Three mornings ago we arrived in Istanbul, a city still shocked by the events at Ataturk Airport last week that killed 44 and left 200 injured. This was the eighth major terrorist attack in Turkey this year, and frankly, it’s left any normal Turk shaking his head. The tourists are staying away in their thousands. Our flight from Singapore to Istanbul was so heavily booked we couldn’t get two seats together a month ago; but on Friday night, the plane was so empty most passengers, including Maggie, could bed down across three seats.
The square outside Aya Sofya is deserted; you can fire a cannon down there and not hit anyone, except for the six policemen and two military officers, all of whom are heavily armed. The trams, which three years ago were so full you could barely squeeze inside, now have ample seats available, and the restaurants and cafes are really doing it tough.
But that aside, it’s great to be back in a city we love. A city of mosques, minaurets and moggies*. We shook the travel dust out of our hair with a trip to a local Haman. The Turkish bath has become a bit of a “thing” with modernised up-scale facilities charging from 100-200 euros for a treatment. But we went to a little family run Haman, built in 1777 and I suspect, little changed from then. It’s amazing to think that the huge slab of heated marble on which we disported our white flabby selves had been there, and had probably been at that same temperature, for close to two and a half centuries. The gentleman who was scrubbing at me with what felt like a brillo pad stopped for a moment and poked at the flabby bit south of my navel, “Shish Kebab, Shish Kebab”, he murmured disapprovingly. I tried to explain it was more of a carb based problem, but it got lost in translation. Meanwhile, next door, a very large woman had stripped down to her bikini bottoms and was giving Maggie a good scrub. Maggie said that she found the proximity of the woman’s “pendulous breasts” very sensuous and comforting. That must be a girl thing.
We have walked and walked; revisiting the atmospheric (and underground) Basilica Cistern commissioned by Emperor Justinian and built in 536 without having to queue. And likewise the Aya Sofia, also built by Justinian and generally over-run by tourists, was a pleasant place to visit. Yesterday we took a ferry to the Princes Islands about 2 hours away in the Maramara Sea and on Buyukada, walked amongst the gingerbread villas that line the slopes of the hillside. One feature of the islands is that all motor driven vehicles are banned, but you do need to be wary of the approaching fayton (horse and buggy) that rocket past at breakneck speed. A by-product of this horse-powered society is that you do need to be extra-careful where you walk.
One of the side-effects of all this walking is that one can stop at Efezade, who have been selling delightful baklava and Turkish delights since 1936, for a little treat.
Today we walked again, taking the tram and then the metro to Topkapi, where we traced the outer wall of Constantinople down to the Golden Horn. Along the way we stopped at Kariye Museum and mosque, formerly the Chora Church and monastery which has some of the finest examples of Byzantine mosaics in existence. The weather today has been sensational and in places we stopped to climb the wall, which is totally without any form of OH&S protection.
We ended the day with a visit to the Dolmabahce Palace on the Asian side of Istanbul. This is a very popular attraction and frequently it exceeds its number of visitors and closes early. But today we thought we’d be lucky. But after we’d been processed through security the ticket office seemed deserted. We found a helpful policeman who explained,
“Palace is closed on Mondays for cleaning. And Thursdays. Is closed on Thursdays for cleaning too. Closed tomorrow for special ceremony”. He smiles and shrugs. “Maybe you come back Wednesday.” Another shrug. “Or Friday”.
We have been welcomed back by the people at Esans, the small 8 room hotel where we stay. Engin, on the front desk has been married and had a child since our last visit. In our favourite restaurant Babylonia, our favourite young waiter Omar, is growing up too. He’s now 22 years old, number 10 of 11 children and he’s from Mesopotamia. We joke with him about how there must be no TV in Mesopotamia. “Your poor mother”, exclaims Maggie. Omar just smiles.
Tonight we had hoped to see a performance by the Whirling Dervishes. “Bad news”, Egin tells us. After the airport bombings last week the Dervishes are just too sad to whirl. Oh well, that makes at least three things we must do when next we return. And return we will.
*There seems to be a kitten explosion in Istanbul. We ask the woman who runs the Speedy Laundry near the hotel why she has three, week-old kittens. She tells us that to give the tom cat the snip costs $100. But how much do all these gorgeous yet unwanted kittys cost?
**Last time we were in Turkey, Abbott savaged one Krudd at the general election. We voted before we left but sheesh, it’s a dog’s breakfast. It makes me want to move to somewhere where there’s a stable democracy. Like New Zealand. What? Oh yeah, that’s right, we tried that…
Next stop, Bucharest.