Istanbul Wonders

Istanbul Bosphorus 057Istanbul Spice Market 008Every once in a while the traveller reaches a city long thought about, then wonders why the visit was not made so much earlier.
That captures the last week for Sandi and me spent in Istanbul, once Constantinople and headquarters for the long-dominant Ottoman Empire, later home to the Orient Express and intrigue on an international scale, now spanning Europe and Asia across the Bosphorus, and Turkey’s major city (though not capital) in the push to both join the European Union and host the 2020 Olympics. ( ). It hosts three great European football clubs (Fenerbache, Galatasary, and Besiktas), and produces writers like Orhan Pamuk. When you think about it, who would not be enthralled by such a place?
It starts with the people. In reality our hotel was hopeless. Had we taken the room with a lovely view of the Sea of Marmara it would have been a question of whether we or our luggage took up occupation, cats were not even remotely for the swinging of. The room we took was only slightly larger, its bathroom miniscule with the leak in the toilet producing as much pressure as the shower. Breakfast was basic, the wifi almost non-existent. But we stayed because the staff were just so helpful, pleasant and accommodating, a neat approximation of what we found everywhere.
Example: the city has a wonderful thing called the Istanbulkart that allows easy, interchangeable and immediate access onto trams, train, metro and ferries. ( ). It is brilliant, once you work out where to buy the card then add your money via the “top up” machine. We were struggling with the latter when a man turned around, smiled, took our cards, fed in the money, and said “welcome to Istanbul”. If the city overcomes the recent riots and gets the 2020 Olympics, then all visitors will get a warm welcome like that (just be careful which hotel you select).
In a city of thirteen million or so, it was remarkable how much that warm welcome prevailed, even in the Grand Bazaar which is really a small city in itself. The vendors are all there to sell, but it is a fun atmosphere with a lot of laughs and jokes amidst the serious commerce, and there are some great opening sales pitches: “enter my carpet shop to begin a better life.” Australians and Kiwis are everywhere (which is why, among other reasons, the leading antiquarian bookshop along Iztiklal Caddesi on the European side has a section on Gallipoli) ( ), and a number of the sellers in the market have bases in Sydney or Melbourne. Another carpet dealer met outside the Bazaar has sold into Melbourne’s Vic markets for fifteen years. This was always a trading city, and works hard to maintain that reputation with hundreds of ships coming and going each day along with thousands of trucks.
A highlight for me on one trip to the Bazaar (there were a few) was an audience with Sisko Osman who is the doyen of the Turkish antique rug trade. His family started in the Bazaar in 1895, he is third generation and his sons are now in the trade. He is eighty five, and the day after I met him he was leaving on a rug search trip through regional villages. Rugs are his life. As I sat taking tea with him, he first pointed out two rugs hanging on the wall behind glass. They were imperial, about four hundred years old, dowry pieces for the daughters of high nobles. Each one would have taken at least two years to make, with over 600 knots per square inch. This was both craft and art. ( ).
Over almost an hour he showed me several of the pieces in his collection. In the West, there is a branch of the art trade that talks about investment art, pieces for the super fund. Sisko talks about “antiques of the future.” The craft is dying, so he now searches out pieces less than a hundred years old that he and the family will hold. Some of those, he says, would sell for around $80,000 if they went on the market.
This was a lesson in history, and a reminder of what is being lost in modernisation and globalisation.
To paraphrase a song line there is, of course, “an awful lot of history in Istanbul.” On the last day we were lounging in a pleasant coffee shop only to learn that the buildings in which it was housed were once the imperial stables. It had a prime view of the Blue Mosque.
This will seem petty but the Mosque, while impressive in its construction and important in its being, was a small letdown for me, but that in itself was a reminder of how lucky I have been. It seemed a letdown only because I have been privileged enough to see the great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, and we all know it may be a long time before anyone from outside sees that again. Had I not seen the Umayyad, then the Blue would have seemed terrific. As it was it seemed simple, plain and functional – curiously, the Rough Guide to Istanbul gives it less than a page, which is either a surprise or an indicator. Again, though, I feel lucky and privileged to have seen the Blue Mosque, especially from the vantage point of a ferry out in the Sea of Marmara.
Those ferry rides (so simple with the Istanbulkart – how can this city get it so right and one like Melbourne, with a sixth of Istanbul’s population, so wrong with Myki?) and a boat trip along the Bosphorus reveal the true uniqueness and beauty of Istanbul. Sydney claims to have a great harbour. Perhaps make a judgement on that only after having seen Istanbul. Mind you, the waterfront prices outstrip Sydney, too, believe it or not.
The first attempt to see the Bosphorus was ill-starred (unlike our hotel room roof which absorbed light to later produce a starry vista in the dark). We booked tickets on a cruise, were picked up from the hotel, and after an hour’s interminable stop/start travel, reached the boat terminal. We could have reached there in twelve minutes by metro. The boat, however, turned out to be more of a dinghy. They had fewer numbers than usual so decided to charge the full eighty Euros each but consign us to this bilge bucket for seven hours, complete with another party from our hotel who insisted on playing Central Asian rap as loud as possible while smoking Turkish cigarettes incessantly. That loomed as a very long seven hours.
We demurred, retrieved our money, caught the metro back to the ferry station, and spent a wonderful two hours on a ferry boat making the Bosphorus trip – for about four Euros each. Fair enough, lunch was not included, but even so.
That trip showed up the city’s uniqueness. The Old town with the Blue Mosque and the Topkapi Palace separated by bridge from the “new” European section, and both joined by ferry and bridge (and soon by tunnel) to the Asian side, with the waterways of the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara separating them all. It is spectacular.
On the Asian side, at Kadikoy, we found a haven of antiques shops just behind the market. ( ). As anywhere else, finding a treasure is difficult these days. Among my collection is an Ottoman silver box found in Amman, Jordan. It dates from 1876, made for a prominent Constantinople family. I saw none of those on this expedition, and all the shop owners said such things are now rarely seen. But I did find a nineteenth century engraving on porcelain of an Ottoman version of a polo game. In its original central Asian form of buzkhazi, polo was often played with the head of a rival used as the ball, but then switched to more genteel objects, goat carcasses. The equestrian feats of the former Empire are still remembered and sometimes repeated by intrepid travellers. ( ).
Like any city, Istanbul does have the odd catch. One is traffic. If going any distance, walk or take the metro/tram. Taxis and other cards are enmeshed in constant gridlock. Mind you, some might think that a good thing. Turkey has one of the worst road fatality records in the world, and it is easy to see why. On our way back to the airport, the driver at one stage was doing 130 kilometres an hour, weaving in and out of traffic, braving trucks three times our size, tailgating other cars, and all while taking and making a million phone calls. Take the metro or a ferry wherever possible.
Luckily, a short walk will usually turn up a good restaurant to help ease traffic stress. (Mind you, some of those shorts walks might be up very steep hills). Istanbul in some sections seems to consist only of restaurants and coffee bars with entire streets peopled by spruikers for a string of side by side, competing outlets. There are food styles from all over the country, and the simple kebab will not seem the same after a visit. Some of the “named” restaurants from the guidebooks rest on their laurels, shall we say, but others are fabulous. Right near the Blue Mosque, for example, Mosaic does outstanding food ( ). A few hundred metres away down the hill, Pasazade does even better, some of the best food we have eaten anywhere. ( ).
It is no wonder, then, that a series of writers have set mystery novels in Constantinople/Istanbul. ( ). Or that films like From Russia With Love and Midnight Express were set there. Or that travellers return there.

3 Responses to “Istanbul Wonders”
  1. Lynne says:

    Sounds wonderful, Brian! I had heard about the traffic problems (drivers worse than those in Christchurch!) and am most intrigued that they have made such an excellent job of setting up public transport with such a useful and practical card system.

    • Thanks Ruth. It is terrific. The card, I think, is one of those things where some prior thought about a possible run at the Olympics meant something had to be done, and it is really terrific. If they do get 2020 then transport will be a lot easier than it has been in some other sites

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