Fly to Istanbul!

A city of many contrasts, where east meets west, Istanbul is a city steeped in history and showcases Asian and European influences not only in its ancient architecture but also in the modern eateries and coffee bars nearby.

Words: Kashu Dhakhwa

As I finally got down from the plane after an eight-hour flight from Kathmandu to Istanbul, I experienced the first breath of one of the most happening cities in Europe. It was freezing cold but so refreshing that I didn’t mind it at all. Istanbul has always been one of the cities that I wished to visit and it came as a pleasant surprise when Turkish Airlines sent me an invitation to visit their country.

The excitement of being in Istanbul was so intense that my colleagues and I were ready to visit the heart of modern Istanbul, Taksim Square, on the very first night of our arrival. When we reached there, the breeze had gotten even colder and it was then that I experienced my first diamond dust snow. But it wasn’t for long that the ice crystals fell upon us and we were able to walk around the streets of Taksim. It was an overwhelming experience starting from their local tram, neighborhood and shops that blended in so perfectly with the alleyways, buzzing with live Turkish music.

We spent the evening at Abbas Restaurant, enjoying all sorts of foods that were being offered on the tray menu. To top the dishes that included hummus, eggplants, fish and in particular calf’s liver, was raki, an anise alcoholic drink. As we enjoyed the food one after the other, we were also surrounded by musicians playing live music, who made us feel their loud presence with big smiles.

Waking up at 5 a.m. the next morning, the first thing I did was open the curtains to see how the city looked. To my happiness, the city was covered in white! What a sight.  I opened the window, hurriedly took out my camera and clicked a few shots. The wind was so cold, I couldn’t feel my fingers, but I had no complains.

As the day passed quickly, the sun became bright enough for us to spend some time in the Florya Beach, strolling along the beach and walking around the Marmara Sea. The weather was perfect for taking photographs, drinking some chai and watching numerous Turkish Airlines planes flying over us.

We visited the Grand Bazaar, Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and many other architectural masterpieces from the Ottoman, Byzantine and Roman times. On our final day, we went to visit old Istanbul, the main tourist drag. The famous Topkapi Palace was our first stop and what a place! The Palace is surrounded by courtyards and it has so much culture and history within it. The museum collection included Ottoman clothing to weapons, armor, miniatures and fascinating manuscripts.

We then headed to Hagia Sophia, one of the greatest surviving examples of Byzantine architecture. Its interior is decorated with colorful mosaic and marble pillars and is full of great artistic works. The Sultan Ahmet Mosque (The Blue Mosque), which is right next to Hagia Sophia, is a top contender on my bucket list but sadly it was being renovated during our visit. However, I found a spot from Hagia Sophia from where I could see the Blue Mosque and spent a lot of time there, looking at the mosque from the window. It eventually served as a frame for me and will forever stay in my mind.

After all the sight-seeing and savoring of the best meatballs in town, we were up for some modern art and got to test our artistic side. The paper marbling was a pleasant surprise on our itinerary. The place was so homely that it was hard to leave it behind and move on. Having chai with the owner and listening to his stories and paintings only made us feel closer to their art and culture. At that point one realizes that Istanbul is a city of many contrasts, it is where east meets west, where Asia comes in contact with Europe and ancient architecture is found right next to modern eateries and coffee bars.

Towards the end of the day we were given a tour of Istanbul's mythical shopping market, the Grand Bazaar, one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 covered streets and over 3,000 shops. The Grand Bazaar had exotic perfumes, spices, jewelry, textiles, baklavas and so much authentic goods are sold here every day, that it isn't called the ‘Treasure Chest’ of Istanbul for no reason. It is a dream world for shopaholics.

To end the day on a more intimate note, we were invited for dinner at a local resident’s house. This was an opportunity to experience Turkish hospitality with Turkish home-cooked food. All that food in my stomach and I just couldn’t stop eating more, it was so delicious. I had my last chai in Istanbul that night and it was pretty much a fulfilling one.