Admittedly, on first impressions this sprawling almost ramshackle mass that seems to go on forever is, though impressive in magnitude, not particularly glorious, and the city’s heavy traffic and dust hardly appeal to the senses, but once settled in its vibrant heart you realise this is a place to be explored by foot, and it is then the charm of the place truly hits you.
Our home for the duration was in a modern serviced apartment near the striking landmark that is the 220ft Galata Tower. Built in 1348 this huge, cone-capped cylinder dominates the skyline as if straight out of a childhood fairytale. It is from here in 1638 one Hezârfen Ahmed Çelebi made aviation history by leaping off and successfully flying over two miles in hand made wings, two-hundred years ahead of the Wright Brothers. Had political and religious intolerance of his brilliance not seen him exiled, who knows what else he may have achieved.
The observation deck at Galata is spectacular, giving the opportunity of a 360 degrees of vision across the ever-stretching expanse below, and became something of a friend – serving us as a great compass in getting back home as we wandered care-free.
It stands in the heart of the historic Beyoglu quarter, located at the north side of the Golden Horn (not an enticing club of gleaming Turkish rams, but the wide inlet that divides the city with a natural harbour). Winding streets with beautiful medieval and 19th century buildings that would not look out of place in the artist districts of Paris or Genoa, with a multitude of cafes and restaurants ranging from the traditional çay bahçe (tea garden) to something straight out of Soho. It was here in the sylish mirror-bricked House-Café we would have our breakfast of perfect eggs benedict, or the more traditional fine fare of milk, honey, olives and delicious cheeses on sourdough bread. A couple of fine meals at the end of the day were had here too, and it is at night that the district takes on a richly hypnotic air, comfortably crowded and accompanied with a chorus of chit-chat and laughter. Here too is the famous İstiklal Avenue, an elegant pedestrian street (save for a single gracefully-gliding tram), approximately two miles long, which houses all manner of exquisite boutiques (Oxford Street could learn a thing or two) – ultimately leading you up to Taksim Square – the hub of modern Istanbul, though just a bit too on the burger/hotel corporation side for my liking.
Walking everywhere is, of course, the only way to discover a place. Not only do you get the lay of the land, but you’re less likely to miss anything, and here, around every corner, there was something to delight the eyes. I’m not talking pretty or awe-inspiring, just undeniably charming; the run-down little houses that looked like they’d starred at the heart of a tornado (it looks like nothing is ever demolished here, they just wait until it falls down), the quaint little stores where a living is earned by recycling one persons rubbish for another ones use. Your walk is accompanied five times a day by the call to prayer sung out from the minaret of every mosque. No-one seemed to take great heed of this, yet it continually punctuated our day with a wonderful sense of harmony. As we strolled, more and more we noticed how here many of the businesses tend to gather on the same street; at first we were amused, yet I can’t deny it makes the most logical sense; ‘Musical Instrument Street’, ‘Car Spare-Part Street’, ‘Bicycle Street’, ‘Lighting Street’, ‘Catering Equipment Street’… and ‘Mannequin Street’. Never have I seen so many mannequins, not just of people but animals too, and of every colour, including ‘him and her’ mirror-ball versions! One would hardly think such stores of any interest, but then everything here, even the multitude of street dogs and cats, is utterly enchanting Understandably it helped that, after leaving a grey and wet London in April, we were now strolling under the warming embrace of a hazy sun. Should that sun get too cloying, get yourself down to the water.
There are plenty of cruises to be taken from the Golden Horn and out to the Bosphorus, the strait that connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara and forms the boundary between the European (Rumelia) and Asian (Antolia) parts of Turkey. From the Maiden’s Tower, a multitude of palaces and villas to the huge European Fortress which was constructed by Sultan Mehmed II in 1452 before he conquered Istanbul. Do it! There is so much to see, and all the history that comes with it. Be it for one hour or several you won’t be disappointed, though I wish we’d had the time to take one at night also.
We also frequently took the ferries that cross over to the Southern side, a matter of minutes that provide a welcome cooling breeze, and swift passage to the “must sees”: Topkapi Palace, residence of the former Ottoman Sultans, the 5th Century Hagia Sophia – church, mosque and now museum, and the equally stunning Blue Mosque – an early 17th Century triumph of majestic elegance with six minarets and a breathtaking marble courtyard where the ablution fountains are located, the colossal proportions are equalled inside with the 260 windows and blue tiles that give the building its unofficial name numbering in the tens of thousands.
These three treasures are all conveniently next to each other, more for the laziness of the Ottoman Rulers than the ease of the modern tourist I expect, but it does fortunately mean that with planning they can all be covered in a day, with still time to shop! Even shopping in this area is steeped in history, with the Grand and smaller Egyptian (or Spice) Bazaars which have been a centre of trade for half a millennia. Here is where you haggle, and you’ve just got to do it – expected, tradition, and fun. Play the game, shop around and you won’t be rinsed as a naive tourist. Lamps, saffron, turkish delight, or just jovial exchanges with the local traders are all an essential part of the trip. Though if you’re after something decidedly more modern, Istanbul is proud to have both “europe’s largest” and “the world’s best” shopping malls. We didn’t have time to visit these, nor the ‘Versailles of the East’ is the Dolmabahce Palace, last seat of the deposed Ottoman rulers. Indeed, though we saw much, we felt we had only begun, another week would have been ideal. Away from these dustier streets, we did manage to visit Bebek further down the coast. It took a while, the traffic is heavy here, like any city, so don’t be in a rush. Bebek, another land entirely, is one of the wealthiest districts – full of stylish promenade apartments, bars, yachts… and a crowd of folk far more LA polish than babushka, though in fairness, cultural influence on style exists all aound.
History and culture put to the side, night falls and now the party truly begins. For dining, a plethora of places catering for every taste and appetite, from the traditional to the hip and everything in between, all at a good price. With this, you have to try the Raki, a potent aniseed drink which, when diluted a milky consistency, which has led it to be known as lion’s milk, as it is claimed it gives you the power of the beast. It certainly carries a punch. “Sherefe!” (the country’s toast “to your honour”) It is generally only with alcohol (or the designer goods in up-market boutiques) that you’ll find yourself paying something closer to London prices, but then this is a Muslim country after all. After dinner, embrace the fact that one of the city’s passions is music and dance into the wee hours. Get to know people. As with any city, your best guide to the hidden twilight treasures is a local – ours was in the form of Sera, a fascinating woman who literally did seem to know everywhere and everybody, which gave us a wonderful ‘vip’ feeling in this foreign land. Many of the clubs, regardless of clientele, still seem to be totally in love with smoke, strobe and oiled-up go-go boys, and you can’t help but be charmed at how, even if the latest dj is over from the West, they still want some of their home-grown Turkish pop thrown in too, singing along with contagious effervescence.
Though obviously predominately a city of the Islamic faith, history has long established the welcoming of other religions – this is perhaps the only place in the world where a mosque, synagogue and catholic church reside together in the same small square, something much of the world could well take something from in this current climate – though it is not just in this capacity of East and West embracing that sees Istanbul as one of the most warm and interesting places I’ve ever come across. A mass of extreme contradictions – classical and modern, developed and underdeveloped, rich and poor, dirty and shiny, as much as it sounds the cliché of the enamoured traveller bewitched by the exotic, everywhere we went we found the people warm and welcoming, a smile everywhere you looked. They all seemed eager to share their culture, their history with a pride of a people who have journeyed both hardship and pleasure. I only came away with two small sorrows; that I wanted to say longer and that this is a gateway to a land I wish to discover so much more of. Both of these sorrows I can, and will, resolve with a return visit, sooner rather than later, perhaps chartering a yacht to tour the many hidden gems. Chosen as joint European City of Culture for 2010, one feels this city of a thousand ages is on the dawn of a new one. Catch it now.
We stayed at The House Apart – www.thehouseapart.com
Prices starting from 80 euro per night including breakfast at ‘The House Café’ located close by.