Thoroughly Scoured In Istanbul
The crew are up early to shoot the sunrise from the top of the 600-year-old Galata Tower, where in May 1453 the Genoese Christians handed over control of the city to the Ottoman Muslims, a key moment in European history. It is at breakfast at the Pera Palas Hotel that I hear the first news of modern history in the making. Those with short-wave radios have heard word from the Soviet Union that Gorbachev has been overthrown in a right-wing coup. Nothing more is known at the moment. I think of all the friends we made – Irena and Volodya and Edward and Sasha the Lenin impersonator – and I know that if the news is true things can only be worse for them. Selfishly, we can only be thankful for our extraordinarily lucky escape. If this had happened three days earlier, the Junost might never have left Odessa and we would have been stranded. If it had happened three weeks earlier we would never have been allowed into the Soviet Union.
The shadow of this great event hangs over the day, giving everything else we do a certain air of unreality. Some of the unreality is there already, especially in Room 411 of the Pera Palas Hotel. This is the room in which Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express. It’s small and rather cramped and you wouldn’t get much writing done nowadays as they’ve just built an eight-lane highway below the window. After Agatha Christie died in 1976, Warner Brothers wanted to make a film about the mystery of eleven lost days of her life. An American medium, one Tamara Rand, said that in a trance she had seen an hotel in Istanbul and in Room 411 of this hotel she had seen Agatha Christie hiding the key to her diary under the floorboards. On 7 March 1979 the room was searched and a rusty key was found. The president of the hotel company, sensing Warner Brothers’ interest but miscalculating their generosity, put the key in a safe and demanded two million dollars, plus fifteen per cent of the films profits. Here the key remains. Its age has been authenticated and as Agatha Christie was highly secretive about travel arrangements it’s considered unlikely that the medium can have known about the Pera Palas before she saw it in her trance.
It all makes Room 411 rather a creepy place and I’m glad to get out and into the bustle of Pera Street – the mile-long main thoroughfare of Istanbul. The best way to see it is from one of the venerable red-and-cream trams that run its length, though I must confess I do catch breath when I notice the number of the tram we’re on – 411.
I buy a Panama hat for under £6 from an elderly French-speaking Turk at a shop by the tram stop. I’m not keen on hats, but with the weather getting hotter by the day I can see the advantages.
As a result of climate, history and geographical position, Istanbul is the quintessential trading city. Russia and the Mediterranean and Europe and Asia meet here, and though a walk through the endless arcades of the old covered market gives an overwhelming sense of richness and variety, there is no better place to see trade in its rawest, purest form than the square outside the gates of the Beyazit II mosque and the impressive Islamic-arched entrance of Istanbul University. Here an extraordinary dance of commerce goes on. Groups are constantly gathering, splitting and reforming. Eyes are always on the move. These are furtive people on the very edge of the law, buying and selling in the spirit, if not the currency, of this great commercial city. There are Azerbaijanis, Iranians, Poles, Romanians, Ukrainians and Afghans. Most of them sell out of black plastic bags. I see Marlboro cigarettes traded for dollars, and plastic train sets, cheap East European trainers, an anorak, some metal ornaments – all attracting the crowds.
By the end of this hot, hard day the ministrations of a proper Turkish bath, a hammam, are irresistible.
The Cagaloglu Hammam, a splendid emporium of cleanliness, is this year celebrating 300 years in business, during which time it has cleaned, amongst others, King Edward VII, Kaiser Wilhelm, Florence Nightingale and Tony Curtis. I can choose from a ‘self-service bath’ (the cheapest option), a ‘scrubbed assisted bath’, a ‘massage ˆ la Turk – you’ll feel years younger after this vigorous revitalizing treatment’ or the ‘Sultan service’, which promises, modestly, that ‘you will feel reborn’. At 120,000 Turkish lira, about £17, rebirth seems a snip, and after signing up I’m given a red-and-white check towel and shown to a small changing cubicle. Through the glass I can see a group of masseurs with long droopy moustaches, hairy chests, bulbous stomachs and an occasional tattoo. At that moment a Turkish father and son emerge from a cubicle and the little boy, who looks to be only eight or nine, is ushered towards the steam-room by one of these desperadoes with a reassuring gentleness and good humour.
The steam-room, the hararet, is set to one side of an enormous central chamber with walls and floor of silver-grey marble, and a dome supported by elegant columns and arches. While I work up a good dripping sweat from the underfloor heating I get talking to a fellow bather, an Italian. He has driven to Istanbul from Bologna, and had come quite unscathed through Yugoslavia, where there is a state of civil war, but had found newly-liberated Romania a dark and dangerous place. Gasoline was almost unobtainable. He bought a can which he found later to be water. I asked him if there was any more news from the USSR. He said he had heard that Leningrad had been sealed off and tanks had moved into the Kremlin.
Then it’s my turn on the broad inlaid marble massage slab called the Gobek Tasi. I’m rubbed, stretched and at one point mounted and pulled up by my arms before being taken off and soaped all over by a masseur who keeps saying ‘Good?’ in a tone which brooks no disagreement. He dons a sinister black glove the size of a baseball mitt. (The brochure describes it as ‘a handknitted Oriental washing cloth’, but it feels like a Brillo pad.) Never have I been so thoroughly scoured. The dirt and skin roll off me like the deposits from a school rubber. How can I have been so filthy and not know about it?
There is a small bar giving on to an open courtyard at the back of the hammam. Sitting here with a glass of raki and a bowl of grapes luxuriating in the afterglow of the bath at the end of a long day, I feel as content as I ever could.
The last news of the day is that the port of Tallinn, which we entered three weeks ago, has been closed by a blockade.