ALLLLLLLLAAAARRRRRRRAGGGHHHHHH, HEEEEEEMYYYUNUNUNUNEEEEEEEAARRRRR and so forth. Six am on the dot every day from a sound system that would make Motorhead blush, astonishing noise that could be heard reverberating around the whole city for a good 20 minutes, every morning, every day.
Prayers happened 5 times a day, 6, 1, 4, 7 and 8pm from a multitude of Mosques. But the longest by far was the morning, after a few days IC and I would wake in anticipation of it. At first it was annoying, but there was also something rather beautiful about it. In many respects this is the essence of Istanbul, a city of opposites and tolerance; it’s both clean and shoddy, irritating and awe inspiring, shit and lovely all packed into one small corner of the world -I’m no traveller but of all the places I’ve visited this was the one that snatched the breath from your lungs in the most unexpected of quarters.
Istanbul is literally divided into two; the north part is all commerce and industry, it’s like any other modern city, office blocks punctuated by bars and cafes with the odd cinema, theatre and gallery. The traffic is perpetual and it’s noisy seemingly without reference to the more archaic occurrences over the Galata Bridge to the south. On the Tuesday a very 21st century riot kicked off after students protesting against the G20 summit were inexcusably assaulted by the local constabulary, you may have read about it in the papers… In the south no one even knew about this until the following day, if at all.
We arrived on Saturday after a reasonably relaxed flight and were plopped into midsummer weather at lunchtime after losing a couple of hours over Europe. After a minor standoff at passport control in which all the UK bods were forced to pay 10 fucking Euro for a visa stamp (I didn’t have 10 Euro to hand and demanded to know why I was being charged passage when IC was able to wander through with impunity.) After being frogmarched to a cash machine by an official we found ourselves outside the airport surrounded by a sea of coach and cabs without a clue how to get to our hotel. We knew the district the accommodation was in so began to ask which coach we needed to get to our destination. Each time we asked we were ushered towards grinning cab drivers until we discovered we were actually being directed towards a very specific coach surrounded by grinning taxi drivers… said coach took us to Taxim (capiche?) where once again we found ourselves in the midst of yet more coaches and cabbies (and 72 hours later the venue for the riot.) IC and I decided against our better nature to get a £20 (45 Turkish Lira) cab to the hotel, unaware as we were then a tram costing 75p would have virtually dropped us outside the door.
It was 4-ish when we checked in, hot and tired but full of that weird exuberance when finding oneself, quite suddenly, in a different country with people doing different shit and not speaking the Queens lingo, or in the case of IC, The Pope.
The staff were friendly and only too keen to help a pair of knackered tourists, bit too keen actually, the young bloke on reception seemed intent on showing us every fucking hillock, but he was okay, even more so when he got IC and I a bottle of wine and sent us onto the roof terrace. This was the best part about the hotel, the rooms were clean and featured a nice en suite but were a bit subterranean and small, the terrace on the other hand offered a 360 degree panorama of Istanbul with the Blue Mosque a quarter of a mile off and The Golden Horn even closer. We sat there sipping Turkish wine (which to my utter surprise is bloody lovely) and generally feeling a bit chuffed with ourselves.
After the wine we hit the city. Istanbul is very walkable, indeed most of the major places of interest were no more than a 20 minute stroll from the hotel. As soon as we stepped out every shopkeeper, restaurateur, cafe owner did the same thing and began pitching us with smiles and accommodating gestures in the direction of their wares or services. It wasn’t too bad round the hotel which was located in Sultanahmet on a quiet cobbled street a few hundred yards from the Egyptian obelisk where the harassment began to ratchet up a notch, gently at first but with increasing intensity all the way to the Galata Bridge where mawkish maître d’s lurking in the dozens of fish restaurants that line the underside virtually throw themselves at your feet in order to halt your progress… It’s a price worth paying mind you, however irritating it might be.
There are so many restaurants under the Galata Bridge that offer the same sort of fare it’s largely impossible to tell one from the other outside of the quantity, or lack of, diners. Trying to examine a menu always results in hard-core pitching but as Istanbul is by and large a Muslim city we quickly learnt to edit the fellows not serving booze and take our chances with the ones that do. The trick is play them at their own game, ask for free wine, it usually sees them off, but on a couple of occasions we got just that, at worst we always won a discount of some sort.
Once a decision has been made the neighbouring competition melts away and we could relax. The view of the river and the banks littered with cafes, markets and Mosques are sublime enough to negate description and the food is fucking amazing, everything fresh and local, the bridge-eateries are only a few feet from freshly landed fish. Over the top of the bridge, day and night, fishermen crowd both sides of the bridge with lines cast into the clear water below. This means that diners are treated to a curtain of silvery nylon line punctuated by the odd descending hook and the occasion rising bluefish with his fate sealed tight.
Once seated the waiting staff, unburdened by pressure of new business, are chatty, friendly and genuinely interested in their rather scruffy diners. I have to say, by and large, the Turks are friendly and decent, from the piss poor tinker right up to shop managers in the posher parts of town… having said that it’s easy for me to say that being a cock-proud bloke, IC was subject to lascivious gazes, salacious winking, comments and on one occasion a foolhardy grab to the point she almost began to envy the karakul burka-clad sisters.
On the first night we ate and drank to our hearts content and after a day’s travel slept like the dead until being blasted off our mattress by the rapturous cacophony from the Blue Mosque. Christ it was fucking loud, almost as if the bloke was lying next to me with the business end of his loudspeaker attached to my ear.
The hotel breakfast was not to my liking, salty weird cheese and spongy meat; I didn’t fancy cereal so we more or less gave it a miss. The Sunday weather wasn’t too clement either, strangely overcast but humid, IC and I didn’t really care though, we had a mission to explore.
More tomorrow. I should explain that if this reads dreadfully it’s because since I returned on Thursday evening I’ve been knocked sideways by a bastard cold and doing anything is aggro. Oh, Jerry’s chart won’t post on this fucking machine but fear not, it’ll be posted soon and I’ve a choon from the current.
I hope I don’t die, by the way.