East Meets West Redux

[Istanbul, Turkey, May 23, 2019]

Ahhh, Istanbul! This magical city, which straddles Europe and Asia, has gone through many transformative changes in its history. Founded under the name of Byzantion around 660 BC, the city grew in size and influence. Roman Emperor Constantine, having just converted to Christianity, made it the new capital of the Roman Empire in 330 AD and began its transformation as a major Christian center. A thousand years later, in the 15th century when the Turks arrived, it transformed again from a bastion of Christianity into a symbol of Islamic culture. In the 20th century, the Ottoman Empire collapsed and the present-day Turkish republic was established in 1923. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk became its first president and his name now graces many things in Istanbul. Ankara was selected as the capital in order to symbolically move away from Istanbul’s Christian and Ottoman past. But in the 1970, Istanbul experienced major population growth as people from all over Anatolia moved to the city looking for work, and it remains Turkey’s most populous (and popular) city to this day.

Hagia Sophia, built by Emperor Justinian in 537 AD, remained the largest cathedral in the world for a thousand years. It is one of the most recognizable buildings in Istanbul

I visited Istanbul on the cusp of 2013, and actually celebrated New Year’s Eve there. I was looking forward to seeing how the city had changed since, but I was also keenly aware that the country as a whole had gradually changed course in those six years. Recent political developments in Turkey, combined with its proximity to Syria, have placed the country on the US State Department’s Advisory list. Turkey’s rating was raised to “Reconsider Travel” on April 9, 2019, about a month before our planned trip there with everything already planned. If you read the actual advisory, you’ll notice it deals mostly with the easternmost provinces next to Syria. The risk of terrorism in Istanbul and other tourist areas remains high, although I am not sure I would consider it higher compared to major Western-European cities at this point. Turkey is Bulgaria’s neighbor to the Southeast, and Bulgarians continue to travel to Istanbul in large numbers due to its proximity (it’s a 45-minute flight or a 6-hour drive from Sofia) and attractive pricing compared to Greece, for example. We just felt we’d have to be a tad more vigilant in this metropolis compared the rural area we were coming from.

We flew from Izmir to Istanbul, which only takes about an hour. Upon arrival, we finally had an opportunity to take in this massive new airport, which we had to basically run through on our way to Kusadasi. The new airport opened for flights on April 6, 2019. The old airport (named Ataturk – told you his name is everywhere) was decommissioned because its proximity to the city made it impossible to expand. Already, Turkish airlines had split its operations between Ataturk airport and the smaller Sabiha Gokcen airport, on the Asian side, which was also at capacity. The new airport was built 35 km (21 miles) northwest of the city center, on the Black Sea on the European side of Istanbul. This handy map should help get your bearings.

By RĂśmert – Own work, based on OpenStreetMap, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Simply put, this new airport is huge. But because it was built in anticipation of much higher traffic in the future, it seemed desolate. The plane had to taxi for over 10 minutes to get to the gate, and we had to walk what seemed like a mile before we found a bathroom, which we both desperately needed. The hallways were empty even though we had just gotten off a plane with about 100 other people.

We had arranged for the hotel to pick us up, but they mistakenly went to the international terminal to wait for us. After calling the hotel and straightening everything out, we were on our way to the city center. With afternoon traffic, it took about 50 min to get there. I had stayed at the same hotel (Neorion Hotel) during my 2012/2013 visit, and I loved its central location and the exceptional hospitality of the staff. Our room was impeccably clean and the dish full of Turkish delight (loukoum) together with a welcome letter from the manager was a nice touch.

We still had plenty of daylight left. After checking in and indulging in free Turkish tapas buffet in the lobby, which the hotel offered every day from 2 to 6 pm, we went to Sultanahmet square, which was only a 10-minute walk from the hotel. We got our first view of Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, which are across each other at either end of the square. It was too late in the day to get inside of either one, plus we were waiting for a friend of B’s to arrive later that evening before we explored in depth. But on this gorgeous, warm and sunny evening, we enjoyed taking photos and marveling at the beauty of both houses of worship.

We walked back towards out hotel and enjoyed people watching on the busy streets lined with restaurants and shops. We passed by a hotel with a rooftop garden and went upstairs to have a drink, but the view was not that great from up there.

B wanted to have tea somewhere, and I thought the restaurants under the Galata bridge would be a perfect place to do that. Since I was here in winter last time, I hadn’t had a chance to check out this quite touristy but very classic Istanbul attraction. The Galata bridge spans the Golden Horn, which is the primary inlet of the Bosphorus strait in Istanbul. People often think that crossing the bridge gets you to the Asian side, but that’s not true – the Asian side is on the other side of the Bosphorus, not on the other side of the inlet. Crossing the Galata bridge keeps you on the European side. Here’s another map to get you oriented.

Sultanahmet is the old part of Istanbul where most tourist attractions are located, and where our hotel is. The Galata bridge is marked on the map. It seems far but it’s only a 10-minute walk from Sultanahmet.
Adapted from Kaidor – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ottoman_Istanbul_-_ru.svg, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

The Galate bridge has two levels. The main level accommodates foot and car traffic as well as public transport. Despite how busy it is, people also like to fish from it. The tower you see in the first picture bears the same name as the bridge. It was built in 1348 and was the tallest structure in what was Constantinople at the time.

It was getting close to sunset, and the views from the bridge over the Bosphorus were incredible!

The second level of the Galata bridge is hidden so well underneath the first that you may not even know it’s there! It’s lined with restaurants and their employees will do their best to get you in. We watched them approach people as we sat on the patio drinking tea and eating baklava, and I had to admire how hard they work to bring in business in such a competitive spot.

I don’t know how busy these restaurants get later in the night or later in the summer, but on that warm summer evening, it was a very romantic place to be. The city slowly started to twinkle as the sun set.

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