Text and Photos by Krisha Chachra
Maybe the Middle East isn’t the first place you’d think of visiting when booking your next vacation. Travel to this area may not receive the best endorsement, but the fact is, the world can be a precarious place no matter where you go. Although I advocate safety, I also am overcome by the richness gained through exploration. In that vein, I recommend putting Istanbul, Turkey, on your bucket list if you’re the type of traveler who desires a “wow” factor.
This city has it all ~ more than 2,000 years old with a perfect blend of ancient and modern architecture, Eastern and Western culture. It has been the capital of three great empires – Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman, although it is not the capital of Turkey. You must stop into one of the many Turkish bath houses or Hamams. Get the authentic experience of the scrub down, massage and warming and cooling rooms where you relax in luxurious octagonal pools or treat your skin to a fresh steam.
Also make sure you visit the Grand Bazaar where you can bargain and buy a wooden backgammon board with mother-of-pearl inlay or a hand-woven carpet that might resemble something from the movies that flies and takes you on a magical ride! The Spice Market is one of the most exotic sights. Filled with hundreds of stalls selling fruits, powders, oils, nuts and sweets, the aroma is heavy with a mouth-watering effect. Every conceivable spice is sold, and the deep colors of saffron, nutmeg, cinnamon and mint are magnificent.
In terms of landmarks and historic sites, Istanbul is home of the Hippodrome, the scene of chariot races during Constantinople’s (the name Istanbul was known by during the Ottoman Empire) heyday and home to more than 3,000 mosques, including the famed Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. A trip to see the latter two sites is a must and will take your breath away. Built by Constantine the Great in the 4th century, the Hagia Sophia is one of the world’s only basilicas that has been both a church and mosque. The golden mosaics depicting stories of emperors and saints are mesmerizing, and the huge dome lined with large, coin-shaped symbols in Arabic make this structure one of the architectural marvels of the world.
The Blue Mosque across from Hagia Sophia is equally as impressive. Although not required, females may choose to cover their heads out of respect when entering this jaw-dropping feat of classical Ottoman architecture. Built with more than 20,000 blue Iznik tiles, the structure is the only mosque flanked by six minarets. Our tour guide told us that Sultan Ahmed I, who ordered the mosque to be built from 1609 to 1616, asked the architect to build the minarets out of gold. The word “gold” and “six” sound similar; the architect misunderstood and built six minarets.
Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey and the only city in the world that spans Europe and Asia. Visiting Istanbul, therefore, is an elegant opportunity to visit two continents in one trip. My husband and I did just that. On one of our evening walks around the city, we passed a restaurant with a very persuasive caller beckoning tourists inside. The man was extremely friendly, a common trait in Istanbul we learned, and could greet people in at least a dozen languages. We were impressed with his confidence, comedy, tenacity and hustle as he made his 5-second pitch to curious couples strolling by.
The restaurant was Vuslat Ocakbasi and his name was Selcuk. As we sat among ornate, decorated pillows and dipped oversized inflated bread in homemade hummus served with a block of feta cheese and olives, we learned that Selcuk studied at Harvard and returned home to help his country and the family business. He wanted to show us true hospitality, so he invited us home to meet his family who lived on the Asian side of the city.
So, the next day we found ourselves taking a taxi, a train, then a ferry across the mighty Bosporus Strait to the other continent. Finally, a car pulled around and Selcuk yelled from the window. He drove us to his house for a traditional Turkish breakfast. When we saw the spread, we couldn’t believe our eyes. There were at least 14 made-from-scratch dishes set out on copper plates and platters served with fragrant tea sweetened with honey and cherries.
As we sat to begin our Turkish feast with the family, my hesitation to make the transcontinental trek to meet these strangers melted away. Selcuk’s dad raised his delicate teacup, toasted to new friends and turned to us: “Please tell your friends in America about the hospitality you experienced here in Turkey.” And as we chatted about the Middle East, I was reminded that the warmth of the meal and the sincerity of those who made it was the reason traveling brings people together all over the world.
Krisha Chachra is Vice Mayor of the Town of Blacksburg and a regular columnist and author who has traveled to over 40 countries in 6 continents and reported and hosted shows for public radio and television. Her columns are taken from her journals and personal insights from traveling nationally and internationally throughout her life. Her book about returning to Blacksburg, Homecoming Journals, may be found online or in local bookstores. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org