. After having spent sometime inside the mosque, having properly covered her hair, she came out in astonishment, mentioning she could have spent the entire day there, just observing it and feeling the atmosphere. As Aya Sophia wouldn't open until the next day, we walked around the area a bit more, and I recommended her to spend at least a few hours at the Top Kapi Palace, while I strolled around, reminiscing the good times and memories from my past visits.
Everything, as always, took longer than I had expected. Going from A to B around the cobblestoned narrow streets of Istanbul's Historical centre comes with the great obstacle of not stopping at every second shop to admire the many amazing articles for sale! I told her she would have all that at a much larger scale the following day at the Bazaar, in my continuous effort to maximise time.
Later on, back at the main square, we continued to admire the architecture, beautifully lit, before heading back to the hotel.
We reached Aya Sophia as soon as it opened, but the queue was already rather long. I always referred to it as one of my favourite buildings in the world. I remembered the inside being absolutely stunning, with beautiful displays of Islamic art, and although that was still the same, the atmosphere was SO different than what it was like in 2007; when I had the place nearly to myself. Beautiful nevertheless, but the crowds certainly took some of the experience away.
It was shopping time. I had told mum that first I'd take her to the Grand Bazaar, and that although it would be fantastic, she shouldn't see it as a true Bazaar or shop there too much, for no Turkish person would shop there with its made-for-tourists prices. It would be amazing and that she would fall in love with many things, but later on, we would walk down through a more authentic local Bazaar that would finish at the Spices Bazaar (also known as the Egyptian Bazaar) - a mix of both.
Her reaction inside the Grand Bazaar was priceless. Like a child in a massive sweet shop. And it only got better as we continued walking down towards the Egyptian Bazaar, from where the stunning Sulemany Mosque could be admired. Carrying a fair share of Turkish delight boxes and scarves, we crossed the Galata Bridge on foot, admiring the view of the Bosphorus, heading towards the Galata tower. We continued to walk towards Taksim Square and spent the rest of the afternoon in Beyoglu, walking through its busy streets; a very European sort of atmosphere. We both felt like we were in a land entirely different to where we had been just over two hours ago, as we shopped for dried fruits and nuts surrounded by conservatively dressed locals.
We had to be back at the airport by 8 PM, and knew we were running out of time, so we decided to spend our last few Turkish Lyras treating ourselves to coffee in one of the many terraced restaurants at Sultanahmet square. It was the perfect way to close a short, but intense and wonderful trip to one of the world's greatest cities. The view was outstanding, and just after sunset, the synchronised call for prayer coming from both the Aya Sophia and the Blue Mosque filled my heart with an odd and rare feeling, that I’ve only ever felt while travelling, and in a few, very special places: a mixture of awe, melancholy and gratitude.
I was thrilled to have shared that moment with my mother and hoped that she would join me again in one of my many future trips to Istanbul, because my thirst for this wondrous city is never-ending.