Sunday, July 25, 2010

Istanbul - July 2010 (Part I)

During preparations for the trip to Romania, I had this sudden yearning to visit Istanbul; a curiosity – if you will – to witness and understand first-hand some of the historical and social drivers that have affected (to some extent) and influenced the development of our culture, our people [by ‘our’ meaning Romanian, of course] and our lifestyle. This wasn’t going to be a mere tourist escape in an exciting new city; it was going to be a search for answers, meaning and culture in the historical background of a city that was shaped by Greek, Roman and Ottoman conquests throughout history.

Established initially by Greeks (6th century BC), Byzantium later fell into the hands of the Romans (was even called New Rome for a while) and became Constantinople (4th century AD) in honor of Constantine the Great – first Roman emperor to switch to Christianity. It was not until the 10’th century that Istanbul was used in reference to the city name, but the current name became official in the early 19th century. Regardless of the name, Istanbul was one of [if not] the largest and wealthiest city in Europe during the Middle Ages. Not too shabby today either, with a population of just under $13 million (5th largest in the world)
Throughout history, the city was the capital of the Roman, Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman Empires. In 2010 it was chosen as the European Capital of Culture…

But enough with the historical background; If you’re so inclined, Wikipedia has tons more detail on this (and if you’re interested, I’ll put a couple of links at the bottom of this article). The intent of this blog is to highlight our experience during a short 3 day [4 nights] visit and share some thoughts, anecdotes and pictures. So, here we go:

Early Friday morning everyone was up early and excited to embark on the +600 km drive to Istanbul. Other (and more preferred) ‘transportation’ options – overnight boat trip from Constanta, or local air charter from Kogalniceanu – did not materialize unfortunately. Ten rainy hours later, after a challenging drive through the Bulgarian coastline and adjoining mountains, a grueling [I should just say inefficient, but that’s less dramatic] one-hour border crossing experience, we were on the shores of the Marmara inching our way into ‘Stanbul [on ‘normal’ roads, this trip should take 5, 6 hours at most].

Shorty after, we were dining on kebabs and Iskender, sipping Efes on a rooftop restaurant, under the ‘shadow’ of the imposing Blue Mosque, taking in the city lights and the Bosphorus below. Instant enamouration!

The next 3 days [we drove back Tue morning] were filled with ooo’s and aaa’s, lots and lots of walking, extraordinary sightseeing on water and land, a historical world-cup final, and waaaaaaaay to much eating [seems like every other hour we were munching on something]. I think I added a few good pounds to my otherwise impressive girlish figure…5 or 6 at least…

I’ll expand on our experience in subsequent series of this blog, but for now, here’s a few pictures where we tried to capture the color and the spirit of the city. Enjoy!

Gates into the old city

Street life

Boats waiting for tourists
Bosphorus view from the Pierre Loti cafe:
Street vendors selling his fares (fresh lollipops... yummmm). There were others, with corn on a cob, watermelons, roasted chestnuts, baked goods, even fresh mussels! Couldn't go hungry even if you wanted to...

The fish market
The center of the empire (or Point Zero) four centuries before Christ:
The Railway Station, once Point Terminus for the famous Orient Express
A 'suspended' cemetery on the Bosphorus; real estate is scarce even in the afterlife...
Yummy goods in the storefronts; baklava, lokum (turkish delight), kadauif, halva (one can get a sugar rush just by walking through)

Galata Bridge (with the tower in the background) and the many seafood restaurants under it:
Snapshots from a Bosphorus cruise:
The bridge connecting Europe and Asia
The Sultans' summer castle (on the Asian side)
The Dolmabahce Palace and new city (Taksim Square) in the background
Quickly off the boat to set foot on Asia (didn't feel any different :-)

More about the trip in Part II of this blog (will take me a week or two...)

PS – if this peaked your interest, know that a visa (has to be obtained in advance at a cost of $60) is required to enter Turkey with a US passport. I was a little pissed at first [seemed kinda’ steep, especially since EU citizens are only charged $10 for a stamp at the border] but when you put things in perspective, it’s justified: Romanians are charged $130 by the US Embassy just for the “opportunity” to apply for a visa, regardless of whether it’s approved or not. Yeah… I know… L

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