Last week I nearly found myself in the middle of a military coup. It was touch and go but thankfully democracy won the day. Yet oddly it was a confrontation between the army (normally perceived as reactionary) and a democratic opponent labelled as a potential Islamic extremist. Somehow this paradox is typical of Turkey.
What is extraordinary about Istanbul is how much it lives up to the cliché of a dual existence, of being the bridge between East and West, of Asia and Europe. That schizoid character appears again and again, as much in the political arena as in women’s appearance which veers between dowdy headscarf and body-enshrouding full-length dress to the tightest jeans and full-on make-up. Young women puff on shisha too.
The once glorious Ottoman empire saw its sunset back in the 19th century, finally sinking after World War I in 1918, before undergoing a definitive makeover under Ataturk in the 1920s. Since then Turkey, though partly Westernised and proudly secular, has lived under a double banner – that of an Islamic society on the doorstep of Europe. As its zenith plummeted its inhabitants became a flood of emigrants, above all to postwar Germany. All that’s changed now and Turkey is up there with the greats, a powerhouse of dynamism and with a booming economy to match. They don’t even seem to care about being accepted by the E.U. or not. And if they are not allowed in, it may well be our loss.
This duality also makes it an enthralling place to visit as it aligns a dreamy skyline of pencil-thin minarets and gently curved domes with sharp high-rise architecture, hip bars and glam fashionistas. That melancholy so often touted by Turkey’s number one writer, Orhan Pamuk, is there, but there is so much else.
What you can;t miss is the Bosphorus, a long, lazily wide strait connecting the Sea of Marmara with the Black Sea. Dozens of cargo-ships fill the horizon and, if you’re staying anywhere near the shore, your sleep is punctuated with blasts of distant horns. Totally romantic. Even better, if you take a local ferry (for less than a London bus-ride) you get the sense of endlessly elastic time, bumping gently over the waves, fanned by a sea-breeze and with seagulls swooping overhead. Pure bliss, whatever the weather.
The Sultanahmet side is the old walled city that has seen sultans and their harems in Topkapi Palace, streams of worshippers at the Blue Mosque and generations of carpet-sellers in the sprawling Grand Bazaar. This is where most visitors head. It’s a must for a first visit – but then it’s time to move on, across the Galata Bridge to Beyoglu where Istanbul’s future is taking shape. The traffic is appalling and as the main street (Istakbal Caddesi) is pedestrianised, taxis tend to dump you whereever it’s convenient for them. Take a tram if you can. Then there’s the business of changing the numbering system, currently in progress…
Byzantine and Ottoman monuments, shoeshiners, rugs, tea and shisha… once you’ve moved beyond all that you fly! Because Istanbul is all about views, vistas, panoramas – from its hilltops, ferries, bridges, restaurants which almost drop into the Bosphorus or from rooftop bars high above, touching the clouds. You never feel the claustrophobia of an urban setting of some 12 million inhabitants. There’s always a new perspective to save you. Somehow, those young Turks have got it right.