Istanbul

Istanbul (Turkish: İstanbul) is the largest city in Turkey, though not its capital. With a population of 13.9 million, the city forms one of the largest urban agglomerations in Europe and is the second-largest city in the world by population within city limits. Istanbul is a transcontinental city, straddling the Bosphorus—one of the world's busiest waterways—in northwestern Turkey, between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea. Its commercial and historical centre lies in Europe, while a third of its population lives in Asia.

Founded on the Sarayburnu promontory around 660 BC as Byzantium, the city now known as Istanbul developed to become one of the most significant cities in history. For nearly sixteen centuries following its reestablishment as Constantinople in 330 AD, it served as the capital of four empires: the Roman Empire (330–395), the Byzantine Empire (395–1204 and 1261–1453), the Latin Empire (1204–1261), and the Ottoman Empire (1453–1922). It was instrumental in the advancement of Christianity during Roman and Byzantine times, before the Ottomans conquered the city in 1453 and transformed it into an Islamic stronghold and the seat of the last caliphate. Although the Republic of Turkey established its capital in Ankara, palaces and imperial mosques still line Istanbul's hills as visible reminders of the city's previous central role. Istanbul's strategic position along the historic Silk Road, rail networks to Europe and the Middle East, and the only sea route between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean have helped foster an eclectic populace.

Overlooked for the new capital during the interwar period, the city has since regained much of its prominence. The population of the city has increased tenfold since the 1950s, as migrants from across Anatolia have flocked to the metropolis and city limits have expanded to accommodate them. Arts festivals were established at the end of the 20th century, while infrastructure improvements have produced a complex transportation network. Approximately 11.6 million foreign visitors arrived in Istanbul in 2012, two years after it was named a European Capital of Culture, making the city the world's fifth-most-popular tourist destination. The city's biggest draw remains its historic centre, partially listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but its cultural and entertainment hub can be found across the city's natural harbour, the Golden Horn, in the Beyoğlu district.

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We stayed at the Sultan Mehmed Hotel, a small, new in 2013, boutique hotel in the Old City. We arranged through them an airport pick up, which eased the strain of arriving at Istanbul Airport. It is the luck of the draw with the traffic, but the transfer takes 45 top 60 minutes. You can see on the map that the hotel is only a few minutes walk from the Blue Mosque, and close to all the other attractions. We bought a Metro Pass to get around - you need precise instructions from the hotel as to where and how to buy it, and it involves finding the correct newspaper kiosk near the Metro stop. Once you have the Pass, it is very easy to use - you just swipe yourself into the tram stops, a bit like a London Oyster card.

The hotel is small, and the owner, who runs the place is very charming and helpful. His family in one way or another appear to own most of the neighbouring blocks. Our room, on the 2nd floor overlooking the street was well decorated and spacious.

It had a private french balcony (ie too small to use for anything) with partial Marmara sea and historical little Hagia-Sophia mosque views. They claim, correctly, to be 10 minutes walk from the iconic Istanbul landmarks such as Hagia Sophia Museum, the Blue Mosque, Topkapı Palace and the Basilica Cistern. There are a wealth of restaurants in easy walking distance of the hotel. Breakfast we took on the small wooden deck out the back of the hotel

There is an espresso machine in the reception area, where you can get a free cup of coffee whenever you want. And there are Turkish sweetmeats, cake and fruit available here too.

The owner was very helpful in giving us recommendations and advice on everything from restaurants to sightseeing

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We ate twice at the Fuego Restaurant, which had a very high TripAdvisor rating. The food was good, but I would not say gourmet. However the service was very pleasant, and they were not in the business of touting for custom - nearly every restaurant in Istanbul had high pressure touts standing outside their premises, many pushy past the point of rudeness, including the place next door to the Fuego, where the tout roundly abused us for not wishing to enter his restaurant.

I had the Testi Kebab on the first night. It is a Turkish specialty and is cooked in an earthenware pot with the open end sealed. The pot is brought to your table on a flaming base, and the waiter breaks the pot open by cracking the top off. It is quite spectacular, and worth the money, even if the lamb inside the pot was not the best I have ever had!

We returned the second evening for a lighter meal.

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The Turks are keen on sweetmeats. We indulged in coffee, fresh orange juice and a plate of assorted Turkish Delight at one of the leading cafes for these delights, Hafiz Mustafa 1864. Very pleasant it was too.

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So it looks as if we are in Turkey, and in Istanbul in particular. Someone looks very happy to be here. So, out of the hotel, and off to buy the metro Pass at this kiosk.
The Metro is in fact a tram! All above ground, and packed to the gunnels all the time. We decided to walk to the Grand Bazaar. Quite a posh place with wide aisles.
Past the Suleymaniye Mosque. And on to the Egyptian Spice Bazaar, which seemed to me to have more "character" than the Grand Bazaar. From here our route home..
..took us past more mosques and cafes, to the Topkapi Palace, and imposing collection of buildings with a harem, and commanding views over the Bosphorus. We ..
..then wandered back to our hotel. It was a long day on our feet!. As the sun set, the pomegranate juice salesmen were on the job. The next day we did the cruise up the ..
..Bosphorus, then on the way back visited the Hagia Sophia - now a museum, and not a working church or mosque. There is fairly extensive restoration ongoing inside.
Net result is you pay to go in here, but the Blue Mosque is free! Taksim Square is a lively place with crowds of both Turkish shoppers and armed riot police.
The streets had doner kebab vendors. The Museum of Archeology, contains The Tiled Kiosk dating from 1472, and the Tomb of Alexander the Great from Sidon.

Hagia Sophia. In 1453, Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks under Sultan Mehmed II, who ordered this main church of the Orthodox Christianity converted into a mosque. By this point, the Church had fallen into a state of disrepair. Nevertheless, the Christian cathedral made a strong impression on the new Ottoman rulers and they decided to convert it into a mosque. The bells, altar, iconostasis, and sacrificial vessels and other relics were removed and the mosaics depicting Jesus, his Mother Mary, Christian saints and angels were also removed or plastered over. Islamic features – such as the mihrab, minbar, and four minarets – were added.

It remained a mosque until 1931 when it was closed to the public for four years. It was re-opened in 1935 as a museum by the Republic of Turkey. From its initial conversion until the construction of the nearby larger Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque of Istanbul) in 1616, it was the principal mosque of Istanbul. The Hagia Sophia served as inspiration for many other Ottoman mosques, such as the Blue Mosque, the Şehzade Mosque, the Süleymaniye Mosque, the Rüstem Pasha Mosque and the Kılıç Ali Paşa Mosque.

Sultan Ahmed Mosque, popularly known as the Blue Mosque for the blue tiles adorning the walls of its interior, is a historic mosque in Istanbul. It was built from 1609 to 1616, during the rule of Ahmed I. Its Külliye contains a tomb of the founder, a madrasah and a hospice. The Sultan Ahmed Mosque is still used as a mosque. The Sultan Ahmed Mosque has one main dome, six minarets, and eight secondary domes. The design is the culmination of two centuries of both Ottoman mosque development. It incorporates some Byzantine elements of the neighbouring Hagia Sophia with traditional Islamic architecture and is considered to be the last great mosque of the classical period. The architect, Sedefkâr Mehmed Ağa, synthesized the ideas of his master Sinan, aiming for overwhelming size, majesty and splendour.

Taksim Square. The word Taksim means "division" or "distribution". The Taksim square was originally the point where the main water lines from the north of Istanbul were collected and branched off to other parts of the city. This use for the area was established by Sultan Mahmud I. The square takes its name from the Ottoman era stone reservoir which is located here. Taksim is a main transportation hub. İstiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue), a long pedestrian shopping street, ends at this square, and a nostalgic tram runs from the square along the avenue, ending near the Tünel (1875) which is the world's second-oldest subway line after London's Underground (1863). We tried and failed to find this subway! The square has been an important venue for political protests during much of its existence.

Following many other violent incidents, all forms of group protests were banned in the square and the police units maintained a round-the-clock presence to prevent any incidents. The ban did not apply to surrounding avenues or streets. We noticed sizable groups of fully equipped riot police when we were in the square

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We took the ferry/cruise through the Bosphorus to a port near the Black Sea. There we had lunch in a little restaurant on the water, strangely called "Gold Fish" where indeed I had Carp: before it was time to re-board and sail back to Istanbul. Apart from passing under the vast bridges that link the European shore to the Asian one, the coast is dotted with a number of splendid buildings - as well as many nondescript ones which never get photographed. A pleasant 6 hours in the sun, the ferry was a bit decrepit, but it was a pleasant day on the water, and gave a view of the city that you cannot get from the shore.

The hotel then organised out car back to the airport on the last evening. Through the rush hour traffic in Istanbul for our 21.00 Turkish Airlines flight to Ashgabat. This was in itself an adventure, as the local Turkmen women appeared to have a major business smuggling textiles from Turkey into Turkmenistan. The result was that flights to Ashgabat are segregated in Istanbul Airport, and the passengers carefully inspected. The name of the game was to take a petite Turkmen woman, wrap as many meters of fabric round her body to get a chunky Turkmen woman, then put her on a plane traveling to Ashgabat. The whole of the rest of the plane appeared to be made up of these chunky ladies, all having arguments with Turkish check in staff over excess baggage. Eventually we all boarded - it was quite bizarre

Holiday - on to Ashgabat