To see the real Istanbul, look east
ISTANBUL, Turkey -- Maybe it was the seemingly endless bounty of cocktails and finger food at the German ambassador's home in Ankara. Or perhaps the swarm of Euro-chic glitterati up all night outside my hotel in the Beyoglu district.
After nearly a week in the company of 50 pampered American and German journalists on a Berlin-to-Istanbul study tour (myself included), I needed a break. Pamuk's words rang hollow, a cruel taunt in a city of 12 million and what at times appeared to be nearly as many tourists.
Topkapi Palace, with its ornate courtyards and gilded treasures, was breathtaking -- but as crowded as a midtown Manhattan subway car. And if you're willing to put up with pushy vendors who see Turkish lira signs in those comfortable tennis shoes you never thought would so obviously scream "American," the Grand Bazaar is a bargain-hunter's dream.
The intent of the trip, sponsored by the German-American Fulbright Commission, was to better understand Turkey's drive to embrace the West through its efforts to join the European Union. We were also learning, in Berlin, about the complicated sentiments of Europeans as negotiations begin to bring the secular Muslim nation into the EU club.
In my case, that meant a trip east, across the Sea of Marmara to the Asian side of Istanbul, a city that both literally and symbolically straddles two continents, a cradle of civilizations that is at once ancient and thoroughly modern.
There were no other tourists on the sunset ferry to Kadikoy, a 20-minute ride that offers an unobstructed waterfront view of Haghia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and the skyward minarets that define the city's skyline.
What lured me to Kadikoy was the promise of a Turkish hip-hop festival organized to promote awareness of global warming -- an event that says more about Turkey's embrace of Western culture than any high-level briefing by a mid-level deputy interior minister.
One look at their askew baseball caps and name-brand jogging suits demonstrated the Turkish rappers' commitment to the craft, or at least their intense MTV Europe viewing habits.
The enviro message was nowhere to be found, an absence that disappointed me but didn't seem to faze the head-bobbing, arm-waving teens pressed against the stage. They were lost in the moment, hypnotized by the Turkish singers' rapid-fire delivery.
I too was lost, a videocamera-toting outsider looking for a glimpse of the "real" Turkey, the exotic home of Byzantium and the Ottoman Empire, not the packaged version that our capable and fluent English-speaking tour guides flawlessly offered.
On the ferry back to Europe, I tallied the day's hurried purchases at the Grand Bazaar: pistachio-laden Turkish delights for the kids back home; a set of dainty cups and saucers, including a coffeepot and packet of Turkish coffee, for my sister; whirling Sufi dervish painting for mom; and souvenir bottle of raki, an anise-flavored and powerful Turkish brandy, for my wife and me.
Eschewing a taxi for a walk past the Galata Tower, I quickly found Istikal Caddesi, a pedestrian thoroughfare that winds through Beyoglu and its haven of jazz clubs, high-end clothing stores and hidden tea shops.
The day was long, the crowds growing larger. Familiar landmarks from the day before quickly became blurred amid the late-night masses. Lost again. Surrounded yet alone. Just like Pamuk predicted.
If you goDetails: 212-687-2194 or www.tourismturkey.org .