I find Istanbul fascinating and it’s one of those cities which – having been there on business four or five times now – I have always wanted to return to for some leisure and exploring time. It’s a city of contrasts, contradictions and chaos. It’s not really European but it’s not really Asian either. My first trip was in March a couple of years ago when the geographic reality collided with my celluloid fantasy. In my mind, I had a James Bond image – all heat and dust and tropical clothing from The World Is Not Enough. However, the city erupts from the closest physical point between Europe and Asia in the narrow valley of the Bosphorus Straits. The natural, but unexpected consequence is a seemingly constant, howling draught. Note to self – remember winter clothes.
This week, however, the June sun smiled. I arrived on the last flight from UK, delayed of course, so that I was hurtling across the city at 12:30 to 1:00 am. Taxi drivers in Istanbul have two instinctive speeds: the resigned crawl that is enforced when all 2.7 million of Istanbul’s cars hit the road at the same time and the truly suicidal. Late at night, clearly, draws out the latter. I never wear a seatbelt in the back of taxis except, I realise now, in Istanbul. Fast off the plane, I caught the only taxi waiting outside the airport and he bulleted out from the terminal along the road which traces the coast and the ancient city wall into town. I’m normally a fairly unconcerned passenger and it was only on the third seemingly random, nervous tic of the tiny orange-yellow Fiat (which all Istanbul taxis are) that I reached for the seat-belt. My driver was a short, round man, a miniature Jabba The Hutt dissolving slowly into the drivers’ seat. Being taller, and considerably less relaxed now, as I looked for his eyes in the rear view mirror all I could see were heavy lids beneath dark brows. The yellow missile buzzed again over a string of cats-eyes and then corrected its course. I began to rationalise that if we did hit something it probably wouldn’t hurt much and I cleared my throat loudly. The eyes didn’t flicker. As I considered the appropriate, politely British escalation – an interested conversation on the historic sites which were melting past into hyperspace had been ruled out at the off in his acceptance of my "Ritz-Carlton Hotel?" request – I began to realise that we were not actually colliding with any fellow travellers. Red Lights were observed albeit with a last minute reluctance. All, in fact, was well. Jabba was not asleep at all merely in the deep reverie required to navigate near-empty streets at terminal speeds.
I love the Ritz-Carlton. From the outside it is a modern monstrosity dominating the skyline and mitigated only by football stadium which sits below it. Inside however, it is an oasis of calm peppered only by the snap of your feet on polished marble and perfect, concerned English of the reception staff for whom the presentation of your passport is an (IT-enabled) opportunity to say, "Welcome back, Mr Munro". In the morning, as you breakfast in the restaurant, the sun sparkles off the Bosphorus and tiny oxpecker water taxis dart across the paths of rhinoceros container ships, tankers and military vessels.
Outside, the quality of light distinctive; not the thin lemony light of home but, even at the start of an early June morning, a softer, more fulsome yellow which hints of heat and dust and soft, warm days. The taxis run at Option One as all of Istanbul shuffles from home to work. On the streets, shop-fronts clamour with faded signs and posters, flyers and ads. Above, the buildings seem cluttered with air-conditioning units and shutters and shades. It all talks of dust but somehow, there is no real dust to speak of – maybe a trick of the light.
And finally, with meetings and conference calls all done it’s 8:30 in the evening and I find a couple of hours, board a little yellow missile and head for Sultanahmet, the heart of the old city and the Blue Mosque. And, of course, it starts to rain. The mosque is magnificent – though not terribly blue. Outside, the mighty dome is approached through courtyards paved in marble, slick with new rain. And above, the unheard of six minarets – somehow, to Western eyes, impossibly slim – elegant fingers reaching for the heavens. Inside, a vast open space, paved in prayer mats beneath the massive heavens of the great dome.