IMAMS calling the faithful to prayer, demonstrators chanting about animal rights, women shrieking with laughter in the hamam, the slap of card on green baize as men while away the hour before evening prayers, the sizzle of street food and pump of city centre nightclubs … the sense that was most entranced by the siren call of Istanbul was my hearing.
The other four fell in love too, with a city that has one foot in Europe and one in Asia, as it straddles the Bosphorus and looks to the future, at the same time glancing back over one shoulder to the past.
Time was short, our visit as fast and furious as Daniel Craig’s in Skyfall, although rather than having a helicopter at our disposal, we flew direct from Edinburgh with Turkish Airlines.
The city looked vast, laid out before us through our hotel window. Located in central Taksim Square, the Hotel Marti is a soaring 11-storey, five-star affair with interior design by the award- winning Zeynep Fadillioglu, the first woman in Turkey to design and build a mosque, the Sakirin, in Istanbul. Her modern take on Islamic architecture revels in simplicity of form and the beauty of natural materials and colours.
It was hard dragging ourselves away from the suite, with its very own marble Turkish bath, but we were up with the imam as dawn came early, rosy fingers pointing out the faded patchwork of tiled roofs steadily giving way to chrome and glass skyrise as the city that has doubled in population in the last two decades marches ahead. It was time we caught up.
We set off down Istiklal Caddesi, a pulsing artery of hedonism that snakes through the city centre districts of Beyoglu and tumbles on down to Galata and the Golden Horn river beyond. It’s raucous, bustling, with shisha bars where we later smoked pipes of charcoal infused with apple and drank mint tea, and no end of restaurants to try traditional dishes such as iskembe (mutton soup), or simply eat a portion of mussels filled with spicy rice, or roasted chestnuts as you walk, to a soundtrack ranging from gypsy violinists to thumping techno that seemed to go on all night.
Walking on down the streets that tumble towards the water, familiar from the pages of Istanbul’s most famous literary son Orhan Pamuk, we crossed the Galata Bridge with its fishermen. Each with a rod dipped into the Bosphorus, they created a vast fish spine stretching the length of the bridge. Small tables displayed their catch, all for sale and providing fillings for the fresh fish sandwiches that will keep you going on your never-ending wanderings.
First stop a mosque, but which one? Should we go to the fabulous Hagia Sophia with its vast dome and mosaics, the epitome of Byzantine architecture and in turns an eastern orthodox cathedral from around 350AD, then mosque from the 15th century and, since 1931, a museum? Or visit Yeni Camii, the New Mosque, with its slender marble-columned interior and multiple soaring domes, or perhaps the Blue Mosque, named for the stunning blue tiles that line the walls? We went to them all, easy enough as Istanbul is a walking city and a lot of the ‘must-see’ historic sites are located in Eminönü, south of the Golden Horn river. Gazing upward until our necks ached, toes gripping the deep shag-pile to keep us upright, we savoured the stillness and mumbling of prayer so in contrast to the intensity of human traffic outside.
After overdosing on mosques, then the mosaics at the Church of the Chora, it was time to wind down with a hamam, or Turkish bath, and we washed up at the Çemberlitas on the south side of the river. Built in 1584 by the sultan’s architect Sinan, it’s a twin-domed building, one for men, the other for women, and bar a few coats of whitewash and squeaky clean new wooden changing rooms installed last year, little appears to have changed since.
Dispatching an uncertain boyfriend to the men’s quarters, I hot-footed to the women’s and once through the door was immediately enfolded in a powerful embrace of steam, heat, noise and soap suds. The hot area is a circular room, the star and moon-studded dome held up by elegant arches arranged around a huge central slab of grey marble on which women of every shape and size lolled as unselfconscious as seals on a rock. Being a hamam virgin, I was a little cautious, picking my way across the marble floor, clutching a mitt, a little plastic bag containing I’ve no idea what, and wearing nothing but a checked cotton wrap. A bikini-clad martinet (think Julie Walters as Mrs Overall in Acorn Antiques), who was engaging in a vocal power struggle with her second in command, tooks me firmly by the arm, whipped off my wrap and waveda wiry arm towards the slab.
As I stood there naked, she turned back to berate her nemesis, gesticulating wildly above her head with what I now realised was a pair of pants I was supposed to be wearing. I lunged for them, she hoisted them higher, finished what she was saying, then finally unwrapped them and, with a proprietorial flourish, held them open at floor level for me to step into. At last, they were mine.
Next she emptied a bucket of soap suds over me, scrubbed me so vigorously with a mitt it was like being licked by a huge cat, gave me a massage, then flung bowlfuls of warm water over me to rinse. Then it was a doze in the centre of the slab for an agreeable hour, listening and watching the bickering, Saturday night singing and dancing and carry-on of the local women. I emerged somehow empowered, renewed and very, very clean, to find my boyfriend waiting. How was the men’s section? “Oh, nice and quiet,” he reported.
Another unfamiliar experience was bartering, one you can’t avoid in Istanbul. If it’s leeches you’re after, and our hotel concierge swore by them for his father’s non-specific malaise, head to the spice market behind the New Mosque. They also have birds, dogs, cats – oh, and spices too.
Our appetites whetted, we decided to hit the Grand Bazaar, my boyfriend hankering after a set of snazzy tea glasses, but haggling soon lost its appeal when we realised we could get them cheaper in Scotland. After no doubt paying way over the odds for some fresh Turkish delight, we exited, and sat on some steps, watching traders peddle their wares as we ate steaming chunks of meat slammed in slabs of bread with salad and one of Istanbul’s army of tame stray cats rubbed against our legs.
Three days was never going to be enough and despite roaming for three days solid, we knew we had only dipped our toe in the Bosphorus. We still hadn’t made it across to the Asian side of the city. We’d have to go back. Asia awaits.