I had returned to Istanbul after 36 years and was convinced I would experience a very different city. In July 1975 Turkey invaded Cyprus after ethnic violence had spilled into open civil war, so my family arrived in what was then a Middle-Eastern city little visited by tourists other than scholars and archaeologists.
Agatha Christie may have been a frequent visitor but when I was there I saw few other ‘tourists’ except a few intrepid Australians at the larger mosques and the Topkapi Palace. The Russian fleet was steaming out of the Black Sea in fear of getting trapped should the war escalate, the airport was closed, and few Turks spoke any English, and with no internet or news we were left completely in the dark as to what our fate would be. It was incredibly exciting for me as a teenager and we carried on seeing the sights and enjoying this thrilling and ancient crossroads between East and West since we could not leave the country.
So what had changed? The traffic was still crazy, the muezzins still sang out the call to prayer, and dozens of people still fish from the ‘new’ Galata bridge (they moved the old floating one up the Golden Horn to allow for this passage of water to flush better on each tide) so at first I thought it was so very familiar. The guys in the Grand Bazaar still lure shoppers with lots of smooth chat, glasses of chay (tea) are still carried about the busy streets on silver salvers, honey dripping baklava and Turkish delight still fill the windows of the confectionary stores.
But many other aspects of what used to define the city have changed. Nearly all the men on the street are clean shaven, whereas in the past they sported Freddie Mercury moustaches! Young women sat drinking beer and smoking at the outdoor cafes, although the increase in women wearing the headscarf has caused great concern to the secular and conservative leaders in the government. The modest metro and funicular railway stations are clean and modern with colourful tiled murals; they work efficiently and are cheap. The tram that runs through Beyoglu district and across the Galata and into the old city beats the congestion and runs on time.
There is an unspoken slant towards Europe rather than their Islamic neighbours with shops and malls featuring designer label goods and international names. Billboards advertise mobile phone companies and TV stations. Back in the 1970’s I don’t remember seeing many western shops and most goods were piled high on market stalls.
Street markets are still the lifeblood of the bustling neighbourhoods and are always worth exploring. We spotted one near to the main shopping drag of Istaklal Cadessi (the Oxford Street of Istanbul) and followed the rows of stalls down the back streets. The traders shouted out their deals and held up big bunches of fresh mint and stacked their fruits high in artistic mounds. Oranges and pomegranates, sold in this trading port since before Alexander the Great passed through, continue to dominate, but now stalls laid out with rows and rows of colourful brassieres jostle with hardware stalls laden with plastic buckets.
In no time we were disorientated but didn’t know it and wandered on thinking we were heading to a ferry dock to catch a steamer. We had strayed into a poorer district and soon saw a different type of market, a way of life which had been more prevalent in the past but which still exists, hidden behind the gloss of high street shops. Here people sold dross and tat that would not even find its way into our charity shops arranged haphazardly on plastic sheeting on the ground. Beggars and disabled inhabitants pleaded for change, and I felt our presence was inappropriate - this was no place for tourists ogling at their paucity.
If you want to purposely get lost then Istanbul is the perfect city. Spread over seven hills, packed full of mosques and churches, esoteric museums, Ottoman styled houses and grand palaces, it’s the perfect place to wander and explore. Most of the time it’s possible to know exactly where one is in a general sort of way with so many landmarks and water to help pinpoint your location on the map. The Galata tower can be seen from most places in the city as can the minarets of the great mosques, and the larger glass tower blocks mark the business centre in the Asian part of the Eastern city across the Bosporus bridge (which is fantastically lit in changing colours at night).
However, when you find yourself in a dip between hills out of sight of any recognisable attraction, and when no local is able to help (a rarity - always take their advice, they truly want to help), then hop on any bus – they all go to Taksim Square, the transport hub, and an area where most tourists end up. An old battered green bus came to our rescue and we spent our Sunday afternoon touring round the route of the bus picking up passengers who had been out to the huge cemeteries visiting their departed loved ones. There is a cemetery for every religion - Armenian, Jewish, Catholic, Islamic - so much can be seen from a bus which can’t be experienced on the subway.
I was lucky enough to be staying in the Midtown Hotel in Lamartin Street just off Taksim Square. There are other glitzy hotels in the vicinity but the Midtown is charming, unobtrusive, modern, immaculately clean and very comfortable especially for a city-break. The breakfast is superb with delicious scrambled eggs and freshly baked rolls and bread, a frame of real honeycomb or the choices of exotic jams, and a vast array of traditional cheeses. I have never had to face the decision of which kind of olives to have with my breakfast until I saw their buffet.
There are all sorts of restaurants and places to eat nearby. In fact it’s got every kind of food imaginable. We stay away from fast food and opted for small family-run restaurants where the local Anatolian food was typically fresh and simple. But be warned – if you don’t like aubergines or chillies then choose something safe as these two vegetables are ubiquitous. Fish abounds and can be eaten as a snack lunch down at the fish market next to the Galata Bridge.
Don’t feel pressured by the touts at front of house trying to lure you in, just stay firm and smile and shake your head until you see an eatery that appeals and once you see the menu outside. We thought most prices were very similar, but watch out for the cost of alcohol.Wine and spirits are not cheap, not even the Turkish aniseed brandy called Raki.
As chance would have it the British Airways in-flight magazine had a feature written by this year’s Masterchef winner all about her trip to Istanbul and the fabulous foods and snacks to try, so it was fortuitous that I read it en-route and was able to use the article as a guide when out and about.