Exploring another era

THERE are places one loves before ever seeing them. Istanbul, an ancient metropolis astride two continents, is a good example, conjuring up romance and mystery, a marriage of east and west, both exotic and familiar to western eyes.

So I was already half in love with Istanbul as our minibus lurched across chaotic lanes of traffic from Ataturk International airport. Gleaming high-rise office complexes, crumbling ancient walls, threadbare neighbourhoods clinging precariously to hillsides, and a multitude of minarets looking like finely pointed giant pencils looming in the distance, flashed past.

There are surprises around every corner. One minute you may be window shopping next to stylish young women in micro skirts and 10-inch heels, the next downcast shrouded females in black burqas are hurrying past. The Istanbul ‘Luas’-style public transport crammed with commuters is but a street removed from the hamals (porters) hired to carry enormous loads on wooden pack frames trudging through narrow, cobbled lanes as they have done for centuries.

A former stomping ground of wildly extravagant Sultans — one kept more than a thousand women in his harem — aristocrats, adventurers, and spies, this last great city of the ancient world was also the final destination for the old Orient Express.

Nowadays Turkey is a global player — one of the world’s top 16 industrialised nations — exuding confidence and prosperity as much of western Europe battles economic malaise. I saw no abandoned development sites nor shuttered-up bankrupt businesses during a recent visit, either. A feature of Istanbul’s shoreline are multi-million-euro villas and penthouses, and five-star luxury hotels, in one of which guests actually fork out €30,000 a night for a suite.

Insiders rave about the precious legacy of Byzantine churches, opulent Ottoman palaces, majestic mosques and the Bosphorus which slices through the city, dividing Istanbul between Europe and Asia. In days gone by, travellers, drawn by Istanbul’s classical wonders, would arrive in style aboard the Orient Express. The A-list VIPs were hauled uphill to the iconic Pera Palace Hotel in a sedan chair, on display for posterity in the foyer of this very grand establishment (perapalace.com), which has undergone a facelift lately.

The merely famous, who would have included Agatha Christie — she plotted Murder on the Orient Express there and has a suite named after her — were dispatched by horse and carriage to the hotel overlooking the Golden Horn. Worth a visit to view belle époque grandeur and splash out on the most lavish afternoon tea on the planet, celebrity guests like Ernest Hemingway and Greta Garbo enjoyed Istanbul’s exotic Turkish baths, fabulous retail therapy and cuisine reflecting the rich Ottoman legacy. By night they hung out in smoky cellar clubs gambling, sampling the pleasures of the water pipe, and enjoying belly dancing.

Nothing much has changed and today’s travellers pour into Istanbul for similar attractions, increasingly so from Ireland thanks to daily direct flights operated by Turkish Airlines and good value city break packages.

I could have cheerfully spent a week exploring all the neigh-bourhoods, doing more shopping and sampling the nightlife, munching my way through miles more mezes — delicious hot and cold starters. Though I did suffer slight mosque malaise after a short sojourn. My erudite guide, Murat, who led me straight to a pashmina paradise called Zaida in the Grand Bazaar, managed to save me from the carpets, swatting off the salesmen, pointing at my strapped up fractured shoulder (from a ski fall in Erzurum in north-east Turkey a few days earlier) explaining that nothing less than a magic carpet would do.


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