It is at once an exotic place, a border country between Asia and Europe which has this veneer of Euro sophistication, spotty in places, but reassuringly there. Istanbul’s airport is actually quite a welcoming place. A fairly modern arrival terminal that has pretty much all the stuff that Boston’s terminal E seems to lack (shops, restaurants, Starbucks – anything that would make your journey more pleasant). The only hold up is the visa processing, which is done ahead of time yet still tacks on a couple of minutes to each passenger’s stamp of approval. I avoided the long lines by grabbing a fast track pass. Even though they should not have given it to me, the British Airways’ staff seemed quite accommodating, dishing them out like nobody’s business. Thank goodness, otherwise the line would’ve been a bit of a nightmare.
The drive from the airport into the center of town takes around 30 minutes, depending on traffic. And traffic indeed, is the first thing that awaits you in this mega-city of around 14 million people. It is the usual mess of airport sprawl that greets the traveler until at some point you have this sense of the city; the Bosphorus in the background, the great Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, and suddenly you’re in. One of my great wishes transferring from airports into town is to somehow whisk past all the ugliness and surface in the city itself. I guess I’d call that the London Underground and the Piccadilly line – where are they when you want them?
This place is so steeped in history and diversions you can feel it oozing from the buildings around you. This is after all Constantine’s capital, the first move towards Christendom and the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire. This was the center of the power of the Ottomans that stretched into the 20th Century. This is modern day Turkey, profoundly changed by its prophet Atatürk, and to this day a secular political institution with deep Islamic roots. Imagine this, it is bordered by Syria, Iraq, Iran, Bulgaria, Georgia, and Armenia. It practically touches the Greek Islands of Kos and Rhodes. It is economically more prosperous than many European countries, and is a key ally to the US. Its economy is booming and we need it to boom, we need it to prosper. It makes our world a safer place. My favorite hotels to stay at would be the Four Seasons Hotel, formerly the infamous Sultanahmet Prison; the Ciragan Palace Hotel Kempinski on the Bosphorus with an incredible infinity swimming pool that gives you the impression, God forbid, that you are actually swimming in the Bosphorus itself!
Istanbul for a 3-day getaway is absolutely perfect. It’s two time zones away from London. It has great restaurants, a fantastic nightlife, amazing stuff to see and buy and it’s kind of edgy. It’s a good time to go, to see a side of Islam that is not often portrayed. Good for the spirit, good for the soul and good for a better worldview of stuff. And incidentally, the Syrian border is nearly a thousand kilometers away!
We ended up at a hotel in Taksim Square. Being here is simply to take advantage of less expensive hotels and essentially it’s a jumping off point. There is a main street with lots of shops, bland restaurants and a San Francisco-type tram that goes up and down the hill. Taksim Square could be called “tacky” square, so it was fitting that our hotel was called, of all things, The Titanic (http://www.titanic.com.tr/). Maybe they hadn’t read the book, maybe they had seen another film altogether? We hoped our stay would be disaster-free! Check into the room and out on the streets, there is stuff to do in this city and I haven’t been here for a while.
I had not been for several years and so I immersed myself in re-sightseeing, refreshing or simply being in denial about my forgetfulness. The Hagia Sophia was closed the day we were there, so we took in the Blue Mosque, we went down to the cisterns and saw the Medusa, we spent some time at Topkapi Palace, which has beautiful views across the water and rummaged around the spice market and the Grand Bazaar. The city is tightly woven like a fine cloth, nothing is too far away from each other, and everything really, is on the other side of the Galata Bridge. The smells from the spice market waft through the air, mingling with the call to prayer. The guys selling tea on portable stands pop up like Starbucks and the Turkish ice cream guys play with the ice cream as if it were molten metal, drawing the tourists in – me included. Incidentally if you are crazy enough to want to go to a soccer game, the stadiums are in the center of town and Turkish fans make English fans look docile.