Every time I heard Istanbul, I had varied images going through my mind. I imagined it like this magical place on earth with Aladin flying over with his magic carpet. I imagined it as a bridge between Asia and Europe separated only by the lovely Bosphorous. I imagined it as a busy market place, a melting pot of cultures, cuisines, of cobbled pathways leading to pottery makers, carpet weavers and more history than I could possible fathom. Istanbul is all this and so much more. As a student of history, Istanbul always came up.
It was known was Byzantium when it was founded and then came to be known as Constantinople during the Roman and Ottoman empire. Istanbul has always enjoyed a prominent place in the history, geography and economics of the world due to it's strategic location. It is divided by the straits of Bosphorous, which is the only sea route between the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea and I have been lucky to do this passage 6 times while sailing.
My love affair with Istanbul began in 2004 on my first time on board. Always fond of ocean passages and geography, I keenly observed the passage planning to a particular port and this was no less. Our first transit was at 04:00 a.m. Woken up from slumber, I staggered along the deck to take in the views. And my goodness, I was speechless. It was the most beautiful city I had seen at the break of dawn.. with lights, cafes, laughter, music and just the enormity of looking on the left, thinking wow, that's Europe and looking on the right and thinking, wow that's Asia. The passage lasted an hour and so and I sat riveted absorbing everything I could see and beyond.
The transit on the way back was just as breath-taking - this is time in the lovely afternoon sun with clear blue skies and the slight nip in the air. The black sea actually looks black and it's very depressing to see the view... the slow sailing from the Black to the blue of the Sea of Marmara and the Mediterranean was like witnessing a painter at work. The flow of colours shifted from dark and intense, almost melancholic black to blending of black and blue and finally a brilliant shade of blue, full of life and vibrancy.Spotting dolphins jumping out and racing along with our ship only added to my adventures.
I visited a small port called Bandirma - a transit between Istanbul and Izmir. I like to enjoy a city on foot, walking through the streets and getting lost, only to find a new way. Bandirma gave me all this. Off the gangway, I was into the city. The biggest pain then was the currency with the Lira being in millions and billions it was quite a headache for me. But I managed. And I walked, and walked, and walked. Through cobbled alleyways I actually found carpet weavers, bazaar lined with spices, hand painted Turkish tea cups and plates and realised that most cities with bazaars are like Delhi - bargain and bargain some more.
I made friends with some port officials who actually introduced me to Turkish Red Tea - which is a strong and potent dose of tea and actually red in colour, much like the expresso shot of coffee. Izmir was a short distance away but as anyone who has sailed on gas carriers knows, port stay time is very less and turnarounds are fast ..commercial pressures !! So Izmir was left for another day.
I managed to get a days' time at Istanbul and I made full use of it. I visited the Blue Mosque - called so because of the hand painted blue tiles on the interior walls of the Mosque. It is one of the few Mosques with six minarets and is bathed in beautiful natural light streaming in through stained glass windows. Next stop was the Topkapi Palace - and what a palace. Words cannot do justice. Its seeped in history and culture and every step and every wall gave me the goose bumps. Perhaps the Imperial Treasury room was a favourite with spoils from wars and gifts - diamonds, emeralds, gold and rubies ..
A visit to Istanbul would have been incomplete without a visit to the Grand Bazaar - with it being everything I saw in the movies in which Istanbul and it's bazaar's lined with shops and merchants were shown, it was the perfect icing to the good visit. Shops, shops and more shops with everything being the flavour of Turkey and the melting pot of a cross cultural city coming to the fore. It was like a scene right out of one the Humphrey Bogart classics for me. Their love for blue came forth in paintings done on plates, saucers, glasses, tea cups and even hair clips for women.
The Asian side of Istanbul is a full load of history, monuments, local bazaars, spice markets and is like going back into time. The Western side, is Europe as we know it - with the latest designer brands,coffee shops and the high life. There is a quaint charm and nostalgia when you walk down the Asian side; there is a spring the step and a sense of being with the times when on the European side. A sail down the Bosporus one can take in all the wonders including the most amazing water front houses ,rather mansions, I have ever seen.
I have been up and awake every transit of the Bosphorous we did and every time the feeling was like falling in love all over again.
Istanbul isn't just any city that you visit. Istanbul is a love story that never ends.
This post was originally published on Musings Of A Gypsy Runner.