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In Rome, Madrid, Barcelona, Bucharest and Budapest we tried to walk the streets and discover the city attractions but we always suffered early defeats caused by the unfavorable temperatures of the European winter. There is only so much time you can spend in an under-budgeted, under-heated archaeology museum before you start dreaming of a cozy, warm room and a bed covered with lots of blankets. But despite the fact that we knew it wouldn’t be much fun to visit another big city in January we still went to Istanbul. Part of the reason to visit was that the cheapest flight to India that we found was leaving from Istanbul and the connection from Romania to Turkey came at a reasonable price as well. And once you made it to one of the great cities of the world because you had to, it would be a waste not to spend more time there to enjoy it.
Istanbul is the edge of the continent, where Europe meets Asia, a city where the coils of history unfurl in every street and back alley, like charging armies scampering through the scattered stones of long-gone magnificent royal palaces. Istanbul’s fate is unique among the histories of the great cities of the world: once the radiant capital of a glorious Christian empire, which slowly declined to comprise just the city itself, Constantinople fell to its attackers after one final battle of historic proportions, only to become the center of a new world power, a Muslim city that in time surpassed the leftover glory of its Byzantine heritage and reinvented itself. I’ve always considered the fall of Constantinople in 1453 as one of the most harrowing moments in history, sad for the simple yet unsettling fact that its conquest completely erased something that existed and replaced it with something new almost overnight. The newly beginning city rested on the pillars of its inheritance; it adopted some of its forms (best seen in the shape of its mosques, which all look like its older Greek-orthodox churches) but it was apparent that nothing would be the same again...
At a glance, Istanbul is a gigantic city rolling on roof-covered hills over the horizon, but its main attractions (the places a travel guide book would recommend you to visit) are all within the old city and across the Golden Horn in Pera (the modern Kadikoy) and Galata. Most of those sites are accessible by a simple yet clever network of tram, metro and underground funiculars (in fact we didn’t have to take the taxi once during the 6 days we spent in town). The best places to stay are the Sultanahmet area at the south-eastern edge of the old town, and Taksim Square in Galatasaray. If you stay in Sultanahmet you’re within walking distance of the historic attractions (Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Topkapi palace, the Byzantine mosaic museum, the underground Basilica cistern and the incredible Grand Bazaar).
In Taksim square you are close to the glitzy, modern avenues lined up with designer boutiques and coffee shops (including Starbucks, yes!), and to good but more pricey restaurants. We stayed at the Istanbul Hostel in Sultanahmet and had an easy time getting to the historic sites, but we couldn’t resist taking a couple of trips across the water to walk on Istiklal Caddesi for a mini shopping-spree, sprinkled with stops at Starbucks to buy good but overpriced coffee. Speaking of prices, Turkey may still be cheaper compared to Western Europe but not by much. At 1.15 lira to a dollar the prices seemed vaguely familiar and not at all comforting to the wallet. Museum entrance fees are usually around 10 Lira, coffee is 4 or 5 (coffee!), a cheap dinner for two costs around 20 Lira and an expensive one may beat a hundred. Just like home, don’t you think?
You can get döner kebab at the bazaar for just 1 Lira, but who wants to survive on kebabs only, in a city renowned for its luscious foods? Moreover, with the cold and all, your best bet is to find a good and reasonably-priced restaurant near the hotel and stick with it in case you’re too lazy to take a trip across town through the chilly night. And that’s exactly what we did, and ended up eating soup, pide (Turkish pizza) and kebab at this place called Karadeniz (translated: The Black Sea) almost every day, either for lunch or dinner, until the owner called me his friend (presumably because I was the one he was giving the bill too). And I should not forget the divine baklava and sahlep sold at the nearby pastry shop...
Eating food on the street will challenge you with a little detail: there is no trash bin in this city, I swear, no place to throw an empty Starbucks cup. And still, it looks clean. Somewhere, the mayor must be proud.
And so for us, Istanbul was the end of one part of our trip, the last of our wanderings in Europe, and the beginning of a new path: Asia.Posted from Kumaly - Kerala, India.