Istanbul, not Constantinople

Susie navigates the TünelIn early 2014, my travel buddy Susie asked if I’d like to join her on a Rick Steves tour to Turkey. Well, who wouldn’t want to visit Istanbul, one of the world’s great cities? James Bond, the Orient Express, baklava and kebabs, Empress Theodora... obviously I needed to do a lot of reading before the trip! We decided to fly to Istanbul a few days before the tour started, to give ourselves a chance to unwind and get oriented. Since the group hotel was in the Sultanahmet District and our excursions would concentrate on the historic city, we booked a room at the charming Galata Antique Hotel in bustling Beyoğlu across the Bosphorus. And bustling it certainly was! After our arrival and a short nap, we headed out to explore Istaklal Caddesi, of which Austrian historian Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall said in the early 1800s: “It is as narrow as the comprehension of its inhabitants and as long as the tapeworm of their intrigues.” Less notorious today, Istaklal is still the center of nightly social life in Beyoğlu, a non-stop circus of strollers and shoppers, food vendors, and entertainers on every corner.

The New MosqueOne surprise was that the call to prayer did not wake us up in the early hours. Breakfast, however, beckoned, and after fortifying our stomachs we headed to the Tünel, built in 1875 as the world’s second oldest subterranean rail line, which would take us to the Galata Bridge and the old city. A friendly local helped us figure out how to get tokens, and we took the short trip downhill to Karaköy. Crossing the Galata Bridge on foot gave us a great view of the Bosphorus boat traffic as well as a panorama of the Sultanahmet district skyline. Susie wanted some extra time to shop in the spice market, which we found next to the Yeni Camii (New Mosque). “New” only in comparison with existing structures, this mosque was ordered by the mother of Mehmet III, but its construction lasted for 66 years (1597–1663) because of interruptions due to finances, earthquakes, fires, and engineering problems. The construction was finally completed during the reign of Sultan Mehmet IV.

European terminus of the Orient ExpressThen we meandered along the coastline toward Topkapi, where we were surprised to stumble upon the train terminal for the Orient Express, still in use with its lovely stained glass windows intact and part of a comfortable looking bar and restaurant. Navigating the Old City streets was somewhat convoluted, but we managed to blunder our way, including sharing the first of many lunches featuring gözleme (hand-rolled dough cooked on a griddle and filled with cheese, spinach, etc.), and figuring out how to purchase tickets for the tramway to return to the waterfront and across the bridge back to our hotel. This time we walked along the lower level, where those famous fish sandwiches were being touted from a chain of restaurants. The first recorded bridge spanning the Golden Horn dates from the time of Justinian in the sixth century; since then there has been a series of bridges in this location, with the most recent one completed in 1994. A symbolic link between the traditional city of Istanbul proper and the areas where foreign merchants and diplomats were housed, the bridge bonded two distinct cultures. Writer F. Marion Crawford wrote in the late 19th century, “There is nothing like it in the whole world, from San Francisco to Peking — nothing so vivid, so alive, so heterogeneous, so anomalous and so fascinating.”

fish dinnerGalata TowerSeafood was definitely on our minds, however, so after a short nap back at the hotel, we strolled down Istaklal to the narrow, steep Galip Dede Caddesi which meanders toward the Galata Tower, where we had our dinner at Fürreyya Galata Balıkçısı, one of the many Beyoğlu seafood establishments in the guidebook listings. The cozy restaurant was pretty crowded, so we sat at the bar and made friends with the family who owned and ran the place, while enjoying some domestic wine with our mezes and fresh whole fish entree, followed by baklava and Turkish coffee. And gelato on the walk back uphill and home. Yum!

We had enough time after breakfast the next morning to walk back down to and climb the Galata Tower, the most conspicuous structure in the New District. Built in the fourteenth century by the Genoese and used as a fire tower, barracks, dungeon, and 17th-century hang-gliding launch pad, the 205-foot stone structure offers one of the best, 360-degree, views of Istanbul from the terrace. Now feeling a bit more familiar with Istanbul and ready to join our tour group, we checked out of the hotel and grabbed a taxi to cross the Golden Horn and travel back in time to Old Byzantium.

Next: Crossing to Byzantium
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