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James Skinner
‘We don’t want to buy anything,’ says my wife, ‘can we please continue our tour!’ I’m petrified.

‘There are two groups of tourists in this world; those that have been to Istanbul and those that haven’t. Within the former, you will encounter the odd connoisseur (like my son who spent four months in the place) or the lot that I would call ‘the one-offs-after-a-crash-course-on-Turkish-history’ including most of my fellow passengers and I. Leaving behind all those on the guided tour; my wife and I sheepishly de-boarded the ‘Renaissance’ and started our one-day adventure by seeking out the only taxi left on the quayside. Before I even agreed to hop into the awaiting dilapidated Skoda, our future driver opened the passenger door and greeted us in broken English: ‘Hello, I’m Chani. 80 Euros; all day to city.’ Deal done at half the price and, uncomfortably seated in the shock-absorberless bone crusher we started on the first day of our Eastern venture.

Don’t expect, dear reader, a routine description of the usual tourist ‘hot spots’ of this city. You can buy them in any bookstore! Sure, anyone who has taken the meekest interest in the place as a scholar or as a mere visitor will know that Istanbul (it’s in Turkey) is a complex mixture of Eastern and Western civilisations. Islamic, Christian and a few other traditions have been falling over each other and competing over centuries for first place in almost anything that ranges, to name a few, from beautiful architecture in the form of monuments or houses of worship to expensive trinkets and cuisine delights. Once it was called Constantinople a hundred years ago.

As we left the docks and crossed the ‘Galata’ bridge that spans the Golden Horn of Istanbul, we headed towards the centre of the old town. I sensed something different. I knew I was in for a party. Chani was part of the cocktail! He was also on the ball.

After a brief stop (which coincided with my first task as official cameraman of the day) at the beautiful Hagia Sophia mosque, built originally in the 6th century as a Christian church we made our way to the famous Suleyman mosque. Once we removed our shoes and placed them in a conveniently supplied plastic bag, we ventured into this holy temple to observe one of the largest Islamic worshipping places in the world. It was magnificent. I commented on the size of the traditional Muslim praying carpet, a complete piece as large as a football pitch with the same monotonous pattern. ‘Ah!’ uttered our guide. ‘For years there were many beautiful and precious carpets of different ornamental designs, but many evil people began to steal them!’ I left the site wondering: ‘signs of modern western vandalism?’ Mid morning and I needed…yes, it was time for a leak.

Our guide pointed me in the direction of the toilets. They were some two hundred yards away and around the back of the building. Stepping down into a type of WWII air raid shelter, I entered into one of two hallways that divided the men’s area from the women. Although built for midgets, there were rows and rows of the usual Eastern ‘standing only’ relieving areas. Apart from a few tourists, there was no one else around. Having finished my oriental style ‘chore’ and proceeding to depart the precinct, a burly uniformed Turk approached me from a small cubicle I hadn’t noticed and uttered a short burst of unintelligible syllables. ‘Don’t understand’, I said. Without hesitation he answered: ‘one Euro!’ ‘What? I have to pay to pee?’ I asked. ‘One Euro’ he insisted. I looked into my pockets and all I had were twenty Euro notes. I pleaded with a Dutch tourist about to enter the unholy shrine for a loan. He ignored me. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a little Turkish kid came to the rescue. He handed the geyser coins, smiled at me, and buggered off!

I couldn’t believe it! ‘Did you see that?’ I asked my patiently awaiting wife. She burst out laughing. ‘Can’t you see the fiddle?’ she added. ‘You don’t have to pay a thing. Yet they’ll try it on and ask for a Euro or dollar or whatever. If you can’t pay, for whatever reason they legally can’t stop you from leaving. So this kid, waiting in the dark, helps out by ‘paying it’ for you. Once you’ve gone, he’ll get the money back. That’s the catch.’
‘So where’s the scam?’ I asked her.
‘Some tourists like you, obviously can’t or don’t pay, but think of the many unsuspecting ones that do!’ Big deal!

We continued our tour, guided by the ever-faithful Chani who took us to a couple of contrasting attractions, an unmistakeable Roman aqueduct subsequently followed by a visit to a waterfront fish market. Well, we all know what these ancient man-made overhead streams look like don’t we? They’re all over Europe! But what I hadn’t noticed, and I realise that I may be preaching to the converted, was the ridiculous contrast of a traffic jam on the road that ran under one of the arches of these magnificent relics of the past. I suppose one could picture Roman chariots, years ago clogging the same artery in contrast to the water supply that flowed freely above them without any hassle. Our next stop to the fish market was something else.

As if to add to the attraction, some idiotic ship’s captain, some years ago sailed his metal fishing monster onto the banks of the Bosphorus a few hundred yards from the market. No kidding! You could almost touch the rusting hulk, whilst you haggled over the price of the latest catch. Although it was Sunday, the market was open yet there were no buyers. The locals were nowhere to be seen. There were a few tourists, similar to ourselves, taking photos of the elegantly displayed sardine-like fish, some spread out on round baskets looking like the spokes of a large wheel. The fishmongers were constantly dousing their product through hoses with water pumped from the sea. An occasional squirt would end up in a bucket where the odd live fish, still gasping for an ounce of oxygen were awaiting their final doom.

We’re now back in Chanii's chariot, but this time we’re off to see his relatives! I wonder why?
In a small but luxurious jewellery shop, not far from the old hippodrome Chani introduces us to his ‘nephew’ as well as his ‘old grandfather’. Out come the jewels and carpets and the soft ‘come hither’ talk of an Eastern salesman. ‘We don’t want to buy anything,’ says my wife, ‘can we please continue our tour!’ I’m petrified. After a few moments of getting nowhere, the old geyser, translated by ‘the nephew’ babbles on about his unique and genuine Persian carpets, for sale at a bargain price. ‘Oh! Oh! Here we go,’ I thought. ‘He’s struck a cord with my wife!’ Having lived in Iran for nearly three years, I knew what was coming. For the next half hour, my wife and granddad exchanged anecdotes on topics ranging from the demise of the Shah to the beauty of the city of Tehran. We left the shop without buying a thing. We did however, engage ‘nephew’ as our new tour guide.

Our next stop was the famous Sultanahmet Mosque. I honestly thought I could avoid ‘brochure text’ descriptions, but the sheer beauty of this monument deserves a small dedication in this otherwise routine note on our visit to Istanbul. Suffice to say that apart from the uniqueness of its number of minarets, six instead of four, the whole of the walls in the interior of the building are covered with Iznik tiles (dominated by the colour turquoise). As daylight flows onto them, through 260 skilfully arranged windows in the domes and walls a magnificent colour effect is created that has aptly earned the building its name as ‘the Blue Mosque.’ No one touring Istanbul can avoid a visit to this famous seventeenth century monument.

Our second to last stop before returning to the ship was, of course, the Topkapi Palace. Remember the film with (good heavens, not again!) Melina Mercouri and Peter Ustinov, all about the theft of the Topkapi jewels? Well, our ‘nephew’ guide warned us before we arrived that because of all the publicity it would cost us ‘many Euros’ to visit the whole place. I looked at my wife and said: ‘for 5 Euros I can buy all the necessary postcards on the joint. Lets head for the Bazaar.’ Without a word, she agreed. How odd?

Chani took over from the ‘nephew’ and dropped us off at the pedestrian avenue leading to the entrance of the famous Bazaar. We were at the end of our day in Istanbul. There was no one about. The shops that lined the avenue were open and owners leered and beckoned at us as we made our way towards the famous medieval shopping centre. Goose pimples appeared at the back of my neck. Something is wrong! As we approached the main gate I realized why; it was Sunday and the place was shut! Fortunately, a few small shops on the outside ‘imitating’ the supposedly interior ones were open. We made our one and only purchase of souverniers, a typical Turkish coffee set (total cost 25 Euros).

On our way back to the ship I asked Chani about the tourist trade. With a sad look on his face he said: ‘since September 11th we are struggling! Americans no longer come.’ I didn’t reply but thought: ‘pity, they don’t know what they’re missing.’

© James Skinner.August 2002.


James Skinner

As expected,the ship was a sixties rust bucket all spruced up for the umpteenth time, just like Bette Davies in ‘Whatever happened to Baby Jane?’

James Skinner

James Skinner on Carrys On Cruising The Med
Part 4: my cabin was tucked away between the ship’s kitchen and the funnel shaft

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