In addition to the ticket price one of the key factors which made me book a Turkish Airlines flight to Spain was the Tour Istanbul– a free day tour offered by the airlines to all its transit passengers (subject to some conditions related to transit time). And I can happily say, it was the right decision. I don’t think there could have been a better way of experiencing Istanbul, in such limited time.

After landing at the Istanbul airport, we were guided towards Passport Control, where after a simple police verification of Passport we were granted a Tourist Visa (USD 20 or EURO 15). All Indian citizens having an active Schengen / US visa can apply for a visa on arrival. We then walked towards the meeting point, where the Airlines staff wrote down our names and asked us to wait for the tour start time.

Our tour guide, Yaprak welcomed us and explained us the itinerary and plan for the next 6 hours. Elegantly dressed in a white top, she had the charm of a young student and the authority of a knowledgeable history teacher. Unable to pronounce her name, I kept calling her leaf (meaning of her name in Turkish). She provided us with stories and insights, which were both informative as well as enjoyable.

As I left airport on my first ride in Europe, the perfectly manicured roads, lack of people and abundance of discipline, and sparkling blue sea reminded me of my distance from Mumbai, both literally and hygienically.

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Sparkling Sea of Marmara

Our first stop was the the Sultan Ahmed Mosque famously known as the Blue Mosque. The mosque was closed for prayers so we decided to grab some lunch. At this point on the trip we met Naresh, a fellow Indian on his way to Romania and a Kolkata-based family, an encounter which triggered a series of conversations praising Istanbul and wishing if things could have been better back home.

At lunch came the most heartbreaking part of the trip. They served us Köfte (Turkish meatballs, or simply beef kebabs). The last bits of Hinduism left in me denied me any indulgences, and I had to contend with a fava bean based veggie salad (which was very fresh) and some lightly cooked mushrooms and carrots. At this point I had already started missing masala back home. Dessert was Helva, a Turkish version of our sooji halwa, cooked in olive oil and garnished with pinenuts. I was talking to the staff, one of whom tried to act oversmart, walked towards me and whispered in my ear, this is Helva, Turkish Viagra. Boss if this is Viagara, then Pfizer should be Natthu Halwai!

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Sultanahmet Kebab place, where I didn’t eat any :(

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A nice veggie meal at one of the best “beef” kebab places in Istanbul. I loved Ayran, turkish take on our chaas

After the meal we walked towards the Blue Mosque, considered a masterpiece of Ottoman style architecture. Although the shades of blue are not dominant till you enter, the countless numbers of tiles and beautifully arranged sequence of lamps inside the mosque tend to dominate the vision once you enter.

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Blue Mosque

The blue mosque was followed by a visit to Hippodrome Square. The Hippodrome of Constantinople was built as a chariot-racing track when the Romans ruled Constantinople. As Yaprak narrated the tales of chariot races and the details of track layout, I couldn’t help but start imagining the classic chariot sequence of Ben Hur.

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Hippodrome Square

The next place we entered was the Basilica Cistern, a huge ancient water tank, one of many such in Istanbul. On this hot day, this place provided us a refreshing coolness and a sudden chill after watching the flipped head of Medusa. But it also gave us an opportunity to appreciate the utmost care taken by authorities to maintain and restore these ancient buildings.

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Basilica Cistern

We then walked towards Hagia Sophia Museum- a church, then a mosque, and then a museum. I had some bits of appreciation for Kemal Ataturk for resolving a disputed issue with such ease. But can reason triumph over religion so easily? Certainly not possible back home.

The structure wasn’t as brilliant as I had thought of. My expectations were heightened by the visuals of Skyfall (which my friends were hearing as Nightfall as I described the sequence, side effects of the sad Viagra joke I guess). Although it was a precursor of my trip to Spain, as I later came across similar structures which were inspired from both Christianity and Islam, triggering vivid imaginations of the Holy Wars, complicated definitions of secularism, and  questions of religious coexistence.

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Hagia Sofia

Although we wanted to visit the Grand Bazaar to taste a few kebabs and do some shopping, we had to get back to airports. Before we boarded the bus we enjoyed some Ayran (Turkish variant of chaas, slightly thick buttermilk) and refreshing apple tea.

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Multicolored candy at Istanbul

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Apple Tea at a Cafe near Hagia Sofia, Istanbul

On the way back to airport in an open bus, I enjoyed the sparkling view of the sea, and promised myself that I will be back here. For the thoughts, for understanding this country better, for visiting the bazaars, and quite certainly for the kebabs.

Additional information:

The airlines offers two tour options (9 AM-6 PM) and (12 noon – 6 PM). The itinerary changes on a daily basis. You can reach out to Turkish Airlines for further details. All expenses related to museum entry, transport, and meal are covered.

Also if you are flying Turkish Airlines flight, do ask for Peynir during the meal (Turkish Cottage cheese), you will surely fall in love with it.

Pics from the camera of Nishant Dolia