Have been in Istanbul now for several days. Been down the Bosphoros, up a castle and in a mosque. It’s an impressive place. The central tourist trap, Sultanahmet, is also overloaded with places to go and see, from many different ages. From an Egyptian needle (1500BC according to the guidebook, 400BC according to the plaque), through to the Byzantine hippodrome which used to house a huge swimming pool where they raced the beasts after which it was named, to the Palace which housed the Ottomans, through to the Blue and Aya Sofia Mosques. This city, perched across the straits, gateway to two continents has been the centre of several huge empires for many centuries, robbed only of it’s crown when Ataturk decided that Ankara was the place for his capital, on the basis that finding somewhere to erect state buildings in Istanbul was going involve knocking down several UNESCO world heritage sites.

All of these classic tourist traps make the place well worth a visit: the Aya Sofia is stunning inside, with a magnificent domed space and fabulous mosaics. The Blue Mosque has more going for it on the outside; it’s an active mosque (which the Aya Sofia is not), and it’s been well light, but the blizzard of lighting cables dangling from the room make the inside disjointed in a way that even the restoration scaffold of the Aya Sofia fails to. Still, it’s free to enter, so no complaints. Topkapi palace is huge and full of beauty, organized as multiple rooms and buildings around four courtyards, rather than a single big palace western-style.

What about the rest; well, it’s very easy to get a hotel here in the heritage centre of Sultanahmet. We’re in the curiously named “And Hotel” (yes, it’s a pun); it’s not great. The shared facilities are old and worn; the bedroom is badly decorated and small; there’s been a power-cut and a curious smell of solvent one afternoon. Breakfast is okay, though, and the view from the top is fun. Food has been, well, disappointing I think is the only real way of saying it; I don’t think that I have had two meals that I would class as good; ironic that I can get better, cheaper food of much the same style in Newcastle. The only other problem is that, especially in Sultanahmet, everyone is after your custom and they can be very pushy. This can be tiresome after a while; I’m fed up of answering how I am, and where I am from.

There are also several scams on the go: the one taxi that we took went the wrong way (a spiral is not a good way to get anywhere), and also flipped the meter over to the night rate (50% higher) after distracting our attention — arguments ensued while he tried to convince me that the meter was broken. The second scam is a shoe-shin scam. Guy walks past with shoe shine box, accidentally knocking off his brush on the way. You call after him. He looks surprised, turns away, then turns back offers you a shoe shine, apparently out of gratitude, but then demands a stupid amount with menace. It’s difficult; I realise someone shining shoes probably ain’t rich; it’s pathetic act rather than a callous one. But it’s tiresome and irritating; as with my car hire experience last year, it saps energy and means that you have to always operate with suspicion and distrust.

Next, the plan is to move down to one of the Islands which should be a bit quieter, although I am sure someone will still be trying to sell stuff.

Written on 15/07/2009