“It’s wonderful, a magic city.”
“It’s dirty, but if you must go, at least stay at the Hilton.”
“The Hilton is terrible, and anyway you must stay at the Palace because the barman can get you black market lire.”
“The food is delicious, but there’s no coffee.”
“The food is terrible, and there’s no coffee.”
These are some of the contradictory admonitions given today’s traveler as he prepares to visit Istanbul. None is wholly wrong. Only one is wholly right: Istanbul is a magic city. It is also a rather baffling one, mostly because it is lived in by Turks. Outside opinion about Turks is variable. The English usually love them. (“Your Turk is a gentleman.”) Greeks loathe them, not without reason. The American’s feeling will usually depend on who he is and why he has come to Turkey. If a soldier, businessman, or diplomat, he will like them for their outstanding courage and good, peasant honesty. There is no atmosphere of Middle Eastern trickery here. If on the other hand he is a romantic, an admirer of what Wilia Cather calls “European man and his glorious history of desire and dreams,” he may resent them for having, at least once, burst the bubble. With Diehl in hand and the year 1453 engraved in his memory, he will glare resentfully at the present, rather dingy, condition of St. Sophia and perhaps even ignore the beautiful mosque of Sultan Ahmet, which so perfectly balances it across the way. The best attitude, of course, lies somewhere between. For the fascination of Istanbul is precisely in this uneasy juxtaposition of two civilizations, not blended but rather wonderfully, uniquely opposed, in a natural location which is one of the most beautiful on earth.
The best way to approach Istanbul is by boat, for like New York it rises as a vision from the sea. Not, to be sure, a vision of spires and peaks, but of airy, blue-gold bubbles, seven or eight of them, each with its attendant minarets like slender darning needles, marching up the Golden Horn. All this is instantly recognizable. It is an Arabian Nights illustration by Edmund Dulac. (If you miss the water arrival, by all means take a ferry to the Asiatic shore, or better still, hire a put-put at the Galata Bridge, preferably toward sunset, and keep it facing west. The view has to be seen to be believed.)
Though there are no nonstop flights, most of the major airlines have a through service from New York to Istanbul ($1160.90 first class, round trip; $865.50 tourist), and there are flights out of all the European capitals. Air France has a daily one from Paris, via Athens — a fine starting point for a visit to Byzantium-Istanbul.
If an airplane deposits you out on the bare, dusty plain of Thrace, where the airport is, you see an entirely different view. Istanbul must be the last of the world’s major cities which is not only walled but which still ends, or begins, at the walls. Immediately outside them are little market gardens, Turkish cemeteries, and cypress trees. Immediately inside, the city. This, as one approaches it in the airline bus, is almost exactly the walled town of the medieval engravings.
The situation of the historicallyminded tourist is underlined by the fact that, like all foreigners in the past, he will not stay in the old town (Stamboul), but in the subcity of Galata or Pera, the dwelling place for outlanders since the Genoese and Venetians first grabbed their concessions there. This is tiresome for sightseeing, as everything one wants to look at is in the old city and the day must therefore begin with a considerable taxi ride. It is worth it, however; as you approach the bridges over the Golden Horn you see what is described by the guidebooks as “a fine panorama.” This is putting it mildly. Afloat at all hours of the day in a golden haze (smoke from steamships? cooking fires? I could never decide what, besides sunlight, went into its composition), the ancient city of Byzantium, now crowned with the wondrous domes of the infidel, is an unforgettable spectacle.
All the hotels are in Galata, from the spanking Beverly-Hills-style Hilton ($10 a day, single, and up) to the Pera Palace, with its tarnished chandeliers and atmosphere of nineteenth-century intrigue, at about half the Hilton rates. In between there are two choices: the very new Divan, rather like a well-appointed hotel in Stuttgart, and the Park Palace, shabbier, more fun (its bar is one of the centers of Istanbul social life), and about the same in price. They all have one thing in common. Reservations are essential well in advance. Not because Istanbul is overrun with tourists — it isn’t — but because it is invariably and mysteriously chosen as the site of conventions, and without a reservation one is lucky to get a room in the attic of any good hotel.
In Galata (Beyoglü in Turkish) are also all the airline offices, travel agencies, and many of the good restaurants. Istanbul cookery is, most of the hotel versions of it notwithstanding, delicious. The clear, blue-black waters of the Bosporus produce magnificent seafood (ask particularly for lüfer, a celestial kind of bluefish, and caviar as good as the Russian), and one has only to stroll through the market outside the great bazaar to see what fruits and vegetables can be when carefully cultivated in a salubrious climate. There are eggplants (for which the Turks have ten dozen recipes, some involving — incredible but good —yoghurt) polished like amethysts; bundles of leeks as big as sugar cane; great golden melons with a fragrance, when opened, which seems a lost attribute in their American cousins.
Abdullah is the most famous restaurant. and deservedly. Kervansaray and Kordon Biö (say these over slowly and observe (hat where restaurant names are concerned, there is no such thing as the language barrier) are good, too, though “steak — rare” will probably be as disappointing in Istanbul as elsewhere in the Middle East.
Requiring a Turkish friend as escort and guide are all the little eating places along the Bosporus, as far as Bebek, and the obscurer places in town. In some of these you eat to the local music, which varies horn a deafening yowl soon unbearable to Western ears to a most fascinating musical oddity: the sound of a tambourine, which besides being rhythmically beaten and jingled in the conventional manner is made to sing with the unearthly whine of a wineglass being rubbed by a wet finger.
There is only one serious flaw in Turkish cuisine. The rumor about the absence of coffee is, alas, true. Abundant in Greece, Turkish coffee is, through an economic dislocation of complicated provenance, unobtainable on home ground. One drinks Nescafé instead, and ponders the deeper aspects of international trade. The importation of foreign cars is, for example, so complicated as to be prohibitive, and Turkey is — long after World War II —so short of foreign currency that a black market of thriving dimensions exists. The tourist will react to this according to his principles. He can take advantage of the offers he receives on all sides to part with his precious dollars at double the legal rate, and hope not to land in jail. Or he can stoically refuse. (One is allowed to buy Turkish lire outside the country at roughly the black market price inside, but the catch is that one is not allowed to buy many.)
Sightseeing in Istanbul has unique interest and difficulties. There is the mad puzzle of what is open and when. Rumor has it that a single crew of guardians is responsible for all public monuments. Thus, like the Roman Army of road-company opera, which consists of the same four men marching back and forth, they must move perpetually from the Seraglio to the Museum and from the Museum to the Dohnabahçe Palace — with the result that no two places will be open at the same time in the same part of town. The schedules read like those of the Long Island Railroad in a nightmare. This situation is being rectified.
On the credit side is the fact that two monuments (being restored by America’s Byzantine Institute), once unvisitable except by specialists armed with letters, are now open to the public. I know because I went so armed to the Turkish National Tourist Office, prepared to do battle — only to be told with much charm that these exquisite little churches had been on public view for the last six months. They are the Kariye Çarni and the Fethiye. The Kariye, particularly, should not be missed. Its mosaics (unlike those of St. Sophia, which look oddly blighted and are far fewer than one expects) are in a state of pristine freshness and beauty, the loveliest examples of Byzantine art to be found on the far side of Ravenna.
The taxi journey can be prolonged to include a look at the enormous city walls and the only Byzantine palace left, looking like any Romanesque building (what did one expect?) and abandoned to a tribe of fierce children. Still further on, at the top of the Golden Horn, is the famous mosque of Eyüp. It has the beautifully tiled tomb of the Companion of the Prophet (giaours can see this only from the outside), a courtyard full of storks and pigeons, rising and settling like clouds of confetti, and further up the hill a tremendous cemetery, a forest of the turbaned spikes which are the tombs of Muslim gentlemen. Walk up the winding road through the tombs, and presently small boys appear, shouting what sounds like “Pierre Loti.” This proves not to be a delusion. The little café perched at the top of the hill and commanding a shimmering view of the Golden Horn is indeed called the “Pierre Loti,” in honor of the French writer who spent many dreamy hours there. The trip to Eyüp should be made, at least one way, by ferryboat. The boat starts at the Galata Bridge and, like the Venetian vaporetto, makes alternate stops on either side of the Horn, giving one a constantly shifting image of the city, which — again like Venice — seems always to be looking at its own reflection.
Everyone has heard of the Istanbul bazaar, and most tourists head straight for it. It must be one of the largest shopping centers in the world and is certainly one of the most efficient, its streets being covered — which makes the outside weather of no account — and wares of the same kind being conveniently grouped together. It is like a vast, cozy house, and one can get lost in it in a minute. The most tempting are the antique shops, filled with beautiful old jewelry, embroideries, icons, and wonderfully wrought Ottoman daggers, swords, and firearms. It is always well to watch for fakes, but this writer can recommend the shops of David Musazade and Arnaki Bey for honesty and value. Tucked away among the streets of brasswork, plates, and rugs is a tiny shop (Yuksel Deryaöglu) dealing in exceedingly handsome goats’-hair rugs from Anatolia. These are made for any modern interior and are extremely cheap. Big brass braziers are another distraction, and so are belts of silver or gold, so finely woven that they are as limp as ribbon.
The Seraglio is probably the least refined of Istanbul’s pleasures, but it is tremendous fun all the same, if only for the insight it gives into the private lives of the Ottoman sultans. Here are thrones like sofas, upholstered in gold and buttoned with emeralds; agate teapots; and (of a particularly repulsive fascination) eggcups crusted with enormous diamonds. Here are rubies the size of pigeons’ eggs, inlaid in the hilts of daggers; costumes of Venetian velvet; and endless pavilions furnished in the decorative hodgepodge which was the late Ottoman taste. The divan of legend is everywhere present in fact, upholstered in fading satins and velvets, and except for low coffee tables and an occasional brazier there is often no other furniture at all. Walls are elaborately mirrored or stuccoed, and carpeting is wall to wall — though it often takes as many as a dozen brilliantly patterned carpets to do the job.
Like Naples, Istanbul has environs almost as interesting as the city itself. One should, for instance, take an afternoon to drive out to Bebek to see Robert College, an American institution, and its beautiful terraced garden over the Bosporus. At the foot of the main square of Bebek, one can hire a boat and be rowed across to the tiny suburb of decaying wooden palaces and flower-hung canals which bears the enchanting name of The Sweet Waters of Asia. There is the boat trip (taking a whole day) up the Bosporus to the entrance of the Black Sea, and another to the islands in the Sea of Marmara. On Prince’s Island, you can drive around in a horse carriage and lunch, deliciously, on shellfish. And in all these arrivals and departures, there is the sense of the water-borne imperial city itself, the watchLower at the end of Europe and the beginning of Asia.
Ten days is by no means too much to spend in Istanbul. The catch is that you will no sooner have seen it than you will want to start exploring the rest of Turkey. One thing leads to another, and you find yourself inquiring about getting to Izmir in order to see the ruins of the beautiful Ionian cities which lie around it. Someone mentions Antalya on the southern coast, where there is a charming hotel and waterfalls plunging into the sea, or those churches in Cappadocia, hollowed in the bowels of rocks twisted like meringue.
Some of these places can be visited by local plane (if you’re not nervous about the rather casual Middle Eastern attitude toward the maintenance of machinery). But most of them require a car of rugged build, sleeping bags, Sterno stoves — in short, all the necessities for camping out in a country largely devoid of modern roads or accommodations. The American Express will give intelligent practical suggestions, but what is mostly needed is an adventurous spirit.