Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Istanbul: Where Asia Meets Europe (Literally)

Tourist Sites

Istanbul is, if nothing else, a Mecca of tourist sites. And, it really is no wonder. Divided between Asia and Europe the city is truly a cultural crossroads, and has played home to many different ethnic group and religions.

The Sultan Ahmed Mosque (aka The Blue Mosque).
Built at the beginning of the 17th century, this enormous edifice is still a functioning mosque, although it is overrun with shoeless tourists much of the day. It is popularly known as The Blue Mosque due to the beautiful tiles on which line the interior walls. It is only a stone's throw from Hagia Sofia.

Hagia Sophia. Dedicated in AD 360 this impressive structure as served as served as both an
Orthodox and Roman Catholic Cathedral, as well as a mosque. Today it is open to the public as a museum and for 20 New Turkish Lira you, too, can marvel at its wonder. When the place was converted to a mosque the old Orthodox mosaics were only plastered over, and not destroyed. As such, a number of them have been uncovered and are visible again today. Some of the enormous interior pillars are now crooked, but large exterior buttresses support the weight enough that the entire joint doesn't collapse.

Topkapı Palace.
Completed in the mid-15th century, this enormous palace served as the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans for nearly four decades...and it comes with all of the distractions necessary to keep him occupied: a royal harem, relics of many Muslim prophets, and the keys (and rain spouts) from the Kaaba, the most sacred site in Islam.
The treasury shows off the richest of the royal booty, including the Spoonmaker's Diamond (which was recovered from a trash heap), the Topkapi Dagger, illuminated pages of the Koran and some intricately designed, and extremely ornate, flintlock weapons. And the aspiring Ottoman prince can head on over to the circumcision room for the ancient rite of passage. (You have no idea how grateful I am that this is performed shortly after birth.)

Istiklal & Galip Dede.
It is said that these two famous Istanbul streets see more than 3 million visitors on a given weekend day, and it's no wonder. The former is a huge pedestrian mall lined with familiar retail shops, as well as cute local boutiques. Dede is a narrow extension thereof and is full of little shops filled with stringed instruments, including violins, mandolins and the obligatory guitars. Also, one can find some souvenir items, including beautiful lights or hand-decorated plates, all without the hassle of the Grand Bazaar.

Grand Bazaar. The Grand Bazaar is one of the largest, and oldest, covered bazaars in the world. Spanning 58 streets and more than 4,000 shops, it is quite an impressive place. Sadly, it is also home to a number of rather persistent, if not downright pushy, salespeople. As such, Heidi and I cruised through this tourist trap, taking little time to admire the lamps, rugs, tea sets, jewelry and Turkish Delight for sale.


If you come to Turkey expecting to get cheap eats, think again. Sure, it can be done, but this a place where the people take great pride in their food.
As our hotel was situated in the shadow of the Hagia Sophia, most of the nearby restaurants catered to foreigners, with waiters speaking a respectable amount of English, Russian, Spanish, Turkish and, no doubt, even some Japanese and German too. One night we got our grub in a place where there were five tables occupied by people from five different countries, none of which was Turkey.

The food itself is colorful and tasty. From spinach
dishes to kebabs, Turkish pides to traditional döner sandwiches, not to mention lentil soup and pomegranate juice, the Turks take their cuisine seriously and know how to whip up a good meal. Add some apple tea in a traditional glass, or even some salep and you've got the perfect excuse to sit around the table with great company for a little longer than necessary. Top it off with some baklava or freshly made Turkish Delight and you're in Heaven!

Cultural Experiences.

For my birthday, I made Heidi try out two things she might not otherwise be terribly enthusiastic about: hit up a Turkish Bath and have some nargile. Like I always say, when in Rome...

Turkish Bath. I picked a hamam on the Asian side of Istanbul for a few reasons. First, I thought it would be cheaper, less touristy (and, thus, more authentic) and it gave us an excuse to cross the Bosphorus and go into Asia, as the continent wasn't really a part of our itinerary otherwise. Heidi and I entered the Azizye Hamam through the gender-specific entrances, agreeing to meet back in about 90 minutes.

I walked in to a common room with a bunch of men sitting around, all wrapped in
peştemals, a traditional wrap with a plaid pattern. I was immediately identified as a foreigner and directed, via hand signals (as English was not spoken there), to a small room with a bed where I disrobed and put on my peştemal. When I emerged my tellak (masseur) directed me to a room with marble floors, walls lined with wash basins and a raised and tiled platform in the center of the room, known as the belly stone. I was instructed to lie down on said stone, but it was too hot to the touch and had to wait for my tellak to return with another piece of cloth to serve as a barrier between the scorching stone and delicate dermis, as another guy chuckled at my reaction. After some time my guy returned and motioned for me to follow him.

We entered another room, where a large naked man with soap suds covering his entire frame was being scrubbed down by another tellak. I sat down and my manservant lathered me up, thankfully avoiding the area covered by my cloth (showing respect and awareness of my foreign modesty). After I was all full of suds, I got a quick massage and was rinsed off. Next he put on a rough mitt and forcefully scrubbed my skin, dead chunks balling up everywhere. Another rinse, more soap (this time getting dangerously close to the "inner sanctum") and a final rinse. I followed that up with some alone time in a steamy sauna, showered off and returned to my one-bed room, where another guy (the yanaşma) toweled me off and wrapped a second around my head. I got dressed, had some tea, paid up, and was on my way, leaving with some very soft skin.

Nargile. This is, basically, a big water pipe with flavored tobacco in a bowl, which is topped with very hot coals. As the user draws from the pipe the smoke is cooled by the water and inhaled. As it was my 32nd birthday, I convinced Heidi to give it a go too. When in Rome and all...

I chose apple flavor fro a wide assortment of choices. It was smooth and tasty. Heidi tried it, didn't gag, and pondered the point of the entire exercise. We played Checkers and, after a few more puffs, both became slightly light-headed. As the coals grew cold a man came around and changed them out with hot red ones. The thing seemed to burn endlessly. Then, our heads began to ache, no doubt from the smoke, mine slightly and hers pounding. She took the rubber match in Checkers and we left for fresh air and ibuprofen.

USA Day. Being on the road so long, it is nice to take the occasional day to enjoy the creature comforts of home. So, we took a day off from the standard sightseeing and strolled through a Western mall, grubbed at the fanciest Pizza Hut I have ever seen and took in The Fighter (a pretty good flick) at the theater. We topped the day off by picking up the final installment of the Harry Potter series, of which Heidi has read the other six, while I have only sampled the penultimate novel. It was a nice escape from, what can be, a grueling travel schedule.

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