According to Virgil, the Roman poet, Aeneas, the legendary founding-father of the Roman nation hailed from the ancient city of Troy on the Eastern coast of the Dardanelles. North through the straits of the Dardanelles at the opposite end of the Marmara Sea, Constantine returned close to his roots and installed his new Roman capital on the Bosphorus in Byzantium, even then the crossroads of East and West, naming it Constantinople, modern-day Istanbul.
That was almost 1700 years ago, and not long after leaving on the ferry across the busy waters from Europe to Asia, the sheer magnificence of the city becomes evident. Looking behind us, the West has a distinctly Eastern feel, as the silhouettes of bridges, immense domes and myriad minarets stand out against the sunset. But Istanbul, deserves a closer look.
Most of what is of interest to a visitor is on the European side of the city, the Golden Horn. We started our trip on a drizzly afternoon in Beyoglu, the modern centre of Istanbul. Istlikal Caddalis is the wide and winding pedestrian zone running from the hectic Taksim square in the North to Galata Tower in the south. Trams like the San Franciscan cable cars trundle down the street, and I doubt the youngsters clinging to the outside rails have paid the fare. Downhill from Galata Tower is the fish market selling fresh and salty Balik Etmek sandwiches for the equivalent of â‚¬1.50. But what catches the eye most from the fish market is the teeming fishing industry itself in the form of individual fishermen, who stick to traditional methods with evidently great success from the perches of Galata bridge.
What I had heard of Istanbul prior to arriving made me wary. I expected to be lured into parting with large amounts of money in the bazaar, only to discover that my money had already been appropriated by a stealthy pickpocket. But gladly, Istanbuls reputation turned out to be made of misconceptions. As Mr Ohran pointed out to me while we were booking our tickets in the Marco Polo travel agents, the only beating I got in Istanbul was the one I paid for in the Cemberlitas baths in Sultanahmet, the oldest part of Istanbul.
We deliberated a long time as to whether it was worthwhile spending â‚¬25 each for a massage and scrub in a traditional Turkish hamman, but faced with an 11-hour bus trip that evening, the deliberations promptly came to the only acceptable outcome. Hassan smiled as he slapped the marble where he awaited me with his scrubbing glove and foam bucket. Heavily perspiring, I shuffled over and lay down on my back on the marble. Hassan signalled me to place my hands under their opposing armpit and proceeded to press my elbows apart violently causing two cracks that echoed through the heavy mist. Then turning me to my side, more joints popped lower down my back. And so it continued, as Hassan continued to wrap me in a bubble of foam, and squeeze and wring my muscles and joints into a pulp. Following this pummeling, Hassan brought me to an outside fountain where he proceeded to rip my hair out, or so it felt, and then contort my neck in impossible positions, and finally fold me in half after I had foolishly told him my lower back ached. It entirely exceeded my expectations.
One of the most memorable moments in Istanbul was chancing upon a smoking cafÃ© behind a cemetery near the Grand Bazaar. We whiled away many hours smoking apple-flavoured shisha and sipping assorted sweet teas. Not having been a smoker for a long time, the shisha did hit me, and I felt a little light-headed after a few puffs and the clouds of smoke surrounding us. So walking through the bazaar, I wondered if I didn’t have amnesia when on several occasions, salesmen greeted me in the bazaar with cries of “My friend, you remember me?! Come in and have a cup of tea!” Ignoring counsel from my companion lawyer, I proceeded to meet several people who had supposedly lived in Ireland. However, I hold the softest spot for the numerous well-wishers who thought me Spanish, and called me Antonio Banderas. I didn’t have the heart to tell them I was actually Antonio Byrne-deras.
Wherever we’ve been in Istanbul, we’ve had a great time. Its thriving bazaars, majestic mosques, and all my friends who I do and don’t remember, really make Istanbul an experience I recommend to everyone, and in my humble opinion, a very deserved Capital of European, or Eurasian, culture in 2010.
Originally written for A Year in Motion