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Alternate Routes · Europe · turkey · Istanbul · Pēteris Cedriņš

Istanbul - To the City

Author: Pēteris Cedriņš0 COMMENTS

Istanbul  - To the City

As a child I was fascinated by maps, atlases and encyclopaedias. One of my earliest vivid memories is of lying on the wooden floor in the house I grew up in, in Chicago, leafing through the "World Book Encyclopedia" and coming upon the article about Hagia Sophia, which was the largest cathedral on earth for almost a millennium. I had a boyish certainty that one day I would get to it.

Foto: Istanbul  - To the CityFoto: Istanbul  - To the CityFoto: Istanbul  - To the City

The current structure dates to 537. It has been repeatedly altered since then, of course, but no alterations can rob it of the awe it inspires. In a work that follows a walking tour of Istanbul, the poet Stephen Ellis brings together images of the "wide, inverted / scooped-out interior dome of / Hagia Sophia // the well of souls" and of the nearby harbour, where the Bosphorus joins the Golden Horn, being dredged as he walked. I first entered Ayasofya, as it is known in Turkish, seven years ago. At the time, the sense of being in a well of souls was partly obscured by scaffolding, as it was for years. Even then, it was unbelievably overwhelming. Now, with the scaffolding gone, gazing up at the dome in "Ayasofya Müzesi" is an indescribably breathtaking experience (the cathedral was converted into a mosque in 1453, after Constantinople fell to the Turks; Atatürk, the founder of the modern Republic - whose likeness is inescapable in Turkey, as you will discover upon arrival, probably landing at the airport named after him - turned it into a museum in 1935). Try to arrive before it opens, at 9 a.m. (it's closed on Mondays). There are outdoor cafes where you can get coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice before 8 a.m. - you can stroll through the gardens between Ayasofya and the Blue Mosque (also definitely a "must-see" - though it isn't yet technically open to tourists at that hour, you can still enter; seeing it before the hordes arrive is far more magical), but busses bearing throngs of tourists begin to cough their way toward Ayasofya even before it opens. Once admitted, visitors pour into the space below the dome and the cameras begin clicking away, so you may want to evade them and make a beeline for the Upper Gallery whilst it's still empty. The stone floors of the ramps that lead upward have been worn away by innumerable worshippers, invaders, crusaders, empresses, sultans and gawkers. The sense of time when climbing the eroded stone is stunning. The nearby Hippodrome, once the centre of Byzantine life, bears other fragments from the distant past - the Serpentine Column, for instance, one of the most storied objects in ancient history, is nearly 2,500 years old. It was brought to Byzantium from Delphi by Constantine the Great in 324 AD. The Greeks had settled in what is now Istanbul (which means simply "in the city" or "to the city") long before what became the Roman and then the Byzantine capital bore Constantine's name ; Byzantium was founded by Greek colonists from Megara in 667 BC. But human habitation here dates back far, far longer - work on the Marmaray railway tunnel revealed Neolithic remains - the area around Yenikapı has been populated for about 8,500 years. Digging in what amounts to layers of history and prehistory inevitably brings up wondrous things - besides skeletons from the Stone Age, 34 sunken ships from as far back as the 7th century were also discovered due to that single, delayed construction project. You might also visit the Istanbul Archaeology Museums, not far from Topkapi (what's left of the three serpents' heads that once adorned the Serpentine Column can be found there, too). The Sultanahmet area alone, where many of Turkey's greatest treasures are - Hagia Sophia, Topkapi, the Blue Mosque, the marble pillar from which all distances in the Byzantine Empire were measured - would take days to fully explore, though it is fairly compact. You're making a big mistake, though, if you stick to the well-trodden paths and try to take in every "must-see" - there are too many "must-sees" in Istanbul, and some of the places tourists are less likely to visit are at least as amazing as the most touristed sites.

Istanbul does not dwell in the past. Not at all - it is the third largest city proper on the planet, and the only one to straddle two continents... and unlike in other European megacities, the population is still growing. Atatürk moved the capital to Ankara in 1923, but most honest travellers can tell you that with the exception of the Museum of Anatolian Civilisations and a smattering of archaeological sites and other museums, the current Turkish capital offers little to draw the traveller that far unless he or she is en route to a yet further point... unless, that is, the imposing mausoleum where Atatürk's tomb is beckons you. Istanbul, however, offers worlds, in the plural, many of its worlds radically different. Eyüp, for example, is one of the holiest sites in Islam; the spiritual advisor to Sultan Mehmet II had a dream in which he saw the burial place of Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, a close companion of the Prophet Muhammad, here. The 15th-century mosque complex next to the tomb is worth seeing, and afterwards you can take a cable car up to the Pierre Loti Cafe, named after the nom-de-plume of a French orientalist officer and writer who adored cafes with views of the Golden Horn, from where there's a wonderful view of the Golden Horn. Eyüp attracts many Muslim pilgrims, and the neighbourhood stands out as quite conservative - most women wear at least a headscarf, and some are veiled.

Foto: Istanbul  - To the CityFoto: Istanbul  - To the City

The contrast with parts of the Beyoğlu district on the other side of the Golden Horn couldn't be greater - in and around neighbourhoods like Cihangir or Çukurcuma, lesbian punk bands can be found jostling for space with the horse-drawn carts of melon sellers, the outlets of global brands like the Gap, galleries displaying European and American street art, the remnants of Genoese fortifications (Galata, also known as Pera - from the Greek "Peran en Sykais", "the fig field on the other side," meaning on the other side of the Golden Horn from old Constantinople, which centres on Seraglio Point, where Topkapi is located). Galata, dominated by the Galata Tower (www.galatatower.net/english), its current version built in 1348 (though again, as with many sites, the tower has changed considerably and repeatedly), was a colony of Genoa between 1273 and 1453. I will have to drop shallow delvings into the vicissitudes of an indescribably complex history, since many a pocket of Istanbul is a kind of microclimate that still reflects the past, many times refracted - but suffice it to say that if many great cities are obviously patchworks, with as many layers as "börek", Istanbul is so in the extreme. You really should try to read a history before you visit the city (City of the World's Desire is a superb and reads like a page-turner). Even the local cuisine can change depending upon what part of the city you are in. Do try "börek". Besides having layers, it can be anything - "saray böreği" has butter between the layers, "paçanga böreği" has pastrami and tomatoes, "hamsi böreği" consists of fried breaded anchovies and rice... and there are sweet versions, and different neighbourhoods have their own twist. The possibilities for nocturnal wanderings in Istanbul, even on a weekday night, are manifold - you can find places off İstiklal Caddesi still packed when dawn arrives (this pedestrian street was for a while called the "Grande Rue de Péra - istiklal" means "independence"; the street got its current name in 1923). If you need a place to recover from drinking "rakı" at an ungodly hour, find a "börek salonu". Look at what's on offer, guess what might be in it, and point. Many of the cheaper places to eat in Turkey are "look and point" places even for the locals.

And now a word about ugliness. My Beloved, visiting for a few days during the month I most recently spent in Istanbul, my third time there, remarked that the beauty of Istanbul is really in its past. My best friend in the city once commented, gazing down upon it (there are so many places with breathtaking panoramas that they're probably not worth listing, as they're easily found, but Londra Hotel [www.londrahotel.net] offers one of the best), that "it's still beautiful, isn't it, no matter what's been done to it." Indeed, much of the city is just plain ugly architecturally. Topography and lots of water (the Bosphorus meeting the Sea of Marmara meeting the Golden Horn) make it spectacular, but decent architecture, as well as appealing interior design, is sorely lacking in most parts of this unimaginably vast and diverse city. You can come upon terrific food most anywhere, even in a cheap Formica hole-in-the-wall, however - try, for instance, Çukurcuma Köftecisi (on the corner of Hacıoğlu Sokak and Faik Paşa Sokak; www.cukurcumakoftecisi.com).

Foto: Istanbul  - To the CityFoto: Istanbul  - To the CityFoto: Istanbul  - To the City

Çukurcuma is the place to be - an "up and coming" area packed with antique shops and wildly diverse galleries strung out along narrow and strangely quasi-Parisian streets - if you seek the avant-garde, hurry; wait a few years and this neighbourhood will be far hotter than the proximate pretty boringly gentrified districts (in terms of rents, Çukurcuma is already unaffordable). My highest recommendation in the area, if not in all Istanbul, goes to Holy Coffee, next to Çukurcuma Köftecisi (www.facebook.com) - it's a freshly opened cafe I wandered into by accident, thinking I would get the aforementioned famous "köfte" place next door, also with outdoor tables, sells. If you say you found the cafe through Another Travel Guide, you'll get a substantial discount. As Ola, the Swedish musician who owns the café together with Arzu, his gracious Turkish girlfriend, jokes - at Holy Coffee, they try to capitalize on friendship. The owners (perfectly fluent in English; Arzu studied film in South Africa) will give you advice and may even show you around, and they will do so with a grace you will rarely encounter elsewhere. The café has some of the best coffee I have ever tasted anywhere, the lemonade is real, minty, icy and perfect on a sultry day, and you will meet fascinating and friendly people here without fail. The ambience is informal and totally relaxed, and if you are sick of Turkish food (which, though frequently fantastic, starts to seem monotonous after a while), Ola prepares tremendous ravioli and makes delicious sandwiches. Arzu bakes terrific desserts - try the cheesecake!

If you are looking for authentic and creative Ottoman home cooking, however, you should head for Dai Pera (Yeni Çarşı Caddesi 54; www.dairestaurant.com). The owner is an affable avid motorcyclist who often attends to the customers personally. The staff is friendly, there is occasionally music (nearly indescribable live "world music" on Thursdays), and some of the recipes are the owner's grandmother's. There are different appetizers for wine drinkers and raki drinkers. After lunch, walk downhill to the Bosphorus (ask the waiter which street to take) to reach the Modern Art Museum. On the way, on the right, you will see one of the cheap, ugly Formica eateries I've mentioned - one with mussels displayed in the street. They are absolutely heavenly, if a bit spicy, and cost almost nothing. The owner will squeeze a lemon and spoon-feed you. As to the museum - have a look, though the place seems to concentrate on poor Turkish imitations of bad European contemporary art. To each his own...

Foto: Istanbul  - To the CityFoto: Istanbul  - To the CityFoto: Istanbul  - To the City

Of all the wonders of Istanbul - and even after three prolonged visits, I am quite convinced that I have found only a fraction of them - the one I would say you mustn't miss under any circumstances is the Chora Museum (www.choramuseum.com). Fortunately, the vast majority of tourists never heard of it, fortunately - and neither have many taxi drivers, unfortunately. It's out of the way, so it's best to go by cab (taxis in the Turkish metropolis aren't expensive and I have never heard of a dishonest driver there). Find a cabbie who knows where it is and be flabbergasted - it's quite small, but you'll feel as if you've shrunk and entered a jewel-box. An ancient church that was converted into a mosque, fell on hard times and was restored by American lovers of Byzantine art, it is one of the most awe-inspiringly beautiful places I have ever been in. There is a pleasant crafts market across the street, and next door there's a nice restaurant with a terrace where you can get fine, if pricey, food cooked according to ancient recipes. After seeing the frescoes in the Chora Museum and perhaps sitting in the rose garden outside it, you can take a cab back to the well-trodden paths, maybe making a discovery or two of your own along the way.

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