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x0x Rising with sun casts light on Istanbul's pre-tourist charm

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  • TRH
    The San Francisco Chronicle Reprinted with Permission x0x Rising with sun casts light on Istanbul s pre-tourist charm John Flinn Sunday, July 1, 2001
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 9, 2001
      The San Francisco Chronicle
      Reprinted with Permission

      x0x Rising with sun casts light on Istanbul's pre-tourist charm

      John Flinn

      Sunday, July 1, 2001

      Copyright, 2001 San Francisco Chronicle

      At 4:30 a.m., the muezzin's call to prayer is a maddeningly effective
      alarm clock. But on this morning, you don't need it: You're already wide

      thanks to jet lag. You lie in bed until it's fully light, then throw on
      some clothes and set out on one of your favorite travel rituals: the first
      morning's walk around a city.

      Before 9 a.m., you've come to learn, cities belong to their residents.
      After that, they belong to the tourists. Those quiet hours between dawn
      and the closing of the breakfast buffets at the big hotels is when you see
      old women in black puttering home from the bakery with loaves of
      still-warm bread slung over their shoulders like Louisville Sluggers, when
      markets full of exotic-smelling fruits and vegetables seem to appear
      spontaneously in neighborhood parks, when you hear garbagemen singing
      arias from the backs of their garbage trucks.

      In a few days, when you've adjusted to the 10-time-zone difference between
      San Francisco and Istanbul, it will be murder to drag yourself out of bed
      before 7 a.m. But this morning, fresh off the plane, you're as awake and
      alert as you'll ever be at this hour.

      Outside your pension you walk a few steps to the street called Atmeydani
      Sokak, and with a start you realize you're standing on the track where
      Byzantine chariots once clattered around the Hippodrome, back when the
      city was called Constantinople. In front of you is a naked-looking obelisk
      of rough stone that was stripped of its bronze covering in the 13th
      century by the knights of the Fourth Crusade, who mistakenly thought it
      was gold.

      In a few hours the Hippodrome will be bustling with souvenir salesmen,
      freelance "guides" and sleeve-tugging carpet-shop touts, but now there are
      only a few taxi drivers sleeping in their cabs and the yawning Islamic
      faithful returning to their homes and shops after morning prayers in the
      Blue Mosque.

      You stroll over to the little park between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia
      Sophia and study these two magnificent buildings. Mustachioed men in baggy
      pants and embroidered vests are sweeping the sidewalks with rough brooms,
      and vendors are arriving with wheeled carts full of croissant-like
      pastries. Soon this spot will be infested with Istanbul's most tenacious
      carpet-shop hustlers,

      but at 5:30 a.m. nobody bothers you.

      From the park you can see how the Blue Mosque and every other major mosque
      in Istanbul were attempts by the Ottoman Turks to copy and surpass the
      Byzantines' crowning masterpiece, the Hagia Sophia. The greatest church in
      Christendom and the largest enclosed space in the world for a thousand
      years after it was completed in 537, the Hagia Sophia seems to glimmer
      ethereally in the dawn light. The Ottomans may have equalled the beauty of
      its exterior, but they could never match the genius and grace of its
      interior structure, could never figure out how to support such a
      gargantuan dome without clunky interior pillars. (The Byzantines, you
      learn from your guidebook, did it with 40 enormous ribs made with hollow
      bricks baked from special porous clay on the island of Rhodes .)

      You turn down the street called Tava Hatun Sokak and stroll along the old
      walls of the Topkapi Palace, from which various sultans once ruled the
      mighty Ottoman Empire and lived a life straight out of "1001 Arabian
      Nights." Amid eunuchs and dwarfs, the sultans frolicked with gaggles of
      concubines in their harems and kept their princes locked in a gilded
      prison, lest they attempt to succeed their fathers via the sword.

      Soon you're in front of the Sirkeci railway station, and it takes your jet
      lag-addled brain a moment to place this familiar name. Then the lightbulb
      goes on: This was once the terminus of the Orient Express, where captains
      of industry, opera singers, spies and the crowned heads of Europe - as
      well as the fictional Hercule Poirot - once alighted from their grand
      carriages and drank in the sights of the mysterious East.

      As you pass by, well-dressed office workers with their briefcases and
      folded newspapers spill out of commuter trains arriving from Istanbul's

      A few steps further, you reach the Golden Horn, where fishermen are
      selling shiny little fish from their bobbing boats. You gaze across this
      history- soaked inlet and realize that you must be standing at the very
      spot where the defenders of Constantinople stretched a massive chain
      across its opening in 1453 to try to prevent Turkish ships from sailing in
      and attacking their city. And just across the Golden Horn you can see the
      low-lying hills of the Galata district, where the Turks transported their
      ships on wooden rollers in the dark of night. You can only imagine how the
      Byzantines felt when they awoke to find Mehmet the Conqueror's navy inside
      their defenses.

      You turn right and walk a couple of blocks to Seraglio Point, and realize
      you've quite literally come to the end of Europe: Half a mile away, on the
      other side of the Bosphorus, Asia begins. You turn slowly and take in the
      360- degree view: the hills of Istanbul, glittering with the domes and
      minarets of dozens of grand mosques; the freighters chugging through the
      Bosphorus on their way from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean; the
      palaces along the waterway's banks; the ferries crossing from the Asian
      side of the city.

      Istanbul is coming fully awake as you make your way back to Sirkeci
      station and find an inviting little cafe. You order a glass of tea by
      pointing and gesturing; the cafe owner speaks no English.

      "Deutsche?" he asks. You shake your head no. "Anglische? Australian?

      "American," you say, and he seems thrilled. He keeps saying "Baltimore!
      Baltimore!" and you gather that he must have a brother or cousin living
      there. You pull a fat wad of Turkish lira from your wallet, fan it out and
      offer to let him take whatever he needs for the tea; you haven't yet
      figured out the money. But the cafe owner waves it away. Your tea is on
      the house.

      "Baltimore!" he says, by way of explanation.

      You find a window seat, pull your journal out of your backpack and try to
      write all this down before it fades from your memory. At the end of a page
      you put down your pen, take a sip of tea, gaze out the window at the
      now-bustling streets of Istanbul and think: It's good to be back on the

      Travel Editor John Flinn's column appears in this space the first Sunday
      of the month.
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