Heading towards Taksim Square I check the much-maligned Apple Maps on my smartphone. The route seems straightforward, but after stumbling back and forth across the bustling plaza – rediscovering the relentless yet permanently crawling traffic I experienced on the way from the airport last night – I decide to just follow the stream of people… which ends up leading me to my intended destination.
The stream quickly turns to a river of Istanbulites flowing down Istiklal Caddesi, the city’s main shopping thoroughfare. Past the kebap shops, the fast food takeaways and the street hawkers peddling roast chestnuts, flowers and, er, socks, the flow of people envelops the street. As we pass the big brands of Gap, Benetton, Mango and Body Shop it feels like Oxford Street. On a Saturday afternoon. The week before Christmas.
People of all ages cut across Istiklal Caddesi from the numerous side streets. I feel like I’m caught up in the crowds departing a football match. “Where’s everyone going?” I ask a man waiting outside a pastry shop. He looks at me blankly. “It’s Saturday night,” he shrugs, clearly bemused. Ask a stupid question…
I continue walking. Music blares from bars, cafes and clubs – pounding house music, live bands, traditional sounds and the odd acoustic set. Many are second, third or fourth floor venues, the cacophony of sound equal to the mass of people still surrounding me.
I take a right turn up Balo Sokak, one of the many side streets; this one, I’d been told, was at the heart of things. And if I thought the crowds would abate, I was wrong. The narrow street’s packed, there are endless bars on both sides – also packed – and waiters carry trays laden with mint teas and bottles of Efes beer high above their heads, expertly weaving their way through to the awaiting tables.
I turn down Nevizade. Music booms, chatter fills the air and the smells quickly change from grilled meat to chestnuts, cigarette smoke to petrol fumes; the humid air is heavy with the excitement of the weekend.
Wandering from side street to side street I get stuck in the melee, pavement tables on either side and a gridlock of bodies in front. A car’s trying to make its way through. I stand to the side, avoiding my toes being crushed.
“Excuse me, are you going through or not?” an exasperated voice behind me says, clearly having tried to talk to me in Turkish already. I ignore the impatience and move swiftly through the crowd as the car continues its slow journey.
On a parallel road the atmosphere becomes a little calmer; the bars are still noisy and busy – outside at least – but as I head back to the main thoroughfare, I find I’m now swimming upstream as the river of people heads in one direction.
It’s now 10.30pm and clearly all roads lead from Taksim Square. And all roads are busy.