The largest and most famous of the mosques in Istanbul, located on the Sea of Marmara, is the Sultanahmet Mosque. Widely known as the Blue Mosque because of the colour of the interior tiles, its large dome is supported by four
marble columns, fondly referred to as the ‘elephant’s feet’ by locals because they resemble the thick legs of elephants.
Tour guide Nihat Bulut says to keep spiders out of the mosques and to ensure webs don’t form in the high enclaves and domes, ostrich eggs are kept in the mosques as spiders don’t like the smell of the shell.
It makes sense when you consider the large dome that stretches overhead is 24m in diameter and 44m off the ground, making it tricky to keep it clean.
Directly opposite the Blue Mosque is the Aya Sofya or Haghia Sofia, which through the years has served as both a mosque and church, but is now open to people of all faiths and referred to as a museum. It’s an impressively large cathedral space.
As we stroll through, we pass a handprint on a column which, Bulut tells us, according to legend was made by the Virgin Mary.
After taking in the grandeur of the Aya Sofya, it’s only a stone’s throw across to the Basilica Cistern – an underground system originally built in AD 532. It’s slightly eerie walking through the underground disused water storage area with its columns looming up out of the murky water, and odd-looking fish swimming beneath.
Back up at street level, streams of people are heading to the nearby market district for lunch and a spot of shopping.
After a street-side kebab packed with lamb and salad, I stroll through the Grand Bazaar soaking up the culture and intricacies of Turkish society.
In a shop laden with Turkish delight and spices, an owner offers us sweet apple tea in delicate glasses.
There are mothers and daughters eyeing up swathes of materials and rugs, while tourists haggle with shop owners over knock-off designer handbags – or “genuine fakes”, as the eager store workers inform us.
You could easily spend a day wandering through the Bazaar – reported to be the world’s first shopping centre – and not visit all the 5000 stalls. Take your pick from jewellery, ceramics, leather goods, pashminas and inevitable tourist tat such as miniature whirling dervishes.
Haggling is the key to getting a good deal, and after some lively discussions with a store owner I buy two pashminas for 20 lira (£8) knocked down from 25 lira each.
It can be tiring work traipsing through the labyrinth of stalls, so I decide to stop for some of the famous Turkish delight and baklava sold everywhere across town. It’s not the red, sticky, jelly-like Turkish delight I remember from my childhood or from watching The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Instead many of the sweets are made from nuts and dusted with coconut. This makes them even more addictive and I end up buying one (OK, two) boxes to
I emerge at the end of the Grand Bazaar several hours later, laden down with shopping bags packed with local wares – just as the mosques are beginning to send out their evening call to prayers. The sound has now become a soothing background noise to the captivating city of Istanbul.
» Erin Miler travelled to Turkey with On The Go (020-7371 1113; www.onthegotours.com). Tours range from eight to 15 days and prices start at £299.
Take the plunge
Michael Waters, 26, from the Gold Coast, Australia, experienced a Turkish bath house in Istanbul “We went to a Turkish bath house after seeing it in a guide book and I’d been told about it by my mates, so I wanted to go.
“You go in and they give you a token with a small box and a mitt in it. After that you go into a central room and all the guys are just standing around. We went upstairs and were pointed into a room, and then you strip off and put a towel around your waist.
“We headed back downstairs and entered the main sauna room, walked in and everyone was getting massages and relaxing.
“After the sauna, I was given a bath and they scrub you down with the mitt. They do down your back and front and use soap to bath you. It went on for about 10 minutes.
“Then you get a massage, where they twist your arms and crack your back. It’s quite rough. You then go into a drying room and they wrap you in warm towels, including one around your head, before you go back upstairs and get changed.
“It cost 45 lira [about £18] for the whole thing. Afterwards I felt really drained and relaxed, and like I wanted to go to sleep. I’ll definitely get another one.”
Did you know?
1 In Turkish villages, if there is a single girl in the house then an empty bottle is placed on the top of the roof to attract suitors.
2 A whopping 98 per cent of the world’s hazelnuts are grown in Turkey.
3 If you want to dine out in Istanbul head to Kumkapi Street. It’s like a seafood version of Brick Lane, where restaurant owners pounce on you in the street in an attempt to woo you into their restaurant. A whole sea bass will set you back 15 lira (about £6).
4 A long-standing tradition in Turkey is making carpets or rugs by hand. A handmade carpet the size of a doormat
can take someone 10 months to complete.
5 Turkish store owners and locals are very hospitable. It is customary to offer guests apple tea, which is served in small glasses with sugar. And it’s only polite to accept.
Archaeology and ruins
One of the best preserved cities from Roman times. The impressive ruins include the Library of Celsus, which held 12,000 scribes in its time, the Roman men’s toilets – a communal outdoor shitter that you can still sit on – and the large theatre, which is the site of modern art performances. It’s best to visit the site in the early morning or evening, as in the middle of the day the heat can get quite unbearable.
Yep, we all know the movie where Brad Pitt and Eric Bana ran around in leather mini-skirts, but don’t go expecting anything that impressive from the site of Troy. Sure it’s the place where tales of the Trojan War came from, but not much actually remains of the city on the west coast of Turkey. You’ll probably spend more time taking photos in front of the wooden Trojan horse built by the Ministry of Tourism and Culture.
The chalky white hills of the calcium hot springs can be spotted several kilometres away as you approach Pamukkale in central-west Turkey. There aren’t many spots to swim as tourism in the ’80s and ’90s overran the area, and swimming has been cut back to preserve the area. However, you can paddle in the water in the pools that have been created, or take a dip in the Hierapolis Antique Pool where Roman columns lie at the bottom.
Located at the top of a hill in north-west Turkey just a few kilometres inland from the Aegean Sea, Pergamum used to be one of the richest and most powerful small kingdoms and was considered the number one city in 4BC. The temple at the top faces west, where the sun sets, and ruins of the library, which was two storeys high, also remain. It’s a hike up the hill, so it’s best if you drive or take a tour to the ruins.