Monday, 22 November 2010

Budget 'Ramadan nights' in Istanbul.

Sultanahmet from the Galata Tower.

A short travel post by way of something a little different.

During balmy Ramadan evenings this August, Istanbul’s old town - Sultanahmet - teemed with bearded men and head-scarved women, who awaited the evening call to prayer, before breaking their fasts around festive family picnics.

Meanwhile, across the crowded waters of the Golden horn, a gleaming minimalist art gallery, Istanbul Modern, housed German anatomist Gunther von Hagens’ controversial ’Bodyworlds’ exhibit of plastinated corpses. And the current European Capital of Culture prepared to host a World Basketball Championship and U2‘s latest show.

In the Turkish capital, European chic and Middle Eastern bustle form a happy blend, scorched by a hot blast of Central Asian steppe. Yet, despite its undoubted exoticism, Istanbul is easily accessible from the UK and can be experienced on a tight budget.

In Sultanahmet cheap accommodation is plentiful. The friendly hostel ‘Second Home’ is one of many thrifty options, serving hearty breakfasts on its roof-top and offering a mix of clean doubles and dorms.

Five minutes walk from the heart of historic Istanbul, it proved an ideal base to explore the winding streets and Ottoman mosques of the old town. Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque form a centre-piece to this area, book-ending a pleasant park, which exemplifies the city’s mix of old and new. You can access free Wifi here, among the ancient buildings.

Emperor Justinian’s 6th century ‘church of the divine wisdom’, or Aya Sofya, is still Istanbul’s most breath-taking sight. Its thirty metre dome seems to hover over the main body of the church and the building comprises one of the few surviving examples of Byzantine architecture in the city.
Sultanahmet’s Ottoman heritage, in contrast, is plentiful.

Topkapi Palace was the Sultanate’s seat of power for over four centuries. You can explore its opulent harem and shady courtyards in a morning. The Blue Mosque, designed by the Ottoman master Sinan, epitomises Islamic architecture for most tourists. Unfortunately Suleymaniye Mosque, which experts regard as a superior work, is currently closed for renovations.

A day in old town Istanbul can be rounded off perfectly with a Turkish kebap at Doy Doy. The restaurant’s prices are a snip and it enjoys stunning rooftop views of the Marmaris Sea and the Blue Mosque.

Although Sultanahmet has more than enough attractions and contrasts to fill any city-break, it’s worth taking one of the regular ferries across the city’s busy waterways, the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus, to experience a different Istanbul.

Along Karikoy waterfront lie fish restaurants and galleries, while a funicular railway whisks passengers up the hill to Taksim, the beating heart of modern Istanbul. From the square, the main shopping artery, Istlikal Caddesi, winds it way through Beyoglu. This ‘European’ district plays host to the city’s trendiest clubs, restaurants and its lively ‘Meyhanes‘, with their roving bands of gypsy musicians.

An evening here forms a lively counterpoint to historic and religiously conservative Sultanahmet. And it demonstrates that the although the notion of Istanbul as a unique blend of East and West, ancient and modern, is centuries old, it remains fresh and relevant today.    

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