There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Istanbul (4): Taksim Square and the Galata Tower


Our short flight from Batumi arrived in Istanbul in the early evening. Once through formalities Lynne rummaged in her handbag to produce the plastic bag containing the left over Turkish lira from our 2012 visit. Discovering it contained 500,000 Vietnamese dong and 400 Thai baht, we realised that we had picked up the wrong bag and headed for the ATM.

Stepping out into the warmth of an Istanbul evening we made our way to the taxi rank. The driver groaned when we gave him an address in Sultanahmet, the peninsula between the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara. The densely packed and always busy grid of narrow cobbled streets is understandably popular with tourists and equally understandably unpopular with taxi drivers, but he forced a smile, heaved our cases into the boot and we set off.

Sultanahmet - not a great place to drive round (photograph May 2012)
After a fortnight in Azerbaijan and Georgia, whose combined population is less than this single city, Istanbul’s size and bustle required some mental adjustment.

We arrived, checked-in and went out for a stroll. Sultanahmet had changed since we were last here; hotels had been upgraded and everywhere new restaurants were spilling out into the narrow streets. August is high season, our 2012 visit had been in a surprisingly chilly May and that accounts for some of the change, but we were sure Sultanahmet looked not just busier, but more prosperous.

After a good lunch in Batumi and a meal of sorts on the plane eating did not appeal, so we repaired to the hotel's roof top bar to drink raki and nibble peanuts.


The Hotel Niles breakfast room - the roof bar in its morning clothes - overlooks the Sea of Marmara; we drank our juice surveying the ships riding at anchor, waiting to load or unload.

A slightly mist Sea of Marmara from the Hotel Niles breakfast room
After breakfast we walked to the nearest tram stop. We had explored Sultanahmet, the centre of the Byzantine and Ottoman city, last time and although we had returned there (to the Hotel Niles where the staff were so friendly and helpful) we intended this time to visit the city’s modern centre. The tramway does not take the shortest route, circumnavigating Sultanahmet before crossing the Golden Horn by the Galata Bridge and running north beside the Bosphorus.

The extensive waterfront development includes the Besiktas Football Stadium and the Dolmabache Palace (which we visited in 2012) but the Taksim area, the heart of contemporary Istanbul is on much higher ground. From the tram terminus, a funicular railway runs up through a tunnel to Taksim Square. Like the tram it is modern, cheap and efficient if rather crowded.

We emerged into the hot, bright sunlight of Taksim Square.

War Memorial, Taksim Square, Istanbul
Taksim Square, according to the Rough Guide is 'the central pivot of Istanbul ... a symbol of the secular Turkish Republic' but I am not the first to observe there is something wrong. The square is vast enough, and there is an appropriate war memorial at is centre, but somehow it is less a city square than a hot, dusty vacant lot. Recent plans to construct a mall here resulted in rioting, as did the 1997 suggestion of building a mosque, but the unrest was more about the politics of the developments than any feeling that a much-loved square should be left unmolested. The Rough Guide calls it a 'failure as an imitation of a grand western plaza.' A failure it may be,  but there is nothing particularly European about the concept of a city square. Tiananmen Square may be a brutalist expanse of concrete, but it is the beating heart of Beijing, Imam Square in Esfahan, surrounded by a palace and two grand mosques, is as fine a city square as any in the world. Taksim, however, is not.

Taksim Square - 'a hot, dusty, vacant lot'.
Our plan was to walk down Istiklal Cadessi towards the Galata Tower. Before our 2012 visit I wondered if Turks actually ate donner kebabs, or were they, like chop suey and balti, invented in the diaspora to feed ignorant foreigners. I had quickly found the truth, and as we stood on the corner of Istiklal Cadessi and Taksim Square that truth was hammered home. It would have been a better picture if I could have persuaded the chatting stallholders to get out of the way, but however long I was prepared to wait they were determined to talk for longer. It was too early to eat kebabs, they were just giving the spits an exploratory turn, but at any time I would have said no. It is a mystery why Turks are so keen on eating something fundamentally nasty (generally I try not to present personal opinion as fact, but sometimes….)

Kebabs, corner of Taksim Square and Istiklal Cadessi
Istiklal Cadessi is a pedestrian street, which is to say it has no cars, but you do have to watch the traffic as a venerable tram line runs down the middle.

Venerable Tram, Istiklal Cadessi, Istanbul
We passed Balik Pazari, the fish market, and took a brief look.

Balik Pazari, Istanbul
A little further along is the Church of St Antony of Padua, a redbrick neo-Gothic basilica. The original, built by the Franciscans in1725, was demolished in the early 20th century to make room for the tramway, and the current church dates from 1913.
Church of St Antony of Padua, Istanbul
It was open so we had a good look round....

Church of St Antony of Padua, Istanbul
... and Lynne felt the need to light a candle. The Church has strong connections with Pope John XXIII who frequently said mass here when he was the Apostolic Delegate to Turkey in the1930s.

Lynne lights a candle, Church of St Antony of Padua, Istanbul
Nearby St Mary Draperis, between, a little behind and well below the Dutch and Russian consulates (the whole area is studded with consulates), is the oldest Catholic church in Istanbul. The first building on this site dates from 1584, its Ottoman era origins accounting for its positioning - only the minarets of mosques were permitted to break the skyline.

Church of St Mary Draperis, Istanbul
That building burned down in 1660, its replacement suffered from further fire and earthquake damage and the current structure dates from 1769 (or 1903 according to one source). Inside is an icon of the Virgin Mary, sole survivor of the 1660 fire. Sadly the church was locked and we only saw the outside.

It was time for lunch and if I am no great fan of donner kebabs, Turkey does have some delights to offer for a light lunch - though in terms of calories light is the wrong word. Turkish Delight itself has whole shops dedicated to it - and wonderful it is too - but for lunch, baklava seemed more appropriate. We found a pastry shop where we could sit and eat baklava and drink apple tea - another of Turkey’s many delights.

Now this I like
A whole shop full of Turkish Delight, Istiklal Cadessi, Istanbul
After St May Draperis, Istiklal Cadessi comes to an end and we turned slightly left into the road leading down to the Galata Tower.

An unassuming doorway on our left took us into the Galata Mevlevihane, a former monastery and ceremonial hall of the Mevlevi sect also known as the Whirling Dervish.

Wudu, Galata Mevlevihane, Istanbul
Celaleddin Rumi, known as the Mevlana, was a thirteenth century Sufi mystic. His followers lived a semi-monastic life where contemplation and mysticism were important, but they were also able to continue with their ordinary jobs and to marry. He instructed his followers to 'pursue all manner of truth and beauty, avoid ostentation and practice love, tolerance and charity. He condemned slavery, advocated monogamy and encouraged women to take a higher profile in religious and public life.' (Rough Guide) He was, in other words, an all-round good egg. The museum was very informative with a display of items used in devotion set in waxwork tableaux. Paying for the audio guide, though, was an error - it told us nothing we could not read on the well captioned displays. It is sad that a branch of Islam that opposes religious bigotry and approaches God through dancing and music should never quite have gained acceptance from the Muslim mainstream. It is equally sad that Europeans dismiss them simply as Whirling Dervishes, there is so much more to the Mevlevi. Having said that, the dervishes still whirl if you turn up at the right time, approaching God through giddiness, spinning in circles on the spot (with a nail driven into the floor grasped between their toes to keep their rotations centred.)

All sorts of hats in this cemetary, Galata Mevlevihane, Istanbul
Perhaps the most interesting parts of the museum were the graveyards, one for senior Sufis, the tops of their gravestones modelled on the hats which signified their status, the second for the most senior - where there was only one style of hat.

Only one sort of hat for the truly important, Galata Mevlevihane, Istanbul
Further down the road, and further below the top of the hill is the Galata Tower, built by the Genoese in 1349 on the site of an earlier tower constructed by the Byzantine emperor Justinian. Over the centuries it has been a jail, a fire tower and the site of some of the earlier unsuccessful attempts at human flight. The 61m tower is now used only by those who want to see the view or use the restaurant.
The Galata Tower, Istanbul
The modern tram round Sultanahmet and the funicular are good value, the much shorter ride up the Galata Tower is expensive - and first you have to work your way through a lengthy queue and then, above the lift, there are still a couple of flights of stairs. The top of the tower was packed and we shuffled round in a clockwise manner – but it was all worth it, the view really is spectacular. The Galata Tower is not particularly tall as towers go, but it is built just below a high point and the combination of sea, city and sunshine is breath-taking. 
The Golden Horn and the Sulemaniye Mosque from the Galata Tower
To the north is the Bosphorus, with the Asian half of the city beyond, to the south the Golden Horn crossed by the Galata Bridge to the bump of the Sultanahmet Peninsula with the outlines of the Blue Mosque, Aghia Sofia and the Topkapi Palace in its green parkland. Beyond that is the Sea of Marmara; as a viewpoint, the Galata Tower is among the world’s finest – indeed everything that Taksim Square is not.

Panorama from the Galata Tower
From the tower we walked down the hill to the Golden Horn and picked up another crowded tram back round Sultanahmet to our hotel where we headed for the roof to drink tea overlooking the Sea of Marmara.

Lynne walks down to the tram from the Galata Tower
In the evening there were plenty of restaurants to choose from and maybe we went back to one we used in 2012, but if it was it had expanded considerably and spread out into the street. A simple steak and chips for me and chicken for Lynne with a bottle of beer, then it was back to the hotel roof for a glass of raki. And that was the end of this trip as all we had to do the next day was head for the airport and start the long trek home.

Other Istanbul posts from May 2012

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