Text and Photos By JESSICA ANNE D. HERMOSA, Sub-Editor

The Istanbul illusion

Posted on April 01, 2011

ISTANBUL IS often marketed as an exotic city, a heady mix of supposedly polar beliefs from the two continents it straddles.

Spice Market, built in 1660, offers up nuts, saffron and other souvenirs.
But in this melting pot, with different cultures huddled side by side, it is the sameness and not the contrasts that become apparent.

The cab driver, however, was adamant to keep the distinctions in place.

“Here, Europe. There, Asia,” he said as he drove into the old city, pointing to how the Bosphorus divided the two banks. Mystery sweets veiled in powdered sugar were then offered at the hotel desk, next to brochures of steam-obscured Turkish baths.

Outside, the Turks -- mostly men, the women seemed to be missing -- shuffled past the gaze of watchful police while seagulls circled over flapping crescent moon flags and the green, green sea.

This way to the mosques, please; now step over here for the belly dancers, and if you aren’t jarred enough, here’s a glass of salty yogurt to go with your fastfood meatballs and fries.

It was all very convincing.

Stepping into a food market, however, unraveled the illusion.

There in the high-ceilinged Mısır Çarşısı, under the yellowing plaster and tiles, vendors cheekily offered up Turkish viagra (just a pistachio pastry) and the occasional wedding proposal even as the imam at a nearby minaret called the faithful to prayer.

A stop at the Topkapi Palace, meanwhile, revealed Sultan Mehmet’s taste for French-inspired wallpaper, Japanese-like robes and furniture ornately Indian. His appetite for gems and concubines seemed to match that of King Henry’s.

Inside the 17th-century Blue Mosque, heads were bowed and eyes reverently shut just as they were in the St. Anthony church and even in the award-winning Changa restaurant where a man was silently digging into his fusion-style steak.

When it got cold, people sat on low seats in fish joints under the Galata bridge to comfort themselves with the sizzle of the grill. Or they perched on seats at penthouse bars that looked out into the Golden Horn.

Like any night time view, the trick was to squint through one’s reflection on the glass pane to take in the wider world outside.

“Are you American?” the idle waiters asked a passing Scandinavian in a sweatshirt. “Are you Japanese?” they asked the Asian in the tailored coat if only to help them decide on the apt sales talk for their hummus, their eggplant salad and their corned lamb.

But what for? Good food, a warm place to rest one’s feet, sex and wealth -- people worshipped the same gods anyway as this city already showed.

And like anywhere else in the globe, glasses (here filled with rakı) were clinked for the same reasons: to good health and good friends, to world peace and chickpeas.

GETTING THERE: Trains link the airport to the city center.

Taxis are fine too as long as rush hour is avoided. Make sure to find out ahead of time how much the fares cost. Some cabbies, like anywhere else in the world, keep their meters running even before you get in.

WHERE TO STAY: Wi-Fi signals were free and strong at Point Hotel Taksim. Request for a room on a non-smoking floor.

WHERE TO DINE: Changa (Sıraselviler Caddesi 47) serves Turkish staples with a Pacific Rim twist. Tarihi Karakoy Balikcisi (Tersane Caddesi 30), a fish restaurant, sits atop a crumbling building flanked by warehouses of anchors and fishing nets. It boasts of having served International Monetary Fund officials at their annual conference back in 2009 and comes with a panoramic view of the Golden Horn.

Otantik (Istiklal Caddesi 120) does a cheap plate of lamb kebab and rice. It is the restaurant with the two old ladies kneading dough at the window.