Istanbul: the city that never sleeps

 

Zipping and zigzagging in taxi through a moody labyrinth of backstreets in the Taskim and Beyoglu districts was a speedy and exhilarating re-introduction to Istanbul. Mike and I had visited as fresh-faced 21 year olds more than a decade before and at the time had stayed in a hostel in the touristy Sultanahmet district (as you do). Yet on researching via the trusty Lonely Planet, this time we opted for modern day Istanbul‘s Beyoglu neighbourhood, across the Golden Horn on the European side and where the city’s next generation prefers to reside.

Istiklal Caddesi was the pedestrian shopping stroll that runs downhill from Taskim to Tunel Square. An endless river of people and faces, the boulevard pulsated all hours of the day and night, and its iconic red tram somehow managed to part the sea of bodies as it plied to and from Taskim Square.

Mama Shelter Istanbul was the latest in a growing chain of new age hotels (also in Paris, Marseille, Lyon and Bordeaux) catering to the emerging discerning independent and business travellers. Ranging in price from 69 euro for a single-bed room to 149 euro for a double deluxe terrace – when each accommodation offering morphs into the next, this stylish yet fun loving and affordable establishment stood out in the crowd.

Conveniently located a stones’ throw from Istiklal, contemporary Mama Shelter is not yet a year old. It oozed cool and exuberance through its slick reception area, indoor brasserie and expansive rooftop bar overlooking Istanbul’s mosque minaret-accented skyline. The rooms were small yet bright, white and super functional, and the fluffy queen bed was the kind of blissful comfort you wish you could replicate at home. Our sunny double terrace, a corner room on the highest (sixth) floor, was perfect for morning coffees or sunset beers.  Where we could toast Mike’s birthday, our first wedding anniversary and reflect on the surreal last eight months at sea. Though our favourite feature of Mama Shelter must go to the gracious and cheerful young gents behind reception. Their welcoming and personal service was refreshing and an invaluable asset to the hotel.

Mama loves you!

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The sheer offering of historical and religious monuments in this great city are astounding and you need more than just a few days to do it justice. Most key sights are conveniently located within the Sultanahmet district on the European side of the Bosphorus. To get there, we crossed the Galata Bridge lined with local fisherman trying their luck in the murky Golden Horn waters far below, ate customary fish sandwiches from the boats bobbing alongside Eminonu wharf and passed all manner of street stall hawkers selling BBQ corn, BBQ chestnuts, fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice and genuine fake watches.

Built in the 1600s to rival is grand neighbour, the Sultan Ahme Camii – or more famously, the Blue Mosque – stills functioned as a daily place of worship despite the long line of tourists that filed through the viewing area. In respect of the religion and culture, female visitors must cover their head, chest and legs (scarves provided if needed) and all shoes removed.

Across the sprawling gardens, the somewhat haphazard additions and extensions to the landmark Aya Sofya monument (or Hagia Sophia) tell a story of a dramatic and volatile history. It was originally constructed in 537 AD as the world’s grandest Christian church, until the Ottoman conquest in 1453 when the Greek Orthodox Church was converted to a mosque. With incredible foresight Ataturk, the first president and eternal father of Turkey, had Aya Sofya declared as a museum and today elements and symbols of Allah and Islam sit alongside images of Christ, the Virgin Mary and his Saints. Intricate Christian mosaics that were once plastered over and hidden from view when converted to a mosque had been painstakingly chipped away to reveal the original intentions and were a testament to Istanbul’s remarkable past. Walking into the awe-inspiring building with its towering, seemingly unsupported dome roof and elaborate decorations was one of those wondrous moments that truly takes your breath away.

Seven Hills was a rooftop restaurant perched between, yet just downhill of both the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya. It was the perfect spot to be precisely at the time of the call to prayer when the broadcast hymn to Allah bounced effortlessly back and forth between the two towering edifices. This goose-bump inducing daily custom will forever remind us of our Turkey visits. Disappointingly our mid-October visit to Istanbul coincided with the national weeklong religious holiday Kurban Bayrami – or Feast of the Sacrifice. Most commercial districts, including the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar, were completely closed. Fortunately we experienced both markets on our previous visit, although they had been a highlight and we missed the opportunity for photographs and some hard haggling for souvenirs that we’d been holding out to buy. Probably a blessing in disguise given there was barely a spare square inch left in our loaded luggage!
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We simply loved Istanbul the second time around and understand the city had rejuvenated and progressed significantly in the past decade.

While densely developed there was still little in the way of high-rise construction, and with a growing number of rooftop bars and restaurants, it was easy to get elevated above the rooftops and admire evening Istanbul’s dusty pink-red city skyline. Popular restaurant 360 was one such stop for metropolitan vistas with your cocktail, and Leb-i Derya just off Istiklal came highly recommended by Mama Shelter for our joint birthday-first wedding anniversary celebratory dinner. This stylish, moody rooftop venue dished up tasty share plates, both international and contemporary Turkish mains and smooth cocktails overlooking the twinkling lights of the city and its illuminated minarets. We couldn’t have been any further from Fiji where we wed that same time last year, but were thankful to share another milestone in a memorable location.

Sidestepping north off the main Istiklal thoroughfare quickly immersed us in the crowded and electric Nevizade Sokak eating precinct. Crammed with simple restaurants and meyhanes (tavernas), we could barely take more than five steps without an attempt made to usher us to the first vacant table. And once seated, we could almost reach across the narrow laneways to the adjacent restaurant. Go for the atmosphere, not the food. If there was still energy for shopping – buy from fruit, spice or fish market vendors open well into the night. Or for a nightcap with the locals, visit Beyoglu’s cay (tea) gardens crowded with students and young professionals chain smoking cigarettes and ordering endless cups of cay served in hourglass-shaped cups made of glass. This was sensory overload at its peak. And as the Lonely Planet accurately stated: “simply put, if you miss Beyoglu, you haven’t seen Istanbul.”

The final stop on this short visit was fittingly a Beyoglu tattoo parlour for Mike to collect two small, yet lifelong souvenirs of both our Mediterranean summer escapade and a new nautical bond that we realise is now firmly planted in our short and long term futures in one capacity or another. Let’s just say we already know what we are dreaming to do with our own retirements!

Istanbul – another for your must visit list.

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