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I met its soulSunday 5 May 2013 00:01 CEST
This country gave the tulips to Dutch and coffee to Europe. Its largest city but not its capital spans two continents, Europe and Asia, it is as large as Belgium and has the 4th largest number of billionaires after New York, Moscow and London. Join us to meet Istanbul, Turkey.
To get to know Istanbul, which saw its very first inhabitants in the 7th millennium BC and is as big as the entire state, in just few days is an impossible task. But if one really wants to become aware of it he must open his senses to feel it, smell it, hear it and see it with his eyes wide open because Istanbul's old soul smells like tea, spices and nargila.
It tastes like lokum, it is as soft as the best silk, sounds mystical and deeply spiritual, while its Byzantine and Ottoman architecture and numerous colourful bazaars and its friendly, loud salesmen (just like in ancient times) are telling you thousands of years old stories better than any travel guide.
Istanbul has been the capital of the Roman, Byzantine, Latin Empire, and the Ottoman Empire that lasted for more than 600 years and was one of the most powerful states in the world during the 15th and 16th century. During that time, there were more than 1,400 public toilets all around the city - at the same time there wasn't any in Europe and even at palaces in France.
It was the most crowded city of the world back in 1502, and then London took the title in 1840. Today it has more than 13 million citizens and hosts phenomenal arts, music, dance and international film festivals outdoor and indoor year-round.
Book the W Istanbul near the Bosphorus bridge and Besiktas Pier in the Akaretler district, an upscale neighbourhood filled with design and art galleries, cafes and restaurants. Take a seat in one of numerous fancy/romantic rooftop restaurants that offer an astonishing view across the Bosphorus or a waterfront seat directly under the Galata Bridge pedestrian walkway.
Follow your ears to find a great kebab or be bold and make an atmospheric backdrop and have your meal at the Grand Bazaar where locals eat. While at Grand Bazaar take a look at Sofa Art & Antiques, one of the best antiques shops in Istanbul.
Istanbul hosts some of the most breathtaking architectural beauties as Hagia Sophia, the most beautiful example of Byzantine art in the world. Hagia Sophia served as a church for 916 years and in 1935 it was converted into a museum. Then there are the Topkapi Palace, a home to generations of sultans and their wives, the Suleymaniye Mosque, the largest mosque in the city and one of the best-known sights of Istanbul, unmissable as you stand on the Galata bridge.
And there is Blue Mosque, the answer to Hagia Sophia, the most important mosque after Masjid al-Haram or the "Grand Mosque", the largest mosque in the world, located in the city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
Blue Mosque or Sultan Ahmet Mosque, famous for blue tiles adorning the walls of its interior, is the only mosque in Turkey with six minarets. A story says that the number of minarets arose from a misunderstanding between architects and Sultan Ahmed I who asked for gold minarets (Altin minarets), but got six minarets (Alti minarets).
The Sultan quickly sent his architect to Mecca to build the seventh minaret at Masjid al-Haram because no mosque was allowed to have more minarets than Masjid al-Haram, the holiest mosque of them all. Today Masjid al-Haram has nine of them.
Visit Buyukada, the largest of the nine islands comprising the Princes' Islands in the Sea of Marmara, free of motor vehicles. Rest your feet and take a horse-drawn carriage tour and just enjoy its serenity. Back on land don't miss to visit Istanbul City Walls, the most complex fortification system ever built.
After that stroll through Abdi Ipekci Street, Turkey's most expensive shopping street (deluxe leather boutiques, jewellery and textiles), Istiklal Avenue and Bagdat Avenue, and learn how Turkish designers are playing with textures and shapes.
Although your bags are now full of beautiful things you may feel that something is still missing: a mystical journey with Whirling Dervishes. Turning toward the truth, they grow through love, transcend the ego, meet the truth, and arrive at perfection. Then they return from this spiritual journey as one who has reached maturity and completion, able to love and serve all creatures without discriminating. And only when you see them dancing you may say: I met Istanbul, I met its soul.