Sunday, April 15, 2012

Seeing the light

Whether dancing on the water, casting a warm glow on the hills, piercing through the clouds, or finding its way through the cracks in a crumbling building, the light is one of the most beautiful things about Istanbul, one of its most alluring characteristics.

But as with any romance, the day-to-day drudgery of life can dim the appeal of a city that once seemed exotic or exciting, making it just another place where the weather can be foul, the traffic is bad, earning a living is hard, and people seem not to care. In other words, it's easy to forget about the light.

Seeking to beat my latest bout of the "Istanblues," I turned to my typically reliable three-step cure: 1) Find something new to go check out -- usually an art exhibit, sometimes a lesser-known historical sight or area; 2) Identify somewhere promising to eat in the vicinity; 3) Wander at will. (Note to self: Cure will not work if you attempt to employ it in your own neighborhood.)

As the clouds passed back and forth across the sky, I hopped on a bus to Unkapanı and then set off walking west on the narrow, broken sidewalk as traffic on the Halıç road zipped by. So far, not so good. But the sun was out, the tulips were in bloom on the median, and the Golden Horn glistened. Noting that St. Stephen of the Bulgars, the "iron church," was closed for renovations, I ducked into the unmarked door of Köfteci Arnavut, taking a table in the low-ceilinged back of the eatery onto which a heaping plate of piyaz and a tasty, tender portion of köfte was soon placed.

Thus fortified, and a few wrong turns later, I arrived in front of a plaque heralding the UNESCO-funded restoration of a historical Balat residence into the "Arte İstanbul Balat Art Square and Dimitri Cantemir Müzesi," a project seemingly left uncompleted despite the announcement of its opening two years ago in the Turkish press. Around the corner, though, a staircase led up between old stone walls to the massive neo-Gothic "red castle" (actually the Fener Rum Lisesi, the city's oldest Greek Orthodox school). Wandering back down by another route, I spied bits of the skyline through gaps between buildings -- and painted across the exposed side of one structure. Handprints covered another wall in the shape of an angel's wings, and colorful graffiti flowers sprung up where no real ones did.

Old Göksu and Anadolu Hisarı, 1909
Finally I reached my ostensible destination, the Reza Has Museum at Kadir Has University, which is showing the work of Nazmi Ziya Güran until Tuesday. (The museum is open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day.) Güran, who died 75 years ago, was one of the first Turkish impressionists, members of a group of artists whose style of painting often sought to capture how changing light makes a scene look or feel rather than its every detail.

Though some of the paintings were lovely (the depiction of Göksu creek, above, was a particular favorite), the real point of the excursion was trying to find the light again. I like to think Nazmi Bey would have approved.