Squeezed into a taxi meant for a smaller group, we crawled through traffic into the heart of Istanbul, European Capital of Culture for 2010. The heater blew hot air into our faces but outside sleety rain soon turned to snow.
When we’d booked our flights we knew we wouldn’t be experiencing Istanbul as most visitors do – basking on roof terraces in balmy heat, gazing across the Bosphorus from the sunny deck of a ferry, fighting with sweaty crowds in the streets of Sultanahmet – but nothing had prepared us for the four solid days of snow, for the feet quickly turning numb inside fleecy winter boots and the Blue Mosque appearing eerily through icy mists and swirling snowflakes.
We quickly adjusted plans, made the most of the impressive tram system wherever possible and learned to factor in extra breaks to sip piping hot apples teas and delicious foamy sahleps (a local drink made from orchid roots but tasting like frothy custard).
After an icy exploration of the beautiful Topkapi Palace – admiring the valiant flowers of the Tulip Garden, yellow petals bright against the snow – we treated ourselves to an extended lunch in the excellent Rumeli restaurant. It was quiet there but the service attentive. We nestled into our corner, boots lined up in front of the well-tended fire, and enjoyed delicious manti (Turkish ravioli), and piles of steaming bread.
Afterwards we felt too full and sleepy to battle the elements again, so we sped straight to the sixteenth century Çemberlitas Hamami, where we spent hours of steamy contentment, tipping bowl upon bowl of hot water over ourselves as sturdy Turkish mamas pummelled and scrubbed other customers. Gleaming clean and toasty warm we dreaded facing the cold outside, but found that our rosy glow lasted all the way back to the hotel, even when confronted with cheeky local boys wielding snowballs.
Another perk of being there off-season was that places our guidebooks described as being jam-packed were merely pleasantly lively. At the popular Pano wine bar we got a table with no trouble and were free to enjoy the excellent red wine until closing time.
In the Aya Sofia two huge cats sensibly warmed themselves in front of the floodlights at the altar. We were tempted to follow suit but instead kept ourselves moving, gazing at the stunning domed roof and stained glass windows.
At the wonderful Grand Bazaar the snow blew in through the fifteenth century gates, but the shopkeepers were chirpy and the banter lively. “You are English? Lovely jubbly,” one quipped proudly. Pretty ceramics and coloured lanterns vied with fake labels and tourist tat for space. I asked one shopkeeper if this weather was unusual. “We haven’t had snow for four years!” he replied. “You should come back in the summer.”
I certainly would like to explore that beautiful city again in the sunshine, but it was rather magical seeing Istanbul’s lights twinkling against the backdrop of an ice-blue sky in the snowy hush.