So on a cold November evening in a lovely little restaurant in Richmond I was finally able to spill the beans about the surprise trip to Istanbul I had planned for my boyfriend James. We would fly out at 6am the following morning for a long weekend of site-seeing, eating, drinking, Turkish-bathing and exploring. With only a few days to play with I decided that we would stay in Sultanahmet (the old part of the city) so as to be as central as possible. If you are wanting to visit the likes of Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Bazaars and the hustle and bustle of traditional Istanbul then this is definitely a good place to stay.
Sultanahmet isn’t always first off the mark in the morning but a sleepy start is sometimes welcomed on holiday (time to include a second dash round the breakfast buffet, a trip to the hotel spa or a post flight lie in) but once it gets going it is a hive of activity. Tourists, stall-sellers, locals following the call to prayer and flocking to the mosques and locals just going about their ordinary day, syphoning up the higgledy-piggeldy streets to hole-in-the-wall shops and traditional restaurants. In one such shop we met a lovely man, who, like many other Turks, welcomed us with the phrase “lovely jubbly” on finding out we were English, and then launched into conversation about cricket, and England’s evident lack of any recent cricketing success. In another I found that the tiny sleepy-eyed kittens were much more attractive than the embellished silk offerings.
Little snack stalls are dotted on every street corner in the old part of the city- their distinctive red and white striped awnings flutter in the breeze coming in over the Bosphorus, the smoke from their roasting chestnuts fills the noses of those en route to prayer. From simit (a sesame covered bagel-style ring of doughy goodness), to roasting chestnuts, to stalls offering a whole host of options- all pickled! In comparison with the magnificence of Hagia Sophia these little stalls on wheels seem to pale into insignificance and struggle to gain any place at all in the guide books of ‘best bits’ but with such charm they surprisingly form some of my fondest memories of the city.
As the evening wears on shutters descend, street stalls wheel away and late night diners retreat back to their homes and hotels with bellies stuffed full with traditional kebab, pufferfish bread (lavas bread if you’re using the proper terms) and contentment. The mosques are lit up to create imposing displays of brilliance and the old streets feel like they hadn’t changed at all in the last several thousand years- crumbling stone silhouettes, sloping roofs, dark doorways and nothing but the light of the moon to light their dark windings.
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