Go cold Turkey

Published in The Daily Mail (January 1st, 2014)

As arrived at our flat in the heart of Istanbul, big fat flakes of snow fell around us. The medieval landmark of the Galata Tower looked magical, looming through swirling white clouds. An elderly man dragged a wooden cart up the steep street. He shouted for customers seeking a slug of salep, the sweet Turkish drink originally made from ground orchid roots.

Opening the front door to the block of flats, a black cat slunk in from the freezing cold. It turned out to be a lucky sign for a lovely short break in the historic city that straddles two continents. Any notion we had stepped back in time was quickly dashed as I set out with my wife and son to explore this astonishing place.

Istanbul may date back nearly 3,000 years, and have been at the centre of four powerful empires, but it has metamorphosed in recent decades into a vibrant, modern metropolis. Thirty years ago the city was home to three million people, a stagnating backwater with martial law, midnight curfews and power shortages. Today it has about 14 million residents, many of them young, and its spruced-up streets are crammed with cafes, clubs and smart shops.

This is the biggest city in a booming nation, where per capita income has tripled in a decade. But there are also underlying tensions between traditionalists and modernists, seen in riots that erupted against the Islamist-leaning prime minister Recep Erdogan last summer. Certainly the juxtaposition of ancient architectural riches with Turkey’s new wealth makes for a fascinating visit.

We opted to rent a smart flat in Beyoglu, a hip area on the European side of the city, where artists and musicians hang out. On our first morning we found tiny Cafe Privato and ordered koy kahvaltısı (or village breakfast). So many plates of bread, cheese, eggs, home-made jams, pancakes and pastries arrived, they overflowed onto the next table.

We then drifted down Istiklal Caddesi, the 1.4 km avenue that throbs with shoppers until late at night, when clubbers take over. We came to Taksim Square, where a few months ago police pepper-sprayed protesters; it looked dreary. One evening, there was a small noisy protest ringed by riot police, many of them female, but this failed to put off the pulsating crowds thronging chain stores.

Far more enjoyable than big-store shopping is to trundle along in a traditional red tram, or meander through the maze of side streets with their rooftop hookah bars and bakeries filled with tempting stacks of baklava.

The second day we wandered to the waterfront. On the top tier of the Galata Bridge over to the old town, fishing rods rose and fell as hundreds of anglers in thick coats ignored the cold. Below them, diners ate freshly grilled mackerel sandwiches as fish were hauled from the water in front of them.

On the other side, the Spice Market was a blaze of colour and commerce under its glorious arched roof. As traders weighed spices on big antique brass scales, it was hard to believe much had changed over the bazaar’s 350-year-old history. ‘Come and drop your money with me,’ said one gentle hustler with a smile, offering cubes of pistachio-filled Turkish Delight.

Yet there was minimal hassle anywhere. Far more typical was the man who saw me queueing for a halftime drink at the Kasımpasa versus Besiktas football match we attended, and insisted on fetching my salep.

The game gave a glimpse of the divisions under Istanbul’s friendly surface. It was played in Kasımpasa’s stadium – named after Prime Minister Erdogan, himself a former footballer – against a rival Istanbul team whose fans were prominent in the anti-government protests.

The noise from the stands was thunderous. At one stage, a fan ran onto the pitch and tried to attack a Besiktas midfielder; he was stopped, kicked and thumped by two players, who both received red cards. The game ended 2-1 to the home team.

When we saw the historic Blue Mosque, it looked dramatic draped as it was in snow. But the famous blue-tiled interior was slightly spoiled by low-hanging lighting rigs and dangling cables.

More awesome was the adjacent 6th century Hagia Sophia, one of the greatest churches in Christendom from 537 to 1453, then a mighty mosque until 1931. Today it is a museum and a monument to tolerance, with its intriguing mix of Christian paintings and Islamic calligraphy.

There have been calls from local politicians to reinstate this masterpiece as a mosque. This would be one more breach of the secular state established by Turkey’s founding president Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – the sort of thing that worries many of the city’s young.

We toured the Topkapı Palace, with its jawdropping displays of medieval bling and a harem that once held 300 slave girls. We also visited some of the world-class galleries, including SALT, a new art space in a former Imperial Ottoman Bank headquarters. It was weirdly enjoyable to walk in the old underground vaults, while the exquisite marble-clad interior was a reminder there is nothing new about bankers making unseemly profits.

The rapid and controversial transformation of Istanbul is best symbolised by the recently-opened Marmaray rail link, which finally fulfils the dream of Abdul Mejid, a 19th-century sultan who sought a subterranean link beneath the Bosphorus. Yet it is still fun to join the crowds on the clanking ferries that cross the few hundred yards between Asia and Europe.

As we chugged back on our final day, sipping sweet tea to keep warm, a school of dolphins arced through the waves while the winter sun slipped behind the city’s multitude of minarets.

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