Istanbul – the western end of the Silk Road
Thankfully, last night’s thunderstorm was an end to the rain and in spite of a pessimistic forecast, the day proved fine, if humid. We made our way to the Blue Mosque – Sultanahmet, to give it its proper name. Built in the 17th century by the young sultan, who died aged 27. Ever ascending domes supported by massive columns take the eyes upward. The walls shine with stunning Iznik tiles. The vast floor is covered with fitted carpets. A man with a vacuum cleaner patrols the width of the prayer hall, observed by hundreds of tourists.
As a matter of principle, we visit the Grand Bazaar. This is the largest building in the world, we read, and it is where some of the Silk Road goods would have ended their journey – or begun it. It is surprisingly peaceful. I drink Turkish coffee in the Sark Cafe, we watch the world go by.
The Spice Bazaar, by contrast, is buzzing – more what we thought the Grand Bazaar would be. The stalls are crammed with fragrant powders and Turkish Delight.
We reach the Golden Horn just in front of the Galata Bridge. Busy with traffic, as ever, it crosses the choppy ferry-laden waters where they lead into the Bosphorus. We buy very fresh, small grilled mackerels with sliced onions wrapped in bread rolls and eat them watching the ferries and the fishermen casting their lines. Fortified but not ready for exercise, we take a Bosphorus cruise up to and beyond the suspension bridge and back. The passengers are predominantly Turkish, all eagerly photographing each other and the smart hotels we pass.
Back on shore, we feel the need of liquid and sweetness, each of which is perfectly satisfied by a visit to Hafiz Mustafa, a 19th century institution overlooking the new tram lines by Sirkeci station. Lemonade, pistacchio ice cream, baklava and pomegranate tea. Perfect!
Our touristic duties were not done until we have visited the Aya Sofia Museum. Just opposite the Blue Mosque, this massive temple has a very different and much more ancient feel. Dating from the 4th century, it was first a Christian temple, where the Holy Roman Emperors were crowned, then from the 15th century, a mosque, and since Ataturk, a museum. The Byzantine mosaics are extraordinary.
Our day is nicely rounded off by dinner in a good fish restaurant, Balikci Sabahattin, not far from our hotel. Recommended!