We drove from the Turkish border to Tekirdag, a slightly grisly port town on the south coast. We arrived late and went in search of food. In a café at one o’clock in the morning we met Tayfur. Tayfur is a French language student studying in Tekirdag who very kindly offered to accommodate all six of us on the floor of his shared flat for the night. His housemates were a little surprised when he brought six bedraggled foreigners back having only gone out for soup. In the morning washed and fed we embarked on the two-hour hop to Istanbul. We arrived six hours later and collapsed into a small hotel in the Old Town after a smog-choked traffic marathon through Istanbul’s outer sprawl.
The following day we walked the streets and lunched on Kokorec, a delicious spit-roasted kebab of sheep intestine seasoned with chili and oregano. We enjoyed aromatic Turkish coffee and munched endlessly on Turkish delight. As we gawped at our surroundings through dust-speckled sunshine, I was struck by a palpable appreciation of the fantastic age of the city. 2,600 years ago the Romans called it Byzantium and made it the capital of an Empire that spanned most of the known world. It has been a bustling, important metropolis for as long as such things have existed.
I will try to draw an analogy between Istanbul and a lovely, moulding onion. Bear with me! As one explores, one finds hundreds of years of history layered on top of one another. Everywhere Byzantine arches can be seen holding strong under the weight of neon emblazoned phone shops, Baroque facades flaking away to reveal older stone beneath. As the city grows, the older layers of the onion decay leaving their remnants amongst the new and shiny features of a modern city. This protracted decomposition colours the otherwise energetic and youthful city with an air of melancholy.
Aya Sofya is a perfect example of this. It was built in AD 537 as an eastern orthodox Christian church; it was subsequently converted to a Catholic church, back to eastern orthodox, a Muslim mosque and latterly a museum. For over a millennium it was the largest building in the known world. If one walks around under the cavernous dome one can see great circular placards painted in Arabic symbols, beneath them peeling paint reveals intricate gilded murals of Christian themes. If you look closer you will see graffiti scored into the marble walls by conquering Vikings. The ancient history that we learned in school and perhaps remember as being slightly mythical is represented in Istanbul as concrete and real. I think it is this direct linkage that makes the city so magnetic.
The following evening we walked through the streets of Taksim to gauge what the kind of nightlife Istanbul had to offer. What we found was that the Turks have taken something people enjoy as part of a good nightlife and applied the rule that more equals better. This is a rule that seems to be implemented more frequently and to a greater degree the further you get from home. On this occasion the subject to which this rule has been applied is live music.
As we wandered the side streets of Taksim we found a zoo of tiny little bars, each with a captive musician. Every bar pumped out a fusion of Turkish music and western covers through super-amplified PA systems, each of which seemed louder and more distorted than the last. Furthermore the volume at which these poor caged musicians were forced to play their cataclysmic turkopop was exaggerated by the total lack of audiences. Perhaps it was the time of year but there appeared to be far more bars than punters. We chose one at random and sat down for a beer. The music was fun and lively, a word of warning though for anyone drinking in Istanbul. The bars have a tendency to include pistachios in their mixed nuts. In the dark of the bar I found myself on more than one occasion fishing shards of broken pistachio shell from the recesses of my mouth. You may well argue that after the first time it happened I should have learned, but, I mean really! pistachios in the mixed nuts… what are they thinking, it is health and safety nightmare.
We left the bar a little excitable and strolled down onto the busy Taksim high street to see what mischief we could find. While passing a shop pumping out trademark loud Turkopop Alki and Bas began a bit of an impromptu body-popping street dance. Then something quite surreal developed. I am not sure if it is something to do with the percentage concentration of dance enthusiasts in a given crowd but this crowd had certainly reached action potential. Rich and I started clapping along to Bas and Alki’s dancing, a handful of passers by joked with us and clapped along. Next, a few people started watching and then a few more. Within 2 minutes a crowd of about two hundred people had formed a circle around Bas and Alki. The surface tension of this bubble was eventually unable to hold against the weight of the crowd and the whole scene burst into a street dancing free for all. It was amazing; everyone was bouncing around to Eastern house music, us with more enthusiasm than anyone, buoyed by our 30 seconds of fame. When it comes to nightlife in Istanbul more apparently is better.
The next day fond farewells were said to Alki, Kali and the Boy. It was a real shock to the three that remained to be finally alone. We were now fending for ourselves and about to embark on the tough bit. The romp that Europe had been was over and we were staring down the barrel of Africa. We anticipated some difficulties and we knew that the fun would be much more spread out. I think we were all a little apprehensive but a few of days spent organizing, planning and buying supplies for Africa gave us confidence and a little wanderlust for the challenge of the Dark Continent.
On our last day we went to collect our car from the Otopark in which we had left it for the previous few days. We found, on arrival, that our Landie was tucked in the back of a tiny car park behind about 30 cars bumper to bumper with only a narrow one-way street as access. We would have been a little downhearted had we not previously born witness to the sorcery of the “Otopark Boys”. The two lads that managed the otopark had skill in parking and moving cars that verged on the telekinetic. Only 20 minutes and hundreds of Rubik’s cube-like manoeuverings later our car was freed and we set off for the Turkish interior with a wave and an awestruck doff of the cap for Osman and Imman.