Istanbul (not Constantinople)

Anyone know that song from the 50’s?
Istanbul was Constantinople
Now it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople
Been a long time gone, Constantinople
Why did Constantinople get the works?
That’s nobody’s business but the Turks

It was a track on my Mum’s LP (vinyl) record “K-Tel’s Hits of the Fifties.” Last week on holiday the lyrics kept running through my head, and now after absorbing some of the history of the place I know more about how Constantinople came to be wonderful, beautiful Istanbul. Coming from seemingly never-ending cold weather in Paris it was as if we had flown there on a magic carpet, arriving to 24-degree sunshine and masses and masses of tulips in full bloom en route from the airport to our hotel. I just want to mention it – Hotel Berce – a little boutique hotel less than 5 minutes stroll from the Blue Mosque and Haghia Sophia, which turned out to be an absolute treasure mainly because of the lovely staff. On the morning we were to be picked up at 6.30am by the tour bus to go to Gallipoli the night manager arrived with a breakfast tray for us at 6am so we didn’t go hungry, great service. Breakfast in the rooftop terrace dining room each morning was a wonderful start to the day with views across the harbour and delicious food.

There were so many highlights to this holiday – I’ll start with food. From “meze” plates for starters to tasty meat shish sticks, and divine sweet treats of baklava, kadayif, Turkish delight, dried fruits and nuts, everything on offer tantalised our taste buds. All healthy though – well maybe not the baklava entirely. (You know, a moment on your lips – a lifetime on your hips.)

Next, right up there on the heavenly bliss scale was the visit to the Turkish Bath house near our hotel. I was a little anxious at first as to how seemly this might be, but the friendly proprietor showed us through the bath house and explained the drill, all seemed genuine and proper so later in the day we paid up for our full package of 20-min heat up, followed by scrubbing, soaping, relaxing and massaging. I did chuckle at how much like a prize heifer I was, being scrubbed up ready for the A&P show, but oh my, it was wonderful. I could get used to that. There seemed to be a full house when we were there, mostly tourists from the nearby hotels and backpackers hostel. I discovered later it had some poor reviews on Trip Advisor, but our experience was great.

The big attraction of Istanbul is the rich history of the city. Its location at the marine crossroads of Asia and Europe meant it has always been strategically important to powerful empires from antiquity to the 20th century. We paced ourselves visiting the Blue Mosque, the Haghia Sophia, Suleymaneyi Mosque and Topkapi Palace, (amongst others) taking in the sights and trying to grasp just how long ago these magnificent structures were constructed as symbols of power and wealth in ancient civilisations. Always the accounts of their history are fascinating and sometimes horrifying. The Topkapi Palace, residence of the ruling Sultans (the Ottoman Empire) from mid 15th century until the last Sultan built a new palace in 1856, is like something out of an exotic fairytale with its Harem apartments and treasury etc. It can’t have been a fairytale for all those who lived there though – the history reads more like an opulent hotbed of scheming power-plays in a ruthless hierarchical society. Outside the gardens are as ornate as the decorative tiles on the inside. With spring so well advanced we got the full impact of huge beds of fragrant hyacinths in full bloom.

In between seeing the historical sights we visited the Spice Bazaar and the Grand Bazaar – a shoppers paradise or nightmare – so much temptation, what to choose. My guide book said “everyday as many as 30,000 traders in 4,500 shops befriend and haggle with up to 400,000 shoppers”. That is so right – the sellers are very friendly, and yes some of that is the sales pitch but far more felt genuine, and you do have to haggle. I haven’t told you yet about our carpet buying experience – that’s another whole fun-filled, and tea-filled, experience that I’ll write about soon.

We loved Istanbul – especially the people. Everyone we encountered was very welcoming and friendly; they recognised NZers as Kiwis and would launch into kia oras and tell us some connection they had with NZ. We made friends with the Kebab salon waiter after lunch there 2 days in a row, the people in the Iznik tile gallery, the hotel owner and manager, and many others. I’d love to visit again.


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