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Wednesday, February 29, 2012
See the brilliance of its capital Istanbul, perched on both sides of the Istanbul Strait linking the Black and Marmaris Seas.
Constantinople. The legendary name that today is Istanbul, a mighty and colourful 15 million population city in Turkey. But is this city, indeed country, Asian? Or can it be European? For Istanbul is the meeting place of both continents and Turkey today a new empire growing successfully in its own right after its Byzantine and Ottoman pasts.
Turkey was a country of which I knew only a little. And, as well as city culture, I found peace and sunshine aboard a classical yacht as an ideal contrast – and returned home, astonished at one of the most cultured, rich and poor, friendly but provocative settings I have encountered.
Economically Turkey is accelerating at 11pc – faster than China – and is a truly amazing, evolving place. Yet Turkey is the latest runner seeking to join the European Union. And Britain backs it – albeit, it seems, we ourselves are uncertain of the benefits to us let alone anyone else currently.
We flew there with an airline I didn’t know either – Pegasus, an upcoming Turkish airline, more comfortable and pleasant than our budgets, and serving London Stansted to Istanbul and Bodrum among numerous destinations.
We flew with Pegasus Airlines, www.flypgs.com
Erten Turizm, a tourism agency and Hotel Erten Konak hosted us in İstanbul. They offer Istanbul packages from two and three nights including transfers, hotel, city tour, from 220 euros per person. www.ertenkonak.com Our guide: Ahmet Yekta Usanmaz: email@example.com
Sailing Cruises in Comfort (SCIC) operate from Bodrum. Prices from 1034 euros per person a week for a hosted/crewed cruise including cabin, breakfast, lunch, five dinners, alcoholic and soft drinks on board and transfers, but excludes flights. Or you can charter an eight-berth crewed yacht from 5993 euros. Visit www.scicsailing.eu
More Turkey information: www.gototurkey.co.uk
We stayed in Istanbul’s “old town” – Sultanahmet. In a boutique hotel with elegant bedrooms… the Erten Konak. This area is quieter but generally the city is traffic, traffic, traffic with narrow back-streets, plus main highways, sometimes jammed.
Arrive in the evening as we did and its busy and bustling. Next morning however you see the brilliance of this city perched on both sides of the Istanbul Strait linking the Black and Marmaris Seas. These waters too are busy with scurrying ferries, great ocean liners, fishing boats and rich men’s yachts.
Istanbul’s biggest impact is its past – mosques, palaces and museums that demonstrate the wealth and stardom this huge empire enjoyed centuries ago.
Foremost is the Blue Mosque, the only mosque in the Islamic and Turkish world with six minarets and its silhouette has become the symbol of Istanbul.
The Blue Mosque, 500 years old, is dwarfed in age by the Ayasophia built as a Christian church in the sixth century with the third largest dome in the world. In 1453 Mehmet the Conqueror had it converted into a mosque and today it is a museum.
Perhaps the most decadent demonstration of wealth lies in the remarkable Topkapi Palace, seat of government of the Ottoman Empire from the 15th century. Now a museum, it is filled with jewels and gold valuable enough to dent some nations’ debts.
Here is the startling 86 carat Kasikci Elmhasi, or Spoonmaker’s Diamond. It’s so called because a beggar found the unrefined stone in a junkyard and exchanged it for three wooden spoons. Then its glittering significance came to light and the Sultan took it for the palace. This stone, alone worth tens of millions, is but one umpteen treasures.
Sultanahmet is also hotels, restaurants and arastas – parades of carpet, silk, garment and jewellery stalls. But only 15 years ago it was factories making such goods – these are now in the suburbs making way for the city’s tourist area.
A highlight is the area once known as the Hippodrome – the Byzantine emperors loved an afternoon of chariot racing. Football fans today would be speechless at the teams that raced and, whichever emperor lost he might indeed lose not only the match – but his whole empire.
This country is renowned for Turkish Tea, Turkish Baths, Turkish Delight and Nargileh, a fruit-flavoured water pipe creating a steaming “smoke” numerous Turks enjoy while playing, inevitably, backgammon or flicking their worry beads.
Whatever reason prompts it, for this is a multi-religion but strongly practising Muslim country, they’re more likely to be drinking tea than beer or wine, whatever time of day.
While some Turks take a relaxed attitude towards religion, many visit a mosque. Five times a day is the wailing call to prayers.
Only three per cent of Turkey and its 77 million population is in Europe and its tourism is dominated by Germans, then Russians, Iranians, Britons, Italians and Americans.
You talk with many races and there is a relaxed attitude towards today’s western economic turmoil. Turkey, the world’s 15th biggest economy, grows significantly each year, particularly from construction, textiles, the automotive industry and tourism.
Istanbul is safe, friendly, men give up their seats for women on the excellent cheap, hop-on and off tram system spanning the city, and food is plentiful and reasonable.
Retail therapy? There’s a Bazaar with 4,000 shops selling jewellery, textiles, furnishings, carpets and souvenirs. By the waters edge there are fish stalls and restaurants with fresh mackerel, whitebait and other fish charcoal grilling while you wait.
Boat trips abound, showing you both continents and the array of sites, plus new bridges spanning the waters – and lavish homes matching those in western places.
Ahmet, our guide, introduced us to a café with a view to rival our past greatest sightings including Sydney harbour, Hong Kong waterfront and San Francisco’s golden gate.
The Galata Konak cafe, with an inauspicious entrance you’d pass by, overlooks a massive sea and cityscape which brings tears – you spend hours gazing over it while sinking teas and snacks, no alcohol. The impact of Turkey is here for all to see… a new and independent empire.
Take time on a glorious traditional sailing ship, with good company and exciting weather – and oh what a contrast to Istanbul’s busy-ness.
The sun burned down, it blew, stormed, our SCIC crew tended our needs with fabulous food and wine and voyages set on changing coastlines. The special company made it for Mary and me – three Dutch women and, yes, a policeman also from Holland!
Johan, a senior-ranking officer of humour; Hettie, a creative art practitioner, Irma, a successful businesswoman contemplating a change and Diane, an accomplished sailor and marketer for an American company. There was laughter, entertainment, culture… and growing friendship.
Our captain was Haken, welcoming, competent, entertaining; Chef Servet, cordon bleu; third hand Ender, happy apprentice, always polishing, serving tea or wine – their performance was immaculate.
Naviga 1 has cabins for 16 guests, sun lounging areas, you swim from her, snorkel or windsurf. We over-nighted at anchor in bays, visited villages too.
The ship, cruise and country enthrals. But in one week we guests built a bond. When we finally parted there were hugs and more emotion. A reunion is planned. Possibly in Turkey sailing again, Holland’s meers – or even on our own Norfolk Broads.