Thursday, September 20, 2007

Another Travel Essay..

... from Phillip Grayson, who will soon be reporting from Poland.

The Number 1 Most Secret Best Part of Istanbul

The first thing one should do on arriving in Istanbul is hop in a cab and head to your hotel in Taksim, the downtown heart of cosmopolitan Istanbul. There are cheaper hotels in the center of the tourist district, and you’ll probably want to stay there the bulk of your trip, but on this first night in town you need to go all the way into the belly of the beast.
Taksim itself is nice enough, crawling with shops and well-stocked with an endless supply of basically-pretty-similar bars and restaurants, but that’s all beside the point. Before you even arrive there, the best part of your visit may well have already taken place.
The airport is on the outskirts of the European side of the city, and the road that winds from it to your overpriced hotel will take you along the seaside for several miles, giving you plenty of time to take in the manicured parks that line the shore and the warships, freighters and cruise ships that commiserate in the harbor, as well as schizophrenic piecemeal architecture that defines the majority of the city, houses cobbled together and repaired as they required it, and not a bit more. An apartment building, for example, may date back to the mid-70s for the first two or three floors, and then have a few more above them about a decade younger, with a single wall that came in after the earthquake and a brand spankin’ new roof. You’ll also get a chance to see a few of the “historical” wooden houses of Istanbul, dilapidated and slowly collapsing, these cannot be torn down, so even later, as you cruise down the Bosphorus toward the Black Sea, you’ll see a couple stuck in amidst the modern mansions in a sort of scaled-up version of these cut-and-paste apartments in the suburbs.
You’ll turn away from the seaside just before you begin approaching the Bosphorus, which separates Europe from Asia Minor, guarded over by Topkapı palace and a few thousand tourists. Instead you move straight toward the Golden Horn, the inlet that runs into the European side of the city, and which, as you cross it, will be lined with Mosques, filled with jellyfish and a few fountains, and crossed over by two long bridges full of fishermen. Before you even get there though, with an almost alarming suddenness and grandeur, as you emerge from an underpass, an Ancient Roman aqueduct reminds you that, for all the natural beauty you’ve seen and will see, this is a human city, fought over and fortified and overpopulated and restructured in sometimes amazing ways to perfect it away from whatever nature’s original intent might have been.
On the other side of the Golden Horn you ascend one of the seven hills the city was built on (and what is it with building cities on seven hill?) and get the best possible view of Istanbul, looking over the sprawling, undulating city, either decked out in a million lights of surprisingly varied colors, or scorched by the sun to something so perfectly exotic and massive as to make reality seem just a little less stable.
Immediately after this world-class tableau, on the right, is a street and runs away from you and is filled, completely, top to bottom, end to end, with nothing but chandeliers, small chandeliers, big chandeliers, gigantic chandeliers, cheap chandeliers, expensive chandeliers, a chandelier to suit any mood, budget and home, believe you me, all lit and undeniable and designed, it would seem, to shatter your newly enfragiled sense of reality. It could well be the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen the Grand Bazaar).
With that pesky sense of equilibrium out of the way, you’re now in Taksim, whose main road, ostensibly pedestrian despite the dozens of cars and motorcycles honking their way through the thronged crowds, is said to see almost a million sets of feet every day. There are McDonalds and Pizza Huts and Burger Kings aplenty, but you’ll want to try some authentic Turkish cuisine, but beware, because Turkish food is Greek food without pork or sauces, and your already repeatedly affronted, oh so delicate sense of reality might not be able to fight of the sense that there is much better Turkish food in America than there is in Turkey. Try not to think about it too much. Keep your wits about you and step back out into flood of humanity that is I_tiklal Sokak remembering these last few things: the men arm in arm are not gay, it is not rude to walk (or drive) directly into someone without apology or hesitation, you don’t want to buy perfume off the street, and once your luggage has been successfully lost, the best part of your trip is over, you will never be this disoriented again, so you might as well take a nap.


pluvialis said...

I love Istanbul's shopping streets. I remember one street that sold nothing but backgammon sets, musical instruments and firearms.

Mark said...

Backgammon and firearms are best kept separate. It's a rough sport, and if tempers flare...

Anonymous said...

Great essay!