No-one could visit Istanbul and be un-touched by it. It’s so vibrant, huge, alive, exciting and ramshackle at the same time. Although one of the world’s major tourist cities, some things need some working on though. The public transport system – a mixture of underground, trams, service buses, boats and even 2 funicular railways – takes a bit of getting your head round as its not integrated. It may be cheap but even buying tickets is not easy or straightforward.
If you are staying central it’s easy to walk around though; it’s very hilly which is great for walking off all the totally delicious Turkish pastries and sweets you are bound to eat. And if you walk across the Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn you get to watch everyone fishing for their tea.
It’s full of amazing architecture – streets where each building can be totally different to the next. In Paris or London many streets look the same, not so here. Virtually derelict buildings can sit next to swanky apartment blocks. Sadly, some fabulous places have been left to deteriorate and many streets are very run down. Wooden houses are protected and can’t be demolished.
People …. and animals
It’s not all about buildings. The people in this city are seriously vibrant. Stylish, glamorous and up for a party. We were told that Turks work hard and party hard too. It’s reputed there are 5000 bars in the central Beyoglu. Everyone smokes. (We asked someone if they know any non-smokers. They pondered for a while. One person, they thought) to the extent that Peg didn’t want to even sit outside cafes due to the smoke which made her feel really ill (nothing worse than a reformed Fag-ash Lil). Istiklal – the Oxford Street of Turkey – is about a mile and a half long with its own ‘Historic Tram’ or the ‘Hysterical’ Tram as we call it! . Istiklal is totally rammed day and night, shops open till nearly midnight.At night the musicians come out and sit on the street and the singing and dancing starts. As one person put it, even the drunks in Istanbul are good humoured and happy!!
Despite the number of Muslims in Turkey (about 98% of the population), there’s no shortage of alcohol. We also felt a real tolerance towards gay male couples; Istanbul even has its own male ‘lady-boy’ street where people sit in windows to attract trade. There are cats & dogs everywhere. As we were told every block of flats or shop has its own cat, every street it’s own dog! The dogs in Turkey tend to be big ones. One Istanbul-ian we met has a black Labrador.
He just puts the dog out when he goes to work. All the local shops know the dog so when he wants to go home, often shopkeepers will ring the flat bell so he can be let in! Only in Istanbul!
Great places to visit
There’s so much to do that a week gets filled up very quickly. Essential are the Blue Mosque (free, huge and amazing but not as blue as we expected) and Aya Sophia. There are lots of museums and loads of shopping, not least in the Grand Bazaar, a fabulously ornate, sumptuous building and the largest covered bazaar in the world. And the location of a fab bike chase in Skyfall.
If you are after something specific to buy Istanbul couldn’t be easier. Whole streets tend to be given over to a type of shop. Our street was named ‘music shop’ street by our host. Another street had just hardware shops – there’s even one which has all the mannequin shops on!! A trip to the Sunday street flee market showed us a whole different side of Istanbul – sadly one where we could see the difficulties faced by many people who live here.
Our favourite though were the trips by boat. We went up the Bosphorus (only £3.30 for a 2.5 hour cruise): a total bargain. It’s only when you take the boat that you can get real sense of the sheer size of the city which stretches in all directions as far as the eye can see.
A full day was spent going to the Princes Islands which are about an hour or so by boat and where the rich have holiday homes. On the biggest of the islands, Buyukada, cars are banned and you can hire bikes or a horse drawn carriage; cars are banned. Pat could not resist cycling a lap of the island, which took about an hour of enjoyable ups and downs in the hot sun. Peg thought it was like she imagines the Caribbean, with pale coloured mansions on tree lined streets overlooking the sea. Really lovely. There’s only one beach – no-one was on it when we went. Maybe the fact that you not only had to pay to go on it but also to put on a swimming costume had something to do with it!!
Of course no visit to Istanbul is complete without seeing some Whirling Dervishes. Quite amazing.