Senol the "taksi" driver and other stories

When we first came to Istanbul three years ago the locals, overseen in that period by an English press officer, tried hard to please the visiting F1 media. It was a logical thing to do because, despite our many faults, we are the people who are informing the world about Istanbul and as the Grand Prix was designed to boost tourism, it was a good idea to make us feel good about the place. They laid on shuttle buses from the circuit to the city centre, although these would regularly take two hours or more to get there, and that despite the fact that they were allowed to take liberties with some of the traffic laws and were thus a better bet than rental cars. The problem is that the two bridges that arch across the Bosporus, linking Europe and Asia are constantly jammed with traffic which turns a half hour journey into a nightmare for those dumb enough to stay downtown.

To put this into perspective, in the three years we have had in Turkey, we have never once eaten outside our hotel. When you get back at 10pm every evening and have to balance it all with the workload, there is no time for such luxuries. If you can leave the track at 4pm with a police escort, perhaps one can enjoy such things but we wordsmiths have to hammer out stories at that time of day. Thus we survive on hurried meals in the hotel restaurant and room service. Sadly, the F1 circus is now withdrawing from the European side of the city and we shall be doing the same next year.

This rather defeats the idea of using the sport to promote tourism in Istanbul.

It has become a city that we are now desperate to avoid visiting.

This year the organisers scrapped the media shuttles completely, which meant that non-Turkish-speaking pressmen had to try to find taxis in the middle of nowhere, often in the dark. And to make matters more difficult taxis were not allowed into the grounds of the circuit. On the day I arrived I went to the track straight from the airport and was forced to trudge a good half mile with my luggage because the men at the gate were incapable of seeing a bigger picture. In reality it is the fault of the management but then we know they are these people are fundamentally flawed after last year's outrageous podium stunt, which deserved a far greater punishment than the FIA bestowed.

All this does not mean that I did not want to explore Istanbul. I just never had the time. So this year I decided to add an extra day to the end of the trip in order to see a bit of the place. Istanbul is, after all, the gateway to the Orient and thus simply has to be mysterious and romantic. It might be because of the Orient Express and the fact that when I was growing up Istanbul was the furthest place from home that one could visit by train - without a lot of complicated changes. Perhaps it was because of the Pera Palace Hotel, built in the 1890s to house the passengers of the Orient Express, arriving at the Sirkeci Terminal. The hotel entertained aces, kings, queens, knaves and a few jokers as well. It was the kind of place where Agatha Christie and Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey, might have shared tea with a passing king, movie star, writer or spy.

I also remember back in the 1960s a great movie called Topkapi, which was an Ocean's 11 kind of heist movie (a la Thomas Crown Affair), starring Peter Ustinov, Robert Morley and Melina Mercouri. It made Istanbul seem a very exotic sort of place.

The views from the top of the hotel of the Bosporus and the Golden Horn were dramatic and beautiful, despite the vastness of the urban spread that has engulfed these famous waterways.

The mini-bar featured (two) chilled condoms (Yes, really) and outside there was always a disco thumping through the night, suggesting that Istanbul was actually quite a party town if you could get out of the traffic. But there was a dark side too as the X-ray machine at the entrance was a reminder that this is an Islamic country and these are troubled times. In 2003 the British Consulate, which I can see from my window, was blown to Kingdom Come by Al-Qaida. The Consul-General Roger Short and 17 others were killed. The defences around the rebuilt embassy compound show that there are fears that it could happen again.

Turkey has a liberal economy and is moving towards being a healthy democracy, despite fears in the West that Islamic authoritarianism will take over one day. Out on the streets it is dirty and chaotic but there is a vitality about the place that one cannot miss. Turkish driving is something to behold. They think nothing of reversing on motorways and the only rule seems to be that one hits the horn and puts one's foot to the floor. Pedestrians amble around the streets as though they own them.

In our efforts to solve the transportation problems without having to hire a car and risk life, limb and prison, we hit on the idea of hiring a "taksi" driver for the whole of Sunday. The first applicant for the job (although he did not know it) on Saturday morning was so trigger-happy and nervous that it felt like being driven by a ping-pong player on speed. That evening we found our man: Senol, who drove fast but well and chattered away in Turkish pointing out things which we grappled to comprehend. He spoke three words of English, which was three more words than I can speak in Turkish. He wanted us to have his water, his chewing gum and before we reached the hotel (in an impressive one hour) we had decided that he was our man, even though he made it clear that he believes that he is the Turkish version of Fernando Alonso. I am sure he is more competent than Jason Tahinci - Turkey's top driver at the moment - but then Senol's dad is not the head of the Turkish national sporting authority, so it is probably a little tougher for him to find a budget.

With the help of the hotel receptionist we offered him a deal for race day. Yes, seven thirty in the morning would be fine and he'd be there to pick us up at eight thirty in the evening. He was there at seven and come the evening a nice girl rang to say that the police would not let him into the circuit (despite the fact that he was our authorised representative and so had an F1 car pass). Despite this Senol talked his way into the track as we were getting out to the gate to meet him. Then another girl rang and we sorted it all out and, with a squeal of tyres, we set off towards the city. He was more excited than ever as we had gathered together a few little perks - F1 hats and notebooks - and chattered away happily, pointing out mosques, bars, tobacco factories and kept us informed of the property prices of the different neighbourhoods we were passing through. He took us on the coast road as the main roads were blocked and he was always looking for the fastest way to town and made frantic no-handed phone calls to friends to see where the traffic jams were forming. On Sunday night he even stopped and bought us all what amounted to dinner from a roadside stall that he had ordered in advance and happily paid for.

When he heard the bridges were blocked he explained that we would go by "feribot" instead. And so we sailed into Istanbul that evening on the ferry having seen Harem, which despite its promising name, appeared to be Turkey's biggest bus station. The journey took an hour and twenty minutes, including dinner and a boat ride.

Senol did his country proud and did a much better job than all the tourist boards, motor clubs and chambers of commerce.

He gave Turkey the cheerful face we wanted to see.

Now I know the Turkish words for "dolphin" and for "eagle", although I am not sure I will need them that often in the future.

But I have his number for next year and will be happy to see him again. I may even learn a few more words in Turkish so we can talk with using our hands quite as much.

August 27 2007

Print Feature