A multi-faceted Turkish love story leads off-track to a fascinating journey of discovery in Istanbul, writes Kerry van der Jagt.
Nothing focuses the mind like the word "secret", especially when it is whispered by a man carrying two cats and an armful of books. "Here's the book you've been searching for," he purrs, putting the cats down and handing me a thick paperback novel.
"Be careful, it holds a secret." My instinct is to scream "nutter", but I'm curious and his cats seem well-loved, so I stop to listen.
For the past two hours I'd wandered the labyrinth of Sahaflar Carsisi, Istanbul's second-hand book bazaar, breathing in the dusty smell of old paper, tracing fingers down faded spines, turning pages and imagining the lives of the people who'd held them before me.
Unlike the Grand Bazaar, with its carpets and costumes, tiles and tapestries, the book bazaar is a leafy sanctuary hidden in an ancient courtyard in the shadow of the Beyazit Mosque. Built on the same site as the 15th-century book and paper market of the Byzantines, the courtyard is lined with bookshops overflowing with ancient volumes, modern textbooks, novels, stationery, maps and manuscripts.
Whereas some shopkeepers tend to their books, picking among the rows like gardeners, others relax in the shade of the chestnut trees; reading, sharing apple tea with their neighbours, or sleeping, felt hats tipped forward, chins on chests. Only the cat man is padding about. I accept the book from his outstretched hand, turn it front to back and read the first page.
"It was the happiest moment of my life, though I didn't know it." So begins The Museum of Innocence by Turkey's Nobel-prize winning author Orhan Pamuk. The novel opens in Istanbul in the spring of 1975, the sky is shimmering "as it does only in Istanbul" and the air is tinged with the sea. Kemal Basmaci has fallen in love with Fusan, a distant but poor relative, and they have just spent their first afternoon together.
I turn to the front cover, which reads, "an interplay between erotic obsession and sentimentality". Yep, this book is for me. With my prize wrapped in newspaper I head off to explore more of the city, ditching an organised tour, deciding to let books be my guide.
From a rooftop cafe overlooking the Blue Mosque I read about Kemal's brief affair with Fusan and his subsequent 30-year obsession. Nibbling on baklava, I learn of Kemal's habit of pilfering any object Fusan once touched - a saltshaker here, a hair clip there. By sunset I'm on the Galata Bridge, reading about the museum Kemal built in Fusan's honour. By the early hours of the morning I've found the secret (OK I may have skipped a few chapters).
The next morning I make my way along the cobbled alleyways of Beyoglu, Istanbul's bohemian heart.
Following the map printed in the front of the book, I find what I'm looking for, the actual Museum of Innocence, a four-storey red-painted townhouse in the neighbourhood of Cukurcuma. My hands flutter through the book, searching for the page with the secret printed ticket that will give me entry to the museum. I hand the book, opened at page 520, to the attendant who marks the page with a delicate butterfly stamp and ushers me into Pamuk's world.
The museum is laid out according to the chapters of the book; 83 display cases representing 83 chapters, each case corresponding to the emotion of that chapter. The first display I see is a wall emblazoned with 4213 cigarette stubs once smoked by Fusan, now pinned like butterflies in an entomologist's display case, each stub labelled with a specific time or place.
A display case titled "The happiest moment of my life" holds the butterfly earring Fusan lost on the afternoon the couple first made love.
Case by case the novel comes to life: displays of brooches and hair clips, half-finished glasses of milk, suspended teaspoons, old photographs, china dogs, even an attic bedroom where Kemal narrated his tale to Pamuk.
I learn that Pamuk conceived the idea for the museum in parallel with the novel, collecting everyday objects as he wrote, buying a house for his fictional heroine to live in and then spending 15 years turning it into a museum.
Although the museum builds on the novel's themes of love and longing, the backdrop is a portrait of Turkey, a country with an identity crisis, caught between East and West, struggling to find a balance between tradition and modernity. "This is not simply a story of lovers, but of the entire realm, that is, of Istanbul," Pamuk writes.
Leaving the museum I head down the hill towards the Bosphorus, that blue ribbon of water separating European Turkey from Asian Turkey. As Turkey dreams of joining the European Union, its largest city is constantly reinventing itself in a bid to become Europe's new capital of cool.
Nowhere is this more obvious than the Istanbul Modern, an art gallery in an old shipping warehouse on the shores of the Bosphorus.
Past and Future is the newest permanent collection that chronicles the transformation of modern art in Turkey from the last days of the Ottoman Empire through to the fledgling days of the republic, the nation's early aspirations of modernity and the resulting clash between values.
Leaving the gallery I head to Galata, with its trendy design shops and ever-growing arts scene, before walking across the Galata Bridge. From the spice market I follow the tram tracks before arriving at Bookshop, one of the loveliest bookshops in Istanbul.
Over Turkish tea, owner Ali Tuysuz and I while away the afternoon in his elegant store, talking about books (Tuysuz stocks more than 2000 titles on Turkey, mostly in English), discussing the work of Pamuk (who is known to pop in) and swapping book suggestions (Portrait of a Turkish Family by Irfan Orga).
On every trip there's a moment when the path you planned to take is ambushed by the journey you were meant to be on. Thanks to the cat man, this is mine.
The writer travelled to Istanbul with the assistance of Club Med.
GETTING THERE Singapore Airlines flies to Istanbul from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane via Singapore. See singaporeair.com.
STAYING THERE In the shadow of the Blue Mosque, the luxurious Four Seasons Istanbul at Sultanahmet has deluxe rooms from $474 a night. See fourseasons.com.
Club Med Palmiye, which sits between the Taurus Mountains and the Mediterranean Sea, is near Antalya, a one-hour flight from Istanbul. A seven-night, all- inclusive stay costs from $1259 (adult) and $479 (child) See clubmed.com.au/palmiye. Club Med Bodrum is set on the side of a cliff, near Bodrum. A seven-night, all-inclusive stay costs from $1220 (adult) and $465 (child). See clubmed.com.au/bodrum.
SEE + DO
Istanbul Modern, open Tuesday to Sunday, See istanbulmodern.org
Bookshop (also called Galeri Kayseri) Divanyolu Caddesi. See bookshopistanbul.com.
The Museum of Innocence, open Tuesday to Sunday. See masumiyetmuzesi.org.