Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Istanbul Day 6 – Topkapi and Turkish fast food

Istanbul is often seen as a meeting of East and West, but to my eyes it’s just as much North and South. The Bosphorus runs N-S and it is this route that gave the city its rich customs duties. It guards the Bosphorus. Even today you hear Russian and eastern Europeans and hardly any English voices. Pakup’s Istanbul is wonderfully evocative when it comes to the Bosphorus and it’s role in Istanbul’s geography, history and sense of place. He describes the ships that collided, exploded and went on fire, the huge Russian warships sailing through in the dead of night, the shipload of 20,000 sheep that sank taking most of its sheep with it, the sad decay of the yalts (mansions) that line the shore, the castles, the city walls and the differences in cultures between the different parts of Istanbul. This is true. One can walk across the Galata bridge and feel that you’re in another country.

Topkapi Palace
I was disappointed by the seamier side of Ottoman decadence as the exhibitions are one big blingfest. Room after room of jewel encrusted objects. Nothing more than the lazy expression of power and wealth. The views over the Bosphorus and the relic room holding the Prophet Mohammed’s relics were the only highlights. A gold gutter from the Kaaba, his mantle (case), hairs from is beard, sword, bow, dust from his tomb, even his footprint. Beginning to spot key Arabic phrases such as Allah, Prophet Mohammed, In the name of God the compassionate and merciful. The view across the Bosphorus is the high point of the palace.

Stopped off for some Turkish fast food, potato pastries, meat rolls and fresh orange juice. Sad to see a few Macdonald’s around when there’s so many good Turkish fast food joints. Thankfully, I only saw foreign tourists inside.

Why a Fez?
I’ve always liked the Fez so looked it up on Wikipedia at the airport. Turns out it’s a Greek Byzantine invention, taken up by the Ottomans, as western hats couldn’t be kept on during prayer, as one’s forehead had to touch the ground. You’ll not see a Fez anywhere other than on hotel bellhops and at fancy dress parties, as in Istanbul as a reminder of Ottoman rule.

Tommy Cooper tells a great story of him visiting the bazaar in Cairo and looking at a fez, when the shopkeeper comes up to him and says, ‘Just like that!’. Tommy says, ‘I am Tommy Cooper,’ and the guy says, ‘Who?’ He explained that everyone who came up to buy a fez had used that phrase, He had no idea why.

Farewell to the excellent Hotel Niles and off to the airport. This was a fine little hotel. The two people on the front desk and all of the staff have been hired for enthusiasm and go way beyond the norm to be welcoming and helpful. Book direct on their website.

Istanbul Day 5 – City Walls of Byzantium

Pakup’s Istanbul refracts the city through his own eyes as well as those of other Istanbul and foreign writers such as Flaubert, Nerval, Gautier and Twain. This is what makes this book such a powerful testimony. It’s not an over-romaticised view of the author’s city but an honest account of many perspectives. He sees that foreign visitors can see the picturesque in a way that is difficult for its residents, as they harbour too many memories. He also sees how western art managed to capture the city in a way that Islamic art did not. On the other hand he praises the journalism and historians of his own city.

Grand Bazaar
A walk through Bazaar is no real hassle and there’s much to see, and buy. It’s a riot of colour, but really aimed at foreign tourists, therefore full of tat. The entrances, however, I loved. Just outside of these the city springs into real life. Inside, it’s all a show.

Sultanahmet (Blue) Mosque (1609)
Returned to step inside the famous blue interior. The interior has scale but not the elegance of the Suliymaniye. Its tile covered walls are certainly impressive - it nearly exhausted the Iznic kilns but I prefer the exterior with its six minarets.The cube is topped by an ascending system of domes and semi-domes, culminating in the central dome, which is 33 meters in diameter and 43 meters high at its central point. The overall effect is one of perfect visual harmony, leading the eye up to the peak of the dome. The Sultan Ahmed Mosque is the only mosque in Turkey that has six minarets. When the number of minarets was revealed, the Sultan was criticized for presumption, since this was, at the time, the same number as at the mosque of the Ka'aba in Mecca. He overcame this problem by paying for a seventh minaret at the Mecca mosque. At its lower levels the interior of the mosque is lined with more than 20,000 handmade ceramic tiles, made at Iznik (the ancient Nicaea). Its upper levels are painted. More than 200 stained glass windows with intricate designs admit natural light, today assisted by chandeliers. On the chandeliers, ostrich eggs are found that were meant to avoid cobwebs inside the mosque by repelling spiders. The decorations include verses from the Qur'an, many of them made by Seyyid Kasim Gubari, regarded as the greatest calligrapher of his time.

Roxene’s Hamman (1556)
Suleyman’s wife’s bath complex. Now a carpet museum/shop this is well worth a visit. Completely symmetrical (men and women entered at opposite sides), you wander trough rooms littered with wonderful carpets. Extensively restored, it was a working hamman until 1910.

Archaeological Museum
This was a real surprise. One room contains a chronological history of Istanbul with full explanations for all of its major Roman and Byzantine buildings, gone or still standing. This is an ideal introduction to the history and architecture of the city. There’s a full floor of exhibits from Schlieman’s Troy, displayed layer by layer. Then there’s a beautiful pavilion dedicated to the history of tiles and ceramics. But the masterpiece is the Alexander Sarcophogus, not his tomb, but that of a Lydian King who decorated his tomb with deeds of his hero. The workmanship is astounding. The treaty of Kadesh, which we had seen written at Abu Simbel in Egypt a few months ago was seen written from the other Hittite side in cruciform on baked clay in the museum.

Lunch at an excellent little kebab restaurant in Emindou – a spicy lamb stew roasted in a metal dish with onions, peppers and tomatoes and superb baclava.

City Walls
After lunch we took the tram to Topaki, a poor area but bang on the middle of the city walls. It felt a little dangerous, and indeed someone did warn us about ‘bad men’, so Gil headed back with Carl to the hotel but Callum and I persevered and walked the couple of miles down the outside of the walls to the Golden gate, almost on the Bosphorus. Earthquakes, especially in 1894, have caused more damage than cannons ever did but these walls are fairly intact with their octagonal towers, main curtain wall, second front wall and moat and ditch in front, now used as a series of market gardens. At various points, the original gates, one can see the width and structure of the walls in cross section. The Golden gate was an original Byzantine structure topped with a statue of a chariot drawn by an elephant. The Ottomans build a castle facing inwards to the city behind the gate after they captured the city in 1453. We walked along its walls and inside its huge towers. Sure enough, on top of the Golden gate, we found the hollowed out footprints of the now missing elephant. The areas directly behind the walls are dirt poor but everywhere is brightened up with pastry shops and small restaurants. E had a look at the Byzantine Church then headed back to the Hotel by taxi.

Istanbul Day 4 – Aya Sophia and over the Horn

Aya Sophia
To stand inside this building is pretty overwhelming. It is truly enormous, but when you realise that it was conceived and built in the 6th century, almost unbelievable. True, the dome collapsed after an earthquake, and there’s been lots of buttressing and add-ons over the centuries, however, the main concept remains visible and intact – a longitudinal, domed basilica with walls on either side hiding the supporting structures of the dome, thereby making it appear to deny gravity. The two tiers of columns were revolutionary in having the second tier not rest directly above the first. This is similar to St Vitale in Ravenna, which we visited last year.

Istanbul (Constantinople) served as the capital city of the Roman Empire (330-395), the Byzantine Empire (395-1204 and 1261-1453), the Latin Empire (1204-1261), and the Ottoman Empire (1453-1922). It has seen these Empires come and go - Roman Emperors, Byzantine rulers, European crusaders and Ottoman Sultans – to finally end up a secular museum. It is somewhat shocking to hear that the Christian crusaders were the worst of its occupiers, looting and wrecking the interior, stabling their horses inside along with prostitutes. They looted every last thing including the many relics, all of which ended up in European churches.

In many ways a looted an unadorned interior exposes the miracle of the architecture, its true virtue. The only adornments are a mihrab, minbar and some huge 30 foot wide circular wooden panels with Arabic inscriptions. However, these are completely dwarfed by the basic structure.

Back out in the spring sunshine, we headed down the tram track to Eminou and had lunch at Hamdi’s – great food, great view but awful service. The waiters all had these waistcoats with ‘H’ embroidered on them but didn’t look at you when you ordered, didn’t bring bread and it was almost impossible to get the bill. Give this place a miss.

Yeni Mosque (1600) and Galata Bridge
With its pigeons, colourful interior and busy position at the ferry terminal and next to Galata Bridge, this is a nice building with a fine tiled interior. The Galata Bridge is a wonder in itself, crossing the Golden Horn with maybe 150 fishermen (and one woman) catching sprats. We lingered a while to watch them catch fish, then climbed up a steep hill to Galata Tower where the Crusaders cut the chain that protected the Golden Horn harbour. Saw the chain a few days later in the archaeological museum. Then up ‘music street’ where Carl bough some black Zilgen drumsticks, then up I Cad, a long pedestrianised street to Taxim Sq. This has long been Istanbul’s main shopping street.

We stopped for our evening meal in small fish restaurant off IC then headed down to the bridge in the dark and caught the tram back to the hotel.

Istanbul Day 3 – More mosques

Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art
From Seville to Samarkand Islamic art has different origins and therefore different outputs from our familiar western art. For 1400 years it developed, but slowly, keeping to some basic principles of decoration covering the surfaces with floral and geometric, stylised patterns. It is deeply rooted in Islam with its strict edicts on what can be shown and reflects the harsh desert background from which it emerged. Pilgrimage, trade and the expansion of the Muslim empire took it far and wide but it often seems restricted and trapped in its lack of aspiration, trapped in a theological bubble. The obsession with ornament and decoration leads to elaboration rather than enlightened progress. Nevertheless, within its boundaries it can be stunning. Desert life, religion, and more specifically the mosque, are clearly inspirational forces with prayer carpets, brass and glass mosque lamps, Korans, bookbinding, tiles, Koran boxes and the all-important calligraphy flowing from these sources. Gardens and images of plants are central as the idea of paradise is an important ideal in the Koran. It is nthe unity of God, and his ordered world on earth that art represents. The museum takes us chronologically from pre-islamic art through the changing centres of the Muslim world – Damascus, Bagdad, Samarra, Cairo, Istanbul. The same 5 colours constantly appear – blue, turquoise, green, orange/red and white.

Fatih Mosque (1463-1470, but almost completely destroyed in 1766 in an earthquake)
This commanding but serious building has many more men in skullcaps and women in chadors in its precincts. This is a religious area and the mosque is its centre. The interior, although huge, is darker and more oppressive than most of the other mosques in Istanbul, yet the courtyard with its four plane trees is lighter in touch. Serious Koranic study takes place here. As in most mosques the women pray at the back. It was odd to see women clad from head to ankle in black but with the latest winklepicker, stillettoes on their

Laleli Mosque
This Baroque mosque seems more like a church and is small and light – a delightful respite from the busy streets that surround it. It has ramps so that the Sultan could ride to worship.

Lunch at Sarey’s restaurant back up near faith Mosque, then back to Fatih with Callum and Gil where we saw a funeral. Back to hotel via Sulyanamie’s and coffee across from the mosque.

Istanbul Day 2 – Ottoman Mosques

Pakup’s Istanbul – the real Istanbul to be found in its poorer areas. Just take off on a route perpendicular to the route between two famous landmarks and you’ll come across shops, cafes, restaurants, markets and streetlife completely different from the Sultanamed. These backstreets make for great strolling. We walked through the wholesale shoe district, clothes district an area of wooden houses that could be a museum in itself. Ottoman houses, slums – cheap hotels.

Gazi Atik Ali Pasha Mosque (1496)
One of the oldest mosques in the city built by a eunuch who became Grand vizier. Like many mosques the gardens have a café. A little exchange with the attendant at the door as the correct etiquette i.e. NOT to take your shoes off until you are right in front of the entrance carpet.

Nuruesmaniye Mosque (1748)
Quite strange to see recognisable Baroque features on the outside, then inside, of a mosque but this 18th century mosque has curved pediments and the ornamentation one would expect to see on a church in Rome. This set the trend for baroque and Rococco design for a full century in Istanbul.

Cistern (Roman – 4th century)
14 rows of 16 columns, this water cistern was used as a rubbish dump. The vents in the roof used as disposal bin. It took months to clear the rubbish and inside you see a huge expanse of pillars. There’s no water to be seen but an exhibition on the right hand side has computer generated images of the hippodrome and other Roman buildings. There’s a café/restaurant inside, although the dark and damp don’t add to the atmosphere.

Hippodrome (Roman)
The rough shape of the stadium can be ascertained, although little remains, A tall block built obelisk, which was originally clad in bronze, stands at one end, then the bronze Serpent Column, a spiral pillar from Delphi celebrating the Greek victory at Plataea in 479 BC. One of the bronze snake heads can be seen in the archaeological museum. Then there’s the Thutmose III Aswan granite obelisk from Luxor.

Evening meal at Olympias, a fish restaurant in Kumkapi. L0ots opf mezees and some redmullet and sea bass.

April fool in Istanbul – Day 1

Pamuk's 'Istanbul'
Istanbul has a book it deserves in Nobel Prize winning novelist Orhan Pamuk. An interwoven autobiography and biography of the city he’s never left, is an ideal read before, during or after a visit. Chapter 10 on ‘huzan’, a sort of melancholy is a masterpiece and throughout the book he nails the concept with details such as the little children in the streets selling the same packetof tissues, the over and underpasses in which every step is broken in a different way and the fact that its past is everywhere visible, the detritus of several empires. The city knows that it will never rise again and gets on with life among the ruins, a city of defeat, destruction, depravation, melancholy and poverty. The neglected, unpainted, ramshackle, wooden houses, gulls flying above the mosques at night.

Flight delayed from dreadful T1 at Heathrow but respite came in the Bus. Lounge. After a short queue for visas (£10 each) we were glad to be picked up at airport and whisked to our Hotel. The Hotel Niles has extremely attentive owners who give you an introduction to Istanbul on arrival. Cheap, clean and with a beautiful terrace on the roof overlooking the Bosphorus. We had lunch in a restaurant round the corner; bean soup sprinkled with paprika, chicken with potatoes, baclava and a couple of Efes beers; meal for four at £10. Forget the tourist restaurants, just head up a side street, look for Turkish people eating and pop in.

Beyazik Mosque (1506) and Aqueduct of Valens (Roman)
A long walk in the sun past the Beyazik Mosque, university (scene of many a demo and hence a permanent police presence) and up through the student area (mostly internet cafes) to the aqueduct of Valens. You can still spot Roman and Byzantine structures but it’s the Ottoman monuments that now dominate, mostly beautiful mosque complexes can be seen all over the city. These are usually dominated by the spaciously domed mosque but medressahs, bath complexes, sultan’s tombs, soup kitchens and other structures usually surround the main building.

From the aqueduct we walked back through a slum area north west of the Süleymaniye Mosque. The backstreets of Istanbul are often poor with delapidated wooden houses, many in a state of disrepair, some beyond repair. These Ottoman houses stand shoulder to shoulder with concrete monstrosities and ancient mosques.

Süleymaniye Mosque (1550-1557)
The Süleymaniye Mosque was built between 1550 and 1557 and I think the most beautiful I’ve seen. It’s high on one of Isytanbul’s seven hills and has spacious surroundingsaway from any main roads. It includes 6 madrasas, a poor house-tabhane, an imaret-soup kitchens, a caravanserai, mental hospital, baths, a school and shops, as well as the mausoleums of Süleyman I, the Sultana Hürrem Sultan and the architect, Sinan. When you draw back the heavy cloth at the door the domed interior is breathtaking. The interior is a vast space and the dome really does float above the lower half domes. Entering a mosque of this size is similar to entering one of Europe’s great cathedrals but as there’s rarely a pronounced longitudinal nave and little in the way of decorative adornment, the feeling is very different. A mosque rises up, around and away from you in every direction. Its domes seem to be expanding upwards and outwards. A cathedral, by comparison, is claustrophobic. Not for the first time did I see children run about the mosque without being told off. Despite the ever-present old men praying, they were left to run free. This may be because there’s no real open spaces in central Istanbul.

1 April 2007

Madrid Day 4 - Thyssen-Bornemisza

Morning in Thyssen-Bornemisza. To have the Prado is one thing but to have an equally compelling gallery across the road is a real bonus. You need to do this building from the top down if you like your art chronologically. The second floor is just as extraordinary with its European old masters. There’s lots of devotional paintings but the Bramintino’s transluscent Christ is very strange. There’s portraits galore including the famous Holbein Hendry VIII. The Durers and Cranachs are special along with Caravaggio’s St Catherine. Overall the quality is outstanding but I particularly like the three Hoppers (House with a dead tree, Woman reading letter in hotel bedroom and Woman at a sewing machine). On the whole there’s a good selection of early and modern US art, Cole, Whistler, Remington, Homer, Singer-Sergeant, Clonney, Lichenstein, Pollock, unusual in European galleries. Gainsborough, Reynolds, Hockney, Freud, Bacon, Anders and everything one could name from Europe.

In walking to lunch we passed a bevy of pop fans were screaming outside a hotel for some Mexican boy band, on our way to Le Casserole, a cheap but excellent restaurant where we had paella starters and lamb shank main courses, dessert and wine for 12 euros. Superb scoff. A circuitous walk through the student area took us through throngs of youngsters sitting out in the sun. Back to airport for sqeazyjet to Gatwick.

Madrid Day 3 - Politics and Reina Sofia

Officially dour, unofficially fun
Spain, I learnt on a week long official visit to Seville, has some very formal aspects to business and public life. Introductions are formal, lengthy and detailed, presentations long and usually without the spirit and humour you get outside of officialdom. This is in direct contrast to life outside the workplace. Madrid and Seville’s bars were humming.

Post-Franco politics
Since the death of Franco in 1975 Spanish politics has experienced some strange turns and incidents, none more surreal than Teiero’s attempted coup, dressed as it seemed to the outside world as a comic matador, a real Don Quixote. They shouted ‘In the King’s Name’ as they peppered the ceiling with gunfire, but one brave politician stood up to them and stared him out, and that was the end of the coup. He was jailed, and in typically Spanish fashion freed within a few years. This had the interesting effect of shooting the socialist Felipe Gonzalez into power within a year in 1982. His corrupt regime was to epitomise enchufe ‘being plugged in’ which is widespread nepotism and, at its worst, corruption and bribery. Aznar’s conservatives lost to the socialists in 2004 after another shocking incident, the Madrid bombings.

Reina Sofia
The Reina Sofia is a contemporary gallery, famously housing Guernica. As one would expect in a Spanish gallery, there’s a flood of surrealist images. I’m never so comfortable with images that purport to express the artist’s unconscious. The unconscious is literally not-conscious, and endless attempts at its representation seem, at times, all to self-conscious. A rectangular canvas, the flatness of paint and the stillness of the image, along with the clearly personal and codified elements, whether from Dali or Miro, seem to be clumsily dragging the unknown into life. I should also mention our disappointing Argentinian meal – pretty awful service and average food. When in Madrid, stick to Spanish food. As our Mexican travelling companion Miguel says, “in South America everybody hates the Argentinians – they have a saying – ‘even their mothers hate them’.”

Madrid Day 2 – Prado

My sister and her husband James arrived late last night but we met for breakfast and headed off to the Prado. The history of western art is pretty much covered here with some paintings that one has seen many times before ever setting foot in the place. Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, Carravagio’s St Catherine, Durer’s Adam and Eve and of course, the finest collection of Velasquezes and Goyas in the world. I’m a little indifferent to Bosch as his heaven and hell are products of an imagination with limited ideas. It looks wonderfully creative but the motifs are repetitive. Lunch in a little backstreet tapas bar.

Madrid Day 1 – prostitutes, stew and cider

Ghosts of Spain
Ghosts of Spain by Giles Tremleit is about contemporary Spain and it opens with a description of Madrid as the noisiest city in Spain, if not the world. I can confirm that this is true. For four days and nights we were assailed by noise. In the streets people partied until dawn with sirens blazing, prostitutes fighting (more of that later), pop fans singing and general noise in bars and restaurants that would be considered a health hazard elsewhere.

Sqeasyjet and Sanator
Gatwick to Madrid via Squeazyjet but disappointed with the much praised Madrid Airport. It seemed quite old fashioned. What I do like is the revamped underground – fast, clean, efficient and cheap. London’s tube fares are a monumental rip-off at £4 per single. All five of us travelled from the airport to the front door of our hotel, about a dozen stops for 6.40 euros return.

The Senator is one of those expensive 350 euros a night places that one can get for £80 a night on the internet. We had a corner room with balcony overlooking Madrid’s primary prostitute territory. Day and night they worked but what was obvious was the casual acceptance of the trade. Tremleit explained all in his book – prostitution is legal and the Spaniards have a Less than 5% of the prostitutes are Spanish and they come from all parts of the globe, especially South America and North Africa.

La Bola
La Bola is a restaurant near the Opera house that specialises in a Madrilleno stew that they only sell at lunchtime. The place was packed with people ordering only this signature dish. It’s cooked in a terracotta pot with the juice drained off into your plate as a soup with noodles. Once you’ve nearly finished the soup the rest is tumbled onto your plate. Lamb, chicken and beef with potatoes, vegetables and chickpeas. The house red is the perfect accompaniment. I saw no one order anything else. We tried to order entrees but the waiter advised us to stick to the stew. Boy was he right. This was a gut buster of a dish. We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the old town near the Palacio Real. And eventually headed back to the hotel for a siesta.

Early evening (9pm) we headed out to a bar where free paella and snacks were served with the beer. After this rather filling aperitif we found a Sideria and scoffed some tapas downed with very dry cider. I love this combination and had been to a wonderful Sideria in Victoria, the capital of the Basque country where you helped yourself to cider which flowed from huge barrels of cider and shot out several feet when you opened the tap. The waiter made a hash of the gravity pour, missing the glasses and hitting his shoes but we soon perfected the pour ourselves.