Saturday, May 23, 2015

-- Istanbul, not Constantinople (Part 2) --

A marathon of history overload continues in the early morning, as I am being awoken by the morning prayer, loudly breaking through the peaceful streets of Taksim.

The temperature rapidly rises whilst I make my way down the crowded streets surrounding Galata Tower, through the Galata bridge, and steeply climbing away from the Golden Horn almost immediately finding myself lost in the heaving streets surrounding the Grand Bazaar.

A place which proudly sport the name 'Grand' due to its size, compelled into a sheltered combination of dingy yet colourful corridors splattered with countless shops which sell everything from Persian silk to 'Aladdin-like' lamps, groceries and jewellery. A place where the smell of freshly brewed apple tea transport oneself to Ottoman times and fictional chants of bargaining in both Arab and Turkish can be heard.
Bargaining isn't a fantasy here though, and I manage to buy a set of strong Turkish tea glasses (my only souvenir from Turkey) for merely a third of the price first offered.

Only a few street away, the Suleymaniye Mosque reigns over the hills surrounding the Ataturk boulevard, a privileged position over the busy Istanbul skyline and the perfect place to contemplate the grandeur of this 15-million people city, also providing the unique opportunity of overlooking two continents at the same time.

I later enjoy a quick and always practical chicken kebab by the Sultainahmet Esplanade, only to notice the queue, or lack of, around the Hagia Sofia. A perfect opportunity to visit one of the city's highlights without the hassle of the tourists.

The 'Ayia Sofia', completed in the year 537 remains as the solid witness of a complete transformation of, not only Istanbul, but the whole continent.
Over its 1,478 years of history, this pink-coloured building and its 55 meters-height dome served as an Eastern Orthodox church, as well as a Roman Catholic church and an Imperial Mosque, before turning into a Museum in 1935.
Inside this magnificent building, history seems to overlap in an aggressive yet fascinating way, and thousand year-old mosaics dominate the details of solidly crafter arches, covered in gigantic round panels with Qoran scripts on them.

Light timidly penetrates through the round tall windows, creating a sensation of extreme depth (ideal for praying) and exaggerating the golden details of the main altar, slightly tilted to the right in order to accurately point to the Mecca.

The sightseeing has made me hungry, easily beatable with a piece of freshly boiled corn on the cob sitting in the greenery of Gulshain Park. I call a street vendor in order to purchase a small cup of tea to complement the meal.

The young Turkishman rapidly engages into conversation, whilst almost magically prepares the fresh brew and blends it with sugar crystals.
He swiftly briefs me about his background proudly stating that he has graduated from technical college a few years ago. Nevertheless, selling tea in the streets of Istanbul in the mild spring is something that not only provides him with a large income, but it is also an enjoyable experience.

His dark brown eyes fill with passion when talking about Turkish patriotism, solidarity towards the Syrian refugees and Islam, seconds before reaching to his wooden basket and offeriing me a copy of the Qoran as a present.

I return to the hostel to indulge on more tea and some honey-drenched baklavas before, once again, walk across the Golden Horn and up the hill of Suleymaniye Mosque as I watch the sun setting over the East and the city transforming into two large set of bright lights, separated by the mighty Bosphorus.

The night is spent locally, venturing through the dark alleways of Taksim for a night time kebab, some Turkish delight and conversations around the hostel's lounge.

A trip to Istanbul could not be complete without a visit to the Asian side, which is done early in the morning, with the company of a German and two Canadian fellow travellers. A journey completed under turquoise skies, surrounded by a light mist which covers the jellyfish-infested waters of the Bosphorus.
The fifteen-minute cruise takes us to a different city, in which grid-organised wide streets heave with traffic and tramlines.

The Asian side is known for its wealth, an opportunity not to be missed when experiencing the freshness of the produce sold in its fruit market, or the strong aromas of freshly brewed Turkish coffee, carefully not trying to swallow the mud lodged at the bottom of the golden cup.

Once back in Europe, we enjoy a few cans of beers in the gardens of Taksim Square and later return to the hostel. 
The strong sunshine invites for moments of relaxation in the terrace along with the adventurous Swiss girl, to whom Istanbul is merely a stage in her way through locally living in different parts of the continent, the strong-minded Tunisian girl, patiently waiting for her visa to Qatar to be ready, and the crowd of Canadians and German who I shared the day with.
Hours pass by. Prayer calls are heard in the distance. Bits of flat bread, mixed with olives, cheese, ham and sweets are enjoyed, whilst intense conversations in regards of Middle Eastern foreign policy, history and travel anecdotes are shared. The perfect way to enjoy my last hours in the crossroads of the Middle East.

At midnight, I decide to retreat to my bedroom for a couple of hours, leaving the dark dorm some two hours later. 
I walk through dark streets where quietness is only interrupted by the noise of street cats roaming around the place and 24-hour open convenience and kebab shops.

The Havatas bus leaves Taksim almost immediately, speeding through the windy Ataturk boulevard and reaching the international airport some twenty minutes later.
Check in and immigration formalities follow swiftly, no wi-fi is available. A perfect opportunity to relax before the 5-hour return journey to Dublin.

The sun rises over the busy tarmac, unveiling a jungle of red airplane tails and a hazy horizon covered in high-rise buildings.
A rapid Northern departure takes the plane over the beaches of the Black Sea, before flying over Romania and breakfast is served.

A movie and some two comedies later, the classic final approach over Wales is made prior to landing in a sunny Dublin Airport, marking the end of this short yet colourful journey in a city full of surprises, an experience probably best defined by its eclecticism and its richness in culture.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

-- Istanbul, not Constantinople (Part 1) --

In a day when summer seems to have neglected the island of Ireland and, after a morning of lifting weights and stressing some core muscles, I drive to Dublin Airport in order to start my bank holiday getaway.

The large glass terminal windows vibrate whilst the wind and sleet batter against them, a meteorological condition which means that my flight has also been delayed, opportunity to grab a sandwich and wander around a rather overpriced duty free area.

Despite the flight being full, the aircraft looks new, with personal inflight entertainment system sporting some interesting choices for the 4-hour flight ahead, complemented by the attention of smiley cabin crew who offer a piece of Turkish delight right after the Boeing 737 takes off and clear the turbulent Dublin skies.
The day shortens rapidly as we fly East. I watch a movie whilst we are served a tray with chicken kofta, rice and some sort of Turkish dessert before watching the sun setting over the horizon whilst cruising over Romenia, about 90 minutes before starting our descent into Ataturk International Airport.

The descent is made in complete darkness and all the rumours I read about Ataturk Airport materialise, starting with circling the bumpy skies of Istanbul for a while, before receiving clearance for landing and waiting in the tarmac for over 40 minutes in order to get a gate.
At nearly midnight, the light warm drizzle drenches all passengers before being bussed to the main terminal where a long queue awaits in order to be admitted into Turkey.

Some time later, a red stamp is placed in my passport and I am cleared to explore this famously exciting city.
I take the budget Havatas bus, which cruises through the modern Ataturk highway into the city, providing a rather strong first impression of the city: Massive.
One of the few places I have been to where there are traffic jams at 1 in the morning.

The bus pulls over by the famous Taksim Square and, following the directions provided by the hostel, I find myself wandering through narrow streets dotted with greasy kebab joints, convenience stores and drunk youngsters wearing shiny leather jackets.

The staff at the hostel act surprised in regards of my arrival time, and since my reservation had been cancelled, I am offered to be accommodated into a private room for the night.
A breakfast consisting of beaten eggs with a tomato sauce and pitta bread is offered in the morning as well.

With no previous research done, the historically-rich former capital of the Bizantine empire is explored slowly, contemplating the infinite number of balconies covered in colourful laundry which overlook the narrow streets where the strong aroma of spices and coffee is almost intoxicating and addictive, guided by the solid Galata Tower in the distance.
Known as the hipster area of Istanbul, Taksim is also the place where small ateliers and furniture shops offer a variety of unique souvenirs, and where tourists and locals share the same space.

Steep downhill streets lead to a wide estuary and the impressive Galata Bridge, which becomes my first large image of former Constantinople.
Istanbul is the only city in the world which lays in two continents. Westwards, the historically rich European side of the city sprawls over hills dominated by a wide estuary, whilst Eastwards, across the Bosphorus, the wealthy Asian side extends over a rather flat topography towards the largest portion of the Turkish territory.

Both sides of the estuary, which is known as The Golden Horn are covered by an overwhelming landscape in which century-old houses climb up steep hills covering every single piece of land in sight, whilst dozens of fishermen catch bluefin tuna and sell it to passers-by for a few Liras.

However, I seem to be hypnotized by the tall blue minarets of the New Mosque which mark the entrance to the historic Sultanahmet district.
As I follow the modern tramway, I bump into Gulhane Park, where local and foreign kids alike play around vivid water fountains, covered in manicured colourful gardens. I decide that this will be the perfect place for a picnic sometime during my stay in this city.

A wide esplanade , built in the 1600s, forms a grandiose link between the historically important and pink-coloured Hagia Sofia and the impressive Blue Mosque, a place where crowds of tourist wander in between gardens, street cats and selfie sticks.

Grey clouds creep their way over the Marmara Sea and a downpour begins shortly after I clear the queue into the Blue Mosque.
This sublime piece of Muslim architecture, built during the rule of Ahmed I, takes its name from the set of blue tiles that adorn the unique interior of its main dome, six minarets and eight secondary domes. A place also intense in energy, and a religious landmark which is still used as a paying venue.

Despite the warm weather, the rain seems to heavily punish Istanbul, which makes for the perfect time for my first Turkish lunch, consisting in a succulent shredded chicken , served in flat bread with chargrilled vegetables and garlic sauce, smothered by a small glass of Turkish apple tea, whilst the sound of heavy raindrops muffle the loud chant of yet another praying time coming from the tall minarets.

Once the rain seems to subside, I walk down Galata bridge and up the hilly Taksim district for some rest at the hostel and, the most comfortable bean bag I've seen in my life.
A couple of Turkish tea glasses later, a walk to the residential area of the European side of the city is made.

Step by step, the narrow hipster alleyways of Taksim give way to the wide Parisian-like streets of the wealthy Besiktas district, before turning downhill to the coast and walk along the Bosphorus Strait to the point where the first land connection between Europe and Asia has been made. 
A point where the sight of the colossal Bosphorus Bridge spanning over the busy strait seems to merge with the sky, and a shiny full moon rising over Asia dyes the water of a pale yellow.

Once back at the hostel, the evening is spent drinking apple tea, savouring honey-smothered baklavas and processing the landscapes of a city full of hidden secrets.