Straddling two continents and infused with centuries of opposing cultures, Istanbul proudly stands on the shores of Bosphorus Strait and noisily lives through its ten million inhabitants.
Arriving into Sabiha Gökçen airport we found ourselves in Asia, but the jaunt from Europe was short-lived as we threaded our way back to the Old Quarter on the European side. The evening sun warmed dusty suburban communist-style block residences and skeletons of half-finished building projects, giving me the impression that I actually alit back in the USSR were it not for the unmistakable arrows of mosques' minarets shooting into the blue heart of God above their curved domes.
On the wings of fresh salty breeze our ferry pulled up to Europe once again, where the bulk of Istanbul lies under a veil of darkish-yellow smog. The Old Quarter, called Sultanahmet for housing its namesake the Blue Mosque, is home to all the ancient landmarks and prowled by street cats of all marks and colourations, their long lean lithe bodies haunting the history-soaked stone surfaces marked by erosion, grasses and moss.
The most incredible image of our first day in Turkey was the nightly spectacle of seagulls careening in the black sky like stars wheeling between the lit minarets of Blue Mosque's silent vastness.
The Blue Mosque is the most sacred Islamic place of worship on Turkish soil. Five times each day it is closed to tourists as the holy words praising Allah are uttered from hundreds of lips - men filling the carpeted expanse under the dome, women behind screens in rows of balconies at the back. The interior of Sultanahmet is so vast it seems to nearly swallow time, slowing its pulse to a drowsy beat, however many visitors crowd in and chatter.
Just outside its grounds lies the small cozy Arasta Bazaar with colourful jewellery, fabrics and ceramics from all parts of the country. It is a fraction of the size and noisy commercialism of the Grand Bazaar, the latter being a huge smoke-filled disappointment. The Spice Bazaar is worth a visit for its heaps of teas, nuts, dried fruit, confections, spices and special concoctions like Turkish Viagra tempting the senses in never-ending rows of shops.
Like an older rose-hued sibling, the Ayasofya faces the Blue Mosque across a few city blocks. The soaring coolness of its stone grandeur has withstood many earthquakes and alterations - it was originally a Christian church claimed for Islam and now a museum showing the religious evolution of its interior as frescoes of Christ mingle with inscriptions of Allah's greatness.
A short walk away lies Topkapi Palace, today another museum of the glories of the Ottoman Empire. Its kitchens alone are impressive in the breadth of space and bathtub-sized cookware that provided regular feasts for the Sultans' tables. The jewel of Topkapi is its Harem, a whole wing of the palace where intrigue and seduction prevailed under lavisciously decorated dome ceilings, painted chamber walls and Ottoman-style patterns carved, inlaid and brushed onto every surface. We took gazillions of pictures. Add the Islamic artifacts, treasury, costume collections and a stroll through the grounds for a whole day in the majestic world of by-gone splendor.
A word about Turkish cuisine... We are in shish-kebab land - chunks of various meats marinated, skewered and grilled to juicy perfection. Rich has opted for one at nearly every restaurant we've visited. For a veggie like me there is plenty of choice although sometimes meat hides in unassuming platters of vegetables. Still, there is fat-grain couscous, wide green beans and chickpeas in tomato sauce, roasted eggplant, cheese pizzas, pilaf, yogurt and salads, all slightly exotic and delicious. I'm eating entirely way too much bread and dairy for my liking but to push digestion along there's always endless glasses of čaj (tea) and rocket-fuel Turkish coffee, although strangely enough we've encountered a lot more Nescafé than the real deal.
There is a street in Istanbul that never sleeps... Istiklal Caddesi in the Beyoglu neighbourhood of embassies, bars and boutiques is a two mile-long street that seems to be filled with human traffic at all times of day and night. A cute little tram rides 3 stops down its length, otherwise it's mainly pedestrian and scores of musicians perform inside cavernous bars and on the sidewalk, ice-cream and food-stall hawkers vie for customers, the rich duck in and out of big brand stores and all-night revelry consumes the place down its entire length and especially in the tucked-away passages lit with stained glass chandeliers.
One of the stunning shows of hospitality we blundered into was sitting beside a sweet parental couple at dinner one night. Apparently I looked a bit like their daughter, which was cause enough to induct us into the world of Turkish national liquor raki - a clear anise-flavoured spirit that turns cloudy when mixed with water, and after sharing with us their fruit plate they enlisted the waiter to translate that we were invited to the dinner club Zorba managed by the husband and as a show of Turkish hospitality we would be their honoured guests for the evening. Interestingly, notwithstanding a bitter cleft between the Greeks and Turks, this Greek establishment thrives and was filled to the brim on the Saturday night we chose. I've never felt more like royalty or a movie star - this incredibly kind man to whom we were complete strangers treated us to fantastic food, professional photos from the evening, constantly refilled our glasses, asked dancing patrons to move so we had a clear view of the stage, threw a shower of flower petals while we slow-danced at one point and even slipped me a 20-lira note to tuck into the bellydancer's scanty outfit which seemed to be the custom of the evening.
In our last few days of busking in Istanbul's glory we took a boat cruise up the Bosphorus Strait towards its meeting with the Black Sea. It's a cheap five hour excursion with numerous ports of call, the last being Andalu Kavagi village a seeming stone-throw's away from open sea where the boat rests for three hours giving cruisees the opportunity to spend their money and climb to the ruined towers of a hilltop fort.
Istanbul lies near the North Anatolian faultline with earthquakes above 7 points on the Richter scale inching their way westward towards the Turkish capital. This was one of the reasons prompting us to get there before it's too late, and I very much hope we'll get a chance to return and walk its old lanes, breathing history mixed with pure passion for life at every turn.