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Dressing for Dinner in Istanbul

Istanbul: Evening dress, Cuban cigars and hot chickens

Istanbul: Evening dress, Cuban cigars and hot chickens

I seem to remember being extraordinarily proud of myself when, at a tender age of seven, I not only knew where Constantinople was, but I was also able to spell it.

Such elation, however, was short-lived when searching Collin’s World Gazetteer for the battleground of much of my early history lessons – in its place there appeared to be a square blob of a city that wasn’t even the capital of this large, rectangular country somewhere to the south of Europe.

Whatever its current invention, there is no doubt that Istanbul is one of the truly great cities of the world, and a worthy stopover on the now-legendary Rhoute. Dripping in history, saturated with fabulous architecture, boasting some awe-inspiring views across the Bosphorus and home to the best cuisine on my journey so far (this side of the Tian Shan, that is – there are still very, very few contenders for the tremendous gongbao jiding in China), the city appears to have everything.

It is also the only city I have come across over the past few months that I feel can really lay claim to being both Asian and European at the same time, as dandied as that sounds. Almost as soon as I left China, claims were being made that [insert Central Asian country] was the ‘bridge between Europe and Asia’, or the ‘real Eurasia’, a ‘meeting point between the two continents’ etc. Just half a day’s drive from the Chinese border, Almaty certain felt very European – as did Tashkent, Bishkek, or much of the Caucasus.

Mosque-tastic. Cityscape from Topkapi Palace.

Mosque-tastic. Cityscape from Topkapi Palace.

However, instead of being an island of European civilisation on the steppes, or in the middle of the desert, Istanbul seems ferociously proud of its mongrel heritage, and feels both Asian and European in equal measure. I certainly didn’t get that impression from anywhere I’ve travelled through since the beginning of May.

The ol’ wallet has certainly been taking a sound beating, in the way only Europe knows how to dish out. Twenty lira a pop for most of the main sights (and there was me whinging about five dollars at The Registan in Samarkand!) certainly adds up, and seeking refuge in a shot of strong Turkish coffee will set you back another five. Get any more adventurous and you’ll be scurrying to the ATMs before the real spending starts in the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar or in the hundreds of boutiques hidden among the city streets flogging carpets, jewellery, Turkish Delight, tea of all flavours, nargile pipes and all manner of tourist tat.

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En Route to Europe

Turkish bus companies seem to be slippery about how long it takes to make your way to Istanbul from elsewhere on the Anatolian peninsula. Even with the main drag from the capital, Ankara, they were hardly exacting:

“Between five and seven hours”, was the cryptic reply I was given, both by the bus companies themselves, and the ferocious armies of touts they all employ to snag lost-looking souls with backpacks and throw them on the next bus which needs filling.

“Well, which? Five or seven?”, I asked. I was approaching Europe, dammit, the least I could expect was a whiff of customer service. A helpless shrug of the shoulders was all I was getting from Mehmet at Ulusoy though, who helpfully reminded which platform I’d be leaving from in Ankara’s immense central bus hub.

Sadly, what Mehmet forgot to disclose was that the bus would be leaving half an hour ahead of schedule – along with all my bags, it transpired. Minor panic. Mehmed? Shrug. Taxi? Where to? Shrug.

After a spot of torso-lunging out of the taxi window, waving my arms around frantically to attract the driver’s attention through the impenetrable tinted – and doubtless bullet-proof – windows, he finally relented and I was allowed to board in a dusty lay-by.

“We made an announcement!” protested the driver. “Your bag was here so we knew you were too!”.

Drama over, I was united with my backpack containing treasures from the East, chief among which were the tremendous Tutku biscuits I stocked up on in Samsun. A whirl of vanilla/chocolate biscuit on the outside, they hide a venerable chocolate explosion on the inside, thus making them perfect for any occasion, particularly breakfast.

I munched the Tutku hungrily and settled back for the journey of no fixed duration. It was soon clear just why that was. Istanbul: 10km, read the signs after only a few hours on the road.

An hour or so later, we were still trundling through the outskirts of this immense city, home to 15 million, and slowly descending into the gridlock for which Istanbul is famous. Five to seven hours, indeed – it had been nearly six by the time we stopped for a break in some non-descript neighbourhood. You know you’re in for a long afternoon when you take a break in a part of the same city as your destination.

Moments later, however, we sped over an immense bridge, looking down on the blue waters lined with yacht clubs, restored fortresses and mosques. Here it was – the Bosphorus – the thin sliver of water that separates European Turkey from Asian Anatolia. Here we are. After nearly three months, I’ve made it back to Europe.