Istanbul: Of new friends and felines

It’s bit shallow – but the guy was only here for a week. Anyway, it’s nice to read something positive about Turkey for a change. This was published in the NZ Herald travel section (I’ve abridged it a little). Surprisingly, the guy didn’t see any Arab tourists!

DSCF1962Michael Lamb makes friends with hospitable locals and countless cats while exploring Istanbul’s deep, rich history.

It’s after midnight and we’re wandering the tangled lanes, heading back to our hotel.

We’d had dinner at 360 Istanbul, a rooftop restaurant up near Taksim Square, which, as the name suggests, offers spectacular sunset views of this amazing city. Dinner rapidly turned into a social affair, joining tables of boisterous travellers to drink and talk global politics.

Then we came across a cool hole-in-the-wall cafe/bar and stopped in for a nightcap. They’d closed the cash register for the night so offered us a round of beers — for free. More travellers stopped, more beers were offered and another session of discussing the wonders of Istanbul and the state of the planet unfolded.

And so typical of a night out in Istanbul, where you make friends faster and easier than any other city I’ve been to in the world; where the desire to interact with visitors is genuine and limitless.

If the hospitality isn’t enough, then there are the cats. The movie Kedi, a meditation on the wondrous lives of the cats of Istanbul, is one of the sleeper hits of 2017, having gained traction on the festival circuit last year. Shot on a low budget, it’s already taken more than US$4 million and counting.

Some people say the cats are merely a cute distraction from the deep truths of Istanbul and wider Turkey. This is a city that’s taken its fair share of hits in the new era of extremist terrorism. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s determination to stamp out activism and political opposition is casting a dark shadow across the Turkish soul. People talk about it, but quite rightly it makes them unhappy and uncomfortable [On this last point, it depends who you talk with, in fact].

As tourists here for just seven days, we decide to stick to our tourist knitting. And in that game, Istanbul rolls out the red Turkish carpet every time — though everywhere you go it’s noticeable the numbers are down. The city is on the hot destination lists but the reality is, mainstream tourists are spooked and staying away.

On the ground, this fear factor feels ridiculous: in a city of 15 million people (officially, the locals reckon it’s more like 20 million) your odds of running into trouble are, I’d wager, microscopic.

We tour the famous and fabulous Grand Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar. The other tourists we encounter are an unexpected mix: a lot of Russians, Chinese and Eastern Europeans.

We hit the tourist-book standards like the vast Blue Mosque, the Galata Tower and the Istanbul Modern Art Museum. We gape at the magnificence of the soaring Hagia Sophia cathedral and the subterranean Basilica Cistern, a beautifully ornate underground water reservoir. Both the Hagia Sophia and the Cistern were built by Emperor Justinian I in the 6th century. Justinian and his wife, Theodora, are the coolest couple you could hope to find and their legacies are worth a trip to Istanbul alone.

A week in Istanbul is a mere heartbeat in the long, timeless story of this city, a place with such a deep, rich history. You could spend aeons here and still find something new. And while tourism fatigue is hitting places like Barcelona and Paris, in Istanbul you can guarantee you’ll be welcomed with open arms. So there’s never been a better time to go — especially if you’re a cat person.

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