3 heart warming days in Istanbul!!

I went on a solo trip to Turkey to celebrate my 40th birthday and I couldn't have picked a better destination. I have been traveling for 20 years now, and for me, a destination has always been about the incredible sights or the amazing feel but for the first time ever, this trip was all about the people. How they melted my heart with their warmth and hospitality and how it changed my outlook on life and travel! If I look back 40 years from now, I probably might say this was the turning point that shaped the next few decades of my life. Sometimes you are ready but you don't know it yet, and someone comes along and shows you the mirror and you begin to see things clearly. Such is the power of kindness and love! It opens up your heart in ways unimaginable, if you let it happen. As for me, I welcomed it with my whole heart and let it transform me.

I almost picked Turkey as the destination for my 40th birthday on a whim, a couple of years ago. Istanbul fascinated me with its amalgamation of the East and the West civilizations and I thought it would be amazing to experience the hot air balloon ride in Cappadocia on my 40th birthday. Also, my best friend was going to fly in from India to join me in my celebrations, so I wanted to pick a destination that would work for both of us. But, when the war broke in Istanbul a couple of months before my trip was about to begin, it didn't seem like a good idea anymore. And my best friend couldn't join me on the trip due to unforeseen circumstances. But I decided to push forward with the plan that was in the making for more than a year. Now, I can't disappoint myself on my 40th birthday, can I? :) If it's meant to be a solo trip, so be it! And I am so glad I did!!

I landed in Istanbul in the afternoon and reached the 'Sultanahmet Palace Hotel' a couple of hours later. I had the view of the beautiful Blue Mosque on one side and the sea on the other from my balcony. It had a nice view of the sea from the terrace too.

After checking in, the first thing I did was to walk to the 'Cagaloglu Hammam' where I had my reservation for a Turkish Bath. Turkish Bath or Hammam is a cleansing ritual which involves an elaborate bath assisted by a masseur of the same gender who leads you through a hot sauna, a warm velvety bubble bath, a thorough body scrub, a hair shampoo/wash and a relaxing massage that ends with a serving of Turkish tea/sherbet and desserts in their lounge. It came highly recommended by friends who have been to Istanbul and I totally echo their sentiment. It was so relaxing and invigorating at the same time and the best thing to do after a 14 hour flight. I couldn't have asked for a better start to the trip and couldn't stop wondering why the rest of the world hasn't caught up to this outstanding ritual! The lady who assisted me was so soothing and as she held my hand and walked me out of the Hammam after wrapping me up, I felt like a 4-year old all over again.

After the wonderful Hammam experience, I headed to the Grand Bazaar. The charming salesmen, the bright colors, the intoxicating smells, the warm teas and the sweet delights makes it a unique experience and a must visit. I was not prepared for the handsome, witty and charming Turkish salesmen and ended up buying tea and Turkish delights in the first few minutes itself. 

I then had dinner at a nice restaurant 'Istanbul Kebap & Cafe Restaurant', where the owner brought me warm tea and fresh baklava on the house and politely asked if I would consider writing them a review. Of course, I did. Both the food and service were great. 

Next morning, I visited the beautiful Blue Mosque and its serene prayer hall. The blue tiles and motifs are what gives the Mosque its colloquial name. It is officially called 'Sultan Ahmed Mosque'. The view at night is also stunning.

As I was walking in the area, I came across a lady making fresh parathas, while seated in the street facing side of a restaurant. The restaurant had a warm and inviting feel with lovely Turkish music playing in the background. I walked in and ordered a blackberry tea and paratha. They had a throne like seating and I asked if I could sit there. The owner not only seated me there but also brought in turbans for me and clicked my pictures with them, without even me asking for it. They treated their customers like guests in their house and that warmth and hospitality is what I will always remember about Istanbul. 

I then walked to the Spice Bazaar, Eminonu Square, Galata Bridge and all the way to Karakoy. The walk was immensely entertaining with several people on the streets randomly walking up to me to openly flirt with me. They used such cheesy and filmy lines that it seemed like it is a national pastime in Istanbul to flirt with visitors. Some of them were salesmen trying to attract your attention by saying "Wow, you are so beautiful" or "You must be from Paradise" or "You look like some film star" but then there were others who weren't even selling anything but would come up to say, "I really like you, can we please meet at the bridge?" or "You look great, can I take you to the church or mosque?". But they weren't insistent or irritating and a polite No usually worked. But I must say that I was surprised by their bold flirting across the board. It wasn't a unique or one-off incident which meant I never once felt lonely in all my time in Istanbul, but  it was also distracting enough to take my focus away from sightseeing :) Amidst all this, the architectural beauty of the 'New Mosque' at the Eminonu Square captivated my attention multiple times. And the night view was gorgeous too!

I stopped at a beautiful café in Karakoy and had some of the best coffee there

I then strolled around Istiklal Caddesi, a popular and vibrant pedestrian-only street that is dotted with cafes, restaurants, book stores, boutiques etc., that runs from Galata Tower to the Taksim Square. 

After that, I walked a couple of more miles to a local pub recommended by the lady at the coffee shop called 'Totem Life' and enjoyed the music while it drizzled outside. I loved the Turkish music and spent some time there penning my thoughts. I then took a local bus and metro to get back to the Galata Bridge. The bridge and the surrounding areas were brightly illuminated and the lights reflected on the water creating a lovely and lively ambience. I couldn't help but start playing music and dancing to it, oblivious to anyone who could be staring at me (and certainly there were a few). I had a fantastic time! This is the part I love about solo trips. You could just about do anything without having to worry about schedules or embarrassing your company.

I wanted to try non-tobacco Hookah, so I looked up some of the best Hookah places in downtown. But unfortunately, the one I picked did not serve fruit flavored Hookahs. As I was walking along the street, I came across a Michelin Guide restaurant and just asked if they could accommodate one person without any reservation. I was offered a seat near the door but when the waiter came he asked me if I am comfortable there. I said I am ok but asked if I had other options. He said he can surely find out. And then a gentleman came and said he will take me to a more comfortable seat. I asked if I could sit outdoors and he said, "Sure, please let me carry your purse." And he said it as if I would be doing him a favor by letting him carry my purse.  I was taken aback as I have only previously seen that in movies. He then pulled a chair for me and another for my purse and even offered me a pashmina shawl as it was a bit chilly outside. As my heart was about to melt with his warm hospitality, he offered me the menu and on it I saw a large picture of him on the front page. He is the owner/chef of the restaurant and my jaw dropped. Incredulously, I asked him, "Is this you?" and he said yes with a warm smile. He proceeded to recommend his favorite dishes and I happily obliged. He then handed the order to the waiter and wished me a great meal. I was awestruck. There was absolutely no reason for him to come over and treat me the way he did, but in doing so, he showed me what we are all capable of. With every single interaction that is enveloped with kindness and warmth, we touch and impact someone's life in a positive way. I have experienced kindness before, but being more open to it and in a vulnerable situation, alone in a foreign country, it had a greater impact on me this time around. By the way, the food was great too, like it was everywhere else in Istanbul.

The next morning, I went to visit the Hagia Sophia. It was Friday and the Mosques are only open for prayers in the morning but they let me in and I experienced it without the crowd. I then headed to the Book Bazaar. It was a beautiful market shaded with trees and a place to sit and read but most of the books are in Turkish. Sigh!

I went to the Grand Bazaar for one last visit. This time, I was determined not to buy anything. And then a shopkeeper says "Lady, you look so pretty. You don't have to buy anything, but if you could just step into my shop for a second, you would change the air of it. And it would make me so happy." How do you refuse something like that? So, I stepped in, twirled around in his shop, and left. Phew, they have a way of getting to you!

I went to the same café in Karakoy again and a swirl of emotions filled me up. As much as I love solo trips, I miss my dear ones. I went to a book shop to get a notepad, as I wanted to pen them all down. I spent a couple of hours writing and then went to visit a beautiful church on Istiklal Caddesi. It is always interesting to see places of worship of other religions in a country dominated by one.

I then took the sunset Bosphorus cruise that sails along the Bosphorus Strait that separates the European and Asian sides of the city. It was a relaxing sail in a lovely yacht where we were offered several complementary snacks and drinks onboard. The sunset was delicious and we had a good time.

I ate dinner at Hamdi restaurant with a great view of the New Mosque. I then headed to the 'Mesale Cafe' to watch the whirling dervish and to capture my experience of the day in words. A Russian girl who sat at the next table and watched me write, recommended that I visit 'Basilica Cistern' the next morning as she believed I would enjoy it. Though it was on my list, I was thinking of avoiding it due to the long line but decided to visit upon her recommendation. 

The next morning, I stood in the line for 'Basilica Cistern', which is a large ancient underground chamber that was the source of fresh water supply to the city for several centuries. A few minutes into our visit, the power went down for a few minutes and it felt like we were in the presence of our ancestors. It was hard to say what it was about the place, but I loved it and thanked the Russian girl for nudging me. 

I then went to the Asian side of the city, Kadikoy, and headed straight to the recommended restaurant, Ciya Sofrasi, which had an amazing spread of local delicacies. The street had a line up of restaurants with outdoor seating which I loved. And luckily for me, there was a football match that evening and the whole street was filled with football fans in jerseys who would break up into enthusiastic slogans and songs every few minutes. The whole atmosphere was so lively with kids playing musical instruments, people painting faces with team colors, and spectators cheering and clapping along (including me). The food was excellent too. I spent a couple of hours absorbing the festive vibe and had a fantastic time and was so grateful for having the opportunity to be part of it. 

I spent some time at the Kadikoy Ferry Terminal, the market and then walked over to the popular Bull Statue, where there were more pre-game festivities going on, which included firecrackers too.

After spending 3 wonderful & heart warming days in Istanbul, I headed to the airport to fly to Cappadocia for the next part of my adventure. The people of Istanbul will always have a special place in my heart for making me feel so welcome. The hospitality is so pervasive that it seemed ingrained in their culture, their language and their way of life. When they say 'Mashallah', they do make it feel like meeting you is indeed a blessing. When they say 'Inshallah', they say it like it is meant to be. I even loved the early morning call for prayer, which seemed to be a call for the community to come together. I haven't even visited their grand palaces or explored their opulent history, but what I experienced is enough for me to fall in love. If Istanbul isn't on your list, I would urge you to add it now :) 


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