City of Many Names

Dated: 6 May 18

Wow, I know I’ve been out of the loop for a while, but wow! Hands down this is the best approach to a city that I have ever had, for once it pays to be on a budget for the ferry is the shoestring choice of travel. Its a warm spring afternoon on the water as we cut through the entrance to the Bosporus Straits; the ferry is shepherding me to a city which has been know by many names; Lygos, Byzantium, Augusta Antonina, New Rome, Constantinople and of course İstanbul. From here I shall be heading east towards the Orient along The Silk Road to Beijing but first I have a long weekend with friends.

Despite the warm European sun goose bumps prickle my arms as the wind picks up on the water. The city grows in front of me, the Blue Mosque is the first of many Cathedral sized mosques parading in the city scape with their minarets standing to attention. Looking at it you would think that it must be the largest mosque in the world but as you run your eyes along the horizon you spot a dozen of these grand places of worship throughout the city. Hagia Sophia stands opposite the Blue Mosque antique like in appearance owing to the years it has stood, construction first started in 532 BC though it burnt down once or twice, it was a mosque for a time, then a church again before turning museum.

I step ashore in Galata and head in search of my hotel. I’m back in Europe it has a real Rivera feel, I could be in Lisbon, Vienna or Lyon. Uneven streets lead up to Galata Tower atop a hill, buildings are aged and in parts crumbling, graffiti peppers the walls and a warren of alley ways takes you through a mezze of coffee shops, bars and boutiques. Friends sit on stools, cross legged smoking cigarettes whilst sipping a dark coffee or puffing of shisha pipes with their bubbling waters, amidst a game of backgammon or two. It has a strong coffee culture. Out of the bars and eateries wafts subtle jazz and acoustic guitar.

Along the main thoroughfare tat of all descriptions is on display in windows, patisseries offer sweet treats of baklava or Turkish Delight and many a fridge magnet or post card stand proud and tacky on show. Down the occasional brickwork side street stand disjointed buildings in a slight state of disrepair, vines growing up one wall with a crack there or a crumble here, shuttered windows swing open letting in the spring air; they couldn’t look more stylish and so quintessentially European even if the architect had tried.

Later we unfortunately discover that the Blue Mosque is under going some restorations and is close to tourists. Visiting Istanbul and not seeing the Blue Mosque is the equivalent of weekending in Rome and whilst in the Vatican not bothering to see the Sistine Chapel. Ah well there is nothing to be done, it will have to wait till next time.

Ive been here just a few short hours but already its on the short list of places I could settle. Some friends are flying in to spend the weekend in Istanbul. But what better way to whittle away the afternoon awaiting their arrival than sipping a beer in the window seat of a chic bar over looking the city with “The Girl from Ipanema” by playing in the background. I fleet between writing a few notes and reading my book.

As I was flying in surveying the land below it looked a tad dry down there. I will be in for a few parched days when I get back into the swing of it. I’m raring to get going along this next leg, to meet the people, search for new horizons and stare at the road for hours on end.

But as I sit sipping a beer I think I could get used to this writing lark and the world out of the plane window is future Harrys problem for I’ve got friends to drink with, Hamams in which to bathe, the Grand Bazaar to trundle through and the ancient city of Istanbul to meander.

I’m going to like this place.

It was a surreal weekend, a break from reality, we stayed in possibly the nicest place I have ever had the pleasure to weekend in, though that is not saying much for as a single man and a cheap skate; I hardly stay at the Ritz when I travel. It was like I had never left the UK, just another weekend in the city drinking and eating to much with friends. The last three months as if but a dream.

I catch the ferry from the Galata quay side and leave the city behind, my bike has been given the once over in a bike shop over the water. I’m keen to get going and they are just opening the doors when I arrive. I wait a moment sipping a tea offered by the lady who runs an underwear shop next door, I can see my bike after having had its make over propped up in the window ready to go; but not so fast….I find myself having breakfast in the bike shop, a shimano rep has popped in and the boss has bought breakfast, next it its more tea then coffee…..I cant escape I’m practically part of the furniture. But what a breakfast it was, Turkish bread, cheese, meats and the centre piece, soft spreadable goats cheese sat in a bath of sweet honey. I think I have found my new favourite breakfast food. I finally escape after a good two hours and turn my sights to the task at hand.

I’m bloody cream crackered now that I back on the bike heading north along the straits. The city sprawls north along the shore line with bars and restaurants taking prime positions on the quay sides. The place is full of fat cats, literally, brazen stray cats stalk the streets and judging from their bellies the pickings are good. The straits are akin to Italy’s Lake Como just with fewer super yachts and less human fat cats. It has been an exhausting weekend and I think I drank my body weight in beer, though that’s a touch easier these days as I have lost 15kgs since January if the scales are to be believed. I just hope my legs have been filled with energy like my liver has been with alcohol.

I emerged from Africa with its optional traffic laws relatively unscathed but barely an hour in Istanbul which is famed for its vast amounts of traffic, I nearly get car doored; no bother, dodge left muttering a word or two under my breath, there is no point it crying over spilt milk. Except at that very moment the white van to my front happened to come to an abrupt halt at the very wrong moment. I rear end the van. Toppling to the road I end up lying in the road, people rush to scoop me up but I’m clipped in and cant budge, like a turtle I am unable to get up. I politely shoo the would be do gooders away, twist my ankles out and up I pop injury free. The same cant be said for my brand new front pannier rack which I had brought over especially, the frame is now askew and bolts bent at an unusual angle. Thank god for cable ties.

That afternoon I reach the Black Sea and set up camp on a small verge over looking a pebble beach. The clouds lie ominously low and the waters look brisk its certainly no Caribbean paradise bit it will do. I stand knee deep in the water hand washing my clothes gone are the mod cons of the apartment in Galata with its washing machine and hot showers; after a quick dip I dry by the fire watching the sun sink below the horizon before retiring to my tent early its been a long weekend. The memories of the weekend already blurring as I shift my focus to my simple life.

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