Sunday, August 9, 2009

Three jewels of the Bosphorus

The Topkapi Palace was, for centuries, the seat of the Ottoman Empire. When Constantinople was taken by Mehmed the Conqueror in 1453, the Ottoman Turks used the site of the old Byzantine Acropolis, on the peninsula leading from the old city to the Bosphorus, as the place where a palace of dreams would be built.

Topkapi is huge - the complex is twice the size of the Vatican, and, to give you an idea of how vast it is, at the height of its grandiosity it boasted a kitchen complex that employed two thousand cooks. That's a serious gastronomic facility, folks.

There are four enormous courtyards on the palace site, each one hosting palaces and pavilions, dormitories, stables, liveries, armaments rooms, and, of course, housing for the ladies of the harem. One particular Sultan of the sixteenth century had some 1500 such women in his harem. During the course of his Sultanate the Ottoman Empire went into a temporary, but nevertheless serious decline. Apparently, the old boy was so hard at work servicing these fair maidens that the affairs of state were left a distant second on his list of priorities - a state of affairs which boggles the mind, as well as the gonads, one might think. When the TP read of his horizontal exploits, she gave me one of those looks that says Men are such fuckwits. You know that look, gentlemen?

To say that the Topkapi beggars belief is an understatement. Here is a place where you will find ceilings adorned in beaten gold leaf; where there are palaces literally studded with gemstones, where even the ceremonial knife used in the "Circumcision Room" is made of gold and diamonds. I'll bet that attention to detail comforted the fourteen year-old princes as they were about to get the chop. "Ooh, what a lovely looking knife. What did you say you were going to do with it, Father?"

Reeling from the heady delights of the Topkapi, we headed off to the Karpali Carsi, the Grand Bazaar at the top end of Sultanamet. This promising little shopping-centre was established in 1461, and has grown considerably in the ensuing five and a half centuries. I gave up counting the number of individual retail outlets when I got to about four thousand, the TP seemingly having made a purchase in every one of them. Pashmena scarves, silver and gold jewellery - she even bought a belly-dancer's outfit, and I'll be writing about that in a later instalment. I bought a cap. It cost two dollars.

The Karpali Carsi is as psychedelic place as you would ever see. An interior decorater's nightmare, each shop tries to outdo the next in gaudiness and cosmetic hubris. And at every little palace of bargains, a tout will accost the shopper with a well-practised sales-pitch. My two favourite lines were "Sir, madam - how can I relieve you of your money today?" and "These goods are almost free."

Thus substantially burdened with exotica, and considerably lighter in the pocket, we returned to the "Cordial House Hotel", our lodgings, where I had to consume about six bottles of cordial to assuage the morbid prospect of re-financing Casa Laurie, yet again.

I must say I really like the Turks. They have a nice, laid-back attitude about them, and a great sense of humour. Friendly and helpful, they made us feel welcome everywhere - and that's not something you can say all the time about cities and countries chock-a-block full of tourists, and German and American ones, to boot. (Sorry, I know, I know, I'll stop now.)

To give you an example of Turkish generosity (jumping a few days ahead), the TP and I were walking along a road in Kusadasi, late at night, searching for a hotel where we were intending to meet some of our touring friends for drinks. We were totally, utterly, hopelessly lost. I had spurned the Princess's advice to get firm directions and take a street map, relying on my inherently good sense of direction instead. As I said, we were completely lost. It was pitch black, dogs were barking at us from doorways, and I was just a little unsure about even finding our way back to our hotel. We'd been walking for an hour, and had found ourselves on the outskirts of the town, instead of the intended destination, its centre.

Presently, a bloke scootered past us and disappeared over the hill. The TP was exhausted, sat on a low stone wall by the side of the road, and declared "You and your fucking sense of direction. I'm not moving until you get a taxi."

Just then, a car came towards us from the top of the hill. It was the same guy who, a few minutes before, had driven past us on his little motorbike. He leant out of the window and said, in passable English, "Are you good people a little lost? Where are you going?" 

I mentioned the name of the hotel, and he shook his head. "I don't know that name, but I will find out. Please, get in."

Now normally, when travelling, it might be inadvisable to accept lifts from perfect strangers in the middle of the night. I think there are warnings about such things on travel advice websites, under the general heading "How to avoid being mugged, raped and shot in foreign countries", but the Titanium Princess was ensconced in the back seat of his car before you could say "grievous bodily harm." With just a slight feeling of misgiving in the bowel region, I clambered in behind her.

But the bloke turned out to be a delight. He stopped at another hotel nearby, left us in the car with the motor running, and disappeared inside, only to emerge in a couple of minutes with a big grin on his face, and promptly drove us another couple of kilometres and stopped at the door of our destination. "There you are, good people, the hotel you were looking for."

We were flabbergasted. "Can we buy you a drink, sir?" I offered.

"No, thank you very much, I must get home to my children. It was very nice meeting you, and I hope you have a pleasant stay in my country."

With effusive handshaking all round, we thanked him for his generosity, and he sailed happily off into the night. He had done this simply because he was a good bloke who had seen a couple of travellers out of their depth. And that's the sort of treatment we got from the Turks wherever we went. What a great country.


Caudimordax said...

I don't think it's necessarily the people of certain countries that are lovely. I think it's that certain behavior elicits a certain response. Most people everywhere are pretty decent, and if you come across as a person who is interested in his fellow humans, you are generally treated well. If not, not. With exceptions, of course. I forgive your swipe at Americans. I generally cringe in embarassment when I meet them abroad. That said, the Aussie family on the Vatican tour were just dreadful.

Laurie said...

Oh yeah, Caudi - just wait for my "ugly Aussie" story in Germany!

clodhopper said...

While I have been treated with great courtesy in many arab countries, I have also seen that courtesy switch to something quite nasty quite suddenly when whatever it was they expected was not realised. I've met people of all nations with generous hearts and open minds; and from the same, I've met total eejits.

Laurie said...

Jebus, you people are hard to please! It was just my little attempt at a feel-good story! Oh well, no pleasing the ruthlessly rational, eh Clod? :) You're right, of course - people are people, no matter where you are. Why, I've even been treated with great hospitality in Lancashire! Who'd have thought? *runs for cover*