Review by Fiona Duncan, published 10th October 2005.
I feel discomforted as I fly to Istanbul. I always imagined that somehow I would reach the fabled, many-layered hook that clasps east to west, Europe to Asia, not nip over to it. I would arrive overland on the Orient Express, or in a colourful truck filled with hippies or by water, sailing across the Sea of Marmara to the entrance of the Bosphorus as Byron had done.“Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?” my Turkish neighbour, Nevsal, had asked, when I told her I was going to Istanbul for the (longish) weekend. “Well, you’ll just have to pack in as much as you can. Whatever you do, take a cruise on the Bosphorus – Istanbul is a city of land and water.”We take her advice. But first we must pack in those sights.
Arriving at dusk at our genteel (very Agatha Christie) and perfectly located hotel, with breathtaking views from its roof terrace, we are drawn like moths to the magically lit cascading domes and soaring minarets of the Blue Mosque, slipping in just before it closes, with no other tourists. It feels like being in a giant blue-tiled swimming pool. Far away at the front, men are at prayer. The women stand at the back, corralled into a small space behind screens. In the middle, beneath vast low-slung cartwheel candelabrae, a lone boy practises handstands and summersaults on acres of carpet, unchecked by the mosque officials.
We have much to understand. It’s hard to think of anywhere with such a concentration of legendary buildings in such a confined space as Sultanahmet, Istanbul’s oldest quarter, a spit of land surrounded by water on three sides (including that aquatic Ottoman pleasure ground, the Golden Horn) that has been the cradle, powerhouse and deathbed of not one but two great empires. The Hippodrome, now a public park, recalls the Roman era, while squaring up to the Blue Mosque is Justinian’s 6th century wonder, Haghia Sophia, for almost 1,000 years the spiritual centre of the Byzantine Empire. Hard by is Topkapi Palace, built on the first of Istanbul’s seven hills, an inward-looking world of sultans, viziers and the harem, shaded colonnades and delicately tiled pavilions, emerald-studded daggers and giant diamonds (not forgetting the fountain where the chief executioner would wash his bloodied sword).
To get round so much in a day, we enlist a guide (plus air-conditioned car and driver, hardly necessary in such a small area, but very welcome amid the heat and waves of tourists). He is invaluable, bypassing the long queues at ticket offices and telling us all sorts of titbits of information. We lunch at Topkapi’s terrace restaurant, with dazzling views across the Bosphorus.Afterwards, we plunge into the glittery, fairy-lit labyrinthine world of the Grand Bazaar (go there for the spectacle and history, rather than to buy; it’s full of trinkets) and then by contrast into the serene and dreamy underworld of the Basilica Cistern. One of a network of below-ground reservoirs in Sultanahmet built by Emperor Justinian at the same time as Haghia Sophia, it cools and calms with its watery floor and its forest of pillars, and its waterside café is just the place for a cup of Turkish tea.Next day, after breakfast on the roof, we walk down to Eminonuand board the battered Bosphorus ferry (£2.50 return trip), grateful for our guide’s tip to turn up early for a good seat. It’s buzzing with animated passengers, both locals and tourists – every nationality under the sun, it seems – chatting, pointing and camera-clicking as we tack back and forth along the twisting shoreline between Europe and Asia. From Kanlica onwards we pass the dozens of Ottoman yalis, – graceful wood-built mansions, some dilapidated, others gloriously restored by the rich – that struck Byron as ‘a pretty opera set’. We lunch close to the Black Sea in Andolu Kavagi, on a charming terrace jutting over the water, fishing boats bobbing beside us. With salad, the freshest of fish mezze and a bottle of chilled wine, it’s both the simplest and the best meal of the trip.
Disembarking back at Eminonu in mid-afternoon, we make for the long, tunnel-like Egyptian Market, lined with food shops, across the road. We are sucked in with the crowds and spat out the other end, our arms full of half-wanted Turkish delight, honey and spices. As in the Grand Bazaar and on the streets, the vendors’ sales pitch is good humoured (“madam, how can I relieve you of your money?”) rather than intimidating and persistent, as it used to be. They have responded to government initiatives to curb hard-core hustling, and despite the city’s recent massive expansion, despite the cracked pavements and the unruly mix of minarets and steeples, skyscrapers and domes, despite the poverty and overcrowding just below the surface, Istanbul alias Constantinople alias Byzantium feels a far gentler but no less complex or absorbing place than I had imagined. Barcelona meets Delhi, someone said; at any rate East meets West.
Gentleness is what we find in Balat, the old Jewish quarter. Here the houses are quaint, if dilapidated, the streets are leafy and quiet and it’s the perfect place to stroll around observing daily life at close quarters. Men sit in the sun playing moultezim (the local version of backgammon) others in dark cafés playing cards; cats stretch in the sun; the washing is hung out to dry across the street. And there is gentleness too in the church-turned mosque we visit on our last morning a taxi ride away from the centre: St Saviour in Chora (or Kariye Mosque, now a museum) with its 14th century frescoes and thickly encrusted mosaics of the life of Christ and the Virgin. Wonderfully detailed (take binoculars), full of emotional realism, they are the most beautiful things we see in all Istanbul.Time has seemed elastic. We feel as if we have been here for weeks, not two days and a bit. There are four of us and we are both rested and invigorated, despite our busy schedule. But time is now closing in. The taxi waits for us at Chora Museum and takes us on to Dolmabahçe Palace, back on the Bosphorus. Here we drink coffee on a sunny terrace overlooking the water before plunging into the nightmare of bad 19th –century European taste that the last Ottoman sultans surrounded themselves with before their fading Empire disappeared forever.
There’s just time for a spoiling brunch at the formerly notorious Sultanahnmet prison, now the luxurious Four Seasons Hotel, and then we too disappear from Istanbul. Our last sight as we drive to the airport is of hundreds of families enjoying Sunday picnics and barbecues along the shore of the Marmara Sea, which is strewn with countless cargo ships at anchor, like toy boats on a mirror. We have seen so much. Surely Nevsal will be pleased with me. Istanbul basicsGetting thereMetak Holidays (020 8290 9292; www.metakholidays.co.uk) offers three nights b&b at the Yashmak Sultan Hotel in Sultanahmet from £339 to £399 per person, depending on the season, including flights and private transfers. Eating outEating well in Istanbul is trickier than you might think, especially in the historical and tourist area of Sultanahmet, though Rumeli Café, Ticarethane Sokak 8 (0212 512 0008), with intimate rooms on several floors and an outdoor terrace, and the garden restaurant of the Yesil Ev Hotel, Kabasakal Caddesi 5 (0212 517 6785) are both recommended, as well as the Four Seasons Hotel, Tevkifhane Sokak 1 (0212 638 8200) for Sunday brunch. It’s fun to take a taxi across Galata Bridge to the downtown area of Beyoglu for dinner, where the pedestianized Nevizade Sokak has a street party atmosphere, packed with pavements tables; Boncuk, Nevizade Sokak 19 (0212 243 1219) is the best place to eat there, inside or out. On the Bosphorus cruise, Yosun (0216 320 2148) right by the ferry terminal in Andolu Kavagi is excellent for a fish lunch.What it costs for twoFlights and three nights’ accommodation £758 Lunches and dinners (without wine) £148Full day tour of Istanbul provided by Metak Holidays £70 (private tour: price on request) Taxis, ferry tickets and additional museum entrances £57Total £1,033