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Istanbul | At the crossroads

Istanbul | At the crossroads
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First Published: Fri, Feb 18 2011. 09 07 PM IST

East meets West: A view of Istanbul’s Taksim Square. Photo: Shreya Talwar
East meets West: A view of Istanbul’s Taksim Square. Photo: Shreya Talwar
Updated: Fri, Feb 18 2011. 09 07 PM IST
Bir sokak gördüm rüyalarimda gecelerce,/Hiç sana çikmadi./Sadece yarim saat tutustuk el ele,/O saat durmadi (I have dreamed of a street for nights/(Of time) Never ending, with you/Just that we held hands for half an hour/And that hour never ended).
So wrote Turkish poet Sebnem Ferah. And tonight I take a walk down this street of dreams: Istanbul’s iconic Istiklal Caddesi, or Independence Avenue.
Tesekkürler canim, thanks my dear,” I smile at the young gypsy girl who sells second-hand books near the Ataturk statue at Taksim Square. A group of traditional street musicians catches my attention as I tuck my copy of Ayse Kulin’s Last Train to Istanbul into my handbag. They are playing an old Türkü, Turkish folk music melody.
The notes from the baglama, a guitar-like instrument, follow me into Istiklal Caddesi, the centrepiece of the old European quarter of Beyoglu, the cobbled boulevard evoking images of splendour and decadence past. Under tulip-shaped lights, over a million people walk the 3km length of this avenue every weekend, sampling its delights and drinking in the lively night atmosphere.
As I make my way down the magnificent boulevard, lined with exquisite roadside cafés, restaurants, theatres, bars, clubs and itinerant buskers, I cannot help but wonder what it would be like to brush shoulders with the ghosts of the past. Was it a Dragoman who just swished by, heading for the Sublime Porte, or was it a demi-mondaine returning from a pasha’s palace? To walk down Istiklal is to be a part of its history. This is the crucible of the Orient and Occident.
My first stop is a fal evi, a fortune house. The atmosphere at Melekler Kahvesi, a coffee house tucked away in one of Istiklal’s many side streets, is exotic. “Hosgeldiniz, welcome,” the pleasant-looking waitress greets me. “Hosbulduk (I am glad to be here),” I respond. I am seated at a table in the Red Room. Soon a cup of Turkish coffee arrives. I drink the thick, dark liquid and ceremonially upturn the cup on the saucer, letting the dregs dry and form “patterns of the future”.
East meets West: A view of Istanbul’s Taksim Square. Photo: Shreya Talwar
After a game of backgammon, I am ready for my reading. I expect the clairvoyant to be an old gypsy woman, muttering mystical charms under her breath, but, instead, I face a 30-something man in faded blue jeans. Ahmet has the gift and is a reputed falci, a fortune-teller. He tells me good things—of birds and friends and handsome men—all from the dregs of my coffee cup. To celebrate my good fortune, I decide to indulge myself with those delectable Turkish kebabs Istiklal Caddesi is so famous for. Ahmet— who lives not only in the future, but also in the here and now— recommends Zubeyir’s Ocakbasi. An ocakbasi is the hot and smoky Turkish cross between a sushi bar and a grill, with a unique culture of its own.
I need to hurry because there is limited seating along the barbeque, where one can watch the usta, the head chef, going about his business behind a brass-topped grill. I head down a side street, making my way through the almost harmonious whistle of the historical tramway, the cacophonous calls of the doner kebab sellers, and the clanging bells of the Turkish ice-cream vendors.
I can smell the kebabs roasting slowly on the grill from a distance. Seeing the turnout at the kebab house, it is clear that I should have made reservations. Just then a large party seated alongside the grill decides to move to the more private quarters on the first floor. This is the beauty of Istanbul; the city never lets you down.
I take a seat around the grill. A huge tray of meze, hors d’oeuvres, arrives with an assortment of breads. I select Zubeyir’s special gavur dagi salad, a mix of finely chopped greens and tomatoes, seasoned with olive oil, lemon juice and pomegranate syrup, and follow it up with patlican közde, aubergine grilled with tomatoes, garlic and onions, and sogan közde, grilled onions in olive oil, flavoured with a tinge of sweet sauce and paprika. One can order raki, an aniseed-flavoured spirit which the Turks call “Lion’s Milk”, or one of Turkey’s many drinkable wines.
Zubeyir, the usta, recommends the tarakli kebaP, spare lamb ribs, tavuk sis, chicken shish kebab and Adana kebaP, a long, spicy minced meat kebab much like the Indian seekh. Zubeyir Usta’s passion is there for all to see. The expertise with which he rotates the skewers almost makes it seem as if he is enjoying a private game of foosball. The usta starts handing out the kebabs. There is a satisfied silence at the hearth as we concentrate on the many flavours seducing our palates. It is truly a meal fit for a sultan.
Walking along the tramline I marvel at the architecture of the multi-storeyed buildings with intricately designed Venetian balconies overlooking this pedestrian-only street. A few metres short of Galatasaray Square, home to the eponymous high school and closely associated with one of the city’s three famous football teams, I join a group of street artists for a cup of çay, Turkish tea, when someone asks me, in broken English, if I am looking for some “night pleasure”. I hastily decline.
I walk past the Balik Pazari, the Fish Market, next to the more famous Çiçek Pasaji, Flower Passage, known for its many tiny bistros squeezed into old Constantinople’s flower market. I walk past late-night shops selling discount clothing and excellent Turkish chocolates. I walk past night clubs and the grand façades of consulates. I pass buskers, sometimes even Native Americans or concert violinists!
As the night begins to grow old, I stop at a friend’s pub near Tünel, the end of Istiklal Caddesi and the second oldest subway in the world. A band is playing covers of Duman, a well-known Turkish rock group, and entertaining a wonderful assortment of foreigners and locals. I make myself comfortable on the black leather couch and order an apple-flavoured nargile. The rhythm of the flickering candle on my table enhances the magic in the air. I sip my red wine and catch myself musing about this ancient city. I smile to myself: Istanbul has worked its charm yet again.
GETTING THERE
Apply for a visa at the Turkish embassy in New Delhi or the Turkish consulate generals in Mumbai and Kolkata. Single-entry visas cost Rs 2,700 and take a couple of days to process.
Turkish Airlines flies from Mumbai and Delhi to Istanbul (return economy fares from Rs 33,000). Air Arabia, a low-cost carrier, flies from New Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata, Mumbai, Jaipur, Hyderabad, Nagpur, Ahmedabad and Coimbatore (return economy fare Rs 24,000). Once there, hotel options include The Four Seasons (www.fourseasons.com/istanbul/; from €430, or around Rs 26,830) at Sultanahmet, easily Istanbul’s most iconic hotel. Book early, the hotel has only 65 rooms. There’s also the Çiragan Palace Kempinski (www.kempinski.com; from €550) at Besiktas and Crowne Plaza Old City Hotel (www.ichotelsgroup.com; from €136) on Ordu Caddesi is a pocket-friendly option.
Child Friendly Rating: *
While the people are friendly and the city is safe, Istanbul’s attractions may not enchant children.
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First Published: Fri, Feb 18 2011. 09 07 PM IST