Monday 22 December 2014

Istanbul gives a real taste of Turkish delight

Hilary A White

Published 24/03/2014 | 02:30

Istanbul
Hilary White outside the Blue Mosque
Alinazik
The Basilica Cisterns

IT'S said that the only true natives of Istanbul are the cats and dogs.

There is a shifting feeling to this ancient melting pot, hinged on the axis of east and west, making the city hard to pin down. And it is like this even for those who have lived there for many years. For mere visitors, regardless of what direction they approach from, Istanbul has always been both boundary and gateway.

At least it seems that way after I touch down on one of Turkish Airlines direct flights from Dublin. On the face of it, the city's vast size and multi-spectrum identity seem daunting. I've been in many wide-paved, architecturally ornate cities obliging enough to have hosted an empire over the centuries. Such is the "extremely helpful" disposition of the Turks, Istanbul has, of course, accommodated three. You know about kebabs and Turkish Delight thanks to the wandering and wayfaring of its people, but what of the huge landmass that stretches East from Istanbul, further and further from home and leaving the West behind?

Give yourself just a minute to consider these things and you are already getting excited about Istanbul, before you've even tasted exotic flavours or heard the call to prayer as old men play chess and drink bitter tea in a cafe.

We take a sea bus across the ever-bustling Bosphorus to the Asian side, and our accommodation in the hearty neighbourhood of Kadikoy. Fruit stands, the kind we can't seem to master in Ireland, push colour into the chill a block away from outdoor heaters, beer bars and comic stores. We're technically in Asia but this could be a sleepy corner of Berlin.

The legacies left behind by the Ottoman Empire are plain to see, from the swollen crowns of its mosques, bulging into the skyline, to the avenues of carpets and oil lamps still peddled in the Grand Bazaar. Turn another corner and you find yourself negotiating high streets of European elegance and sophistication, excellent public transport systems and a multiculturalism that can only come from being the junction of the known world.

A few days is simply not enough time to savour all Istanbul has to offer, nor is a week. A month might let you scratch the surface and a few years might open up some more of its mysteries. But the fact of the matter is that even residents of this city of 14 million inhabitants admit to being constantly surprised by secret corners and the new and cool little areas that it reveals now and again.

For this reason, I don't try to map the whole area and instead concentrate on a handful of rudiments. It's the end of January, and a breath-taking, dry cold persists despite being almost 18 degrees only a few days previously. Within a couple of seconds, the small glass of tea I purchase from a street vendor has cooled enough to be safely sipped. Walking through the restaurant-lined streets of Moda and Kadikoy, I finally exit out on to the waterfront, where buses, taxis and people swarm. Ferries bellow as they come and go, bringing citizens back and forward between Asia and Europe, shadowed by feverous flocks of gulls.

Entrance aboard one of the many vessels that criss-cross the channel is by way of a small metal token that grants access through the turnstiles and on to the jetty. Once aboard, that hustling city hive evaporates and peace descends. You can go up top if appropriately dressed and sip a coffee while looking out over the integral waterway. You look for differences between the two continents – Asia possibly looks more industrialised, Europe more ornate – but the channel is traversed before you can conclude.

A quick tram ride brings you up narrow, gently curving streets lined with baklava delis and eateries to Sultanahmet, where Istanbul's greatest wonders reside. You have the Blue Mosque (named for its elaborate interior walls of iznik tiles) which Sultan Ahmet I commissioned at the ripe old age of 19. The young sultan is said to have even rolled up his sleeves to labour in its completion, so intent was he to have a temple that could stare down the hulking Hagia Sophia, an extraordinarily beautiful relic of Byzantine Christianity located nearby.

I give up trying to remember what I was doing when I was 19 and descend down the stone steps into the Basilica Cisterns that lie beneath the "mine's bigger" temple showdown on street level. To the Byzantines, it was insurance against water shortage. Today, it is Istanbul's way of sucking you into an ancient subterranean dream, one of stone columns and Medusa heads reflected infinitely in watery stillness and chiaroscuro. Something else.

Dimly lit sanctity makes way for bright, blingy eagerness at the Grand Bazaar, home for centuries to acres of jewellery, spices, textiles and curiosities. You catch Ottoman blades, an Aladdin's lamp in a tiny stall and gazillions of haggle-friendly smiles flashing about the labyrinthine laneways as Asia and Europe are sold a trinket at a time.

The rooftop bar at the Olive Hotel is quiet by the time I get there to examine the skyline and quench the thirst. I had got a bit lost exiting the Grand Bazaar and found myself winding deeper and deeper into streets of wholesalers moving everything from underwear to cameras. Hunger too was now starting to pipe up, so I sought out the famed succulence of Ciya Sofrasi back in Kadikoy. To begin with, a hearty broth of red lentils, mint, garlic and onion warms me up before my very understanding of a kebab is rocked by Alinazik (hand-minced lamb served with grilled eggplant, green peppers, yoghurt and garlic). Uncluttered, well-balanced and staggeringly tasty fare.

I get that regret that comes with flying business-class for the first time and realising you're now spoiled for life. How will I manage with dry, expensive excuses for baklava at home, or kebabs drowned in disgusting garlic mayonnaise? I've grown to love the Bosphorus ferries, a commute that actually lowers the heart rate. Even Istanbul's empires seem cooler than the lot we were lumped with all those years ago. I can't say for certain the effect won't dim with repeated visits, but I'm determined to find out.

Turkish Airlines operates 12 flights per week direct from Dublin to Istanbul. See www.turkishairlines.com for flights and fares. Visas for Turkey can be obtained online prior to travelling for €15 at www.evisa.gov.tr/en/

AND WHEN THERE, TRY

Ciya Kebap

Held in high regard by locals across the city, Ciya is one of the best places in Istanbul to taste authentic, delicious and reasonably priced cuisine from the Balkans right through to Mesopotamia. Take the ferry to Kadikoy and the restaurant is located a couple of blocks back from the water front on Guneslibahce Sokak. www.ciya.com.tr

Basilica Cistern

Istanbul can even provide a sensory experience below street level with a visit to this magnificent underground cistern. Once charged with storing some 18 million gallons of fresh water, the level is now much lower but enough to harbour shoals of blind fish and to reflect the 336 floodlit pillars to surreal effect. Two columns taken from even older Greek buildings show Medusa heads, just in case the feeling of ancient wonder was not potent enough. Located in the Sultanahmet district.

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