A few days near the Bosporus are like a shock dose of vitamins against the winter blues
Numerically, Istanbul has had many faces: it is now the world's third-largest city by population, for the Byzantines it was the Second Rome, while for generations of settlers – from the Arabs to the Crusaders to the Ottomans – it was the Number One city they sought to conquer. So why not cheat on your favourite Bulgarian winter getaway and sneak over to Istanbul? Just think about it: from Sofia, only five hours by car or one by plane separate you from the most cosmopolitan and lively spot in the world. Straddling two continents, Istanbul in its 17 centuries of existence has embraced civilisations, peoples and cuisines, creating an inimitable mix of modern skyscrapers and crumbling facades, swanky restaurants and smoke-filled tea rooms, traces of luxury fit for a sultan and bazaars straight out of A Thousand and One Nights. Join the topsy-turvydom for at least a few days – if you're really lucky, it might even snow.
THE GALATA BRIDGE
The most famous bridge over the Golden Horn – the one Leonardo da Vinci designed for Sultan Bayezid II – was never built, although plans have recently surfaced to make the mythical structure a reality. The practical and rather plain modern Galata Bridge, which opened in 1994, has none of the same mystique – for most people it's simply the fastest way to get from Sultan Ahmed Square on the southern bank to Beyoğlu on the northern one. But it's a mistake to dismiss the bridge as just a utilitarian structure. Cross the bridge on foot and you'll wish you had eyes on the back of your head – it's hard to decide whether to gape at the silhouette of the St Sophia Church or at the Galata Tower. The scent of the sea, grilled fish and car fumes is an added bonus. If you're not in a hurry, watch the keen anglers patiently awaiting a catch at the end of their long lines.
THE UNDERGROUND MOSQUE IN KARAKÖY
Forget about Sultanahmet and Suleymaniye – if you have time for only one mosque in Istanbul, go to Yeraltı Camii, or the Underground Mosque. Located in a labyrinth of side streets in Karaköy, a visit there is a trip back in time. The Byzantines built this low-lying expanse with massive columns in 580 AD, and anchored there one of the ends of the heavy chain that blocked the entrance to the Golden Horn. It is unknown what became of the spot when the Ottomans conquered the city in 1453. Nearly 200 years later it once more attracted attention after a dervish had a dream that two Arabic soldiers killed during the Siege of Constantinople in 673–678 were buried there. The martyrs' graves were discovered and now stand in a corner. The space was turned into a mosque during the 18th Century.
In Bulgaria, shkembe chorba, or tripe soup, is a guilty pleasure usually indulged in following a wild night of drinking and slurped up at a pub on the verge of being shut down by health inspectors. In Istanbul, however, you'll find işkembe served in specialised restaurants where the tablecloths are squeaky clean, the waiters wear bowties, and well-dressed white-collar workers from nearby offices gather to enjoy meals the same way their Western counterparts savour sandwiches in the park. In such an atmosphere even the most diehard opponent of the idea of tripe soup will put out a white flag – OK, napkin! – and order a bowlful. Don't forget to grab a clove bud on your way out. Chew on it for a few minutes to kill off your garlic breath.
GO TO JAIL
And we mean it literally! A former gaol for Englishmen this is now a pleasant restaurant by the name of Galata House that you can visit without being obliged to eat. It has a very curious history. In the 17th Century, the then declining Ottoman Empire and the Great Powers evened out their disputes by the so-called capitulations. These included the right for the Great Powers to try their own subjects under their rather than the Ottoman law. Each embassy set up its own court and prison. During the First World War the Ottoman Empire and the Great Powers agreed that their prisoners of war should have their own separate prisons. The British prison was in a small building on a quiet street in Beyoğlu which connected the Galata Tower to the St Peter and Paul Monastery and which is now one of the most charming parts of the neighbourhood. The inmates didn't feel so comfortable here, however: "An unfavourable wind has brought the ship of my life to this shore," wrote one of them on the wall. The graffiti has been preserved and is now considered one of the most endearing aspects of the restaurant's ambience.
THE OLD TRAM
Istanbul is a city of skyscrapers, hanging bridges, motorways and new neighbourhoods bursting with millions of residents, but the city's earliest harbingers of Europeanisation – the funicular Tünel and the tram on İstiklal Caddesi – still transport passengers. To a certain point, that is. The charming cars on the rack railway between Karaköy and Beyoğlu – touted as the second underground in the world after London's – were recently replaced. The tram remains the only retro means of transport in the quarter. It first travelled the length between the Tünel Meydanı and Taksim at the end of the 19th Century, and later suffered a period of decline. In 1961 the city council closed the line replacing it with a bus. The tram reappeared on İstiklal during the 1990s when the street became a pedestrian zone. Now the only obstacles in the wagon's way are the throngs of people who clear a path just in the nick of time, chased aside by the conductor's frenetic bell ringing.
Mısır Carşısı, or the Egyptian Market, is located too close to the Kapalı Çarşı to escape the fate of that highly touristy place. At this covered spice market built in 1663 to support the clergy at the nearby Yeni Mosque, you'll find a whole spectrum of local kitsch – from children's belly dance costumes to Evil Eye talismans to cheap "traditional" ceramics. Spices and food are nevertheless the Mısır Carşısı's main stock in trade – albeit at prices meant for tourists: strings of dried okra, eggplant and hot peppers; bundles of mints and cinnamon sticks; rolls of grape leaves perfect for making sarmi, or stuffed grape leaves; heaping sacks of saffron, oregano, and several kinds of red and black pepper; and tea, including lemon and apple varieties. You can also find henna, homemade soap, pyramids of Turkish delight and whole stands piled with dried figs and apricots, dates and raisins, and dozens of kinds of nuts.
THE GOLDEN HORN
Theories about the origins of the name of the estuary that divides European Istanbul in two illustrate the city's eclectic nature. The Byzantines called it the Golden Horn, perhaps because of the colour of its waters at sunset – or maybe because its banks bustled with the bulk of the trade that made Constantinople the richest city in the world. The Golden Horn Give yourself a whole day to explore the Golden Horn. Spend the daylight hours wandering its banks, and at dusk climb up to the terrace of the Galata Tower to witness how its waters turn to gold.
THE BULGARIAN ST STEPHEN CHURCH
At the beginning of 2008 the Hürriyet newspaper declared the St Stephen Church the most beautiful functioning church in Turkey. This is but one of the reasons to head over to the Fener neighbourhood and explore it.
The Bulgarian church appeared on the shores of the Golden Horn in the 1890s when a ship from Vienna unloaded several tonnes of Austrian-produced iron parts. In 1898 the St Stephen Church was finally assembled and consecrated, and since then has been popularly known as the Iron Church. The building is the most emblematic Bulgarian contribution to the worldwide mania for steel structures at the end of the 19th Century. However, Istanbul's Bulgarian community – which then numbered 50,000 people – chose iron more from pragmatism than from trendiness. The land on which the church was built was waterlogged and couldn't support a brick-and-stone building. Wood was not an option, as the old church of the name St Stephen had burned down in one of Istanbul's notorious fires.
For Bulgarians the St Stephen Church is more than just an architectural curiosity. On Easter Day in 1860, in the old building the Bulgarian parish declared its independence from the Constantinople Patriarchate. The sultan's firman was read on the same spot 10 years later – it recognised the independence of the Bulgarian Church and created the Bulgarian Exarchate, the first official Bulgarian organisation since Bulgaria's fall under Ottoman power in 1396.
STORM OVER THE BOSPORUS
Strong northwestern winds whipping across the Sea of Marmara at 60 knots – around 111 km/h or 69 mph – cause Istanbul's worst weather, shutting down the Bosporus and creating huge lines of ships at either end. For you, however, nothing could be better than bad weather. A storm over the Bosporus will make you realise that the 30 km, or 19 mile, link between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara is a force of nature, and not just a picturesque way of dividing Europe and Asia. When you tire of storm-chasing, settle into one of the börek, or cheese pastry, shops along the European Bank and calm your nerves with börek peynirli or kıymalı, or pastry with cheese or ground beef, and a cup of tea.
FISH. FRESH FISH
The Turks complain that they lack their own seafood culture, but have borrowed that of Greece. They emphasise that the names for most fish – not counting the karagyoz, literally meaning "Black Eyes," are Greek borrowings. That may be true; however, the fresh fish laid out with exposed gills on crushed ice in the stalls of the Karaköy bazaar undermines this Turkish pessimism. Here you can find everything you could only dream of in a fish market in Bulgaria: bonito, bluefish, sprat, turbot, mussels, Black Sea mackerel, shrimp, mullet, gilthead seabream and bass. You'll suddenly realise how hungry you are. Don't gulp down just anything – get yourself a balık ekmek, or a sandwich of freshly grilled fish, from the stands on the other end of the Galata Bridge.
For three generation of Turks, Turkish coffee is something served primarily to tourists. They themselves drink black tea – a change in tastes brought about by the loss during the First World War of Yemen and the ensuing termination of cheap coffee supply.
In Istanbul it's easy to have some bad experience with Turkish tea. All you have to do is sit down at a trendy café or restaurant, or anywhere near the big tourist attractions – and you'll get an ordinary teabag at an outrageous price. For an authentic tea experience, go to one of the tea houses in the little side streets where all the patrons are obviously locals. Order bir çay, or one tea. They'll bring you a glass cup on a plastic saucer. The tea – usually served with two cubes of sugar – is so fragrant and warming that you probably want to order başka bir çay, or one more tea.
Inside the Topkapı Palace, when you reach the world's fifth-largest diamond and a dagger encrusted with large emeralds, you realise that the long line of tourists, which until then was moving at a snail's pace, has stopped dead. However, even these incredible riches can't give you the full picture of the luxury the Ottoman sultans wallowed in – the Baghdad Pavilion will give you a better idea.
The striking Middle East-style building appeared on the marble terrace at the behest of Sultan Murad IV, and was built in honour of his famous conquest of Baghdad in 1638. The pavilion is not very large, but contains the heights of luxury available at the time – tiles in every imaginable shade of blue on the outer walls; mother-of-pearl and turtle shell inlays on the inner walls; and a silver brazier, a gift from Louis XIV.
Sitting on the couches is forbidden, but no matter – the view from the terrace is more than enough. The vista of the Golden Horn is fit for a sultan, yet accessible to the ordinary mortal.