Kebab Istanbul Turkey

Istanbul and Barcelona: why the two cities are alike – in a bad, bad way

Robert Pimm
Robert Pimm

Istanbul and Barcelona are two of the world’s great cities. Many people want to visit them. But both face a range of similar problems.

I read with interest recently a fine article in the New York Times by Raphael Minder.  Minder mourned the disappearance through rent increases of the traditional shops of the Gothic quarter of Barcelona.  Those old shops, he said, were one of the things that made the city unique.

Istanbul Kebabci at the end of a long day

Traditional kebab vendors on Istiklal Street in Istanbul. Photo: Robert Pimm

Barcelona has big problems

I visited Barcelona in 2006 and wrote my own piece on this subject for the Financial Times.  The headline was “When tourist reinvention spins out of control“.  I’m proud to say it touched on the same issues as Mr Minder.

The Gothic Quarter goes global

I wrote then:

It may be that filling the alleyways of the Gothic quarter with branches of Dunkin’ Donuts, Foot Locker and the Hard Rock Café is the easiest way to separate visitors from their money.  But the day these come to predominate over older shops and restaurants with names such as El Ingenio, Gran Cuchilleria and La Fuente Xarcuteria, Barcelona will come another step closer to being like everywhere else.

Mass tourism, Istanbul and Barcelona

The decline of the most wonderful places on earth in the face of globalisation and mass tourism is troublesome.  We all want to see fabulous sites.  But what if a billion people want to visit the underground churches of Cappadocia?  Only ten people can fit inside at any one time.

Apart from get there early, of course.

Istiklal and Las Ramblas

My Barcelona piece noted that Las Ramblas, Barcelona’s most famous street, had lost much charm as tourists threatened to overrun it.  A similar fate threatens one of Istanbul’s most iconic thoroughfares, Istiklal.

This magnificent, mile-long pedestrian street, formerly know as the Grande Rue de Pera, is jammed for much of the day with a terrific mix of tourists and locals. But the historic and sometimes scruffy small shops, cafes and restaurants which give Istiklal its charm are being inexorably replaced by the same global chains which are threatening Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter.

Market forces?

You can argue that we’re simply seeing the operation of market forces.  In the summer, the queues are longer to buy a predictable ice-cream from Burger King or McDonalds for one Turkish Lira than to buy an authentic Turkish ice-cream for several times more from a traditional vendor in red-and-gold waistcoat and a fez.

But if only Burger King and McDonalds are left, why come to Istanbul – or Barcelona?

Sometimes to serve the interests of a city, planners have to think about bigger issues than maximising short-term income.

You can read Raphael Minder’s article in The New York Times here.

P.S. you can sample more fresh, original writing on this site via my 5 pleasure paths.  If you enjoy it please follow me on Facebook.

If you would like to have a look at my writing, my most recent books are: my blackly comic Seven Hotel Stories, hard-hitting Berlin thriller Blood Summit and Corona Crime – the thriller for a world in the grip of coronavirus.

Seven Hotel Stories Blood Summit cover Corona Crime cover


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