Our trip to Turkey’s second city starts with the woman in front of me putting her seat back before we’ve even taken off. I consider this bad form on short-haul flights, even on a comparatively long short-haul flight like London to Istanbul. Noticing that the seats behind us were unoccupied, we move back a row.
Would you believe it? The woman clocks that the seat behind hers is now empty and moves back a row, too. We start to object, at which point her partner stands up and joins in. After a bit of argy-bargy it becomes clear that they’ve flown from the US, have been travelling for hours and now all they want to do is stretch out on the two rows. They won’t need to recline the seats. Phew.
We touch down at Istanbul’s immense new airport and 45 minutes later we’re checking into Hotel Amira in the city’s old town. We hope the American couple from the plane don’t harbour a grudge because it seems they’re staying here too. It’s a bit awkward in that we keep on bumping into them in restaurants and elsewhere throughout our stay. Later, when I see their suitcases piled by the door on the day we’re checking out, I fear we’ll be on the same flight back to LHR, then have to share a cab from the airport, and that they’ve actually moved in next door to us and we will spend the rest of our lives studiously avoiding eye contact.
The view from the hotel’s 5th-floor terrace is pretty impressive, even on a hazy day.
Being tourists, we do all the touristy things. On our first day, we employ local guide Richard to help us. He shows us around must-sees like Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sofia and the Süleymaniye Mosque. It’s fair to say Richard is a details guy, keen on telling us the precise dates of this refurbishment and that reconstruction, but ignoring the big picture such as WHAT ARE WE LOOKING AT HERE, RICHARD?
So, for your benefit and so that I don’t forget, here are the basics.
Built for the Ottoman Sultans in the 15th century. Bloody huge. Loads of rooms for washing, having meetings and sitting around in, and even one for mutilating children, or performing circumcisions as it’s more widely known. The place has been a museum for about a hundred years and is currently undergoing restoration work.
In AD 537, when we Brits were squabbling about in mud and wishing the Romans would come back and sort us out, the locals in what is now Turkey were busy building this enormous Greek Orthodox Christian cathedral. It became a mosque about 900 years later and since 1935 has been a museum. (Although President Erdogan has said it might revert to being a mosque.)
The building is staggering in its scale but the addition of giant discs bearing Arabic calligraphy hasn’t done it any favours (not to mention the destruction of Christian artefacts and the plastering-over of priceless mosaics. Religion, eh?)
‘Build me a mosque!’ commanded Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent in 1550. Seven years later it was all over bar the worshipping. Did the builders work particularly hard because the boss was, well, magnificent? It seems not. A lot of these mosques were finished in 10 years or less, a blink of an eye compared to the scores or hundreds of years it takes to knock up a cathedral in Europe. Perhaps we should put them in charge of Crossrail.
It hardly looks like a rush job, either:
During our tour, I witness something I’ve never seen before. Our guide notices a man in front of us accidentally drop his hotel key card. Richard picks it up and calls out to him. And again. And again. The man – a big, bald bloke – doesn’t seem to notice. Eventually, his wife does and points out Richard holding the guy’s card. Get this – baldy just reaches out, pockets the card and saunters off. No word of thanks, no eye contact, no smile or nod, nothing. Unbelievable.
In the evening, as we walk to the nearby Garden Mezze restaurant, we see something just as unusual but a lot scarier. I’d earlier noticed an absence of joggers in this city, but suddenly around the corner come four of them, running at high speed. Although they’re not wearing running gear. In fact, one of them is in robes. He is carrying a big stick. They all look angry. They are chasing someone.
We don’t see the chasee disappear into an unlocked building, but the chasers clearly do because they rush past us and pile in through the door. A waiter from Garden Mezze pulls us away. “It’s just crazy Arabs,” he says, as we’re led through to the restaurant’s open-air courtyard. We try to study the menu against a background of shouts and screams from the adjoining building.
Quite an eventful first day. Here’s how the rest of our short visit played out:
The Cistern Basilica. Made famous (to us) through Dan Brown’s novel Inferno, this underground reservoir normally holds millions of litres of water, but inevitably it was undergoing refurbishment during our visit. Hence no water = dull shot. And there was relentless hammering going on.
The Grand Bazaar. I bloody hate markets so was dreading this; being close-hassled by the world leaders in hassle, urged to buy scarves and bowls and trinkets and other stuff I don’t need. In the event, we sauntered through this huge covered market pretty much unscathed. Not a single scathe! With a knowingness I hadn’t expected, one of the shop owners even called out to Carol ‘Come and look at things you don’t need!’
The Spice Bazaar. We were similarly untroubled here. What a place, though. If you’ve got the slightest interest in spices, and happen to be in Istanbul, this is the place for you. (There’s a street outside that seems to cater solely for gun lovers and shopfitters.)
The Pera Palace Hotel. A favourite of Agatha Christie, Ernest Hemingway and, if we ever had the money to stay here, us.
The Dolmabahce Palace. Served as the administrative centre of the Ottoman Empire from 1856 until 1922. The Ceremonial Hall, above, is definitely the highlight, although the massive chandelier wasn’t lit during our visit.
The rest of the sprawling palace is made up different sized rooms apparently designed for sitting around in. However, my audio guide goes on the blink, so when we’re in a room propped with 19th-century musical instruments, a voice tells me we’re in the grand banqueting hall. As we enter the gift shop, I’m reliably informed that this was where the sultan entertained visiting dignitaries.
Bosphorus river trip. Six hours cruising up and down this iconic stretch of water, with Europe on one side and Asia on the other. The ferry is crowded with noisy people photographing everything they set eyes upon, usually with themselves in the foreground. But the trip costs about £7 each so it’s definitely worth it.
A few random shots.
So. Istanbul. Worth a visit? Of course. And maybe the sooner the better. Erdogan’s grip on the country is tightening, and if his man wins the mayorship on June 23, the Islamification of the city might just accelerate. The only disappointment during our visit was how virtually all the main attractions were undergoing restoration work.
There’s plenty of history here, getting around is a doddle and the people are friendly to visitors – certainly the ones whose job depends on it.
Other casual observations, in no particular order:
- Getting around is cheap and easy. Trams can be crowded at rush hour, but you’re probably used to that
- Water cannon and armoured cars are everywhere, as if the city is confidently expecting civic unrest. Maybe that will materialise on June 24th if the election goes the ‘wrong’ way.
- We didn’t see many beggars or outright poverty. Possibly a reflection of the comparatively small area we explored
- There were no cyclists and very few flies or mosquitoes. Not that I generally lump those three together as holiday nuisances
- The city must get through a billion plastic bottles every week, although it looks like many get recycled
- There are quite a few stray dogs but they’ve all been tagged and seem to be in good shape. No small breeds, for some reason
- Newspapers are on sale but I didn’t seem anybody reading them. I was told that the papers are ignored now that the media is tightly controlled by the government.
Our four-and-a-half days exploring the city was probably enough (for us), but wouldn’t nearly be enough for anyone interested in Byzantine and Ottoman architecture, Islamic art and calligraphy… or with a love of markets.