"One million lira," piped the cashier at the cybercafe. And for the one-millionth time since arriving in Istanbul, I did a double take. How could a few minutes online add up to such a staggering figure? And how, on a budget of just US$500, was I going to make it through the weekend?
The cashier was invoking, as many Turks still do, the old Turkish currency instead of the new, which was introduced last year and lopped six zeroes off everyone's bills.
The cybercafe bill (which was only US$0.65 cents at the exchange rate then) was yet another reminder that Turkey and, especially, Istanbul are places that casually, if not always effortlessly, blend the old and new, the East and West, the secular and the spiritual. That jumble of identities may be a cliche, but over the course of a late-June weekend in Istanbul, it was a cliche the city never let me forget, not even for a minute.
Take my lodging: the Grand Hotel de Londres, built in 1892 to accommodate the waves of European tourists arriving via the Orient Express. Over the last 114 years, its fortunes have waxed (Hemingway stayed here in 1922) and waned (when chains like Hilton arrived in the 1950s). But today it's newly worthy of its adjective, with thick red carpets, ornate chandeliers, a staff that appears to care about the guests and an antiques-filled lobby that broadcasts WiFi throughout the lower floors.
My big renovated room was furnished with dark wood and gilt molding. I drew aside the curtains and found a wide balcony looking out on the steely waters of the Bosporus and, across the strait, dozens of mosques dotting the hills of Uskudar.
And it was cheap. The renovated rooms started at US$75 a night, with a 10 percent discount for paying cash. Even better (for me), Turkey was going through summertime economic woes that strengthened the dollar to 1.55 lira. (It was 1.50 lira on Nov. 1.)
Still, I wasn't sure how large my other expenses would be, what with Turkey wending its way toward European Union membership and Newsweek's 2005 cover story about "Cool Istanbul." Could I live like a sultan on 565 new lira?
Luckily, I had my own personal vizier: Elif, a friend of a woman I'd met in Malaysia, who turned out to be the personification of Istanbul — equal parts tradition and modernity. An energetic, hyper-intellectual woman in her early 30s, Elif is a serious Muslim yet has a healthy appreciation of beer and men.
Elif and I decided I should see Istanbul's past before its present. So we caught a 7-lira taxi across the Golden Horn to the Sultanahmet area, home to the city's prime attractions, and did what tourists have been doing in Istanbul for hundreds of years.
We began at the Basilica Cistern (10 lira), the marble-columned, 929m2 underground water storage facility built in the sixth century AD. Most tourists make a beeline for the upside-down Medusa head that supports one pillar, but I was fascinated by the fractal beauty of the vaulted brick ceilings, and the young boys dressed up as kings, complete with crowns and scepters. They were six years old, Elif explained, a common age for Turkish boys to be circumcised; the costumes were a treat before the next morning's rite of passage.
Next was the 17th-century Blue Mosque, which didn't look particularly blue from the outside, but whose interior walls are lined with some 20,000 mostly blue tiles. The dome soars 43m, held up by a quartet of thick pillars.