Istanbul is full of eastern promise and ancient mystery
With all the frost and the cloud, on the face of things Istanbul looks much like London.
It’s a sprawling city, home to some 20 million Turks. The Bosphorus runs 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. There are even “chuggers” from international charities touting for donations.
I’m staying at the new Hilton Garden Inn Golden Horn hotel where the beds have a dial to adjust the firmness of the mattress. The restaurant even serves up American-style waffles for breakfast, which are perfect on a cold morning.
But behind this seemingly modern metropolis, Istanbul is full of eastern promise 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 was also the backdrop for two blockbuster films, Murder on the Orient Express and James Bond’s From Russia with Love.
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 – that was used as the set of the 007 film in 1963. More than three hundred marble columns support the structure but only two have the carved-out face of the mythological Greek monster Medusa. No one knows why they are there.
The wintry weather has kept 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 scrum to get inside the Blue Mosque as tourists and worshippers take off their shoes at the entrance. When I finally shove myself inside there’s a huge empty prayer hall.
The first thing I notice is the deep red carpet, then the immense chandelier that offers up an intense glow on to the blue tiles and the glorious hemisphere dome in the roof.
As the Islamic call to prayers ring 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. And this isn’t the ridiculed 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. It’s warm bread, tangy salads, red peppers, beans and lentil dishes, tomato and chilli relishes and soup. And 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 like our coffee shops, serving up questionable beverages in paper mugs. These are places where you take a seat among the comfy cushions, intricate throws, lace tablecloths and even the 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.
And then there’s Turkish coffee where the powered grounds are left in the bottom of the cup and if you are lucky someone might 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.
Flights are available to Istanbul from Gatwick Airport. To book go to www.turkishairlines.com/en-uk/
A night at Hilton Garden Inn Istanbul Golden Horn. To book visit hiltongardeninn.com
A cruise along the Bosphorus starts from around 10euros for a short tour and rises up to 35euros for four-hours