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Istanbul overwhelms the senses with history, food, monuments, and the warmth of a people fixated with Bollywood.
Shah Rukh!" a voice called out. Startled, I turned. A shopkeeper was waving at me furiously. If you are an Indian in Istanbul, you must be SRK. Never mind the looks or the gender. Flattery comes easily and naturally to the folks inTurkey. But more of that later.
Taking a shuttle at 6:05 am, groggy-eyed and sleep-deprived is a small price to pay for visiting a city whose history goes back to 3000 BC. As I boarded the early-morning Turkish Airlines flight, all misgivings evaporated. The six-hour journey was over in a jiffy thanks to a comfortable seat, a few glasses of wine and in-flight movies.
It is hard not to be overwhelmed by the rich history of this ancient city. From the Roman to the Byzantine to the Ottoman, there is a slice of every age visible on the walls of its monuments. There are 3, 000 mosques, but there are also churches. Walking the streets of Istanbul, I was struck by the cosmopolitan nature of the city. And by the fact that it is a remarkably open Islamic (Sunni) nation. I am an atheist but I was moved by the sight of the minarets. And mind you, there were hundreds of them.
Istanbul is abuzz with the soundtrack of city life: taxis honking, ferries zooming past and Arab music blaring from street corners. The population is mostly young, and very cheerful and vibrant. But it is the aroma of Turkish food that remains etched in my mind the most. Turkey is a haven for food lovers. In fact, the mezze, or the appetiser platter, by itself is enough to satiate your hunger. Vegetarians need not worry because there are a lot of vegetables and cheeses in Turkish cuisine. As for the kebabs, they are lip-smackingly good - doner, shish and iskender are the most common varieties of skewered meat. Lahmacun or Turkish pizza and mercimek corbasi (a spicy soup of red lentil) are other delicacies you must try out. The flaky, honeyed baklava is a must to round off that meal. You might also like sutlac (a dish of milk, sugar and rice) and asure (a sweet dish made of 12 fruits and cereals).
Turkish coffee - well it is nothing like the milky concoction we are used to. It is really strong and viscous and needs some getting used to. But it is tea that is offered almost everywhere. Strong, sweet, flavoured and served in small glasses you see people quaffing tea all the time. Apple tea, made of dried apples, is particularly refreshing. Here is a little-known fact - Turkey makes some great wines, especially in the Cappadocia region, and a good beer (branded Efes) too.
Shopping in Istanbul can be a delightful experience. Just remember to bargain and keep your head on your shoulders when the shopkeeper tells you that you are even more beautiful than Tabu. Istiklal Street is a must visit. You can hear local bands playing at every corner. If you are a Beatles fan, you are going to be a definite hit with the locals. Trams provide easy transport and the street is three kilometres long and houses exquisite boutiques, music stores, bookstores, art galleries, cinemas, theaters, libraries, cafês, pubs, nightclubs, historical patisseries, chocolateries and restaurants.
If you have an eye and nose for spices, the spice market is the place to go. Located in Fatih, in the neighborhood of Emin�n�, it is the second largest covered shopping complex after the Grand Bazaar, where, incidentally, I fell in love again - with brilliantly coloured lamps. Turkish ceramic is worth investing in, it is fine and very delicately designed.
My tour of Istanbul began with a cruise on the Golden Horn, an inlet of the Bosphorus that divides the city. It's an out-of-the-world feeling as you are on the strait that divides Europe and Asia. The one-and-a-half-hour tour gives you a glimpse of the whole city. The city's two best known monuments are a tribute to the confluence of civilisations in Turkey. The stunning Hagia Sofia is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture and was the largest cathedral in the world till the Seville cathedral was built in 1520. The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, known as the Blue Mosque because of the blue tiles adorning the walls of its interior, is another mix of both Ottoman mosque and Byzantine church architecture.
The Dolmabahce Palace, the newest one in Istanbul, clearly has a lot of western influence. It served as the main administrative centre of the Ottoman Empire from 1856 to 1922. The Topkapi Palace, the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans for approximately 400 years (1465-1856 ), has a grand courtyard with beautiful gardens that connect to the enchanting palace. The palace is now an impressive museum of the imperial era. The view of the Istanbul skyline and Bosphorous from the palace is breathtaking.
Any conversation on Istanbul is incomplete without the mention of Turkish nights, especially belly dancing. The Turks love Indians and might just oblige you with a rendition of Raj Kapoor's "Awara Hoon" at a restaurant. Bollywood obviously has left a deep impression on them.
(The writer was in Turkey on the invitation of Turkish Airlines)
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