We’ve settled into a daily routine in Istanbul: after a hotel breakfast, we head out for the major excursion of the day. Then we’re back to the hotel for a couple of hours snoozing, reading, respectively drawing and blogging, with perhaps an excursion to the teras for a slice of cake proudly baked and offered for free by the young woman who sometimes helps at the front desk. We go out again for dinner some time between 7 and 9, which generally involves a lot of strolling, a little getting lost, continuous people and animal watching, intermittent admiration of antiquities (the aqueduct, Constantine’s column, the minarets of Sultanahbad), occasional recognition of another loan word in Turkish (like kuafor for hairdresser or tuvalet, pronounced toilette, for toilet), and all that. Then it’s back to the hotel for some TV, always looking for the moment in a dubbed US or UK show when a bright squiggle turns up to mask the presence of a cigarette.
Yesterday’s main excursion was to Dolmabahçe Sarayi, the palace that replaced Topkapi Sarayi as the residence of the Sultans and their wives in the 1850s, and the place where Kemal Ataturk died in 1938. We’d intended to visit it on Sunday but after standing in the queue for half an hour or so without making much progress we decided to come back when it was less crowded. Hah!
We arrived at 10 past 10 in the morning. Queue No 1, for the security check, was a non-event. Queue No 2, to buy tickets, was less than half the length of Sunday’s. But it moved just as slowly. Here I am soon after joining it.
And here I am half an hour after that, with only ten minutes or so to go, just entering the roped section:
Note the woman swathed in black with a hand resting on the bollardy thing. If you are ever in a queue and she turns up beside you, challenge her. If she says demurely, ‘My husband,’ pointing with her eyes toward the front of the queue, DO NOT accept the implication that her husband is up ahead between the ropes. DO NOT LET HER PASS. Her husband has sent her in to save them both the 50 minute wait. I suppose I should add that if you do courteously allow her past, and advise the people immediately ahead of you do do so as well, when you realise that despite her appearance of a pious Muslim woman she is actually a lying scumbag of a queue jumper, you probably shouldn’t shout after her, ‘Madam, you are a liar. You lied to me!’ even if you’ve observed on Tripadvisor that Saudi tourists call hotel staff they don’t like liars quite a lot, so you know the term has currency. Your companion is likely to find this behaviour embarrassing. But of course, you’d have no way of knowing if it was the same woman. I could recognise her by her large brown bag, and noted with grim satisfaction that her male companion was one of the many men accompanying women sweltering in black to the eyeballs who found the weather far too hot for long trousers.
Queue No 3 turned out to be a pack:
On the left, the sign said, were tour groups, on the right individual visitors. Another sign that was invisible until we reached the top of the stairs said that no individual visits were allowed: we weren’t queuing at all, we were waiting for the English-language tour at 11.35.
The tour turned out to be pretty much a moving queue, Queue No 4, as a hundred or so of us, many of whom spoke very little English, followed the guide, whose English was largely incomprehensible anyhow, through vast room after vast room, each furnished with great opulence.
Queues No 5 and 6, for the harem, were a repeat of Nos 3 and 4, though shorter and more comprehensible respectively.
Perhaps you’ll forgive me for going on so much about the queues if I quote a chap we’d met somewhere along the line: ‘After all that it was all the same, room after room of kitsch!’ I thought he put it well.
The man marshalling the harem queue ushered the Art Student and me to seats off to one side, probably out of consideration for our grey hair (have I mentioned that we’ve met with the most extraordinary generosity and kindness on this trip?), and said that audio guides were being developed and some year soon all this queuing and herding would come to an end. Compared to places like Iran, he said, Turkey is doing brilliantly, but it is still modernising, not there yet.
There was a weird pleasure in seeing how the other 0.1 percent lived, and it was eerie to peer into the queen mother’s room where Ataturk died, but really, I’d rather have the three hours of my life back and the 80 euro it cost for two of us. Your mileage may vary. If you do go, I strongly recommend you do it with a tour group.
Oh, the best thing about the visit, apart from the drama with the lady in black, was a performance by a military band in full Ottoman drag and fierce Jannisery glares, which we could have seen for free.