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FLORENCE     Florence –  the capital of the Tuscany region and the cradle of Renaissance   We opted for Flix Bus while traveling from Venice to Florence. The road journey takes about three and a half-hour. In Florence, it terminates at the rear end of Santa Maria Novella (SMN) train station. One of Italy’s busiest stations, it got its name from Santa Maria Novella Church just across the plaza from the main entrance. We debarked at the station and refreshed ourselves at McDonald's before hiring a cab for our hotel. Florence, popularly known as ‘Firenze’ by the Italians, is located in central Italy. This dreamy city with a romantic name is the regional capital of the lovely Tuscany region.   Columbus Hotel, where we stayed, is located in Lugarno District. We always prefer to book our hotels through Booking.com as we always land up getting good hotels at good locations. Despite being a little away from the heart of the city and Santa Maria Novella station

Istanbul 1

ISTANBUL  -  the city of tulips and rhododendrons                    (Part I)

During my school days those who opted for the science stream had to part with History quite early in their education. Even though I belonged to that group, I had a personal love for history, perhaps deeply influenced by my school - La Martiniere, Lucknow.  

Vast open spaces, old imposing buildings, the bizarre but magnificent architecture of the main building ‘Constantia’ – an unusual mix of Gothic, Georgian, Palladian and Nawabi styles, the three majestic cannons on the terrace overlooking  the ‘Lat’( a 40m long solid fluted column) standing like a silent spectator right at the centre of an artificial lake, the wooden ballroom dancing floor in Spence Hall – it would be difficult not to love history in a place steeped in it.

The city of Lucknow, where my school is located, is itself steeped in History.By a strange coincidence our house in Lucknow faced a historical mansion 'Havelock House'. It belonged to Gen. Havelock, who led the relief of Lucknow during the siege. The street was also named after him as Havelock Road. Lucknow during the eighteenth century was the power center of the erstwhile kingdom of Oudh. A French soldier  Maj Gen Claude Martin acquired a large fortune while serving Asaf-ud- Daula, the then Nawab of Oudh. The ‘Constantia’ was designed and built by Martin himself in the late 18th century. The school also got associated with the great uprising (Sepoy Mutiny) of 1857. The staff and students of La Martiniere played a major role in defending the Residency, where British men, women and children had taken shelter, and which came under heavy siege from the revolutionary sepoys. For this ‘Defence of Lucknow’ the school was awarded the unconsecrated Battle Honor by Britain in 1933, the only school in the world so distinguished.

‘Constantia’ – ‘Constantinopole’. It is difficult to forget such similar sounding words. Ever since I learnt about Constantinopole in my History class and that this was a renaming of the ancient city of Byzantium by Emperor Constantine I of Rome after his conquest in the 4th century AD, I always dreamt of visiting this place someday. After many years this long cherished dream turned into reality when I decided to go there with my wife.

On the morning of May 1, 2011, we landed at Ataturk International Airport, Istanbul. Before boarding the flight at Delhi we met a Bengali gentleman who was also travelling by the same flight along with his wife and child up to Budapest. We were taken back for a while when he exclaimed - “does anyone visit Istanbul? What is there to see in Istanbul”? We learnt soon that he had never been to Istanbul, nor does he take any interest in travelling to new places. A man with no wanderlust – he was entirely unlike us!

The Turkish Airline flight was very comfortable, and the hospitality was good. We were served small packets of hazelnuts with our wine, and they were so tasty that we asked for extra packets to carry with us.

Finally we were at Constantinopole - Istanbul since 1930. I love the song ‘Istanbul was Constantinopole now its Istanbul not Constantinopole’. The international airport is named after the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Mustafa Kemal Pasha, also referred as ‘Kemal Ataturk’ meaning ‘Father of Turks’ was an astute army officer, a revolutionary statesman and the first president of the Republic of Turkey. He deposed Sultan Mehmet VI, thus abolishing the sultanate, and became President in 1924. The great Bengali rebel poet Kazi Nazrul Islam paid tribute to Kemal Pasha in his epic poem “Amar Kemal Pasha” as the people of undivided Bengal had supported Turkey’s war of liberation.

We were excited. We could hardly believe that we were finally in Istanbul. Since we were travelling light – one suitcase with attached trolley and a backpack, we headed straight for the metro or ‘light rail’ as they call it there. We bought jetons (tokens). Unlike India there are no ticket counters. One has to get jetons from self operated machines. Since we had no coins we took the help of the metro staff manning the gates at the station. They were very friendly – they operated the machine, taught us how to use it, gave us our change and the ‘jetons’ and explained in detail how we were to get to our destination.
Metro (Light Rail) station at Ataturk International Airport Istanbul

View from the metro enroute  Sultanahmet square

On the train, to get a good view of the city, each of us selected a window seat. The train emerges and runs overground just a few seconds after it departs from the airport station, and continues overground for almost the entire stretch up to Zeytunburnu, where we got off. One visual delight which continued attracting our attention during our stay in Istanbul was tulips of different sizes and colors. I have never seen such a riot of colors in any city, even in Holland, in my life. In all parts of the city, be it Sultahnahmet circle, Blue Mosque, Hippodrome, Hagia Sophia, Top Kapi palace, Eminonu - we were enthralled by the luxuriant display of tulips and rhododendrons. These flowers bloomed in almost all parts of the city. Istanbul - the city of tulips and rhododendrons!
Istanbul Tram

Riot of colors--tulips

waiting at the tram stop

Up to Zeytunburnu the view outside was that of modern Istanbul with tall buildings and commercial complexes. At Zeytunburnu we just had to exit through a turnstile to get to the adjoining platform for boarding the tram. Unlike Calcutta, the only city in India where trams still survive, Istanbul trams are sleek, beautiful and fast-moving. It’s almost like a train with three coaches in attractive blue and white. We enjoyed the tram ride as it literally glided through the old quarters of the city soaked in history. On our way to our destination, Sultahnahmet, we caught glimpses of the famous Grand Bazaar, (the labyrinthine interior of which, I later discovered, almost resembles Calcutta’s Hogg Market or New Market), and also the 3500 years old obelisk on the Hippodrome where chariot races were held during the Byzantium and Roman rules. The place is now paved and is known as Sultahnahmet Square. When we got down at our destination we were greeted by the sight of one of the most stunningly beautiful architectures we have ever come across  – the Blue Mosque. The domes are like steps ascending and converging to a central and highest dome. The other side of the street is lined up with restaurants, pudding shops and hotels. It was around ten in the morning and we could see the restaurant staff hawking their delicacies. Since Istanbul is the only city in the world that straddles two great continents, Europe and Asia, the very first impression was that it has the discipline and cleanliness of any European city, but the bustling, colorful, oriental flavor of Asia. I had read Orhan Pamuk’s informative memoir ‘Istanbul – memories and the city’ before coming to Istanbul. Although he has painted his city in ‘black and white’, the way he experienced in the seventies and eighties, he has made it very clear that Istanbul is a city with the West in its head but the East in its soul. At one place he mentions: ‘Was this the secret of Istanbul – that beneath its grand history, its living poverty, its outward –looking monuments and its sublime landscapes its poor hid the city’s soul inside a fragile web?”

All along our short stay in Istanbul we found that the Istanbullus are a convivial lot. From the moment you step into Istanbul you will never feel like a stranger. We were booked at Ida Hotel on Cancarturan Street. A few yards away from the tram stop was a tourist information centre. An elderly and chubby looking Turkish lady was single handedly attending queries from all tourists who came over there. When I asked her where this Cancarturan street is, she immediately left her seat, came over to me, patted my back and whispered to me that it is not pronounced the way it is written. Then she did a brilliant job of giving us directions. We never had to ask anyone else where the place is.

For going to Ida Hotel one has to cross a huge park in front of the Blue Mosque. This park is actually an extension of ‘At Meydani’ meaning ‘horse grounds’ as this is where the Hippodrome was located and where  chariot racing used to take place during the Byzantine rule. May 1 being a holiday, there was a teeming crowd of young and old enjoying the pleasant sunshine. There were vendors inside the park selling hazelnuts and candies. These candies are known as ‘akide sekeri’ (rainbow of colors) and flavored with rose water, mint and fruit juices. The whole process of preparing these candies in front of your eyes, by dipping the sticks in a colorful mixture of thick, glutinous fluid instantly brought out the gluttony in me. Although it was sticky and messy, it was really yummy.

the beautiful Ida hotel

Hotel Ida made our stay very comfortable. It was a small hotel with very nice and cozy rooms. The room we stayed is was located on the first floor and the windows overlooked the busy and lively Cancarturan Street. The eateries along the cobbled street of Cancarturan used to get decked up with lights and candle lights in the night and provided an attractive view from our hotel window. The hotel staff was very friendly and caring; particularly Sihan who acted as a guide and even booked us on a Bosphorus Cruise. Breakfast was included in our hotel stay and it was prepared and served by a middle aged Turkish lady. Bread, cheese, egg, ham, sausage, orange juice, milk and tea were served on the hotel terrace, from where we had a grand view of the sea of Marmara.The sea was so close that sometimes the sea gulls would come and settle on the roofs around us. The terrace, the breakfast, the sea and the seagulls made the mornings refreshingly enjoyable. So much so that we unanimously decided to book our next visit to Istanbul here. Such was the hotel’s location that one could literally walk across to all the prime attractions of European Istanbul. The Blue Mosque and Arasta Bazaar were at a stone’s throw. There was this Café Mesale at the entrance of Arasta Bazaar where one could have food and drinks at reasonable rates and also enjoy the ancient Turkish dance of whirling dervishes accompanied by ‘Sufi’-like songs and music.
Breakfast at Ida

This Turkish lady prepares and serves  breakfast at Ida
Seagulls from Marmara sea (taken from the terrace of Ida Hotel)

A Shoe shine man at the corner of Cancarturan Street Istanbul
Tulips and Rhododendrons  at Istanbul

Tulips and Rhododendrons at Istanbul
On the evening of our first day in Istanbul we were picked up by the tour operator’s cab from our hotel and taken to a jetty at Golden Horn. Tables were booked for us inside a boat. Each table could hold eight people, and the others at our table were from Lebanon and Hungary As our boat pulled out from Golden Horn jetty we were served drinks and starters. There was no hurry as we had till midnight to unwind. As our boat sailed through the dark waters of the Bosphorus strait, the city glittered in a romantic way. All the mosques, Ottoman palaces, and heritage buildings on both the European and the Asian sides of the city were tastefully illuminated. The Bosphorus Bridge connecting Europe and Asia was adorned attractively in electric-blue light, the reflection of which created an other-worldly spectacle on the waters of the river.

An artist performing whirling dervish at Cafe Mesale, Arasta Bazaar
Illuminated Ortakoy Mosque on European shore of Bosphorus

Inside Boat, Bosphorus River Cruise
Inside Dining area of the Boat, Bosphorus River Cruise

Bosphorus Bridge connecting Istanbul, Europe to Istanbul,Asia. Asian part is on the right hand side.

Grilled Fish being prepared on the boat

A dance performance inside 
Dining area inside the boat
As the boat crawled past the glittering Dolmabahce Palace, Ciragan Palace, Ortakoy mosque, and Beylerbeti Palace, we were enchanted. Inside we were entertained, not only with delicious food and drinks, but by Turkish folk songs and music, Turkish folk dances and finally the famous Turkish Belly dance. At the end of this grand show one thing which left us thinking was the efficiency of the entire crew – there was not a single lapse of hospitality on this packed boat with tourists from all over the world.

While in Istanbul we tried different restaurants for lunch and dinner. When you stroll on the pavement at Sultahnahmet Square restaurant owners compete with each other and try to attract customers. One such Turkish owner whose restaurant was at the corner and adjacent to the Pudding Shop exclaimed ‘Indira Gandhi’! On seeing my wife in her sari. He showed us his restaurant, his menu card and became friendly with us as because he loved India. Before coming to Istanbul I had heard the name of ‘Sultahnahmet Koftecisi’ a very famous eatery since 1920. We had lunch there once. A very short menu, as meat ball is the the generic food there. I had meat balls with bun shaped breads and then we had a dessert called Irmik tatlisi. Unlike India the meat ball or ‘kofta’ is flat and rectangular in shape, but it was really delicious.

A Turkish preparation
Turkish Rice Pudding

Vine Leaf Kebab
Public transport is so convenient and comfortable in Istanbul that we decided to go around to some places by tram. We went to Spice Bazaar (Misir Carsisi in Turkish) and the New Mosque. New Mosque is not as new as the name suggests. It came only a few years after the Blue Mosque. After getting down at Eminonu we used the subway from the tram stop to cross over to the other side where the New Mosque and the famous Spice Bazaar are situated. There was a crowded market place in the subway. Once you come up you are at a plaza from where you can see the Galata Tower and Galata Bridge. There were some vendors selling ice cream and 
hazelnuts. I was tempted to try out a local ice cream. It was really good. From Eminonu, a lot of government boats are available for half day trips on the Bosphorus. We took one of those. Nice and comfortable, it also had a small shop selling cakes, sandwiches, hazelnuts, tea and other beverages. We enjoyed Bosphorus by day as much as we enjoyed it by night. The shores on both Asian and European sides were lined up with houses, villas, palaces and other historical monuments. When we neared the small hamlet of Anadolu Kavagi on the Asian side, we could see the Black sea. From the boat the tiny hamlet looked like it was standing on the tip of a peninsula. I have no idea as to why the sea was named Black sea, but it appeared distinctively darker than the blue water of Bosphorus. As we stood watching the Black sea, the cool, gentle breeze almost mesmerized us.
The New Mosque at Eminonu
Plaza in front of the New Mosque
Ice Cream vendor
Hazel Nut Vendor
Local Ice Cream - its superb !
Street side bistro at Sultahnahmet square

Where Bosphorus meets Marmara sea. On the far side is Asian part of Istanbul 

Golden Horn

An old house at Istanbul
A typical Ottoman architecture at Istanbul

Boat being anchored at a station
Bosphorus merges with Black Sea - you can make out the difference in color

A boat station on the European shore of Istanbul
Arrangement inside the boat


A sea gull over the Black sea
Inside the boat
An eatery at Anadolu

Nazar Bosicugu (Evils Eye) displayed with other wares at Anadolu Kavegi

A Byzantine fortress overlooking the Black sea at Anadolu Kavegi

Anadolu Kavegi

A Pretty woman walks up to the boat at Anadolu Kavegi

Confluence of Bosphorus strait and sea of Marmara

Asian shore of Istanbul

Grand Bazaar

We stayed at Anadolu Kavagi for almost three hours. A small fishing hamlet in Asia with quite a few eateries near the jetty dishing out exotic preparation of different varieties of fish. I had a delicious meal of baked mackerel at one of the shops. There were some shops selling Evil Eyes (Nazar Bosicugu) in various sizes and other typically Turkish handicrafts. They were far cheaper than similar amulets available in Istanbul. A road leads to the ruins of a fortress from the Byzantium era strategically built atop a hillock and overlooking the confluence of Bosphorus strait and Black sea on the Anatolian side. Enroute there was a base for the Turkish Defence Force. We returned back to Eminonu totally refreshed. The weather had suddenly changed. It was cloudy and drizzling, and there was a chilly wind. When we came out of the ferry station it was beginning to get dark and the city had already started to shimmer. We sat in the tram station, munching on roasted hazelnuts and enjoyed watching the Galata bridge, New Mosque and traffic movement on rain soaked streets. On our way back we got down near Sirkesi train station. The station was built in the mid-nineteenth century to connect Istanbul to the rest of Europe. The station edifice reflects a mixture of European and Oriental architecture. Once upon a time, the famous Orient Express used to cover a distance of around 3500 km to Paris in three days. My favourite Belgian armchair detective Hercule Poirot had taken this ‘crowded’ train from ‘Stamboul’ (Istanbul) on his way back to Paris in the famous Agatha Christie book ‘Murder on the Orient Express’. Agatha Christie had written this book in 1930s sitting in the Totkalian Hotel, located on the busy Istiklal Street. She wrote this book after having travelled from Calais to ‘Stamboul’.

When we finally returned to Sultahnahmet circle we were awed by the artistic illumination of the facades of Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia.

A night view of BLUE MOSQUE

HAGIA SOPHIA in the night. Stands seen in the foreground were arranged for a car rally held on the next day.

Another view of Hagia Sophia

                                                                                      ........ to continue

Istanbul 1
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