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Ewan Mcdonald: Tourists ignore Istanbul's inferno

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A bagel vendor stands behind a destroyed mini bus the Taksim Square in Istanbul. Photo / AP
A bagel vendor stands behind a destroyed mini bus the Taksim Square in Istanbul. Photo / AP

Tourists sweltered in Istanbul's early summer heat as they queued outside the Aya Sophia and Blue Mosque on Saturday afternoon, one member of the family holding the line as others bought relief from the ice cream and water vendors.

Eating the traditional fish sandwiches on the Galata Bridge, some may have wondered at the rowdy, flagwaving crowds on the ferries across the Golden Horn and guessed there was a big football match on. The football season is over.

Perhaps when they stopped for a beer and glanced at the TV screen, or picked up a worried Facebook post or text from family or friends back home they may have heard for the first time that something was going on across town.

But in the tourist haunts of Sultanahmet and the Grand Bazaar, it was pleasure as usual.

There was no smell of tear gas in the air. The water cannons, the rubber bullets, the riots in the streets must have been happening somewhere else.

They were. For the unlovely hilltop bus terminus that is Taksim Square, where thousands of protesters were fighting to save their only park becoming a mall, and by extension defying a government they see as authoritarian and conservative, is not found on too many tour bus routes.

In our hostel a passionate young American tried to engage the staff in discussion about the reasons for the uprising. They found tables to clear, dishes to wash. Turks are notoriously reluctant to discuss their domestic politics with strangers, and sometimes with each other.

On Sunday more intrepid travellers took the light-rail and climbed the steep paths and stairs to Taksim, the old city's newest tourist attraction. Some helped locals prise pavement bricks and stockpile them. They gawped bemused at the overturned and burnt-out city buses and the makeshift barricades of building materials, probably the largest inorganic rubbish collection in Istanbul's 5000-year history. They posed for smartphone photos and asked passers-by to take a snap of the two of them together. Three local brothers - the oldest 10, their faces masked by football scarves - pretended to drive one trashed vehicle while their father took their picture through the smashed windscreen. Cheering speeches, blowing whistles, and waving professionally made and hastily contrived banners, protesters covered every square inch of the scrubby park that may or may not become a paved paradise.

There was not a policeman in sight but in true Turkish fashion the street vendors - the water sellers, the sesame seed bun men, the chestnut roasters - had set out their stalls.

Thousands more supporters streamed up the hill past Besiktas football stadium to join their heroes. For possibly the only time, Istanbul's drivers gave way to pedestrians - though they had no choice - as they blocked usually busy roads to reach their target. They even tooted their support.

It was only 20 degrees on Sunday afternoon. It feels as if this could be a long hot summer in Istanbul. The tourists in the squares outside the Spice Market and the Basilica Cistern, following the clues in Dan Brown's latest novel, may not notice the inferno.

- NZ Herald

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