"GUYS, we just passed by Asia. Welcome to Europe," Afnan animatedly shares as we cross over the Bosphorous bridge.
I sit there confused and awestruck at the possibility of being in two continents at once. Suddenly, my realizations of Istanbul just began - it was a land of many places.
Exploring a five million year old Christian church and a mosque all at the same time may seem rare. Enjoying a side of Europe you never knew while basking at the beauty of Asia just on the other side is even more impossible.
Istanbul is home to centuries of history and cultural diversity. It is straddled across the Bosphorous Strait that divides its Asian and European side.
We set forth our journey at ten o'clock in the morning. Clueless to what’s in store for me, I don a semi-revealing skirt under a fifteen degrees Celsius weather.
As we reach Sultan Ahmet, the smell of roasted corn and chestnuts greet us. Then and there we decide to head to the nearest restaurant, The Azlan.
I hungrily devour the Kadinbudu Kofte and Karniyark with brown rice. Fried meatballs and rice dipped in a batter including the eggplant stuffed with flavorful minced meat suited my palate well while my friends had the famous Shish Taouk, a Turkish chicken barbeque oozing in herbs and spices.
It was a gastronomic feast for all of us. We washed it off with a nice Walnut Baklava bought in Hafiz Mustafa and a cup of Turkish coffee.
We then walked to the Hagia Sophia (ÀyaSofiá). Under the huge dome, filtered amber lights reflect the beauty of its vaulted arches, galleries, wall paintings and mosaics depicting Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and the long-vanished emperors and saints.
"This was a Christian Church in 532 A.D., it became a Mosque after the Ottoman's invaded the Byzantine. The woman you beside Jesus is Sofia, thus the name Aya Sofia." Afnan pointed at the mosaic in front of us.
Seeing paintings of Jesus Christ and the rest of Christianity being preserved in a highly Muslim country is quite interesting. What's more interesting is the idea that the Turks valued history more than religion and pride. It is not all the time we witness that.
As we finish the guided tour, I scramble onto the pavement vividly imagining Emperors Justinian I and Mehmehn of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empire walking in the same direction.
As I stride along, prayer calls echo through the cobbled lanes. It was then I realized just in front of the Hagia Sophia was the Blue Mosque. Since I was under dressed for the occasion, we decided to venture to the Taxim Square.
The Taxim was buzzling with people from all walks of life. Indians performing their rituals in front of the shops, locals singing their hearts out and musicians humming their instruments abound the lively place.
We walked at a seemingly unending shopping haven for the locals. As I enjoy buying souvenirs along the streets, I witness people speaking greek or spanish, if not turkish. Indeed it was the land for the multicultural.
What impressed me most was its quaint similarity to the streets of Budapest. The classic coffee shops nestled on neo-renaissance inspired buildings plus an alleyway full of locals enjoying shisha was a breathtaking sight at night.
Handsome men with piercing blue eyes quipped the interest of my colleagues. With one hello from a tall half european, half turkish man, they giggle.
I realize it was already past ten in the evening so we again looked for a place to eat. Kebab and Doners at the Doner shop managed to satisfy our late night cravings. Slices of marinated beef grilled and wrapped in soft tortilla filled with vegetables warmed our aching tummies. As if it was not enough, we ate a huge serving of green tea baklava. It was more than perfect for all of us.
Tired with our musings, we booked an uber ride and went back to the Radisson Blu hotel in Pendik which was a forty five minute ride from the city. Sitting in the car, I gaze outside and marvel at the beautifully lighted Bosphorous Bridge for the last time. Down below, boats hovered towards different directions while cafes along the shores animatedly serve thimbles of Turkish coffee.
Being in Istanbul seemed like being in many different places at once. It reminds me of Asia, Europe and the Middle East. There are no superlatives to describe the beauty of what I just saw. It was a land of many places. Rich in culture and history, it was the best place I have ever been in my entire life.