After twenty-four hours in the air, Sydney to KL, KL to Istanbul I arrived in Turkey. I am here for a conference but have come a couple of days early in order to see some of the city of Istanbul. My motel is in the “old city”, a beautiful network of narrow, cobbled streets and old buildings.
A short walk and I’m in the tourist precinct. The attractions are a series of old buildings. As I wander through the gaggle of tourists I soon discover there are unofficial guides who offer their services and don’t seem to take no for an answer. Finally one wears me down. He simply wants an opportunity to improve his English he says and insists there will be no charge. I suspect this is not the case, that at the end of showing me around he will make a plea for some form of payment. Sembi, my reluctantly acquired guide, is friendly and helpful. We are in crowded, open places with quite a few police around so I don’t feel any risk to my safety, only to my wallet at the end of this tour. I ask questions about the culture that he answers as we wander around the ancient Roman hippodrome, old mosques, and a breathtaking look out over the Bosporus. We are heading for the Blue Mosque when I discover the quid pro quo involved in having him as my guide. He cheerfully informs me that his family has a business selling rugs, and as we are passing by, he would like to show me. I am ushered into a well appointed shopfront, with quite a number of people going in and out. One of Sembi’s “cousins” appears and commences his sales pitch. I’m shown many quite beautiful rugs worth thousands of dollars and encouraged to buy. Meanwhile, Sembi has disappeared. Apparently his English is well enough rehearsed with me and he’s off to find some other person to offer his services. I’ve learned my lesson. Rookie error.
I make my way to the Hagia Sophia, an ancient church that was later converted into a mosque and today is a museum. I have absolutely no idea what to expect. What I discover is the most magnificent building I have ever seen. From the outside it looks impressive enough with its domed roof and spires. But once I step inside I am amazed. The roof is impossibly high and decorated with astonishing mosaics. Grand columns, massive chandeliers, enormous stones. It’s an engineering marvel, particularly when you consider it was built almost 2000 years ago.I take a self-guided tour. Forty-four spots have been marked around the building and I have a headset and radio pack to give me information about each spot. Here are the places where emperors were enthroned and grand politics undertaken. It’s magnificent.
Jetlag is beginning to catch up with me and I need some sleep. I head back to my motel, sleep for a few hours, and then head out to find some dinner. I settle upon a restaurant that serves traditional Turkish food and order a chicken dish. I’m eating alfresco and I watch with some amusement as the manager of the restaurant greets every foreigner passing by and tries to draw them into his establishment. Most people seem to find it annoying, and during the hour or so that I am there not one person he accosts chooses to eat at his restaurant. He was not the only one. His is one in a strip of restaurants, and as I walked along looking for one in which to eat I encountered a raft of people commending their establishments. They were never rude. Always polite and quite cheerful.
The chicken casserole has subtle but quite satisfying flavours. Accompanied by Turkish breads and a Turkish beer, it is completed with apple tea, a hot, sweet drink with a quite delicious flavour. It won’t be the last I have while I’m here. I walk the cobbled streets back to my motel, ready to crash. It’s been a good day.