Sunday, February 28, 2016


The flight couldn't have been more mellow. Lovely staff, warm patient passengers. If the people in Istanbul are half as friendly as the Turks on this flight we're in for a treat. Listening to the announcements and reading them simultaneously confirms just how challenging Turkish is. The pronunciation is a mystery to me. The accent is so hard on the first syllable and the rest of the word is kind of swallowed up In a rush.

Miraculously we all slept. The eight-hour flight making for a more sensible dose than a Heathrow leg. A quick movie and suddenly the sea and land come into view. We swoop down over the Sea of Marmara, the tarmac of the Istanbul airport running right up to the water's edge. The sun was bright and warm. It's milder here than expected. I suppose it's an El Nino year everywhere. A quick shuttle ride and we wander into the hotel lobby to find a host of Hell's Angels occupying all the sofas in their matchy-matchy leather vests. Not a motorcycle in sight. They greet each other — shaking hands in a very manly way and then daintily pecking each others’ cheeks. The non-Hell's Angels are gamblers at a backgammon tournament with a hundred or more tables set up in an expansive, fluorescent-lit conference room. Little groups loiter in the lobby, taking a break from the rounds and catching a little grub before heading back in.

We jump on the metro and then the tram into downtown. The kids laugh at my attempts to guess the way the announcements will sound as I read out the metro stops. Every street corner seems to have a mosque. They grow in size as we get closer to the old town, signalled by the crumbling city ramparts that tower over the road. Most of the mosques have a long wire running down the outside of the minaret – whether to hook up a lightning rod or the loudspeakers I don’t know. They're are beautiful. Their round minarets so much gentler than our steeples. Little graveyards are tucked behind tiny walls. The tombstones look like they’re topped with soft ice cream or turbans.

Alice had asked me on the plane what Turks looked like and I wasn't sure how to answer. The city provided all the answer I needed. There's no doubt about Istanbul's location on the threshold of Asia. The men are mostly squat, low hairline, heavy brow, high cheekbones and a good strong nose. The young are in acid-washed jeans and black jackets and running shoes, hair shorn on the sides and longish on top. The older men are in slacks, leather jackets and black loafers. Less than half the women are veiled. They're gorgeous. Same lovely features – open faces, wide, dark eyes, upper lids heavy with black eyeliner, hair glossy and black as night often streaked in blonde gone brassy and orange because the blonde can't compete with a black is so perfectly black. There are hardly any tourists. I suppose the bombs and threats of more, have scared everyone off. We wander through the market — a riot of colour and crowds. Silks and shoes, metal ware and trinkets, baklava, turkish delight, nuts and spices. The wares seem to tumble out into the narrow passages. The sell is firm but not nearly as aggressive as the Moroccan markets. A date inscribed on one of the market gates reads 1461.

Our bags are scanned as we enter the market. We stop in a arched doorway for a quick nip of tea. Served up in a dainty, thimble-shaped glass edged in pink and gold on a tiny saucer. As we are served, the tea man's colleague loads a few coffees and teas onto a tray — a lovely silver disk with three narrow arms that connect above it in an eye. He loops a finger through the eye and rushes off into the crowds with his orders, the tray swinging from side to side but never spilling. Before our tea is done, he returns, reaching up to hang it on a hook above the doorway. Our eyes are led up to the ceiling of the market which stretches far away into the distance in a series of ornately tiled domes.

We wander around past steaming red handcarts with striped red & white awnings. Men in white labcoats scoop from fragrant, little pyramids of roasted chestnuts into brown paper bags. We stop for a cup of fresh-squeezed orange and pomegranate juice, toward the Blue Mosque. The size is astounding. It's closed for the day but we stand and gape moving onto the pedestrian boulevard leading to the equally impressive Hagia Sophia. Big, wild dogs with tagged ears nip and snarl at passing police cars. The security presence is impressive.

We’re heading for the Strait. We snake down through the maze of streets, watching merchants close up their shops in the waning light. The streets are strewn with plastic wrappers and garbage bags that have been ripped open by the feral cats. We follow the smell of the water and the cries of the gulls down to the Strait. Glimpses down the side streets reveal a wide expanse of water. Crazy to think that the other side is Asia. A shoeshine man drops a brush as we walk past and Henri retrieves it for him. The man has a quick look at Wil’s shoes and offers a "present" to thank Henri for the good deed. Wil doesn’t have time to answer before the man has his foot up on a box and is brushing away. He does a great job but the “present” soon turns into a plea. We’ll know the "dropped brush" ploy the next time we see it.

We make it to the shore, long lit boats bob alongside the quay. Men stand over big charcoal grills in the middle of the ship’s deck flipping sides of fish into big buns with lettuce and onion. The sandwiches are passed up to the shore to feed the long lineup. The rest of the clientele is huddled on colourful little plastic stools around a table big enough for a couple of tea glasses and a salt shaker.

We sample a sandwich, sadly almost tasteless but for the smoky fish. We stroll along the square and stop at a little restaurant for some supper. Minutes later our table is covered — a shallow plate of garlicky yogourt, one of minced tomato and spices, a bowl of flat bread and big plates of flavoured rice, pickled red cabbage, grilled tomato halves, topped with a selection of grilled kebab, kofta and little chicken wings. It's juicy and delicious but way too much food. As we sit we watch a small group of shouting men pushing a handcart piled high with white plastic bins. I thought they were shouting to clear the way but in seconds flat, the bins are spread out on the pavement and they’re scooping out bags full of cashews, pistachios and beans for an eager crowd of women in colourful headscarves. We take turns going to the back of the building up the six flights of narrow stairs, each floor with just enough room for five tiny tables, to the rooftop to find the bathroom and a spectacular view of illuminated mosques and the boats bobbing along in the inky Bosphorus.


Jenny Wren said...

Your writing is so colourful I feel as if I am there. Love to you all.

Nana said...

Hope you don't run out of energy before it's time to pack up for Naples.