Picture the scene – half an hour from sailing, and you’re on the other side of the city, trying to find a taxi. In the pouring rain. At night. And you don’t speak the language.
Welcome to Istanbul on a near-disastrous Friday evening, several years ago. It was the cruise line’s fault, of course. Who schedules a departure for midnight? There are all kinds of things that can go wrong when a ship leaves that late at night, and we had found most of them.
Having checked in to our Penthouse Deck cabin fresh from our flight, it seemed the ideal opportunity to explore some of the city and take advantage of its many fine dining choices before returning to the luxury of our peripatetic home for the next 10 days.
The Excursions Desk staff were up to the task, recommending several possibilities. “That sounds good,” we trilled. And the excursion manager had the commonsense to write it down: Cicek Pasaji, Sahne Sokak. “That’s the Cicek arcade, in Sahne Street. Lots of shopping and dining. Very friendly.” Ideal we thought, and set out to the taxi rank next to the ship.
Seasoned travellers will immediately spot the obvious faux pas. We, in our excitement to see Istanbul in six hours, didn’t.
Cicek Pasaji, and the streets around it, were a wonderful discovery, a veritable profusion of Turkish arts, crafts and food. Lots of food. We sipped Turkish coffee and nibbled rahat lokum (or Turkish delight to us Westerners), and were lobbied to try any one of a dozen restaurants before we decided, around 8pm, it was dinner hour.
The Manolya Restoran had most appeal, an indoor-outdoor café that seemed to offer the requisite local flavours and ambience. It did, fabulously. The kalamar tavi (calamari to us) was tender and succulent and, as we tucked in, we noticed a spectacular natural firework show beginning above the glass roof.
As we continued through the menu – cipura izgara (grilled sea bream) and karisik izgara (mixed grill) followed by karisik tatli tabagi (delicious flaky pastries) and more coffee – the storm worked itself into a frenzy, enough to make Zeus proud, if he happened to stray across from Greece. However, as the glass ceiling rattled along with the thunder, we noticed a few drips with our tabagi. Then a few more. And then a steady stream. The Pasaji had sprung a leak, big time.
As we hastily backed into the restaurant from our outside table, other customers were grabbing glasses and dishes and beating their retreat. Happily oblivious to the outside world, we finished our tabagi and coffee in leisurely fashion, safe in the knowledge we still had a couple of hours to get back to the ship. At 10.30, we called the waiter over. “Taxi, please?” “Evet, efendim” was the quick reply, and a boy was summoned to go and perform the necessary duty outside the Pasaji.
A few minutes later, a rather bedraggled boy returned. “No taxi,” he said with a damp shrug. No taxi? Had the city’s cabbies packed up for the night? Was there a witching hour for taxis? “No, efendim, is weather. Streets are blocked.” This was seriously bad news. The taxi ride to the Pasaji had been around 20 minutes, and we had no idea of the direction. We relayed our distress to the waiter in mixed sign language and hysterical English and he seemed to get the idea. The bedraggled boy was sent forth once more.
After about 15 minutes, he returned with a smile. “Taxi, efendim!” Eureka (or ‘Buldum’ if we’d known Turkish). The rain was petering out, but so were our chances of getting back on time. Our restaurant boy had certainly found a cab; the problem was, the driver spoke no English. With no Turkish other than “Evet, efendim,” we were stuck. We tried sign language. “To the ship?” had no meaning to our cabbie either. Finally, we drew a picture of a ship. “We go here?” A lightbulb seemed to go off for our Turkish charioteer.
Fifteen minutes later we were, indeed, at the port. The ferry port. We looked aghast. It was now past 11 and we had no idea where we were. We tried to communicate. “No, BIG ship. We need big ship,” we cried. The driver remained blank. We asked a passer-by. “Do you know where the cruise port is?” More blankishness. In desperation, we drew another picture – a small ship (“Here!”) and a bigger version (“Cruise port!”).
The beginnings of an understanding started to crease their way across the bearded visage. “You hurry?” we implored. “Quick! Vite! Vamos!” We made brisk progress against the traffic, then hit a new snag. The street we needed was awash; like more than a foot of water awash. It had been some storm. “No go, efendim,” our driver looked crestfallen. “Which way cruise port?” I asked, desperately. The cabbie indicated in the direction of the street and held up one hand. “Five minutes?” His nod was one of grim certainty.
Which is how we ran up to the crew gangway at 11.50 (the passenger entry having been taken down 20 minutes earlier), shoes and socks in hand, wet, out of breath and borderline panic-stricken, to be greeted by the calmest of crew members, betraying not a jot of surprise at two dishevelled passengers appearing at the wrong door. “Have you had a nice evening, sir and madam?”
Now, of course, we will get directions to the restaurant AND back to the ship in future.