Sunday, 20 April 2014

Days 387 to 393: Istanbul

In 2001, during travels, I visited Istanbul. I liked it, but with reservations. I wrote: Other countries I just about fitted in, but not here, with the consequences that I'm accosted by numerous Turkish salesmen desperate to invite their new "friend" to their carpet salesroom, silver shop, kebab shop or anywhere that might involve a sale. I have become very very familiar with the phrases "Hello my friend!" and "Where are you from?" Years on, it's this, the hassle, that I primarily remembered; girls we met ensured us the hassle they encountered was a hundred times worse. It definitely wasn't Europe, and I'd never experienced anything quite like it. The city itself seemed interesting, but didn't stamp any strong impressions on me: some big mosques, a street with bars and hostels, a tower somewhere, lots of people, feeling like a package-tourist traveller. I got very drunk after winning a bet about whether Kylie Minogue was older or younger than 35 years old (she was younger). Not very modern, not somewhere with much charm.

Well, what a difference 13 years can make. Because Istanbul today is wonderful. Truly a joy, and probably the favourite city Danielle and I have yet visited on these travels.

A little like our inauspicious arrival into Thessaloniki, Istanbul wasn't exactly showing us its best side as we rolled into town; yet, we could still sense something special in the air (even though that air was extremely foggy). We'd taken an overnight bus from Thessaloniki, and my God it was awful. Stop-start and lights-on all the way until the border at 2am, with a noisy Turkish family unfamiliar with the concept of sleep, and especially others' need for it. Eventually I got about two hours rest, waking to the misty sight of a motorway flanked by endless high-rises and the giant domes of mosques. Clearly, no longer Europe. Negotiating the vast otogar (Turkey's quirky French-inspired name for a bus station: "auto-gare"), and metro system, we opted for a shortcut by getting a taxi to take us to the ferry pier. We had a hostel booked on the Asian side, with a ferry being a shortcut. Bad move. It was very foggy, and the ferry was indefinitely postponed. Beyond the ferry was just white haze, the occasional tiny boat shimmering briefly into sight like a ghost. It was 8am, cold, and we were exhausted. Perhaps we might have simply given up all hope and vanished like the boats into the fog, consumed by Istanbul, but suddenly a great saviour came to our rescue.

Starbucks. A Starbucks was right by the pier. We sat in there for two hours, saved by coffee, until the fog partially lifted and the ferry could set sail (or whatever the correct expression for a motorised boat moving is). Only days later, back at the pier, did we realise that we'd been standing directly across the water from the Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace. A truly inspiring arrival into Istanbul had been spoiled by the fog.

But did it matter? No, not one jot. And Istanbul spent the next six days thoroughly making it up to us.

Just about everything we did in Istanbul was great. Sight-seeing, drinking, walking around, interacting. Istanbul has the buzz of a city on the up, but it also has the confidence of a city with over 2000 years of history - and most of that history pretty damn immense. In its heyday as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, surviving on centuries after Rome had fallen, Istanbul - or Constantinople as it was known then - was perhaps the greatest city on earth. Trade, wealth, religion, art, culture - it was right at the heart of it all. The ebb and flow of time ensures nothing lasts forever, and although the city flourished for a while as the capital of the Ottomon Empire (who gave it its modern name - Istanbul means simply "Into The City") from the 15th Century, by the time it had reached the 20th Century it was not a player on any world stage. But today, like a fallen athlete, Istanbul is back on its feet and is ready to be competitive. Istanbul has the potential to be truly great again.

That's the impression Danielle, Burness, and I had from our visit. Burness joined us on our second day, arriving from the airport by ferry to Kadikoy on the Asian side. The weather treated him better - it was a gorgeous day, and from the ferry he'd enjoyed views of the historic Sultanahmet district, with its headline acts of the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, and Topkapi Palace ably supported by a cast of other domes and blocks all packed together. On arrival, we had a wander round the tight cluster of streets in our area. Istanbul likes tight clusters of streets, a lot. Usually pedestrianised, often neon-lit, cafes and bars and shop spill out enthusiastically, with old men drinking tea, young couples eating, groups of guys smoking shisha or drinking Efes or both. It's modern, it's old-fashioned: it's very social.

We stayed four nights on the Asian side, then two on the European side, in the district called Beyoglu near Taksim Square. Between them, the wide waters of the Bosphorus Strait, linking the huge Black Sea to the relatively dinky Sea of Marmaris marks the boundary between the continents, criss-crossed by ferries, bridged by the huge but plain Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge (named after the Ottoman emperor who conquered Constantinople), with a very recently-opened underground trainline also linking them. A single swipecard gives access to all of these: Istanbul is excellently served by swift public transport. With the streets so narrow, many essentially being roads imposed upon an ancient streetplan, cluttered with parked cars and people, I don't know why you'd ever want to drive.

There's a lot to see, and if you wanted you could spend days rushing around maniacally visiting Istanbul's many attractions. We didn't want. Instead, our days were spent leisurely, strolling around three districts - Kadikoy on the Asian side, Sultanahmet and Beyoglu on the European side - and indulging Burness and Danielle's new obsession: rooftop restaurants. In fact, for Burness, this obsession is not new at all; during our Asian travels he dragged me to many of them. Whereas my eyes light up at the suggestion of a colossal monument, his light up with childish glee at the sight of a rooftop restaurant. In Istanbul, he was in heaven: the hilly layout of the city lends itself well to having loads of them. Our favourite, which we visited twice, and would have probably visited every day had it been entirely up to Burness, was the one between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. The gap between these two Wonders of mine is something like 200 metres - is this the closest of all my Wonders? - and the broad space between is filled with a park. It's very pleasant. Standing in the park, a few rooftop terraces can be spotted, but we spotted the premier one standing in isolation and about equidistant between the two landmarks. A beer was around £5, but that was fine as I spun mine out, and the views were absolutely worth it. I'll save the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia photos for now, as they'll be appearing in my reviews, but here are a couple of other views.

We also found rooftop cafes next to Galata Tower and Suleymaniye Mosque, which after the main Sultanahmet trio are probably the most popular attractions. Certainly, they are probably the two most visible landmarks on Istanbul's skyline. Galata Tower is a restored 14th Century tower, almost 70 metres high, and looks like a rocket lifting off from Beyoglu.It gives pretty good views.

It's got its own cafe at the top, but Burness couldn't see any booze on it, so we settled for the rooftop just next to it. Much to both Burness and Danielle's frustration, from the top of the tower, a different rooftop restaurant was clearly visible, possibly with views across everything. But when on the ground, it seemed to evaporate, a rooftop mirage. Both of them stomped around in fury, necks craned to the sky hoping to spot some sign for it. Both also seemed convinced that I knew where it was, but simply wasn't saying. I tell you, this rooftop restaurant addiction has a bit of dark side.

That was on our final full day in Istanbul, and it was made up for by the visit to Suleymaniye Mosque immediately after. Although the Blue Mosque is my Wonder, Suleymaniye Mosque is, in a sense, the father of the Wonder, just as Humayun's Tomb is the father of the Taj Mahal. Everything great you see about the Blue Mosque comes from Suleymaniye Mosque: all the best bits were copied, then added to. Indeed, many purists regard Suleymaniye as the greater mosque. It certainly has a commanding position in the city.

It was built for the greatest of all the sultans - Suleyman the Magnificent - by the greatest of all the Ottoman architects, Mimar Sinan, who defined the grand style of mosque that dominates the Istanbul skyline. It's a pretty fantastic place to visit. We arrived just after prayers had finished, and with a bunch of other waiting tourists, took our shoes off, shuffled in and looked around. If you've seen the Blue Mosque then Suleyman's is a pretty similar experience, so I'll save my description for the Blue Mosque review. But here are some pictures.

To the joy of Burness and Danielle, there were several rooftop cafes very near the mosque. Obviously, we went to one. No booze (sorry Burness) but it still offered lovely views.

On our final evening in Istanbul, we went for a cheap boat cruise down the Bosphorus. It only served to highlight how big the city is, and how little we'd seen of it. Sultanahmet, Beyoglu, Kadikoy: these are but three districts and Istanbul has more districts than a bumper litter of kittens have lives. Along the shore, everywhere, the streets and cafes burst with activity, interrupted by the occasional grand palace. Our timing caught it as the sun set, and over the hour-and-a-half journey, the city changed its colours into a brightly-lit twinkly thing. We went under the colossal Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, linking east and west. Its size impresses, although I feel it's a slightly wasted opportunuity - it's just a routine, albeit big, suspension bridge: given its symbolic position where east and west connects, if it had been designed with a little flair or originality, it could easily have become world famous. But that's my Wonder thinking showing through. As darkness falls, it became more fun, lit up in a constantly changing cascade of lights, like a Christmas Eiffel Tower in bridge form.

And that was our appropriate finale to Istanbul. Oh no, not quite - we still had a techno night to go. Earlier in the week, we'd learned that Istanbul was hosting a mini festival of deeply warped techno music, shared between a handful of clubs in the Beyoglu area. This was music to mine and Burness's ears, ears which love messed-up electronic stuff; Danielle has different ears, but was still willing to go. And so till 4am, we shuffled, grooved, rhythmpopped, and stood and listened to men behind computers making disturbed sounds. It was great.

And in a sense, it sums up Istanbul. Loud, fun, exciting, and great. Also, really beautiful (the music, I'll concede, rarely strayed into beautiful territory). We were tired as we checked out of our hostel at 11am the next morning, and all sorry to be leaving a travel highlight, but satisfied that we'd been somewhere special, and certain we would be back. In 2001, I wrote upon leaving the city: I'd still recommend Istanbul as it's got fabulous sights and it's a fascinating place, but I can't say I'm in a hurry to return.  Well, I've changed in 13 years, and Istanbul has also: I can't wait to go back.

(and as we have a flight from there a week later, it won't be long to wait...)

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