The Bosphorus Bridge – Photo: wikipedia

Travel after the pandemic #16: Istanbul, Turkey

One city, two continents: following in the footsteps of Marco Polo

“Why did you come to Istanbul if you don’t want to buy a carpet?” Several carpet-shop touts had already approached me in the streets to invite me to see their wares in my few days in Istanbul but I politely declined, even avoiding gritting my teeth. I’d been to the city before and I knew how irritating they could become, so I was determined to keep my cool. Until this particularly provocative joker popped up… “Why did you come to Istanbul if you don’t want to buy a carpet?”

It was the last straw. No longer Mr Friendly Tourist, I contemplated rolling him up in one of his carpets and dropping him off the Galata Bridge to expire in the waters of the Golden Horn. But somehow I managed to smile on, determinedly decline a visit to his frigging shop and continue to enjoy wandering around Istanbul.

Earlier, strolling along, a fellow walking in front of me dropped a shoe brush without noticing. I picked it up, caught him up and returned the brush. We walked on, talking a little, he a shoe-shiner with a smidgeon of English, until he suddenly knelt down and started working on my shoes; in gratitude, I presumed, for the kindness of saving him from losing his tool of the trade.

Finished, he asked for 25 Turkish lira. What? I thought you were being kind. I never asked for a shoe-shine. It only took you a couple of minutes and I could get a taxi ride for that amount. We settled on 7 lira. Later, someone told me that this is an old trick, to spot a gullible tourist and deliberately drop a brush. I’d been conned. Well, a poor bloke needs a trick or two to survive when shoe-shining provides a meagre income for the needy. There’s a fair bit of competition in the trade in Istanbul, and most people don’t have leather on their feet nowadays.

As travel tales go, my little skirmishes with these entrepreneurial Turks don’t add up to much, and may not rival the adventures of Marco Polo, who was there before me, but I haven’t encountered many carpet-shop touts or shoe-shine fellows in Budapest lately. So you can say my horizons have been broadened. And back to that ridiculous question, why did I come to Istanbul if I didn’t want to buy a carpet?

These incidents were just a couple of years ago but, being an ancient person now, my first time in the city had been way back in mid-1973, destination the Pudding Shop, a run-of the-mill restaurant famed among backbackers/hippies as the meeting place for overland travellers on their way to or coming back from the hashish heavens of Afghanistan, India and Nepal.

The Pudding Shop was the in-place to swap tips about, say, the things to watch out for in “Chicken Street” in Kabul, staying on a houseboat in Kashmir or which might be the hippest of the crummy hotels on “Freak Street” in Katmandu. And perhaps to scoff a bit at the “straight” tourists, who didn’t know what “real travel”, the hard way, was all about.

If you were really budget-conscious, you could sleep on a makeshift bed on the flat concrete roof of the building next door to the Pudding Shop, where quadrophonic muezzins from minarets all around woke you in the morning. And then, after a couple of days, I was on my way, not just via Tehran, Lahore, Benares and all the others but also Rangoon, Bangkok and Bali, all the way to Australia, arriving in March 1974 after eight months’ solid travel.

It was 2009 before I got back to Istanbul, and the Pudding Shop was still there, although the overlanders had gone, as the “hippie trail” got more dangerous. Vintage newspaper clippings and photos on the walls and in the window recalled the glory days. One photo showed Bill Clinton on a visit, not as a hippie but as a johnnie-come-lately VIP seeing a city “sight”. Still today the place remains, called the Pudding Shop Lale Restaurant, “World famous since 1957”, it boasts. They even have a website to prove it.

A few places in the world claim to be “where east meets west” and the “crossroads of civilisations” but can any of them really rival Istanbul in this regard, it being the only city that straddles the Asian and European continents? Back in 1973 there were no bridges linking the two and you had to take a ferry. Now Istanbul has three of the world’s longest suspension bridges and two tunnels under the Bosphorus, one for passenger rail and one for vehicles.

And Istanbul has become one of the world’s largest cities, chaotically cramming in around 15 million souls. It can be a bit overwhelming but is well manageable if you stick mostly to the tourist spots. Perhaps the best place to start is with a ferry on the water to take in the emblematic city skyline, one of the world’s most memorable with an eclectic mix of Byzantine churches, decorated mosques and Ottoman palaces. Take it all in while passing the famous Maiden’s Tower, gazing at the fishermen up on the Galata bridge and the 14th-century Galata Tower. Where else would you rather be at this particular moment?

Here all around is the largest city and principal seaport of Turkey, previously the capital of both the Byzantine Empire and the Ottoman Empire. Today Istanbul is often mistaken for Turkey’s capital. One of the easiest places to base yourself is Sultanahmet, the Old City, which is a short stroll from most of the major historical attractions: the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and the Hagia Sofya for starters.

The Blue Mosque – Photo: wikipedia

Wandering amid the gardens sandwiched between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofya, their dueling domes stand in twin glory. Sitting high on the hill above the Sultanahmet district, the Süleymaniye Mosque is another of the most recognised landmarks of Istanbul. It was inaugurated in 1557.

The Basilica Cistern that was built by the Byzantine emperor Justinian in 532 CE to store fresh water for Constantinople is the largest of the ancient cisterns beneath the city. You may have already seen it, on film at least, in “From Russia with Love”.  A large section of the Roman-built Aqueduct of Valens, built in the 4th century, still stands.

Entrance to the Grand Bazaar is through one of 11 gates from where a maze of 60-plus vaulted-ceiling laneways lined by more than 4000 shops and stalls sell every Turkish souvenir and handicraft you could imagine. There are different sections for items including gold, silver, leather and carpets, and it’s easy to get lost in one of the biggest and oldest covered bazaars on Earth, occupying 30,700 square metres. It dates from the 15th century.

Separately, the Spice Bazaar, built in 1664, is the place to get your foodie fix of lokum (Turkish delight), dried fruit, nuts, herbs and, of course, the multi-aromas and multi-colours of dozens of spices.

Portions of the walls of Stamboul remain. Istanbul’s Asian shore is easily reached by ferry from Eminönü dock across the Bosphorus. You can still get a beer, wine or raki, the country’s signature spirit, in this overwhelmingly Muslim country. And so it goes on. Napoleon summed it up: “If earth were a single state, Istanbul would be its capital.”

Tips: don’t watch “Midnight Express” before going there and steer clear of the Saudi Arabian consulate.

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