Istanbul, Where the Cat's in the Bag

I've always been a fan of the freebie holdall from the 2008 Welfare to Work Cymru conference. And at the Blue Mosque last week it turned out to be just what one of Istanbul's zillions of cats was looking for.

You see these creatures everywhere.

Here is one at the executioner's fountain. As the name suggests, in the days of the Sultan it was where the executioner washed his sword and had a good scrub after doing his job.

Happy-looking felines are found in every quarter of this city where until recently people of at least three major world faiths lived together.

Istanbul is now the scene of a vanishing.

Neighbourhoods which not long ago had been home to the proud Greek Orthodox heirs of the Byzantine empire are now populated by their ghosts.

Constantinople had been the engine room of Christendom - and even in the 1950s 40% of the city was Jewish or Christian. But remaining bastions of the Orthodox are behind the type of fortifications that might guard a US embassy.

But in the backstreets you can find lonely choirless churches, now classified as museums, where works of imagination and faith are still illuminated.

Empires have been slipping in and out of this city for centuries. Its residents are reminded that civilisations vanish every time they pass the 3,300-year-old obelisk that the Roman emperor Theodosius erected in 390AD.

And today, no one culture defines Istanbul.

Stridently secular Turks daily welcome the thousands of tourists who stream out of the cruise ships. Meanwhile, working-class conservatives who want their call to prayer in Arabic are flocking to the city.

Istanbul is a trinity of peninsulas. There is the skyscraper-filled "European" city which is home to a vibrant arts scene; it sits across the Bosphorus from the ancient terrain of mosques, palaces and former cathedrals; and there is a third land mass where domesticity seems to reign and the greatest excitement is the latest outburst of football rivalry.

You can find something of the soul of this enthralling, disturbing, enchanting, intoxicating, exhausting, exhilarating city on the ferries which plough over the velvet waters. With each change of light, the horizon is transformed.

The Blue Mosque is one of the world's great places of worship. Unlike so many tourist-trap cathedrals across Europe, it's still a house of prayer.

Visitors are welcomed in and encouraged to learn about Islam. It's a stark contrast with a trip to Assisi, where you'll have a chance to buy a thousand postcards but be unlikely to gain an insight into the saint's faith. There's a confidence about religion in Istanbul which seems untroubled by the challenges of modernity.

Hagia Sophia was a cathedral from 360AD to 1453, and then a mosque until 1934 when it became a secular museum.

It's 1,000 years younger than the obelisk, and you get the feeling more incarnations may well be on the way.

Istanbul is not a city which seems taut with tension, even though today's bomb attack demonstrates the dangers and divisions which swirl through this giant country. There is excitement about the economic boom and spectacular bridges and a beautiful new airport are icons for a prosperous future.

Memories of Ottoman splendour no longer seem to trigger shame at the loss of an empire; instead, the country is embracing its emerging role as a regional power.

This is a nation which borders Bulgaria, Greece, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq and Syria, and a boat ride down the Bosphorus will take in an hour to the gates of the Black Sea.

There hills are crammed with soldiers whose fathers held this Nato front-line throughout the Cold War.

And the shoreline is lined with restaurateurs who wave over tourists on passing boats, and the fishermen who supply the daily catch.

The city is home to entrepreneurs who sell with a joy that disarms.

The Spice Bazaar has more energy, colour and stimulants than any western rave.

And in the nearby Grand Bazaar there is everything for sale short of a nuclear submarine (although you could probably find the parts).

The gregarious glee of the bazaar makes this fantasia of commerce fascinating instead of maddening. This is not yet a city ruled by soulless capitalism but by the adventure of trade.

The giant smiles of the taxi drivers whose cabs lack seatbelts and the cafe waiters who will find you a table even if they have to nail bits of wood together ensure that a visit to the city will buzz with bonhomie.

And when I landed back in Luton on Friday on a dark and rain-soaked night and passed the pet crematorium where old moggies travelled in flumes of smoke across damp fields, the world of mosaics and tea-sellers, dervishes and ferrymen seemed very far away.

But a walk in the sun of an autumn morning was enough to remind you that this island is a pretty wonderful place, too.

And whether you're surrounded by oaks or obelisks, it's a striking fact that all of us are just passing through. Yet how great it is to get to spend time in a city or a field with the grandest of friends and enjoy the view.