Istanbul: Sunset Mosques and Daydream Cafes
*Like Auckland this piece is adapted from my book Year Amid Winter. My original iSTANBUL piece centred around cafes. I recently checked the weblinks and many appear to have ceased trading (part of the reason I no longer focus on cafes). Most of my photos were lost on an external drive so I’ve had to make do with what I have left. To give an abbreviated version here begins with winter and that means a lot of Turkish tea and/or coffee. Blog also includes affiliate links.
The cloud cover outside the plane is thick and I know the winter Istanbul that will greet me will not be the one of picture postcard sunshine. (Though the blue sky did appear later).
Based in the cities Taksim district, my first promenade sees me amble down the hill past Sishane metro station to the Golden Horn. For the first time I spy The Blue Mosque in the middle distance, or is it Aya Sofia? I eventually find it’s neither such is the number of huge mosques gracing the cities skyline.
I stride past cute kiosks made to resemble the Taksim tram; part glass, part shiny red tram and bicycle wheels to top it off. The manned units sell Simit; a local bread ring garnished with sesame seeds or poppy seeds. Then there are the steaming chestnuts as hot and dry as the people are cold and damp.
On a backstreet I stumble on the wonderful Renkli café decorated in pastel shades of orange, pink and blue. The comfy sofas are taken so I find a corner with bird illustrations on the wall and feel suitably at home in their presence. *I don’t know if this cafe still exists.
There is a lot to learn about the city. Mostly it reminds me of Rome and Prague. In the former instance, it is now the only country using the lira currency. There are arched city walls in the distance and an incredible number of cats and dogs roaming the streets.
Of the latter the city appears to rest on its bygone reputation, but a lot was dilapidated. Some buildings were built but lay empty without glass and some were in demolition state. So were some of the cities vehicles!
As with many foreign cities, Istanbul has its fair share of unfamiliar sounds. There are street cleaning vehicles at odd hours of night, a sound similar to an ice cream van tune in the UK. I later find it is the refuse collectors!
As night falls back in my Taksim room, Armenian folk music and assorted flutes and violins play from the café below. Men pushing carts of Simit shout obscure words much like the rag and bone men of old England. Some just push empty trolleys with impassioned cries of ‘e-yea!’
On another of the cities lanes near my residence I spot a record store and as it’s cold drop in for a look. It is manned by a guy with thick black beard and wavy hair. He nods a friendly hello but otherwise looks forlorn.
I can tell he is the Bohemian type as he’s playing Satie’s Gymnopedie No 4 and I can’t help but feel sorry for him as the shop is nice and clean but clearly lacks any business. Like the second hand record stores in London I could imagine this shop not being around for much longer, a shift in the weather, even CDs are now difficult to sell never mind vinyl.
LET ME BE YOUR NISANTASI
The next day is better with blue sky and sun cheering up the senses. I go for a walk to Besiktas (John Toshack used to manage the football team apparently), swing round for a look at ISTANBUL MODERN and then onto Nisantasi (pr. Nishantasi).
You know you’ve hit a hot spot when you see Porsche, CHANEL, Cartier, Louis Vuitton and girls with above average shiny hair parading around. This is the ‘in crowd’ alright. In the process I am learning which street meets which and mapping out the areas in my head.
In the cool evening light I have once again skirted the Galata Tower, the so called French Street which turns out to be as French as Yorkshire pudding and found myself back overlooking the Bosphorus and the cities mosques in the afterglow of sunset. Some of the lights on the Asian side are sparkling gold while the more prominent mosques stand as cool grey silhouettes to the west of me.
Climbing the grey concrete cat strewn steps into Cihangir I finally find my ‘area.’ It is particularly pretty at this time of evening and the street lights have just come on twinkling in pale green. They overlook a selection of some of the best cafés I’ve come across so far and although I don’t ask for prices it’s a safe bet they’re not going to be cheap.
The following day is blue skied again and I set off toward the Blue mosque just opposite the Grand Bizarre. My timing however is misplaced and my arrival coincides with a kind of ‘prayer-off.’ One minaret wails to life. There is a brief pause and another opposite does the same.
They take it in turns as I approach the Mosque – there are no signs telling me which way or that I’ve arrived, only the crowds give an indication of my location. After navigating my way to a door I am prevented entering because it is prayer time and I’ll have to go back later. But how does the security guy know I’m not there to pray?
SQUAWK NOT SQUONK
Instead I decide to head home and follow the tram tracks down the hill and spot Otopark. As I’m wrapping my scarf tighter around my neck to try and stave off the bitter winds I hear familiar voices crying from the treetops.
It takes a while to spot them but they are definitely present and in fine voice. They are of course my friends the Parrots. Green and squawking like disgruntled little girls whose father won’t buy them a pony, take them ice skating or to the ballet.
My assumption that the park is called Otopark is hilariously quashed as when I make it back to Taksim a neon sign before me says OTOPARK. It is Turkish for car park. Doh! I am 40 but still making cultural clangers, I even ask for milk for my Turkish tea, another no no. Back in the light of day I count eight mosques. Some of which represent my awakening.
One thing which is true and to the fore in Istanbul life is its standing as a city that brings the European west of shopping malls to the early morning prayers of the Middle East. The latter, known as Ezan, is particularly unnerving for those of western ears. Pop music this is not. Rather an abrasive drone that could send water rippling in the other direction. Like the wind brushing against concrete houses.
At Sirkeci station is a rail museum part of which showcases the stunning nostalgic beauty of the Orient Express – wonderfully evocative – I sign the guest book simply as the eternal nomad. Across the Bosporus is the mesmerising port house and station of Haydarpaşa (pronounced something like Hider-pasha).
Regrettably, as mentioned, my own photos of this magnificent structure are lost. Back on the ‘European’ side of the city, I make another vist upstream to the Pierre Loti cafe with exquisite views across the city.
Turkey could have been the base from which to see Greece, The Balkans, Lebanon, Egypt even but in the end my first attempts at teaching English were misguided and merely a brief encounter in the art of returning home. I lost a lot of money in Istanbul but I did get a true travellers photo in my picture postcard of the sunset mosque shot from the ferry. And so it was, London calling, Cardiff calling.
*TIP If anyone drops a shoe brush in front of you, DO NOT PICK IT UP – this is a scam!
*TIP 2 As mentioned don’t add milk to Turkish tea – doh!
PLAYLIST AND CREDITS
*In 2017 I finally got to visit Greece (Thessaloniki and Athens), Bulgaria (Sofia) and Egypt (Cairo) and you can read those blogs should you wish to via The Atlas. Meanwhile, stay tuned with Kulture Kiosk via Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram where you can see some of my photos from around the world. Playlist and credits follow…
The Judgement is the Mirror (from The Waking Hour) – Dalis Car
Revolutions (from Revolutions) – Jean Michel Jarre
Naminanu (from Archive 2 1976-1992) – Genesis
Dust (album) – Peter Murphy
Last Train to Istanbul – Steve Hackett
Photo credits: KH except the Pierre Loti Tea and Simit shot – unknown photographer.