Sunday, June 6, 2010

By The Bosphorus

A brief account of one's recent trip to Istanbul. This appeared in today's The Indian Express.

"Istanbul traffic very nice!" says the taxi driver to us sardonically, indicating a frozen sea of cars ahead. Being from Mumbai, this leaves us unfazed, but minutes later, it’s another sea that has us entranced. “Marmara,” says the man nonchalantly, and then, “The Golden Horn”. The famous spires come into view behind a blue shimmer. This time, we don’t need him to tell us: “Aya Sofya. The Blue Mosque”.

It’s to the Aya Sofya that we make our way first, trying to live up to Henry James’ advice: be one on whom nothing is lost. For nearly a thousand years this was “the church of holy wisdom” until converted into a mosque by the Ottomans. In 1935, it was deemed a museum. Inside, we gaze up at the large dome, shafts of light filtering in from high windows. The focal point of the apse is the fresco of Virgin and Child, but, as an obvious metaphor of the city’s palimpsestic past, it’s bordered by two large calligraphed roundels: one reads “Allah”; the other, “Mohammed”.

A detour to the Church of the Holy Saviour at Chora yields more marvellous frescoes from the time that Istanbul was Constantinople. In the words of Tim Mackintosh-Smith, it’s like finding oneself in the midst of a “glittering cosmic cocktail party”.

Back to the Blue Mosque, which is minutes from Aya Sofya, past the Hippodrome’s Egyptian obelisk and Serpent Column. Squinting at the skyscraping minarets, we realize that Graham Greene was inexact in describing it as floating “like a cluster of azure soap bubbles”. It’s ethereal and light, yes, but named for the Iznik quartz tiles within.

To escape the sun, we travel underground, into the cool, spooky Basilica Cistern. A sixth century water filtration system for the Topkapi Palace, it contains over 300 red-lit marble pillars, two being supported by ancient heads of Medusa. We avoid looking too directly at these; we have no desire to be converted into stone yet.

Now that we’ve ascertained one of the sources of water to the Topkapi Palace, we make our way there, strolling down cypress-lined gardens that lead to the first courtyard at the entrance to what was, for 400 years, the nerve centre of the Ottomans. First stop: the de facto seat of power, where there was more intrigue than in a library-full of thrillers. This is the royal harem, an arrangement of chambers and rooms now muted save for the hushed whispers and camera clicks of the tourists shuffling through.

Next, we enter Ahmed III's library, built in 1719. Airy and sofa-lined, but sadly, there are no books here; they were moved to the Agalar Mosque years ago. Another stop is to view sacred relics of the Prophet Mohammed as well as those of David, Joseph and Moses.

All this bustling about has made us feel ancient ourselves, and at the Konyali Restaurant, we’re refreshed by a view of the Golden Horn as well as some fragrant apple tea (the aroma of which pervades virtually every alleyway in the city). A restaurant we step into at another time, the Hazzo Pulo, is over 150 years old -- their menu describes baklava as made with “sweat pastry” -- and we find other such establishments, including a traditional Turkish sweetshop from 1717. More contemporary is Sultanahmet’s Pudding CafĂ©, where returning hippies once hawked beat-up Volkswagens, now a humdrum diner.

On the bustling Istiklal Caddesi, however, are any number of tony cafes, restaurants, and high-end stores, in addition to buskers and hawkers of simit, corn and chestnuts. The elegant crowds show no signs of the end-of-empire melancholy that Pamuk is so eloquent about. There are many bookstores too, notably the fascinating Robinson Crusoe where we need a Man Friday to track the titles we want.

Ahead is the 200-foot Galata Tower, a 14th century Genoese lookout with spectacular views across the bay. We shy away, however, from the large crowd packed into the vertiginous viewing area. From its base radiate cobblestoned alleyways: a raffish neighbourhood once known for its brothels – Flaubert visited one in 1850 – is being transformed into a salubrious quarter of cafes and boutiques.

Pavement cafes abound, and bypassing Navizade we enter Sofiya Sokak to patronize one. On offer is meatballs (we counted 12 preparations), seafood, doner kabab and the ubiquitous mezzes. As for dessert, two rules apply: make it sweet and make it sticky. All washed down by the aniseed-flavoured raki, Efes, the local beer, and, on occasion, devilishly thick, sweet coffee. A memorable repast is the grilled sea bass, fried calamari and rocket salad at Poisson, on the riverfront at Ortakoy, accompanied by a view of the baroque mosque and the first bridge across the Bosphorus.

Of that river, Orhan Pamuk has written, “to be travelling through the middle of a city as great, historic and forlorn as Istanbul, and yet to feel the freedom of the open sea -- that is the thrill of a trip along the Bosphorus”. On such a cruise, we spot well-maintained yalis rising above the choppy, blue-black waters, as well as palatial Ottoman mansions, while on the Asian shore, Greater Istanbul rolls away in waves. Sailing between two continents has never been more rousing.

Back on terra firma, we go past the faded Edwardian glory of the Pera Palas hotel, meant originally to house those disembarking from the Orient Express and thus playing host to those such as Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, Greta Garbo, Agatha Christie, Mata Hari; and the shabby-genteel Grand Hotel de Londres, where Hemingway stayed in 1922. (The bar, we’re happy to report, is still functional.)

Once we arrive at the vast Grand Bazaar, we’re accosted by a carpet seller who proclaims, “Let me help you spend your money.” Leaving him disappointed, we saunter under the Ottoman-designed ceilings, past stores of silverware, antiques, clothes, leather, cloth, jewellery and, should the urge overtake you, belly dancing outfits.

The impressive bazaar may not house all that you covet, but the metropolis still has the magnetism to demonstrate why it was thought of as “the city of the world’s desire”. In the words of Lord Byron: “I never beheld a work of nature or art which yielded an impression like the prospect on each side from the Seven Towers to the end of the Great Horn”. You can say that again, George.