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By Bill Gallagher

ISTANBUL, TURKEY -- After a 10-hour, twilight-zone flight, walking into Istanbul's Ataturk was more than familiar. I did a double take when I saw the banner, "Ford Welcomes You to Istanbul." Wait a minute. Did I just travel 5,000 miles and somehow a twist in the universe has me right back in Detroit where my trip began?

The Ford welcome signs are everywhere. Then my eyes adjust and it all makes sense. Ford has its corporate logo name on every sign greeting fans attending the UEFA Championship, the games deciding European football supremacy. The soccer games -- as we Yanks call them -- are major events here, and the host city, Istanbul, is jammed with fans. Special gates are designated for the faithful from Milan, Italy. Their team will square off with the lads from Liverpool in the title game. If I were Mitch Albom, I'd describe events at the game, which hasn't been played as I write. But, for now, I'll just stick to rooting for Liverpool.

The infusion of fans only adds to the excitement in this ancient gathering place, arguably one of the most vibrant cities on earth. I'm writing this piece in a cyber-cafe in the shadows of the Hippodrome, a structure the Romans built for their games and the emperor's appetite for a good time.

That's what brings me to Istanbul. My wife, Elizabeth, daughter Amy and her husband, Sami, form our group of adventurers. We're also traveling with Nurtan Ural, a friend from Michigan who is the current president of the Federation of Turkish-American Organizations. She has meetings with government types in Istanbul, and in Ankara, the capital. Nurtan is working to build more cultural and trade links with Turkey.

Amy actually has some work to do on a research project she's doing on Islamic intellectual history. She teaches world religions at Kings University College, part of the University of Western Ontario in London.

We will meet Sami's family in their village right on the Mediterranean Sea and visit some of the great archeological sites in that region.

We're staying in the Hotel Daphne, a new spot very near the Sultan Ahmed mosque. Better known as the Blue Mosque, it is one of the most magnificent buildings and places of worship I have ever seen.

From the terrace on the roof of our hotel we look out over the Marmara Sea and the view is breathtaking. This is Liz's first trip here and she's most impressed. The sea is crowded with ships, mostly Russian, waiting to proceed into the narrow Bosphorus. Much of Istanbul is built on hills, and nearly every neighborhood has a view of the water.

Distinctive orange-brown ceramic tiles are on the roofs of nearly every building and home. An added roof feature is the ubiquitous satellite dish. They are everywhere. Ancient Istanbul often succumbs to modernity.

That can easily be seen and heard in the Muslim call to prayer. Five times each day, the devout are called to face Mecca, pray and show submission to God's will. For 600 years, since Istanbul became Islamic, men have stood on minarets chanting the call to prayer. Now loudspeakers with recorded voices do the work.

With several mosques within earshot of our hotel, the call to prayer at first sounds a bit cacophonous, but then settles into wonderful sounds of devotion.

We share a bottle of fine Turkish wine on the rooftop terrace and nibble on fresh fruits, vegetables and cheeses. Cemil, our waiter, is very attentive and polite. Two months ago he completed military service, which is mandatory here.

He's glad his duty is over and he worries about what's happening in the region (read: Iraq). Cemil says the war was not necessary. He says most people in Turkey did not want their nation involved in Iraq, not just because it is another Muslim nation but, as Cemil said, "We don't want anyone hurt because of nothing."

We went to the Golden Horn, the neighborhood where the Ottomans kept non-Muslims in a ghetto with a great view. Jews, Armenians, Greeks, Italians and other assorted types used to call this home.

We had cocktails at the Pera Palace, the hotel where Agatha Christie stayed when she wrote "Murder on the Orient Express." We headed to Balik Pasaj, the place my daughter Amy calls "the greatest street in the world." Even if you don't agree it's the greatest, it certainly is the most exciting.

After first passing through open-air fish and vegetable markets, you arrive at a crowded concentration of restaurants and bars, boggling the mind. Everybody is drinking, talking, laughing and eating. It's a blast.

We eat plate after plate of Turkish appetizers. We are with Nurtan, her friend Mona, a Jewish woman whose late husband was from Turkey, and Barish, Sami's cousin, who played a bit part in the award-winning Turkish-German film "Against the Wall."

Few tourists have discovered Balik Pasaj, which means fish passage. But leave it to the adventurous soccer fans from Liverpool to find the place. I strike up a conversation with Johnnie Johnson, his son Matthew, and their friend Barry Coldwell.

The Johnsons are originally from Galway, Ireland, and about half of Liverpool comes from the Emerald Isle. We talk about the poor image of British soccer fans and how a few bad blokes ruin it for the nice people.

We walk around the block and we can hear the cheering. They are loud, whoever they are. We follow our curiosity and end up outside the James Joyce Pub. The place is packed and the lads from Liverpool are lined up outside waiting for seats, practicing football cheers.

It's now 11 o'clock. The streets are wall-to-wall people. Stores are open and people are still shopping. The atmosphere is exhilarating. It's Monday night in Istanbul.

Bill Gallagher, a Peabody Award winner, is a former Niagara Falls city councilman who now covers Detroit for Fox2 News. His e-mail address is gallaghernewsman@sbcglobal.net.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com May 31 2005