Our great-uncle served through two world wars, as a gunner and later ordnance officer – and survived! At the end of WW1 he was posted to Constantinople – modern day Istanbul – with the Army of the Black Sea, where his key roles were security and ammunition disposal. His memoirs tell of an ordinary soldier caught up in extraordinary events, and I thought they deserved a wider audience. So began my adventure.
So I’m just back from a fascinating trip to Istanbul with Ramblers Worldwide Holidays. What a great bridge between worlds this city is! East meets West, land meets sea, Christian meets Muslim, Europe meets Asia, ancient meets modern, order meets chaos, beauty meets blight and… 94 years on, I follow in the footsteps of Uncle Howard.
And what a great introduction Ramblers Worldwide Holidays provided! We explored the wonderful old city of Stamboul and the European Quarter, both steeped in history – on foot, by ferry and tram, back and forth across the Galata Bridge – much as he would have done on his patrols. We sailed down the Golden Horn, up the Bosphorus, and over to the Princes Islands and the Asian shore, retracing journeys he made regularly, albeit without encountering any battleships!
We ventured into the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market, soaked up the atmosphere and ways of trading unchanged for centuries – but not buying live chickens as he had. I visited the hotel (now the prestigious Pera Müsezi) where he stayed – all five floors, just to be sure! – and the magnificent Blue Mosque where he removed his footwear as we did; even travelled through the grandiose Orient Express-style Haydarpaşa railway station as he frequently did and where once he ‘hijacked’ a steam engine, enjoying a ride on the footplate to boot. And much more besides.
It was a brilliant orientation experience and gives me a head start for any return visits. It brought Uncle Howard’s descriptions and anecdotes even more alive for me. Some places were beyond recognition, others virtually unchanged, yet the trip intensified an overarching sense of connection. To follow our story, go towww.facebook.com/akindofsoldiering
Even without the personal interest, Istanbul is a very special city with much to offer. It was European Capital of Culture in 2010. So do go and soon – with increasing popularity, it’s becoming more touristy by the minute!