Monday, March 12, 2012

Istanbul: First Principles

Don’t Drive. No one should drive a car in the old part of Istanbul. It seems impossible that our taxi driver will find his way through a warren of thousand-year-old streets to our hotel, especially since he turns up his nose on our written-in-Turkish directions. But he navigates his way through narrow straits and deposits us in the fantasy land of tall towers, stone walls, and the breathing room to enjoy them.
We are staying in a very small hotel room in a very big location, the best part of the old city of Istanbul, called Sultanahmet. We have three of the great monuments of the ancient world and Middle Ages, Aya Sophya, the Blue Mosque, and Topkapi Palace outside our doorstep across the beautifully designed open square. The paved square, furnished with its own smaller monuments including a column lifted from Pharaonic Egypt, provides prime viewing space for what must be one of the best skylines in the world.
The mosques are lit at night and the Blue Mosque with its comely dome and six minarets looks especially like Disney’s Magic Kingdom then. We could not stop taking its picture (you probably know this by now). On our second morning, we woke to snow falling on the mosque’s curved rooftop segments, a peak travel experience (for once, no pun intended).
Beyond the Mosque-Sophia skyline is the blue water of the Bosphorus, where you can take a boat up to the Black Sea and Russia. The old city of Istanbul is situated at the convergence of three large bodies of water: 1, the Bosphorus (the word means “throat”) which separates Europe from Asia like a greater Mississippi of blue salt water in which hundreds of freighters, ferries and fishing boats pass from one continent to the next. Scores of them parked contentedly in the smooth wide water in plain view from our glassed-in breakfast terrace. 2. The Sear of Marmara, which bathes the southern shoreline of Sultanahmet and along which we taxied on our way from the airport past hunks of the old city wall. 3. The Golden Horn, the name suggesting the city’s wealth in the time of the Ottomans, a branch of the sea which separates the old city from the new, more European-built city, often called Beyoglu for its commercial and fashionable district, where the city’s “waterbuses” now ply from shore to shore for the price of a subway token.
Our first day, with beautiful weather, we do a little bit of almost everything. Posing with Turkish visitors to Sultanahmet Square, piecing out the old inscriptions on the columns and other monuments there; enjoying the expansive courtyard of the Blue Mosque, where we are hustled by charming English-speaking would be guides, including one who leads us on with promises of back-street rambles to view “Turkish craftsmen” until we find ourselves in front of two stiff men in black suits inside a shop devoted to sultan-styled jewels, magic carpets and other credit card delights – and execute a hasty course correction. Inside the garden of Topkapi Palace where crowds stroll in a Sunday in the park atmosphere consisting of both weekend tourists and Istanbulus (as residents are called) enjoying their own playground, we are reeled in by an American operator who happens to be sending hundreds of carpets back to his shops in the US. Would we like him to teach us how to buy a rug?
We decline. I’m only interested in carpet that would pay for itself by flying us home.
That’s also the day I fall in a hole because the Turks are rebuilding one of the many paved walkways that tied this Disney Land of the Millennia’s great stone works together. It wasn’t a little hole. When one foot went into the void, the next part of me to make contact with pavement was my behind. My daughter usefully pointed out that landing there probably kept me from twisting an ankle. I was absurdly okay; a little sore in one calf afterwards. Remarks about “mind the gap” followed for days afterwards. I am guilt of a failure to mind.
Determined to keep going before jetlag sleep-deprivation grounded us, we navigated narrow lanes filled with shops, looking for someplace to fuel up in a bottleneck of restaurants and cafes almost as hard to cope with as too few options. After eating (we pick a good one; outdoor table, roasted vegetables), we find the tramline after eating – map reading, after restaurant choosing, being among our chief fixations – and decide to walk it down what feels like the Commerce Avenue of the Old City, a moderate-income Fifth Avenue of shops and cars and bustling sidewalks – all the while admiring the juxtapositions of the built, the decayed, the half-built, the somewhat restored, the replicated, the totally new, the sublime, the tacky, and all the various shadings from ancient to contemporary in between. These too we photograph, compulsively, until I realize that wherever I put the camera I will find something interesting – and give up, overwhelmed by the embarrassment of riches.
We cross the Galata Bridge to Beyoglu. (See the division of the city in tres partes described above.) The bridge is mobbed. It’s not a matter of automobile traffic but of people, everywhere; and boats thick below. I christen it the Central Park of Istanbul because on a nice day everybody goes there to get the fresh air, the exercise, to throw a fishing line over the side, to people watch, or eat or snack or drink in the long row of cafes and restaurants on the bridge’s lower level. The vitality is infectious. It’s like – a comparison my son points out later – London Bridge in the Middle Ages. In a dense old city you build on all available space. We stop on the bridge and gaze on the boats below, ferries, excursion boats, motor boats, yachts; and on the piers on both sides, the Golden Horn on one hand, the Bosphorus on the other.
On the New City side, the neighborhood is called Galata. The dominating landmark is the looming stone Galata Tower, built in 1348 by Genoan traders who used it to fortify the district they were permitted by the Ottomans to settle. It’s well maintained but expensive to climb. Instead we ascend a series of narrow stairs and inclined streets through a neighborhood of old buildings, apartments, restored and decaying, patisseries, more cafes and small stores, until we get to the elegant Tunel Square, with views over the Golden Horn. You can also take a funicular up to this point and skip the walking, a common choice. In the square Sonya’s guidebook skills locate an elegant, very European alley, open air but under a roof, shared by a half dozen cafes serving a collection of outdoor tables (including some with their own heating unit). We drink coffee and eat sweets in the open air, until I’m finally worn out.
A tram ride takes us back to the hotel. After a restorative nap – we haven’t slept in a day in a world seven time zones behind – one of the guide books (we juggle three of them) comes through with a wonderful, close-by fancy-modern Turkish restaurant. Lamb kebab with roast vegetables for me.
The world is alight after dark, and a sense of the fantastic follows us back to the square, where Anne takes the spotlights-shining-on-the-Blue-Mosque photo.