Our days have been starting at 4.30 each morning... (I promise that I'll NEVER scoff at other peoples' jetlag ever again...), listening to the extraordinary quiet of the city. A few tiny sparrow calls ready us for the muezzin's 5.45 call to prayers. Because of the ubiquity of mosques around here - at least one to every street - the call to prayers is more of a 'muezzin-off', inevitably won by the chap at the Blue Mosque who has a PA system to match the size of his mosque - as well as the biggest deepest voice. Often the streetdogs help out, howling a soulful counterpoint to the pious wailing.
The Blue Mosque from the Hippodrome
Very soon after, the streets wake up - and the workers at the Four Seasons Hotel across from us get busy. First someone washes down the cobblestones around the entrances - and then others dirty them up again delivering an endless cavalcade of delights to the sybarites within. I had been convinced that the hotel, with its gatehouse, trellised courtyard and corner towers, must have been a major caravanserai - perhaps even the one that Busbecq lived in. So it was a tiny shock to discover that up until fairly recently it was a notoriously brutal prison - the very one that starred in Midnight Express. And as a structure it only dates from the Republic.
The Four Seasons Hotel as seen from our slightly less salubrious room across the road at Burk House. That's Aya Sofia poking up behind.
The sun comes up over the Bosphorus whilst JB has a cigarette on the roof, watched by sharp-eyed remarkably fat seagulls and the ferries, fishing boats, water taxis, tugboats, liners, cruisers, cargo ships, etc etc get busy.
Dawn from Berk House Hotel roof.
By the time it's properly light all the carpet, ceramics, glittery glitter and spice shops have opened and their touts have settled into their first cup of tea, strengthening themselves for their heroic battle with the tourists. These can take many forms but generally have the same shape; they fire a warning shot across the bows "Hello hello you ossie/dutch/german/inglis?" Then, if you make the mistake of engaging by, for example, looking at them, they launch a salvo of reasons why you should enter their shop. JB and I have become very adept at running this gauntlet. Although it's been swings and roundabouts - JB insists on forcing large sums of money onto various shoeshines instead.
We've been very relaxed about our time - there'll be plenty of opportunity to see 'the sights' when Cade is here in February - and have been wandering at will, losing ourselves in the maze of alleys/lanes/stairways/tunnels/arcades and bazaars. Sultanahmet is remarkably fundamentalist and impoverished given that it is the prime tourist centre and you can find yourself in a different century simply by turning down a lane. Everywhere human labour can be used, it is - prematurely aged men, bent double under towering loads of jeans/papers/towels/wood/boxes/bags/whatever push through the crowds. Breadsellers carry their wares on their heads, tea and water sellers have elaborate shiny urns strapped to their backs. Handcarts festooned with fluoro-plastic homewares and brooms, or piled high with bananas or persimmons, or sardines and mussels, or scrap metal, hot corn or breakfast sandwiches, etc etc are announced by the rumble of their wheels on the cobbles and drawn-out calls. Young men deliver steaming plates of food or swing trays packed with tiny glasses of tea. Toddlers try to sell tiny packets of tissues, whilst elderly men hopefully squat besides bathroom scales - just in case someone suddenly needs to know how much they weigh.
We walk and walk and walk - sometimes finding unexpected museums, or tiny stone-turban bedecked graveyards (one was poetically called 'house of silence') and moments of extraordinary beauty. Sometimes we've found ourselves in the backstreets amongst disintegrating buildings that could be anywhere from 1400 to 4 years old; burqa or purdah-wearing women beating rugs out of windows, hanging washing from strings attached to any vertical object, or lugging huge buckets of yoghurt home trailing crowds of cheeky huge-eyed kids, prowls of cats and gossips of men in every doorway.
Everywhere centuries of history are piled higgledy-piggledy - and plonked in the middle of them all, someone is selling something. Homes are built into the narrow Byzantine arches of City wall fragments, lean-tos against the walls of burnt-out 19 th century mansions, ex-hammans can as easily by expensive shops, fruitstands or the local rubbish dump. Apartments on the lower stories of seemingly derelict Ottoman buildings sport lace curtains and satellite TV whilst trees grow out from the broken windows and collapsed roof of the upper stories. Homes are held together with randomly nailed boards, sheets of rust, wire and gelato-pastel paint.
One day we didn't get lost - but then again, it was raining and we didn't stray far. Sometimes we've congratulated ourselves on how much we've got the navigation-thing under control - only to realise that we're not at all where we thought we were.
We've seen the antiquities at the archaeology museum - as well as a million overly=friendly cats, kids playing chasey, calmly watched by bored security guards, around the delicate treasures in the 15th century Tiled Pavilion (which has the most gorgeous cobalt, turquoise and gold tiles), and the melting faces of goddesses wreathed in golden autumn leaves.
JB ignoring the rumbunctious kids at the Tiled Pavilion, Istanbul Museum of Archeology
We've taken in a surprisingly good international cartooning exhibition installed in a cavernous Byzantine church whilst crowds of men very slowly, but cheerfully, installed the technology etc for the competition awards ceremony. We've climbed Galata Hill and found the Mavilani Museum, the centre of Istanbul's Sufi mystics, which rejoices in an octagonal dervish floor, presided over by a huge elaborate 19 th century chandelier. We saw a Dubuffet retrospective and a gorgeous reverse-painting on glass exhibition at the Pera Museum and discussed Ottoman history with an ex-champion rower now café owner. We found the original of the ubiquitous painting of the Tortoise Trainer. We wrote by candlelight during an Eminonu power failure (apparently happens every time it rains), whilst the barkeeper took video of us on his telephone.
After a bracing ferry-ride up the Golden Horn to a ramshackle industrial suburb, we spent hours at what must by the biggest technology museum in the world - massive Byzantine buildings stuffed full of trains, planes and automobiles - as well as boats, bicycles, motor cycles, printing presses, cameras, computers, coaches, carts, gramophones, typewriters, engines, a submarine, trams - and a strange display of miniature things... the one thing that they didn't have was light bulbs illuminating the displays.
We've had our eyeballs melted by the sparkle-arkle at the Grand Bazaar and our brains imploded at the maniacal intricacy of 16th century qu'rans at the Museum of Islamic Arts..
We're having the best time.