Pulsing through the city and cooling the warm air, the Bosphorus splits Istanbul into its European and Asian parts. But this isn’t a city so simply divided. Each district has its unique flavour and each is a rich melting pot, fusing culture in its own way and simmering with activity. I’m staying in Beyoglu – the city’s modern secular centre.
I arrive on a hot afternoon after a bracing ride in one of the local cabs from Atatürk airport. The door to the apartment block is thick solid wood, painted black and seems to be the only thing holding up the fragile building. A few doors down someone is selling Turkish delight from huge jars and a handsome twenty-something is delivering bottles of water from his motorbike trailer, his Levi’s and leather jacket not even bringing a drop of sweat to his face; he smiles easily as he passes. Bugger blending in, first chance I get, the tourist shorts, t-shirt and sandals are changed into, in front of the large fan that is switched to the highest setting.
WiFi signal found, I check out Scruff
and discover the International IstanBear Festival has just started. I go to the bear club night and get chatting to some locals and fellow travellers: a surgeon on sabbatical from Jordan; an accountant between jobs from Jerusalem; a historian from Israel. I get invited to a party where we use English as a lingua franca. Embarrassed by my lack of vernacular skill, I ask if anyone knows a native ‘Turkish as a foreign language’ teacher and I’m put in touch with a man who becomes by guide for the next week. At 6ft with devastatingly good looks, my teacher turns heads wherever we go. We eat out at the Bosphorus village of Ortaköy, sipping cool minted lemonade and overlooking the strait, out towards the sea of Marmara. He tells me about his frustrations with modern Turkey, his love of the west. I tell him I’d rather live here. I learn how to get by in Turkish, a beautifully economic language. We talk about politics and the futility of talking about politics; we share our biggest dreams, unable to communicate in the nuances of small talk.
Dinner is at La Rue Française, a steep, narrow French style street packed with quaint restaurants and cafes offering good but expensive Turkish-French food. Afterwards we walk down the cobbled road towards the Golden Horn, the lights of the city stretch out before us, punctuated by the domes and minarets of Sultanahmet and crossed by the dark ribbons of water that glisten with the lanterns of boats and ships.
The streets are still buzzing with people, with locals and with visitors that, for whatever reason, have come to this magical city. The whole city feels like a passageway, a thoroughfare that’s so delightful that those travelling through decide to rest a while and get lost in its charm.