It was hard to put my finger on it. Initially, it was just a sense of absence. But I couldn’t quite work out what it was. As our holiday drew on, the sensation became more profound. I started looking around me to see if I couldn’t spot the problem. But how to see something that isn’t there? That’s a tough one. But it gnawed on me. An itch that wouldn’t go away. I kept pondering this mysterious shortcoming. Of course, I eventually, I found the answer to my question. There was something missing in Istanbul. And I wanted to know what it was. But first, let’s look at what wasn’t missing….
How can the meeting point between east and west be anything other than a blend of intoxicating culture, music, art, noise and food? Nothing is at it seems, and new tastes and experiences are around every corner. But most of all, nothing beats waking up to the call of prayer in Asia, and an hour later you are washed, dressed and a 20 minute boat ride from Europe. At no stage are you ever under the illusion that you are close to home.
The ferries are fantastic, with regular services whisking you to a selection of well placed ports for just a few pence. There’s also a decent bus services, again at just a few pence a trip. There’s a pretty expansive metro system too. How much? You guessed it. Just a few pence. Taxis are just for emergencies. They are not just a couple of pence. The unwary may find a short trip takes longer than expected and costs not just a couple of pounds. Get a plastic travel card which can be topped up. It makes life easy. And it’s safe to say Istanbul is not missing a good transport network.
Shop Till You Drop
You can’t have a big city without a big selection of shops to go spend your hard earned money. Istanbul doesn’t disappoint. There are plenty of bazaars, markets and corner shops aimed at the tourists. And there’s an even healthier selection of everyday shops to get essentials. I like walking around the everyday shops, wherever I am. Just to see what Jaffa Cakes are called in foreign lands. I didn’t buy any Jaffa Cakes though. Mrs P and I did come home with 1/2 a kilo of freshly groun Turkish coffee, a box of mixed Turkish Delight, a steel pepper grinder, assorted bags of pepper and spices and a bag full of fridge magnets.
The streets of Istanbul bustle with life. What sort of life and what sort of activities depend on where you might be. In Taksim, the people are young and hip. On the European side, they are a bit wealthier. In our part of town, on the Asian side, they were friendly, down to earth people, working hard to make a living. By the river we found them playing dominos in street cafes. On every side they were friendly. Istanbul is, by any definition, a pretty safe city with a dozen vibes to choose from depending on your mood.
The Easy Life
Every big city needs it’s nearby happy place to escape to. Istanbul has a series of pleasant, green and hilly little islands, all within an hour by ferry of the city centre. The water is clear and refreshingly cool. Too refreshingly cool for my taste. I’m a Pacific Ocean kind of guy. I need warm water with waves to jump around in. But I liked our trip to the islands nonetheless. The bike ride to the church at the top of the mountain was nice. Coasting back to the town was nicer. The delicious ice cream was the nicest. But if the ferry ride isn’t for you, you can always jump on a bus to the Black Sea. We did that too. The water was still too refreshingly cool for me. But I dipped my toes, just to check another body of water off of my To Do list.
Istanbul is an Islamic city. It’s not, however, the sort of city that throws gay people from towers, stones adulterous women for their indiscretions or decapitates infidels. If that has cleared anything up for you, you’ve been watching too much of the wrong sort of TV. Islam is not a religion of peace. No religion is. It does have a problem with extremists, as do all other religions. But in Istanbul, you’ll just get to enjoy the fruits of President Ataturk’s secularist policy that saw the country look forward toward the west, not backward to the south east of Arabia. The Blue Mosque is a sight to behold, as is the Hagia Sofia. I also really enjoyed the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art, which boasted a treasure trove of literature, pots and pans, fabrics, and paintings from down the centuries.
The Hagia Sofia is the epitome of the blend of east and west. Once a church, then a mosque and now a museum. But there are better places to learn Turkish history and their place in the world over the years. We went to both the Dolmabahce and the Topkapi palaces, which were as magnificent in their splendour as many a western European palace. They both told the story of Turkey. From their role in the Roman Empire, which culminated in the Byzantine Empire. The Ottoman Empire through to the Republic. With plenty more told about the before and afters of all those eras. I enjoyed seeing the 4.5 ton chandelier gifted to the Turks by Queen Victoria, hanging in pride of place in the grand hall at the Topkapi. And pleased by this too. Normally, you read about absent artefacts with a note that they can currently be seen in the British Museum in London. Needless to say though, I didn’t have to wait too long to find a sign saying just those words. We Brits are such a crafty bunch of collectors of world history. Or thieves. Depending upon your point of view. But anyway. Suffice it to say. Istanbul does not lack for a sense of history.
The Missing Piece Of The Jigsaw
So what was it that was gnawing at me? I’ll tell you. It’s the architecture. The palaces are grand. There are interesting buildings here and there. One of two areas have some nice stone structures and cobbled streets. There are the many mosques. There are also smatterings of wooden buildings with windows shutters that wouldn’t look out of place in the deep south or eastern parts of the United States. But truth be told, there was an awful lot of brutalist concrete and glass blocks and buildings that remind you of London in the 1950s and 1960s, as the country rebuilt in the bomb craters of World War 2. These were, for the large part , the dominant architectural style of the city. What was missing was a sense of grand, identifiably Turkish architecture with long avenues and boulevards of stylish mansions.