Tulip and turban

In the late afternoon we sat down for a quiet time and looked at the crowded road outside Sirkeci station: the lines of taxis, people crossing the road, trams coming and going. It looked so calm and unhurried, compared to the tempo of Mumbai, that I wondered about the inflamed imagination of writers who passed through here in the nineteenth century. Could this really be the colourful East of their imagination: debauchery, glamour, exotica?

A hint of that exotica arrived at our table in the form of güllaç (pronounced guellash). This traditional sweet is made only for Ramazan: thin layers of pastry oozing milk, filled with nuts and pomegranate. Perfect with çay. We’d run into güllaç before, and had put off our first experience of it. Now that we had only a couple of days before we left Turkey, we were rushing through our list like the last episode of the Game of Thrones. The result would be some hard-to-shed holiday weight.

That plate looked nice. We took a closer look at the design. Swirling bands of green and gold looked like the “awful turbans” which Mark Twain took such a dislike to. The tulips recalled the heady days of the Ottoman-era tulip craze. This shop was certainly standing when Twain’s ship pulled into Halic to dock. We’d had a wonderful reception at the counter of the sweet shop. We didn’t see a place to sit in, and were gently led upstairs to their cafe. I’d carried my library of books about Turkey on my phone. When I opened Mark Twain’s diatribe about Istanbul (“Everybody lies and cheats”) we had a hearty laugh at the depressive comic who might as well not have left home.

The murder of the Orient Express

A day when the ether is humming with forwards about the Turkish ancestry of the American citizen who is to be the British prime minister, overseeing its exit from Europe, seems appropriate to dust off memories about how London and Istanbul were connected through Europe. In October 1883 Wagon-Lits (Compagnie Internationale des Wagon-Lits) created a train which ran from London to Istanbul through Strasbourg, Munich, Vienna, Budapest, Bucharest, and Varna. The names enchanted me when, as a child, I heard my grand-aunt talk about her travel on this train. I looked at atlases and decided that I would change trains in Istanbul, and come home through Teheran, Kabul, Lahore, and Delhi.

Unfortunately, economics and international politics closed off this route by the time I was old enough to have a shot at doing it. The Istanbul service was closed in 1977. But when I lived in Europe, there was still a truncated service from Paris Gare de l’Est to Vienna Westbahnhof, with a through coach to Budapest and Bucharest. This was eventually discontinued in 2009. There was also a service which ran from Paris, via Lausanne, Milan (through the Simplon tunnel), Venice, Belgrade, and Sofia, to Istanbul which was also called the Orient Express (it was on this that the famous fictional murder happened). There are also various modern nostalgia services which come and go (talking of Michelangelo?).

So this whole thing about the Orient Express had dropped out of my mind until I passed Istanbul’s Sirkeci railway station and a bulb lit up in my mind. This was the building designed by August Jasmund which served for nearly a century as a terminus of the Orient Express (featured photo). I had very little time that day, so I just took a couple of shots to record the place, and promised myself that I would come back later to see it.