My brother David arrived in Istanbul on the afternoon of December 29 and left the morning of January 1. Two full days and a bit, all the way from Boston to Turkey and back, just to see his big brother before he gets any further away. How lucky am I to have the brother and sister that I do?
We arrived roughly the same time from Boston and Cappadocia respectively. The hotel sent a driver to pick us up, and the ride into town was the first indication as to the nature of our Istanbul adventure. All was fine as we drove along the water toward the skyline in the distance, when suddenly traffic just stopped. “First 15 kilometers, 20 minutes,” the driver said. “Last three kilometers, one hour. Maybe more.”
Several times he darted off to the right into a double-ended parking lot to try and pick up ground. The first time we went through the Istanbul Fish Market, which was fascinating to see, but the market traffic was almost as bad and we cost ourselves time. On another occasion he bolted into a strip mall, floored it to the other end and forced his way back in line on the main road, having gained five car lengths. As we cracked up in the back seat the driver looked at us in the rear view and shrugged. “It’s the Turkish way,” he said.
Finally he pulled a U-turn and headed into some side streets, ever upward, ever narrower, 90-degree turns at max speed. It was great! He dropped us off at the end of a cobblestoned lane that had a red carpet running down the
middle. We walked past half a dozen restaurants with their pitchmen out front and up an alley to the entrance of the Ambassador Hotel, which turned out to be an exceptional place to stay: well located, intimate with only 20 rooms, and a great view of the big mosques from the breakfast patio on the top floor. We checked in, grabbed some dinner at the Kabob House, and crashed.
A tour the next day began at the site of the old hippodrome, where there is an obelisk that was made in Egypt around 1500 B.C.; it was brought to Istanbul in the fourth century and had to be cut by a third because no ship was big enough to transport it. We visited the Blue Mosque, which has six minarets and 21,000 blue tiles on the interior, and holds 4500 people for prayer. “Imams used to climb the minarets to call people to prayer, but now they used PA systems,” the guide said, in case anyone in Istanbul wasn’t aware of that. “Imams used to be fit. Not anymore.”
Istanbul’s most famous and visible landmark is the Hagia Sophia, which started out as an Orthodox church, became a mosque and is now a museum. Originally built in 360 it was plundered and then rebuilt in 415.
Destroyed once more it was built yet again by Byzantine emperor Justinian starting in 532, but with much more majestic dimensions.
We got a demonstration of how Turkish carpets are made from a wholesaler who must have a kickback deal with the tour company, had lunch, saw another mosque and headed for Topkapi Palace, which I had been looking forward to ever since seeing the movie Topkapi in 1964, the instigator of my love for heist films. The crowds there were enormous, as they had been all day. “Christmas crowds,” our guide told me. “Worse than summer.” There was a security checkpoint heading into the palace. I put my man-purse on the conveyor, walked through the machine, handed my ticket to someone, went through the turnstile and took off with my group, forgetting the bag.
Ten minutes later I realized I didn’t have it. There was nothing of value in it except my passport, wallet and credit cards, and two cameras. David and I ran back and we found it in a security booth; my passport, I remembered, was actually in the safe in my hotel room, and everything else was just as I left it. Stupid and lucky … a combination you just have to gratefully accept from time to time.
That Sunday evening we found an Irish bar (“Specializing in Turkish and Italian Cuisine”) called The Port Shield that shows American football. All season I’d seen only about ten minutes of a college game in a hotel lounge in Prague and was in need of a NFL fix, and David, being a Patriots fan, was interested in several games that could influence the Pats’ playoff situation. We watched a bit of the Giants-Eagles and Bears-Lions games while listening to music that was no more Irish than the food; my brother, the most musically hip member of our family, identified a band called the Sneaker Pimps, who were followed by some weak lounge tunes and then by a 1930s French ballad sung by Edith Piaf’s tone-deaf sister. “It sure isn’t Danny Boy,” David said.
We hopped in a cab and headed across a bridge to another part of town to meet up with Douglas Cajas, who I had met in Cappadocia. We walked from his hotel down a long pedestrian boulevard that reminded me of Vienna;
upscale shops and restaurants, stylish young people. We zeroed in on a well-known Istanbul club and restaurant called 360 because of its panoramic view of the city, hung out for a while with the beautiful people and had a bite to eat. David and I ended up back at the Irish place having one last beer and watching a bit more football.
The next day we did some shopping, including a visit to Istanbul’s famous Grand Bazaar, a covered labyrinth of 4,500 shops. We were advised not to buy anything of substance there, like jewelry or carpets (“tourist prices”) but we were just t-shirt shopping anyway. I struck up a conversation with a carpet merchant named Mehmet Sert, who invited us in for tea. A really nice man, and he knew America as well as we did.
Jacksonville? “Beautiful city. I have many clients there in the Navy.”
Princeton? “One of my favorite places in the U.S.”
Boston? “I have many friends there, I can tell you all the best Turkish restaurants in Boston.” He is headed to America in February and it wouldn’t surprise me if he and David ended up having dinner in one of those restaurants.
That night was New Year’s Eve. I booked a cruise on the Bosporus, having been assured of a great dinner and fireworks coming from both the European and Asian sides of the river. It was extremely cheesy with an irritating band, a bad belly dancer, worse champagne and virtually non-existent fireworks, but we were at a good table with a Pakistani family of five from Calgary and two lovely women from Morocco, so David, Douglas and I had fun. And it was a fairly invigorating stroke of midnight on the upper deck with the city’s festivities going on all around us.
After David left for the States the next morning I saw a few other Istanbul attractions, including the Basilica Cistern, a huge underground storage area for the city’s water supply, built in 532 by the Romans and supported by 336 marble columns. But the highlight of my remaining time there was the Hodja Pasha dance show on my final night (“Trip Advisor’s #1 Night Out in Istanbul!” according to the brochure).
Dancing has always been an integral part of culture in this part of the world, whether it was used to distract people from pending invasions or celebrate a good hunt. During the Byzantine rule, religious oppression and totalitarianism forced dancing into secluded places around the harbors and in underground taverns, environments that must have been like the Prohibition speakeasies of 1920s America.
One of the underground dancers of that period was named Theodora. She was the daughter of a circus guard, but she became the mistress of the emperor Justinian and was so sexy and ambitious that Justinian eventually married her and made her empress. She became the most influential and powerful woman in Byzantine history. I have a major crush on Theodora.
The show was terrific. It was in a circular theater with stone walls that reminded me of my cave hotel in Cappadocia, with maybe 200 seats on the outside of the circle. There was a 7-piece band and even though the instruments they played (except the bass) were unfamiliar, you could tell they were excellent musicians. They had an occasional number on their own during costume changes, and the music was wild and wonderful.
And the dancers were outstanding, especially the women. They were elegant and graceful and fit, and the dances were unusual and energetic. There was only one belly dance, and it was breathtaking, nothing like New Year’s Eve. This woman was so seductive and athletic, and every twitch of every muscle was in sync with the percussionist. And later she did a dance under a black light with different colored scarves that was hypnotic. It was a great show. Here’s a promotional clip, but people have posted other clips on YouTube if you are interested.
On the way home I stopped by the Port Shield for one last beer and to say goodbye to Bulent, our favorite bartender. Walking back to the hotel through the midnight mist I realized how at home I suddenly felt here. The narrow, winding, cobblestone streets … the restaurant hawkers … the diners sitting outside no matter what the temperature, smoking and arguing … the exotic music and the variety of smells coming from the kitchens … all of it was so intoxicating, and so familiar after just five days. Before tonight I would have said that Istanbul was special because of the time I got to spend with my brother but that it wouldn’t go on the list of places to return to one day. But now I’m not so sure.
Music Corner. One of the things I enjoy most about exploring music on YouTube is discovering combinations of artists you would never expect. James Taylor and the Dixie Chicks? Not a pairing that would necessarily come to mind, but here they are, doing a version of Sweet Baby James that makes you think maybe it was a country song all along.
Here are few more shots of Istanbul.