After two wonderful weeks in Istanbul, we took the caravan road out of that remarkable city and into the wilds of Turkey Major. Our camels were cleverly disguised as a comfy Mercedes Vito, and Istanbul was soon just a haze of shimmering minarets in the distance. But even now, back at home in Melbourne, we have vivid memories of our time in the Ottoman capital. So, before we get to the tales of our trip through southern and central Turkey, with the benefit of a little reflection and in no particular order, here is our Top Ten for Istanbul:
Crisscrossing the Bosphorus – Going from Europe to Asia and back, in an assortment of ferries, was an oft-repeated pleasure. It was a ride long enough to feel purely vicarious, but short enough to not require much consideration of timetables; one accompanied by people going to work, to shop and to eat; and serviced by charming sellers of tea and large round cream wafers that, like so many small items, cost just 1 TL each.
Pots and Pans – The subtle but powerful domestic protest that occurred each evening at 9.00pm impressed us greatly, and quickly drew us in as participants. Many residents of inner city Istanbul chose this personal (but teargas-free) way to declare their support for the Taksim Square protestors, and their opposition to the moralistic and heavy-handed tactics of Prime Minister Tayip Erdoğan.
In a spectacular demonstration of their poor political judgement, and their inability to lead Turkey towards the future, the Turkish Government has just outlawed banging on pots and pans!!
The Market Streets of the Old Town – While the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market are fascinating and bustling, they have always been very popular with tourists, and hence bring relentless approaches by touts. Much more interesting, and less confronting, are the maze of streets surrounding both bazaars, which offer a much wider range of goods, and a more colourful (and largely local) clientele. Many hours can be wasted quite productively here.
Rüstem Paşa Camii – We thoroughly enjoyed visiting mosques (camii in Turkish, pronounced “djarmy”) all over Istanbul. There’s the imposing Sultanahmet Camii (the Blue Mosque) with its blue and green Iznic tiles, but always full of tourists, and the calmer and more subtly designed Suylemaniye Camii, virtually without any tiles, near Istanbul University. However it was the intimate scale, the hidden entrance, the welcoming loggia and the rare red-tinged Iznic tiles of the Rüstem Paşa mosque at Eminönü that we found truly impressive, and most serene.
Street Cafes – The most rewarding food experiences, and some of our most enjoyable meals, were to be found in the small family-run street cafes, where we got by with goodwill, some basic knowledge of Turkish food and very little English. The Gözleme and fried Hamsi (sardines) near the hard-to-find entrance to Rüstem Paşa, and the Kaymak (clotted cream with honey) and Suckuk (Turkish salami) with Eggs at Pando Kaymakçi in Beşiktaş, run by 88-year-old Pando and his family, were absolute triumphs.
Chora Mosaics and the City Wall – Reflecting the more conventional archaeological layers buried in the earth, Turkey displays a veritable smorgasbord of cultures and empires above ground as well. In a large city like Istanbul, where only substantial ruins survive the demands of redevelopment, it is surprising to find so much of the old city wall (breached by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453) still standing, albeit subsumed into private yards and public parks in many places. A ferry ride up the Golden Horn and a fascinating walk alongside the wall brings you to the Chora Kariye (Church). It was built by the Greeks in the early 12th century, and rebuilt a few times since. It is always filled with tourists, but its walls are covered with the most astounding mosaics. The mosaics largely survived the post-Mehmet conversion to a mosque, and depict, in fine and beautiful detail, the lives of Mary, JC and the Apostles.
Basilica Cistern – We are always impressed by good public architecture and innovative infrastructure, and that’s not just because we’ve both worked a lot in government. The Yerebatan Sarniçi (Sunken Cistern) was built by Constantine and the Romans under what is now Sultanahmet in the 4th century, to provide water for the capital, and later the palaces, with the water being brought by viaduct all the way from the forests in neighbouring Bulgaria. The engineering is impressive, and the structure was so well made that it still supports a number of city buildings at street level, even though it has long since ceased to have a functional role as a reservoir. The space is also extremely beautiful. Despite being a totally utilitarian and underground facility, the Cistern boasts excellent design and even several decorative features. The lines of the 336 columns with their solid bases and decorated tops, the brick domes that provide the strong roof structure, and the special features like the two stone carvings of Medusa, are all beautiful, even though they would have been underwater in their original incantation. And as long as you go late in the day and avoid the crowds, the Cistern is also as serene as a large church or camii.
Topkapi Palace Library – There were many highlights at the huge complex that comprises the former home of the Sultans, including treats for we former bureaucrats like the Divan (pronounced “di-waan”) – the rooms where the governing and the judging was done by the Vizier and his factotums, under the watchful but mostly invisible eye of the Sultan. Amusing also for us was the comparison with the inappropriately European style of the replacement Dolmabache Palace, built as the Ottoman Empire expanded and the Sultans sought to “modernise”, just north of our digs in Kabataş. But it was the simplicity and design of the Topkapi Library, with its luxurious divans (yes, our word for couches is Turkish), the deep windows on all sides to catch the breezes, the elaborate ceiling and the ornate cupboards for the books, that most took our fancy.
Tea – Turkey runs on çay (pronounced “chai”). It is drunk repeatedly, and always seems to be available. Obviously it is served in homes and cafes, but it is part of the bargaining process in shops, is sold on ferries and in markets, and is constantly being carried to anywhere that groups congregate, on trays that employ a suspension handle that allows safe movement of a full tray of tea. Every step or stool sports a tea drinking man, and a few women, and every corner holds empty cups awaiting collection. This is the most public of tea ceremonies – anyone, anywhere, anytime.
Modern Istanbul – Despite its age and its many layers, Istanbul, well the inner-city at least, is a very modern city, and probably deserving of a Top Ten all of its own. The terrace bar and the Mikla Restaurant at the Marmara Pera Hotel offer stunning views, great drinks and a top-notch degustation menu.
More affordable and in a less dramatic location, Lokanta Maya in Karaköy gave us the best meal of our month in Turkey. There were also a lot more locals amongst the patrons. It was the same mix of visitors and locals for breakfast at The House Café, waterside in Ortaköy, though the affluent Istanbul-ites were less than subtle here about showing their wealth. The Museum of Innocence, the eponymous creation that actually post-dates Nobel Prize-winning Orhan Pamuk’s novel, is of course an essential temple for Western visitors, particularly those in a book group back home. And who could forget the Istanbul Modern – their surreal entrance, and their wonderful video piece Road to Tate Modern, which we did not realise at the time was to become the theme for the rest of our time in Turkey – on the caravan road.