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Exotic sights and guilty pleasures in Istanbul

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The Spice Market [Sheldon Kirshner photo]

ISTANBUL, Turkey – Istanbul’s exotic sights and guilty pleasures are there to be enjoyed and savoured.

 Like a Turkish delight – the popular candy concocted from gelatin, sugar and cornstarch, flavoured with rosewater or mastic, embedded with pistachios or hazelnuts and dusted with cream of tartar – Istanbul is hard to resist.

The only major city that straddles two continents, Istanbul spills from Europe into Asia, and is divided by the Bosphorus, the strait that connects the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea.

Since time immemorial, travellers have converged on this sophisticated Middle East destination.

In the mid-12th century, when it was still called Constantinople and served as the capital of the Byzantine Empire, the Jewish chronicler Benjamin of Tudela, marveled at its sheer vitality. “It is a bustling city, with business coming to her from all foreign lands on land and on sea,” he wrote.

Conquered and renamed by the Ottomans in the late 15th century, Istanbul, once the seat of the caliphate, blossomed as it evolved into the centre of a vast, polyglot Islamic empire inhabited by Muslims, Christians and Jews.

Today, as Turkey’s biggest metropolis, Istanbul offers a traveller a wide range of  attractions that did not even exist when Benjamin of Tudela visited: the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Market, the Blue Mosque and Istiklal Caddesi.

Start your tour at the Grand Bazaar, one of the oldest covered markets in the world. Having taken shape in the 17th century, it was unrivalled among the markets of the Middle East and Europe in the 19th century. Unbelievably big, the market encompasses 61 streets and contains more than 3,000 shops.

Carrying an endless array of products, from jewelry and textiles to handicrafts and carpets, the bazaar is perpetually busy and crowded with locals and tourists alike. It seems as if there is never a dull moment here.

The Spice Market, situated fairly close by, is nothing if not kaleidoscopic. Known also as the Egyptian Bazaar, it is a market that heightens the senses.

   In shop after shop, mounds of spices and herbs of various hues are arrayed next to tantalizing formations of lokum – Turkish delights – and boxes of herbal teas.

Turkish coffee, the national beverage, is sold in tins or in loose form. To walk into a shop specializing in coffee, Turkish or otherwise, is to be swept away on a cloud of heady aromas.

In a city of literally more than 3,000 mosques, the Blue Mosque, or the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, ranks among the finest. Finished in 1616 after seven years of construction, it was designed by Mimar Koca Sinan, touted as the greatest architect of the Ottoman Empire. Bristling with six minarets, adorned with eight domes and decorated with 20,000 top-of-the-line Iznik ceramic tiles, it is astonishingly beautiful and overwhelming in its esthetic effect.

The impression is enhanced by 200 stained glass windows letting in filtered natural light.

When Pope Benedict XVI visited the mosque six years ago, in only his second visit to a Muslim house of prayer, he paused to reflect on its splendours.

Istanbul’s premiere thoroughfare, Istiklal Caddessi, is about three kilometres in length and is named in honour of Turkey’s War of National Independence, which lasted from 1919 to 1922.

Lined with a procession of fine buildings in the Art Deco, Neo-Classical, Beaux Arts and Neo-Gothic styles, Istiklal Caddessi fell into disrepair in the 1970s and 1980s. But in the past two decades, the street has bounced back, with the buildings having been restored to their former grandeur.

Its architectural star power notwithstanding, Istiklal Caddessi is best known for its cafes, restaurants, pubs, bookshops, art galleries, antiquarian stores and garment shops.

To a gourmand, its cafes and restaurants are special draws, offering delicious, reasonably priced Turkish specialties such as boreks (baked or fried cheese, vegetable or meat pies), baklava (layered filo pastry larded with honey and nuts), dolmas (rice-stuffed vine leaves) and koftas (minced or ground chicken, lamb or beef meatballs).

After a day of touring and feasting, you can chill out by dropping into a hamam, or Turkish bath.

The public bath, a Roman institution, was expropriated by the Byzantines and refined by the Ottomans. Although fairly expensive, a Turkish bath experience rounds off a day in Istanbul perfectly.

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Turkish Airlines offers direct flights from Toronto to Istanbul. Its comfort class section has lots of legroom and a selection of upgraded meals.

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