Monday, 9 October 2017

Istanbul - Marmite?

Now we're back home and already the holiday in Turkey seems like a distant memory and the tan is fading fast but I am conscious that I left us/you on a plane to Istanbul so let me wrap up our final adventure 'Turkey 2017' like this.

Having garnered a few opinions before we went and since our return, it would appear that Istanbul is a little like Marmite. And I'm still not sure which side of the Marmite street I stand. But first, we arrive from sunny Kalkan to a very wet Istanbul so not a good start. As we queue up for a taxi at Ataturk Airport, from the long line of available cabs we are allocated one which looked like my twins had learnt to drive in it! A dent on every panel and a fairly elderly driver who announces as we pile in that he is 'the second best taxi driver in the world'. We have to ask, obviously, who is the best... Michael Schumacher apparently! He turns out to be a very chatty chap, driving along, showing us pictures of his grandchildren on his phone and winding through the narrow cobbled streets of the old town where cars are parked on both sides and if you meet someone coming the other way, you just have to work it out between you.

We had elected to stay in the old town because this is a what-can-you-do-in-36-hours trip so we were in the heart of tourist-land but our hotel, the Four Seasons, was stunning and a calm oasis away from the bustling streets. From our balcony we have a view of the Blue Mosque (with a couple of rooftop restaurants in the way) and as soon as we dump our bags, we grab our Four Seasons umbrellas (error number 1, as it turned out) and hit the streets.

It is just a short trot to the Sultanahmet which is the focal point of the old town. But first you have to run the gauntlet of the carpet-sellers. After ten days in Kalkan, we are fully conversant with the calls from the restaurant and shop owners wanting to sell their wares. In Kalkan, they call to you and you respond with a 'no thank you' or 'we'll come another time' and they smile and wish you a good evening. In Istanbul, it is much more reminiscent of the souk in Marrakech but significantly more aggressive and persistent, as we are to discover. And it turns out that staying out of the rain with a Four Seasons umbrella (which doesn't even say Four Seasons on it) is like waving wads of notes. But we stick to our plan and head for the Blue Mosque, albeit slowly.

Our first destination dominates the skyline and we follow the groups of mainly Oriental tourists towards the entrance but just as I am getting my obligatory headscarf from the little wooden hut outside, my beloved is approached by a local who seemingly just wants to chat (error 2). He tells us where to go and asks us if we'd like to see the small bazaar when we come out. Given that there are thousands of people milling about, we don't expect he'll find us when we come out (error 3) and we head inside with a smiling 'see you later'.

Inside there's an outer courtyard full of useful information about the religion, society, history of the Quran, attitude to family and women and so on. In the few short hours we've had in Istanbul we've seen many women in the hijab and niqab. This is quite a contrast from the free-and-easy streets of Kalkan although on the beach at Patara where there were mostly locals enjoying a day out, a good proportion of women were wearing the hijab. I've read a few articles about the Muslim attitude to women and I remain confused by their position which appears to be that the choice of whether to wear these garments is in the hands of the female population who apparently find it liberating. I'm finding this one a bit hard to accept when the men all wear westernised attire right down to swimwear on the beach.

At the far end, there are double doors where people are taking off their shoes and putting them into bags before entering the Mosque proper. As with previous sightseeing experiences in Australia, the Chinese groups seem oblivious to instructions as to where they can and can't go and inside the Mosque tourists are only allowed around the edge because the carpeted centre is rightly for worshippers only. And, of course, these worshippers can only be male. Regardless, groups of Chinese of both sexes march into the middle of the Mosque to take selfies, only to be chased off by the Muslim equivalent of a verger.

So we head out and, surprise, surprise, our little chum is waiting for us, spotting us immediately in the crowd and anxious to take us off to the small bazaar... and then, oh no, not the small bazaar but actually his friend's carpet shop where we are ushered upstairs. Nooooo! Because we've been to Marrakech, we are at least able to 1) refuse to sit down and 2) refuse all offers of drinks, hospitality etc because if we do, we are not getting out of there without a carpet and we had to learn that the hard way in Morocco.

The problem with staying in the old town is that all the restaurants are tourist-fodder unless you want to eat in a hotel but we find somewhere pleasant and sit on the pavement watching the world go by. It's ok but we think if we came back we would opt for staying in the newer Taksim area where there are better places to eat.

The following morning, we set off out for an early breakfast before our first port of call, the Basilica Cistern, one of the stand-out attractions for us. However, despite researching 'best places for breakfast in Istanbul' none of the places mentioned were open at 9.00am. Eventually we found quite a groovy place where we sat on cushions on the floor and had apple tea and baklava (well, I did. My beloved had something much more substantial, of course.) Then off to the Basilica Cistern which is a stunning  enormous water cistern under the streets of the old town. The Cistern has featured in From Russia with Love and the Da Vinci Code and is well worth a visit.

Then on to the Topkapi Palace which was home to the Sultans and their many wives in the 15th century. The grounds are beautiful and you do get a sense of the enormous wealth of the sultans in the living areas and the harem. The wives were guarded by eunuchs from Ethiopia and both the wives and the eunuchs were educated and could achieve high status if favoured by the sultans. Other reading I've done since my return suggests that if you were favoured in either category then life was acceptable but the ones who didn't make the grade met with pretty horrible ends - but the audio guide definitely doesn't tell you that!

Having walked a very long way (according to my Fitbit) it was time for a break before walking up the hill to the Grand Bazaar. Now I love the souk in Marrakech where, along with all the tat - knock-off football shirts, handbags, jewellery, carpets, textiles etc - you can glimpse metalworkers, dyers and so on actually creating their wares. The Grand Bazaar is indeed huge, covering 61 streets and it's a mass of humanity with every kind of clothes, leather, jewellery, carpets and nicknacks but definitely nothing that appears to be locally made or unique. Is it worth a visit? Well honestly, probably not unless you're in the market for gifts to bring back.

Our last night in Turkey and we find a nice-ish restaurant on the street and walking back the view of the Mosque and the Hagia Sophia (tomorrow's visit and our last) lit up at night are stunning.

On our way to the Hagia Sophia in the morning we meet our most persistent carpet seller yet who follows us to the Hagia Sophia, re-arranges the queue outside so we are at the front and generally pesters the pants off us. Finally, as we go in, he promises to meet us afterwards when we make our way back to the hotel.  Oh dear!

The Hagia Sophia is beautiful and is the biggest church constructed by the East Roman Empire. This is the third reconstruction of this stunning church and somehow its familiar style of architecture is more beautiful than anything we have seen before on this trip. Is it because we understand and accept our own religious ideals? I don't know but we may well have inadvertently saved the best till last. Then we have our best meal in Istanbul - breakfast is freshly squeezed orange juice and a toasted cheese sandwich from a vendor in the square eaten sitting on a bench admiring the view of the Blue Mosque.

Tired and anxious to get back to the Four Seasons in time for our taxi to the airport, we genuinely can't face the carpet-seller-from-hell and we stage a massive detour round the narrow streets to come out below the hotel thereby avoiding him. Drastic measures when I guess we could have just been rude to him. Would he have cared? Probably not, but there's something too polite and British about us and we'd rather walk further than deal with him.

So, would we go again? Yes, probably but not to the Sultanahmet but somewhere more buzzy and less touristy than this area. Anyway, it's ticked off the bucket list - at least for now.

One final thing... on the plane on the way back I was sitting next to a man from Oregon. He asked me about Brexit which I answered frankly and then I asked him if the events in Las Vegas would change the Americans' attitude to gun law. His answer was equally frank: "That had nothing to do with gun law." There's none so blind as those who will not see.

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