Tuesday, June 22, 2010

June 20th – Falling over a Cliff in Istanbul

On our first day in Istanbul, we lazily resisted the temptation to get up early for the sail-into this magnificent waterside city. Instead we got up late, and went for a walk along the Bosphorous to the ridiculously opulent Dolmabache Palace, the residence of the last Sultans. The Palace was commissioned in the mid-19th century, just at the time when the Ottoman Empire was beginning to fall apart, and it was becoming known as, "The Sick Man of Europe".

To cover up for their waning powers, the Sultans commissioned a ridiculously over-the-top palace that embraced the western styles and fashions of the countries that were rapidly eclipsing them – France, Russian and Britain. The Baccarat salesman in Istanbul must have been rubbing his hands with glee when the Sultan came calling, because the Palace is covered in crystal, plus lots of lavish gold and silver decoration – perhaps the highlight, or at least the biggest waste of money, was a huge crystal chandelier weighing in at four and a half tons.

As we explored all these rooms decorated in gold, we came across another golden oldie that was a relic of when Britain ruled the air waves. Yes, it was Sir Cliff Richard himself. Our excitement at meeting this 60s legend was slightly tempered by the fact that once we got on board, no-one (apart from the few English people onboard) had any clue who Sir Cliff was. Anyhow, the perma-tanned, ever-youthful Cliff graciously granted my request for a photo opportunity, probably overjoyed to finally meet one of the stars of the Destination Lecturing world.

So, having got over our extreme excitement, we caught the funicular up to Taksim Square, the centre of modern Istanbul, and the start of the city's busiest shopping street. As we walked around the bustling street with all the chains selling western styles and fashionable teenagers wearing skimpy tops and shorts, it would have been quite easy to forget that you were in a Muslim country at all.

Later that evening, a similar feeling applied, as we sat outside the incredibly crowded bars of the Beyoglu district, full of the uber-trendy young things knocking back the beers and cocktails. Looking around, the only thing that told us that we weren't back in Britain, was that it was warm enough to sit outside, and that no-one was fighting, being sick or shouting.

This part of Istanbul is so trendy that it's become pretty expensive, so for our evening meal we tried to get away from the busiest streets, to find something a little more reasonable. Having looked at and rejected countless menus as being too expensive, too touristy, or too quiet, we were eventually so weak with hunger that we ended up in a place without a menu at all. So, not having a clue what anything cost, we just ordered away from the trays of food they had keeping semi-warm in the kitchen. Despite our misgivings, as it turned out, it was very tasty and phenomenally cheap, so it was a good choice after all.