This is the continuing saga of our recent two-week trip to Turkey, which for me was a look back in time because I’d traveled through the country 27 years ago. Part one is here, part two here, part three here.
We stayed on the Beyoglu side a few short paces off the main drag in this grand old 19th-century hotel that really did live up to its name: Grand Hotel de Londres. We got to calling it by its Turkish name – Büyük Londra Oteli – because that’s what everybody calls it, even our German-speaking friends.
I hate clichés, but it’s got the look and feel of an old lady who knows she’s old, cares what she looks like when she goes out, but doesn’t mind if a few of the bags and wrinkles show because, well… she’s OLD!
The lobby overwhelms you with its thick carpets, plush, flowing red drapes, ancient televisions and radios, Far East and African bric-a-brac, one of the gaudiest chandeliers you’ve ever laid eyes on, and a grand, sweeping stairway five floors to the rooftop that seems to invite you with: don’t take the elevator – you’ll miss all this great stuff lining the walls on the way up! Old postcards of Istanbul, photos of World War I battles, the obligatory shrine-like Atatürk frame, wooden chests, stained-glass windows lined with lead, ancient telephone call-boxes.
The room came equipped with things that hadn’t worked in decades – a wooden box with a dial and button which I suspect at one time was a radio, an old telephone receiver, an unplugged fridge, a couple of tears in the wallpaper… but where it counted – the beds, the bathroom, the fixtures – all were new and the showers scalding hot, so I was happy to stay there.
We had to see the sights, of course. Tell me Trish: was Istanbul, and especially the area around the Blue Mosque really such a tourist hell back then?
This is something I thought I was mentally prepared for, but I’m sorry to have to tell you: it’s just such a trampled mess right now, you have to wonder whether it’s incompetence or good ol’-fashioned greed the way they’ve let it happen. I have nothing against a country wanting to show off its greatest assets, and I realise tourism has boomed everywhere including Turkey over the last three decades, but there has to be some sort of limit put on the throngs of groups crushing into the three most famous monuments – Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.
The God-damn cruise ships are behind it all. How can you not have too many people there at once when you have four floating cities lined up bow-to-stern only 10 minutes away in the harbour at any one time? I wish they’d designate one day a week as no-group day, so individuals can enjoy the most-visited sites without fear of being crushed underfoot like in some cartoon. Staying open an hour or two longer and designating the first two hours as off-limits to groups would also be a solution, because they’re all still troughing their snouts through the ship’s buffet table ’til 10 every morning anyway.
The Blue Mosque was the worst. When we arrived the long lines of white tour buses almost obscured our view from afar, but that was only the beginning. The courtyard was knotted with groups but big enough so they weren’t too intrusive, but then no sooner had we got into the long line to enter the mosque – right behind a group of Japanese – we were squeezed from behind by a group of elderly French tourists. No surprise: they were on a cruise.
Sandwiched between the two, we slowly shuffled along to the steps, where we turned a corner to find multilingual signs posted to take off our shoes – it’s still a mosque, after all. Then you either placed them on a shelf for retrieval later or carried them with in a plastic bag from a dispenser which looked exactly like what you find in a supermarket produce section. The hand motions of pulling a flimsy plastic bag free from the roll just like you would do on any trip for grocery store added to the impression that we were on a routine trip to consume a mass product rather than actually feeling the atmosphere and learning the history of a unique and sacred site.
On the way in we were rudely jostled by a couple of Japanese men elbowing themselves ahead to catch up with their group, earning them tut-tuts from the French, one of whom who rolled her eyes heavenward to say, Ah, vous savez, les Japonais! And since Turkey has been hit by terrorism, you’re also forced to run the gamut through an airport-style metal detector.
Then, once inside, it hits you. The little red-haired girl blurted out what I’m sure everyone thinks: IT STINKS LIKE CHEESY FEET! With the hundreds of thousands of tourists shuffling over that enormous rug in their sock feet every week, even a milligram of sweat per foot is going to add up pretty quickly. Though it wasn’t nauseating, it did reek of old socks, which, in addition to the thickets of people milling about as if it were half-time at a football stadium, drove us out far sooner than I’d wished.