Tuesday, August 28, 2012

If It's Istanbul, It Must Be Wednesday - An Idea for a Trip to Turkey

Most travel articles about visiting Istanbul will list the usual guide-book photograph sights. They are there and, especially in the case of Hagia Sophia, the cisterns and the hippodrome, they have been there a long time. The big sites of Sultanahmet - Justinian's church, Topkapi Palace and the Blue Mosque - are not going to disappear. Do visit them, along with the Süleymaniye mosque, the Prince's Islands, the jewel of the Chora church and the little but stunning Fethiye mosque and church. Go to Taksim Square, walk the shopping streets, do a Bosphorous cruise and take the ferry across to Üküdar, the city's eastern shore. It is all stupendous. But do more than this.

The realisation hit home in the queue for the cisterns, when a group of American tourists nearby audibly extolled the virtue of their chosen hostelry. It was right there, apparently, in Sultanahmet and meant that they did not waste any time travelling to see the sights of the main sites. Presumably, the big sight photos in their book were duly ticked through once visited, once seen. It's what tourists do, myself included. But please do more than this, especially on Wednesdays.

Wednesday in Turkish is Çaramba. A quick consultation of an Istanbul map will reveal a district of this name within the old city walls, on the north-facing down slope of the spine that runs almost parallel to the Golden Horn. The area, along with Balat and Fener that run all the way down to the ancient harbour, is adjacent to the Chora church and the walls. The Fethiye mosque is within its boundaries, as are other mosques and churches of note. It is a tourist centre in its own right, and not just because of its big sights.

But as a place to stay, as a tourist's base, it is also a convenient site for the big venues. There are regular buses along the Golden Horn to Eminonu, from where a tram lifts up to Sultanahmet, buses connect to myriad destinations and ferries run across the Bosphorus. In any case, a fit traveller can walk from Çaramba, Balat and Fener to the main sites and arrive with plenty of time to visit. Of course there are always taxis and it was one particular Istanbul taxi driver who, on a return trip to Çaramba, announced that there were just too many Muslims in that area. Anyone with an interest in modern Turkey can only be fascinated by such a comment. But then he was a taxi driver.

So why is Wednesday the day? Well, Istanbul is known for its bazaars, as well as its historical sites. There's the Grand Bazaar, of course, and the less well known Egyptian or Spice bazaar. There is the more lived in areas of Unkapani and Demirta, where business seems to be less obviously driven by tourism. And then there's Wednesday in Çaramba. The area is thus actually called Wednesday after its enormous market of that day. It's a street market, and perhaps nothing special. But that's the whole point as far as the interested traveller is concerned. It is genuinely local. It tells things as they are for the people who live in the area, and there are almost no tourists to influence or attract demands. The experience thus becomes both informative and memorable, as well as both interesting and fundamentally good-natured.

The Çaramba, Balat and Fener areas are not so salubrious. Further down the Horn towards the bridges sees the city take on its tourist nature. A couple of kilometres the other way in Eyüp, there's a gentler, almost suburban feel. But Çaramba, Fener and Balat have a run-down appearance, and there is a general air of decay and neglect. There is no doubting that it needs attention. But the Pantocrator Church and its surrounding areas are also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an area that film and television directors regularly seek out to portray the authentic, the real. On two days of a recent visit lasting just a week, staying in Kiremit Caddasi, television crews moved in after dark trying to capture something of the historical inner city, some of the almost Dickensian authenticity of the place. Or should that be the Pamukian authenticity... ?

So, rather than devote an Istanbul stay merely to ticking off the big names, why not spend some time in Çaramba, Balat and Fener? Why not stay in the area? Initial shock at the state of the place will soon be replaced by a sense of authenticity and uniqueness, and involvement with shopkeepers, market stall holders will evoke a sense of involvement that cannot be bought or, indeed, organised. Çaramba's Wednesday - and the rest of its week - will live in the visitor's memory for much longer than most of the ticks across the guide book photos.

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