Istanbul’s Winter Wonderland
In my dreams, my visions of Istanbul conjured up a skyline filled with exotic domes and minarets amongst a warm sun shining on the glittering Bosphorus. I also imagined the smell of spices mingling in the air, the bustle of the bazaars and the crowds of tourists. However, Istanbul in January was very different to my expectations. After landing onto a frozen runway in Istanbul, with only my light clothes for India, I walked out into a city freezing cold, sprinkled with snow and eerily empty of tourists.
My visit to Istanbul was a bit of a bonus, a 22 hour stopover on an excellent value Turkish Airlines flight bound for Mumbai, India which gave me a taste of Turkey. One last day in Europe, exploring Istanbul, a city straddling two continents, Europe and Asia, before leaving for 18 months is Asia and Australia seemed fitting.
Exploring Another Side to Istanbul
Seeing Istanbul in the frozen, white light of winter showed me a side to the city that many of the summer crowds do not experience. My exploration of snow dusted Istanbul began at night. As snow crunched under our feet, the minarets of the mosques lit up the way as we searched for our hotel in the historic Sultanahmet area. Next morning I awoke to the exotic and also soothing sounds of the call to prayer and ate breakfast on the roof terrace gazing over the frosty rooftops at the snow capped dome of the Blue Mosque.
I wandered the quiet, historic streets warmed by the smoke wafts and aromas of hot roasted chestnuts and large hoop shaped salty rolls covered in sesame seeds from cute, little red and white food carts, popping into cafes for cay (tea), sticky baklava, strong Turkish coffees and shots of raki to warm up.
Ambling through the grand bazaar I soaked in the sounds, smells and colours of the spices , teas, dried fruits, nuts and Turkish delight before getting lost in the labyrinth of stalls displaying jewellery, brass ware, colourful pots, carpets and leather bags.
Here I purchased the most precious of all my souvenirs, two cute Turkish style bracelets that will ward off the evil eye and keep us safe on the rest of our journey, all the time excited about the whole world of opportunities that lay ahead of us on our indefinite trip.
Snow Dusted Mosques
Outside in the crisp, winter sunlight I shivered amongst the palm trees in the frozen, empty gardens of Sultanahmet Park. The snow dusted frosting and lack of tourists gave the monuments an even more magical feel as I soaked in this moment of having these iconic sites all to myself. On opposite sides of the park the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque stand imposingly facing each other, the two buildings look like rivals, eyeing each other up suspiciously over the fountain. The pinkish coloured Hagia Sofia was formerly a Byzantine church but it was turned into a mosque under the Ottoman empire. The inside is even more fabulous and evocative than the outside, while the Blue Mosque (The Sultan Ahmed Mosque) is famous for its six minarets and the beautiful blue tiles adorning the walls inside.
I enjoyed a fresh and breezy walk in the along the edge of the Bosphorus. Usually bustling with boats but today rather peaceful in the crisp winter sunshine. Dodging the numerous rods from the swarm of people fishing over the railing from the Galata Bridge and swerving through the crowds that gathered at the stalls selling fish sandwiches at the end of the bridge to take in the stunning views back to the Sultanahmet skyline littered with the snow dusted domes and minarets of mosques.
Across the Golden Horn the fairytale spire of the circular Galata Tower stands tall above the snowy rooftops on the banks of modern Beyoglu. We take the funicular up the hill and stroll down the buzzing shop and bar lined streets to Taksim Square where the iconic Istanbul old red tram still runs.
Apart from being freezing cold in clothes best suited for tropical climates, I relished the opportunity to see a different side to Istanbul. Istanbul does not reserve it’s delights for the summer crowds, the mosques and rooftops looked even more magical with their snowy, white dustings. I soaked in the exotic atmosphere, feeling like a local as I watched the locals hurry about their lives, elated that there wasn’t another tourist in sight.
Frozen Istanbul was a short but sweet introduction to Turkey that whetted my appetite to see more of this intriguing country that is both reassuringly European and exotically Middle Eastern. The ancient ruins of Ephesus, the surreal and fairy tale beauty of Cappadocia, the incredible, gleaming white mineral pools of Pamukkale, and of course, a dip in the glittering, cobalt waters of the Aegean are all begging for a return visit.
Hot air balloon ride over fairy tale Cappadocia is reason for a return visit. Photo Credit – Moyan Brenn