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A tale of two cities

Istanbul is a curious blend of fast-paced European metropolis and quiet mysticism

An edited version appeared in Australian Doctor on 2nd December 2011

A traditional Turkish breakfast consists of a cheesy potato dish called kremali patates, hard boiled eggs sprinkled with flaked red pepper, peppermint and thyme, meats, sliced cucumber and tomato, bread and butter dripping with honey and hot, sweet tea.

It’s autumn, but the sun is shining, so we dine on the balcony of the Deniz Konak Hotel. From here, we have a view out over the tumbling rooftops of the ancient, tourist-friendly heart of the old city, Sultanahmet, to the Black Sea beyond. Dozens of boats - cargo vessels, ferries and cruise ships - dot the sparkling harbour, while seagulls wheel and cry overhead.

For centuries, this city – which has been known by at least ten other names, including Byzantium and Constantinople – has been a major European trading port. It still is. Situated on the cusp of Asia and Europe, Istanbul is a designated 'alpha world city': an important node point in the global economic system with more than two millennia of UNESCO World Heritage listed history to explore.

It seems fitting to start the day by taking in this sea-faring view, and to continue the nautical theme with a cruise on the narrow Bosphorus Strait that runs between the Black and Marmara Seas. It quite literally cuts Istanbul in two: on one side is the fast-paced European metropolis; on the other the quieter, but no less sprawling Asian side. The cruise takes around two hours, and gives an excellent, wind-blown sense of the city’s vast Olde Worlde grandeur.

Often referred to as the 'gateway to the East', one glance at Istanbul's hilly banks reveals why; all over the city, the domes and minarets of Istanbul's 2,600 mosques dominate the skyline. Many are open to visitors, and once back onshore we jump at the opportunity to gain insight into the culture and religion of Islam with a visit to the stunning and iconic Sultanahmet Camii, or Blue Mosque, and the smaller, more intimate Rustem Pasha Mosque. Completed in 1563, the mosque contains well-preserved examples of the coral-coloured tulip-motifs that typify sixteenth century Turkish tiling, and symbolise Allah.

The 550-year-old Grand Bazaar and the 430-year-old Egyptian Spice Market are both nearby. We visit them both and get drawn into the touting and haggling that characterize Turkish market life. They proceed with both charm and finesse; one could be mistaken for thinking the many salesmen working the streets of this city – Europe’s third largest – are in training for an elite sport.

One night, we attend a Sufi music concert and whirling dervish ceremony, where the beauty and mysticism of Islam are on display. Another evening – our last in this enchanting city – we are drawn back towards Istanbul’s life aquatic, and visit the Cemberlitas Bath, which operates in much the same way as it did when it was completed in 1584 by the royal architect Sinan.

This means separate, equally opulent quarters for men and women, and it means bathing in your birthday suit in public. First, I spend 20 minutes of pore-opening relaxation on a vast hot stone in a circular room beneath a vast and echoing domed ceiling. Next, a firm-handed, no-nonsense local woman (women scrub women, men scrub men) instructs me to lie on my stomach, then on my back as she dry scrubs me from head to toe. Then, she pours a bowl of warm water over my head, lathers me with in soap and scrubs me down again. The scrub and the oily massage I opt for afterwards leave my skin looking and feeling amazing. It’s one of the most profoundly invigorating experiences I've ever had: indulgence, Turkish style.

Factfile

Getting there: Various airlines fly from Melbourne and/or Sydney to Istanbul. Qantas flies via London and Frankfurt; Etihad flies via Abu Dhabi. Several airlines offer flights to Istanbul from Berlin, London and other destinations in Europe.

Staying there: Most visitors stay in Istanbul's tourist mecca, Sultanahmet. Live in modern Turkish comfort at two-year-old Hotel Amira (rooms from €129/night for two, www.hotelamira.com), go upmarket and traditional at Naz Wooden House Inn (rooms from €70/night for two, www.nazwoodeninn.com), or keep it midrange and comfortable at Deniz Konak Hotel (rooms from €60/night for two, www.denizkonakhotel.com). If you plan to soak up the nightlife, try Beyoglu. For contemplative peace and quiet, cross to the Asian side.

Practicalities: The currency in Istanbul is the Turkish Lira. Money machines are located around the city, and credit card is accepted in most places. Wait until you land to change any currency as the rates are better on Turkish soil. Euros are also commonly used for transactions in tourist areas like Sultanahmet.

Visas: Australian passport holders need a visa to enter Turkey. Three-month multiple entry visas can be obtained at the border (including airports). New Zealand passport holders have a 90-day visa exemption.

Special events: Istanbul has a lively arts and culture scene that is growing in international significance. If timed right, a visit could take in the annual Istanbul Film Festival (April), Theatre Festival (May), Music Festival (June), Jazz Festival (July), or the seven-week long International Istanbul Biennial which takes place in odd-numbered years, and will next be held in 2013.

More information: www.goturkey.com, www.backpackerstravel.net, www.cemberlitashamami.com