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Istanbul: Queen of Cities

Istanbul, the world’s seventh biggest city, belies its reputation as a perpetually bustling place to visit. If you’re smart enough to schedule your visit during the Eid holidays, you’re sure to be charmed by an Istanbul that is infinitely more peaceful and laid-back than normal.

Words Furkan Demir

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The Bosphorus, which divides Europe and Asia, has been teeming with vessels for more than 4,000 years. Byzantium (as Istanbul was originally known) was already a flourishing centre of art, science and commerce when the major cities of Europe were little more than barbarian hamlets.

The earliest Anatolian and Trojan fishing boats plied these waters as did Byzantine slavers, Roman galleons, and Venetian and Ottoman traders.

Kucuksu Kasri is an impressively ornate little 'weekend getaway' that was built by Sultan Abdul Mecit in 1856.

Gazing down from my high-rise suite in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, it’s easy to imagine that 4,000 years from now a new breed of futuristic hover-transporters will still be carrying intercontinental commuters between ultra-space-age trade centres on European and Asian shores. I find it harder to imagine, however, that in just a couple of days this great city will be transformed into a relative ghost town: the commuter boats will slim down to just a skeleton fleet and the traffic jams along the waterfront will become a mere trickle of cars.

The great Muslim celebration of Eid is just around the corner, and the vast majority of Istanbul’s 14 million city dwellers (some estimates say it fluctuates up to 20 million) will make their annual journey out to their villages to celebrate the end of Ramadan. With virtually traffic-free city-centre roads and ample seats on the trams and commuter ferries, this period offers a unique opportunity to enjoy the city at its most stress-free.

Istanbul's Grand Bazaar is justifiably renowned as one of the worlds' greatest shopping experiences.

“I love Istanbul during Eid because it’s so quiet,” says Mine Kasapoğlu, a sales professional who chooses to walk to work rather than battle the city’s notorious traffic on a daily basis. “If you’re looking for a relaxing city break, to enjoy a slower pace of life and uncrowded restaurants, then it’s the perfect time to visit.”

Most of the world’s massive cities can feel overpowering due to sheer size and congested traffic, yet even at its busiest Istanbul somehow escapes the curse of more frantic ‘megatropolises’ because of the ageless waterways that carve it into separate, manageable quarters.

Scores of ferries ply the length of the Bosphorus. They are still a lifeline for thousands of people from the villages between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara.

The ancient quarter of Sultanahmet, for example, is one of the greatest historical treasure-houses on the planet. Last year Istanbul was ranked as the world’s fifth most visited city and an estimated 12 million tourists were drawn to Sultanahmet to visit such architectural gems as Hagia Sophia Mosque, Blue Mosque, Topkapı Palace and the Grand Bazaar. Despite this, Sultanahmet somehow retains the relaxing atmosphere of a relatively sleepy rural village in comparison with the frenetic pace of life in the modern city that lies on the other side of the Golden Horn.

People who are used to drinking their coffee rather than 'chewing it' can often find Turkish coffee difficult to get used to!

During Ramadan and Eid, Sultanahmet becomes a centre of celebration for many Istanbul Muslims, and visiting at this time will give you a unique insight into the city. For non-Muslims and people who are not fasting, most of the tourist-based restaurants remain open through the day (although some will refrain from selling alcohol). Many even offer special Ramadan menus with seasonal specialities. While there is no official restriction on eating during fasting hours, it is considered respectful to your hosts if you refrain from eating in public areas.

Nazar Boncuk - The ubiquitous lucky charms in a market stall provide prtection for from the 'evil eye' that comes as a result of jealousy.

As evening falls in the parks and gardens of Sultanahmet, food stalls start to exhibit the unique delicacies that will be offered for sale once the fast has broken after sunset. Traditional forms of entertainment such as the Karagöz and Hacivat shadow puppets and even Whirling Dervish shows are often arranged by the municipality or by hotels and restaurants that provide special Ramadan packages. As one of the most northern cities in the Islamic world, Istanbul enjoys sunlight until 9pm in the summer evenings, meaning that there is a heightened feeling of anticipation leading up to the moment when the green light shines out from the mosque minarets and the fast is broken.

Inside the Aya Sofya in Istanbul

“Sultanahmet is a very special place to be during Ramadan,” says Mine Kasapoğlu. “It’s like a busy little carnival for an entire month. Families stroll around until late, tasting special Ottoman foods and listening to local music. There is lots of sugary strong Turkish coffee to keep people awake until it is time to stop eating in the early morning!”
Şeker Bayramı (literally ‘Sugar Feast’) is the uniquely Turkish celebration that comes at the end of the month of fasting. The three and a half days of festivities that are known as Eid ul-Fitr in most of the Muslim world are honoured here with a celebration of sweetness when people enjoy candies, chocolates, honey-bathed baklava pastries and delicious lokum (Turkish delight).

In recent years lights were stretched across the minarets of the Blue Mosque with a phrase that read ‘Let us love. Let us be loved.’ Visit old Istanbul at this most special of times and you’re sure to fall in love with the city that, for good reason, has long been known as the ‘Queen of Cities’.

Jakarta to Istanbul


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From Colours June 2016

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5 Senses – Sight
BOSPHORUS FERRY

Feel the salt spray on your skin as you cruise the Bosphorus from Istanbul to the Black Sea. At only a few dollars for a return journey on a commuter ferry, this trip – zigzagging between the European and Asian shores – must be the best-value intercontinental voyage in the entire world. You can hop on and off as you wish, but even with constant stops to explore, the return journey is easily done as a day trip.