We were in Istanbul in the first few days of December this year and, despite ministrations from well-meaning friends that Turkey was hardly the place to go to at this time of the year, fell in love with this charming city the moment we walked out of the Ataturk airport. It is a place where the ancient and the modern co-exist in perfect harmony. The Sultanahmet district more than any other part of Istanbul best embodies this symmetry. All the major historical sights of Istanbul lie within a radius of three-fourths of a kilometre of Sultanahmet Square, Istanbul's crown jewel. The wide open spaces, the quaint palm trees lining the perfectly--paved walkways, the many-coloured fountains that light up the square after sunset, and the stunning view of Hagia Sophia looming from behind these fountains -- and yes, the carts selling freshly-roasted chestnuts and vanilla-flavoured teas, together make an hour spent here in the evening a memorable experience, relaxing and exhilarating at the same time. We sat there the first evening, after visiting the Blue Mosque and the Basilica Cistern-- and could not help coming back to it every evening we were there. Yes, there are vendors goimg about trying to sell their wares, and tour operators inviting you to book a trip on one of their excursions-- but each one of them has the innate tact and courtesy that distinguishes practically everybody in Istanbul from people in other metros in most parts of the world: they never hard-sell their stuff , never get on your nerves and always take a 'no' with a polite smile. The Square is a perfectly safe place too, and my daughter and I happen to have walked in the deserted Square well after ten on a windy winter night , never feeling insecure or threatened. That night we were privileged to see something truly extra-ordinary: high up in the sky on the full-moon night, a flock of seagulls was going round and round one of the Mosque's brightly-lit, tall turrets, their white bodies beautifully complementing the blue sky and the reddish-brown light from the turret. I will not forget Sultanahmet in a hurry!
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