“This way, this way, this way!” Our local tour guide in Istanbul is a strange mixture of strict schoolmaster and fawning servant.
“Hurry, hurry, busy, busy – don’t get lost!”
As if we would get lost on purpose!
Istanbul is quite a culture shock. The coach from the airport has taken an age to drive a short distance – the traffic into the old town centre is atrocious.
Since our tour group consists of about 70% German speakers and 30% English speakers, the guide decides to give around 99% of his commentary in German. This soon elicits vociferous complaints from our fellow English tourists, but they are unable to make much headway. Clearly his German is better than his English and that’s that. He waves the complaints away and gives an assurance that he will give key instructions in both languages. However the full details of Istanbul’s history are lost even on those of us who speak at least some German.
Maybe he knows that the Germans give bigger tips.
We are ushered across busy roads and down twisting alleyways to the Blue Mosque, where our visit is – as is often the case with a tour group – too hurried, too confusing, too tense to be able to enjoy. This is why travelling independently is so much preferable – you can do things in your own time and take as long as you like. However, it has to be admitted that in Istanbul, you need a bit of guidance and explanation about how things work and where to go.
Clustered around our guide amidst a mass of other people inside the mosque, we try to concentrate on what we’re being told and take in the beauty of this famous place – but are distracted by anxiety about the whereabouts of our shoes, which we have had to leave outside (though other people seem to be carrying theirs around in plastic bags) and which we are paranoid will get stolen. The thought of being in a city like Istanbul, at the beginning of a long day’s tour, without shoes is quite terrifying!
Thankfully, we find them again, but in the time it takes to put them back on again (sitting squashed on some hot stone steps along with dozens of other people), we have lost our guide and our group, and have to go rushing after him, trying to pick out the small white sign he (occasionally) holds aloft, from amongst many others which are similar.
At last we manage to find him and get our instructions about which café to meet in, and where the toilets are.
The public ladies toilets are a shock. On the plus side, they exist. On the negative side, most of them are holes in the floor, which those in local dress clearly favour. (One can’t help but suspect that the local ladies don’t wear underwear, so they are just able to split their legs under their robes and relieve themselves quickly.) There are one or two ‘European’ toilets that you can actually sit on, and the queue for these is massive. Their state of cleanliness does not bear describing.
Still, once we find the right café and manage to order some freshly squeezed orange juice, while the amazing ‘call to prayer’ begins to sound from the main mosques, things seem to be looking up, and we start to enjoy our day, with all its amazing and unfamiliar sights and sounds and smells.
Our guide has told us his name is Mehmed, which we are informed is a Turkish form of Muhammed, the most widely used name in the world. There are – I forget how many million – men in Turkey called Mehmed. Must be very confusing.
Mehmed comes and talks to us at our table in the café.
He tells us about his sons and his home and his visits to London. He is quite charming in person and wins us over. His friendliness morphs seamlessly into salesmanship, and we realise he is trying to sell us an optional boat trip on the Bosphorus, and also an optional evening meal. We accept both – well what can you do, it’s possibly a once in a lifetime experience and we can’t miss anything. But several people, we discover later, have refused on principle, having expected everything to be included in the price already paid. They have to be dropped off and picked up again at odd places, and Mehmed doesn’t seem very pleased with them. We are glad we have stayed on the right side of him.
So after the café and the sales pitch, we head off in a group together towards the main Topkapi Palace, the busiest tourist attraction in Turkey.
This is definitely a place we will have to revisit again in our own time. It clearly needs a day in itself to see everything properly. It is so ridiculously packed full of tour groups of various nationalities and evident chaos and confusion, that it is unfortunately far from a relaxing experience.
Again, on entering the Palace through the main gate, I find myself separated from my possessions, only this time the anxiety is much worse than with just my shoes. My handbag – which contains of course everything we desperately need to keep safely with us; passports, flight tickets back to our resort, money, credit cards, phone – has to be deposited on a security scanner, like in an airport. The trouble is there is only one of these, and dozens and dozens of people trying to get into the Palace at the same time, meaning that all those dozens are scrambling over each other to try to get back to the point where they can recover their possessions.
Absolutely incredible that I managed to get my bag back safely and it wasn’t stolen in the melee of visitors snatching up bags from the single conveyor belt.
I must say I pushed my way through those crowds without any thought for manners or politeness – I was in a complete panic and desperate to get to my bag, which I always look after so very obsessively when travelling, and can’t bear to be left out of sight or out of reach for a moment!
Inside the Palace, our guide Mehmed, rather than coming into his own, came into his worst. He abandoned English almost entirely, shouted at us constantly if we strayed away from him, yet kept us standing for far too long in particular rooms and corners of his choice, whilst he droned on endlessly about particular aspects of Turkish history of which he was obviously particularly proud. A lot of information was imparted about the beauty and immense value of some famous jewel which we sadly weren’t even able to see through the ridiculous crowds. At one point he accosted some of our group who were walking in the wrong direction out of a small, dark room full of swords and armour, and demanded to know where they thought they were going.
“Sorry,” an American lady told him frankly, “but this sort of thing just doesn’t interest us.”
The expression on Mehmed’s face was quite affronted – on behalf of all those historic Turkish sultans and warriors, no doubt.
Eventually we were allowed to escape that disappointing Palace experience, and have an hour or so to ourselves in the centre of Istanbul.
We investigated visiting the Hagia Sophia, the even older and more famous building opposite the Blue Mosque, but this was a huge museum and we were advised on the door that the tour took a minimum of an hour, so there just wasn’t time to consider it, especially bearing in mind the long queue to get in.
Instead we sat in a café and took in the general atmosphere, and wandered around by the fountain and some of the stone monuments nearby.
Relations between many of our party and poor Mehmed had broken down badly by this point, but we were pretty pleased to see him at the allotted time, and followed him obediently back to our coach.
A further tour of the more modern parts of Istanbul followed, and then a wonderful free couple of hours near the spice market, where we bought Turkish Delight and marvelled at caged birds and ate ice cream amongst the locals, and generally regretted we only had one precious day in this amazing city.
Then it was time to go for the boat trip – a definite highlight of the day – and we had the fraught yet memorable experience of Mehmed casually stopping dual carriageways of traffic for us to cross the road, and walking us right across the middle of a very busy bus station, dodging vehicles on all sides, before arriving safely at the target quayside.
The sort of experience that is not so pleasant at the time, but provides a humorous anecdote once safely over!
Our guide never once counted the members of his group, I noticed, not even on collecting everyone at the end of the day and driving them back to the airport. Either he had an amazing memory and did in fact know what he was doing, or he had a very slapdash attitude to whether or not he left any lost tourists in Istanbul.
But English or no English, counting or no counting – I was grateful to him for getting us around and back safely, and giving us a memorable day.