Thursday, August 10, 2017

Filling in the Middle of the Map IX

It was still dark when we arrived in Istanbul, and due to the early hour, we were whisked through immigration and customs before I even had time to think of Midnight Express.  Our hotel proved generous in allowing us an early check-in, so we were crawling into bed just as the muezzin began his morning call.  This hotel, the Four Seasons, was well situated, and advertised itself as being a restored palace.  It was only later that I found out that it also been Sağmalcılar Prison, the very place where Billy Hayes had done time.  I’m sure the rooms are a lot nicer now.

We awoke in time for lunch at a sidewalk café, then wandered over to Hagia Sophia.  Despite being the off-season, the place was bustling, and I wondered at how crowded it must have been before the semi-monthly terrorist strikes that plagued 2016.  The place was undergoing major restoration, and I began to grumble about paying full fare.  The nearby Roman Cistern had come highly recommended, but was infested with vermin – hundreds of school kids shrieking and filling the already cramped space with their incessant selfie posing. 

We retreated back up to the Topkapi Museum, number one on my list due to the great old film with Peter Ustimov.  But here too was crowded with older students, pressing themselves through the narrow doorways into rooms already jam-packed. And here too was the scaffolding, with more than half the rooms off limits, including, and most frustratingly, the displays for the Spoonmaker's Diamond and the Topkapi Dagger, which I had most hoped to see.   I cooled my anger with a coffee on the terrace out back, at the crossroads of Europe and Asia.  

But it was the massage at the Aya Sofia Hamam, that finally brought calm.  This beautifully restored Turkish bath was a masterpiece in tile, the ceiling above as designed by Spirograph.   The time, the day, the era, all blended together by the work of strong hands.

I found the freedom I had been seeking at dawn the following day.  Using the classic Strolling Through Istanbul as a guidebook, I hopped a taxi out to the far side of Galata Bridge to begin a morning’s stroll.  I crossed the Golden Horn once again, alone but for a handful of fishermen casting lines into the waters below, which twitched in the wake of ferries whose own crossings were proceeded by whistle-blast. 

I skirted the Spice Market and began to climb toward a quiet Sultanamet, having the broad open spaces to myself, my photos unencumbered by the shapes of strangers.  After a simple breakfast in the shadow of Aya Irini, I walked through the Outer Garden of the Saray, popping into color in the early springtime.  A failed attempt to cross back below the Topkapi brought me to a military post, so I reversed myself and continued to wander the district, popping into lesser museums covered by my three-day pass.  A number of them were similarly under renovation, and I cursed the tourist bureau once again.  (Later I heard from others that this seems to be Istanbul’s perpetual state, a ploy perhaps at getting return visitors.) 

This walk set the tone for the next few mornings, and I covered a great deal of the city this way, book in hand.  The quiet of the smaller mosques reminded me of the lesser temples of Southeast Asia, always an oasis of green calm in a chaotic cityscape.  Dogs lazed about, and worshippers nearly blended into the surroundings so quiet was their prayer.  I walked ever westward, toward Europe, climbing each of the seven hills, wandering the massive mosques that defined them, each with quaint neighborhoods of their own.  At some point during these ambulations, I fell in love with the city. 

The Fatih area was perhaps my favorite, so far off the tourist track, so run down the archeological sites, sitting amidst neighborhoods sliced into interesting geometric shapes by haphazard lanes, all running into the ganglia of intersections that seemed villages in their own right.  Schoolkids made their way toward classes, and older residents sat with their newspapers and strong coffee.  A pair of tourists too fuelled up in a café, where the owner reached over to the vendors next door, to break the usual oversized denomination.  Nearby, a rubbish collector slept inside his empty mobile rubbish bin. The open marble grounds of the Fatih Mosque were bright and beautiful on a sunny day.  Fountains splashed invitingly in front of a set of escalators leading downhill.  A somewhat sketchy guy dozed over his cigarette, but I worry he was going to steal my shoes.   Down a street adjoining the mosque I began to notice a different brand of Islam had taken root, with bushy beards and women in fuller burqas.  I watched one woman vacuum the street and wonder perhaps unkindly if she ever caught the drag of her hem in the suction.

In the afternoons I’d do similar walks with LYL and her friend Naile, who’d flown over from Ankara to join us.  The days stayed cool and encouraged longer distances, always punctuated by coffee and Turkish delight.  Meals were exquisite, on par with Italy in my opinion, taken at outdoor cafes where we’d admire the dogs, chat with fellow diners, and try to think about anything but terrorists.  (I was affected by them anyway, in the form of Trump’s travel ban.  Unknown to me, electronics had been banned from US flights originating in certain countries, Turkey among them.  The UK had followed suit, and thus I was deprived of reading material for my London flight.  I got of easy off course, compared to too many others, but was annoyed nevertheless.)  

And how not to love this city? With its Bosporus views from Suleymaniye Mosque; the bustling stroll down the trendy Istikal Caddesi; zigzagging through the former Silk Road caravanserai that dot the hill between the Grand and Spice Bazaars; the medieval charm of Galata?  Even the polished patter of the carpet sellers was amusing, offering a brief moment of laughter as you drifted past.  If any of their wares had been of the flying variety, I’d have bought one immediately, if only to return, homing pigeon-like back to the city of its birth. 

On the turntable:  David Byrne, "Rei Momo"

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