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Istanbul, Turkey

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Trip in September 2005. All "facts" are how things seemed to me at the time.

In case you are not familiar with Istanbul's geography, it straddles two continents, Europe and Asia. This is very apparent when going around the city, as it shares things from both areas, and I'll come back to these similarities with both continents later.

One of the first details I noticed in Istanbul is the road crossing lights. Like most places, it has a red man for "Don't walk", and a green one for "Walk". But here, the green man is not a picture, it's an animation, and he's not walking, he is running. He's running because he knows that to walk across the road is to risk getting squashed by a maniacal yellow taxi. This is a pretty good idea of the traffic chaos that inhabits every area of Istanbul wherever it is possible to get a car, and even some places where it is not, such as the many people that like to reverse up narrow market streets. The chaos is extended further with the Turk's love of standing in the road, and the drivers general lack of consideration, logic and patience towards other drivers and the traffic situation in general. They will fill even the tiniest gap, even if it's to their own later detriment. The sound of Istanbul is one of traffic, Police whistles trying to control the traffic, and car horns as the drivers cannot wait more than a microsecond if the lights go green and the driver in front is not immediately moving. In this respect, it reminds me much of Asia, as Bangkok's traffic situation is a similar mess.

Unlike Bangkok however, in Istanbul there is no smell. There's the usual smell of traffic of course, but none of the heavy pollution/sewerage/food/mess that hangs in the air in some Asian cities such as Bombay, Bangkok or Hong Kong in the summer.

There are a great many tourist attractions in Istanbul, and with 7 full days, I was able to see many of them. Like most places in the world, the top architecture is religious, and in this case, it is the Sultanahmet Mosque, more commonly know as the Blue Mosque. Opposite this is Hagia Sofiya, a church converted into a Mosque. Both are swarming with tourists from all over the world, so I joined them. Sultanahmet is free entry, and Hagia Sofiya is pay-entry. Both are very impressive pieces of architecture, with Sultanahmet being the thing I photographed the most in all of Istanbul, both during the early morning and late at night when the orange lights make the whole building glow. It's truly a stunning place, and I've often stood in Turkish Kebab shops in England which have pictures of it on the wall, wondering what it was like for real. Now I know, and also managed to sit in a real Turkish Kebab shop looking at the real Mosque from the window. The interior of both buildings are stunning, however Sofia feels dark and ancient, whilst Sultanahmet feels bright and airy. Sultanahmet also has the entire floor covered with carpet, (for Islamic prayer time), giving a wonderful cosy feeling to the place when you get indoors, after having removed your shoes of course. Despite how it might seem from some of my photos, there are not very many palm trees in Istanbul at all. The trees that are around are more European in type, rather than the exotic fare I was expecting. However, since I like palms very much, I did make use of the few that were there by contriving them into many photos.

Grand Bazaar

Not too far from Sultanahmet Square is the Grand Bazaar, the largest covered market in the world. I was expecting to find everything in here, and fair enough there's a lot of stalls and a lot of stuff, but they break down into only a few types which tend to repeat after a while. There are carpets by the ton, T-shirts, pipes, plates, jewellery and much other tourist stuff, much of it quite overpriced, even after the inevitable haggling. Of much more interest are the markets outside the grand bazaar, where the real Turks do the shopping. These are filled with pretty much anything you could want, from spoons to hand made barrels, furniture, coffee, pans, rope, spices and razor blades to name but a few. These markets have genuine bustle and life, rather than an artificial tourist attraction. They're also quite narrow and full of people, which makes them an ideal target for people to drive down, or if they're feeling particularly difficult, reverse down. The markets are very much like part of Asia in all ways except one. By 7pm, they're shut down for the day. In Asia, by 7pm they're just gearing up to the busiest time. There is also a much smaller covered bazaar, the spice bazaar. Inside this you can get a pretty wide variety of spices from pushy sales guys, and it's all presented very nicely. There's also some tourist stuff too, and mountains of perfumed Turkish Delight. You can also get Turkish Apple tea here, by the kilo or you can go outside this tourist orientated bazaar and get it for 3/4 of the price from a normal market stall aimed at Turkish people. I had expected the markets to be heaving with counterfeit produce, but it's just no so. There are many copied Puma trainers, Levi Jeans, the inevitable Hard Rock Cafe T-Shirts, and a few other things, but compared to an Asian Market's Rolexes, DVDs, games etc, it was all reasonably legit.

Like Asia, you will get unsolicited offers of food, taxis, tourist tat and in particular, shoe shining. Unlike Asia, one simple "No thanks" is usually enough to get them to stop bothering you, though the shoe shine guys are quite persistent. No matter what they are selling, they will ask you were you are from. Sometimes I would reply "England" which always elicits the response of "Ahh, England, I have a brother there". I must conclude from these experiences that every Turkish family has at least one member in England, usually London. The Turkish population of London must be in the region of some 20-30 million! What is fun is to answer these people in an entirely different language. They know a little French and German, but anything else such as Czech or Japanese really makes them give up straight away, as they just assume that everyone knows English. You'd really need to know English to surive here anyway, if you don't know Turkish. It's such luck having this as my first language, as all over Istanbul the tourist stuff, museum, shops and travel information is often shown in both Turkish and English. One other thing, wearing Nikes is no deterrent to the shoe shine guys. They will shine anything.

Also not far from Sultanahmet is Topkapi palace. This is another pay-entry place, with other pay entry sections inside. It's one of the few genuinely relaxing places in the city, as most of the place is hectic with activity. The only activity inside Topkapi are tour groups photographing the architecture, collections of Japanese and Chinese plates, jewellery and such like. Topkapi is quite high up and the pavilions at the back of the complex afford good views of most of Istanbul. There's a lot of intricate and detailed tilework in this palace, along with Islamic relics. All this and I've still not broke more than 20 mins walk from my hotel. Staying in the Sirkeci area is a useful location, as from here I can also quickly walk to the 300 year old Turkish baths, the tramway stop and the cross-Bosphorus boats within 5 to 10 minutes. Also Sirkeci Railway station is here, the end point for the Orient Express service, though the station is nothing particularly special.

Ipek Palas Hotel

I stayed in a cheap 3 star hotel called Ipek Palas. I have always thought that my only requirements for a hotel were a) cheap, b) clean and c) well located. Ipek Palas was all of these, but it had one problem that has now made me realise a fourth requirement: d) Quiet. Ipek Palas has an old fashion double door lift in the centre of the hotel, suspended by cable you can quite clearly see. It's quaint and nice in a old-fashioned kind of way. However, it's noisy. Both sets of doors slam shut loudly, and the exposed mechanisms also generate quite a bit of noise. Coupled with the loudest set of guests imaginable, many of whom came in at 2am and used the lift, the effect whilst trying to sleep is not unlike a small team of loud drunken football players outside your room using an empty suitcase as a ball. This was how it sounded, which is not much help when you're trying to sleep. Neither is the ineffectiveness of the double glazing against the building across the road being demolished by jackhammers between 8am and 9pm, nor the 6am early morning call to prayer emanating from the minaret of every single mosque in the city, and trust me, there are a lot of them. You get used to this sound very soon, as it happens many times throughout the day, and you can always hear it.

Turkish baths

The 300 year old Turkish baths mentioned earlier is apparently in the book of 1000 things to do before you die. It's not very expensive, about £6 at the time I went. If you want massage etc, then it's a little more, but the idea of getting a massage from a beefy sweating Turkish guy with a moustache really did not appeal to me, so I took the cheaper self-service option. I watched many others get the massage, and it looked pretty tough. There are many such baths in Istanbul, but this one (Cagaloglu Hamami) seems to be the most famous. I'm sure the others are cheaper, but the price is low anyway, and you can stay as long as you like. Also, from the press clippings in the entrance hall, I can see that over the years it's been patronised by people such as Tony Curtis, Cameron Diaz and Jenson Button. If it's good enough for them, then it's good enough for me. Inside there's a large marble plinth, any marble seats and sinks around, a marble floor and in the corner, an even warmer "Hot Room". The whole experience is similar to a Sauna, but not quite as hot. I stayed in for 90 mins,and came out feeling cleaner and more refreshed than I had in a long long time. Just being in there feeling the history and atmosphere of the old marble room is fantastic. Once inside, there's nothing you can see to link you to the modern world at all, so you can easily make believe that it's 1705, not 2005. Couple this with the heat and soap and washing water and truly it really is one of the 1000 things to do before you die. I cannot recommend this enough. www.cagalogluhamami.com.tr

Not too far from this is another ancient water related attraction, the Basilica Cistern. This large underground room is supported by many columns and was past used for storing water before it revealed its true purpose of parting tourists from money. I was one of them. It's not too expensive but doesn't take long to go around, so I went around twice. It's worth seeing if only for the atmosphere of this dark and dripping room, and it is quiet. Plus there are some marble medusa heads tucked away in one corner. It feels like being in a Tomb Raider game level.

Beyoglu

All of the places I've described so far are within the Golden Horn area, which is separated from the main European part of Turkey by a stretch of water also called "Golden Horn". If you cross this by bridge, you'll be in the other part of Istanbul that is still in Europe, called Beyoglu. The bridge that spans the water is lined with many many fishermen, as are all the waterside areas wherever it's possible to stand with a rod. Rain or shine they are there, rods in hand and buckets behind on the pavement with a box of equipment at their feet. This is not some sport, it seems most of the fish are either eaten or sold for others to consume.

In Beyoglu is a long long shopping street here, Isiklal Caddesi. This cobbled street with single tram track is lined with shops and could be anywhere within Europe. This part of istanbul looks nothing like Asia at all, and all like Europe. Also being pedestrianised, suffers none of the chaos of the rest of the city, though that doesn't stop a few Turk drivers from using it anyway, especially since this gives them the opportunity for another of their favourite things, parking over tram tracks. At the top of Istiklal Caddesi is Taksim Square, also another very European looking place, which also happens to be the pick-up and drop-off point for the official Havas Airport bus, and the main bus terminal too. There is a tram which runs from the top of Istiklal to the bottom and it's not very expensive. The tram is very old, having been refurbished and brought out of retirement purely for the joy of tourists. Not far from the place where the tram starts at the bottom of this gently sloping street is the Pera Palas hotel, the place where Agatha Christie apparently wrote "Murder on the Orient Express", and if you go inside, they will show you this room which contains period furniture and articles about Agatha Christie. I suspect the rest of the hotel contains period furniture too, as it appears to be a place that trades on it's olde-worlde charm rather than modern service. A few streets from Pera Palas is the Brtish Embassy, site of the bomb earlier this year. The Embassy looks fine, but the surrounding buildings still bear the scars.

Going back to Sirkeci, you can get a cheap ferry-boat to the Anatolian (Asian) side of Istanbul. These ferryboats are often full of commuters and remind me a lot of the Star Ferries that chug backwards and forwards across the harbour in Hong Kong. They are also equally inexpensive, being mainly for local use. They are a great way of getting a restful, quiet and spectacular view of the city, both during the day and at night. You may have noticed I've mentioned getting some peace and quiet a few times. Istanbul is an incredibly bustling and tiring city, even if I compare it to places such as New York, Bangkok, Tokyo and Hong Kong. It gave me a headache on a few days which none of the aforementioned ever did, so finding peace for a while did become important. One thing which you won't find much trouble finding though is good food.

Kebabs

There are hundreds of Kebab shops all over Istanbul, and many other open stalls, shops and restaurants. You're never far from something to eat. The food is very nice, in particular the Kofte Kebab - flat grilled fingers of spiced lamb served with bread and salad. In fact, everything is served with bread. They bring a basket to your table no matter where in the same way they always bring a glass of water in Japan. In Istanbul's McDonalds, there's a Kofte Kebab Burger, which is a kebab flavour burger. How neat is that? If McD sold this in the UK, they'd probably clean up, especially at 11:30pm on a Saturday night. The traditional drink to accompany the Kofte and many other meals is called Ayran, and it's half water and half plain yoghurt. It sounds unpleasant, but actually tastes pretty good, unless you happen to dislike yoghurt. I had many other meals there, most of which contain yoghurt in some for or other. I found one open air stall selling small cubes of meat mixed with small cubes of fried potato, like square chips. The meat wasn't beef or chicken, and certainly could not be pork, so I decided it must be lamb. It wasn't expensive, but turned out to be liver. As I hate this and there is an abundance of cats in Istanbul, it soon ended up in the stomach of a hungry and grateful stray.

Like the markets, the kebab stalls are all finished up by about 7pm, meaning that by 9pm on a Saturday night, it's easier to find a kebab in London than it is in Istanbul. The restaurants are still open, but most other things are not, so Istanbul can become a bit dull by 9pm. Still, after a days walking, I was ready for sleep at this time, and if not sleep, then at least ready for lying in bed listening to a noisy lift.

Sadly, I did get sick in Istanbul. Something from the many wonderful things I ate did not agree with me, so I spent one of the 7 days laid out watching TV all day long rather than exploring, and another couple of tired days exploring slowly, though this did encourage me to learn the tram service, which is as simple and cheap as any other mass transit service in large city.

Also on the European side of Istanbul is a small theme park called "Miniatürk", containing all of Turkeys biggest tourist attractions reproduced in miniature, and also a few items from other countries too. It's pretty cool, and the work on the models is fantastic.

Like this article? Hate it? Then let me know.

Copyright © M.F.Hughes 2005

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