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A trip to Istanbul
By Theda Braddock
Posted April 30, 2007

Istanbul, one of the latest vacation hotspots, is an enticing marriage of Western and Eastern Europe--perfect for the traveler looking to get away. My recent trip was an overwhelming blend of divisions, not between the two continents that share Istanbul, but between cultures and eras.  This was a striking discovery voyage, having taken advantage of my location in Paris to hop around Europe.  

Day one of our stay was Bebek, assimilating that of a western country. Similar to Seattle’s sixth avenue, Istanbul’s impeccably clean waterfront neighborhood was filled with cafes and SUVs on the shores of the Bosporus. This neighborhood is one of the wealthier areas and more attuned to the luxury image Istanbul is beginning to project.  Just north lies Levant, a financial district which is home to one of the world’s newest and architecturally stunning buildings, Kanyon mall. Trendy clubs and restaurants also fill the streets. It is places like this that led International Herald Tribune editors to choose the site for its annual Luxury Conference in 2006. 

Our trip continued the next day with a trip to the Grand Bazaar. For anyone who has never been to a loud, stuffy, bartering-type market, this is an experience that must be lived. The closest thing I have experienced was perhaps San Francisco’s Chinatown or Paris’s Latin Quarter.  The pressure is on to buy and, like the nearby Spice Market, the vendors are there to meet your every desire or as one told me, “help you spend your money.”  A descent into the basement of one store felt like any woman’s dream scene.  Completely dark when I entered, the owner hit the switches one by one, revealing rows and rows of colorful embroidered and beaded dresses, skirts, shirts--you name it.  Of course the idea is to negotiate as much as possible, never paying more than two thirds the stated price.  I, admittedly, caved in at one or two shops but walked away content that my spree cost a fraction of what it would have anywhere else. 

The afternoon was spent on an organized bus tour to the rococo style Dolmabahçe Palace, dolmabahçe meaning ‘filled in land’ as it was constructed on a landfill built on the Marmara Sea.  This palace, built in the 19th century over a span of 12 years, served the last six sultans and is a definition of extravagance, rivaling Versailles.  Like many other palaces, there was red velvet covering everything, heavy silk drapes and elaborate chandeliers throughout.  This location boasts and is famous for its dramatic crystal staircase that is lined with railing supports made of Baccarat crystal.  The grand finale occurs in the Grand Assembly room, used to host notable guests.  In this room a 6-ton Swarovski chandelier, a gift from Queen Victoria, hangs from the ceiling capturing every angle of light imaginable.  Even outside the palace there is a welcoming entrance with a sculpted swan fountain and a small park looking across the Marmara to Asia. 

Palace Gate View on Marmara

The rest of our visit was an equally mesmerizing mixture of the old and the new.  The next day we began with a visit to the Hagia Sophia, originally built in the sixth century over the site of a fourth c. church that burned down.  The Hagia Sophia was originally constructed in the Byzantine era as a Christian church, but, in line with the rest of the city, the structure became a mix of two contradictory cultures and was turned into a mosque in the 15th century. Minarets were added to the domed exterior and mosaics dot the walls, already boasting images of Jesus. Inside, the cold, stony walls remind you that you are in one of the world’s oldest structures, an impressive symbol and reminder of the Ottoman Republic. You are welcome to climb to the second level and peer over the sweeping floor at the mihrab, the niche used to indicate the direction of Mecca and the minbar, used for sermons. 

Just across Sultanahmet Square lies the city’s other celebrated mosque, the Blue Mosque, so aptly named for the blue Iznik tiles that line a majority of the interior.  A visit to the courtyard is a mesmerizing mix of carefully arranged domes and apses. It is inside that the splendor is gloriously revealed. At the entrance you are asked to remove your shoes and women must sport a head wrap. Once the covering ritual is completed, you are invited inside and are suddenly overwhelmed with dozens of different patterns of light and dark blue covering the walls and ceiling.  There are people who come here to pray so out of respect we felt it wasn’t a good idea to stay long but we were able to linger for a bit taking in the grandeur of the mosaics, an scene almost indescribable, one that truly merits a first hand account. 

View on Blue Mosque

Just as our day had begun in the 14th century, it ended in the 21st at 360, a top floor restaurant/club in the busy Taksim neighborhood.  Here the highly polluted and often not well-frequented pedestrian street, Istiklal stretches past dozens of restaurants and shops.  The restaurant itself offers delightful cuisine as well as an amazing view of the entire city, but the attitudes of the servers are a turn off.  Much more welcoming was the small rooftop restaurant back in Sultanahmet (Kuçuk Ev at No 21 Incili Cavus Sk.) where you are greeted with a smile from the unquestionably Turkish servers, pleased to have your business and the opportunity to share their authentic cuisine.  Even in mid-march it is warm enough to sit on the terrace, covered with a clear plastic awning through which you have a majestic view of the nearby mosques where you can sit, take in the sites and listen to the prayers.  Beyond these historic wonders the oil tankers drift in the Marmara and beyond, the Istanbul landscape spotted with a fusion of minarets and radio towers effectively merging the epochs of this country’s rich history.  


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