This commentary is from Walt Amses, a writer who lives in the north of Calais.
Istanbul is disconcertingly surreal. We’ve thought about it for so long, probably more than a decade, that being here is often so dreamlike that it seems we could easily float like the wisps of Bosphorus fog that lurk in the evening.
It doesn’t help at all that every step we take takes us further back in time.
A nine-hour Turkish Air flight from Boston – our first out of the country since pre-Covid – requires us to take an afternoon to recover, essentially unwinding, returning to our original physical structures from stress positions regularly imposed in “economy” – airline jargon for “steerage”. Of course, you can redeem your DVT exit by buying a seat in the Less-Likely-to-Die-in-Flight section or just share the misery by sitting together, for which the asking price on this flight was – wait – $39.95. Each. No, we didn’t and still got adjacent seats by asking nicely.
Although the city is more than huge with more than 15 million inhabitants, seemingly stretched on the horizon in all directions, thanks to Helene’s almost obsessive research, we find ourselves in what looks like a small European village with narrow, rain-smoothed cobbled streets, fading into mist as they descend to the water that surrounds this small peninsula.
The next morning, after a walk of barely 100 meters, we enter the Hippodrome, where Constantine presided over ancient chariot races and we met the rest of the world. The crowd is monstrous. The lines are sinuous, wrapped in huge loops across the square, around the corners and out of sight.
We decide to start at the Hagia Sophia but we literally can’t find where the queue ends, so we settle for Topkapi Palace, once the home of thousands of Moors, subjects of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, whose ancient excavations encompass a walled area roughly the size of an average city park designed by Olmsted, once measuring more than 700,000 square meters.
Completed in 1478 by Mehmed the Conqueror, the palace served as the administrative center of the Ottoman Empire for over 400 years, the official residence of the Ottoman sultans and 5,000 of their subjects, which sounds like a lot but far outnumbers them. those who stalk the ground and massed outside, waiting to break through the ramparts like hordes of marauding Mongols. We’re starting to refer to them as ‘Bus People’. Kind of like the leafy peeper caravans Vermonters experience this time of year, following a guide carrying a flag, an ID card attached to a lanyard, a pass to the backstage of the world.
Without anything resembling a schedule, we wander off into the distance, seeing what there is to see, taking in as much as we can: huge underground cisterns that once supplied Istanbul with water, also under Constantine, one of hundreds under the city; the incredible Blue Mosque, built in 1603, capping two centuries of Ottoman design with six minarets visible for miles; and a mysteriously short late afternoon line and coveted entrance to Hagia, a massive Greek Orthodox church until the overthrow of Constantinople by the Ottoman Empire in 1453.
There is even time to observe the dozens of fishermen, side by side along the Golden Horn, whipping 10-foot surf rods like so many rapid-fire metronomes, in search of dinner, surrounded by the urban tumult. cars, buses, trains and ferries pulsing along the shore.
After a taxi ride through city traffic, a short flight and a van shuttle across rolling plains backed by misty, distant mountains that look like the forefront of the northern Rockies, we arrive in Goreme, a small Cappadocia town surrounded by topography we decide is straight out of “Star Wars”. Which we joke only to learn a few days later that scenes from the early days of the franchise were actually filmed here in the mid-1970s.
The scenery is otherworldly, completely breathtaking. It would make perfect sense on the James Webb Telescope, a glimpse into a distant galaxy that’s heretofore unknown, light years away. Also, apart from the relatively small UNESCO World Heritage section, we seem to have unlimited access to everything else. We can go where we want. No restrictions. No rules. And no sign, which tended to make some of our ventures more… adventurous.
As a natural wonder, this region of Cappadocia stands out as a sublime example of what the wind, water and fire of volcanic activity can accomplish over millennia, but it is much, much more. Humans have populated this area for thousands of years, creating a vast art installation illustrating how generations of ancient people with nothing but hand tools created a masterpiece – a mind-blowing feast for our senses. of the 21st century. As my gaze shifts from this point to this, I am fascinated. Hypnotized by what I’m watching but fully aware that I could never do it justice with words – it’s indescribable. But of course I will try.
Five consecutive days, we cover terrain, miles and miles. We walk, we hike, we trek, we climb, we struggle. Pulling muscles, straining ligaments, stretching tendons, raising blisters, aggravating bunions and gnarled toes. We ogle, we look, but above all we are impressed.
What at first glance appears to be sand dunes flow over hills of solid rock that turn orange, pink and lavender as the sun sets. There are spiers, obelisks and pinnacles called “fairy chimneys” and giant mushrooms that look like the seven dwarfs.
But then, high on the cliffs, doors, windows, stairs and verandas. The idea that people lived up there is amazing. The monks, who resisted the Arab invasions in the 4th century, were the first, and their altered achievement remains to amaze us.
After a steep climb we find monasteries, churches and even a cathedral with high pillars and carved arches carved into solid rock.
We crane our necks at the improbable, ever-colorful frescoes that line the walls and ceilings, and the stories are no longer stories. They came to life. Finally there again, we feel like we are too.