I loved both geography and history as I child (and I still do today, for that matter), so by the time I got around to travelling more seriously I had a well formed mental and emotional map of Europe, with places I felt I already knew and loved, places I wanted to discover and others which left me completely cold. ( I am still totally neutral about Switzerland, for example).
The two cities that were most distinctly shaped in my mind map were London and Paris- I guess because I spent many years poring over English and French text books that would entertain you with the odd entries about the Tower Bridge, Buckingham Palace, the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. The result of this, somewhat strangely, was that London totally lived up to my expectations and felt instantly familiar, whereas Paris still remains a bit lacking to me- and the damn tower is totally overrated.
The second category was a bit trickier. Rome and Istanbul had a rather more composite image. For a long time they remained confined to the history book part, as capitals of giant empires that conquered/oppressed/shaped the people living in my dusty European backwater. I never associated them with particular landmarks, though they both have them in excess, of course, but more with a feeling, that of the past living on through the cracks of the present. And for that, I somehow loved and still love them more.
It kind of helps that they both look spectacular from the air- and here of course Istanbul takes the palm. I can’t think of many more breathtaking sights than the thin shimmering line of blue cutting through the vast expense of lives huddled around it. In Istanbul everything is just bigger, more diverse, more intense. The colours are stronger, the odours, good or foul, more piercing, the light reflecting from the Bosphorus at noon almost blinding.
So every time one takes a picture of Istanbul it feels like hardly scratching the surface of something that you could explore for a lifetime, and never tire. In my more optimistic moments I tell myself that slowly I will trace a complete map of the city, a mental and a physical one, but of course that is impossible. And so it should be, the truly beautiful puzzles are the ones that will forever hide a missing piece.
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Have you discovered Pamuk's Istanbul, his Museum of Innocence?
Very nice piece of writing.