You know how sometimes you’ve got this one place, this one city, that you’ve always dreamt of seeing, one fine day.
Timbuktu has a kind of proverbial allure, if you haven’t seen Paris your boyfriend really should stump up – but Istanbul.. Constantinople..Byzantium.. – that’s my Jerusalem. And as it happens, that’s the last place I’ll be writing about before me and Ms M head out again to see if the rest of the world’s still there!
My hotel’s in the old city, where old men wheel barrows full of fresh bread and olives down the narrow every-which-way streets. The houses and shops look like they’ve been built by kids out of scrap and might topple over each other at any minute. They don’t (not today anyway).
Getting lost is easy but luckily there are lots of Turkish waiters eager to point the way – they’re the most helpful of people. You can see they HOPE you’ll order lunch – but even if you don’t they mill sweetly about consulting their iphones and recalling long lost relatives in Sydney.
The Bosporus is a short stroll away, dividing the Occident from the Orient. Today it’s blue and choppy. I think about the darkly delicious Lord Byron swimming across it, possibly in a wet tee-shirt – it looks doable. People actually do swim in it – I see one deeply tanned Turkish gorilla (yum!) hauling himself out. Another guy is feeding fish scraps to cats and kittens. There are lots of strays here.
If Selcuk was noisy, Istanbul is deafening. A train runs past my window on the half hour, and of course there’s the call to prayer – again – howled out this time by not one but ten muezzins with megaphones five time a day from 5 am onwards. So I get up and go and see Topkapi Palace, the lair of the Ottoman Sultans. You wouldn’t believe what they have there. I didn’t. The Walking Stick of Moses! The saucepan of Abraham! The Sword of the Prophet! Next to that, the fingerbone of Saint Cecilia looks piss weak.
Also, jewel-encrusted everything. The Sultan never so much as went to the toilet without his ruby-covered bidet plunger, emerald-armoured toilet-roll holder and gold soap-stick with diamond pile-cutting attachment in hand.
Next, off to the Blue Mosque. Like the Sistine Chapel, but with curly gold Arabic writing all over everything instead of pictures. Inside there’s a Turkish tour guide explaining what a rip-off religion is to his flock. Good to see secularism flourishing!
Then the wondrous Ayia Sofia. This ancient church is so huge, and so lovely, that I want to weep. Outside, the faces of ancient icons, long eyes, arched eyebrows. Byzantine features in living Turks, hurrying about the big square. There’s also a fat little boy dressed as a sultan in gold robes, posing for photos with his black-clad mum. Even MORE ways to exploit children – note to self, for when I get home. Maybe can dress up own kids as gum trees?
In the evening, people are very kind. Someone invites me to a party, and we chat about cats. A waiter leaps out to kidnap me for his restaurant. “Good morning!” he says brightly. “It’s night, though,” I point out. “Is it?” he says, grinning. Another restaurant has a sign on its door. “Sorry, we’re not closed.” Oh, good.
In the Grand Bazaar I sit and drink apple tea and watch the tourists. They look weary and dispirited. They don’t know how to deal with the constant invitations to buy, so they say “No, go away”, and “Get lost!” and get angrier and angrier. I just smile and shake my head – it works, everyone stays happy. In the Spice Bazaar, there are great trays of yellow and red and brown spices, which you can buy by the bag, plus every kind of tea you can imagine – rose, peppermint, cardamom – and all kinds of coffee. I get a yen for a jewelled Turkish teapot – but then I think, nah. You wouldn’t use it, really! I’m still regretting that decision.
I get a Night Tour of Istanbul. This consists of nearly getting blown off the Great Bosphorus Bridge, and then sitting in heavy traffic for a couple hours. Police car sirens wail uselessly – I don’t know why they bother, nobody takes the slightest bit of notice. Let’s hope it wasn’t urgent.
Before my flight I just HAVE to have a Turkish bath. A guy I met on a Bosporus cruise goes in too. He comes out shocked. “They, you know, want to get really intimate!”. In the ladies’ section of the hammam, you lie naked on a succession of marble slabs and get rose-flavoured bubbles poured over you. I’m oiled up and fragrant. By the time it ends, you feel like a treasured odalisque of the hareem, being primped for the sultan. Except that I have a feeling concubines of that era had every body hair pulled out individually with tweezers – so thank god time has moved on!