My wife and I were sitting at a pavement cafe in Istanbul in mid-April, talking to the Turkish waiter, when a couple came walking along the road. The waiter turned to them and said, in English, waving an expansive arm: ‘You like to come in for a drink, sir ? Plenty of room...’. ‘No, thank you very much,’ said the man, in an Antipodean twang, and the waiter instantly resumed his chat with me. ‘Australian couple, weren't they?’ I said. ‘New Zealand, I think,’ said the waiter.
Quite a lot of Istanbul is summed up in that little exchange. Many Turks stop you in the street, mostly to sell you something, and are never offended if you refuse - indeed they will often go on to have a chat even after rejection. I was stopped by one Turk to sell me a shoe shine, but I said I was on my way to find a place called Gulhane Park. Instead of showing me the way, he explained to me why I should not go there (the whole garden was being dug up and refurbished, it was a building site at the moment, etc etc) and kindly suggested somewhere else I could go. Similarly, the waiter did not really expect the pair to come in for a drink, but he could not bear to let them pass without throwing out the offer.
Nevertheless, although Caroline and I, and our friends Richard and Catriona, were only there for a long weekend, we did get a little tired of being cajoled into buying carpets. Sometimes leather jackets, but mostly carpets. There are more carpet shops per square metre in Istanbul than there are souvenir shops in Piccadilly or rosette sellers outside Wembley on Cup Final Day, and most of their owners will breezily accost you in the street ... ’Hello, where are you from?’ a friendly man will say, and then try to guess if you won't tell them. ‘England ? Germany? Wie geht's?’ At first you think they are just being friendly, and indeed there is no menace in them at all, but sooner or later they will let drop the fact they have a carpet shop just round the corner and if you should just like to come in and have an apple tea, enjoy the carpets, not buy anything, goodness no....
What makes this constant elbow-tugging bearable is that it is all good-natured. Some Turkish shop-owners have almost British lines in humour. ‘Would you care to be my first customer of the day?’. ‘Can I help you spend some of your money?’. I told one man I was from London. ‘Oh, London, ectually’, he said sardonically, in a very good mock-posh accent. Another man said: ‘England? Lovely jubbley!’. Now, how could Jamie Oliver's catch phrase have already travelled 2,000 miles?
And that is why the mosques are so wonderful. I mean, they are wonderful because they are beautiful and elegant and they soar ethereally against the sky wherever you look, and whereas our cathedrals are massively impressive, the mosques are airily impressive, but the real reason they are so wonderful is that nobody in a mosque tries to sell you a carpet. Though the danger is never that far away. The day we went to the Blue Mosque, I passed a group of Chinese tourists looking a bit lost. A potential guide approached them.
‘Hello,’ I heard him say. ‘Do you speak Mandarin or Cantonese?’
Impressive, I think.
And if you do listen to the street merchants, it can easily be to your advantage. One day we went down to the waterfront to look for a scheduled ferry trip or cruise up the Bosphorus. We were hardly within sight of water than a white-moustachioed man in seagoing cap accosted us and asked if we wanted a boat trip up the Bosphorus. He had his own boat. We could hire it for 3-4 hours. We could go where we wanted. He had pictures of the boat to show us, and it looked cute, and he said it would cost us 80,000,000 Turkish lira for the round trip, which is forty quid, or ten quid a head.
What was the catch?
We couldn't think of one. So we followed him, past the big ferries, past the small ferries, past the fishing boats selling fried fish snacks straight from the boat to the public, down a muddy bank to almost the last boat, and the Captain said he couldn't come with us, but his brother would drive the boat and his nephew would act as guide, and despite these dodgy signs, I have to say that after we had jumped aboard and set off to sea, it was a wonderful outing and there was no catch at all. We went up the European side, keeping close to the bank, past the palaces and villas, under the huge bridges spanning the Bosphorus, and stopped for lunch at a town called Rumeli Hisari, site of a huge castle built by the invading Muslims, and then came back hugging the other side, the Asian side, for more mosques and palaces, with only four of us aboard a boat which could seat thirty, when we could so easily have paid more money to be herded in with other tourists.
‘I will show you where you will eat lunch,’ the nephew told us, when we landed at Rumeli Hisari. Ominous words. You know it will always lead to somewhere disappointing, owned by a relative, with backhanders in the background. But I was quite wrong. The Karaca restaurant was the sort of place you always hope to find, a first floor terrace overlooking the Bosphorus, full of the most amazing boats sliding past from the Back Sea, with the maitre d'hotel bringing out a plate of today's fresh fish to choose from. ‘This is sea bass, this is black bream, this is blue fish... all from the Black Sea today...’ and while we tucked into our mezes, our choice of fish was being beautifully fried and grilled elsewhere.
I have to say that back in the big city, we also found our best meals through recommendations from the hotel. A hotel? Recommending really good restaurants? Amazing, but true. The first night we were sent in a taxi to the Hamdi, another first floor restaurant near the waterfront, unpromisingly overlooking the bus station. We were the only non-Turks there. The meat - mostly all different kinds of kebabs - was wonderful. The next night my wife asked for them to get us a taxi to take us to a restaurant called the Rami, which the guide books all recommended.
‘No.’ firmly said the night man at our hotel, ‘I will not let you go there. It is too much of a tourist place. If it is fish you are after, I will send you to the Ocean restaurant.’
And he did, and thank God he did, because the Ocean or Okyanus was again all-Turkish, and it had a band (violins, tambourine, an ut and a zither-like thing called a kanun) which played and sang wonderfully local music. As the evening wore on, the Turkish men (hardly any women to be seen ) got more and more emotional, and sang along with the songs and then got up between courses and linked arms and swayed and danced where they stood. The man nearest us, unshaven and handsome - he reminded me of Lee J. Cobb in "Twelve Angry Men" - put his arm round Richard, and Richard started dancing too, in imitation of Lee J. Cobb, somewhat suggestively, I couldn't help thinking. A great evening...
I think Richard is more up for things than I am. It was he who refused to go home without a visit to a Turkish Bath and he who refused to go without company, so off we went, both of us, to buy a bath and a massage at the ancient Cemberlitas baths, where they are used to novices like us. A Turkish bath is a mixture of abandonment and modesty. You lie helpless sweating on the great marble slab; you then permit the masseur to scrape you with sandpaper gloves till the pores are empty, and soap you down, but at the same time you always keep a thin little loin cloth on, and retire to a locked cubicle to change - I have seen more male nudity while changing for a swim in the Bradford-on-Avon public pool. On the other hand, I came out of the Turkish Bath feeling a lot more rejuvenated than after Bradford Baths, and smelling of anything but chlorine.
The Cerembitas Baths are in one of the old throughfares, by Constantine's Column, near the Grand Bazaar. We in Britain think we are surrounded by history, but the Turks are streets ahead of us when it comes to living heritage; the column is 1500 years old, the wonderful Bazaar warren has been going since for ever, and the baths where we paid for a bathe and massage were built at a sultan's command in 1584. (Where, anywhere in London, can you pay for a service in a building designed for that purpose in 1584?) And all of this, the Blue Mosque, the other great mosque the Haigha Sofia, the Bazaar, the ancient baths, the Topkapi Palace, waterfront - all of it was within ten, fifteen minutes walking distance of our hotel.
The hotel, the Alzer, we chose at random from a list of converted Ottoman houses in a guide book. It was ideal. It was bang opposite the Blue Mosque, our rooms were charmingly panelled and equipped with cushioned window seats, there was a top floor terrace restaurant where we had breakfast and the people were amazingly friendly. (To be honest, the one dinner we had there was the least interesting of all our meals in Istanbul, but the Alzer Kebab which I had at my first hotel lunch was a delicious mix of meats and vegetables wrapped up in a kind of omelette and fastened at the top to look like a huge pork pie.) And as a bonus the hotel is next door to the Museum of Islamic Art and Science, which has the best display of carpets in Turkey. How wonderful it was to gaze at the carpets without being urged to buy any...
I have left to the end the most amazing thing we saw (and the thing which people who have already been to Istanbul have most asked me about ), the so-called Basilica Cistern. I don't know why they call it a cistern. A cistern to most people is a small water tank. This is the biggest water tank I have ever seen, as big as a palace, an enormous underground water storage system built when the city was running dry in about AD 500 and the Emperor Justinian had these vaults built below the city, supported on hundreds of elaborate columns, all still standing. It is said that for at least a century after the Ottomans conquered Istanbul, 600 years ago, they had no idea that this "cistern" existed, and only became suspicious when they saw residents making holes in their basement floors and pulling up water, and catching fish, from below. Now, they have built a walkway over the water, and put tapes of Beethoven on as background music, but nothing could lessen the extraordinary effect of walking through this dimly-lit, underground, watery cathedral.
We arrived in Istanbul on Friday morning and left Monday lunchtime, and in that weekend had time to go to all the places I have mentioned and others as well, like the amazing spice market (not the Topkapi, though - queues too long ), and ate well, and walked miles, and even though the weather in mid-April was no better than Britain in February, it was a magical weekend. The guide books say you should be wary of taxis, but we had no bad experiences at all. No, the only reason I can think of for not going to Istanbul is a dislike of aubergine, which the Turks favour as much as the Italians favour tomatoes, or the British go for potatoes, but no other excuses should be accepted.
And what did we bring back if we didn't get any carpets? Well, in the Grand Bazaar we stopped at a spice stall selling vanilla pods, which my wife can never find at home. I started trying to haggle, but my wife brushed me aside and beat the man down to a price for four pods which I don't think he ever intended to go as low as.
‘She is better at this than you,’ he muttered to me. ‘In fact, I think she is better than me.’
Praise doesn't come much higher than that. I have regarded her warily ever since.