The deal is I get six weeks to wander around foreign lands with my camera so I get a winter of processing colour photographs and printing the black & white, and in return Laurence and I have a couple of weeks of tourism and exploration before she goes back to work…I think I get a good deal.
So first is tourism in Istanbul.
One of the things I like about being a tourist or traveller is the suspension of ordinary working life like bills arriving, problems with the dog or children and entering a dilettante dream world of other cities and civilisations. The world of other and stranger faces, different gestures and different social and cultural norms. The only major decisions one has to make is what to see and what and when to eat.
Istanbul is a city with lots of history, so there is a lot to see. It has fascinated writers through the ages and notably the nineteenth century French writers expolorers like Pierre Loti, Flaubert, Lamartine, De Nerval and Chateaubriand came lived wrote and even died here. Flaubert when asked about the Eastern Question exclaimed the question was whether it was a christian or an Turkish girl that had given him syphilis.
From our hotel in Pera we walked up to the main street, Istiklal Caddesi ( Independence street) this area was where the bourgeoisie lived and the solid late nineteenth early twentieth buildings usually built by the Greek or Armenian businessmen who lived here until the troubles.
It is probably the most attractive and preserved street in the City.
As I am being a tourist today I will not mention here the 4 or 5 TOMA and buses of riot police here at the top of the road outside the French Lycee, but more of the current political situation later.
Today a few old bookshops, Kebab restaurants, old fashioned lingerie shops mingle with the ubiquitous western chains .. Starbucks Nike ( and other other global tax dodgers) etc, but there a couple of institutions that have survived. The magnificent four floor and highly decorated Konak kebab restaurant. On the menu along with most possible variations of Kebab was ‘fermented turnip juice’. The waiter asked if I was sure I wanted it …he was right I couldn’t finish it.
And Koska for the best Turkish delight in town. One day in front of me some Arabians spent 30 minutes buying over one hundred boxes. It’s a beautiful shop with scenes of Turkish life painted outside.
The area of Beyoglu Pera is also the home to all the Consulates, they used to be the Embassies before Ataturk moved the capital to Ankara.
These 18th and mainly 19th century buildings are some of Istanbuls most beautiful ( as they weren’t Turkish they were not pulled down or neglected) and there are churches of most the mainstream and fringe Christian sects.
From the the Swedish consulate with queues of mainly syrians hoping for asylum to the most beautiful Russian and French consulates. However the British consulate was surrounded with armed guards and razor wire. Says something about the Bitain’s position in today’s world.
From any newsagent kiosk one can buy the Istanbulkart used for all trams buses and ferries. As this is tourist day… I can let you into a secret that the guide books don’t seem to want you to know.
Most of us tourists stay up in the Beyoglu , Pera, Taksim axis so returning to your hotel means walking up steep hills. Well you don’t have to: for Pera, Beyoglu etc get off the tram at the Golden Horn side of Galata bridge and hidden away across the road and round the corner is the underground funicular (second oldest in the world) for Tunel (yes confusing it’s not the tunnel but the name of the square) for Taksim get off at Kabatas and again cross the road for the underground funicular to Taksim.
Arriving at the end of Independence street there is the steep street that descends down past the Galata tower to the Galata bridge.
From here you can see Istanbul skyline with the Topkapi and Hagia Sophia
and the Asian side and the countless small ferry boats like bees outside the hive seemingly having no discernable direction but are obviously essential to civic functioning.
Crossing the Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn to Istanbul is a little surreal as it seems so familiar after seeing so many photographs and documentaries. It is the one great iconic image in most Istanbullus minds. A few weeks later I was back for the Fatih fish festival so will visit it again.
The original Greek and Roman cities were on the Istanbul side of the Golden Horn and all the great buildings are around what was once the Roman hippodrome and centre of the great Justinian Empire. Today it is probably the largest civic space in the whole of this city of 17 million people. In a straight line adjacent to the shore of the sea of Marmara and the hippodrome are the Topkapi Palace, the Aya Sophia and the Blue mosque.
It is one of the world’s great spaces, one which has the power to attract one back time and again , not only for the buildings but the public space with it’s array of tourists and istanbullus.
Ghosts of the past linger here, the Hagia or Aya Sophia was the greatest of all Roman buildings and was for centuries the largest enclosed space, the Blue Mosque ( blue for the interior tiles) was built on the foundations of the great Byzantine palace using much of the stone, and all around the great Roman columns and supports can be seen in later Ottoman buildings. But however all civilisations plunder, borrow and steal and the Blue Mosque is with it’s six minarets and marbled courtyard an amazing building.
Aya Sophia was turned into a Mosque under the Ottomans but under the very interesting Ataturk it was declared a museum. How long before it becomes a mosque again is one of the really big questions in Turkey’s future.
The Topkapi palace is a magnificent building. From it’s position overlooking the Bosphoros and Asia the Sultans ruled most of the western world. The rooms in the Harem are covered in exquisite tiles although like many monumental buildings they are very dull as all the furniture and fittings have long since been dispersed to various mosques vaults, Ankara museums or perhaps stolen by Peter Ustinov.
The majprity of the tourists at the palace were from the same mix as the tourists in Istanbul in general, from the Middle East and India and Pakistan, making the city a sort of London of the region with a religious dynamic thrown in. There were many families where the parents spoke their language and the children spoke English and while consulting the map an Indian woman next to me pointed out where we were exactly. So I asked politely where abouts she was from. Slough she said.!!
But lunch at the restaurant overlooking Europe and Asia is A Must. Best spot in town.
The Sultanahmet area is also full of the hucksters and husslers of the city,
it is most definitely a generational affair as one could see grandfather to grandson setting up the tourists for the visit to uncles carpet shop or Boshoros cruise. But it was generally light hearted and without malice. And if like me you have time to spare it is excellent street theatre and Istanbul wouldn’t be Istanbul without them.
There was, that day, one of the most rewarding aspects of being a dilettante tourist, as I sat in a little park by Aya Sophiia it was so touching to watch an old tramp teaching one of the street kids how to write.
And so back to Konak for the evening Kebab !
More to tourism to follow……..