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Wed 27 Jan 2010 04:00 AM

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Turkish delight

Blurring the line between Europe and Asia, modern Istanbul offers lashings of culture, history that reads like a Ridley Scott script, shopping to die for and killer views from just about anywhere in the city. But it’s the Istanbullus themselves that really bring this city to life.

Turkish delight
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Turkish delight
A view from the window of the Aya Sophia towards the Blue Mosque.
Turkish delight
Colourful streets of Sultanahmet are both unique and captivating.
Turkish delight
Visitors enjoy the sights and sounds of the Aya Sophia in a tram.

Blurring the line between Europe and Asia, modern Istanbul offers lashings of culture, history that reads like a Ridley Scott script, shopping to die for and killer views from just about anywhere in the city. But it’s the Istanbullus themselves that really bring this city to life.

“Come and play!” commands a dapper Turkish man with laughing Bambi eyes, thrusting an old wooden stool in my direction, instructing me to partake in a furious game of backgammon being staged near the Fish House in Istanbul’s historic Sultanahmet quarter. “Ahhhhhh…” I stutter, looking for an exit strategy. “What is this ‘ahhhhh’? I’m not trying to sell you a camel!” I smile and politely decline, continue up the cobblestone road, and immediately regret it. In this city riddled with magnificent historic architecture, Ottoman palaces and glittering water views, the ebullient Istanbullus must be its finest attraction.

On first taste, there is something disarming about Turkey’s favourite city that invites you to get under its skin. Learn its secrets. Discover how the Istanbullus live. Figure out that twinkle in their eyes. Between world-famous icons such as the Aya Sophia, the omnipresent Bosphorus River, achingly stylish neighbourhoods, and EU membership on the horizon, Istanbul has good reason for its good humour.

Temporarily repressing my shopping urges, I accept that it’s impossible to get close to the heart of a city without first labouring through its past. But in Istanbul, that labour involves ogling fist-sized rubies, diamond-encrusted armour and 500-year-old velvet ceremonial robes. The Ottomans knew a thing or two about the good life.

Lording over Sultanahmet and the cobalt waters of the Golden Horn, Topkapi Palace is a jaw-dropping testament to excess. From 1465 to 1853, Topkapi’s tulip-lined gardens, gracious courts and lavish chambers played host to the secret lives of the Ottoman sultans — and luxury of a cosmic order. During those cacophonic centuries, its chambers witnessed royal murders and constant intrigues, week-long banquets and unprecedented extravagance. One sultan even drowned in his gold-plated bath after drinking too much champagne. The sultans’ lives were so completely unsustainable that they managed to trigger the end of their own empire. Their credit card bills would have made Paris Hilton faint.

Today, noisy school groups and fleets of tourists plugged into audio guides shuffle past bowls of emeralds, solid gold thrones, rock crystal drinking flasks and the 86 carat teardrop-shaped “Spoonmaker’s Diamond”. Everything is pimpled with rubies, diamonds and emeralds. Inside the serene iznic-tiled Harem, I try to imagine the sultan’s dark-eyed concubines hushing about in silk robes, playing out their strange lives, but I struggle. History sleeps in this house today.

Just down the hill, the Aya Sophia’s curvaceous Byzantine domes represent modern Turkey’s resolutely secular heart. Designed in the fourth century, the Aya Sophia was to be the grandest cathedral the world had ever seen. Inaugurated by Constantius II in 360 AD, the great basilica became the world’s largest cathedral for nearly 1,000 years. When Constantinople was conquered by the Turks in 1453, Sultan Mehmed II had the building converted into the principle mosque of the Ottoman Empire. Many mosques were built in the Aya Sophia’s shapely image, notably Sultanahmet’s breathtaking Blue Mosque. It was converted into a museum by the Republic of Turkey in 1935.

Nothing can prepare you for the Aya Sophia’s awesome, haunting presence; the commanding history that puts our short-sighted contemporary culture to shame. Despite the roaming tourists, the Aya Sophia is blanketed in a reverential hush. Inside, a considerable amount of neck craning is going on. Marvelling at exquisite iconoclastic mosaics, Islamic calligraphy and iznic panels, one Turkish visitor tells me that Istanbul is built on a major fault line and many Turks fear that their precious Aya Sophia will be destroyed by a massive earthquake. The loss would be irreplaceable.

After a dose of history, I head back to the Sultanahmet Fish House. The backgammoners have left. As I sit down to a plate of velvety saffron seafood, I ask the curly-haired waiter where he likes to go out. “Oh,” he says, “we go to Taksim…”

There’s a whole other city going on outside Sultanahmet. Running from Taksim Square through the newer area of Beyoğlu, Istiklal Caddesi is the coolest, flashiest, busiest, most exciting place in Istanbul, and has become a destination unto itself. At first glance, Istiklal could be Dublin’s O’Connor Street or London’s Regent Street. Flanked by 19th Century Turkish façades, this elegant pedestrian street is crammed with high street fashion stores, music shops, cafés and other eateries.There are people literally everywhere. On average, six million people make pilgrimages up this thriving avenue every weekend. A shouting man pushes a trolley of Turkish simit bread, scattering a group of young Istanbullus with pink hair and supersized trainers. Hurried men in business suits dodge camera-laden tourists as a salesman tries to sell me a backgammon set. An antique tram clatters through the fray. High above street level, beautiful people dip into designer cocktails and artistic sushi in the terrace lounges that occupy the rooftops of many Istiklal buildings. It’s peaceful, glamorous — and expensive.

A maze of slender alleyways scatters behind Istiklal, dizzy with hippies selling beads, fish mongers, nightclubs pumping cheap American RnB and restaurant after restaurant after restaurant — all promising the best fish in Istanbul. I choose one at random. Upstairs, a folk band is noisily entertaining a table of guests who are eating fresh mezze and trying to get the attention of the restaurant’s staff who are gathered around a plasma screen. They are not having much success — the football is on. When Ronaldo scores, I’m convinced he can hear our cheers all the way in London.

As morning rises pale and lazy over the Bosphorus, I head to Kabataş to catch the ferry to the Princes’ Islands — a nine piece archipelago that strings out along the Marmara Sea 90 minutes from Istanbul. That name has a legacy. During the Byzantine times, errant princes were exiled in the monasteries that crown the island hilltops. The Ottomans continued the practice, interring disgraced family members there. Today, these islands are cherished by the Istanbullus for their serenity, Victorian mansions and heavenly views.

Spectacular views of Istanbul slide past the ferry. There is something comforting about these lumbering old ferries that seem to know this route instinctively. After an hour or so, Kinaliada slides into view. Ancient pine forests give way to lovingly restored homesteads with big windows that filter down to clean white beaches; a splitting image of Sydney’s wealthy suburb of Watson’s Bay. The ferry chugs on, and Burgazada and Heybeliada glide by in similar fashion. I alight at Büyükada, which means “large island”.

Stepping out of the Ottoman ferry terminal, Büyükada’s charming town square is ringed with an audience of al fresco restaurants, old style shops, a few hotels and a clock tower. There are no cars on the islands — transport is by horse and cart or bicycle. The occasional carriage clatters by and waiters try to tempt visitors to their restaurants; the village has that peaceful but strangely lonely atmosphere of a seaside village in winter.

The best thing to do on Büyükada is to visit the 6th Century monastery of Ayia Yorgi (St George in Greek), stationed high on the saddle between the island’s two hills. I hire a bicycle and head off to explore. Gracious Ottoman-Victorian manors line the streets and pines whisper in the wind. I wave at the Turkish ladies in their bright silk headscarves carrying baskets of fresh fruit from the market. What a difference the lack of cars has made to this community. People chat in the streets, children play, friends call out to each other. It’s like time stopped in the 1850s.

The cardiac incline up to the monastery rewards hard work with spectacular oceanic views. I get off and push the bike, panting the whole way up. Inside the diminutive whitewashed church, the occasional visitor lights a candle in the softly illuminated room. The walls are hung with curious silver etchings of the saints, with their faces carved in wood — several feature St George and his dragon. I take lunch at the monastery’s stellar and eternally busy garden café. Run by locals, it serves scrumptious home cooked fare so famous that some visitors come all the way from Istanbul just to eat here.

On the last ferry back to Istanbul, sunset cloaks Istanbul in a soft periwinkle as golden lights prick on in the distance. Giant sea birds track the ferry, plunging and swooping to catch pieces of simit bread that the passengers are happily throwing for them. The day sinks away.

Back in Istanbul, the wealthy village of Bebek, is not on the way up — it’s already there. With Monte Carlo’s airs and graces, elegant homes trickle down the verdant hillside towards an assortment of boats bobbing beside a splendid waterfront fronted by restaurants, boutiques and cafés. Bebek’s main street is crowded with Porsches, Ferraris, Audis and Lamborghinis; achingly chic Istanbullus who smile as they parade around in designer jeans. There are few foreigners. It’s not listed in the Lonely Planet.

Across from the world’s most hyped-up Starbucks, Bebek’s wildly popular Lucca Brasserie is packed with patrons spilling out into the pavement; a queue curls into the night. I decide to go elsewhere. Up the street I find Lulu’s, a sexy terrace restaurant with whimsical prints, potted plants, mirrored tables and local artworks. The waiter turns out to be one of Turkey’s top engineering graduates. As I eat a startling wasabi sea bass salad, he explains that the government had paid for him to study at top universities around the world, and now he is returning the favour by working on a major government project by day and in the restaurant by night.

Gazing into the magical night, he says that while everyone is so excited about the future, Istanbul has a number of problems that need addressing. On cue, the street is plunged into a blackout. “This is one of them — this is what I am trying to fix!” he exclaims, clearing my plate by candle light and excusing himself to make a phone call. While everyone waits for the lights to come back on, outside, one green and white logo shines brightly. Nothing will stop Starbucks from capitalising on its winning views. As the waiter — now my friend — waves goodbye, I realise it’s the Istanbullus that bring this city to life.

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