Saturday, 6 August 2011

Istanbul, not Constantinople

The Travel Journal of an Edwardian Lady. Well, obviously not. But you can pretend. I can pretend!

Lesson Number 1, boys and girls: Always get to the airport at least two hours before your flight. Because the automated check-in machines will refuse to let you check in and you will have to queue for an hour to speak to the only human being staffing a help desk in the building. Everything else went very smoothly though and all concerned were very pleasant to deal with in person. Security and duty free were a breeze. Plus we were in the queue just ahead of a family returning home after buying all of Harrods. They had one hundred and one suitcases and as many children. Fortunately, we were dealt with before they took half an hour to process.

Lesson Number 2: Airline food can be good. Remember all that airline food we used to whine about and none of the budget airlines supplies any more? Well, flew BA for the first time in many years and they slapped a whole tray of food down in front of me. Maybe it's just that I was frankly Hank by then, having had no time to eat pre-flight, but I wolfed it all down. Cottage cheese salad with a bun, fresh and still had some taste. Then two beef sausages with a Colcannon rissole type thing and some coloured but tasteless veg. The rissole thing was OK but the sausages were really good. Then a little 'Banoffee Mousse' pudding. Now, I have never eaten a 'Banoffee' anything before because of my disdain for the word 'Banoffee'. It hit the spot though. All served up with two mini bottles of white wine that wasn't vinegar, some spring water and some black coffee.

Lesson Number 3: Don't talk to me. I have been in a better mood and have even been quite animated, what with all the excitement of travel. But the guy next to me on the plane kept trying to chat and even joined in a few conversations between me and my lovely partner, unexpectedly. Then, caught a shuttle to our hotel from Atatürk Airport, shared with a couple of others. American girl behind kept asking us questions and engaging fit to burst. Boundaries, Sweetie! I was bemused that she was heading on to Beirut "Because it's a party city: great clubs!"

Now drinking some barely chilled duty free champagne and thinking about venturing upstairs to investigate the roof pool and bar and restaurant.

Ventured up top. Great! Magnificent panoramic view of the rooftops of Istanbul, sat in the cooling evening breeze and ate shish kebab and Allah knows what else. Delicious. And a fairly good Riesling with it. Those big fuck off mosques look great in the darkness, all lit up.

Back now finishing off the champagne and watching 'Paul' on the laptop. 'Paul' is OK but limps along in comparison with Pegg's previous ventures in motion picture comedy. (Stayed up very late watching it to the end though, which says something.) Insane number of things unaccessible though as I surf because of Netsafe software. Not entirely sure whether that's just the hotel being incredibly stringent or reflective of Turkish state censirship more generally. Possibly the latter, sadly.

Caught comfortably up on sleep and we nearly missed breakfast. Stuffed our greedy faces with Turkish delights from the enormous breakfast buffet. Then we were off out to investigate the city streets! Got our bearings now, pretty much. We seem to be right in the middle of the Old City with all the standard tourist stuff ln our doorstep, which is a relief in this heat :) Can't complain about the heat though. That's why we came all this way.

Tomorrow we shall remember to put on sun screen and wear hats and then we shall stay out, see Hagia Sophia, and take a tour on top of a bus round the whole town. Today, contented ourselves with the (roofed) Grand Bazaar which was like the Great Souk of Marrakech's posher, cleaner, tidier cousin. Not wanting to buy a carpet or a bag of saffron, we then repaired to our lovely hotel. Things are cheap here but not that spectacularly cheap.

Have had a swim and am lying on a sunbed, looking out over the rooftops of the city towards Asia. Hotel wifi works fairly efficiently even on the roof. Audiobook (sequel to Game of Thrones), laptop, and bottle of dry white wine chilling in a big brass ice bucket. Lovely partner munching the peanuts they brought him with the wine. I was given a wine glass full of carrot sticks, sitting in lemon juice. Bizarrely more-ish accompaniment to my icy wine :)

OK, am going to moan. I have no business to do so while I lounge here in this idyll but surely they have another CD they could play. Last night at dinner I heard 'Nights in White Satin' about three times. Lovely partner remarked at breakfast that one soon tires of 'Careless Whisper'. Haven't tired of Sinatra singing 'Strangers in the Night' yet, though.

Even with my earphones in, it's hard to ignore the fact that Tom Jones is singing 'The Green Green Grass of Home' for the umpteenth time. My late mother loved that song and I have heard it many times before, listening with half an ear. Only last night, when lovely partner explained it, did I learn that it's sung by a murderer on Death Row who is dead by the end and buried beneath the green, green grass of home. I shall forever associate it with the cooling breeze blowing off the Bosphorus and the heat haze engulfing the great tankers in the port below.

And here's "Nights in White Satin" again!

Another excellent night's sleep in this marvellously well air conditioned room and we both leapt out of bed early and got ourselves breakfasted and buffed up and out to Hagia Sophia* before the crowds. It was a grand big space and very beautiful but seemed astonishingly empty, after looking at so many great churches and synagogues through the years. Mosques, of course, are spaces for hundreds of people to pray by kneeling and prostrating themselves on the floor, so they are obviously going to be empty. Stands to reason. One handy thing was that, instead of having to take your shoes off and shelve them, then rummage to recover them afterwards, they just give you a plastic bag to carry them around in.

(*Only we didn't go to Hagia Sophia, apparently, we got the wrong mosque! Went to the Sultanahmet or Blue Mosque instead. Which is just next to it. Oh well, can rectify that another day!)

Then we jumped on an open-topped bus and went to Asia! Briefly. Saw the whole town, reprimanded a Russian for invading my personal space, took tons of photos, then got off the bus and had a sundae. Then came home to crash and do sweet Fancy Activity for the rest of the day :) What fun: going to and coming back from Asia without having left Istanbul :)

Now it's nearly 7pm Istanbul time, so we shall head off out into the town in a bit. Want to find a restaurant called Rumeli Café and eat there. It's not far. In what used to be the main street of old Constantinople under the sultans. Just a little curvy street now, so you wouldn't think it to look at it. Tried to post a link to Rumeli restaurant there because it looks quite smart but apparently that too, according to the Netsafe programme this hotel uses, is "p0rnography". In fact, googling any place in Istanbul to eat apart from this hotel's restaurant seems to be "p0rnography". Ha! Wonder why that is?

OK, been to the Rumeli Café. Didn't rate the food that much. Starter (Mixed Börek) was good but nothing else all that special. Shame, because there are a lot of rave reviews on the internet and in the Time Out Guide to Istanbul and that had raised my expectations. In particular, the attentive and humorous staff get a lot of mentions. Maybe they just didn't like us or maybe it was that thing of not knowing what to do with a male couple but we were rather ignored all night. Apparently you can dine on the roof but there was no sign of that on offer tonight. Street life was fun to watch, for me, but lovely partner just had me and the wall behind me to watch. Oh well, will try somewhere else tomorrow. Eating far too much! Should have a quiet night in our room with a packet of crispbreads and some salty cheese :)

Oh well, got caught up in holidaying and forgot to record it here. Still, there are a million photographs. I think what we did the next day, iirc, was tour Hagia Sophia and its glories and then just wander back to the hotel to lie in the sun on the roof and drink wine. Hagia Sophia was great and there's a whole separate photo album just for it. So old (a millennium and a half) and so full of pieces of that past, even with subsequent occupants having tried to extirpate the evidence of the ancien régime.

We had entertained ourselves, waiting for the slow staff in Rumeli Café to attend to us, by watching the street life and part of that was the energy two young men were putting into trying to entice punters into 'Adonin' restaurant, just up the street (Divan Yolu). All to little avail as there were few customers in there all night. Then we looked it up when we got home to the hotel and discovered lots of fans, telling us it was quite a reliable place to eat. Quite high up in Tripadvisor ranks. So we went back there that next night to find it chock full and the service there was much better. The couple next to us smoked all the way through their meal, even during courses, which was a bit off-putting but, all in all, charming service and the food was fair enough. It seems there's a standard menu in all these places, pretty much. Had deep fried mussels for a starter and they were great. Didn't taste much of mussels though...

Next day, we got up early and made for Topkapi Palace, since Time Out Istanbul said it was wise to be there sharp before the crowds build. Never a truer word. We had the place virtually to ourselves when we got there and, by the time we left, it was swamped. But what a great way to spend half a day! Processed through successive courtyards and visited gorgeous collections of things in gorgeous interiors. The buildings in which these are all housed and the gardens in which these buildings sit were exquisite, as you'd expect from a palace that was the hub of a huge empire for hundreds of years.

They had a museum full of sacred relics purchased by various sultans: Moses' staff, Muhammad's sword and tooth and various bits of his and his family's clothing. What a lot of old tosh. Handsomely guarded by handsome guards though. There was a collection of sultanic costume, with harem pants of such proportionate that MC Hammer would have given up. Some of those sultans were obviously very big chaps! There was a gallery of portraits of sultans. None was very impressive but I was struggling to resolve the very idea of a figurative portrait in a Muslim state that forbids such representation. All the art on the walls everywhere else purposely avoids representation of people or even animals for fear of iconography.

Had coffee on the terrace, looking out over the Bosphorus. Glorious! Marred only slightly by surly and ineffective service. Then paid extra to visit the harem. Well worth it! The space was interesting, all the little rooms and tunnels and utilities, mostly covered in brilliant (Iznik) tiles and unexceptional landscape painting. Would have loved to have seen it with the furnishings still there - all the opulent silks and hangings and cushions and jewels... And we only get to tour the ground floor. Would love to get upstairs to see some of the hundreds of other rooms still closed to the public, the personal chambers of the concubines etc. Lovely partner bought a big book about the Harem, so looking forward to reading that and devouring the pictures, misleading as Western artistic impressions apparently are.

Then out that night to the restaurant that was No 1 in the Tripadvisor rankings: Matbah in the Ottoman Palace Hotel at the back of Hagia Sophia. It recreates dishes from historic cookbooks used in the palace and what a joy it was to eat there. Everything was perfect: the space, the music provided by handsome Turkish chap on something like a guitar, the excellent service, the night sounds of Istanbul all around, and most of all the food! I had four hundred year old recipes throughout. Stuffed cold squid to start, something called Nirbaç for the main (lamb stewed with carrots, ginger, cinnamon, coriander, pomegranate juice, garnished with crushed walnuts and served in a pastry shell), and finished with Levzine (a kind of Halva). Washed down with chilled Turkish white wine, a Doluca. All just the very dab. Came home on a big high after that, so went up on the roof for a nightcap before retiring. The barmen are a bit pissed off that we order the local gin and not the expensive 'imported' kind that's twice the price but the local stuff is perfectly pleasant and hardly in Ouzo territory.

So now it's the last couple of days and we have to decide which of the other things we thought we might do we shall actually fit in. We've done the things we had to do and now anything else is a plus. Perhaps the Süleymaniye Mosque, just up the road behind the Grand Bazaar, but that has been closed for repairs for ages and may not have reopened yet. Or the Hamam, also just up the road, that seems to have a good recommendation all round for clueless tourist use. Maybe Durak, a beary gay bar over town somewhere - but that's a later-in-the-day thing to do. Maybe Dolmabahçe Palace, the one to which the sultans migrated in the 19th century, though it's further along the Bosphorus coast and maybe too much of an effort after having been pretty well palaced out yesterday. Has the biggest ballroom and biggest chandelier in the world though. Neither a sight to be sneezed at that!

However, thus far we have enjoyed our first long lie of the holiday. Got up, breakfasted, then returned to the room where I had a bath and then lovely partner fell asleep. Since I appear to have a big sore blister on my right foot, I am quite enjoying not having to go and do anything at the moment. Today may prove to be the one day of the holiday when we achieve absolutely nothing. How glorious would that be!

I gather that it's a hot weekend in London. It was the same when we went to Marrakech on honeymoon. London had its hottest day ever while we were away. I hope our lovely housesitter throws the odd cupful of water over my poor roof terrace plantings.

We went out and had a look at the Süleymaniye Mosque. Addicts' Alley, that leads you there, has lost its charm since the hashish café there stopped its illegal trade. The mosque has a bigger dome than Hagia Sophia but we were in and out in five minutes. Cultural Philistines perhaps or maybe just 'mosqued out', as we were 'templed out' in India or Cambodia in our time. Have now come back to sit in the sun on the roof, listen to 'A Storm of Swords' on audiobook, and potter about online. All the while drinking my favourite Turkish wine: Çankaya.

Will eat at another recommended place tonight and then head off across town to a Turkish 'bear' bar. Phenomenally excited about that which sadly means I am probably going to be horribly disppointed. But then it's Saturday night and wherever we are in the world, we miss Duckie on a Saturday night and try to do something special instead. An friend (impossible polymath and frequent visitor to Istanbul) told us to take a tram and we thought, probably foolishly, that should be easy. However, we have both now managed to purchase a token for a tram and since it's only three tramstops from here, I think we might cope :)

Oh, why can't I just spend my whole life on holiday? I'm so good at it!

We have wandered down to Divan Yolu, near Hagia Sophia, to eat on several nights of our holiday. We have eaten at a succession of restaurants that abut one another on the pavement there, progressively further from the main street. Each has been better than the last and last night we happened into Khorasani which was pretty damn good. As if often the case here, the starter was the best bit: Squid stuffed with mussels. Fantastic! Plus, great loaf of crispy, very thin, puffed up bread. That was marvellous, just on its own. The main was a mixed plate of 'kebap' meats. Tasty and well cooked but I'm tiring of the whole kebab deal. Back to Matbah for a last night meal this evening, to try something else. It has been fun though, sitting on the pavement, cats marauding around us - kitten jumped into lovely partner's lap last night, begging for scraps - and enjoying the street life.

Then jumped on a tram and went to Durak bar in Araksay. It was simultaneously very alien and very sweet. It was reminiscent of bars I'd frequent in my teens as a newly-out baby bender. Both because it was all strange and perhaps a bit unnerving to me, but also because of the hair and the clothes and the Turkish folk music in the background. It threw into sharp contrast the huge plastic saminess of so many gay bars in London. Thank God for Duckie and The Vauxhall Griffin. Odd to be drinking beer all night again. It's less of a fankle than wine, esspecially when the barman comes round and just slaps a fresh beer down in front of you when your glass is nearly empty. And at the end of the night he asks you how many beers you had and thinks of a number to charge you. In our case, we had seven beers and a bowl of peanuts for about £15. Then home to the hotel and our reserve finally broke - we raided the minibar.

Limping about this morning, so shall not be doing much tramping about the city. Will lie up on the roof all morning and then maybe hit the Hamam this afternoon. That's close by. Last day: bittersweet!

Arose and pottered about, packing gently, in our room. Suddenly, a phone call from the front desk to say our driver was there, half an hour early. Threw on our clothes and I went down to check out and pay up, while lovely partner finished packing in a hurry. The driver turned out to have a smart limo for just us, as opposed to the dolmus deal on the way out from the airport, shared with two other lots of travellers. Glad to be going home to home comforts and the familiar but was surprised to feel so blue to be leaving this lovely city. So much beauty, so much history, so much culture, so much mixing of people over thousands of years. Makes it an intriguing place to be. We don't like to go back to places, usually chanting our mantra that there are so many other places we haven't been yet, but I would love to go back and see/do more in Constantinople.

Bumpy flight on the way back, both climbing and descending! First mate at the controls and maybe it was her first time. Glad that, this being a proper grown up BA flight, we got free wine and a tasty meal again. Huge queues for Non-UK Passport Holders but we were whistled straight through Border Control. Home by 6pm and collapsed on our big comfy bed at the old homestead :)

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