“You’ve never been to Istanbul? Where the moonlight on the Bosphorus is irresistible,” Bond asks his secretary, Moneypenny, in the 1963 blockbuster, To Russia With Love. Imagine my luck to land here on a full moon night, only to discover that the ancient mosqued skylines, the spirited Turkish dances on the Bosphorus cruise and the waves sparkling below my feet through the glass floor of the vessel are just as irresistible, if not the crisp autumn air, throbbing with nightlife. “Red wine with fish. Well, that should have told me something,” as the agent would say.
Cut to the morning scenes. At the grand Taksim Square, the pigeons are aflutter, the youngsters swish around on skateboards, the black hijabs flow as freely as little whitedresses. My stroller is a bit of a drag, but under the brilliant blue sky, its weight disappears. Biting into a ring of Simit – a circular bread snack baked here since the 1500s – and a heavenly cup of black çay in a dainty tulip cup (a gift of the Ottoman culture), I see myself in a movie of movies. If only, now, Bond was by my side.
“Let’s just say that Istanbul’s a rough town,” he would retort, shattering my romanticism. And I would understand just why, as ditching the touristy staples, I walk along the Beyoğlu district and take the narrowest alleys thanks to GPS’ shortcut suggestions. The ground is dug up here and there for construction, the children at play recreate village scenes, the men seem brusque but fear not – the celluloid in your head amplifies the stereotype.
Eventually emerging from a non-descript cluster at the road across the popular Istiklal street, I am greeted by high-street brands, an endearing bookshop named ‘Insaan Kitaap’ (literally translating to human as a book), trams buzzing across and street art all over. Two miles away, I’d lose myself in the dense Grand Bazaar and recall 007’s famous chase scene from Skyfall (2012). “Having a car chase in a street with nothing in it is boring,” special effects supervisor Chris Corbould was quoted as saying. “But as soon as you have a background for the chase, it comes to life. Istanbul has a real character to it.”
With curio resplendent in Arabic inscription and Islamic history, fine craftsmanship in ceramic and glassware, calligraphy and quaint cat motifs owing to Egyptian legends, the market thrives in tradition. Its clamour and chaos are strangely endearing. “Sometimes the old ways are the best,” I would hear Craig, as Bond, whisper. Ben Affleck, in his runaway hit Argo (2012), would agree. The movie, with a back- drop of Iran, had some significant scenes filmed in Istanbul. The Grand Bazaar of Istanbul becomes the Grand Bazaar of Iran in the 1970s. The realism is remarkable.
I am walking the bazaar while picturing motorbikes skidding along tangerines, brawny men and full-bodied women, lights, (mobile) cameras and action everywhere! Istanbul’s identity is a melting pot of Europe and Asia – a camaraderie of culture, history, religion, surrealism and struggle. A play of good, bad, ugly – the contemporary continuum, as it is. The magnificent mosques – even if you’re not choosing the obvious itinerary – are unmissable. The Sultan Ahmed Camii or Blue Mosque is a spectacle on the city’s horizon, as is the Hagia Sophia, that converges thousands of years of life, religion, peopleand culture. Combined, the calls of ancient Azaan through the day suffuse the city with enchantment.
The next day, at the traditional hamam, I am reminded of Cleopatra and her leg- endary baths, fifty kilometres from Fethiye, in the thermal turquoise waters where you can apparently still see the remnants of the ancient baths that were put there by Marc Antony as a wedding gift to Cleopatra. A bit of fantasy in the movies does not hurt. “Argo f*ck yourself.” Turkey only gets more whimsical as you travel into the interiors. Mention-worthy are not just Konya, Rumi’s own land and the subject of much reel musing, but also Cappadocia, the land of the ancient underground city and more recently, of hot ballooning indulgence. A perfect testimony is Zoya Akhtar’s Dil Dhadakne Do (2015), the Bollywood film that cruises through the country’s straits with spectacular scenes through the Valley of Love, Devrent Valley, Mustafapaşa, Antalya and the glorious volcanic vistas of Göreme, not just Istanbul.
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Words and Photography Soumya Mukerji
The Ober Trüebsee Alpine pasture, Switzerland