Back from the brink

It’s only two years since an at­tempted coup, but Is­tan­bul is mov­ing on and rein­vent­ing it­self

The Observer Magazine - - Wheels - Words ED CUM­MING

‘The bar at street level was so busy the crowd spilled into the road’

The whole time I was in Is­tan­bul I was con­vinced I could hear a dull groan­ing sound. At last I re­alised what it was: the col­lec­tive grum­bling ev­ery time some­one de­scribed the city as “where East meets West”, or “where Asia meets Eu­rope” or some other for­mu­la­tion of the same tired old cliché. I was there for the wed­ding of an old school friend, a woman who has al­ways been driven ba­nanas by this de­scrip­tion of the city where she grew up. Were it not for the po­si­tion­ing of the Bospho­rus, cleav­ing a city of 18 mil­lion in two, no­body would see Is­tan­bul in these terms. No­body fetes Lon­don as the bat­tle­front of Eu­rope and Amer­ica, or or­gan­ises bus trips around Ber­wick-upon-Tweed to mark the sa­cred ground of per­fect equi­lib­rium be­tween Scot­land and Eng­land. Is­tan­bul’s his­tory is ir­re­duc­ible, but if we are go­ing for trite sum­maries, we might say that, like Lon­don and New York, it is try­ing to main­tain a cos­mopoli­tan and lib­eral out­look against the wishes of the na­tion’s dis­grun­tled con­ser­va­tive rump. Old vs new.

“Amaz­ing,” I mur­mured to our taxi driver as we ap­proached from the air­port at sun­set, minarets sil­hou­et­ted against a peach sky. “Yes,” he replied. “It’s where Eu­rope meets Asia…”

In some ways it is an odd time to go, and it’s dif­fi­cult to sep­a­rate a visit from the po­lit­i­cal cli­mate. The cur­rency has taken a well doc­u­mented bat­ter­ing over past months, against a back­drop of po­lit­i­cal un­cer­tainty. At the start of the year £1 bought you five Turk­ish lira, now it’s close to seven.

There was a mo­ment, be­fore around 2010, when Is­tan­bul felt es­pe­cially hip, at least to those of us whose main en­gage­ment was leaf­ing through the week­end sup­ple­ments at a re­move of a thou­sand miles. Pre-Er­doğan, pre-crash, pre-bombs. Ho­tels and bars and mu­se­ums clam­oured to open. It was an­nounced that a Soho House would land, tak­ing in a 19th-cen­tury palace, adding Is­tan­bul to a list in­clud­ing Lon­don, New York, Barcelona, Ber­lin and Mi­ami. Even in 2015, when the ho­tel and pri­vate mem­bers’ club fi­nally opened, it was still pos­si­ble to hope that the pop­ulist, con­ser­va­tive mo­ment might be just that – a fad.

Then in July 2016 came the failed coup, which served to con­sol­i­date the pres­i­dent’s grip on the coun­try. The news in the two years since then has been a grim litany: sup­pressed op­po­si­tion, mur­dered jour­nal­ists, a slide fur­ther to­wards Is­lamism. Soho House was forced to cover its swim­ming pool, ap­par­ently lack­ing the req­ui­site per­mis­sions. Tourism crashed, es­pe­cially from western­ers, and with it the prices of the ho­tels.

It used to be that you could sim­ply pitch up in Bey­oğlu, across the bridge from the tourist cen­tre, con­fi­dent in be­ing near ev­ery­thing worth see­ing. Chang­ing tourist de­mo­graph­ics and ter­ror­ism fears have sent the young Turks to new ar­eas.

Galata is the only part of Bey­oğlu with its for­mer buzz. Once-sleepy Beşik­taş finds it­self poised be­tween two of the most pop­u­lar new ar­eas: Kadıköy-Moda, a short ferry ride away on the Asian side, is awash in craft beer, lux­ury don­ers and bars such as Karga. Just to the north is Nişan­taşi, a mostly res­i­den­tial area where the young mon­eyed Turks are flock­ing. The mir­rored hall­way of the W ho­tel, which is right in the mid­dle of Beşik­taş, filled me with hor­ror at first. The rooms, how­ever, with pri­vate ca­bana beds in a gar­den out back, were amaz­ingly peace­ful.

One ad­van­tage of Is­tan­bul for the lazy sight­seer has al­ways been that its sim­ply-musts are jammed to­gether and can be knocked off in a sin­gle busy morn­ing: Blue Mosque, Ha­gia Sophia, Ro­man cis­terns, Grand Bazaar, ke­bab. The mar­ket I was par­tic­u­larly im­pressed by, since as a re­tail ex­pe­ri­ence it now com­pares favourably with West­field. Far from hag­gling, the man who sold me a tow­elling gown pa­tiently ex­plained that his prices were fixed, and that even this robe, the big­gest in his shop, would not be suf­fi­cient to cover me. I thanked him, bought it any­way, and when I got back to the room dis­cov­ered that he was com­pletely right. For fakes the Grand Bazaar is al­most as good as the in­ter­net. For a mo­ment I yearned for some im­i­ta­tion Ba­len­ci­aga shoes (the ones that look like socks) but was talked down. At the Çem­ber­l­i­taş hamam, a hir­sute and burly chap beat the non­sense out of me.

Many of the rea­sons Nick Jones & Co de­cided to plant their per­fumed flag in the city re­main in­tact. When not at the W we stayed at the Ada­han, a con­verted palace in Bey­oğlu, just down the road from Soho House, with cool high-ceilinged rooms and a bar at street level. It’s owned by ar­chi­tects, the kinds of peo­ple who take the husks from the or­anges they squeeze for break­fast and turn them into mar­malade which they serve on the roof ter­race. At night it was so busy down­stairs that the crowd spilled into the road. A re­as­sur­ing num­ber of young Turks still smoke.

Also re­as­sur­ing was the en­ergy in the warm, packed bars. Ev­ery­one, in­clud­ing the tourists, seemed to be try­ing to get pissed and/or get off with each other. Com­pared to the rev­er­en­tial morgue­like vibe of so many cities in Italy or Spain, it was re­fresh­ing to be sur­rounded by ta­bles of geezers on the verge of a brawl. I spoke with Mehmet, who said he’d lived in Bournemouth. He talked while propped against his moped at an alarm­ing an­gle. “Turkey needs to re­boot,” he said, huff­ing on a Marl­boro. “Just like the UK.” ■

Es­sen­tials Fly from Lon­don Stansted to Is­tan­bul with Pe­ga­sus Air­lines (fly­pgs.com). Daily sched­uled flights from £51 one way, in­clud­ing taxes. Rooms at the Ada­han start from £90 (ada­hanistan­bul.com) and at the W Is­tan­bul from £120 (wis­tan­bul.com.tr).

SHUTTERSTOCK; GETTY

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