Some time ago we came up with the bright idea that we should travel from Sarajevo to London by train. The Sarajevo part came from Peter’s studies; the train travel from me. I love trains. I mean, I know naff all about trains but I love to travel on them. Stations are easier to reach than airports, the journey is simpler, the scenery is often second-to-none (and unspoilt by traffic or clouds), you can walk around on board, it’s easier than flying to meet interesting people (and similarly to escape from weirdos), no passport control, no hideous journey to the suburbs four hours before your scheduled departure time, and you end up slap-bang in the middle of your destination.
What began as a great idea (fly one-way to Sarajevo, then wind our way back to London via rail alone) slowly disintegrated as we left it far too long to book flights and based our travel plans entirely on the SkyScanner results of some six weeks previously. When we finally got around to sorting tickets to Bosnia, we discovered that the cheapest flights went via Istanbul. Istanbul. Further away from London than Sarajevo – but cheaper to reach. And with a 18-hour layover. We shrugged and optimistically added another destination to our already bulging travel plans. Five countries in eight days was for suckers. We could easily do six.
I wasn’t sure what to expect of the city – would the atmosphere be more Asian or more European? – but I suppose it didn’t come as much of a surprise when we arrived in the airport and were stung by an unexpected visa fee. “€25 for EU visitors” announced a hand-written sign, hastily scribbled and lopsidedly stuck in the window of the booth. Get it half-price on this website, announced another helpful sheet, fully aware that visitors in need of a visa would be unlikely to have immediate access to either internet signal or a printer. We attempted to use a credit card and were denied.
“Cash only” the surly officer informed us, gesturing vaguely towards an ATM. We returned with money and disbelief at the price – “€25? Seriously?!” – receiving a blank, unconcerned gaze in response. Having despondently handed over €50, it wasn’t until we were in the queue for passport control that we took a closer look at the small, expensive sticker which now adorned our passports. We had been granted 90-day multiple-entry visas (despite the fact that 1-day, single entry would have been entirely sufficient – not that such an option existed, of course), complete with the printed price of €15 – and a shady €25 cheerfully stamped on top of the official writing. Brilliant. No aspersions cast, naturally . . . but we had landed on the Asian side.
It really was a whistle-stop tour of the city. We were staying with AirBNB hosts in a small flat at the top of an old tower with crumbling paintwork and wormy banisters. Just minutes from Taksim Square and slap-bang in the heart of the bohemian artistic district, the amenities were basic but the views were astonishing. From the tower’s heady heights on top of a hill we could see all the famous monuments lit up like Christmas – an appropriate comparison since the main tourist drag remains adorned with Christmas lights, snowflakes included. “The first adjective I learnt in Turkish was ‘lazy’”, said our Italian host, Giovanni, “Because that is what they are”. With barely 30 minutes under our belts, it was hard to argue with an ex-pat who’d lived there 18 months with his local girlfriend, especially when staring at illuminated icicles in May. But Istanbul is nothing if not a city of contrasts and reinvention – and Gio came from Tuscany, so bore a grudge against this behemoth of 17 million inhabitants – and I rather like festive decorations, even more so when they’re unexpected.
There were many comparisons to be made with Morocco (lazy on my own part; largely because they’re the only two predominantly Muslim countries I’ve visited), but perhaps the biggest difference was how in Marrakech we couldn’t set foot in the street without vendors descending upon us like vultures, whilst in Istanbul they were largely uninterested in whether or not we wished to purchase their produce. In fact, the first few times we were shouted at in the street I bristled and prepared my “ABSOLUTELY NO WAY” face, only to discover that selling us tour guides was the least of their worries; they just wanted to have photos taken with Peter The Giant. The Turkish aren’t exactly short, but if anything Peter got more attention here than he did in Vietnam.
I wish I had more to say on the subject of Turkey but our explorations were limited to one evening racing around the local area, and an early start today so that we could briefly explore the Blue Mosque (within the complex, but not the building, since prayers were in session), admire Hagia Sophia (from outside the gates) and Topkapi Palace (didn’t even get off the tram). We found one of the few items left from the Roman era – the Millenium Stone used for measuring distances, which suggested all roads in fact led to Constantinople – and a quick slug of Turkish coffee, before whizzing through the Grand Bazaar and deciding that it was indeed grander than the Marrakech souks, and less frenetic, but somewhat less characterful, too. Then it was on to the tram, a zip up the furnicular railway, back to the flat, throw everything in the rucksack, miss the bus, grab some historical gossip from Giovanni (handily, a tour guide), catch the next one, and before we knew it we were back in the airport waiting for the flight to destination number two, as if we’d never even ventured through passport control.
It was a fascinating, if obscenely brief snapshot of a dichotomous country. I will return, and next time I’ll stay for lunch.