If your image of Istanbul is all kebabs, headscarves and moustachioed men, prepare for a surprise - these days it's also super-cool clubs and Ozbek-clad babes
From its beginnings as Byzantium in the 7th century BC, via Constantinople to present-day Istanbul, the city not only provides a fascinating glimpse into 2,500 years of conquest and intrigue but also has more super-cool bars, clubs and restaurants than you can shake a stick at. I always felt sorry for the ex-colleague who said he’d never go to Istanbul because he’d heard it was a “sweltering slum”. Little did he know.
Split in two by the Bosphorus Strait, Istanbul is the only city in the world to straddle two continents – Europe and Asia – and is part French Riviera, part Damascus and part Milan. Where else can you find palatial waterside homes, pine-studded hills, exquisite Islamic art and Ozbek-clad babes rolled into one?
Cool, upmarket Nisantasi, where the beautiful people go to see and be seen, makes a startling contrast to the bustling shores of the Golden Horn, where Muslim matriarchs haggle feverishly in the Spice Bazaar, and fish sellers vie for space with lottery touts and tourists. And the mystifying alleyways of the Grand Bazaar are on a different planet to Istanbul’s cosmopolitan suburbs, with their lavishly restored Ottoman houses and Mercedes-strewn driveways.
I was in Istanbul after losing my first job in journalism. Out of necessity rather than choice (company bankruptcy had put paid to my plans of becoming the next Julie Burchill), I did a month’s course in teaching English, got my certificate and boarded a plane. From the moment I took my first taxi-ride over the Galata bridge and saw the breathtaking sweep of the Sulemaniye mosque, I knew I’d made the right decision. I might not know much about teaching, but this beat the grim alternative of filling in application forms.
Making friends was easy. The “Istanbulular” were proud of their fantastic city and keen to show visitors round, and the next 18 months would be spent discovering places I’d never have found/dared go into on my own. Places like Yenikoy on the Bosphorus, where you could eat the best fish supper you’d ever tasted while watching the sun set over one of Istanbul’s two suspension bridges. Or the transvestite club in Cihangir, where the makeovers were so real, you were convinced that Gisele Bundchen was sharing your bathroom mirror.
For me, Istanbul was exhilarating and exasperating in equal measure. Trying to instil the vagaries of English grammar into spoilt adolescents while they jabbed pencils in each others' ears was not my idea of fun, but I came to love the city’s vigour and vitality.
Weekends were the time for sampling the delights of some funky new bar in Beyoglu, a previously run-down district of kebab joints, coffeehouses and belly dancing dives, now reincarnated as the city’s after-hours playground. Later, it was on to a smoky meyhane to share a meze and a raki with the real Istanbul, then a late-night club with live music and no licensing laws.
On pay day, I’d treat myself to afternoon tea at the Pera Palace. A sensualist’s delight, this 19th-century hotel was built as a stopover for the Orient Express and was patronised by the likes of Mata Hari, Jackie Onassis and Agatha Christie. With its frock-coated doormen and faded grandeur, it’s easy to imagine Ms Christie is still up in her room dreaming up Hercule Poirot.
For history buffs, Istanbul is a labyrinthine treasure trove of places and things to see. One of my favourites is Topkapi Palace in the ancient quarter of Sultan Ahmet. Former home of the Ottoman sultans, it’s a vast collection of gardens, courtyards, fountains, workshops, kitchens and a 400-room harem, and hosts a jaw-dropping collection of priceless antiques, diamonds as big as potatoes and ancient relics from Mecca. Local myth has it that Michael Jackson once asked if he could shoot a video in the gardens, where lions, tigers and elephants once roamed. True or not, he was turned down.
Summer in Istanbul was a time for sneaking in to the sumptuous Ciragan Palace hotel on the shores of the Bosphorus. While the city baked, friends and I would cool ourselves in the turquoise water of the huge infinity pool until an eagle-eyed cocktail waiter spotted our shabby backpacks and shop-bought mineral water and we were unceremoniously thrown out. To cheer ourselves up, we’d head to an open-air club in the posh suburb of Etiler for a glimpse of how the other half lived, and to dance to cutting-edge Chicago house amid a heady atmosphere of vodka martinis and rich kids with cut-glass American accents.
Sweltering slum indeed.