Istanbul the first

Istanbul the first

Impossible to do justice to this amazing city but here goes.

We’re sitting at the water’s edge on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. The sounds are those of the sea and boats; ferries pass by back and forth across this small stretch of water so frequently that you can always hear the background noise of their deep throaty engines. They criss-cross managing to avoid each other in a miraculous display of marine logistics and put in at each jetty without even tying up – you just hop on and off. We arrived at a stop called Harem! There are many ways to describe the moment of arrival, some unpublishable – putting in, getting off, disembarking…..I’ll leave the rest to you to speculate.

The Asian side? But it’s really just more Istanbul. Beyond more locals and fewer tourists, you’d be hard pushed to spot any immediate differences. Europe or Asia seems a bit irrelevant. Istanbul is just Istanbul, like London, it’s in a category of its own. We’re sitting in a bench in a quiet spot between an old station, the Haydarpasa Gar, still operational but only just, the odd local service. used to be the place where journeys east into Anatolia began. The building is big, old, extravagant and mostly derelict – perfect subject for the artist who’s hard at work at the other end of the bench. This is the post-coffee, pre-beer sketching and writing interlude. Oh, and the coffee crisis has been resolved with an excellent rich and smooth just near the Harem jetty. So you heard it here first, the americano has arrived in Asia!

We spent yesterday ‘doing’ the tourist bits on what’s called the ‘historic peninsula’ which is basically the old bit with the best buildings. the south side of the Golden Horn. Lovely walk through the quiet back streets of Taksim down to Galata bridge. By the time we reached the Golden Horn it was bustling with boats, people, fishermen, tourists, waiters, shoe polishers, traders of all descriptions, even one with a set of bathroom scales so you can see how much damage that second baklava has done. The whole world seems to be gathered here to gaze in wonder at the mosques and minarets that dominate the hill to the south. What a setting for the emperors to build their churches-cum-mosques, their palace, their bazaars.

Along the southern bank, ornate little floating palaces, Disney-style, offer food cruises (Aha – maybe the guy with the bathroom scales is onto a winner after all!). Just across the bridge and you’re into the spice market, partly closed for repair but enough of it open to thrill and enchant with the array of spices, dried fruits, and sweets, laid out with the care you’d give to a precious mosaic. Stallholders who would charm the most austere. They can somehow tell you’re an English-speaker. Last time I was here they could do that too but had little to offer except maybe “Lookie, lookie”. This time they’re younger (or I’m older, or both) and they have sharp lines like: “I have everything in my shop except customers, please come in”. And in we went to a make essential purchases – a year’s supply of saffron for 6 Turkish Lira, and, more importantly, a scarf or two for yours truly’s birthday. Job done.

Onto the really big hitters of Istanbul, Aya Sofia and the Big Blue. They will have their own blog post and several sketches soon, I promise. But first a coffee – a slightly improved version compared with the bus station and the dawn affair at Taksim of my last post – at the disappointingly named Montana Cafe. But delicious waiter, so who cares about the coffee!! The maitre d’, if cafes can have such, had spent some time in Doncaster. Small world. Both he and the delicious one had excellent English, and, since the place was quiet, we had time for an odd and unlikely conversation about the English usage of the phrase ‘in case’ and its many meanings! Bizarre – but this is a city where odd things happen.

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