Saturday 18 April 2015

The Big Read: Amazing Istanbul

It's teeming, colourful, exotic and mad. It's complicated, dynamic and proud. It's heaving and it's having fun. It's Istanbul.. where else?

Published 21/07/2014 | 02:30

EAST IS EAST AND WEST IS WEST: And in Istanbul, the twain do meet, which may go some way to explaining the city’s air of constant bustle
EAST IS EAST AND WEST IS WEST: And in Istanbul, the twain do meet, which may go some way to explaining the city’s air of constant bustle

Welcome to Istanbul, the bustling meeting point of Europe and Asia, with a population of at least 12 million, most of whom don’t ever seem to go home, let alone go to bed.

Istanbul, where the continents are divided by the Bosphorus, is further divided into old Istanbul, with the mosques and museums and narrow streets and no building more than four stories high,  and new Istanbul, with the massive shopping squares and off-shoot thoroughfares that resemble Henry St on Christmas Eve every day.

If you take the Travel Department package to Istanbul you have three full days and nights in the new Constantinople. But if you are young, or young at heart, you can snatch an extra night.

It’s a four-hour flight from Dublin to Istanbul, but when you get there you have to put the clock forward two hours. Add that to the fact that the airport will be packed to the gills and the fist-fighting cabbies outside will make you stop and gawk, and the crazy traffic, and it  will be nearly midnight when you  get to your hotel (ours was the Sura Hagia Sophia), even though you left Dublin around 5pm.

But never mind. This is one of those cities that never sleeps. Hop on the tram — the last one leaves around midnight, but you can get a cab back  — and head to  Taksim  Square, where all humanity is heaving and having fun, locals and tourists off the several cruise ships that call into port every day.

You won’t have any trouble waking up in the morning because the Imams from the several mosques will have you out of bed at first light as they call the Muslim faithful to prayer. And if you fall back to sleep after that, the muezzin will reprise it —  five times a day, in fact. It is a strange sound, but after a while it grows on you and you find yourself looking forward to its mysticism and musicality.

Modern Turkey is a democratic republic founded by Attaturk, whom many Turks still refer to as “our father.” He is kind of like their de Valera. He it was who drove the last of the Ottoman sultans out of their palaces and eventually out of the country, after they had disastrously allied Turkey with the Kaiser in World War One. The new leader then converted such iconic edifices as the Topkapi Palace and some of the more spectacular mosques into museums. Attaboy, Attaturk!

But Islamism is making a comeback and in many of the municipalities strict Islamic parties have made political gains. The government is bowing to pressure to move the country that way, much to the distress of the children of Attaturk (“I hope we don’t go the way of Iran,” one woman said). And so the “covered ladies,” those who wear the burka, are more and more in evidence, and some journalists, jurists and generals seen to be hostile to the present regime languish in jail. This is probably one of the reasons why the EU is not yet keen on allowing membership to Turkey, but talking to locals, they don’t seem  that bothered.  Besides, they say, the EU would never allow an Islamic state to be a member.

Sometimes there are protests by those who don’t want to turn back the tide of modern history, and this can result in schmozzles which become riots by the time they hit CNN and Sky News. But you would be very unlucky to even see one of these.

Out on the streets, Istanbul is crowded and busy – except for Wednesday evenings when everyone is at home watching a TV series on the lives of the Sultans. Maybe BBC4 will buy it for Saturday nights.  Most Turks seem to devote themselves to the art of selling.  Every second premises is a restaurant with wonderful menus and really competitive prices. Everywhere takes Euros but gives change in Turkish Lire — about 2.80 for one Euro. Tourists are targeted to buy carpets and leather goods — something which the Turks are especially good at making — but not to the point where it becomes a nuisance.

With a pleasant 20 degree temperature when I was there in May, it is an ideal city for wandering at your ease, and even at night it feels very safe and welcoming.  One local boasted that many of the shoeshine boys and pretzel salesmen are actually undercover policemen. If that is so, they  are masters at disguising themselves as small boys or wizened old men.

Cats and dogs roam freely — the city tags and takes care of them — nobody owns them, and they won’t bother you at all.

If you are just there for a few days you will want to see the sights. Take the guided tours that are on offer in your package and the extra optional ones for a small  charge, otherwise you will not only miss out on the very informative mobile lectures, but  spend most of your time in very lengthy queues with the cruise-ship crowd.

The aforementioned Topkapi Palace is a must — for the grounds and the history as much as the building itself. The San Sophia mosque is actually still a museum, though the government is considering changing it back to a mosque. It’s proper name is Hagia Sophia Museum — nothing to do with Saint Sophia — and it will almost make you

swoon when you stand in its centre and gaze upwards at the heavenly dome. It is claimed to be the oldest basilica in the world and is rivalled in size only by Rome, London and Milan. The Sultan Ahmed  Mosque, better known as the Blue Mosque, is equally stunning, with its handmade original carpets and giant chandeliers. But another modern adjustment is to ban tourists during prayer time, so check the schedule. It boasts no less than six minarets — the architect was asked to build a gold minaret, but the words for “gold” and “six” are very similar, so he pretended to mishear to save money. The results were so pleasing to the Sultan that there was no head-chopping that day.

Being a Sultan mostly meant untold wealth and luxury, and every time a Sultan had a successful campaign abroad, a new spectacular mosque or palace was built to commemorate the great feat. Being a member of the royal family was less fun. On the ascension of a young man to be Sultan, it was the custom to kill all his brothers lest their mothers — there were many mothers in the harem — would plot against the new Sultan in favour of their own offspring. This barbaric practice stopped only after one particular massacre in which nine brothers, the youngest only five who asked if he could finish his roasted chestnut before dying, were killed. Each of them was strangled — royal blood could not be spilt. Their coffins can been seen still, side by side.

Most of Turkey is in Asia and you can drive there or — more fun — sail across the Bosphorus, which is a treat in itself. Another favourite with visitors is to take a boat to the islands. There are three of them, mostly used for holiday homes, one by Turkish Jews, one by wealthy Armenians, and the other by those of the Greek Orthodox faith. There are no cars on the islands so transport on them is by horse and cart.

The streets of Istanbul, as mentioned, are safe and are also extremely clean. Everyone seems to smoke but you see no discarded cigarette butts.  There are some beggars  —  really cute kids and their mothers. These are, apparently, mostly Syrian refugees from the neighbouring war-torn state. Again, we are told by locals that until the Syrians appeared, begging was the preserve of  Roma gypsies. But almost overnight all the Romas have disappeared, and nobody can say where they have gone!

Russian women are also becoming a significant ethnic minority in Turkey. There have always been strong trade links between the two countries, and in recent years this has led to beautiful Russian women marrying well-off Turkish men. They don’t find favour with all the natives. “They are very up-themselves,” one woman suggested.

The evening time, after dinner, is ideal for slowly taking in the sights. Especially good for a memorable stroll is the Hippodrome area — a wide expanse that was once where the Roman-style savage circuses were held for the entertainment of the masses in the Byzantine era. For shopping, there is the Grand Bazaar, but everyone knows about the bazaar and every tourist heads there so you will want to go there but you will find it uncomfortably crowded. Still, it’s a must-visit. So too is the Spice Bazaar, if only to get the real Turkish Delight. Squeeze yourself into one of the many speciality food shops that display trays of these goodies, and sample until you find the one you want. Make sure it is the genuine article, made with honey, not sugar, and embedded with nuts.

One other “sight” worth mentioning is the Cistern. This is an underground man-made water cavern which is also known as the Basilica Cistern. For many years it was not known about. Then one day the Sultan’s architect noticed people fishing in holes outside their houses and asked them where the fish were coming from. They didn’t know so he set out to explore and eventually found an old entrance that had been sealed up. Now it is a major tourist attraction, not least because it was used in the James Bond movie From Russia With Love —  Bond swept into it in a speed boat. You will be coming by plane with  Turkish Airlines, which are top-notch,  but you should have just as much fun and adventure as Bond.

Getting there

The Travel Department four-star Istanbul City Break includes four nights’ accommodation in a four-star hotel, bed & breakfast.

• Half day guided city tour of Istanbul including a visit to St Sophia Church, the Blue Mosque, Egyptian Obelisks and the Byzantine Hippodrome. (Entrances Included).

• Half day guided city tour of Istanbul’s Asian side including Camlica Hill, where you can get a panoramic view of Istanbul and Beylerbeyi Palace, the summer residence of the Ottoman Sultans. (Entrance Included).

• Free time for sightseeing and shopping of your choice.

Details of the breaks, which cost from €539pps, and which are available on selected dates in September, October and November, can be found on www.traveldepartment.ie

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