Turkish ice-cream is an experience unto itself, and one we spent today searching for.
The flight over wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t great either. I spent a lot of time contemplating the strangeness that is our decision to trap ourselves for 24 hours into a tiny, noisy, confined place that hurtles through the atmosphere at 900 kilometres an hour. We arrived in Istanbul thoroughly sleep-deprived and tired, but luckily our hotel has turned out to be wonderful. As soon as we arrived they said they were expediting getting our room prepared and while that was happening would we like to have breakfast. We certainly would, especially as the boys had basically not eaten for 24 hours. By the time our room was ready we were halfway towards feeling human again. Showers and a change of clothes took care of the other half.
So then, with a mild spring in our step, we set out to explore. Declan had charge of the map, but we were on a clear agenda he just needed to get us there. Our first and most important thing to do was to cross the Bosphorus to the Asian continent. We hopped on a lovely old Istanbul ferry, complete with reviving sea air, and half an hour later we’d moved from Europe to Asia. Catching the ferry had the added advantage of providing a great view back to the old part of Istanbul with the skyline dominated by the minarets and domes of the Aya Sophia and the Blue Mosque.
We took a stroll along the water-front on the Asian side and rejected several ice-cream carts as looking too generic, much to the kids’ frustration (frustrating largely because I was trying to keep what we were actually looking for as a surprise). And then took a ferry back to Europe. We’re all strangely excited by the jumping across continental plates idea, perhaps because we had already done a similar thing at the other end of the European plate.
Declan took us on a rambling route up through the old town and past the Topkapi Palace where we stopped at a little stall where a man squeezed oranges in front of us, so we could sit and watch the world go by while sipping the cool, tart juice. More ice-cream stalls were rejected as we wandered past the Aya Sophia to the deafening background of the midday call to prayer which seems to be batted back and forth between the Aya Sophia and the Blue Mosque. The Blue Mosque looks like something out of a fairy-tale – its proportions are perfect. Today though, we just admired the buildings from afar and continued on past still more ice-cream stalls that were just not right and headed towards the Cisterns.
Istanbul’s ancient water cisterns were built at the order of the Emperor Justinian 1600 years ago. Now they form a huge, sprawling underground complex of towering pillars and brick-vaulted ceilings. Fish dart about in the water which moves to the gentle ripples formed by the occasional drip from the ceiling. The place is very atmospheric and quite beautiful. The columns seem to come in a huge variety of styles and finishes, and we came to the conclusion that because they were supposed to be hidden underground and under-water when the cisterns were built that they just used any old columns they had lying around. If that’s right, the 1600-year-old cisterns double as a junk yard for even older columns.
Back up at street level we finally stumbled across the right type of ice-cream stall. So here’s the thing: Turkish ice-cream is made with a recipe that includes gums. That means it doesn’t melt as easily as the ice-cream we’re used to and has a slightly chewy consistency, like a soft toffee. It also means that it sticks solidly to the scoop. Ice-cream sellers have used that last fact to develop a theatre in delivering the confection. Callum went up to ask for a cone and was immediately pulled into the show.
The seller wields a scoop with a handle a couple of feet long. His first scoop is pulled out of the vat, banged on a few bells, held out towards Callum as if it’s being scraped down his shirt, and then immediately withdrawn. It goes on a cone but when Cal tries to pick it up he find himself holding only an empty cone, again and again. Then the seller looks like he’s relenting, and hands over a cone wrapped in a napkin, but again Cal is left holding only the napkin and a moment later not even that. Then suddenly the entire contents on the ice-cream vat is hanging from the scoop. All of this is accompanied by the scoop hitting bells on the way past and the laughter of the growing crowd. Getting an ice-cream turns out to be street theatre, but as a bonus the ice-cream actually tastes good too.
I must admit I didn’t have an ice-cream myself. I had another agenda both because it’s a local tradition and because by the tail end of the day I needed caffeine – I wanted a Turkish coffee. And that’s what we tracked down next, a tiny cup half filled with sold coffee grounds and with a couple of mouthfuls of almost unadulterated caffeine on top. Strangely my jetlag seems to have disappeared for the moment.