I grew up in a terrace home in Portsmouth. At one finish of the road was Fratton Park, the place the native soccer workforce performed, and on the different was the Istanbul Grill Home. Solely one in every of these venues was within the behavior of offering worth for cash.
Between the ages of seven and 11, I’d go to the Istanbul Grill Home each Saturday with my pocket cash. Every time I entered, the man who labored there would salute me theatrically and say, “Merhaba, my good friend – howdy, howdy.” I’d give him a wink, swap some soccer stickers along with his son then place my order. It might at all times be a cheeseburger. Having simply obtained again from Istanbul – and loving that metropolis’s vary of tasty staples – I now look again on my infantile routine with no small quantity of remorse.
If I may relive these youthful visits, I’d do issues in a different way. I’d begin with a skewer of slow-cooked, marinated lamb with humus and tabbouleh and a splodge of chilli sauce. Then I’d have a bowl of mercimek çorbası (lentil soup), a serving to of kokoreç (a bit like haggis), a large pide (boat-shaped flatbread ballasted with cheese and spicy sausage), a serving of menemen (like shakshuka however with scrambled eggs and spicier), and a dollop of sutlaç (baked rice pudding).
If he had his manner, my youthful self would conclude his go to with a shot of raki and a dialog with Haktan Tursun (whom I met in Istanbul however who could be transported by way of time for the event), to be regaled with tales of the Ottoman back-scrubber who whispered revolution whereas greasing up his purchasers; the catastrophic riots that kicked off after a chariot race on the Roman hippodrome; and the medieval executioner who, to guard his clients from an infection, would fastidiously wash his blade between beheadings.
Haktan is 35, the son of farmers, a tour information and a passionate Istanbulite. I’d organized to fulfill him in entrance of the Blue Mosque, Istanbul’s most Instagrammed institution, beloved for its blue tiles and its six minarets. I’d simply arrived from Bucharest on the night time prepare (which is one other story) and was feeling like no quantity of turkish delight may hold me awake. However then Haktan began speaking – about Byzantium and Ben-Hur and the maiden who obtained locked in a tower for her personal good solely to be eaten by snakes – and all desires of sleep have been immediately banished.
Istanbul’s historical past is legion, its tales are operatic and its buildings are totemic. Its waterways are beguiling and its cobbled streets teem with college students and vacationers and trolleys and taxis and dashing salesmen getting into the highway and saying, “Merhaba, my good friend – the place are you from?” earlier than doing their utmost to flog you a carpet. It’s a metropolis that invitations – and deserves – superlative descriptions. It’s a metropolis par excellence.
And it’s a metropolis fuelled by tea. Black tea. Small tulip-shaped glasses of it. Fifteen a day on common. On the Grand Bazaar – that historic coated market filled with spicy hawkers and sugary distributors – tea is summoned via secret buttons within the partitions. “The nation was once potty about espresso,” mentioned Haktan. “However when Yemen broke free from the Ottoman empire and the espresso provide dried up, Turkey began rising tea and a brand new obsession was born. You lose one thing, you acquire one thing. It was ever thus.”
And as if to show his level, Haktan then disappeared and was changed by his teenage cousin and assistant. Yigit was no much less a buff than his boss. As we ready to enter the unnervingly majestic Hagia Sophia (first a church, then a mosque, then a museum, now a mosque once more), Yigit lectured me on the autumn of Constantinople and the probabilities of Galatasaray on this season’s Champions League, earlier than matter-of-factly requesting that I take off my footwear and pull down my shorts. I gave him a glance, as you’ll. “Just a bit bit,” mentioned Yigit. “In order that they cowl the knee. It’s a situation of entry.”
I’m glad I obeyed, as a result of Hagia Sophia is kind of one thing. Merely put, it’s a whopping basilica with an equally whopping dome on high. It was constructed within the sixth century on the behest of Emperor Justinian I, who, by commissioning the church, hoped to atone for the bloodbath of 30,000 of his topics. Justinian recruited 10,000 employees and gave them simply 5 years to knock up an unparalleled edifice. And so they did it.
With a pair of World Heritage websites beneath my belt, Haktan returned to proceed my tour. He confirmed me Gülhane Park, which is residence to a 2,000-year-old olive tree and a plaque commemorating the event in 1928 when president Mustafa Kemal Atatürk switched the nationwide alphabet from Arabic to Latin. He confirmed me the perfect spot to fish for anchovies within the Bosphorus. He confirmed me the sprawling pomp of Topkapi Palace, former HQ of the Ottoman sultans and website Vlad the Impaler’s education. (The person on whom Bram Stoker’s Dracula was primarily based was educated on the palace earlier than skipping city, returning to Romania after which expressing his thanks by impaling 20,000 members of the Ottoman military.)
He confirmed me a boy referred to as Ahmed flogging ice-cream in a way deserving of worldwide acclaim. He confirmed me quite a lot of cat condos and chook palaces which have been erected to accommodate town’s beloved avian and feline populations.
He confirmed me the 14th-century Galata Tower, the Twenty first-century up to date artwork gallery Istanbul Fashionable, and the Nineteenth-century Dolmabahçe Palace, to which the Ottoman ruling household shifted once they felt that Topkapi was getting a bit old school. And when he’d proven me all that he mentioned, “So, we could go and take a look on the different half then?”
Which is strictly what we did. Haktan’s favorite spot for dinner, Nevmekan Sahil, occurs to be within the Asian a part of Istanbul and price switching continents for. Not solely is the grub first rate and subsidised, the restaurant additionally has a library, an artwork gallery and an impressive domed ceiling.
After sprucing off a bowl of manti (tiny mincemeat dumplings with garlicky yoghurt), and a trio of lokum (turkish delight), Haktan wrenched me from my postprandial droop and led me to a sunny spot on the waterside, the place he gestured proudly to the fetching expanse of the Bosphorus Bridge, nodded gladly to the Golden Horn and the distant Mediterranean, instructed me the color turquoise took its title from the hue of the water earlier than me (which is sort of true), offered an inventory of assets I’d want to pursue with a view to additional my Turkish training (together with the novels of Elif Shafak and Netflix’s Rise of Empires: Ottoman). Then he hopped on an e-scooter and made a touch for a night screening of Oppenheimer in Karaköy.
Which left simply Yigit and me. Feeling a tiny bit misplaced unexpectedly, and a good distance from residence, I seemed to my younger good friend for course. “Cheeseburger?” he mentioned. “Yeah, why not?” I replied.
Travel from London to Istanbul was offered by Byway, which specialises in flight-free, sustainable journey. A ten-day London-to-Istanbul package deal, together with transport and lodging (six nights in inns, three in non-public cabins on night time trains), plus 24/7 assist, prices £930pp, primarily based on two sharing. Ben Aitken’s newest e book, Right here Comes the Enjoyable: A 12 months of Making Merry, is printed by Icon (£18.99). To assist the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Supply prices could apply