Rococo

Rococo is sometimes termed ‘Late Baroque’ and there are obvious reasons for this. If Baroque flutters its eyelashes and says “Look at me”, then Rococo goes a bit further and suggests that we might like to join it in an orgy. Rococo is not for the faint hearted.

Because of its outrageously over the top nature, Rococo is largely, though not always, confined to palaces, where its flamboyance can be let loose on both the exterior and interior. Unfortunately, Rococo will always be associated with the ludicrously ostentatious displays of the out-of-touch aristocracy, but at least these excesses have been left for the rest of us to enjoy.

Istanbul

The Pera Palace is Istanbul’s most famous hotel. Located just to the north of the Galata Tower, the hotel was built in 1892, chiefly for the benefit of travellers on the Orient Express. This leads us nicely to Agatha Christie, who was a regular guest between 1924 and 1933. Legend has it that she wrote Murder on the Orient Express in room 411 of the hotel. Plenty of other notable figures have stayed here, including Leon Trotsky, Mata Hari and Greta Garbo.

Pera Palace

Pera Palace

On a smaller scale, but also in Rococo style, are the fountain kiosk of Ahmed III, located at Topkapi Palace, and the fountain of Sultan Ahmed III.

Ahmet III Fountain

Ahmet III Fountain

Pushkin

Some 15 miles to the south of St Petersburg, the town of Pushkin was a regular summer residence for Russia’s Imperial families. Indeed, the town was known as Tsar’s Village, becoming Children’s Village after the Revolution before being named in honour of the poet who studied at the local school.

The Catherine Palace is often thought, wrongly, to be named after Catherine the Great, but was in fact named after Catherine I, the second wife of Peter the Great. The original building was far more modest that what can be seen today, the Empress Elizabeth having ordered a rebuilding of the palace. Initially, she commissioned two Russian architects, but brought in the inimitable Bartolomeo Rastrelli, whose style is all over the building’s façade.

Catherine Palace

Catherine Palace

While some might prefer to categorise the palace as Baroque, it is so magnificently, outrageously over the top in every aspect that is simply has to be described as Rococo. This is Rococo with a capital R, Rococo that jumps up and down shouting at the top of its voice while simultaneously beating you over the head with its outlandish attire.

Comfy little terraced house

Comfy little terraced house

If the palace itself is not enough, there is the beautiful park, with its lakes, pavilions, statues and bridges. Even if you are determined to remain unimpressed by all of this, stepping inside the palace is likely to make even the most resolute jaw drop.

Even the lake is Rococo...

Even the lake is Rococo…

Naturally, this was the exact intention. Jaws were supposed to drop, as visitors filed into the exquisitely ornate main hall and then drifted through the collection of equally lavish rooms bedecked in gold and jewels of varying colours. All of this extravagance, of course, was not going to impress the increasingly subversive peasantry and while it would be ludicrously simplistic to blame such buildings for the revolution of 1917, the outrageous opulence of these palaces was an obvious symbol of the vast gap between the top and bottom of society.

Jaw drop time

Jaw drop time

Prague

The pink and white stucco façade of the Kinský Palace makes it a building difficult to miss. The palace’s name is taken from that of the Imperial diplomat who bought it in 1768.

Kinsky Palace

Kinsky Palace

Other than being Prague’s finest Rococo building, the palace has a couple of claims to fame. Alfred Nobel once stayed here and, in 1948, Communist rule in Czechoslovakia was proclaimed from its balcony.

Nowadays, the palace is used by the National Gallery to house temporary exhibitions.

Vienna

Vienna does not lack for Baroque places, the most famous of which is, perhaps, the Belvedere. However, for a full-on, flamboyant Rococo experience, Schloss Schönbrunn takes some beating. Completed in 1713, it is the former summer residence of the Habsburgs, one of whose number, the Empress Maria Theresa, ordered much of he interior to be decorated in Rococo style.

Schönbrunn Palace

Schönbrunn Palace

The Grand Gallery lives up to its name, a hall of large windows, magnificent chandeliers and crystal mirrors. The room is still used today for state receptions and banquets.

Even more mirrors can be found in the Mirror Room, where Mozart once delivered a private performance for the aforementioned empress.

For a variation on Rococo, the Vieux-Laque Room combines the style with Chinese art. Black lacquer panels from Beijing depict birds, flowers and landscapes embellished in gold, an element the Habsburgs were not shy of displaying.

Vieux Laque Room

Vieux Laque Room

Berlin

The Charlottenburg Palace (Schloss Charlottenburg), on the west side of Berlin, is a typically grandiose palace of the type beloved by imperial families. It was built in the late 17th and early 18th centuries of the behest of Frederick III, who bore the suitable grand title of Elector of Brandenburg. The palace is named Charlottenburg after Sophie Charlotte, Frederick’s wife.

Charlottenburg Palace

Charlottenburg Palace

The interior is a mix of Baroque and Rococo. The most glittering display of the latter can be found in the apartments of Frederick the Great, located in the palace’s New Wing.

The gardens are extensive (and free to visitors). They were originally designed in Baroque style, were redesigned in English landscape fashion when the style was in vogue, but reverted to the original style in the late 18th century.

Rococo a-go-go

Rococo a-go-go

The palace was, for a brief period between 2004 and 2006, the official residence of the German President while the usual seat (Schloss Bellevue) was being redecorated.

Baroque

These days, we tend to think of ‘Baroque’ as symbolising stylishness. In fact, the word was used as a term of derision by those that felt it was excessive and quite simply too loud. Whereas the Renaissance drew its inspiration from the Classical, with its rational straight lines, Baroque was colourful, curvy and just a bit too loud for some tastes.

Baroque survived, however, and not only did it survive, it thrived. Germany, Austria and Russia proved to be centres for the style and it is not too difficult to find Baroque architecture in most European cities. Even sober Englishmen like Wren and Hawksmoor could not resist a touch of Baroque in their designs.

With so many examples to choose from, it is not an easy task to reduce the list to a mere handful, but the buildings described below are, in our opinion, among the finest.

Kyiv

Baroque caught on in Eastern Europe and is quite often found in Ukraine, Russia and neighbouring countries. Churches, in particular, are a popular building for the style and there are many wonderful examples in Kyiv.

St Andrew is not only Scotland’s patron saint, but that of Ukraine as well, and the church dedicated to him is one of Kyiv’s best. It was designed by the great Baroque architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli and nowadays is the patriarchal cathedral of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. The building was completed in 1767. As with many Orthodox churches, the interior artwork is stunning and features a lavish, three-tier iconostasis, also designed by Rastrelli.

St Andrew's

St Andrew’s

Also worth a look, though sadly one cannot go inside, is the Mariinsky Palace, designed by the same architect. This lovely blue and cream building is an excellent example of the Russian Baroque style. It was built in 1755 as a residence for royalty visiting Kyiv.

Mariinsky Palace

Mariinsky Palace

St Petersburg

The fingerprints of the ubiquitous Rastrelli can be seen all over St Petersburg, never more evidently than in the Winter Palace and at first sight, the visitor might assume that St Nicholas Cathedral was another Rastrelli classic. In an indirect sense, it is, having been designed by one of the Italian’s pupils, one Savva Chevakinsky, who was also the architect responsible for the rebuilding of St Petersburg’s first museum, the equally lavish Kunstkamera.

Kunstkamera

Kunstkamera

The cathedral is quite unmissable, a giant turquoise and white wedding cake set amidst trees and gardens. The interior is just as decorative as the external appearance. It has a long association with the Russian Navy and is sometimes referred to as the Naval Cathedral.

St Nicholas

St Nicholas

St Nicholas - tower

St Nicholas – tower

Across the Neva River stands the Peter and Paul Cathedral, designed by Domenico Trezzini (who also designed the Twelve Collegia, the main building of St Petersburg University) and completed in 1733. The bell tower is the tallest of any Orthodox church and the lavishly decorated interioor houses the tombs of most of Russia’s emperors and empresses.

St Peter and Paul

St Peter and Paul

Istanbul

Istanbul’s varied and turbulent history means that there are buildings of varying styles and, in some cases, a mixture of styles. The city does not lack for beautiful buildings and one of the very best is the Dolmabahce Palace.

Designed by Armenian architects at the behest of the Europhile Sultan Abdul Mecit, the palace was completed in 1856. It is not a modest affair; the waterfront façade is 284 metres long and the building contains 46 reception rooms and galleries. Everything is magnificent, from the highly ornamental gates to the Paul Garnier-designed clock tower, added 30 or so years after the construction of the palace.

Dolmabahce Palace

Dolmabahce Palace

It was, though, the sheer extravagance of the palace that helped bring about the downfall of the Ottoman Empire and it was from the Dolmabahce that the last emperor fled into exile in 1922.

Zagreb

Visitors in search of fine buildings make a good start if they arrive at Zagreb’s main railway station. Like many of the stations on the route of the Orient Express, it is a stylish affair. Outside the station, the view across King Tomislav Square is of lawns, flowers and a large fountain, behind which stands the elegant Art Pavilion.

St Catherine's Church

St Catherine’s Church

It is, though, up the hill in the Old Town, that the visitor needs to be to enjoy Zagreb’s magnificent Baroque St Catherine’s Church, a 17th-century construction in shimmering white and featuring gloriously outrageous pink stucco on its walls. It is located close to St Mark’s Cathedral, with its famous chequer-board roof tiles.

St Mark's Cathedral

St Mark’s Cathedral

Prague

Prague may have an extensive collection of Gothic buildings and at least one renowned Art Nouveau structure, but there is a lot of Baroque around. Indeed, the Czech Republic is something of a feast for lovers of Baroque and most churches in the countryside are built in this style.

Prague Castle, like many medieval strongholds, has been rebuilt and reconstructed many times down the years, resulting in a mixture of styles. While its cathedral is unmistakeably Gothic, there are Renaissance and Baroque structures throughout the whole complex. The Matthias Gate is believed to be the very first Baroque construction in Prague.

Prague Castle

Prague Castle

Another Prague landmark, the Charles Bridge, is noted for its Gothic towers, but one should not overlook the collection of Baroque statues – some 30 of them – on the bridge itself. The statues, by various sculptors, were added in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

St Luitgarda (Charles Bridge)

St Luitgarda (Charles Bridge)

Prague has many Baroque churches, the most famous being the Church of St Nicholas, built in the 18th century on the site of an old Gothic Church. Its architect was Christoph Dientzenhofer, who was also responsible for the rebuilding of the imposing (and Baroque) Břevnov Monastery. The monastery is known as the oldest brewer in the Czech Republic and Benedictine beer is still brewed today.

St Nicholas

St Nicholas

Eastern Europe is a happy hunting ground for lovers of Baroque and one of the pleasure is to see the variances in style from place to place.

Istanbul’s Great Buildings – Fatih Mosque

The Fatih Mosque was built soon after the capture of Constantinople and named after the conquering sultan, Mehmed II (faith meaning ‘conqueror’ in Turkish). Building was completed in 1470, 17 years after the fall of the Byzantine capital.

It was built on the site of the Church of the Holy Apostles, Constantinople’s second largest and second most significant church after Hagia Sophia. A church had been built on the site by Constantine the Great and a second – and naturally, larger – version built on the same site by Justinian.

Fatih Mosque

Fatih Mosque

Mehmed allowed the Greek Orthodox Church to retain the church as its administrative centre, but the agreement was unlikely to last and the church, now in an advanced state of disrepair, was demolished in 1461-2 to make way for the new mosque.

The architect was Atik Sinan, who is not to be confused with Mimar Sinan, a later and even greater architect who was responsible for many of Istanbul’s mosques, including the Süleymaniye.

The present building differs somewhat from the original. Like many buildings in Istanbul, the Fatih Mosque suffered damage from a number of earthquakes and the current building owes its style to a 1771 rebuilding.

Like so many of Istanbul’s mosques, the design of the Fatih Mosque is redolent of Hagia Sophia, with a large central dome with outlying smaller domes. The building also displays that decidedly Istanbul Ottoman-Baroque style.

Courtyard

Courtyard

While the exterior may be different to the original, the interior closely resembles the initial décor designed by Atik Sinan.

All of Istanbul’s imperial mosques were built as complexes, designed not simply as places of worship. The Fatih is no exception and the Hospice has a particularly fine courtyard with an array of columns that are believed to have been part of the Church of the Holy Apostles.

The site also contains the tomb (türbe in Turkish) of Sultan Mehmet II. This is a particularly baroque affair with intricately ornate decoration. It is, perhaps fittingly, the most lavish tomb of all the Ottoman sultans.

Istanbul’s Great Buildings – Rumeli Hisari

By 1451, Constantinople was surrounded by Ottoman forces. The city, however, obdurately refused to fall and Sultan Mehmed II was getting impatient. The result was Rumeli Hisari, a fortress built on the European side of the Bosphorus, at its narrowest point.

The Ottomans could now control the sea and particularly traffic arriving from the Black Sea, from where aid and supplies could be delivered to the besieged city. The fortress was completed in 1452 (within four months) and the end came in the following year.

Rumeli Hisari

Rumeli Hisari

In truth, Constantinople was all but finished after the sack by the so-called Fourth Crusade in 1204. Although it was to struggle on for almost another 250 years, it was economically impoverished and close to being politically irrelevant. A city that had boasted a population of around half a million people had about 50,000 inhabitants by the time of the fall. With grim irony, it was the destructive greed of a Christian army that effectively made Constantinople an easy target for the Muslim Ottomans.

Rumeli Hisari may not be an architectural masterpiece in the manner of Istanbul’s great churches and mosques – after all, it was built in quick time for very pragmatic reasons – but it is still impressive and for anyone with an interest in history, it is one of the most significant buildings in Europe. This was where the life was strangled out of the remnants of the Byzantine Empire, which by then effectively meant the city of Constantinople.

View across the Bosphorus

View across the Bosphorus

The fortress offers modern day visitors wonderful views over the Bosphorus, which of course was one of the primary reasons for its existence, though its defenders were not there to admire the scenery. It was subsequently used as a customs house and prison. These days, the place functions as a museum and outdoor concert hall.

The site is open daily with the exception of Wednesdays. For anyone with a sense of history, it is a genuinely evocative place.

Istanbul’s Great Buildings – Süleymaniye Mosque

The vast Süleymaniye Mosque was built in the 1550s and like the later Sultan Ahmed Mosque, lifts its hat in acknowledgement to Hagia Sophia. The three buildings have a similar appearance, all being dominated by a large dome. It was, as its name suggests, ordered by Sultan Süleyman (‘the Magnificent’) and completed some eight years before his death.

Süleymaniye Mosque

Süleymaniye Mosque

The Süleymaniye is, perhaps, the most impressive of Istanbul’s mosques. The courtyard is particularly splendid, with its elegant colonnaded arches. Inside, the space feels huge, the area (almost) a square with light flooding in. The interior does not have the abundance of ceramic tiles of the Sultan Ahmed, with rather more subtle decorations being the order of the day.

Courtyard

Courtyard

The lovely gardens house two mausoleums, one containing the tomb of Sultan Süleyman. Also here is the tomb of Mimar Sinan, the architect charged with designing the mosque. Fittingly, Sinan designed his own tomb, a triangular affair that is modest in appearance, suggesting that his deserved reputation as the greatest of Ottoman architects did not go to his head.

Sinan tomb

Sinan tomb

The architect of the Blue Mosque, Sedefkar Mehmed Agha, was a pupil of Sinan and the influence is clearly visible. It’s a pretty safe bet that any sizeable mosque with a domed roof that you encounter in Istanbul was either designed by Sinan or one of his protégés.

As with most large mosques, the Süleymaniye is a complex of buildings and includes a hamam (bath-house). It is open to the public for use, though there is something faintly disturbing in that free life insurance is offered during a bath.

Something to recommend the Süleymaniye is that you don’t get the hordes of tourists that frequent Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. A visit feels much more leisurely here, and there is a row of pleasant little cafés and restaurants next to the mosque, where you can sit with a cup of coffee and admire the architecture and watch the activity.

Interior

Interior

If you find that your visit coincides with a time for prayer, the mosque is next door to the University’s Botanic Gardens, which is a pleasant place to stroll around for a while until the worshippers have gone.

Istanbul’s Great Buildings – Sultan Ahmed Mosque

Built in the early 17th century, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque is more commonly known as the Blue Mosque. The reason is not apparent from outside, but on entering the building, the blue ceramic tiles of the interior give the game away.

The mosque sits alongside Hagia Sophia and one can immediately see the similarities, particularly in the style of the domed roof. Like the great basilica, the structure is about awe-inspiring size. With its vast dome, a further eight smaller domes and six minarets, it’s not a building to be overlooked. The six minarets also make a statement – no mosque had ever had so many.

Sultan Ahmed Mosque

Sultan Ahmed Mosque

Local legend says that the sultan had asked for a minaret in altin (gold), but the architect misheard and thought he’d asked for alti (six) minarets. No harm was done, as the sultan was delighted that the mosque now had more minarets than any previous structure.

If the exterior is impressive, the inside is stunning. With more than 20,000 handmade tiles, the Nicaean ceramic industry was kept in business for a few years. The theme is mainly flowers and only a trained botanist would realise that there were so many different varieties of tulip.

Like Hagia Sophia, the building is afforded plenty of natural light by a plethora of windows, in this case 260 of them. Disappointingly, the original coloured windows have largely been replaced by something more prosaic. At least they do the job of allowing light into the mosque and there are also low-level chandeliers, though these look a little tacky.

Inside the Blue Mosque

Inside the Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque looks pretty stunning at any time, but it makes for an especially impressive view at night, when it is lit up. The domes and minarets, floodlit against the night sky, make for an unforgettable sight.

Istanbul’s Great Buildings – Hagia Sophia

The first church on the site of Hagia Sophia was inaugurated in 360 CE during the reign of Constantius II. Historians continue to debate whether it was Constantius or the earlier emperor, Constantine the Great, who ordered the building of the church. Either way, the largely wooden structure burned down in 404.

The church was rebuilt under Emperor Theodosius II in 405 and was to last a bit longer than its predecessor. It was also, however, destroyed by fire in 532. A few marble blocks remain from the structure and can be seen in the courtyard of the present building.

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia

The third incarnation is essentially the one that stands in today’s Istanbul. Justinian’s grand design was far beyond what had gone before, though astonishingly, the huge new church was completed within six years. The building has been damaged by a combination of earthquakes (a common event), fires and the ravages of the so-called Fourth Crusade, when Latin ‘Christians’ looted and ransacked their way through Constantinople.

After the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans, Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque, which it remained until the founder of the present Turkish state, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, decreed that it be turned into a museum.

Other than the sheer size of the building, it’s probably the dome that takes the breath away. The dome was the world’s largest until the construction of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, which is around ten metres bigger. The effect in Hagia Sophia is magnified by the windows around the dome, providing a huge amount of natural light into the building. You can spend a considerable amount of time simply staring in wonderment at the dome.

The dome

The dome

It’s hard to imagine what the mosaics would have looked like before the various depredations of the Crusaders and the coverings that took place after the conversion to a mosque (where religious iconography is not permitted). Earthquakes have taken their toll as well, but there are still some impressive examples, notably above the Imperial Door and in the upper galleries. A little glimpse of the church’s origins can be seen in the mosaic depicting the Virgin Mary with the baby Jesus receiving gifts from the emperors Justinian and Constantine the Great. The mosaic is in the doorway above the south-western vestibule.

Justinian mosaic

Justinian mosaic

A look at the biggest mosques in Istanbul suggests that the Ottomans were as impressed as everyone else by Hagia Sophia. Just a glimpse of the mosques of Sultan Ahmed (popularly known as the Blue Mosque), Süleymaniye and Rüstem Pasha calls Justinian’s great cathedral to mind. The resemblance is quite striking.

Considering the events that Hagia Sophia has witnessed over more than 1500 years, its condition is remarkable. The building requires almost constant maintenance, but the cost of losing such a wonderful structure cannot be quantified. One of the supreme ironies, of course, is that the great seat of the Eastern Christian Church was treated with a great deal more respect by its Muslim curators than it was by the Crusaders who hypocritically travelled under the Cross. For that, we should all be grateful.

Istanbul – Three Cities in One

Superficially, Istanbul is a tale of three cities; the original ancient Greek version, the great Imperial capital built by the Emperor Constantine and the modern capital city. Byzantion, Constantinople and Istanbul. That is to tell too simple a tale. Few places anywhere in the world have undergone the upheaval and changes of this extraordinary city.

Really, the best way to approach Istanbul is from the sea. That way, you can imagine the awe it must have inspired in medieval travellers as the great walls and buildings hoved into view. How those travellers must have stared in sheer wonder at the vast magnificence of Hagia Sophia as their ship sailed up the Bosphorus.

Sailing to Byzantium

Sailing to Byzantium

Historians will tell you, quite reasonably, that to understand the present, you must understand the past. Nowhere is this more pertinent than Istanbul. On this basis, a trip to the Archaeological Museum at an early stage of a visit is not a bad plan. There is a vast collection of Hittite, Mesopotamian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Byzantine, Ottoman and just about any other kind of artefacts you could imagine, or possibly not imagine. The prize piece is the huge Alexander Sarcophagus, with its ornate carvings depicting Alexander about to hurl a spear at Persian cavalry on one side and hunting lions on the other.

The museum gives a glimpse of the city’s complex history and there are plenty of other places that attest to the varied nature of Istanbul’s past. The railway station combines the European and Oriental in its architecture and is worth seeing for that alone. The station started life as the terminus of the Orient Express and naturally, there is still a reminder of the legendary train in the name of the station’s restaurant. There is also a small museum at the station with diverse bits of Orient Express and other railway memorabilia.

One of the many must-see attractions is the Topkapi Palace, home to Ottoman Sultans and their evidently large entourages and staff. The palace was developed and added to over several centuries, with the result being a large number of buildings of varying styles. Of all the diverse collections, one of the most extraordinary is housed in the Imperial Treasury. This is jewellery at an in-your-face level, with plenty of gold to go with it. This is the sort of place that one can imagine being checked out by a suave international jewel thief (probably played by David Niven), devising some cunning plan (no doubt involving ropes and wires) to empty the collection.

Pavilion at Topkapi

Pavilion at Topkapi

The Obelisk of Theodosius is something that it’s impossible to miss, in any sense. The title is something of a misnomer, as it was originally made for the Egyptian Pharaoh Tuthmosis III and was part of the great temple of Karnak before the Roman emperor Constantius II had it moved to Alexandria in 357 CE. A later emperor, Theodosius I, moved it to the hippodrome in Constantinople in 390 CE. Only a section of the original survives, but at over 20 metres, it is still a stand-out object, not least because it looks so out of place. It has, though, been out of place for the best part of two millennia.

Theodosius Obelisk

Theodosius Obelisk

Across the Golden Horn lies the district of Galata, a Genoese colony in medieval times. It was the Genoese who built Galata Tower, visible from much of the city. The tower is essentially a tourist attraction these days, offering a splendid view across Istanbul, the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus. There is a café at the top, naturally rather expensive, but a nice place to enjoy the view for a while.

Galata Tower

Galata Tower

Galata is part of the Beyoğlu area, still on the European side, but separated from the Constantinople part by the Golden Horn. It’s a very cosmopolitan district with a much more western feel to it. The main street, İstiklal, is permanently packed with shoppers, visitors, theatre-goers and seemingly just about everybody in Istanbul at times. There are stylish buildings covering a multitude of styles and old-fashioned little red trams clank up and down.

Beyoğlu and tram

Beyoğlu and tram

Beyoğlu is the home of Galatasaray, one of three hugely-supported football clubs in Istanbul. Another, Beşiktaş, is located just to the north. Across the Bosphorus, Fenerbahçe complete the triumvirate. Rivalries are, to put it mildly, intense, and those of a nervous disposition or easily scared by loud noise should avoid Turkish football in general and Istanbul derbies in particular.

Virtually across the road from the Beşiktaş Stadium is the Dolmabahçe Palace, which succeeded the Topkapi Palace as the main administrative centre of Ottoman rule in the 1850s. It’s an interesting mix of Baroque, Neo-Classical and Rococo, all incorporated into an Ottoman style. You can’t saunter around as you can at the Topkapi; you must take a guided tour. Be prepared for a dazzling overload of gold and crystal. At the front of the palace is a particularly impressive clock tower in a style that Istanbul seems to specialise in, a kind of Baroque meets Ottoman.

Dolmabahçe clock

Dolmabahçe clock

Istanbul always has the capacity to surprise and for a first-time visitor, the shock can come from the air. A loud screech and a tell-tale flash of bright green mean one thing: ring-necked parakeets. These noisy and colourful birds are a common sight in Istanbul. Originally common to tropical parts of Africa and Asia, the adaptable parrots have colonised a number of European cities including London, Barcelona and Brussels. Gülhane Park, where many of the parakeets hang out, is also the location for a vast treetop heronry.

Eating and drinking can be expensive, though it doesn’t have to be. As usual, keeping away from the obvious tourist areas keeps the price down. There are some good little restaurants tucked away under the bridges that span the Golden Horn. Even in the more central areas, you can still get a decent deal. For ten quid, you can get a soup, main course and a couple of beers, which is pretty respectable. Even so the American couple who asked us for advice were probably being a bit optimistic. Where, they asked, could they get something to eat and drink for ten lira? Well, you could try Albania.

It’s best not to expect too much from Turkish beer. Efes is ubiquitous and at least the draught version is a deal more palatable than the bottled or (shudder) canned. Efes Dark is an interesting concoction, though it is probably best approached as a drink to have at the end of an evening. A rather vigorous 6.1% ABV, it’s a dark brown beer with a slightly nutty taste and not too much sweetness, slightly reminiscent of a strong brown ale.

Istanbul is the sort of place you could spend a long time in without seeing everything, but even if you’re only there for two or three nights, you can cram a lot in. Quite a lot of the ‘must see’ places are within a quick walk of each other; for example, Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Theodosius Column and Topkapi Palace are all pretty much adjacent. There’s a good array of public transport, too, from little trams to big ferry boats, to get you around.

There are myriad reasons to go to Istanbul. You don’t have to be an aficionado of Byzantine history, though a little understanding is never a bad thing.