By Regina Lynch Hudson
Blissful destination: There are those customary haunts like London, Paris and Madrid that lure the trendy traveler; and then there are diamonds in the rough, like Turkey, which traditionally draw the thrill-seekers among us. (www.goturkey.com) Turkey welcomed more than 25 million vacationers in 2012, led by Istanbul, the country’s largest city — which attracted over 9 million tourists, making Istanbul the world’s fifth most popular tourist destination. Exotic, modern and swathed in nearly 10 millennia of history — Istanbul is the only city on earth that straddles two continents, Europe and Asia.
With 13.9 inhabitants, Istanbul stands as the world’s second-largest city (by population within city limits). Traffic is dense, the tempo is frenzied and the sights are fascinating. Its vibe sways from vogue to vintage — with its more than 2,500 ancient mosques, magnificent palaces, exquisite restaurants and five-star hotels fit for the lavish lifestyle of a Sultan.
In many ways, Istanbul is the saga of a dualistic city, a dazzling, dizzying blur of Eastern and Western culture. You might hear the sporadic cries of muezzins summoning Muslims to prayer, or the contrasting tongues of street-savvy vendors in Istanbul’s fashionable Macka district.
Options Abound: Sultanahmet, Istanbul’s historical hub, bursts with museums, mosques, and markets — all within walking distance. Garments ran the gamut from mini-skirts and designer jeans to women covered from head to toe in flowing black robes. State-of-the art trams, metro lines and ferries are crammed with passengers from a rainbow of cultures and nations.
Visual Treasures: Meditating in Istanbul’s famed Blue Mosque, named for its splendidly adorned blue tiles, and the extraordinary 6th century St. Sophia (Church of Divine Wisdom) was first priority. I scheduled an entire day in the Grand Bazaar, one of the largest on the planet, with more than 3,000 shops. Having the time of my life, I haggled with vendors who peddled leather, gold, silver, Turkish foods, apparel and carpets. (http://grandbazaaristanbul.org) In the nearby Spice Market, our senses exploded over enticing scents of ancient spices, such as frankincense and myrrh. Exploring Basilica Cistern, dubbed the Underground Palace, cast us spellbound in a subterranean water reservoir, with ceilings braced by Corinthian columns. Another lasting visual of Istanbul was a private yacht expedition on the Bosphorus Strait -— the mesmerizing waterway that splits the city into two continents. On the European side, we ogled palaces, old mansions, and cutting-edge villas. Then, the boat spun around to cruise along the Asian side, where we saw Beylerbeyi Palace, one of many palaces of the Sultans. There’s no greater sight than Istanbul lit up at night from a boat that’s drifting down the Bosphorus Strait.
Exploring Kusadasi: A private driver/guide made getting around the hallowed grounds of Kusadasi (430 miles from Istanbul) a breeze. Kusadasi is gateway to the ancient city of Ephesus, and its famed archaeological sites, like the Celsus Library façade, the Great Theatre, and Temple of Hadrian. We also toured the Virgin Mary’s House, declared a place of pilgrimage in 1892. Archaeological evidence shows that Jesus’ mother lived the last years of her life in this sacred house, and died in the vicinity of Ephesus.
Six Degrees of Separation: In Sirince village (a village of 600 inhabitants outside of Kusadasi) we purchased handicrafts, sold by village ladies at street stalls. In a quaint jewelry shop in Sirince, we discovered that the Turkish owner had spent time in America as an air traffic controller for NATO, and had trained at Stewart Army Airfield, adjacent to West Point Academy. When the proprietor learned that my husband was a cadet at West Point during the timeframe when NATO had him based nearby, he lavished us in hospitality (copious amount of Turkish tea) and offered us a deal that we couldn’t refuse on multiple jewelry pieces. As we exited his shop, I cited an autographed photo of Brad Pitt on the wall, and inquired about it. Get this: turns out that our humble new friend (Sedaf Kantaroglu) was the jeweler for the epic movie “Troy.”