Istanbul, vibrant and inspiring.jpg

Istanbul, vibrant and inspiring

By Larry Hampton [email protected]

In this special travel feature, Larry Hampton, who, along with his wife Helga, has had a villa in the Algarve since 1972, takes you on a trip to Turkey. The couple visited Istanbul this month, a city they had wanted to explore for a long time.

Istanbul, known as Constantinople from 330 AD, when the Emperor Constantine moved his seat of power there from Rome, until 1453, when Sultan Mehmet II conquered it for the Ottoman Turks, prides itself on being one of the world’s great cities. And, in modern terms, indeed it is.

Today more than 13 million Turks call Istanbul home (up from less than 50,000 when Mehmet II took over). The city controls some historically very strategic water, straddling the relatively narrow Bosphorus, which is the only sea connection between Western Europe and the European and Asian countries bordering the Black Sea.

And Istanbul is the gateway to a number of the Middle East hotspots we read so much about today. To the south and east, Turkey borders on Syria, Iraq and Iran.

But this is not meant to be either a history or a geography lesson. Helga and I had wanted to visit Istanbul for a long time and this August we did it.

We flew from Heathrow to Ataturk Airport with Turkish Air, were upgraded to “comfort” class and, consequently, have a really favorable impression of the airline. The seats were, indeed, comfortable and the food and wine were excellent.

Our hotel, the Celal Sultan, was only three-star (and the bedroom, especially the bed, reflected that rating), but it had two huge advantages. Firstly, it was located in close proximity to the key tourist attractions. And secondly, it had a marvelous roof restaurant and terrace with a heart-stoppingly beautiful view of the nearby Hagia Sophia.

Four of the “Ask Me” army of teenage unpaid volunteers. Wonderful kids
Four of the “Ask Me” army of teenage unpaid volunteers. Wonderful kids

One evening we had an excellent dinner and the other two evenings we ended our day with a glass of rather good Turkish wine there, soaking up the unique atmosphere.

What is Istanbul like? It was not as “foreign” as we had expected. It was more “modern” and had many trees and green spaces. Nor was it as visibly Islamic, although there are certainly a great number of rather large mosques about.

Perhaps one in five Muslim ladies were “covered”, with many wearing colourful silk headscarves as their cover, but we didn’t see any in full-face hiding burquas.

By contrast, the female tourists, of which there were many (mainly young), were tolerated in various stages of undress, to a certain extent even in the mosques.

Very few Istanbul men were traditionally dressed. Istanbul is very relaxed about alcohol and all types of drinks are readily available.

Ask me

It is easy to find your way around, as most of the signs are in English as well as Turkish. In the main tourist areas there was a small army of unpaid, volunteer kids wearing blue shirts saying “Ask me”. They all spoke pretty good English, as well as other languages, and were friendly and eager to help. They get to practice their foreign languages and you get free directions. A great scheme – London should copy it for the Olympics.

Food. Always an important subject in a foreign destination. Our first lesson was that “kebap” does not mean meat on a skewer. It means roast meat in general and is the Turkish equivalent of fish and chips.

The Sultanahmet (“Blue”) Mosque
The Sultanahmet (“Blue”) Mosque

The menus in all the restaurants you are likely to find are very tourist oriented, printed in English and not far off the beaten track. Lamb and rice and fresh vegetables and salads (the tomatoes were excellent) are very much in evidence. Sweets are almost entirely honey based and use lots of nuts (baklava is the quintessential Turkish sweet).

There are a large number of good fish restaurants located under the Galata Bridge that crosses the Golden Horn. Istanbul is still the eastern terminus of the Orient Express and a unique restaurant can be found in the station, which is located near the Spice Market and New Mosque.

The tram is easy to use and inexpensive (for €0.70 you can ride from one end to the other and back). It is modern, clean and runs frequently. Tickets are sold by machine at each tram stop. The taxis, however, are to be avoided.

Speaking of cleanliness, Istanbul is remarkably free of litter – maybe because there are a lot of men constantly sweeping up the streets with their twig brooms. Even in the Spice Market and the Grand Bazaar the cleanliness was quite evident.

While there are no beggars (to our surprise), every Istanbul male is trying to sell something and if you just exhibit the tiniest bit of interest, you will find it hard to get away. Every shop, restaurant and point of interest has their man outside on the pavement trying to get your attention.

They are very polite and not at all aggressive physically. One has a guilty conscience but you can’t even look at them. You have to just walk on and not acknowledge their existence.

This does mean that you can’t ask anyone on the street, except the “ask me” crew, for advice or directions. However, we never felt threatened or unsafe – quite the contrary.


The Hagia Sophia as seen from our hotel’s roof terrace
The Hagia Sophia as seen from our hotel’s roof terrace

Shopping is selective. In the Grand Bazaar, you can buy almost anything. It is huge and, although crowded, quite orderly. Until the advent of gigantic malls, the Grand Bazaar was the largest shopping centre in the world. Some things, like leather goods, gold jewelry and, of course, spices, are good buys.

Many other things are not. Most prices, especially in the Bazaar, are negotiable up to about 50% off the original “asking” price. Surprisingly, though, in many respects Turkey is not cheap. A litre of Euro 95 petrol is €1.72.

A normal meal for two averages €50 (without a bottle of wine). A pint of rather good Efes Turkish beer will cost around €3.50. The least expensive bottle of Turkish red wine in a restaurant will be €30 (although we read somewhere that Turkey has three times as many vineyards as South Africa).

Credit cards are accepted almost everywhere, but be sure to let your credit card company know you will be in Turkey or you will find your card blocked the first time you try to use it.

We were in Istanbul for three days and, unless you want to delve deeply into some particular aspect of Islamic or Byzantine history, that should be entirely sufficient to see the important things – the Hagia Sophia, the Sultanahmet “Blue” Mosque, Topkapi Palace, the Archaeological Museum (a world class collection of classical antiquities and a great history lesson of Byzantium), the hippodrome with its obelisk and the Yerebatan Cistern (an amazing engineering feat built in the 4th century) are all grouped closely together (and very close to the Celal Sultan hotel).

Further afield are the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Market, the “New” Mosque (building began in 1598) and the Suleymaniye Mosque (Istanbul’s biggest).

Although we didn’t sample it, Istanbul night life is located across the Galata Bridge and the Golden Horn in the Taksim Square area (regarded as the heart of the secular republic, but to our mind one of the world’s uglier public plazas).

And you can do all of the above and still have plenty of time left to take a half-day boat ride up the Bosphorus and back.