Michael Lamb makes friends with hospitable locals and countless cats while exploring Istanbul's deep, rich history.
The scooter weaves its way uncertainly down the back streets of Beyoglu, Istanbul. It's
after midnight and we're wandering the tangled lanes, heading back to our hotel.
We'd had dinner at 360 Istanbul, a rooftop restaurant up near Taksim Square, which, as the name suggests, offers spectacular sunset views of this amazing city. Dinner rapidly turned into a social affair, joining tables of boisterous travellers to drink and talk global politics.
Then we came across a cool hole-in-the-wall cafe/bar and stopped in for a nightcap. They'd closed the cash register for the night so offered us a round of beers — for free.
More travellers stopped, more beers were offered and another session of discussing the wonders of Istanbul and the state of the planet unfolded.
Finally, all talked out, we say our goodbyes and drift the last few yards towards the hotel, a small place called the Faik Pasha where the rooms are decorated in a classical Turkish style.
And then the scooter. A couple, also on the tail end of a night out. They say hello and we get chatting. Fast forward 15 minutes and we're having a room party in the Faik Pasha with our third batch of new friends for the night. We swap turns on YouTube — they play a Turkish song, we play a Kiwi one. It's a cultural exchange powered by French liqueur and a lack of desire to sleep.
And so typical of a night out in Istanbul, where you make friends faster and easier than any other city I've been to in the world; where the desire to interact with visitors is genuine and limitless.
By the last night of our week, we've relocated to Kadikoy on the Asian side. We set out for a quiet dinner, choosing By Esat, a seafood restaurant right by the hotel. Happily exhausted after a week of socialising, we vow to actively avoid making any new friends.
No chance. Two locals at the table next to ours — partners in a design firm — quickly strike up a conversation. As the seafood delicacies pile up, there are toasts of raki — the aniseed-flavoured national drink — and another wide-ranging conversation begins that continues long past dessert.
If the hospitality isn't enough, then there are the cats. The movie Kedi, a meditation on the wondrous lives of the cats of Istanbul, is one of the sleeper hits of 2017, having gained traction on the festival circuit last year. Shot on a low budget, it's already taken more than US$4 million and counting. IndieWire has called it the "Citizen Kane of cat movies". I'm not sure Orson Welles would be down with that description, but it has somehow caught the interwebby, zeitgeisty obsession with anything feline and transmuted into cinema gold.
So Istanbul is having its cat-powered moment (maybe a name change is in order — Catstantinople?) and in Beyoglu, the medina-like district across the Golden Horn from the old city, you'll find peak Istanbul cat.
They're everywhere: in doorways, asleep on air conditioning units, balconies — every nook and crevice has some feline presence. They come in singles, they come in packs.
One shop we stop to browse in — cool, modern Turkish furnishings — has a three-legged ginger cat stationed outside. It follows us into the shop. The man who owns the place tells us he adopted it from the streets and admits he's become completely attached to the creature. His lucky charm, he says.
Our hotel courtyard at the Faik Pasha has at least four milling about or snoozing.
Some people say the cats are merely a cute distraction from the deep truths of Istanbul and wider Turkey. This is a city that's taken its fair share of hits in the new era of extremist terrorism. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's determination to stamp out activism and political opposition is casting a dark shadow across the Turkish soul. People talk about it, but quite rightly it makes them unhappy and uncomfortable.
As tourists here for just seven days, we decide to stick to our tourist knitting. And in that game, Istanbul rolls out the red Turkish carpet every time — though everywhere you go it's noticeable the numbers are down. The city is on the hot destination lists but the reality is, mainstream tourists are spooked and staying away.
On the ground, this fear factor feels ridiculous: in a city of 15 million people (officially, the locals reckon it's more like 20 million) your odds of running into trouble are, I'd wager, microscopic.
We tour the famous and fabulous Grand Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar and the most crowded one, the truly trapped-in-time Textiles Market, (think polyester suits circa 1960) with zero sense of unease. The other tourists we encounter are an unexpected mix: a lot of Russians, Chinese and Eastern Europeans.
We hit the tourist-book standards like the vast Blue Mosque, the Galata Tower and the Istanbul Modern Art Museum. We gape at the magnificence of the soaring Hagia Sophia cathedral and the subterranean Basilica Cistern, a beautifully ornate underground water reservoir. Both the Hagia Sophia and the Cistern were built by Emperor Justinian 1 in the 6th century. Justinian and his wife, Theodora, are the coolest couple you could hope to find and their legacies are worth a trip to Istanbul alone.
We take a bus out to the Rumelihisari Fortress, and, in the company of our new friend Ozlem, a woman we met in a bar and who offered to spend her Sunday showing us the sights, we take a trip to Ortakoy, where the trinkets are staked high, the buyers few, and the tour boats leave for excursions on the Bosporus.
A week in Istanbul is a mere heartbeat in the long, timeless story of this city, a place with such a deep, rich history. You could spend aeons here and still find something new. And while tourism fatigue is hitting places like Barcelona and Paris, in Istanbul you can guarantee you'll be welcomed with open arms. So there's never been a better time to go — especially if you're a cat person.
flies from Auckland to Istanbul, via Doha with return Economy Class fares from $1549.