Istanbul's singular experiences

Travel Weekly senior editor Andrew Compart recently visited Istanbul. His impressions follow:

ISTANBUL, Turkey -- Cruising on the Bosporus strait between Asia and Europe; taking a Turkish bath; listening to a Turkish pop duo with a smattering of local residents in a small bar; taking in the aroma of cinnamon, saffron and other herbs and spices amid the bustle of the Spice Bazaar, and walking down Istiklal Cadessi, the long, constantly busy shopping and entertainment pedestrian street in Beyoglu.

As a first-time visitor to the only major city in the world resting on two continents, my favorite times were more related to experiences like these than to sightseeing.

For me, nothing topped the Bosporus -- the winding strait that separates the European and Asian sides of the city and links the Black and Marmara seas.

I'd highly recommend spending an entire day on one of the ferry boat excursions (which also provides a welcome respite from the hellish local traffic).

Just the sights alone are a pleasure, as the ferry passes by the small communities and fishing villages; mosques; palaces; refurbished Ottoman-era villas, and seafood restaurants and cafes near the docks.

Restaurants line the Bosporus at Anadolu Kavagi.Given an entire day, cruisers also have time to get off at a few of the communities.

That means they can relax and enjoy one of the seafood restaurants, taste the famed yogurt at Kanlica or (on a Sunday) see artists exhibiting their work at a streetside gallery in Ortakoy.

I only had time to disembark at Anadolu Kavagi on the Asian side, but it was an excellent choice. The village, accessible only by boat, seems locked in an earlier era, with minimal traffic and development -- and cows occasionally meandering down the street.

A friend and I hiked uphill (taxis also are an option) to the remains of the Genoese fortress. From there, we could spot the mouth of the Black Sea.

We enjoyed the view as, from the distance, we heard the Muslim call to prayer.

The sounds and atmosphere were much different on the night a friend and I took a short cab ride to Ortakoy, known for its nightclubs, bars and jazz.

We decided on a small bar featuring a singer and synthesizer player performing what we assumed to be Turkish pop tunes.

A couple of dozen young locals were there, singing back some of the lyrics during the songs and, at one point, snaking around the bar in a group dance. One young woman, in jeans and a cutoff shirt, did some impromptu belly dancing for her group at the table beside us.

In yet another Istanbul experience, I was lying on a marble slab in the "hot room" of a hamam, or Turkish bath, of the Galatasaray Hamami, first built as the palace baths in 1481 in the Galatasaray/Beyoglu section of the city.

Sweating profusely in the sauna-like heat, I looked up at a high domed and windowed ceiling. A light hung down from the dome, and the effect gave the impression of looking up at a UFO hovering overhead, waiting to whisk me away.

Instead, I was massaged by the bath attendant. But "massage" is a polite term because the technique is a bit punishing; one of our group jokingly referred to his attendant as "Brutus."

Istanbul's Sultan Ahmet Mosque is also called the Blue Mosque because its interior is decorated by 21,000 predominantly blue tiles. The attendant then scrubbed me clean with soap and a coarse-clothed, luffa-like sponge used to rub away dead skin.

I left feeling cleaner and relaxed (despite -- or because of -- the massage). The baths are segregated by gender -- with same-sex bath attendants -- and modestly priced. The full treatment cost about $25.

I wasn't as impressed by the Covered Bazaar, with more than 4,000 shops and hordes of shoppers. It's jam-packed with tourists and gets even more so when cruise ship passengers are in town.

The nearby Spice Bazaar held much more appeal for me. It had more of a local flavor, even though, in a nod to modern times and Western culture, a lot of the items are marketed as "Turkish Viagra."

Of course, historic sites and architectural wonders and the like often are worth visiting.

It would be shame, for example, to miss Istanbul's vast St. Sophia Museum.

Originally built as a church in the sixth century, and later used as a mosque, its towering dome alone (181 feet high and 102 feet in diameter) makes it an architectural marvel.

Virtually next door stands the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, also called the Blue Mosque.

It's impressive for its six minarets, but the real drawing card is inside: more than 21,000 predominantly blue tiles peacefully bathed in the light shining through 260 windows.

Another must-see is the underground Cistern Basilica, built in the sixth century as a water reservoir and supported by 336 marble columns.

The Topkapi Palace, while overrun with tourists, includes collections of jewelry and porcelain and other treasures that make it hard for many to pass up.

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