ISTANBUL, Turkey. Some cities are wrapped in fog or smog; Istanbul is swaddled with antiquity and exoticism. No doubt when the emperor Constantine established this city as a purpose-built Imperial capital in the fourth century of the common era he did so with the idea that it would remain eternally youthful and relevant – such is the classical dream. From that time until the present, through good times and bad, the city has been the very model of a worldly, cosmopolitan, if not always modern, metropolis, as fortuitously situated as a city could well be to both administer a far-flung empire and control lucrative trade routes.
Our La Scala-quality muezzins strike-up at the moment one can no longer tell a black thread from a white one with the naked eye.
A city built for the ages that believes no new age has anything to teach it will shortly be a hive of anachronism and incongruity – aspects we encounter everywhere here, though nowhere more poignantly than on the rooftop of our hotel where we retire at the end of the day to sip Cappadocian chardonnay. Before us, tanker and cargo ships queue up in the Sea of Marmara in preparation for their passage through the narrow, snaky Bosphorus to the open waters of the Black Sea; behind, flocks of birds whirl around the domes of Ayasofiya and the Blue Mosque. In the deepening dusk calls to prayer issue from their minarets.
The singing displays a lusty virtuosity. It’s not at all like the calls to prayer we heard in Marrakech, which seem amateurish in comparison. Perhaps an outpost like Morocco just doesn’t attract the vocal talent of an Istanbul.
Our La Scala-quality muezzins strike-up at the moment one can no longer tell a black thread from a white one with the naked eye – or so we are told – but we note that in our hotel this tends to coincide with the moment rooftop barkeep Hasan puts the needle down on a Diana Krall rendition of some Cole Porter tune. For a few minutes sacred and secular vocalists duel ineffectually. Then the muezzins give it up, while Krall swings on. It’s clearly no longer a question of the barbarians being at the gate. They’ve bought condos and registered the kids for school.
We experience another moment of expectation dissonance when we beg our driver (a Turkish-born computer science PhD who lived for a while in Brookline, Massachusetts; the friend of a friend), to take us to an upscale mall so we can get a taste of how an affluent Istanbullu shops. The place is a knock-out — classier and more tasteful than anything we know in Boston. We take the elevator up from seven floors of underground parking into a retail wonderland the architect has designed to be self-cooling.
The Apple Store is thick with shoppers, perhaps related to the death of Steve Jobs which we learned of during a layover at the Munich airport days before. As for the clientele, there’s no shortage of jeggings and decolletage on display, though tattoos are very rare.
We step into a supermarket that is so beautifully lit and organized it would (or should) make Whole Foods blush. Momentarily transfixed before a Krispy Kreme kiosk, we wander off in search of the wine department – if there is one. There is, and it’s extensive with a majority of Turkish offerings and a fair selection of European wines familiar to us. I spot, for example, a red and a white from old favorite Vaucluse producer Chateau Valcombe. But the real surprises are in a special upright cooler case where we spy what you see in the photo above: a 2004 Gaja DOC Langhe wine priced at 1010 turkish lira – around $550 – and 2001 La Mission Haut Brion at 1189TL (around $650).
A young security guard who saw me take out my camera rushed over to tell me photos were forbidden, but we won on appeal when the young GM with the moussed up hair came by and said it was no problem.
When we complimented him on his beautiful market he shrugged. “Next week we close and take everything out of here,” he says.” “After that, everything new.”
Originally published on Boston.com