A Farewell To Istanbul
Feature by Mavis Manus

Istanbul! Breathes there a soul who has not been overwhelmed by its size, noise, crowds, vitality, squalor, architecture and magnificence? All of those qualities jump out at you within moments of setting foot in the city.

We hadn’t visited Istanbul in a decade. What brought us back was the opening of the new Pera Palace Hotel. We had always stayed there in the past, if only because it had always been the most congenial hotel in the city, a large, old-fashioned, elegant place that served as the terminus of the Orient Express. The rooms were spacious and high-ceilinged, the staff sophisticated and friendly. The food was first-rate and it was a pleasure to take tea in the Patisserie, especially after a long day of trooping around Topkapi or Aghia Sophia.

The owners of the original Pera Palace were Greek and the section where it was located (Pera) was Greek as well, dating back to Byzantine times when Istanbul was Constantinople, the holy city, the center of Greek thought and religion. The wars between Greece and Turkey had reduced the Greek population over the years, but the Turks had allowed a few commercial businesses like the Pera Palace to keep operating.

The Greek connection was important to us, if only because we were living on Rhodes at the time and were partial to things Greek. We got to know the hotel’s owners that way, and enjoyed the special favors they bestowed on us.

By the mid-1980s, the Pera Palace had gone downhill and become shabby genteel–-peeling wallpaper, stained ceilings, tattered sheets. The owners apologized for this, explaining it was all they could do to keep the Turks from shutting the hotel down. But the food was still good and high tea was still served in the Patisserie on porcelain and silver.

The Turks finally got their way. By 1990 the government had taken over the hotel and spent a small fortune to refurbish it. We checked in on opening day, expecting to stay a week. Instead we lasted only a day, so upset were we by the changes that had been wrought. The hotel was clean and sleek, all glass and steel, but gone was its character and charm. The grand old lady had been turned into a cold-hearted career woman.

We moved into a small hotel in the Kumpaki section of Istanbul, down near the harbor. From our fourth-floor window we could look out over fishing boats and freighters at anchor. By day the neighborhood looked poor and rough: small buildings with interior courtyards littered with scrap and garbage. But at night things were transformed: fish restaurants took over the streets, putting out tables and chairs, lighting up the darkness with gaudy lights and signs. Bands of strolling musicians went from tavern to tavern, serenading the patrons.

It was a festive-looking scene but we soon came to dislike it, owing to the waiters who accosted you when you walked by and tried to cajole you into entering. Even more upsetting was the absence of menus or posted prices.

It meant that you could be charged whatever the owner felt like. To keep from being continually ripped off, I went on the defense. Whenever we were handed a bill, I’d take one look at it and shout, “Just what the hell is this?” Immediately, the owner would cut the bill by several thousand lira and apologize, “Sorry for the error.”

When handed an amended bill I’d shout once more, ”This is an outrage!” or “I’m going to call the police!” That usually did it; finally we were presented with an honest bill.

We were also hustled just about everywhere we went, especially in the Covered Bazaar. We used to love strolling through that vast beehive of rug, ceramic, copper and jewelry stalls–-and knocking heads with the merchants. Dealing with them was like participating in an elaborate game; bargaining was done over cups of tea and much polite banter.

All that was changed now. The vendors were more aggressive and greedy, out to make a quick buck at outrageous prices. And the walkways were filled with urchins trying to steer you to a shop or sell you an “authentic” Rolex.

The same was true in every commercial section of the city: someone was always trying to grab hold of you, sell you something. Most of the peddlers seemed to be refugees from Russia, East Europe, or the Turkic-speaking countries of Central Asia. They were identifiable by the shoddy, pathetic goods they hawked: broken-handled screwdrivers, old clothes, plastic dishes and chipped teapots. They dumped their wares on the sidewalk and sat by them all day, importuning everyone who walked by.

There was no escaping them; they were there to greet us when we took a boat trip up the Bosporus and visited a favorite riverside village. “Please, only look,” was their unending sales cry. “Madam, only look.”

The village itself had become an eyesore. Gentrification had resulted in the building of block after block of ugly concrete high-rises. They had all the charm of a state prison complex. And waiting outside the restaurants and shops were lines of refugee-beggars, all with their hands out.

One can sympathize with destitute people trying to make a few bucks to feed themselves. Istanbul has always had a huge under-class; the city has always been a megalopolis; in the 11th century more than a million people lived there. Today the population stands at 12 million, which is larger than three-quarters of the countries in Europe. Half a million new residents arrive each year: one a minute. There isn’t room or work enough for all of them.

The lack of jobs, the refugee crisis, the dissolution of rural family life and the heavy hand of the authoritarian government are the root cause of Istanbul’s present-day predatory problems. This isn’t to say that Istanbul’s great attractions have lost their charm and appeal; its museums, palaces and monuments are still remarkable. And there are still many human touches to be enjoyed, such as going down to Emoninou harbor at twilight when the boats tie up and the fishermen fry fresh sardines in hot oil, slap them on a chunk of bread, and hand them to you to be devoured on the spot.

It’s things like that–-and the Pudding Shop (a 60s hangout, now a yuppie restaurant) and the Pera Palace Hotel–-which drew us to Istanbul, time and time again. No more, though. Alas, like the Greeks of Istanbul, we are done with the city, now and forever.