Gareth Huw Davies

Things to do - various destinations

Istanbul is top taste in freshly MINTED Turkey

Global commerce meets Byzantine jewel; Istanbul March 2013

Global commerce meets Byzantine jewel; Istanbul March 2013

In January 2014 economist Jim O’Neill presented a series on the “MINT” countries – Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey – on BBC Radio 4.

It was O’Neill who, in 2001, coined the term “Bric” countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China – as potential world powerhouses.

Now he has repeated the exercise with four more fresh economic forces. The only MINT country I know personally is Turkey. After many years of visits I detect clear recent signs that the country is a significant force already on the move, with an enormous potential to grow and succeed as a major economic power.

It is also a fascinating and rewarding place to visit as a tourist. This is an account of a trip I made to Istanbul in 2013.


Long before Daniel Craig’s double roared over its ancient rooftops on a motorbike in Skyfall, Istanbul was a glory of world travel. Bridging two continents, this splendid collision of civilizations mingles the mystique, power and glitter of Byzantine and Ottoman Empires.

This is my pick from one of my favourite destinations.

Market force

We stepped off the tram at the Grand Bazaar to a tremendous quadraphonic sound effect. Four müezzin competed to call the faithful to prayer from four separate mosques around us. We plunged into one of the world’s biggest and oldest covered markets. The 500 year old Grand Bazaar – it was on the roof where two stuntmen staged that crazy motorbike chase in Skyfall – is the model for Turkish markets everywhere. It brims with infinite choice in 3000 shops wide open to the browsing throng, in 60 aisles. Products are high quality. We bought four cotton hammam towels, hand woven in Turkey. Our friends found an exquisite print of whirling dervishes. Then Turkish tea and paklava in one of the many cafes.


Easy riding

Driving on Istanbul’s teeming streets is for the experts. Take public transport – it’s much improved. Miss a tram on the main route through the old city, and there’s often another only seconds behind it. A new metro line opens soon from the city centre to the second airport, Sabiha Gokcen. Atatürk Airport is already linked. (There are plans to build the world’s largest airport in Istanbul.) The Istanbulkart, sold at newsstands, can be used on trams, the metro, buses and ferries. More than one person can use the same card – you just pass it over the barrier to your compnion. Use it on a ferry across the mile wide Bosporus, separating Asia from Europe. They give some of the finest city views in the world. Try the crossing from Eminonu to Kadikoy, Karaköy or Kabataş, for a wondrous view of the vast dome of the Aya Sophia and the old city. Often the ferry will pause to let some great, rusty freighter roll down from Russia.


Centre of gravity

Blockbusters from 2,500 years of history crowd the old heart of this huge city.  You can take most of them in on a meandering day on foot, from the Blue Mosque (open, free, to visitors outside times of prayer) via the underground Basilica Cistern (damp, dripping and eerie under its 1500 year old brickwork and a refreshing place on a hot day), to the Spice Market. Then take the tram up to the Roman Valens Aqueduct (971 metres long), and over Galata Bridge, permanently lined with fishermen. Two funiculars, from Karaköy and Kabataş, connecting to Taksim Square. My perfect last call on a summer afternoon is Seraglio Point, to relax in the tea garden under the Topkapi Palace, and watch the evening ferries zing across the Bosporus.


Vast vision

It was an offer we couldn’t refuse. Stand in the hour-long queue for the Aya Sophia, one of the world’s top tingle-factor buildings, or pin the queueay an extra 25YTL (£9) each for fast track entry and tour.  Our (official) guide, who had propositioned us in the queue, gave us a brisk 30 minute overview of Turkey’s most visited attraction, then left us to appreciate its overwhelming majesty at our own pace. Built in 537, the Aya Sophia was the greatest cathedral in Christendom for 900 years, until the Turks took the city (then Constantinople) in 1453. It was a mosque for 500 years, becoming a museum in 1935. Dodging the crowds, we found a quiet vantage point in the gallery to look at the mighty columns and astonishing mosaics. The light streamed in as it has for 15 centuries, through a circuit of 40 arched windows.


Stay in style

To widen our Istanbul experience, we chose a hotel in another of the city’s historic districts. Nişantaşı is a fashionable shopping and residential area high up on the Asian side where Orhan Pamuk, one of Turkey’s leading novelists, lives and set his latest novel, The Museum of Innocence. (It’s one of those works of such dense urban geographial detail that it fits on the list of books that could be used to rebuild a place if aliens wiped it out and left no trace.)

We stayed at the Park Hyatt Maçka Palace, a beautifully restored art deco structure built in 1928 by an Italian architect. It’s a wonderfully secluded retreat from the flat-out city.  Perfect mid-evening therapy after a day’s sighseeing is a glass of one of the emerging Turkish wines, with appetisers, in the vast lobby. Nisantasi is the South Kensington of Istanbul, full of seductive  window shopping on Teşvikiye Caddis. They squeezed in a glitzy five storey shopping center, one of a fast growing number in Istanbul, the City’s Nisantasi.


Dining choice

The range of small, often family-run restaurants is cosmic. There were memorable moments in almost every place we tried. In one the waiter tested his repertoire of Glasgow slang on us, when he heard our companions were from Edinburgh. In a busy cafe on the waterfront near the Spice Bazaar my high-speed waiter skated to the counter on the polished floor for my order of cake and tea. And at the Palatium Restaurant, hard by the Blue Mosque, we inspected remains of the Great Palace of Constantinople, under the glass floor. There are many alternatives to the traditional menu of meatballs and kebab. The lively Limonata restaurant, on the top floor of the City’s Nisantasi shopping center, is all zest and zing. Waiters commit your order from an Italian-themed menu to memory.

Gareth was a guest of Park Hyatt Maçka Palace,