İstanbul used to have some mad and spectacular backpacker “hotels” back in the day. One of my favourites was in Yerebatan Street right in the heart of the old city, Sultanahmet district. It was called the Hotel Stop and it was the kind of place where anything could happen at any time and for any number of reasons – few of them logical.
The owners of the Stop were a family originally from eastern Turkey who were some of the kindest, most caring and most ambitious people I have ever met. The building itself, which was probably built sometime in the 1920s or 30s was riddled with damp and probably every type of wood rot known to man. It was dingy, the plumbing was beyond eccentric and every time you turned on a light you took your life in your hands.
Cuts in mains water supply used to happen a lot in İstanbul, a phenomenon not always easily understood by tourists from Western Europe, the USA, Canada and Australasia. Whenever the water went off at the Stop there was always a roar of fury from those halfway through washes or trying to flush the toilet. I once got caught covered in soap, not a drop of water in sight, in what was laughingly called the shower room. This was a vast hymn to cracked tiles dominated by a massive cylindrical boiler that looked not unlike a 1950s B movie version of a spacecraft. This thing could, with help, be persuaded to emit a thin, lukewarm trickle of water from the object you were encouraged to call its ‘shower attachment’. But only with the window wide open. If you didn’t do that you’d die of carbon monoxide poisoning – not that anyone ever did. What I did do was nearly die of laughing as I lay under that bone dry space rocket that hot waterless afternoon when I was covered from head to foot in soap and shampoo. I was there, waiting and laughing, for over an hour before the water came back on.
Then there were the cats. Seemingly thousands of them. All grey and brown tabbies, all out of the same mother, an heroic old girl called ‘Little Cat’. Little Cat was one of the most loving feline mothers I have ever known. She was also very proud. Wherever you went in the Stop, Little Cat would follow you with her vast tribe of kittens hot on her heels. You had kittens in reception, kittens in the toilet, the washroom, in your bedroom and, very often, actually in your bed too. Some of the Stop’s more nervous guests would be disgusted and describe the kittens (admittedly full of fleas) as ‘disease vectors.’ But me and mine are cat people and so we just took the cats and their fleas, in our stride. They were all part of a charm that also always included a welcome that was so warm that turning up at the Stop felt like coming home. But then the owners were extraordinary people. Hoteliers and, almost to a man and woman, students too. As they worked in the crazy bedrooms and scary toilets, they studied university texts on biochemistry, physics, English and history.
In the years that I patronised the Stop I met many strange and remarkable people. These included American converts to Islam setting out on the haj to Mecca, whacked out backpackers on the road to they didn’t have a clue where, drug casualties from the 1960s, refugees from Afghanistan, appalled Western Puritans and some very charming men who were probably gangsters. However the thing that lingers most for me about the long-gone Stop, is the view I got from its shabby, probably very dangerous roof one very early morning in the summer of 1989. The sun, though hazy, was up and from the roof I could see the whole of the old city of İstanbul coming to life around me. No whizzy wazzy modern trams in those days, just the sound of the odd ancient car or bus sputtering into life and the cries of the street sellers of simit (bread rolls) and yoghurt. I remember looking out towards the great Mosque of Sultanahmet and then beyond to the Sea of Marmara and watching the seagulls veer away from the smoke that puffed out of the smokestacks of the early morning ferries. OK, I was young then, but at that moment I felt as if I could do anything and be anyone I wanted to be in my crazy, friendly, maddening and fabulous city. It is a feeling I have sadly, never been able to experience anywhere, since.
The life in and around the Stop and its denizens was just so intense that maybe that just isn’t possible. Those days have gone.