From Istanbul with Love
Endowed with stunning historical and archeological sights, urban lifestyle and a liberal society, Istanbul and its Customized Guided Istanbul Tour have become the most favoured destination for tourists from all over the world.
T A Ameerudheen wades through the multi-layered city, the only one in the world that straddles in two continents, Europe and Asia, and bisected by a quiet flowing Bosphorus.
The moment I got into the boat, a strange but pertinent thought tickled my mind. “Where am I right now? In Europe? or in Asia?”
“Bosphorus is the natural boundary between European and Asian continents. The strait makes Istanbul the only city in the world lying on two continents. You can see Europe on my left and Asia on my right. We are in the middle of the two continents,” travel guide Ensar Islamoglu’s words of wisdom woke me up from my deep thought.
Two hours later, I realised that one should not immerse in thoughts during the Bosphorus cruise. It is the time to keep eyes and ears open and watch the beautiful structures on either side of the waterway known for their architectural brilliance and historical importance.
Dolmabahce Palace – Customized Guided Istanbul Tour
The Dolmabahce Palace, the main administrative centre of Ottoman Empire till 1922, is on the European coastline; Ciragan Palace, a former Ottoman Palace, is on the European shore; Kuleli Military High School, the first Military School in Turkey, is on the Asian side; and the magnificent Bosphorus Bridges connect Asia and Europe (or vice versa), to name a few, will definitely leave an indelible imprint about Istanbul on any visitor.
The cruise was just a precursor. In the next two days, on our Customized Guided Istanbul Tour, I was able to see some of Istanbul’s stunning museums, churches, palaces, mosques, markets, experience its natural beauty and enjoy food from special array of restaurants and hotels that might have catapulted the city as one of the most-preferred tourist destination in the world these days. Istanbul’s unique geographical positioning and nature’s abundant bounty have been a source of inspiration for top literary figures in the world. Murder-mystery writer Agatha Christie is believed to have written ‘Murder on Orient Express’ from the ‘Pera Palace’ Hotel, while Ernest Hemingway and Alfred Hitchcock used to visit the city quite often.
Second James Bond movie
Hollywood too gave Istanbul its due by picking it as the location for second James Bond movie ‘From Russia With Love’, arguably the best of the Bond films, ‘The World Is Not Enough’, 2012 Oscar-winning movie Argo, and 23rd James Bond Movie ‘Skyfall’. These factors too seem to contribute in increasing Istanbul’s popularity.
However, the uniqueness of Istanbul lies in its multiculturalism and the ability to accommodate people belonging to different cultures, religions and ethnicities.
The city, where Muslims constitute 97 percent of the population, is quite liberal in its approach. Mosques, Churches and Synagogues that lie side by side stand a testimony to the rich tradition of tolerance. It offers everything for those who want to practice their faith. At the same time, it gives plenty of options for those who want to indulge in leisure activities.
Customized Guided Istanbul Tour – beauty of Turkey
“That is the beauty of Turkey in general and Istanbul in particular. It has true secular creden- tials. No one will question your religion. You are free to practice your faith. Most of the restaurants open during daytime during Ramadan, and the staff, even if they are fasting, serve food to those who do not fast. Our culture is so accommodative,” Ensar points out the city’s unique character. It must be the prime reason for the continued tourist inflow to Istanbul, despite mass protests at Gezi Park in Taksim Square hogging international headlines recently. Tour operators believe that the protests never threatened to go out of hand. “Protests are part of democracy. Ours is a stable democratic country. International media has blown things out of proportion. The protests haven’t affected the in-bound tourism,” says Baran Balavi, Managing Director of Bedir Tour, a leading tour operator in Istanbul.
Gokhan, an English teacher, who participated in the protest, agrees. “Yes, it is part of democracy,” adding, “Gezi Park protest was against felling tress. It was all about protecting our nature.”
Customized Guided Istanbul Tour – Exploring the City
A tourist needs a minimum of one week to visit the top destinations in Istanbul. “If one wants to spend more time and go around in detail, one month will not be enough. This is the place where history goes back to 2000 years. It depends on the things one would like to see. Istanbul is like an ocean. One can explore Islamic history, ancient history all the while enjoying the nature’s beauty,” feels Ensar.
However, one cannot leave Istanbul without visiting Topkapi Palace, the residence of Ottoman Sultans for 400 years; Sultan Ahmed Mosque, popularly known as Blue Mosque for its blue inte- rior walls; Hagia Sophia, a place where Islamic art and Christian Architecture meet; Suleymaniye Mosque, an architectural masterpiece built in just seven years; Galata Tower, where one can get best panoramic views of Istanbul, and Grand Bazaar, an ideal place for shoppers.
Relics of Prophet Muhammad – Customized Guided Istanbul Tour
The display of sacred relics of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and his followers makes the third courtyard of the Topkapi Palace a must-place to visit. It showcases a piece from the tooth of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), hair from the beard of the Prophet, the seal of the Prophet, an autographed letter of the Prophet and his swords and bow.
Another reason for Istanbul’s favourite tag is that it offers enough space for leisure travellers as well as backpackers. It has plenty of five-star hotels, top-of-the-range restaurants, cafes and health clubs. It also has reasonable hostel rooms and restaurants. The well-connected public transport system is a blessing for the backpackers and those who want to escape the traffic snarls. The subway connects the Ataturk International Airport and Aksaray, while the tram that connects most of the places in old city.
“It offers the tourists best of both the worlds. One can live like a king or spend like miser in Istanbul,” says Ensar.
Spirit of Holy Month
Turkish people take great pride in their culinary legacy. They claim Turkish delicacies are ranked No.3 in the World, behind Chinese and French cuisines, in terms of number of varieties. The richness of the cuisines is attributed to the legacy of Ottoman Empires, which is a fusion of central Asian, Middle Eastern and Balkan cuisines.
As the sun begins to fade into the horizon and people wait for the muezzin’s Maghrib prayer call, public parks in Istanbul and its vicinity will brim with action. Hundreds will be seen jostling space to prepare food for breaking the 16-hour fast.
One can discover the colours of Istanbul, on your Customized Guided Istanbul Tour, through the city’s eating culture when every res- taurant prepares special menu for Iftar. A great variety of culinary delights from the traditional kebab houses to continental meals, or the fish restaurants with the great Mezze selections await you every sunset. The Ramadan activities keep the city buzzing literally from Iftar dinner to Suhoor meal, Friendly conversations rages in the city’s ‘Nargileh Cafes’ while other interest them in concerts, exhibitions, and local book and gift fairs.
Fun Activities – Customized Guided Istanbul Tour
The Vialand Amusement Park, which opened its gates, recently, has brought smiles on the faces of children as well as fun-loving adults, who have been craving for such afacility for a long time. The biggest theme park in Istanbul, built over 600,000 square metres of land with an investment of more than 600 million dollars, offers plenty of adven- turous rides, fun rides, and water sports activities.
Istanbul is one of the top three contenders to host the 2020 Olympics along with Madrid and Tokyo, and it presented its bids at the Interna- tional Olympic Committee (IOC) headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland early this month, where it promised to ‘step beyond sports to make history’. “The Olympics will provide a huge shot in the arm for the tourism industry in Istanbul. The city is developing atafaster pace. Wecan build enough hotel rooms for 2020. We also can build high- standard stadiums. I hope Istanbul will win the Olympics bid,” Baran Balavi remains optimistic.
But the sports fans have to keep their fingers crossed till September 7, when the winning bid will be announced in Buenos Aires. Till then they have to patiently wait with prayers in their lips and hopes in their hearts. (The writer was in Istanbul recently at the invitation of Turkish Airines)