I’m now researching the fourth edition of the Bradt Travel Guide to Uruguay, and I’ve just left Montevideo after a week in the city (also visiting a few adjacent towns and wineries) – I’ve always liked it, but as soon as I arrived I could see that it’s improved in various ways, there’s craft beer all over the place, there are recycling bins, there’s a bike-sharing system and lots of new bike lanes [and outside Montevideo, lots of new wind turbines]. Marijuana is also now legal, but in fact it’s much less visible (smellable) than in Vancouver and many cities on the West Coast of the US. And WhatsApp is compulsory, which is a bloody pain if you have big fat fingers like me. I do have it on my laptop now, but the phone still has to be connected.
And the Uruguayans have suddenly (in the six years since I was last here) become the most-tattooed people on earth.
I was immensely impressed when I first came here, ten years ago, by a coffeetable book on the traditional boliches of Montevideo (Boliches montevideanos, Bares y Cafés en la memoria de la ciudad – now out of print, alas), bars that were originally shops and still play an important rôle in their communities. I listed quite a few in the Bradt guide, and most are still more or less viable, although many now open only in the evenings – opening hours are tricky here, as many city centre restaurants open for lunch only. In fact Café Gourmand, a superb American-French brunch spot, only opens Friday to Sunday, but they spend several days more on cooking and baking, as well as sourcing local supplies.
There’s actually been a gastronomic revolution in the last couple of years, especially in the barrios of Ciudad Vieja and Cordón – this has been driven by markets as well as restaurants and cafés, with the Mercado Agricola, the Mercado Ferrando and now most recently the Mercado del Inmigrante (formerly the Mercado de la Abundancia) all transformed into gastronomic hubs, with delis, craft-beer bars, artisan coffee outets, andrestaurants offering sushi, poke, felafel, you name it, as well as local specialities such as chivitos.
Meanwhile, at the end of a dead-end street, behind an anonymous housefront (ok there is a sign), I found one of Montevideo’s first microbreweries, Shelter – a lovely friendly place with good beer and pizza, and surprisingly, a live podcast being recorded on gangster/noir films, with clips (no idea how that worked on the podcast) of Le Samurai and The Big Lebowski…. My Red Oak, a red ale matured in oak barrels, was fantastic – to be honest it’s more effective than oaking a wine. Mostly though, I have to stress that this craft beer is in no way ‘real ale’, it’s not live beer served by handpump or gravity, but something that tastes a bit pasteurised.
Otherwise, I didn’t expect to find many new tourist sights in Montevideo, but I did come across the Holocaust Memorial while cycling along the Rambla (the busy 22km-long waterfront path) – it’s impressive, a long wall (symbolising the Jewish people), broken in two, where you cross by the Bridge of Doubt to leave by the Stairs of Hope. Then, as I arrived in Piriápolis, the small beach resort that was my first stop after leaving Montevideo, I saw a sign to the Castillo Pittamiglio and remembered that I’d vaguely heard about it last time I was here but not had time to follow it up. This time, I was able to get back to visit it, and while in no way a major destination, it’s quite fun to see – built in 1956, it’s like a Lego castle, almost two-dimensional, but with space inside for some interesting displays on the alchemical symbolism behind both Piria’s and Pittamiglio’s construction projects. I could go into detail, but it’s easier to read up on them all in the book.
So, two surfer dudes decide to leave the city and create a boutique hotel by the beach – and you know what? it worked. There’s clearly some family money involved (I met both sets of parents on consecutive days) but Casa Flor is absolutely delightful, a little haven from the craziness of summers in Punta del Este, the beach resort just to the west. It was Karen Higgs (from Wales, living in Montevideo for a couple of decades and publishing all kinds of great tourist information at Guru’guay) who hooked me up with Juan and Alfonso, and she also sent me to Soledad at Chacrita del Sur (she’s very keen for me to use the hashtag #chacritadelsur), in the wine country just north of the capital – for years I’ve been banging on about how strange it is that there’s no accommodation at the wineries and people have to drive out from Montevideo, and now here it is, a delightful spot for a leisurely visit to some amazing wineries. As at the Castillo Pittamiglio and Casa Flor, I really appreciated the birdlife – there are just so many birds here, not particularly afraid of humans and busy getting on with their birdy lives – such a contrast to our sad denuded northern climes.
I am trying to use a credit card more consistently to pay for food and accommodation – it’s really most gratifying to see that foreign cards are automatically recognised and the VAT is deducted. A very practical way to encourage tourism. I usually have a huge stash of US dollars in cash and just change them, but the VAT savings are too good to miss.
Tomorrow (Sunday 24 November 2019, for those visiting from the future) the second round of Uruguay’s presidential election will take place – it looks as if the centre-right will take over from the leftist Frente Amplio alliance after three five-year terms (although probably without an overall majority), and it’s probably about time. Bad things tend to happen when parties stay in power for too long – New Labour started well but ended up taking us to war in Iraq, and as for the present mob of Conservatives supposedly running the UK, words fail me. But luckily we too have elections in a few weeks.
I was last in Istanbul in the 1990s, apart from changing planes on my way home from Georgia, so I was expecting some changes. In fact, a friend who visits every few years told me that the rate of infrastructure improvement had been even greater in the last decade or so, so I was expecting really big changes… To be honest, I’m not sure how much has really changed. Yes, there are three suspension bridges across the Bosphorus (only one visible from the city) and tunnels under it, and metro lines (one with a station on a new bridge above the Golden Horn), but in other respects the city doesn’t seem to me to have been transformed – which is good and bad.
As Caesar might have said, All Byzantium is divided into three parts – simplifying hugely, there’s Sultanahmet, the touristy area south of the Golden Horn (or Haliç), where all the Roman ruins and the greatest mosques are; there’s Beyoğlu, the area north of the Golden Horn, traditionally home to foreigners and their business interests and now the arts and nightlife area; and there’s Üsküdar and Kadiköy on the Asian shore, which are purely Turkish and mellow (I stayed a couple of nights there and enjoyed it). And then there are all the suburbs, where up to 18 million people live, but actually no-one mentions them. Sultanhamet, it has to be said, has been transformed, with many roads traffic-free, a modern tramway crossing the Galata Bridge and going right past all the main sights, and with innumerable hordes of tourists. Get to Haghia Sophia by 09.00 unless you want to queue for an hour, just like in Paris and Florence. It is in fact pretty well managed – yes, the touristy restaurants are expensive, yes, there are lots of Hello-where-you-from? ‘guides’ trying to get your business, but they are very much confined to this area of the city. In the evenings this area is actually quieter than it was, with many backpackers and other tourists now staying in Taksim and elsewhere.
I was pleasantly surprised to see ring-necked parakeets in this area, just like the ones that enliven London and Surrey nowadays. Istanbul is full of hooded crows too; however, the most enjoyable birding is from the ferries, where you’ll see Yelkouan shearwaters (once thought to be the same as the Balearic shearwaters in the western Med, but now identified as a separate species) – they seem to nest to the south in the Sea of Marmara but commute along the Bosphorus to feed in the Black Sea. There are plenty of cormorants too, and alpine swifts.
A couple of months ago I found myself in a house with a television and took the chance to watch From Russia with Love, the Bond movie that’s set in Istanbul and on the Orient Express towards Trieste. In one scene Bond is taken down into ‘Constantine’s reservoir’ beneath the Russian consulate, which they can spy on through a former submarine periscope – this is actually the Basilica Cistern or Yerebatan Sarnici, built in the sixth century by the emperor Justinian (the film-makers presumably thought no-one would have heard of Justinian, or that there was a more obvious link between Constantine and the city of Constantinople). It covers 9,800 square metres (with 336 columns with proper carved capitals, just like a church), but was not measured properly until World War I, when a folding boat was borrowed from a German submarine. Open to tourists since 1987, it’s dark and crowded, but well worth a visit. (Naturally Bond stayed at the ‘Kristal Palas on the heights of Pera’ with its ‘old rope-and-gravity lift’ – a thinly disguised version of the Pera Palace, recently restored to its Orient Express glory but still with its marvellous old lift.) I’d also suggest dropping down to the old waterfront to see the Little Haghia Sophia church, built by Justinian I and Theodora from 527, a church with a dome 17m across that was probably a prototype for its big brother up the hill (which makes it the city’s oldest surviving Byzantine monument) and also for the church of San Vitale in Ravenna. It’s now a mosque but is easy to visit, beyond the basic requirement to dress decently and leave your shoes outside. And just inside the Topkapı Palace grounds, the Haghia Irene church is now open to visitors – it was second in size only to Haghia Sophia, but it’s much smaller and there’s nothing much to see inside (Haghia Sophia means Holy Wisdom and Haghia Irene means Holy Peace, but of course you knew that).
Across the Golden Horn, the Beyoğlu district is now known for the contemporary art galleries opening here (particularly in Karaköy, formerly known as Galata); this was the European quarter (originally known as Pera, meaning Across [the Golden Horn] in Greek), home to the Byzantine city’s large Greek population and then to embassies and foreign banks. I went to SALT Galata (mainly a library and café, a victory of style and marketing over substance) and the Yapikredi Kültür Sanat Yayincilik (good modern galleries above a bookshop) and also the Taksim Sanat Galerisi, an institutional exhibition space in the Taksim Square metro station – they’re ok, but it all still seems a bit provincial and insular. Overall, Istanbul is not really the world city it claims to be – signs, websites and indeed people are all a bit monolingual, and clear addresses and directions are a foreign concept – be sure to plan ahead online. It may well make sense to buy the Museum Pass, but you won’t be given a leaflet or a list of the sites for which it’s valid – even so, you can cover the cost just on the major Sultanahmet sites. On the other hand quite a few monuments are closed for restoration, which puts the city in the mainstream of European capitals.
Maybe the opening of Istanbul Modern (a Tate Modern wannabe), now under construction in Tophane alongside the big new GalataPort cruise terminal, will change things; if you go there, do pop across the road to see what’s on at the Tophane-i Amire Culture and Art Centre (run by the Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University), an art gallery in a fifteenth-century cannon foundry.
Further up the hill in Beyoğlu is Taksim, a pretty anonymous modern area that is strangely popular with both Turks and many backpackers – yes, there’s a lively bar scene, but it’s really a bit of a rugby scrum and could be just about anywhere in the world (which may be part of the attraction). I’m told it’s changed fast since large numbers of migrants arrived from Syria and Iraq.
Food and drink
Happily, international restaurant/café chains have had very little impact here. My vegan food correspondent reports that he is a bit disappointed by the way veganism was trendy for about six months in 2018 but is now fading away; still, almost every eatery will have vegan options. The quintessential street food is nohutlu pilav, buttery rice with chickpeas (and optional chicken, hot peppers and ketchup), and I also saw a lot of mussels stuffed with rice being sold by street vendors. The beer is dull as dishwater – at least Gara Guzu (Black Sheep, in a local dialect – it should be Kara Kuzu) is trying, with its very adequate IPA, amber, red, black and blonde beers, but almost no-one seems to have heard of it. At least this is one place in the world where I can’t really sneer at hookah (nargileh) cafés as they are as authentic here as anywhere else. (It has to be noted, however, that the Turks don’t smoke cigarettes nearly as much as they did, which is a great blessing.)
I arrived with Pegasus, the Turkish low-cost airline that flies from London Stansted (and, from July 2019, Manchester) to Sabiha Gokcen, Istanbul’s second airport, on the Asian side of the city. You might say that it’s its third airport, as Atatürk, the main international airport since 1953, was replaced in April 2019 by the new Istanbul Airport, the world’s largest with a capacity of 100 million passengers per year (and eventually double that) – but in September 2019 the new Beijing airport will open, also with a capacity of 100 million/year. My friend describes it as ‘mahoosive’ but well laid out; the rail link won’t open until late 2019 (continuing to Halkalı in 2020) but city buses go there and the new airport taxis are pretty good, he says.
Halkalı, 27km west of the city centre, is also the western terminal of the Marmaray Corridor, another major transport project completed in 2019 – a rail tunnel beneath the Bosphorus now links the two suburban lines along the coast of the Sea of Maramara, creating a 77km route that will bind the city’s two halves more closely together. Despite this, a road tunnel (opened in 2016) and the bridges, there’s still an unfeasibly large number of ferries jockeying for space as they link various points on the two shores – and a ferry ride remains one of the quintessential Istanbul experiences.
The Istanbul Kart is a rechargeable smart card that’s valid for travel on the city’s buses, trams, trains, metro, ferries and funiculars; it gives a 40% discount on fares, but there doesn’t seem to be a daily cap, unlike in London. It’s invaluable, but I struggled with the ticket machines which can refuse to take coins or give change for notes and fails to switch to English (likewise the website).
Turkey has a despicable government and leader, but one can’t blame Istanbul for that; the city, which generates 55% of Turkey’s exports, 60% of its imports and 16% of its jobs, stands for open and liberal attitudes against the authoritarian Islamism of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, president of Turkey since 2014. Born in Istanbul, he rose to public notice as the city’s mayor (1994-8) before becoming prime minister then president. The so-called coup attempt of July 2016 led to over 50,000 arrests and over 160,000 people losing their jobs, with the free media, academia and civil society being virtually closed down (Turkey no longer has any interest in joining the EU, whatever Johnson and Farage say, preferring links with Russia, Saudi Arabia and Russia instead).
Local elections in March 2019 were held against a background of economic recession and 20% inflation, but Erdoğan claimed the elections were about the country’s ‘survival’ and portrayed the opposition as ‘enemies of the state’. His AKP won 51% of the vote nationally but lost the cities of Izmir, Ankara and Istanbul – in Istanbul the almost unknown Ekrem İmamoğlu (running against a former prime minister) was leading by just 0.28% when the government stopped the count with 1% of ballot boxes still to be opened. Seventeen days later the government seemed to concede when İmamoğlu was allowed to take over the mayor’s office (although Erdoğan refused to shake his hand at an official function in Ankara). However, in May the government announced that the election in Istanbul would be run again on 23 June, supposedly because some electoral officials were not civil servants, some result papers had not been signed and tens of thousands of civil servants, sacked following the 2016 coup, should not have been allowed to vote; İmamoğlu was removed from office and the currency fell by more than 3%.
The increasingly dictatorial Erdoğan is determined to regain Istanbul, even doing the previously unthinkable and being vaguely nice to the Kurds to win a few votes from them. In which context I was delighted to see in April 2019 that France and Italy had finally recognised the Armenian genocide – the state’s attitude to this and to the Kurds has always been blatantly racist. Another friend is currently visiting Ani, the amazing ruined Armenian city just on the Turkish side of the border, and reports that the word ‘Armenian’ simply doesn’t appear on the information boards there.
In Istanbul the opposition seems unlikely to risk mass protests or a boycott of the re-run election, as the government would simply brand them as terrorists and arrest as many as possible; riot police and water cannon were stationed all over the city anyway when I was there in late April. With luck Erdoğan will turn out to have miscalculated and his actions will give İmamoğlu a more decisive victory in June – I will post a brief update here.
[24/6/19 – I’m glad to say that the re-run went very well for İmamoğlu, who took 54% of the vote, despite a barrage of AKP propaganda, and is now established as mayor of Istanbul. Erdoğan’s aura of invincibility has definitely cracked, and there’s a sense that even his own party members are looking ahead to national elections and a post-Erdoğan era.]