Turkey: Must-see Istanbul

By Ewan McDonald

The grand interior of Istanbul's Hagia Sofia. Photo / Thinkstock
The grand interior of Istanbul's Hagia Sofia. Photo / Thinkstock

I'M KNACKERED, I said, flopping on to the bed in our hostel. "I'm not surprised," replied Jude, kicking off her shoes. "You've spent all afternoon in the harem."

For a husband, there's no comeback to that. Especially on a 30-something evening after a day wandering through some of the planet's more gob-smacking buildings, past some of its richest hoards of art, jewellery, bizarre relics, tradition - and just plain plunder - at the Topkapi Palace. Peel me a beer, Sam.

WHEN YOU'VE ticked off the "Great Cities of Europe" - London, Paris, Rome, Barcelona - what's next? Istanbul, though it deserves to come a tad ahead of most of those.

You want old? The Doric tribe came "Downtown" (that's what the city's name means) in 667BC, though there had been a Neolithic settlement since 6500BC.

You want history? Through 25 centuries Byzantium, aka Constantinople, aka Istanbul was capital of the Roman, Eastern Roman or Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman Empires.

You want culture? See above. Art? Calligraphy, architecture, ceramics, embroidery, gold and metalwork, jewellery, one of the world's three great cuisines... that'll do for starters.

Big? It's the fifth largest city on Earth, around 13 million people. Possibly a comedown from the Middle Ages, when it was the largest, but hey, what other metropolis can say that it spans two continents?

Or you just want fun, fascinating, and - compared with every one of those other "greats" - cheap?

YOU DON'T visit Istanbul. Jude, her son Sam and I landed at Ataturk, one of its two airports, boarded the fast, new, clean light-rail tram into town, and the place grabbed us by the throat and shouted, "Come here!"

Best base is Sultanahmet, the old centre of town, for the historic sights are here: Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque, Grand Bazaar, Hippodrome, Spice Market, Basilica Cistern.

Yes, it's a tourist trap, but only if you're the sort of tourist who allows themselves to be trapped in streetside restaurants where the menus are printed in six languages or carpet stores where price tags are printed in American dollars.

You will be accosted and inveigled into parting with your Kiwi dollars for trinkets. But there's a good-naturedness about Turkish merchants, and a genuine interest in foreigners. It goes with the territories, and these guys have been at the crossroads of the world's trade for generations.

Not so much a crossroads as a bridge: Galata Bridge, which we walked across one night, aromas of fish restaurants drifting from boats below.

Another night the taxi driver, tasked to find us a restaurant, drove for miles to a wharf where they cooked insanely tender fish and tossed fresh salads. Possibly his brother-in-law's place, but it was worth the 30-minute detour.

One day the man in the pomegranate juice shop took us up to his leatherwear workshop around the corner and, after two or three apple teas, persuaded me to try the softest, most flattering jackets. And Jude to try several more. He was only mildly upset when we didn't buy.

The three of us stumbled into little cafes because we'd struck up a conversation with the guy standing outside, rather than having a menu stuck in our face, and the Adana kebab or the chicken 'n walnut 'n pomegranate stew was... heaven on a sword.

OF COURSE, Istanbul isn't mired in the 12th or the 16th or the 18th Century. This is a devastatingly modern, clean, functioning 21st Century burg.

Don't take my words for that: Jude lived here in the early '70s, teaching English, subsisting in a flat in Bakirkoy. She, Sam and I took an old, wheezing train there on a Saturday afternoon.

Then, it was a village; you walked a donkey track into the Big Smoke. Now it's merged into the metropolis, the eight-lane Kennedy Caddesi swirling around malls and cafes on the way to the airport.

She showed us her apartment building: then it had no power, no hot water; now it would be a desirable residence in the centre of, say, Mt Eden Village. We wandered her streets. We drank cay (tea) and ate pastries. We learned how times change, but they pretty much stay the same in a city that's as old as, or perhaps even older than, the hills.

Istanbul. Where, should you desire, you can shop till your Visa drops, or club till you fall over in Begoylu, or around Taksim Square. Pretty much like Oxford St, or Via Condotti, or Boulevard Hausmann, or... well, you know the names.

WE DIDN'T. That wasn't what we came to Istanbul for. We wanted somewhere different, and fascinating, and exciting, and we found it. Or perhaps it found us.

PANEL

THE MUST-SEES would take several coffee-table books (prospective publishers are cordially invited to email... ) so, some memories:

Haga Sofia, the architecturally amazing, spiritually uplifting, eerie church-mosque-museum, completed in less than five years during the 6th Century, its dome floating on hidden pillars

Its neighbour, the enigmatic Blue Mosque, dressed from floor to dome in gorgeous tiles

The Hippodrome, ancient Roman horse-racetrack channelled into a 19th Century strolling park, because we were there during Ramazan, mid-September, and it was hosting a food festival - acres of kebab and kofte (meatballs) and gozelme (pancakes) and mezze and nuts and icecream, and we spent hours talking with a young chap who didn't want to sell us anything, just to chat and drink cay (tea)

The Spice Market. Condiments of many colours and more tastes. Which you'll be entreated to try. Do

The Basilica Cistern, a wonder of ancient engineering, the massive, below-ground water supply for the Roman city, carved columns and quizzical carp

Topkapi Palace. Hampton Court? Versailles? Baches, compared to this. The sultans had it - from Vienna to Libya to the Indian coast - and those boys knew how to flaunt it. The palace contains all the riches of the then-known world: diamonds to make Liz Taylor jealous; silk coats and trousers to make Elton John spit; jewels that Diana would bat rather more than an eyelid for, gold and jeweled thrones. Most bizarre, the relics claimed to be from Abraham and Moses and David and John the Baptist and Jesus and Mohammad. Articles of faith from three great religions in one room. And then there's...

The Harem, deep inside this fortress / city, best described as - no, not what you think - the family living quarters. If your family happens to have ruled about one quarter of Earth's living space for more than six centuries. Tiles, textiles, textures and colour and style, in a jawdropping kind of way.

Last, best: the Grand Bazaar, which is kind of like the neighbourhood Westfield mall. Imagine St Lukes or Sylvia Park in the 1800s, with much the same mixture of kitsch and eclectic art-and-craft as the Warehouse and K'Road, but more on-to-it merchants. Numbers, again: 60-plus covered streets, more than 4000 shops attracting between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors daily. Opened in 1461, two mosques, post office, bank, health centre. Real or fake rugs, jewellery, antiques, gold, leather, ceramics, calligraphy, or anything else - you will be begged to buy it. That's when the real fun begins - the haggling.

- nzherald.co.nz

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