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Books and baklava: Off the beaten path in Istanbul

Updated Sep 01, 2015 08:52pm

Istanbul is a favourite destination for many tourists, and rightly so. The juxtaposition of Byzantine and Ottoman architecture with the serenity of Bosphorus is a visual treat!

However, the long queues and hefty entry tickets can be a letdown. Therefore, when I get a day off from work in Istanbul, I choose to visit places which usually fall off the beaten path. Around bustling tourist attractions, there are still a few quaint stops, where you are not pushed around by fellow tourists and you get a chance to interact with the locals.

Layla, a fellow small town cousin, studies Business in Istanbul. She is fluent in Turkish and agrees to be my tour guide. Catherine, a friend of hers, and not so fluent in Turkish, decides to join us on our day out in the city.

10:30am — The rendezvous

Layla lives far off from my hotel and sets Topkapi station as our rendezvous point. After struggling with directions for a bit, I reach the station opposite Topkapi Palace but she is nowhere to be seen. I panic and order coffee at a roadside café and hook up onto its Wi-Fi to drop her a message. It turns out that there is a station called Topkapi which is actually far off from actual Topkapi Palace.

Suddenly, it strikes me that I am dependent on my little cousin for the day.

11:00am — The Grand Bazaar and the workshop

Layla comes all the way to Topkapi Palace to make sure that I don’t make any further mistakes. We take the tram to the Grand Bazaar station, where we meet Catherine. She is in Istanbul for an assignment with an NGO and has been busy exploring its suburbs in her free time, mostly on foot. She ecstatically tells us about a place which she has discovered recently, from which we can have a great view of Bosphorus.

We start our journey through a maze of streets in and around Grand Bazaar. Catherine makes a brief stop at a baklawa shop and uses her charm and not so fluent Turkish to get her free dose. Our journey ends in front of a rundown workshop. Catherine takes us up from there and leads us to the rooftop through a tiny staircase.

Let me describe the scene at the rooftop.

There are little domes on the roof, but there is still ample space to move. The sun is spreading a soft glow on the glass windows of the houses downhill. The air is clear and we can see till far away. The sanguine rooftops look pretty in the backdrop of blue Bosphorus. There is a mosque downhill and we are at eye level with its minarets.

“This is perhaps the coolest spot in the whole city,” Catherine tells us triumphantly. We nod in agreement.

The Grand Bazaar is a favourite with tourists for buying Turkish lamps and other souvenirs.
The Grand Bazaar is a favourite with tourists for buying Turkish lamps and other souvenirs.
We climb through a narrow opening in a rundown building.
We climb through a narrow opening in a rundown building.
You can get an unhindered view from the workshop rooftop.
You can get an unhindered view from the workshop rooftop.
Another view from the rooftop of Grand Bazaar workshop.
Another view from the rooftop of Grand Bazaar workshop.
Catherine bids farewell to her cat.
Catherine bids farewell to her cat.
There are workshops on both ends of the corridor leading to the rooftop.
There are workshops on both ends of the corridor leading to the rooftop.

It is considerably warm and we take shelter under a small tree which has mushroomed through a ridge. Catherine finds a cat and plays with it. I take my water bottle out and gulp it down. After a while, we decide to leave because we have many places to cover. Catherine’s cat seems disappointed and raises its hand as if bidding farewell.

On our way back, Catherine looks into a workshop and strikes a conversation with the craftsmen. There is no baklawa there, but these shops are filled with handicrafts which will later be sold in the Grand Bazaar.

1:00pm — Sahaflar Carsisi (The book market)

Layla tells me that she buys her curriculum books from Sahaflar Carsisi (literally meaning 'the book market'), off the grand bazaar entrance. Unlike the rest of the bazaar, it still caters predominantly to local residents, and hence preserves the environment of an actual bazaar of yore, when traders gathered according to their trade. It is still situated in the same courtyard as the old Byzantine book and paper market. In a neat setting, there are almost two dozen bookstores that are lined up around the central courtyard, selling books and stationary.

Layla takes us to the book market which is accessible from Grand Bazaar entrance.
Layla takes us to the book market which is accessible from Grand Bazaar entrance.
The Book Market is a favourite with locals.
The Book Market is a favourite with locals.
The Istanbul University entrance.
The Istanbul University entrance.
The narrow lanes of Grand Bazaar are a delight to walk in.
The narrow lanes of Grand Bazaar are a delight to walk in.

1:45pm — Caferaga Madrasa

We decide to break for lunch. Catherine knows a place nearby, which was a madrassah originally, built some 500 years ago. On the way there, we walk past Istanbul University, the premier university in Turkey. We find the restaurant, Caferga Madrasa, after a bit and settle into its courtyard. The small rooms around the courtyard used to serve as student dorms, but are converted into small dining rooms now with different décor for each room.

The building also has a handicraft center. Most of the decorative items in the restaurant are crafted in-house. Layla and Catherine, both being students, are careful with the order, checking the prices on the menu first.

Caferaga Madrasa was a Madrassah of Ottoman era which has been converted into a restaurant and handicrafts shop.
Caferaga Madrasa was a Madrassah of Ottoman era which has been converted into a restaurant and handicrafts shop.
The central courtyard of the restaurant.
The central courtyard of the restaurant.
The dorms have been converted into neat dining rooms.
The dorms have been converted into neat dining rooms.

2:45pm — Nakilbent Cistern (the ancient structure under the rugs shop)

After having a meaty lunch, we decide to resume our journey. Catherine buys freshly cut watermelon from a roadside stall and we eat as we walk through the narrow lanes. After a good 15-minute walk, we reach a small shopping compound which has a cistern underneath. We enter the contemporary shop through the front gate.

There is a lady sitting on one side, weaving a carpet, and there are expensive rugs, jewelry and pottery on display. Layla leads us to a staircase which takes us to the basement. Suddenly, an opening through the concrete structure reveals a huge basement full of stone arches.

Nakilbent Cistern is famously known for hosting cultural events and exhibitions.
Nakilbent Cistern is famously known for hosting cultural events and exhibitions.
A contemporary rug shop is set up on top of the cistern now.
A contemporary rug shop is set up on top of the cistern now.

The Nakilbent cistern is much smaller than the well-trodden Basilica Cistern, which is the largest in the area. These cisterns were part of a grand design built on the orders of Emperor Justinian in the sixth century to provide filtered water to the palaces and other buildings in the area.

The cistern is used for hosting cultural events now. Currently, an audiovisual exhibition is on display. The exhibition endeavours to recreate the magic of Hippodrome of Constantinople, a sporting centre of Byzantine Empire. The hippodrome has not survived the tides of time, but an Obelisk and a serpent column still stand strong in the area opposite Blue Mosque. Catherine shows me the serpent column on screen, which has been restored to its former glory. It has three heads, each sprouting a stream of water into a pond.

3:30pm — Little Hagia Sophia

We step out into the hot and humid air of Istanbul. Layla tells us that the next stop on our journey is Little Hagia Sophia, formerly the Church of the Saints Sergius and Bacchus, which was constructed in 536 AD on the orders of the great Justinian.

The sumptuous decorations on its domes and arches made its architecture second only to actual Hagia Sophia which was constructed few years later. It was converted into a mosque during the Ottoman period.

A view of Little Hagia Sophia.
A view of Little Hagia Sophia.
The domes of the mosque are exquisitely decorated.
The domes of the mosque are exquisitely decorated.
The Byzantine murals and patterns were removed but you could still spot some writing near the pillars.
The Byzantine murals and patterns were removed but you could still spot some writing near the pillars.
A local sits inside a cafe inside Little Hagia Sophia.
A local sits inside a cafe inside Little Hagia Sophia.
Catherine meanwhile sketches a bird on the canvas.
Catherine meanwhile sketches a bird on the canvas.

There is no entry ticket and there are hardly any tourists. We enter the compound through a small opening and take our shoes off to enter the main building. There are a few families inside, busy taking selfies, as the children explore every corner of the building.

After the conversion to the mosque, most of the murals were removed, but I notice some text from Byzantine era around the pillars. After spending some blissful moments inside, we step out of the building.

On the right hand is a madrassah, which was added during the Ottoman period. It has been converted into an assortment of tiny shops now. One of the craftsmen who works with block prints, asks Catherine to experiment with designs on canvas. She sketches a bird, but is disappointed with the result as the bird ends up having small wings which can’t possibly support the rather long tail.

4:30pm — Rustem Pasha Mosque

Tucked between busy shops in the Straw weavers Market, Rustem Pasha Mosque is not exactly an afterthought. It was designed by Mimar Sinan, the eminent architect of Ottoman court in the honour of Rustem Pasha, the grand vizier of Suleiman the magnificent. A narrow winding staircase leads us to a raised courtyard, a quaint setting in middle of a bustling bazaar. It is famous for its lavish use of iznik tiles, which became an integral part of later constructions.

The route to Rustem Pasha is through Straw weavers Market.
The route to Rustem Pasha is through Straw weavers Market.
Rustem Pasha Mosque impeccable decorations set the precedence for later built mosques.
Rustem Pasha Mosque impeccable decorations set the precedence for later built mosques.
The inside view is mesmerising for many tourists.
The inside view is mesmerising for many tourists.
Locals offer prayers at Rustem Pasha Mosque.
Locals offer prayers at Rustem Pasha Mosque.
A view of the arches at Rustem Pasha Mosque.
A view of the arches at Rustem Pasha Mosque.

We take our shoes off and wander aimlessly in its courtyard. Few locals, possibly from the bazaar are offering prayers, and we sit there in silence. The domes and arches are beautifully decorated with floral patterns and the iznik tiles are coloured a tomato-red.

5:30pm — The Tunnel

Layla tells us that we will head to Istiklal Street now. I am drenched in sweat by now and take a break to drink some lemonade. Layla decides to renew her tram card, while Catherine and I sit on the footpath. Catherine takes a bottle out of her bag and sprinkles the liquid on her face.

“It is rosewater and very refreshing”, she tells me. “You look dead”, she adds further.

She takes the bottle back and sprinkles fragrant liquid on my face.

“You smell of roses now, but it is not half as bad as being dead”, she says in ecstatic tone. She sounds like a certain Yossarian from Catch-22.

Layla joins us on the footpath and tells me that she is not tired yet, that she is accustomed to long walks and absolutely loves it. “This is something that I miss back home in our tiny city”, she says wistfully.

We resume our journey and walk past the courtyard in front of the Eminonu Mosque. We have to cross the road through an underpass, which is full of people making their way to either end. There are small stalls on both sides and hawkers are trying to attract customers.

We make way through a crowded underpass.
We make way through a crowded underpass.
The ground level has some popular restaurants.
The ground level has some popular restaurants.

After crossing a few streets, we find ourselves in a building where the first subway system in Istanbul was built, which incidentally was the second-ever to be built in the world at that time. The subway is disconnected from rest of the railroad. We get off at the far end of Istiklal Street and prepare ourselves for a long walk in its adjoining streets.

6:45pm — The street of antique shops

Layla and Catherine know Istkilal Street by heart. They stop in front of a shop which does not have password to its Wi-fi. They tell me that they know all the places here where one does not have to pay for a coffee to get free Wi-fi signals.

We decide to wander in an adjoining street of Istiklal, which are home to many antique shops. In one such street, Layla and Catherine spot some old currency, saying they wished they could use those thousands of scrap Liras at the current rate. I spot a vinyl record shop and go inside, while the girls decide to wait outside.

A view of Tunnel the oldest tram system in Istanbul.
A view of Tunnel the oldest tram system in Istanbul.
People pose for a selfie in front of tram which took us through the tunnel.
People pose for a selfie in front of tram which took us through the tunnel.
Istiklal Street is famous for its standup artists and gypsies.
Istiklal Street is famous for its standup artists and gypsies.
A view of Istiklal Street during the day.
A view of Istiklal Street during the day.
The vintage Market houses many tiny shops selling vintage stuff.
The vintage Market houses many tiny shops selling vintage stuff.
We spot some out-of-circulation Turkish Liras.
We spot some out-of-circulation Turkish Liras.

When I come out, I find an aged Turkish guy speaking to Layla. He is super impressed with her Turkish and asks her if I can help him take his luggage to the fourth floor. I have heard of a lot of scams in this area and am hesitant at first, but decide to help the guy out. The narrow staircase is difficult to climb, let alone carrying baggage. I feel for the guy and run all the way to the top floor and drop his luggage. He asks us for tea, but we tell him that we need to go back.

9:00pm — Istiklal Street

We climb our way back to Istiklal Street. The sun has set already, and the street is lit up with street lights and neon signs. We make brief stops here and there to listen to gypsy musicians and check prices in the shops. After a bit, Layla and Catherine announce that they have to go back, I decide to stay on.

Layla tells me that I may struggle in her absence, since very few people here speak English. Catherine says goodbye and starts walking. Layla, in her stride, quotes Orhan Phamuk and waves goodbye.

“Life can't be all that bad. Whatever happens, you can always take a long walk along the Basphorous.”

The streets around Istiklal can prove to be a treasure trove.
The streets around Istiklal can prove to be a treasure trove.
I drop the luggage at fourth floor and join my fellow tourists.
I drop the luggage at fourth floor and join my fellow tourists.
We reach Istiklal back after sunset.
We reach Istiklal back after sunset.

Other notable mentions

Istanbul Modern: Founded in 2004, Istanbul Modern is a private museum which exhibits modern and contemporary art. Set up in a warehouse along the shores of Basphorous, it can be easily accessed through tram.

Istanbul Modern is another notable mention for its contemporary art displays.
Istanbul Modern is another notable mention for its contemporary art displays.

Üsküdar Antique Market: In a non-touristy suburb on the Asian side, Uskudar Antique Market is a treat for collectors. The shopkeepers here travel around Turkey to collect antiques which are brought here and displayed in an unassuming setting.

A view of Uskudar Antique Market.
A view of Uskudar Antique Market.

— All photos by author