Istanbul: City of the world's desire

Istanbul is a very special city.

Looking back across the Bosphorous at the Golden Horn to see the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque 

But its the people you meet more than the things you see which tend to determine ones reaction to a place. No more perfect tonic to the frustrations of my cycle into Istanbul could be conceived than the welcoming embrace of the Topcu family.

Erdinc (a 23 year old sculpture and keen cyclist soon off the Florence to continue his studies) was all smiles and good conversation. His father's excellent sense of humour was obvious as he held court at the dinner table, in spite of my lack of Turkish. And what a dinner table it was! Mother Topcu was an incredible cook with soups and stews and meats of all types appearing before me. In short, I was made to feel so utterly welcome that I was quite taken aback. My only complaint was that in true Turkish style, as the guest, I was not permitted to do even some small chore to demonstrate my gratitude. Such are the rules it seems of Turkish hospitality.

The Topcu's had also taken in Fia a German traveler who had recently cycled through Tajikistan before flying to Istanbul from where she would head for Antalya to live and work and climb mountains.

Later's Erdınc's geophysicist sister would join us and indulge in furiously good natured bickering with her father about the various merits of Fenerbache vs Besıktas.

In short it was delightful to find myself in the bosom of such a wonderful family who didn't even mind the clutter that hosting two travelers inevitably brings.

Fıa's well ordered kıt, and mine less so...

I was clothed while mine were washed. I was fed excellently and plied with Chi. I was given access to the internet and perhaps best of all could smoke in doors with the family. It was the perfect respite from the road.

Me and Fia making use of said Internet

But with one of the world's great cities on the doorstep I was off to explore. Istanbul is big. Two buses and a metro demonstrated the complexity of negotiation the city. (I would have been utterly lost without Erdinc's instructions)

Successfully reaching Taksim Square, epicenter of recent anti-government demonstrations, I found it bustling with shoppers although a heavy police presence remained.

I found the police and military to be very visible throughout Turkey

First order of business was to meet Christina, a friend of my sisters and resident of Ankara, for lunch (more of whom later as she very kindly offered me a place to stay in Ankara)

From the roof top restaurant I caught my first glimpse of Asia across the Bosphorus 

Then I was off to meet up with Fred, who had arrived some days earlier, to compare notes on the horrors of the cycle in and to toast our successfully arrival in Istanbul.

Having discovered that my bank account now held less than £100 extended bar drinking wasn't feasible and so we took to the streets for a wander.

Note my lack of footwear walking down the Turkish equivalent of Oxford Street after my shoes disintegrated.

Instead we headed to the Galata Tower built by the Venetian's opposite the old city of Constantinople to defend their trade interests and whose imposing medieval Cornetto point dominates the eastern shore of the Golden Horn.

Here we joined throngs of young people seated around it's foundation and availed ourselves of a tinny or two.

Being made to feel ancient talking to teenage students 

Celebratory cigars

The need to get the bike repaired necessitated a trip to the Asian side of the straights. Getting there wasn't straight forward. Despite our best attempts to obscure its nature, the bus driver was not inclined to let the bike on.

How he saw through our ruse ıs beyond me!

Fortunately a quick cab ride to the metro station found them more easily fooled.

Metro led to ferry and then a long push to reach the expert and welcoming bicycle touring haven that is Bisiklet Gezgini. A dutch cyclist returning from China had recommended them to me and while desperately expense in comparison to my modest means I felt very comfortable leaving the bike in their capable hands.

Frankly if they could help stop me getting a puncture every five minutes I'd have happily given them my eye teeth.

The ferry ride back across the Bosphorus

Bike seen to I was free to get down to some sight-seeing in Sultanahmet. Here I found the
ancient Constantinople that I had been seeking. Free of huge highways and city sprawl and full instead of wonders of the ancient and medieval world.

The uncomfortable stance is the product of travelers belly meaning I was as interested in the location of WC's as I was in seeing the sites.

The Hagia Sofia. The largest Cathedral in the world for a thousand years after its completion. It has been used as for Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Islamic worship but following the establishment of modern Turkey stands now as a most remarkable museum where the Muslim mosaics and Orthodox icons sit side-by-side.

The Sultan Ahmed or Blue Mosque built opposite the Hagia Sophia and even larger.

Delicate interior tiling provide its nickname.

Topkapi Palace - former residence of Ottoman sultans.

Süleymaniye Mosque sits atop one of the Golden Horns seven hills.
[Top tip: They have the best kept free toilets in Istanbul]

Valens Aqueduct

The Hippodrome, just north of the Blue Mosque, was the site of chariot races. Riders supported excitedly by the ever influential Blue and Green factions would charge up and down the vast concourse turning at either end around strikings columns. One of these, shown above, is the obelisk brought back from Egypt by Emperor Theodosius in 390. Thought to date from 1490 BC in the reign of Thutmose III the Obelisk is the oldest thing in a city of ancient artifacts and for 3500 years old it is in remarkably good nick.

Then there's the Serpent column - now sadly lacking its heads. On moving the capital to Constantinople, Constantine (the self aggrandising git) wanted it to look swanky had the column transported from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. What Apollo thought about this isn't recorded.

My favourıte spot however was underground in the Basilica Cistern. The cool silent chambers have been tastefully opened to visitors and I was lucky enough to have the whole place to myself. From the medusa statues to the huge fish swimming around in the dark the visit was wonderfully Indiana Jones.

Istanbul is a roaring chaotic place full of life and hustle and utterly distinctive. But after a week I was beginning to remember why big city living isn't for me. Time to get back on the road. But first a quick detour to another big city: Ankara.


  1. Your hosts in Istanbull sound amazing and restore ones sense of the innate goodness of people after the trials at the hands of a lone punk in Italy - gratefull thanks to the Topcu family from his Dad and Mum in London - if your ever in London don't hesitate to contact us.
    The pics of the city are brilliant - loving the blog Dad XX

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