Suggestive beauty and tireless bargains in Turkey's capital of culture

“See Naples and die,” the phrase widely attributed to German poet Goethe, can be reinterpreted and perfectly applied to Istanbul’s magnificence. Next year’s designated European capital of culture has largely earned its fame among the other European cities thanks to its lively society and some of the most sophisticated collaborations of different styles, traditions and civilizations.

Sultanahmet central district is dominated by the city’s most acclaimed wonders staring at each other: deconsacrated Ayasofya and awe-inspiring Blue Mosque. Ayasofya is one of the world’s most stunning architectural masterpieces: centuries of artistic schools overlap, solemnly offering their contribution to the world of arts with the finest mosaics, including the famous Christ flanked by John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary. Built in 532BC, the cathedral remained the most important church within the christian world until Constantinople fell under Turks’ rule in 1453 and Sultan Mehmet decided to turn it into a mosque.

Sultanahamet Camii, local name of the Blue Mosque, stands aware of its timeless majesty in front of Ayasofya giving the whole scenery the mysterious atmosphere of Scheherazade’s tales in the Arabian Nights. One of Istanbul’s most popular landmarks, the Blue Mosque owes its name to the cobalt tiles decorating the prayer room, and is packed with tourists winter and summer alike, being exclusive muslim prerogative only during the prayer time.

The suggestive beauty of softly-lit Sultanahmet by night is beyond imagination. Every attraction I visited made me gradually aware of how hard would have been to tear myself away from that half-European half-Asian jewel.

The Sultan used to make his way to the Blue Mosque from his residence, nearby Topkapı Sarayı, immense cluster of buildings that dominate wide evergreen gardens with breathtaking views. The palace contains the imperial treasures that offer a comprehensive glimpse of the luxury kings lived in, despite the general poverty of the rest of the population, as it usually happens when it comes to royal residences: emerald-studded golden cradles, precious silk clothes, relics of the Prophet Muhammad.

The city is studded with small, lesser-known mosques, each of them an example of Arabian design. Five times a day, from every mosque the muezzin raise their voice to call the faithful to pray, filling the city with a captivating, ancestral lament and an exotic atmosphere.

No tour of the city can be considered complete without cruising along the Bosphorus, stretch of water between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea that works as a natural barrier between the Asian and the European Continent. Fascinated by the idea of finding myself between two worlds, I booked my cruise with Italian-Spanish-English-speaking guide Alparslan. Leaving from Eminönü bay, we headed for the other side of the coast, managing to shipwreck on our way back, to make sure to add the thrilling (and funny) ingredient to the already exciting trip.

Although most people barely speak a bit of English, bazaars’ shopkeepers will welcome you in every language, and at my usual question: “Where did you learn Italian so well?” the answer was unavoidably: “Here at the bazaar!” If you are not a master of bargaining, be aware that at the end of your visit at the Grand Bazaar you will have bought something you don’t need at a way higher price than its real value.

My short stay was undoubtedly made more pleasant by the friendliness of Turkish people, that made even the most nerve-racking bargain a hilarious chat, ranging from flattering adulations to unpredictable proposals.


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