Chalkmarks: Ancient iconic church: The Blue Mosque

SO HERE’S Europe on the left and Asia on the right. And me in the middle of these two giant continents on a boat gliding along the Bosphorus in Istanbul. 

It’s early in the morning and stepping out on deck feels like walking into a freezer – cold enough to chill my coffee after just a few minutes.

I’m here in Turkey, a Mediterranean country in southern Europe, which is covered in snow. Who knew? But in February the city is blanketed in white.

As we cruise through the turquoise waters I play pass-the-parcel with my eyes as the shoreline unravels, revealing mosques, old palaces, mansions, castles, churches, fashionable restaurants, international hotels and even nine islands. Where do I start? 

Chalkmark: Top attraction: The Blue Mosque also known as Sultan Ahmet Camii
Top attraction: The Blue Mosque also known as Sultan Ahmet Camii

With the frost and the grey clouds above, on the face of things Istanbul looks much like London

It’s a sprawling city, home to some 20 million Turks with the Bosphorus running through its heart – much like the River Thames – from which all the major landmarks can be spotted

The main shopping area, Taksim, is as busy as Oxford Street, with the same familiar shops and by night the streets turn into a blur of bars, cafes, restaurants and clubs – much like Leicester Square. 

I’m staying at the new Hilton Garden Inn Golden Horn hotel where the beds come with a dial to adjust the firmness of the mattress. The restaurant serves up American-style waffles for breakfast, which are warming, perfect on a cold morning. 

Behind this seemingly modern metropolis, Istanbul is full of eastern surprise and ancient mystery. 

This is the only city the world to boast being half in the West and half in the East with the Bosphorus Strait the great dividing line. The waterway stretches for 19 miles leading to the Sea of Marmara in the south and the Black Sea in the north. 

It’s hard to imagine the world without this ancient city, the home to three empires – the Eastern Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman. It also been the backdrop for two blockbuster films, Murder on the Orient Express and James Bond’s From Russia with Love. 

Chalkmarks: World-famous mosque: Inside the Hagia Sophia
World-famous: The huge domes inside the Hagia Sophia
Chalkmarks: Protected: Hagia Sophia became a Unesco World Heritage site in 1985
Protected: Hagia Sophia became a Unesco World Heritage site in 1985
Chalkmarks: Spookily lit underground water chamber: Hagia Sophia, the Basilica Cistern
Spookily lit underground water chamber: Hagia Sophia, the Basilica Cistern

The Hagia Sophia with its huge dome was the greatest church in Christendom for more than 1,000 years. 

The Basilica Cistern is a spookily lit underground water chamber – the size of a cathedral – was used as the set of the 007 film in 1963. More than three hundred marble columns support the structure, and only two have the carved-out face of the mythological Greek monster Medusa. No one knows why.

The wintry weather keeps the tourists away so without queues I also hit the opulent former royal residence Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque and even the Grand Bazaar in just one day. 

There’s a scramble outside the Blue Mosque as visitors and worshippers take off their shoes at the entrance to get in from the cold.

Once inside the huge prayer hall, the first thing I notice is the deep red carpet, then the grand and immense chandeliers that offer up an intense glow on to the blue tiles and the glorious hemisphere dome in the roof. 

Chalkmarks:  Street market: The Grand Bazaar
Street market: The Grand Bazaar
Chalkmarks: Haggle: Stunning displays of handmade colourful crafts
Haggle: Stunning displays of handmade colourful crafts

As the Islamic call to prayers rings out across the city, I push on into the grey light towards the Grand Bazaar, which is one of the oldest covered markets in the world with 60 cobbled narrow streets housing 5,000 shops. The chaotic artisan hive sells everything from jewellery, hand-painted ceramics, carpets, spices, antiques and hauls of Turkish delight. 

Istanbul doesn’t have to be a holiday in history and it turns out that the best way to get to its heart is through the food. 

Turks make the most incredible meatballs and of course it’s the home of the shish kebab and doner. This isn’t the thin strips of meat we wolf down at two in the morning on our local high street. This is seriously good shaved pieces of mixed meats roasted on a spit and served on warm flat breads. 

The Turkish kitchen offers up mostly light, vegetarian dishes served meze style. Its warm breads, tangy salads, red peppers, beans and lentil dishes, tomato and chilli relishes and soup. Then on top of all this there’s the yogurt, which Turks seem to eat with everything. 

Even the street food is tempting, with sellers offering roasted chestnuts, pastries and mussels freshly plucked from the sea. 

It would be easy to gobble and guzzle my way around the city as I dip into cafes to warm up. 

These establishments are not about grabbing a hot drink in a paper cup, they are places where you take a seat among the comfy cushions, colourful throws, lace tablecloths and waterpipes aka hookahs. 

Chai (black tea) is always served in a traditional tulip glass cup and saucer. There’s ayran, a yogurt drink with water and Salep, a hot orchid root-flavoured milky drink and sweet apple tea on offer. 

There’s Turkish coffee where the powered grounds are left in the bottom of the cup and if you’re lucky someone might come along to read your fortune with the remnants. 

With its ancient flavours amid the modern bustle, Istanbul isn’t a city of two halves – it’s the best of both worlds. 

Chalkmarks: Labyrinth: The Grand Bazaar is one of the oldest covered markets in the world
Labyrinth: The Grand Bazaar is one of the oldest covered markets in the world
Chalkmarks: Turkish delight: Shopping in the Grand Bazaar
Turkish delights: Shopping in the Grand Bazaar
Chalkmarks: In between two continents: A boat trip on the Bosphorus with the Blue Mosque behind
In between two continents: A boat trip on the Bosphorus with the Blue Mosque behind
Chalkmarks: The Turkish kitchen: Fresh, seasonal and a work of art
The Turkish kitchen: Fresh, seasonal and a work of art

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