Istanbul – the name is redolent of past adventure. I have been taught and picked up history from a British perspective in which the Romans quit Britain and fell to pieces and then the dark ages came along. It is quite a shock therefore to learn that the Roman Empire kind of survived until 1453 with it's centre in Istbanul which was previously called Constantinople.
So very briefly what happened was that the Romans under Constantine in 330 ad or thereabouts decided to move their capital to this city. The empire switched between being united as one and being divided into east and west over the following years. The Western Empire under Rome lost power and territory and eventually disappeared. The East carried on with the culture diverging from that of the West until it was defeated by the Ottomans eventually losing Istanbul in 1453.
The Ottoman empire had lost all of it's shine by the 20th century and sided with the losers in World War One. Turkish Independence was reinstated in 1923.
Starkly those are the facts. So the Roman Empire which survived for a thousand years more than I knew before. They fought, had intrigues and killed lots of people. Emperors came and went. Laws, governances and culture changed. I had been to Rome and you could feel the Roman Imperial presence from a thousand years before preserved in the monuments, the churches and the ruins. They were the subject of a thousand films. I knew the stories of Caligula, Julius Caesar and Augustus. I searched the guide books to see where the echoes of the Eastern Empire could be felt and they said nothing. I went to Istanbul to look and saw very, very little. Other things did happen though.
Shoe Shine Sir?
You had to admire the way that it was done. We walked round the corner and there walking down the road was a shoe shine man. He was walking along when he dropped a brush. Iain, who was travelling with me, picked it up and tapped him on the shoulder. He instantly understood what had happened (since he had just planned it). He thanked us profusely and asked the time. Unthinkingly I showed him my watch with the time on it. My watch just happens to be a Breitling. So now he has got two Brits one of whom wears an expensive watch.
Surprise, surprise he has now become our best friend ever. In fact, he is so pleased at the fact that he must express his thanks by instantly cleaning our shoes. No matter that we are wearing trainers he starts to clean them and tell us this is in gratitude for his new friends. He explains that he is just off to see his son who has broken his arm. He is so grateful to us. In fact we must join him for a real chat down this alley. He almost drags us there and we follow bemused and not wishing to offend.
He sits us down thanking us and cleans our shoes. There is no charge for this he is just so friendly. He gives Iain a man kiss. It is 3 O'clock - he tells us that the museum we are going to won't be open till 4 O'clock so relax and enjoy the newspaper which he just happens to have in English.
We start to say thanks and edge away. I reach into my pocket for some coins. He suddenly changes and says he needs money. We must give him money. I offer him the 3 lire that I have in change. How can I insult him he needs paper money, he says. I have a lot of paper money in my wallet but that is staying where it is. Iain gives him a 5 lire note. He goes wild “That is not enough. I need 38 lire” (thats nearly 20 pounds sterling)
Together Iain and I stand up, walk away and leave with him ranting. We are worried that something else will happen but that seems to have been the end of it. I guess the floor show was worth the 5 lire he got.
Talking to others afterwards the demand for 38 lire was quite subdued, others reported demands for 100 lire. He couldn't have thought that much of my watch!
The Boat We Hired
We went to catch the ferry up the Bosphorus. However when we got to the area where you buy tickets we couldn't figure how or where to buy tickets. This area was not tourist friendly. People of all nationalities were hurrying in all directions. There were no ticket booths and no signs that we could figure. We stood non-plussed for a second. This is a fatal mistake in Turkey.
A man appeared asking if we wished to go up the Bosphorus. Yes we said. He explained that he just happened to own a boat which we could hire. He asked the time so he could look at my watch. Oh dear – same Breitling. The boat owner was in his mid twenties, clean shaven and looked the kind of man who you could – almost - trust. He said we had missed the ferry so we could either come back another day or we could take his kind offer.
He said that his boat was 15 meters long – a big boat. I knew we had missed the ferry so there was some truth in what he said. I assumed that there would be other ferries but with zero knowledge of from where or to where I was willing to talk. He pulled out a post card and explained how he would be our guide and show us the best places and land so that we could explore the Asian side of the Bosphorus.
He explained that his boat would travel near the land so that we could get a better view than the ferry. I must have gone a bit loopy at this point because it actually seemed like a good idea. So we agreed a fee of 150 lire (about £75) for this trip and off we went to his boat with him. We clambered on to this dilapidated tourist boat, driven it appeared by a man in a dirty white vest. The boat owner joined us. We were indeed the only people on this tour boat and after a slight attempt to sell the trip to some Germans we set off up the Bosphorus, Iain and I on a boat for 30.
It was strange being on such a small craft amongst the giant and very crowded ferries. We were about 15 minutes out when the engine conked out and we were left floundering.This did not feel good. We risked being run down by the giant ships any second. The boat owner went below and the engine burped a couple of times before resuming a comforting put-put rhythm again.
At this point the boat owner was clearly exhausted by his exertions and his guiding activities and curled up and went to sleep on the bench. We sat like lords on the top deck. I was taking pictures like a mad man as we progressed up the water way. The contrast between us in glorious isolation and the packed ferries that passed was nice.
We went as advertised beyond the Bosphorus bridge before turning round and heading back down parallel with the Asian side of the Bosphorus. We then landed so that Iain and I could wander round the Asian side. This posed a tricky negotiating point. We had hired the boat but had not yet paid anything. They knew that we could simply walk away. I knew that if I paid them in full they would simply sail away. The stand off was resolved when I gave them 100 lire which meant they would stay for the remainder of the money. So all was well.
We wandered in to an authentic Turkish cafe and ordered a Donner kebab (there are about 10 different valid spellings) which was jolly nice. The people in the remainder of the cafe thought we were from a different planet and I guess we were.
We wandered back to our boat and it sailed uneventfully back to the mooring and we left. I tried to talk to the boat owner who up to the point we had paid him spoke perfectly good English. Somehow he had lost that ability with the final payment.
There is a bridge that connects the two European sides of the Golden Horn known as the Galata Bridge. It is a double decker with a road and pavement on the top and restaurants below. It seemed a good idea to have a meal on a famous bridge (and the guide book said it was OK) and so we went. The problem is that all of the restaurants look the same and have the same kind of hustlers trying to get you inside. No sooner had we walked onto the bridge than a hustler tried the talk on us. We shook him off and continued down the bridge. As we walked it became apparent that all of the menus were at the same price just some hustlers were better than others.
After the third or fourth restaurant we were persuaded that since all of the prices were the same (because they had a price fixing meeting once a year (according to the hustler)) we might as well just go in to this restaurant. As soon as we walked in and sat down an elaborate show started for our benefit. Bread and water appeared instantly, then a man appeared with a tray full of exotic starters for us to choose from. The waiter explained in detail what each one of these tasty morsels was. We had not really intended to have a starter but under the circumstances saying “no” clearly wasn't a valid option.
We were left for a moment before the waiter appeared with a tray of dead fish arranged elegantly. He talked eloquently about the benefits of the each of the fish, describing them in loving detail and suggesting that maybe we would like our fish cooked in salt. He described the salt cooking in glowing detail and implied that it would be a travesty if in Turkey we did not try it. I said that we would need a couple of seconds to think over the choice.
Now choosing which dead fish to eat whilst looking at a tray full of dead fish is something beyond my comfort zone. I was trying to keep up with the selling pitch. Fortunately we did have a menu and noticed that the prices of the dishes on the menu rose very steeply from the Sea Bream at 12 lire (about £6) on to the salt cooked dish at 120 lire (that's about £60). We opted for the cheaper dish thank goodness. At this point I looked up and some Americans were laughing their socks off at my discomfort with this process.
They had clearly the act had been for laid on previously for them as well. The starter came and it was as described but very oily. It was noticeable that now we had chosen our meal and it turned out to be a cheap one that the service levels dropped like a stone. We had our meal and were left considering is it better when facing a complete fish to eat that the eyes are left in to look at you with a baleful air or they are blinded out? I don't think the answer was decided.
The Americans had trouble with their bill, it seemed to have little relationship to the menu. I called for our bill and it too seemed to have little reference to the menu prices. I asked how the bill came to 72 lire but the waiter now was unable to speak any English. When we added up the bill it actually came to 84 lire (if we included the charge for the bread water and salad plus service charge) . I gave up and paid up.
Everyone that we talked to afterwards knew the restaurants to be rip off joints but at least we survived. We were so bruised by the experience that the next night we ate at Burger King. We got our courage back on the final night however and had a wonderful meal at one of the road side cafes for a most reasonable price.
Where have all the women gone?
All of the shopkeepers, waiters, cleaners, receptionists and most of the people on the street were men. What women there were walking tended to be wizened old crones with head scarves. Where were all of the women?
Coins only seem to exist if you visit the WC. Taxi drivers have never heard of them.
The most famous Cathedral in the City now a museum (ie an unused wharehouse like space) – A large space now devoid of any palpable meaning. If you go to Istanbul though you have to do it to come to the same conclusion. However the Pope prayed here in 1979 and some Islamists then promptly broke in to hold their own prayers. There is a petition on the web to prevent Turkey becoming a member of the EU until they reinstate this as a church. This is madness. For goodness sake lets all live together.
A large space full of spiritual intensity. A must visit. The Basilica Cistern – Ancient underground water storage facility built like a Cathedral– Well worth a visit. The Palaces – You have to do them – but it lacks feeling and is curiously lacking in any wows. It is nice to get away from the constant approaches from the street traders here though. Thats about all of the really must do as the tourist.
This is where we stayed. Stunning views over Marmara sea. Wonderfully located. Small bedrooms and micro bathrooms. Beds rock hard. Clean enough. Bathrooms smelled suspiciously of Turkish plumbing problems. It's a tourist hotel and reasonably priced.
You will get ripped off. They know more than you, you are rich, they are poor and you are fair game. Get over it.