Travel: Forging friendships in beautiful Istanbul

Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia in Istanbul
Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia in Istanbul

Belly dancing, multi-lingual cabaret stars and a chance to mingle with newfound friends are all highlights of a singles’ trip to Istanbul, says Anthony Looch

The glamour and excitement of Rick’s cafe, from the classic film Casablanca, is all around me as I dine at the Kervansaray nightclub in Istanbul.

I have come to the legendary city as part of a 36-strong group on a three-day trip for single people - my first experience of this type of travel.

Unsurprisingly, some of the ladies in our group do not share my enthusiasm for the display of traditional Turkish belly dancing. I’m seated right next to the low stage and my appreciative response to the beautiful girls undulating only a few feet away earns me some bleak looks from my companions.

I closely observe how the dance is performed. Anyone who wants to try it out - and doing so in front of a mirror would add to the fun - should rotate their bottom in a circle, while simultaneously trying to do the same with their stomach. A flabby midriff would undoubtedly be an advantage.

The other star of the evening is a brash and very funny Turkish singer and comedian called Ercu, who can belt out songs in 200 languages.

He begins by calling out the names of various countries, to find out whether people from there are in the audience. The responses reveal it to be an extremely cosmopolitan crowd. Whether Japanese, Chinese, Albanian, English or Indian, Ercu has a song for all.

When he calls out “England”, I respond with “Great Britain”, in acknowledgement of the Scots in our group. Ercu shouts back “United Kingdom”, and then delivers a rendition of The Beatles song Yesterday. He makes our group reprise the same number.

Normally I recoil from any form of audience participation, but Ercu is so persuasive that I - and virtually everyone else present - get happily engaged in mass tomfoolery under his direction. I laugh more than I have for years and later ride home on cloud nine. And in case anyone is wondering, I must point out that I am a teetotaller and only drank mineral water all evening!

Ercu’s greatest achievement was the way in which he welded his audience of so many foreigners into a single unit, full of fun and amity towards each other.

Afterwards, I muse (rather pointlessly) how wonderful it would be if such a situation could exist permanently in the world, because I cannot forget that while we were singing and enjoying ourselves, people were being killed by warfare in Syria, just across the Turkish border.

Of course, Istanbul - like all great European cities - has been no stranger to violence, siege and conflict through the ages, and also some severe earthquakes.

Modern Istanbul is a huge, noisy, overcrowded Middle Eastern city, which is conspicuously Muslim. It sprawls around the Bosphorus, a strait that forms part of the boundary between Europe and Asia, and connects the Sea of Marmara with the Black Sea to the north.

It’s a shoppers’ paradise and a delight for gourmets. Small shops sell beautiful ceramics, jewellery, tapestries, carpets, cushion covers and leather goods, all of a high quality. The window displays, which according to custom do not portray any living thing, are a riot of colour and a feast for the eyes.

Turkish cuisine is beautifully flavoured and served up in generous quantities in restaurants. Lamb, beef and, above all, fish, plus vegetables such as green peppers, lentils, beans and tomatoes are staples, as are generous bowls of mixed salad.

Istanbul’s architectural jewels include magnificent mosques, such as the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque, which is still used as a place of worship, and the Hagia Sophia, which, through the centuries, has been used as a Christian church, then a mosque and is now a museum.

At night, the mosques, which stand on the hills overlooking Istanbul, are floodlit, sometimes creating the illusion that they’re actually floating above the city.

The Topkapi Palace, the administrative centre for the Ottoman Empire for almost 400 years, contains wonderful treasures, and the amazing underground and pillared Basilica Cistern, built by the Romans, is a thrilling experience.

Our short visit to Istanbul only gives us time to view some of the most outstanding sights, but there is, of course, a great deal more. As with so many great historical cities, one would need months to see everything.

And so I part from my newfound friends, agreeing we’ll stay in touch.

Travelling in a group provides one with the company and joy of a joint experience, which are absent when travelling alone.

As our evening with Ercu had demonstrated, memories are far longer-lasting when you have someone to share them with.