Iconic symbols of Istanbul, beyond the mega sights…
Its a city straddling two continents. Its skyline of ancient mosques and pencil-thin minarets is a photographer’s dream. Its imperial history is the stuff dreams are made of. And it boasts of some of the most sought-after mega sights on the planet. But for me, the real magic of Istanbul lies in its everyday scenes, its people, its streets, its waters, its very air. Unveiling my list of favourite Turkish delights in Istanbul. Icons in their own right, one and all.
1. Bosphorus blues: 32-kms of Bosphorus Strait separates Istanbul’s European and Asian sides. A shocking electric blue and a bouncy-swirl of choppy waters that locks the gaze into an unblinking stupor. Its the ceaseless cross-currents of the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara at work. Creating postcard-perfect views of the Turkish capital, any time of the day. Making you stare forever.
2. Fishing rods: Everyday, in the early morning and late evening, hundreds of locals line up on the Galata Bridge spanning the Golden Horn from Eminonu to Karakoy. Some for recreation, some to earn money, some to pose for pictures. Fishing rod crowd the balustrades, men try their luck for fresh catch and patiently wait hours for a tug. A charming routine lives on.
3. Ice cream magicians: In Istanbul, even a single scoop of Dondurma (a creamy, sticky ice-cream originating from Kahramanmaraş region), translates into a full-fledged act. Fez-capped men in traditional robes entertain buyers with gusto. There’s bell-ringing, teasing, pranks, antics and a loud sing-song voice. All classically Turkish. Its a dizzying array of flavours. Get smart, ask for a mix.
4. Musical azaan: Five times a day, the muezzin’s trilling call to prayer bellows from loudspeakers at different mosques in the city. It is synchronised, like a chain, echoing everywhere. The nearby mosques respond to the call, each joining in the harmony by turn. The azaan itself is sweet like a Sufi melody. Floating towards the heavens, above the din of the city, it is like a conduit of spiritualism. Transport into peace.
5. Turkish dance: No better way to soak in the country’s culture than an evening show of perfectly choreographed Turkish dances. A chain of performers, both solo and group, folk and belly dances, fire shows and all. Arabian-nights costumes, sparkling jewellery. Flash of colours, foot-tapping rhythm and spirited energy. Elegant, seductive and entrancing. Top recommendation? Hodjapasha Dance Theatre, a beautifully restored Ottoman hammam in the Sirkeci district of old Sultanahmet.
6. Whirling dervishes: Mystical ritual of Rumi’s Mevlevi Order, now a UNESCO Heritage of Humanity. Pristine flowing garments, serene expressions, uplifting music and so much whirling, one can get dizzy just watching. One more for the Hodjapasha Dance Theatre. The mood is solemn. And no clapping…this is a spiritual experience. Another Istanbul special memory to look back on, for all times.
7. Seagulls: They squawk madly, peck indiscriminately, fly in hordes, make a pretty picture in solitude and chase passenger ferry boats, all the way along the Bosphorus. Forever hungry for morsels of simit (Turkish bagel) that tourists throw towards them, they often grab food in mid-air with well-rehearsed ease. Their dazzling white feathers make a stunning contrast against the sharp blue backdrop of the waves. Istanbul wouldn’t be itself without them.
8. Fishing villages: These lesser known but apt symbols of the city are like a breath of fresh air. One that specially stands out is Arnavutköy (‘Town of Albanians’). Elements to love are aplenty. Yachts dock along the shore, locals laze on waterfront benches, quaint streets lead to pretty cafés, art galleries and tempting restaurants. Count in two Greeks Orthodox Churches from the late 19th century and one ruined synagogue. And the old Ottoman wooden mansions are a blast from the past. Wander on.
9. Ceramics: The city overflows with vibrant tile and ceramic souvenirs, including dishes, bowls, wall hangings and magnets…from affordable printed ones to pricey handmade versions. A tradition rooted in the 8th-9th centuries, but reaching its zenith during the Ottoman Empire. Known as İznik tiles after the town of İznik where it prospered. Popular motifs are tulips, roses, pomegranates and hyacinths and favoured colors are cobalt blue and turquoise. The richest decorations in tombs and mosques feature İznik tiles. Shopping ritual justified.
10. Rugs: Rich dark colors and geometric patterns of the pileless, tapestry-woven Turkish kilims are recognisable anywhere. Historically, Turks were among the earliest carpet weavers…the craft goes back to the 4th-century BC. Kilim originated in the Anatolia area of the country, an area lying between the Black and Mediterranean seas. Budget permitting, it makes a great take-me-home. PS: Flying carpets exist only in fiction, not in Istanbul bazaars.
11. Cay: The Turks love their cay. Traditional black Turkish tea is the order of the day, anytime of the day. Drunk in small and delicate tulip-shaped glasses (often plain glass) so that the colour is visible. Locals compare the ideal colour to that of , rabbit blood! Sugar is permissible, but no milk. Lighter or darker according to taste. but always boiling hot. On low stools with company and conversation. To be tried.
12. Coffee: Turkish coffee is thick and meant to be sipped slowly after a meal. Like a rough version of espresso. Bitter and in small doses. Black as can be. It’s unfiltered, the coffee never completely dissolves, so the cup must be shaken gently often for a remix. Factoid: Turkish coffee culture is now on the Unesco Intangible cultural heritage list.
13. Sweets: Tackle the queues before facing the decision dilemma…because there’s an unimaginable array of fruit desserts, helvas, milk puddings and sherbet sweets like baklava. Scented with rose water, citrus, jasmine, cherries, saffron, spices. Drenched in fragrant syrup. Topped with luscious cream. Staircase to sublime. Really sweet, but available in bite-sized portions too. Created for religious events and royal festivities because wine or alcohol is prohibited in Islam?
14. Kebabs: The first Turkish kebabs were born in the Erzurum region of East Turkey. Meat was cooked on a spit horizontally for a several centuries till it evolved into the modern vertical cooking method of the döner kebabs. Lamb, beef, chicken and fish…choices all. Popular ones to gun for? Shish, adana, iskender, caq, doner, even vegetable kababs. Best savoured in a traditional meyhane (Turkish tavern) on a crowded street. Meyhanes go back several centuries in time to the Byzantine era. Worth going on a treasure hunt to find the oldest one.
15. Beyond kebabs: There’s more to Turkish cuisine than just kebabs. Vegetarians options abound…from lentil soup, falafels and tabbouleh to salad-filled pittas and finger-licking mezes like Ezme (chilli tomato paste), Patlıcan Ezmesi (grilled eggplants with yogurt), Haydari (mint yogurt dip), Muhammara (spicy pepper and walnut dip). Must-try dishes? Zeytinyagli Dolma (grape leaves stuffed with rice). And Kuru Fasulye (white beans stew cooked in a soupy tomato gravy with chilies and onions, spooned and doused over rice. Debate-worthy question: Which came first Turkish Kuru Fasulye or the Indian Rajma Chawal?
And that, is just a suggestive list. I missed out so much, the still-in-vogue Sultan hangover, the famous cats that seem to own the city, ancient board games that one sees people playing in alleys, the cheerful yellow Taksi, and the Ottoman architecture. The crooked and steep bylanes of Istanbul are an unending treasure of exotic finds. Let your heart lead you to discover more…
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