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Historic riches, contemporary bargains and a timeless welcome reward visitors

By Julla Davidson LONDON OESERVER SERVICE

EVERY GREAT city should be approached on the assumption that your first visit won't be your last; this is certainly the case with the first mega1opolis~

For nearly 1,000 years, as Byzantiurn and Constantinople, Istanbul was the urban center of the Western and Near Eastern worlds, with a population of around 1 million -- 10 times the size of its nearest European rival.

By the 19th century its epic epoch was long over, but its sublime site and mystical status as the city of the sultans had begun to attract the fashionable European tourist. They gave it a mixed press. The poetic saw stars.

"I have seen the ruins of Athens, of Ephesus, and Delphi," wrote Lord Byron in 1810, "hut I never beheld a work of nature or art, which yielded an impression like the prospect on each side, from the Seven Towers to the End of the Golden Horn."

The pedestrian scarcely lifted eyes from the gutter.

"View the exterior of Constantinople," wrote E.D. Clarke in the same decade, "and it seems the most opulent and flourishing city in Europe: Examine its interior, and its miseries and deficiencies are so striking, that it must be considered the meanest and poorest metropolis of the world."

Today, Istanbul stffl wields the power to polarize the passions of its visitors. It's still a megalopolis, with an official population of 8 million and an unofficial one of 13 million, and it's even more of a tourist destination, a plum in the city-break operators pie.

Once it represented the outer darkness of the package holiday, enticing only the adventurous few; now it entertains serene groups of senior citizens, clutching their ready reckoners in the Grand Bazaar, unlacing their shoes outside the Blue Mosque.

And it's still a city which, like that famous half-glass (is it halffull or half-empty?) separates optimists from pessimists. If you've traveled in Asia, then there's no great shock to the senses; Istanbul feels more Occidental than Oriental.

Ifyou~e never been farther east than Naples, you may feel oppressed by its death-defying driving, exposed power cables, labyrinthine alleys and casual arrangemente for garbage disposal; you may not admire the survival skills of its street urchins, toting shoeshine kite and bathroom scales to offer services that keep them just clear of the beggar ciasa.

"Where East meets West?" sputtered one friend after his first visit. "Where East meets East, if you ask me."

He hated the place, its cacophonic traffic, the crumbling masonry and flea markets above the Galata Bridge, the graceless postwar architecture of Taksim Square, the nylon socks and fake Rolex touts in the underpasses, the hustlers in the tourist heartland of Sultan Ahmet.

He hated it for all the things that make Istanbul more than merely a glorious repository of Islamic art and the histories of three empires, but a great merchant city on the crossroads of two continents; he loathed the perpetual motion of a city whose salesmen never sleep.

He sew no romance in the shuttling fernes of the Bosphorus or the lines of freighters in the Sea of Marmars, waiting clearance for passage through to the Black Sea; felt no excitement for the entrepreneurs of Ataturk Airport, the small-time capitalists who arrive daily from the dismembered Soviet Union and return with bags stuffed with clothing to sell on the streets of Moscow and Tashkent.

His black propaganda -- the noise, the pollution, the hassles -made me brace myself for disappointment on my first visit. But the reality was exhilarating.

S HORT of arriving by sea or rail, we did the next best thing. Our taxi took the coast road from the airport, entering the city by its richest land route, which follows the railway of Agatha Christie and Graham Greene along the Sea of Marmara to the Sirksci Station, terminus of the OrientExpress.

We reached the Golden Horn in a daze of delight. The urban giant, its 13 rufflion residents tucked into hillsides and scattered along shores, seemed smaller, felt friendlier, looked greener and moved faster than any gridlocked concrete jungle has the right to expect.

Even the Olympian loftiness of the hotels and apartment blocks in the new town, beyond the Galata Tower gets cut down to size by the sheer magnificence of Istanbul s setting.

Only Islam's architects, the artist-builders of the Ottomans like Mimar Sinan who raised the Suleymaniye mosque, perfected the equation between art and nature and got the scale right. The citty's topography has been its salvation.

[Photo]

The Blue Mosque, named after the glowing Iznik tiles of its interior, is one of Istanbul's most spectacular sites.

Its levels are linked by cascades of stairs and precipitous alleys which defeat the car, and there's no traffic artery so cloJGGed that you can't sense the breathing of its great aquatic lungs. What's more, the novelty of pedestrianization is creeping through the city. We began to explore by walking the length of Istiklal Caddesi an found ourselves unnexby the hush. Istiklal Caddesi traverses the district of Pera, which became the social and economic center of the city when the sultans moved from Topkapi across the Golden 'and built the Dolmabahce Pala~ (Swissotel the Bosphorus, wher we stayed, looks over the palac roof to the geometric frieze of th old skyline and has appropriate most of the Dolmabahce's garden.

Once called the "Grande Rue d Pera," most of Istiklal Caddesi' elegant hotels and mansions hay disappeared beneath dull, post-wa redevelopment, but there are two splendid things about this elongat ed mall today. One is the veterin tram, which shuttles backward and forwards between Taksin Square and the top terminus of the Tunel -- the one-step subway, th. shortest in Europe, which rockets down the steep hill of Galata

The other is the Cicek Pasaji, once a belle epoque shopping arcade, now an animated colony of inexpensive restaurants, gypsy musicians and noisy taverns where the locals always outnumber the tourists.

"Cheap, eh?" grinned the waiter as we paid a bill of $20 for a selection of seafood meze, two portions of shish kebab and a bottle of Doluca. The Turks enjoy the expressions of shifty pleasure on the faces of Western tourists when presented with bills.

Everything in Istanbul seems cheap to the visitor from London, Paris or New York, which makes its urban pressures easy to escape. The taxi drivers have a sixth sense for the flagging stamina of the sightseer and are always there when you need them.

And you know you're losing touch with reality when you start to think that entry charges to museums like Topkapi and the Ayasofya are a little steep: $3.

O VER A LONG weekend we sidled into the city from our background reading and addressed its splendors modestly. On Saturday we crossed the Galata Bridge to Eminonu, where all Istanbul's transport systems -ferries, buses, trains and the vintage Buicke and Plymouths which serve Turkey's dolrmus taxis -converge outside the Yeni Camii mosque, and the tiere of the old town stap upwards through the Spice Market and Grand Bazaar to the crowning glories of Topkapi and the major mosque complexes.

If cities have souls, then Istanbul's is right here, where the Golden Horn meets the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara, and the most intense activity is the movement of people and the selling of things: from domestic fire extinguishers to fresh fish grilled over wood fires on moored ketchas.

Istanbul's commuters are fueled on this heavenly snack, served with salad and lemon beetween leaves of fresh bread. Inspired, we took a taxi to the fish market at Kumkapi and viewed the morning catch, then crossed the road to eat it at one of the street restaurants.

This popular waterfront district still feels rustic, and the village atmusphere persists among the overhanging timber houses of the streets below the Hippodrome. Here we learned that not everyone who approaches you in Istanbul wants to sell you something.

For all their fearsome history, the Turks are welcoming, and offer help if they see you strnggling with maps. Thus we came to Sult~ Ahmet Camii, the mosque called Blue for the glowing Iznik tiles of its interior.

It was built to confront and outclass Constantine the Great's triumphalist church of St. Sophia, the ancient basilica which became a mosque under the Ottomans but was secularized by Ataturk. Now it's the museum of Ayasofya; enid it feels abandoned, unlike the living place of worship across the square.

O N SUNDAYS, Istanbul takes to the water in search of lunch. The~e are plenty of Bosphorus boat tou~s but the bast bargain is the limited stop ferry to Anadolu Kavag~, the last village on the Asian side before the straits merge into the Black Sea.

Our return fare for the 90'minute voyage was just 15,000 lire (less than $2); deck space was limited but tho bustle of family parties was festive. Views unfolded from the guide books: the awesome fortress of Rumeli Hisan beneath the arc of the Bosphorus Bridge, the graceful timber mansions called yalis.

Of all the Bosphorus fishing villages, Anadolu Kavagi is the least oppressed by commuter traffic and development. It is charming, sleepy, dilapidated. It owes its protection to the restricted military zone which surrounds it, and though its hilltop Genoese fortrees is technically out of bounds, the energetic visitor can capture the castle without any awkward incidents.

We ate red mullet by the water while the prayer calls of the muezzin performed duets across the straits -- Asia calling Europe. Every so often courteous salesmen in their Sunday best approached our table with baskets of peeled almonds. When we boarded i,he return ferry (the not untempting option, if we missed it, was to share a dolmus hack to town), the village restaurateurs were still brandishing platters of fish to lure us inside.

E VERY GREAT city has at least one legendary hotel and Istanburs is the Pera Palace, where Agatha Christie wrote "Murder on the Orient Express" and international spies, including Mata Hari met to conspire and the pre-war guest list reads like "Who's Who in Europe."

We went there for a drink and were so charmed by its shabby splendor we stayed for dinner. The hideous new expressway outside the dining room couldn't diminish its fin de siecle eccentricities, which include a mural of Botticelli's Venus in the ladies loo and an antique lift with a throne, elevating you like a divine being.

But the Pera Palace doesn't stand on past dignities; halfway through dinner the chandeliers were swapped for multicolored disco lights and a belly-dancer materialized.

We didn't mean to spend so much time in the Kapali Carsi and neglect the Harem Tour in Topkapi. But Istanbul, more than anything, is a seductive series of diversions and the Grand Bazaar, with its domed and painted ceilings, is a beautiful boilerhouse of consumer lust.

There, creative salesmanship and the noble sport of bargaining make you feel part of the city's most ancient tradition. We left Istanbul longing to return -- which is the best way to leave anywhere.

 

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