Saturday, 13 October 2012

An Istanbul fling

Istanbul has been near to the top of my ‘list’ for I don’t remember how long. It’s been on Lovely Boy’s list really only since I added it for him. And even then, it fell somewhere on the second page. So a plane ticket to Turkey for my birthday back in June felt especially special.

The 5am start to get out to Heathrow was mollified by the exceedingly happy memories of our last trip to Turkey and the chance to watch the sunrise over the runway over my bowl of Pret porridge in shiny terminal 5. And against the odds of a non-reclining chair (tut, tut BA…) I slept like one of those nodding ducks most of the way there. 

Arriving in Istanbul we were shepherded first through the visa line before passport control and eventually bag collection. You need a visa for Turkey – a lovely colourful sticker that makes a welcome addition to my increasingly crowded passport pages – that you need to pay for and how much that is depends on how much the country of your origin has pissed off Turkey. EU and UK are a paltry 15 Euro. Aussies? 45. God only knows what we’ve done now but it made for a slightly disgruntling start.

Less than impressed with the Blue Mosque...
Lovely Boy had found us a great little hotel near Taksim Square, on the European side, down a narrow street that led to other narrow streets full of quirky restaurants and ivy-strewn junk shops. It was a fabulous location and getting there was a total breeze once we’d hopped off the bus and got our bearings.

Given the early start our first order of business was a nap. And after a nap, a wander around Beyoğlu and the streets criss-crossing the famous 19th century boulevard Istiklal Caddesi – an overwhelming river of pedestrians - before taking up residence on Nevizade street, a narrow strip of bars and restaurants for a couple of drinks before dinner.

The grill at Zübeyir Ocakbași
Tor had lent us her equivalent of a Lonely Planet – a gem of a book called Istanbul Eats. Exploring the Culinary Backstreets (they have a blog here too) and this was our other guide throughout the entire trip. Though I think you’d struggle to find terrible food in Istanbul, we wanted the best. And first night Istanbul – we wanted some of the best shish we could find.

Zübeyir Ocakbași is down a not-as-busy street from the heaving Istiklal Caddesi, which meant already we were happy. Not having a reservation they seated us anyway, upstairs and right next to the grill, with its ornate copper hood funnelling the heat and smoke upward and away from us. We had these ridiculously good dips – a killer pumpkin and yogurt combo and a roasted aubergine that were so good Lovely Boy and I ended up negotiating a game of tactical marriage diplomacy over who would get to eat the last bits. And this was before the shish. And the baklava that oozed with sticky pistachio goodness, welding fingers and lips together in flaky pastry bliss. It was not an altogether terrible way to end our first night in Istanbul.

Inner courtyard of the Sultanhamet (Blue) Mosque
Having two full days in Istanbul ahead of us we decided, like all good sensible tourists, to do the Big Things on the first day – the Blue Mosque, the Haghia Sofia, the Basilica Cisterns, the Grand Bazaar and Topkapi Palace. And against all odds, we managed to do all that, and at a reasonably leisurely pace.

First stop was the Blue Mosque, where a line of patiently waiting people hug the outer wall of the inner courtyard, filing in slowly one by one after losing their shoes and occasionally gaining a square of hospital blue fabric to drape over immodest shoulders or around the waists of too-short shorts. Inside, most of the mosque is cordoned off for those who visit to pray and not gawp. One very small corner of the mosque, behind an ornate wooden fence, is the women’s prayer section. I’m still not sure how I feel about that to be honest – but some sort of uncomfortable. The domes of the mosque are quietly breathtaking with their tiled mosaics and there’s an ornateness but not a pomp grandiosity to it which I found quite surprising – but that could just be my ignorance about Islamic architecture and Islam generally.

The Haghia Sofia, facing off against the Blue Mosque at the other end of the square also required a bit of a wait to get in. I really wasn’t expecting the boatloads of tourists that were swarming all over the city – thousands of OAPs and middle class Americans shipped in and shipped out on enormous cruises that blight the view across the Bosphorus. 

It gave the city a slightly odd Disney feel but then I suppose any major hub of historic import is going to be heavy on the tourists. And, yes, I know we were also tourists on the Istanbul ride – but we weren’t wearing numbered turquoise Princess of the Sea stickers and tuned in to a guide via a portable radio device slung about our necks. And, yes, I’m a vulgar cultural snob. Deal with it.

Haghia Sofia
I thought the Haghia Sofia was just beautiful, though I think that’s because it spoke to my love of all things shabby chic. Despite the major multi-million lira renovations, the building maintains a worn aesthetic where the layers of history – Christian and Islamic – exist side by side. There’s so much to appreciate about the architecture and history, even just on a purely aesthetic level. Which is where I exist most of the time…

From here, we ducked into the Basilica Cisterns, appreciating the cool darkness as much as the feats of engineering before heading to lunch. We ended up at a bustling, unpretentious restaurant remarkably devoid of tourists, where kofta was house speciality.  When I asked Lovely Boy his highlight of the day later that evening, after an excess of cultural and historical excursions he said, without giving a moment more to think about it – the meatballs. So take that Blue Mosque.

And from here, it was to the Grand Bazaar. I had had visions of hours spent here, haggling for all sorts of treasure but as it was I left empty handed. Basically because I forgot how shit and totally reluctant I am to negotiate with vendors (those summers manning my stall at Bondi markets have clearly left an impression…) but also because I just couldn’t find anything I couldn’t live without. Lots of noise, lots of same-same-but-different, lots of people – it’s basically a 15th century Westfield selling hookah pipes and knock-off jeans. Actually, we did buy one thing – a freshly squeezed, tart tasting pomegranate juice in a lurid shade of pink.

By now it was mid-to-late afternoon and we decided to chance the crowds at Topkapi Palace. A stroke of tactical genius that turned out to be – at 4pm there are no crowds at all. It’s still busy but there’s no waiting for tickets, no waiting to get in, no waiting for the chance to explore the famous Harem.  A lot of people had said if we saw nothing else at Topkapi that we see the Harem, the exquisitely tiled warren of rooms that once bore witness to some of the grimmest experiences of women ever throughout history. Sex with sultans might sound like a brilliant Mills and Boons-esque read but god was the reality sobering. Violence, subjugation, death, power struggles – the horror so hard to imagine as you wander from one beautiful room to another.  

What did surprise me about the palace generally were the scrubby artless gardens. For all the patterns and symmetry and colour of the tile-work and architecture, the gardens felt ad hoc and ill-conceived, if conceived at all. I suppose it just played into the many wider, subtler cultural contradictions about Istanbul that we encountered throughout our stay. Which again, is not a criticism, just something kind of fascinating that I still find myself mulling over when reaching for an overarching impression of the city beyond simply “great”.

By now it was veering towards sunset and armed with another Tor suggestion, we went in search of a rooftop bar pimping views of the Blue Mosque and Haghia Sofia. The views were, impeccable - my decision to order a cocktail instead of a glass of wine? Well, regrettable.  I couldn’t finish it it was that was awful. I’m not sure when cosmopolitans came with coconut juice (?) that hung around in the glass like snow in a shakeable dome but really it was the lingering taste of cough medicine that made it truly unpalatable. If only someone hadn’t told me years ago about the calories and bloated feeling that comes with beer, life would be so much easier when it came to ordering drinks in foreign countries.

Heading back across the Bosphorus to our hotel, we emerged in Taksim Square to a protest about something we couldn’t decipher – not being fluent readers or speakers of Turkish – but we took our cues from the relaxed, slightly ambivalent riot police loitering nearby that it wasn’t anything to be overly concerned about in a “call the embassy and get me out of here” kind of way.

Dinner that night was Turkish pide in an unassuming little café not far from our hotel – another from our culinary guidebook. The pide at Şimşek Pide was the kind of good that even when you’re full to bursting and say out loud (as if saying it out loud will actually then make it happen) that you’re full and you can’t eat another mouthful that well, you eat another mouthful. Or four.

Friday was about two things: Beyoğlu and boats - in that order. The morning was spent wandering the back streets of Istanbul’s antiques district – and by antiques I mean antiques and junk and vintage and more junk, all chaotically, wonderfully jumbled together along winding steep cobbled streets, strewn with ivy. It reminded me in some respects of Berlin – though more shabby and less hipster, though I can easily imagine that that balance of things will change as more and more tourist dollars arrive in the city.

In one little shop on a not busy street I found these exquisite strands of beaded embroidery that in a previous existence had decorated the hems of shawls. Beyond the tactile and aesthetic pleasure they bring, it was fascinating to learn that the different styles of embroidery and beading reflect the different parts of Turkey from which they originated – Kurdish, Aegean, Istanbul etc. I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do with the nearly 8m of colourful delicate history I’m now in possession of, beyond drape them excessively around my neck. But there are bigger problems a girl could have.

Making our way back towards Istiklal Caddesi, the pedestrian momentum was like riding the tide – trying to carve your own path through the masses was exhausting and so ultimately you end up just ambulance chasing behind someone bigger and faster than you – and quickly, before the gap closes. Istiklal Caddesi is strewn with gorgeous architecture made cheap by European chain stores but eventually it spits you out near the Galata Tower and from there it’s a short walk across the Galata bridge strewn with fisherman and fishy buckets to the harbourside at Eminönü where all the boat tours depart from.
If you have to fish, fish comfortably...
A trip up the Bosphorus was another Must Do from those who’d gone before and so we spent the afternoon cruising up towards Anadolu Kavaği where we were left for a couple of hours to have lunch before another leisurely cruise back. I think it’s safe to say that Anadolu Kavaği ,on the Asian side of Istanbul, relies heavily on tourist traffic for its livelihood and you’re not even off the boat before you’re accosted by fishmongers wanting you to eat at their establishment. We relented pretty quickly – path of least resistance and all that – but were rewarded for our compliance with a table right on the water.

When it came to lunch it was fish or fish and having been dragged to the icebox to pick which fish we wanted, it was nevertheless still startling when it then turned up on the plate – still looking exactly like the fish we’d nominated to send to the grill. It was all a bit much for me – I had to cover its little fishy head with some lettuce, it’s accusatory eyeball way too distracting, never mind the bones and spine. I left with a renewed appreciation for ready crumbed fish fingers let’s just say that.

Making the most of two hours of gentle swaying in the breeze, I napped most of the way back and before a dinner of delicious Iskinder, was spoiled by Lovely Boy with two pairs of earrings I’d spotted earlier in the day that had loitered in the memory since.

It was a great day - cruisey (bad pun not really intended) and a lot of fun – a perfect antidote to the stimulating busy day before.

And then it was Saturday. All that was left on my list was a visit to Istanbul Modern and given the god-sent sunshine we’d been blessed with since arriving, we decided to walk. More winding streets, more junk shops to peer in, more strange Istanbullian culinary treats for Lovely Boy to consume (wet hamburger, anyone?), it was pretty lovely.

I didn’t expect to spend hours at Istanbul Modern. Despite its international reputation, it’s a modest size and beyond their permanent exhibition documenting the evolution of Turkish art, which I quite enjoyed, there wasn’t a whole lot to see.  A small photographic exhibition on portraiture and a couple of remnant works of past biennials. THIS I liked. The Richard Wentworth installation, False Ceiling is from the 1995 biennial and was popularly re-instated in 2005. It’s installed outside the library and is just so very beautiful. Hundreds of Turkish and Western books are suspended from the roof, like a canopy of literate birds and there was something inherently comforting about the experience – a literal feeling of being under the covers. 

Richard Wentworth, False Ceiling, 1995-2005
The work’s title has different connotations, playing on ideas of learning and education as being not necessarily liberating but I found it a joyous, inspiring encounter. One that we rewarded with an extended sit on the café’s balcony enjoying the view and the warmth and a cold diet coke.

And that was that. Lovely Boy wanted to walk back to the hotel (UP THE HILL). I did not. And so we walked back up the hill (VERY grumpily). And then it was bags and buses and back to the airport where our last Turkish lira were spent on boxes of Turkish delight.

I really loved Istanbul. Its easiness surprised me. Its Venetian seaside feel surprised me. It’s compelling mix of history and contemporariness surprised - and inspired – me. It’s a dirty, scruffy, ancient city with a 21st century cosmopolitan feel that I think aptly reflects its current, largely promising socio-political situation. I’d love to come back and explore the city during it’s next biennial – to see how contemporary art is inserted into the ancient cracks and modern existences of the city (I’m thinking of Doris Salcedo’s work from 2003 here). 

Doris Salcedo, Istanbul Biennial, 2003
I don’t know if I’ll get the chance to do that but if this early flirtation is any measure of things, I think Istanbul is somewhere I could grow to really love.  

No comments: