Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

Istanbul's post-modern pentathlon: clearing the airport hurdles

Turkey's largest city is a difficult place to leave: not just because Istanbul comprises a seductive concoction of cultures, but because the flight home can appear tantalisingly out of reach. After researching today's 48 Hours in Istanbul, I set off for the airport muttering those fateful words "plenty of time". First hiccup: the tram I was on broke down. A quarter-hour evaporated while it was removed and we squeezed on the next one.

At the final stop, a shiny new pedestrian bridge links the tram terminus to the railway station where trains leave for the airport. Unfortunately, it has yet to open, so I battled my way across a busy highway to reach the platform just in time to miss an airport-bound train.

The next was cancelled, and the one behind was running late. Even so, the train arrived at the airport a respectable hour before the flight. But my problems were only just beginning.

Imagine if every passenger aboard the Gatwick Express, or the Piccadilly Line to Heathrow, was searched - along with all their luggage - before they were allowed to leave the station and enter the airport. Now envisage that process carried out at a single security checkpoint, with just one metal detector and X-ray machine. That is what awaits you at Istanbul airport.

Being British, of course I could not emulate the extended families carrying implausible amounts of luggage who marched straight to the front and proceeded to devour 10 minutes by triggering every alarm.

By now I was sweating like a kebab on a skewer at Istanbul's Pudding Shop. Even after this performance, there were more checks and some exquisitely irritating short queues for the right to join longer queues. Murphy's Law for air travellers came into effect: the number of minutes before take-off is in inverse proportion to the distance to the gate.

When I reached gate 310, having passed gates 1 to 309 inclusive, another search ensued. Was I locked into some nightmarish continuum of frisking and frustration. Frazzled, I reached the desk just at the moment the plane was due to leave, when a reverse version of Murphy's Law took effect. It appeared that a problem with the catering truck was delaying departure. I never thought I would write this, but thank goodness for Gate Gourmet.

THE FIRST time I visited Istanbul, I actually managed to arrive at the gate after the plane doors had closed for departure. I had bought a spectacularly cheap short break that cost £109 including flights and two nights' accommodation. The plane was a Caledonian Airways charter, but the departure time on the screens at Gatwick on the outbound flight bore no relation to the time on my ticket - the plane left two hours later.

Every hour in Istanbul is worth a day in, say, Gatwick, so once in Turkey I called in at the company's office to see if the homeward flight had been put back by two hours. It had, I was assured.

On the day of departure, my first inkling that something had gone horribly wrong was when I went downstairs to the lobby of the cheap hotel to check out, and found it full of people clutching Gatwick duty-free bags. Yes, they had landed - about an hour earlier - on the very plane that I was booked on.

The fastest taxi driver in Istanbul happened to be waiting outside, and demonstrated that it is possible to reach the airport in 12 minutes flat. He earned every note of the wad I thrust at him as I ran to the deserted check-in desk.

When I finally found an official, he waved his outstretched arms as if flying, with - as I recall - an annoyingly cheery smile. I deduced this to be the international symbol that I had missed the plane. But life in those benign pre-September 11 days was easier. A colleague barked into a walkie-talkie as she hurried me to the gate, where the jet was about to be pushed back. Goodness knows what she said, but magically the door opened and the stairs unravelled. To some heckling from passengers who had managed to reach the airport on time, I got on and headed straight for the smoking section. Those were the days.

That was 16 summers ago, for the very first of our 48 Hours city-break series. At this rate I shall return in the summer of 2021, but next time will allow all day to reach the departure lounge.

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