You can hear Istanbul from a continent away. Cross the Bosphorus to the more serene Asian side and you sense a distant but distinct rumble, the mighty hum and roar of an ancient/modern urban machine.
This ex-Constantinople is one of the world's most powerful and charismatic cities, a massive, unknowable megalopolis of maybe 14 million souls, maybe more, all of them moving at all times, frenetic, chaotic. But it is also an intimate, intriguing collection of vignettes, of unique sensual experiences and historical glimpses, which will pull you back time and again.
Or at least it does me. I've now been to Istanbul on half a dozen occasions and it just gets better, gives more because I attempt less. Paying repeated visits to a city means that you can really enjoy the place without the pressure to cram it all in.
If you're visiting Istanbul for the first time, it is so ripe with treasures, proffering such a long and urgent checklist, that it can feel like a forced march. You see the coach parties and the tour groups scurrying, red faced, punch drunk from so many dates and details that they can't take in the big picture.
The big picture
And pictures don't get much larger or more impressive than the one Istanbul offers. This is a fantastic contemporary city as well as a historic one, but most visitors rarely see that, as they are focused solely on the guidebook and postcard stuff. But if you've already exhausted yourself in the harem and impoverished yourself in the grand bazaar on a previous trip, if you've already been there and bought the bloody carpet, then you can start to really see this city. Take it a bit more easily, take in the places you enjoyed last time round and discover some of the numerous lesser-known gems that you can only find by floating aimlessly through the endless back streets and neighborhoods.
There's a certain guilty pleasure about staying a few yards from the wondrous Topkapi palace and not even bothering to go inside, or use the courtyard of the blue mosque as a short cut, but not feel any desire to take off your shoes and gawp alongside all the ill-dressed infidels. This time we didn't even enter the grand bazaar as I know the tumult and trials that await. It's great, but the spice bazaar is even better, so we just went there. And I've learnt that if you really want classy souvenirs, you're wiser to point your money toward the proper shops around the fringes of the souk, or over in the new town.
The money I would probably have been talked into spending on a rug in the bazaar got me an entire room and all its furnishings in the Four Seasons hotel for a couple of nights. This is a city in which you need an oasis of calm and comfort, and hotels don't get cooler or more elegantly tranquil than this former prison house in Sultanahmet. And because you don't have to fill every waking hour at the monuments, you can revel in its luxuries. A languorous breakfast of local fruits and strong coffee in the shadow of the Aghia Sophia, while the muezzin ululates through the air, is even more sump-tuous when you know you don't have to rush to anybody's call.
Still I have to go through the soft pink portals of that holy old barn. No matter how many times I visit this city, I always have to slip inside the Aghia Sophia. For me, this 6th-century many-domed masterpiece may well be the most redolent building in the world.
Stripped of its religious functions to stop Christians and Muslims fighting over it, this is still the most spiritual of spaces.
Crumbling, crowded, swathed in perpetual scaffolding, but so unfathomably venerable, oozing so many stories that it is the highlight of every trip. And so is a good old
A Turkish bath in Turkey is not quite the steamy affair you might be expecting. Steam baths are actually Russian, while a hammam is a hot marble shrine to cleanliness, which is next to Godliness because it is traditionally a prelude to prayer. The bath itself is like a mini-mosque, but with a large circular heated marble slab on which you prostrate yourself while thinking of God, or perhaps more likely the burly bloke with the moustache who is about to maul you mercilessly before soaping you down at one of the taps which ring the room. The etiquette of the baths is complex so it helps to go to one where English is spoken and tourists are expected. You also want one of the grand old interiors, as this is as much an architectural as a sensual experience. For this you'll pay silly money by local standards, and still get tapped for a tip by all and sundry, but when you've spent the day sweating in the summer or freezing in the winter it is a real treat. I usually head for the beautiful 16th-century Cemberlitas hammam, but as I was with my wife we went to Cagaloglu because it has better female facilities and the barber gives a particularly good shave (for me not the wife).
The ancient pleasures of old Stamboul are seductive enough to keep most visitors ensconced down on the Golden Horn for the entirety of their trip, but this is such a small sliver of the city that they are missing out. Many go for lunch to the old fishing village of Kumkapi, but if all you do is eat, then you have squandered the opportunity to see a poor but incredibly vibrant community. Walk away from the main drag, take in the seaside fish market and just explore the tumbledown back streets, and you get a glimpse of another Turkey.
Deeply traditional, Islamic, the men sipping coffee and playing backgammon, the women still swathed in bright Anatolian dress, with their many children living on the streets, noisy and joyous. Because they have nothing to sell, you won't get hassled, but you will get an idea of the diversity and potential of this great land. Which is magnified tenfold when you decide to go for a night out.
The old quarter has a certain quiet charm after dark, but it is many kilometers from where the action is. So get in a cab and take a white-knuckle ride to the night. Thankfully, taxis in Istanbul are cheap, because the traffic is terrible and this is a very big city, but it's worth the journey. In winter, the epicenter of hip young Istanbul is just over the Galata bridge in Beyoglu, where there are now numerous trendy designer haunts like 5 Kat or Cicek bar, usually high up, with views out over the city and the same kind of swish inte-riors and clientele you'd expect to see in Soho or SoHo. But in summer something truly unique occurs.
From June to September the city shifts along the Bosphorus and takes its nocturnal pleasures against one of the greatest natural backdrops, anywhere in the world.
From Besiktas (which is also the best place to watch football, an Istanbuli obsession), along the waterfront to the one-time separate village of Ortakoy, there is a long, vibrant strip of outdoor bars, restaurants and clubs, which on warm weekends in particular become wildly popular.
From disco kids stuck in jams with house music blaring from 4x4s to super rich sophisticates who arrive by speedboat direct to their chosen venue it rocks all night. The whole thing is a riot of exuberance and exhibitionism and a thrilling introduction to this brash, new face of Turkey. Take dinner at Reina, a brilliant white modernist complex, awash with the overdressed, with this sensational panorama arrayed in front of you and it is a brilliant antidote to the ancient solemnity of the old town.
Istanbul, the cradle of the Byzantine and the Ottoman empires is steeped in history and straddles European and Asian cultures.
A tourist visa is required for non-US visitors. A single entry visa costs NT$1,800 and a dual entry visa costs NT$3,200.
GETTING THERE: Malaysian Airlines offers a round trip ticket to Istanbul via Kuala Lumpur, valid for one month, for NT$29,700 including airport tax and insurance. Contact Super Star Travel on (02) 2721 6018
Turkish Airlines offers a return ticket to Istanbul via Bangkok for NT$35,000 including tax. Contact Lahoo on
(02) 2531 2578.
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