When the idea of spending three days in Istanbul was first suggested, my immediate image was of streets overflowing with people, unwashed peddlers fighting to sell you anything from hashish to brass candlesticks and food that you won’t be able to recognise, pronounce, let alone enjoy.
The people thing is certainly correct. Out of the 73 million or so inhabitants of Turkey, about 13 million live cheek by jowl in Istanbul and its surrounding areas.
In the normal course of things it should be a city under immense pressure, crime-ridden like some of our own busy streets and suburbs. But it doesn’t seem to be anything of the kind. Crowded, yes, with tourists, but also with local people who seem genuinely pleased that you have taken the time to see their ancient city.
No wonder then that in 2010 it took top spot in the New York Times for the most popular destination city in Europe.
How and why the Turkish have managed to evolve harmony midst the chaos that millions of people in one place inevitably bring is anyone’s guess.
Some would say Mustafa Kemal Attaturk, commander-in-chief of the Turkish republic in the 1920s, had a lot to do with it, deciding that a secular system of government was preferable for keeping the peace in a cultural kaleidoscope of different religions, languages and traditional systems of authority.
Most of us think of Istanbul in the terms of three things, the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar and the Hagia Sophia Church.
And true. You have to visit them all, even if your feet take a pounding. We stayed in the older part of the city at Sultanahmet which is central for the history sites and the Grand Bazaar
The Blue Mosque, built at the behest of 14-year-old king Sultan Ahmed I between the years of 1609 and 1617 on the site of an older Byzantium palace, is a surprisingly quiet place. There’s a restriction to how many can go through the halls at one time. It gives you time to soak in the history and splendour of an era long gone and time to find out that the interior is mostly blue.
Close by is the majestic Hagia Sophia, the patriarchal cathedral of Constantinople from 360 until 1453, later a mosque and from 1935 a museum. The interior vastness is extraordinary and its massive dome is said to have changed the history of architecture.
Tired feet or not, you need to walk up the cobblestoned ramps to marvel at the galleries and the view to the marbled floors below.
One of the largest covered markets in the world with 60 streets and 5 000 shops, the Grand Bazaar is the third must. Built in the 14th century, it is a place where shopping is absolutely unavoidable. Jewellery, hand-painted ceramics, carpets, embroideries, spices and antique shops – the choice is overpowering with the brilliant jewel colours of ethnic triple skirts, hand-woven textiles and scarves a feast for the eyes, not to mention the aroma of spices that assails the nostrils.
Yazmac, one of the most famous shops in the Bazaar, boasts as its customers fashion designers Donna Karan and Jean Paul Gaultier.
Before you get too carried away though by the reasonable prices, even on South African standards, don’t forget you have to get your goodies into a suitcase.
Once the realisation that safety is not an issue in Istanbul, getting around is a simple exercise, No need for taxis. A multi-carriage tramcar traverses the city both ways, so it’s almost impossible to get lost, day or early evening.
You need local Turkish lira to buy travel tokens at the numerous kiosks. But once you get the hang of the trams, you feel like a local, getting on and off wherever you please.
However, if you stay out later, a taxi is a good idea. There’s plenty of them and they seem to have a set price.
A funicular railway – so steep it’s just about perpendicular – whizzes you up from the old to the new city and from there a bright red tram takes you to the main centre. Only problem is that it stops promptly at 4pm, without anyone telling you. Hence our long trek back down.And do the local Turkish like to chat, not to mention practise their English.
“You look completely exhausted,” beamed one young tram passenger.
We shook our heads slightly perplexed by this observation. “Sorry, sorry,” he said. “I meant excited. I like to practise my English.”
We all laughed and then he pointed down a street to a restaurant signboard. “Go there for supper. Tell them Salim sent you. They will look after you.”
Whether it was a clever advertising ploy we’ll never know, but the little pavement cafe with its lighted windows displaying the day’s offerings became a favourite haunt, especially the mezes and the braised lamb.
Whatever you do, don’t miss the chance of dining on the Bosphorus – on your return perhaps from Galatasaray on the newer side of the city. Beneath the bridge that links old Istanbul with the newer part, you’ll find a row of restaurants where the freshest fish is served. Try and think of something more exotic than freshly caught lobster, fine wine, candlelight and the gentle slurp, slurp of the Bosphorus below.
Turned out the man in charge of the eatery we chose had an uncle who ran a Turkish restaurant in Cape Town – what a small place the world is!