Well, Istanbul is all that memory and others' rave reviews have painted it - heaving with people, wildly international, and boasting, this weekend, perfect fall weather (if you live in the Sandlands, at least - having enjoyed a warm and sunny morning, I'm now relishing watching a thunderstorm roll in over the Bosporus from the balcony of our hotel room - it's a refreshing change actually to see weather).
We took it slow to start, arriving at our hotel off Taksim in the middle of the afternoon and only venturing out later for dinner and a long walk. The Otel Stella Theodora* is just off a busy street, at a place where it seems the more-or-less real city meet Touristlandia. That makes for a nice juxtapostion of backpackers, hipsters (domestic and imported), and other hapless types (like us, I suppose) running into large round ladies swathed in a fashion that recalls Moscow housewives circa 1962, with the babushka replaced with capacious headscarves. Their sons and grandsons run about smoking with a grim determination rarely seen in the West these days, apparently eager to turn their toothsome selves at 27 into what their elders look like by 50.
As for the Otel, what it may lack in cosmopolitan polish, it more than makes up for in cost and a truly lovely view of the water, something one would never expect from its tight urban setting and unpreposessing facade. It's not the Four Seasons, but it's cheap and cheerful, with a surprisingly fine mattress and lots of hot water. The Egyptian boys are perfectly happy, because it's also two doors down from a very festive watering hole, which we will likely (among other dives) habituate this evening.
We did manage to cover a few tourist sites today, and while the terrifying line at Hagia Sophia means that we may try there again, we did brave a shorter queue to visit the Basilica Cistern (certainly the finest watertank-of-antiquity-based tourist attraction I can think of) and wandered about the hippodrome, with the Egyptians becoming wroth, as they are wont to do, about the presence there, as in what seems like every major metropolis we visit, of an obelisk pillaged at some point from the banks of the Nile. I told them all about the massacre of the Janissaries, which happened more or less at its base, and they agreed that they probably had it coming to them (despite meeting their unfortunate end a millennium or more after the column's looting).
Then it was a lovely fish lunch at a shamelessly touristy restaurant nearby (full of shamelessly flirting waiters, which made it all worthwhile, even the acrid house white), and now here I am - and really the rain is pouring down now - having a little siesta while the boys go off and misbehave.
It really is the most remarable city - every platitude you can imagine about clashes of old and new, religious and secular, shabby and chic, all at once, and more so. Somehow, the fact that everything's in Turkish comes as an odd surprise, as is the sensation (which you really don't get in much of Europe, where at least scraps of the language are familiar) of being able to read a sign, but not understand a word of it.
Fortunately, there is beauty everywhere, and in many forms, so one doesn't (at least after this little bit of time, so far) lose one's mind. In any case, as Mr. Muscato (and have I mentioned how nice it was to see him again? We've rarely been apart for ten days in our nine years together, and for the very good reason that neither of us like it) and I keep reminding ourselves, it's not the Sandlands, which right now is a very good thing indeed.
* Name changed to protect the dilapidated.