It is well after midnight on a Friday night and I find myself lying on the floor of my hotel room, tenderly rubbing my bloated stomach. I have just consumed four pieces of baklava and two cups of apple tea and I am paying for it.
I suppose this is one of the hazards of having only 48 hours in Istanbul. Rather than aimlessly wandering city streets, as I am wont to do, I spend my time in a dizzying fury, trying to soak it all up. The problem is there is just too much to soak up.
I spend my days happily, if not frantically. I go for a run along the Bosphorus – the strait connecting the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, which winds along Istanbul – passing a series of fishermen with paltry catches as well as a band of cats roaming the streets.
I have myself exfoliated, lathered and massaged by overweight, bubbling Turkish women in the city's oldest hammam, or Turkish bath. I hop from bazaar to bazaar, ogling countless colourful rugs and lamps and scarves. I drink more apple tea and pomegranate juice than is wise (luckily, public toilets are fairly easy to find) and eat more baklava, chocolate and pudding than I would care to admit. I peruse the shelves of designers' clothing shops, stealing a few glances from young, sultry, shiny–eyed men sporting dark five o'clock shadows. My olfactory system is overwhelmed by the smell of coffee, rubbish, spice, cologne and soap. I stand in queues for hours to catch a glimpse of the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace and Basilica Cistern. They are all spectacular and worth every second of the wait. My fast pace melds easily with that of the city's bustling 13million inhabitants. Stores and monuments are open late, restaurants even later and bars well into the early hours of the morning. But the city is also oddly serene. Situated on the historic Silk Road, the trade route that connected Europe and Asia, Turkey is still in the middle of diverging and converging worlds; it now sits, geographically and literally, on the edge of the Syrian conflict. It was the cultural, political and economic heartland of the Roman, Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman empires and has been home to bloody religious wars, murderous regime changes and more conflicts than one can count.
But the city's varied history and myriad influences have not made it schizophrenic in nature. Instead, Istanbul is a dynamic, not unhappily contradictory, city. You are as likely to find hot young things traipsing around trance music–pumping nightclubs and sporting the latest fashions as you are to happen on old, bearded men in hookah bars or carpet shops, or on religious pilgrimages. For a tourist this mix is perfect: you can see some of the world's most magnificent historical monuments in between shopping trips and beer sipping. And Istanbul's weather does not hurt. I visited in early October and happily wore a T–shirt every day without even risking sunburn.
But it was Istanbul's relaxed yet raw manner that truly enraptured me. As I walked from mosque down cobbled street to super–hip clothing shop, passing families out for long meals and lovers taking cuddly walks, I could not help feeling that Istanbul not only hosted the history of civilisation, but also that Istanbul is civilisation. It is humanity, with people simply and confidently living their lives.
The city is abuzz from morning until night: over these two days, a favourite activity of mine was sitting on the steps of one of its many mosques, watching young professionals dashing to or from work, children hanging on tightly to their parents' hands as they ran for the tram and men and women heading to pray. Religion, art, culture, politics, romance, music, food – it is all there, unapologetically out in the open for the world to see.
My only complaint is that although I could witness this vibrant, pulsing life, I felt more voyeuristic than participatory, especially as a foreign woman. In some areas, such as the Old Town, men seem to rule the streets: most shop and restaurant owners are men and it is rare to see a woman alone. Striking up chats with random people often led to either excessive haggling for things that I did not even want, or a mild to moderate sort of sexual harassment.
Istanbul seems unbending to those who pass by, knowing that it will see another and another, as it always has. I suppose that, after all the city has been through, it is entitled to be so confident. I will make sure that next time I will give it the respect it deserves and go for more than 48 hours.
Thompson's Travel is offering an Istanbul package including return flights from Johannesburg to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines, plus airport to hotel transfers and four nights at the four star Aziyade Hotel in Istanbul. The package also includes breakfast daily and a full day city tour including lunch and a half–day Bosphorus Cruise for R8330pp sharing, excluding airline taxes. Terms and conditions apply. Offer valid from January 3 to to March 15 2013. Use reference number 32937 when calling Thompson's on 0861 84 6677.