Cold Turkey. 

"Julia Gasper 29 February 2012" 


One of the entertaining things you can do in Istanbul is to sit in a street café and count the number of different things people come along trying to sell you while you sip your cup of “chai”. They peddle postcards, umbrellas, even socks. No socks, please, we’re British! I lived to regret saying no to the enterprising sock vendor. A couple of days after we arrived in Istanbul, it started snowing. I ended up having to buy some thermal socks in a shop.

Minarets jostle with mobile phone masts on the skyline of modern Istanbul, a city with more inhabitants than London. It has always had one foot in Europe and the other in Asia. The suspension bridge across the Bosphorus takes you from one continent to another in crossing the city. Istanbul has always been a great market place and the “Souk” or Grand Bazaar, is still one of its greatest attractions. A vast building with vaulted roofs, lanes, alleys, drinking fountains and hundreds of small boutiques within it, it is crammed with merchandise of almost every sort to dazzle the eye, fascinate the unwary and empty the purse of the traveller. Be warned - the Turks are ferocious salesmen. I had to take an oath not to buy a carpet, before I went there, and I still rather regret keeping it. I bought everything else. There are beautiful leather goods, wonderful kelims in every colour, intriguing spices, flower-shops, perfumeries and a profusion of jewellers. In a poulterer’s shop they were advertising goose, ostrich, quail and “village duck” or chicken - presumably free-range. On one vegetable stall they were selling something called “Turkish viagra” - a plant with a reputation for reviving virility. Superfluous, of course, in my case.

When you have seen the Souk, then you really have to see the fish market, and the Spice Market too. Luckily I went to Turkey with an expanding suitcase. I returned with enough spices to set up a taverna. They are far fresher and more zingy than anything you can buy in a supermarket here. I even bought a spice grinder. Whether you go there in summer or winter you can be sure that Turkish food will be excellent: what may surprise you is that the wine is also very good. Red or white, we never had anything but decent wine and it was all Turkish. Clearly the tradition of Omar Kayaam lingers on. On a restaurant menu we saw “cigarette pie” listed - what they meant was little cigar-shaped cheese pastries, rather nice. Fish is an important part of the diet, and we had lovely sea-bream at very moderate prices.
As you walk across the bridge to admire the views in all directions - Santa Sophia and the Blue Mosque to the south side, the handsome round Genoese tower to the North - you pass rows of anglers who stand on the bridge for hours per day to catch buckets of small fish - sea-fish here in the middle of a city! Their lines drop down hundreds of feet to the salt water far below.
The ancient Sultan’s palace is like a little walled city in itself, with its council chambers, enclosed gardens, and state apartments decorated with colourful, ceramic tiles. The crown jewels are so lavish you think they must be fakes. Diamonds as big as eggs and a solid gold throne - yes solid 24 carat gold, perhaps a bit uncomfortable to sit on. The royal robes and those of the courtiers are rather splendid too, and the treasures include a lot of jewelled swords and scimitars.

Aghia Sophia, once the greatest church in Christendom, is now, seen from the outside, just a rather shabby red brick building. Imagine how the Albert Hall would look if surrounded by minarets and then left to crumble for a few centuries and you’ve got it. But inside, the vast dome, and the geometrical design with its arches, pillars and galleries, still creates an impression of grandeur. The original Byzantine mosaics were all painted over, but a few have been restored and (given the funding) the rest could one day be uncovered too. The Turks charge foreigners for entering museums and national sites that are free for Turkish citizens. If we did that in the UK it might save us millions.
A short walk from it is the Blue Mosque, the triumph of Islamic architecture that was designed to rival and if possible surpass Aghia Sophia. Lofty, airy and cool, it is supported by some of the most massive pillars I have ever seen in my life. It has no furniture in it, no chairs or pews of course, but just a thick carpet. The attitude to mosques is clearly rather different from our attitude to churches, as we saw one mosque near our hotel, with a public toilet situated right underneath it in the basement, while another one on the main street had a Burger King sign affixed to its wall.

The streets of Istanbul are crowded and busy and my impression was that everybody in this city was working fiendishly hard. The shops are open until 10pm and everywhere you see hawkers and stalls, trolleys and kiosks selling hot chestnuts, cakes, lottery tickets, clothes, watches and ring-shaped sesame bread-rolls. This type of bread, crisp on the outside but soft inside, is rather delicious. It was served with rose jam as part of the hotel breakfast. All over the city you find stalls selling “fruit choose”. Orange and apple are the most common, but some have a choice of orange, apple, carrot, cherry, peach, pear, tomato, grapefruit and pomegranate - even pineapple if you are lucky. The fruit is put into a squeezer and the juice extracted for you on the spot. Orange is 2 TL (about 75p).

There are a few street musicians, playing the kemenche (a narrow stringed instrument) or the ney (a type of flute) and of course some beggars, but no more than you would see in London. One evening I saw somebody preparing to bed down with a sleeping bag in a shopping arcade. On the steps down to the funicular railway women sell little packets of paper hankies for 1 TL and once I saw a boy doing this, shivering without a proper coat. In a London hotel you would probably find these days all foreign cleaners. In Istanbul they are all Turkish women. You notice a distinct absence of black people, and Chinese, apart from a few students, because Turkey has a strict immigration policy. Its own population has quadrupled in the last two generations.

To travellers who arrive on the Oriental express, the railway terminus in Istanbul must be a big disappointment. Small and drab, it just looks like a petrol station. Yet very close by, in the chic area of Istanbul to the North - the area once reserved for foreigners - are the splendid Pera Palace Hotel and Grand Hotel de Londres where Agatha Christie and such elegant travellers stayed in the palmy 1920s. The Grand Rue de Pera, the central shopping street in this district, is elegant and fun for browsing. They write in Roman letters and you don’t have to speak Turkish to work out what is sold in a T-Shirtium. When you are tired of shopping you can choose between dozens of cafés. A tulip-shaped glass of Turkish tea, served black with optional sugar, costs about 2 TL and a Turkish coffee 3TL. Cappucino is about twice the price, and to warm you up there is also the traditional sahlep, hot milk thickened with the root of a wild orchid, and flavoured with vanilla, rose petals and cinnamon. Delicious! The waiter on the boat called it “hot ice-cream”.

Whether Turkey is part of Europe always remains the big question. The young women go bare-headed or wear colourful hats and headscarves far more flattering than the hijab. It is difficult to guess its future, but clearly whatever happens to the Turks it will not be the result of their own idleness.
Julia Gasper.

For more on this city see

Images supplied by the author Julia Gasper, Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality 2008 and other sources.

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