Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Antalya & Istanbul

Some friends wrote this week to suggest—in the nicest possible way, of course-- that fascinating though my political ideas might be, they would prefer to hear a little more about the trip to Turkey.  Well, I can take a hint, especially when offered with all the subtlety of the bubonic plague.  It gives me an opportunity to display a few of Joan's gorgeous photographs.

            I believe I left off the travelogue suspended in a balloon over some weird geological formations in Cappadocia.  But life is not all beer and skittles, and we had to work in some hard-core lotus-eating at Antalya, the seaside resort on the southwest coast where we spent a few days between Cappadocia and Istanbul.  From most points of view Antalya seems a very conventional fun-in-the-sun sort of “tourist destination,” the Turkish Riviera.  From the architectural point of view it bears the burden of any town of 30,000 transformed over a few decades to a city of a million.  In Turkey that seems to mean an artificially preserved old town surrounded by many acres of high rise apartments--buildings ranging in architectural appeal from the merely unprepossessing to the positively hideous--and absolutely God-awful traffic.  It is anything but off the beaten track.  Last year, apparently, it had more international arrivals than New York City.   But they keep the barbarians out of the old town with traffic gates, and there are many nifty old streets to wander about and get lost in.  Antalya’s seafront is gorgeous, and the collections in its archaeological museum, housing numerous treasures from such stunning nearby sites as Perge and Aspendos, are stunning.

 In the Antalya Museum

            We had intentionally saved Istanbul for last.  What a magnificent city!  Whether viewed from the point of view of sacred architecture, of walkability, of commercial vitality, or of gastronomy, it claims a place in the very highest category.  We aren’t the only people who think so.  There is in operation in many places in Turkey a kind of tourist’s version of the Heisenberg Principle.  An intense desire to see something is so widely shared as to guarantee that it cannot precisely be seen through the swarms of other would-be seers.  The National Parks Syndrome threatens a number of the most prominent sites, especially Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and the Topkapi Palace, which at peak hours are simply saturated with visitors.  Even at our own favorite monument, the Chora Museum, once a church, it was a near thing.  But there one is mainly looking up at the fantastic and splendidly preserved mosaics and wall paintings, which include a copious cycle on the life of the Virgin based in some Byzantine text I had never before encountered in Western form.

 At the Chora Museum

            But there are literally dozens of old mosques from the classic period in the city, many of them exquisite and sparsely visited.  To set off in search of them on foot guaranteed a certain amount of adventure.  It was moreover very valuable for me personally to see them, and to be able to contemplate their spiritual grandeur in relative solitude; for they are a rebuke to any confidently negative response to Islam possibly invited by recent world events.

Looking through the grille into the old cemetery, Mehmet Pasha mosque
Our son Rich and his fiancée Katie were in the city to greet us when we arrived.  Quite apart from the pleasure of hanging out together, their expertise was of great practical value.  Rich is a really savvy, intrepid, can-do kind of world traveler and international gourmet.  He had scouted out a good deal of terrain by the time we got there, including numerous places we never would have so much as thought of.  He saved me from numerous indiscretions.  I really needed a guardian given the fact that I was rube enough to fall for the old dropped-shoe-cleaning-bush-scam.

 recorded for posterity
            The “old town” of Istanbul, and its touristic center, is Sultanahmet: a thousand hotels, two thousand restaurants, and 28,439 carpet-salesmen loose on the streets.  (Well, I’m just estimating the numbers; but you get the idea.)  We stayed there, of course, and you probably should too when you go.  But just as Greenwich Village is not New York, Sultanahmet is not Istanbul.  Rich and Katie are Brooklynites who know that Manhattan is so yesteryear.  So one of our richest cultural and gastronomic forays was across the water to happening Kadikoy. There we wandered about a bit before lunching at Çiya Sofrasi, not long ago declared by the New Yorker to be practically a foretaste of Heaven—if they believed in Heaven at the New Yorker, that is.  The restaurant's speciality is the profusion of little dishes known as meze, the Anatolian answer to Iberian tapas.  Don John of Austria may have won the battle of Lepanto, but in my opinion the Turks come out on top this time.

            All this New York stuff, incidentally, is inevitable.  Anyone familiar with the two metropolitan areas can hardly escape making certain comparisons.  Both cities are all about large numbers of people and lots of water.  There are three practical ways to move large numbers of people across water: bridges, tunnels, and boats.
New York does amazingly well with its overtaxed bridges and tunnels, but the only ferry you’ve ever heard of, to and from Staten Island, moves a measly 60,000 people a day.  Imagine ten or twenty big passenger ferries in continuous movement across the East River, and another dozen or so in non-stop service from the West side across the Hudson into New Jersey.  That was my impression of the water traffic in Istanbul.

            When it was time to leave, I didn’t want to go; and no sooner had we returned home than we began thinking about another trip.  Maybe for the hundredth anniversary...