As I write this the sky is an almost uniform shade of light grey, the rain is drizzling down and I need the lights on to write properly. It all feels a long time from the blazing sun of Istanbul, just a few weeks ago. That contrast also offers me a bit of melancholy, given changing circumstances in my personal and professional life. I miss people, but have to be clear that they can’t walk down the same road I am on (particularly if they’re no longer here!)
When (and I hope it’s a when and not an ‘if’) you end up in a foreign location on your own, ask yourself what brought you there, and why at that time. Why did it take that long to have the balls to do it? Like I said, it’s not for everyone, but even for those who like a more quiet steady life, there will come a point where you are (even metaphorically) in a different country. If it feels better than what was before, feel good about that, but do not get self-congratulatory. You’re not there yet. But you are on the right path.
But for the love of God, some of you are saying, it was only a bloody holiday! Get a grip man! Yes, of course it was a holiday, and one holiday does not suddenly change everything. But sometimes, the very fact you actually did something that you would have talked yourself out of doing before, and the experiences you had as a result, are life changing. Sometimes in small ways, sometimes in bigger ways, and that is to be celebrated. It’s no coincidence that some of the most bigoted, ill-educated and intolerant people I’ve met are the ones who have rarely ventured beyond their home town. The world seems small now because of media technology making it seem so, but it really is a bigger place than we now think. A new perspective, achieved from a place far from home, is a privilege I would hope for everyone at some point in their lives.
Day Five was a bittersweet one because I felt the time in Istanbul drying up, and realised that this was my last chance to see the things I wanted to, and to do that I’d have to do them on my own. Sam had bid his good byes and headed on his way back to Colorado,yet another new friend who left too soon. A couple of German girls joined the hostel room at this point, although we were quite out of synch. They arrived late on the previous day and went out on the town, staggering in at 4am, by which time I was slumbering away. Although I was, until they woke me up trying to whisper in German. German maybe isn’t a language that lends itself to whispering; I don’t know, I don’t speak German. Anyway, I was up early, so we never really bonded. I’d been doing a lot on my own of course, that was sort of the point, but it felt strangely accentuated on my last full day. After breakfast I headed back to Sultanahmet and the square, taking the usual route across Galata Bridge. I tentatively entered the grounds of The Blue Mosque (more properly known as The Sultan Ahmet Mosque, after the Sultan who commissioned it). As the mosque is still a place of worship, I was on my guard to show a bit more reverence than I might have done in Hagia Sophia a few days previously, in regard to clothes worn and general demeanour. As it happened that wasn’t too much of a consideration as I never even got into the main interior of the building as the queues were so horrendous. I saw the vast courtyard and then my next breathtaking sight was the kind of queue that made me wonder if they were giving away free money. Some Turkish tour guide offered to get me inside and bypass the queues. It quickly became clear that his ‘favour’ would cost me. Thinking that 40 Turkish Lira to go in and see God was a bit pricey, and that I could probably do it in my own time for free (admittedly without breathtaking Byzantine architecture), I decided to go and do something else.
After getting something to eat near the Topkapi Palace walls (if I can remember the name of the restaurant I’ll let you know, as it was great, but the delicious spinach wrap I had is above in all its out of focus glory), I then went to the Mosaic Museum (not too easy to find, as it’s hidden amongst a bazaar not far from Sultanahmet Square). The restoration and removal of the mosaics was a fascinating story in itself, and they are very well preserved, dating as they are from the time of the Holy Roman Empire. This was another attraction for which you could use the Museum Pass I mentioned in a previous entry. It’s well worth it, as you’ll save bushels of money if you’re planning to go round all the more cultural sights, although some attractions are not included in the deal, so best to check first.
Walking down into the Bazaar Quarter, where the streets get busier and narrower, I paused to check out a Boat Trip offer outside a doorway. I was planning on picking up a boat at the quayside, but some whippersnapper of a lad decided to take me down to the docks. Actually, let me re-phrase that, incase anybody gets the wrong idea! The boy in question was hired by the boat firm to lead customers to the pickup point, where a mini-bus took the group to the boat trip. The boy was very chatty and friendly actually, and even had the gall to criticise my English. He spoke in an American accent when he spoke English, as he found that the easiest accent to adopt. He felt English people don’t pronounce their words correctly. The irony and the cheek! The price was reasonable, although this was purely a sightseeing trip, so there was no informative tour guide.
I recognised the river views from a similar boat trip in From Russia with Love, so was pleased as punch to be once again following in 007’s footsteps. It was great to see Dolmabache Palace from the river, as we chugged further away from Sultanahmet and the Golden Horn where you could see the distinctive centuries old skyline of Hagia Sophia and The Blue Mosque. The modern suspension bridge is also quite a sight, particularly when the boat went underneath it. Although the weather got a bit windier than usual, and the river was not her usual calm self, the boat trip was well worth doing. The Bospheros is a very wide waterway and at its deepest is around 360 feet deep. It’s actually a strait rather than a river, as I’ve been calling it, and connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara. The Golden Horn is the primary inlet of the Bospheros , and a natural harbour. It’s horn shaped, hence the name, but the ‘golden’ part of its name remains obscure. Some historians think it’s because of all the gold dumped into the waters (accidentally I’d presume) during the glory days of Constantinople. As the sun set, as myth says, the waters shone gold. All I’ll say is that you’d need to fill the waters with a lot of gold, and let’s be honest; it’d be a bit of a waste!
But, whatever the stories and their origins, the boat trip was really good. Even the screaming brat of a kid sat next to me didn’t ruin the experience. That little shit was moaning because the boat trip was taking too long and he couldn’t have another lolly. His mother, evidently tired of his shit, decided to cancel all further negotiation with a huge smack to the kids head. The slap was so heavy, that for a split second I thought the kid was about to go overboard. I almost felt sorry for the little brat, but it only took a second to decide that he’d got off lightly, and (without getting into controversy over critiquing parenting skills) I decided it had been the best thing: he didn’t utter a word afterwards. Result! Anyway, screaming children aside, I’d go as far as to say that a trip to Istanbul is not complete without a journey up the Bosphorus.
Upon my return to Bologlu district I went for a beer near the tower (the boat returns you to the quayside and I walked back over Galata Bridge). I asked for direction to Pera Palace Hotel, a place I was very keen to see, so after a walk up the main street beyond the hostel, leading up to Taksim Square (which I’d investigated a previous night. It gets very busy, even more so at night with all the bars and restaurants in action). Pera Palace Hotel is a reminder of Istanbul’s more recent past, as it was built to serve the then new Orient Express line to the city, with Istanbul being the last stop on the legendary service. Plenty of luminaries have stayed here over the years, and there is even a room you can visit that was regularly used by Agatha Christie, who wrote some or all of Murder on the Orient Express here. It was built in 1892, but has strong suggestions of the 1920s and 30s, and puts one in mind of that era. It is a shadow of its former glory, but still retains a faded glamour. A gorgeous hotel. I had a coffee and a beer in the chequered floored cocktail bar patio. I won’t tell you what the bill for that came to as it might put you off going!
As I looked up at the gulls wheeling through the now grey sky, and rain threatened to fall through the warm air, I contemplated my upcoming last day in Istanbul. It was going to be hard to say goodbye, and the end was approaching…