This is the city where Asia meets Europe, where the ancient meets the modern. The first thing I notice from my hotel window in Istanbul is its magnificent skyline – a seamless vista of palaces, mosques and minarets, the magnificent legacy of its Christian and Islamic past . At its heart is the beautiful Bosphorus Strait, the waterway that divides the European and Asia parts and connects the Black Sea with Aegean, the stunning coastline lined with palaces, stately homes and gardens that date back to the glory days of the Ottoman empire. Starting life as Byzantium, the city was for 16 centuries known as Constantinople, when it was by turns the capital of four empires, Roman, Christian Byzantine, Latin and finally the Muslim Ottoman.
As with most first time visitors, the first thing that I did in Istanbul was to head to the ancient city centre or the historic peninsula, where much of the city’s best known architectural legacy from the Ottoman and Christian eras are concentrated. Top of my list is the Sultanahmet Meydani (Sultan Ahmet Square). Back in the day it was the sporting centre of Constantinople, with chariot racing being a popular pastime imported from the Romans. The actual track is believed to be two metres below the present surface but we are not here just to look at the surviving monuments of the two obelisks and the Serpentine Column sitting in a landscaped garden.
We are here to explore Istanbul’s most famous monuments that have stood facing each other for over four centuries. Even under grey skies, they seem to smile at each other across the crowded square. “Look at me,” Hagia Sophia seems to say, strong in its Byzantine architectural armour, “I am witness to not one but two religions that once fought bitterly but now live in harmony.” For over a 1,000 years it was the biggest cathedral of the Greek Orthodox Church until the Ottomans conquered the city in 1453, and converted it into a mosque. Instead of removing the old Christian mosaics and iconography, the Ottomans just painted over them. The interior was re-decorated to serve as a mosque and four large minarets were added.
For the next several hundred years Hagia Sophia’s design and appearance was mirrored in other Ottoman mosques and served as inspiration for Istanbul’s numerous structures. After Turkey became a museum in the 1930s, the mosque was turned into a museum with mesmerizing mosaics that reflect the different periods of history. Inside you will do exactly what I did. Stand with mouth open at the sight of the majestic dome.
Hagia Sophia also served as the key model for the other imposing monument, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, now known globally as the Blue Mosque. The first obvious thing that strikes you about this imposing monument are its six minarets, instead the usual four. Back in 1616 it sent out a loud and clear message: “This will be acclaimed as the world’s greatest mosque. Look my interiors can embrace 10,000 faithful in one go!” And its also open for tourists who leave shoes at the door and are dressed appropriately. Once inside you would be wonderstruck by the blue tile work that covers its interior.
My next stop was the Topkapi Palace, the official residence of the Ottoman sultans for 400 years until the reign of Sultan Abdülmajid in 1856 when they shifted to the even bigger, but much more modern Dolmabahce Palace further up on the Bosphorus. Besides being the administrative, educational and cultural centre of the Ottoman Empire, the Topkapi also served as the imperial residence as well as the harem. The poetic name of the harem was Darüssaade, which means `house of happiness’. Through the Imperial Gate erected in 1478, now covered in 19th century marble and decorated with verses from the Holy Koran, we walk through the series of four courts that become more private the deeper you penetrate into the complex. Don’t miss the Treasury in the third courtyard, with its incredible gems, gold, and works of art. The display is mindboggling. Old timers will also remember the palace from the classic 1964 Jules Dassin film Top-kapi, starring Peter Ustinov, Maximilian Schell and Melina Mercouri.
Istanbul is a city known for its ubiquitous shisha cafes with their water pipes, besides the delectable Turkish coffee and tea. But even more famous is Turkish food, one of the reasons I was here. As the Ottoman Empire flourished, so did its appetite. Food delicacies developed to satiate high-ranking palace residents. The sultans and their staff commanded their cooks to develop rich recipes for palace feasts. So skilled did some chefs become that French statesmen asked permission to retain those whom Sultan Abdülaziz took with him on his visit to Paris in the 19th century. During the rise of the Empire, the Ottomans added the cuisine of every area they conquered to their own cuisine. All this peaked in the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s just this kind of legacy that I went to taste at Surplus, a globally famous restaurant, created by one of Turkey’s most famous chefs, Vedat Basaran,
Vedat’s bio? A professional footballer who broke his knee. Stopped football. Started studying tourism. Discovered interest in cooking. Trawled Istanbul’s antique markets for traditional recipe books written in largely forgotten scripts before setting up Surplus on the top floor of a 19th century building in the Eminonu section of the city, its floor to ceiling glass frontage overlooking the Bosphorus, and where the powerful elite of the city gather alongside the rich and the famous, and random gourmet tourists.
Over a three hour degustation feast, I tasted lamb buttock meat (a first for me), pounded to soften and then grilled to melt off the bone. That Vedat speciality came last, and still remains a palate memory imprinted for its softness. I started with cougettes stuffed with mackerel laid on almond sauce, air dried beef marinated in extravirgin olive oil, anchovies from the Black Sea and Red Moulet. All of it washed down with my favourite Turkish Kalecik Karasi red wine from the Turasan Chateau.
What Vedat does not serve in his Michelin level restaurant is the ubiquitous meze that you will find in every typical Turkish eatery, including the traditional food restaurants called Lokantasi. Mostly served cold it is made up of a variety of ingredients including varied crudités, salads, pureés, pickles, vinaigrettes, cheeses, fruits, fritters, böreks, vegetables and meats. Each little plate holds enough for two or three people to have a portion.
What kind of meats should you expect to eat in Istanbul? Though based on lamb and mutton, Turkish cuisine includes beef and chicken (no pork, of course), as well as all sorts of seafood. The most common preparations are roasting and grilling, which produce the famous Turkish kebaps, including dönerkebap, the national dish, iskembe, tripe soup and köfte, the workingman’s favorite.
My personal favourites were quickly established. Bulgur Fried Meatballs (spicier than what I ate in Capri) that I devoured in various places at least five times in six days! Stuffed vine leaves. Vegetarian clay pot (peppers, tomatoes, potatoes,onions, carrots) and Avanos Mantisi (a twist on Italian ravioli, tiny sized dumplings stuffed with meat and topped with yoghurt and tomato sauce). I also enjoyed eating from roadside stalls, mostly offering Sucuk, beef sausages cooked with garlic and spices, pan fried, then wrapped with scrambled eggs in bread. Smeared with fiery red pepper paste it can set your tongue on fire, doused with the local aniseed raki or Efes Beer.