By David Cameron, England
Autosport-Atlas Contributing Writer
David Cameron had always wanted to visit the city of Istanbul, for its glorious monuments and famous exquisite food. So when the Turkish government invited journalists to visit the country shortly before it hosts the inaugural Grand Prix of Turkey, he showed up obediently only to discover that Turkey is the best place to visit but the worst place to be a guest of...
If you're planning on visiting Istanbul for the forthcoming Grand Prix, there is just one piece of information you need to know, to make your visit far better than it would otherwise have been: everything you will be told, will be wrong.
It's not that the Turkish will deliberately lead you astray, will point you consciously in the wrong direction for their own amusement - the Turks are among the most honest, gracious, obliging hosts you could hope to find when visiting a new country for the first time, and they will go miles out of their way to make your stay more comfortable, more pleasing for you.
It's just that, despite their best intentions, their enthusiasm exceeds their helpfulness. That enthusiasm was the reason I found myself checking into my second hotel in as many days at one o'clock in the morning, surrounded by a number of Ukrainians chain-smoking and wearing sunglasses while the two Poles has the look of men who were surveying the surroundings for a blunt instrument to introduce to the heads of their hosts.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. A few weeks ago I got a call from the office asking if I wanted to go to Istanbul, courtesy of the Turkish ministry of tourism, as part of their preparations ahead of the first Turkish Grand Prix. Of course I wanted to go, I said. "Good. The flight is at six in the morning," was the response.
I should have taken that as an omen - who arranges for journalists to come and look at, well, anything the day before they're due to arrive? But the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Old Town - there was no saying no to that.
There was a young guy holding a piece of paper with my name on it when I arrived in Istanbul. Unfortunately, he couldn't speak English, but he kindly directed me to a bus and sent me on my way as he turned and walked back to the terminal. Upon arrival at my hotel, handily indicated by the bus driver looking at me, pointing to the door and shrugging, there was eventually another guy from the ministry of tourism to welcome me to Turkey.
It was only five hours or so before the rest of the group started arriving, from the Ukraine, Poland, Russia, Germany and an entire busload from Italy - Italian journalists do everything together, so it wasn't much of a surprise that they'd arrive for the tour en masse as well. Another hour or so and we were on the buses and heading out to have dinner, the Italians in one bus and the eastern Europeans and me in the other.
"How long will it take to get there?" one of the Poles asked.
"Oh, just half an hour," was the emphatic reply. After an hour he was getting restless, but from there it was only half an hour or so through the ever present peak hour traffic to get to the restaurant. We all piled out of the bus and walked up a laneway to the restaurant, which was clearly owned by someone in the ministry's brother in law - there was no other reason we could think of to have brought us all the way to this tiny venue.
But I didn't care - I was starving, and I'd been looking forward to the food in Istanbul since I'd been told about the trip. Turkish food is great - lamb and kofte and greens, a melting pot of eastern Mediterranean styles - and I couldn't wait to tuck in. Of course, being an official tour, our hosts had obviously decided for us that we would rather eat western style food, and we were brought out a selection of dishes I could have ordered in my local pub.
I've never understood the thought process of people who only eat western food wherever they are - surely the whole point of going somewhere else is to experience life, for however long, as it is in that country? If you go to, say, Shanghai and stay at the Four Seasons, how can you claim to have been to the city? You might as well stay at home and look at pictures on the internet.
Every meal was like this over the four days - I'd think to myself that this was finally going to be the proper Turkish meal I was looking forward to, and two hours later we'd get off the bus as another random family member welcomed us to his restaurant and brought out some chicken and chips. Of the many disappointments of the long weekend, this was probably the worst.
And it didn't need to be - on the final day the Poles and I went wandering around the dirt patch of a local park near our second hotel and there was a cafe serving food; we ordered and a giant tray of spiced meats and grilled peppers was brought out. It cost next to nothing and was, hands down, the best meal of our trip, merely through being a local dish.
Istanbul is a food city; walking around town your head will be turned almost everywhere by some wonderful smell wafting out of a small hole in the wall cafe selling good, cheap, exquisitely spiced food - you would really have to go out of your way to find bad food there. However, we were with professionals.
On the second day we woke up to find all of the windows of the supposed five star hotel reception knocked out. A crew had commenced building work, and it seemed that they had waited for our arrival before commencing, sending our official tour host into paroxysms of rage.
The expertise our guides had previously showed in restaurant selection also stretched to the tour of the city. Fifteen minutes in the Blue Mosque, twenty in Hagia Sophia (the biggest church, then mosque, on earth for most of the city's existence), then five hours in the Sultan's Palace ("now you must go into this room to see more presents given to the Sultan"). We had yet another desultory culinary experience, and then on the Grand Bazaar ("it is made up of 78 streets, and covers five square miles - you've got twenty minutes to be back here").
I'd be happy to never see the inside of the palace again, but everything else was incredible - the mosque is large, the people working there are welcoming and make jokes tailor made to your nationality as you remove your shoes, and the Hagia Sophia one of the most astonishingly large rooms you will ever stand in. As for the bazaar, they seem to have every single product known to man somewhere within the walls, although that didn't stop most of them trying to sell me a carpet.
The result was a day which was both exhausting and frustrating - Istanbul has so much to offer her visitors, and it would have been easier, and far more interesting, to just get a cab and then walk around ourselves, despite the constant gridlock of the streets.
"So how far away is the track?" asked the taller Pole, the one with the hair like Dracula, the next morning in the bus. "Half an hour or so?"
"Sure - how did you know?" the host replied, oblivious to the giggles. The two hours gave us a chance to take a nap after we were taken to what was referred to as "the second best nightclub in the world - if you don't like it, then I can comfortably say you don't like nightclubs."
Needless to say it wasn't up to the advertisement, unless your idea of a great nightclub is a room full of mafia guys and badly remixed Arabic music. Still, it was under the bridge and overlooking the Bosporus, so the view was great.
I was woken up as the bus went off the highway and onto a dirt track, which was quite surreal until I worked out that the driver meant to do it. Eventually the dirt track turned a corner and there was the Istanbul circuit, covered by workers and almost complete. It was worth the whole trip to see it - rising up and downhill, and featuring blind corners and tricky braking areas, it is an amazingly good track, and it didn't take us long to borrow a car to go around for a closer look. The track manager is understandably proud of it, stating: "we've had some comparisons to Spa - that can't be bad, can it?"
I can't wait to see cars racing on the circuit - in a season of flat, featureless tracks Istanbul will stand out from the rest for the racing it will create. And this year none of the drivers will have had any experience of the place, which will throw a much needed element of randomness to the proceedings.
With rain hanging menacingly overhead we left the circuit. By the time we got back in to town the sun was shining once again, just in time for an outdoor lunch with the chairman of the Istanbul Chamber of Commerce. Of course. It was only later that we found out that, annoyingly, David Coulthard was flown into the circuit just after us - well, why would journalists want to talk to a driver after all? Clearly we were better off talking to a civil servant about how the dirt track will be replaced by a proper road before the race, and how many buses they are putting on from the city to the track.
Maybe it was because we were scheduled to see him the next day, when he took his Formula One car out for a spin across the Bosporus Bridge, spanning the gap between continents as he did. But that was all we could do - after his team put out a small fire licking out from the engine, a Turkish only press conference started, and Coulthard looked as bored as every other non-Turk standing in the President's front yard felt.
I stood and leant against the wall as the Poles ranted on. "Well, the good thing is that I never have to come back here," my Dracula-haired friend said after eating his fill. "I can't imagine ever wanting to be here again."
Unlike him, I will be back, and I can't wait. Istanbul is a great city - I saw lots of people enjoying themselves through the bus window, walking along the streets to the open air markets and the bars all around; next week, I'll be out of the clutches of the ministry and into the crowds. I'll be eating where I want, I'll be spending however long I want at places, other than the track, and I'm prepared to bet it will be one of the best race weekends on the calendar.
But I won't be expecting to get to the circuit, or anywhere at all, in half an hour.