ISTANBUL, TURKEY — There’s a moment during your first visit to this city when you stop — on a busy street corner or at the rail of a bobbing ferry boat — and all at once you just ‘get it’.
And then you realize this isn’t just the song of Istanbul, of the 12 million people that call it home, but the song of humanity — sung with notes from every culture, every experience, every soul that touched these streets for the last three millennia.
It’s at that moment that Istanbul truly comes into light.
A week back from our first trip to the place where East meets West and I’m still decompressing, still lingering on those overwhelming sensations. Istanbul is a million things, but in my feeble attempt to put those experiences into words, let’s breat it down into three parts: culture, history and food.
It’s not surprising that those are the three things that drew us to Istanbul in the first place — and conveniently the three pots that our experiences filled until they overflowed and overflowed again.
After several long, hard weeks of work and bone-chilling Munich weather, we were looking forward to a long weekend away in this exotic city.
The 4am wake up call for our flight was a shock to the system, but we made our way to airport and a surprisingly on-time Turkish Airlines flight. En route, the sun rose to display the full length of the Austrian Alps glistening below — a stark reminder of what a trip to the east would have taken a century ago when the Orient Express was your ‘fast track’ to the Orient.
The lore of this legendary train route always loomed romantic in my mind. Thoughts of steam and eastern train depots, lavish dinners and the sun setting over spice bazaars.
It was a small joy to actually visit the Eastern terminus of the Orient Express route — still a working train station for European bound trains — with its neoclassical clock tower, rose windows and eastern arches.
But aboard our modern transport, we arrived in the city to significantly less fanfare — swept along with the crowds to a light rail system from the airport to one of the city’s main tramlines, which itself deposited us just a kilometer north of our hotel in Sultanahmet — the heart of old Constantinople.
What a sight stepping off that tram: to our right lay the vast complex of the Blue Mosque, with its dozens of domes and six minarets; to the left, its 1000 year older predecessor, the Aya Sofia, glowing rose colored in the dim morning light.
We stumbled our way between these historic sites — desperately trying to keep our eyes forward instead of up. The winding, roughly cobblestoned streets of Sultanahmet and Cankurtaran were a challenge for our travel-weary legs, but we eventually found our temporary home. A tiny boutique hotel with a commanding view of the Blue Mosque from its rooftop terrace.
It’s here that we were able to lay down our bags, take a breath, sip some tea and prepare for what was in store.