The Cats (and a Few Dogs) of Istanbul

THERE ARE CATS EVERYWHERE IN ISTANBUL! And, I must say, for the most part, they seem in relatively decent shape. Though I’m sure it’s still a fairly tough life out on the street. And, as much as I wanted to, I refrained from cuddling with them. I do love cats, but I also value my stunningly-beautiful countenance and didn’t want it slashed to ribbons.

Oh and there is also a pretty decent size cat population in Tel Aviv – so the last few photos are actually from Israel.


Presented myself at the Arlozorov Terminal in Tel Aviv to catch bus 480 to Jerusalem. Bus had AC and wifi, so the hour trip to Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station went by quickly.

Managed to find my way to the Jaffa Gate of the Old City with not too much difficulty and then wandered a bit as I waited for the walking tour I’d signed up for – namely Holy City Tour with Sandeman’s. Essentially, it’s a souped up version of their free tour, going for four hours rather than two and with much more depth – and it was a bargain at €17.

Happily, it was a reasonably small group – about ten people – and our guide, Jeremy, was really great. Originally from Liverpool, he’s been living in Israel for six years. And his enthusiasm for the subject matter of the tour was evident throughout – we explored all four quarters (Armenian, Jewish, Christian, Muslim) of the Old City and Jeremy provided a really solid foundation for understanding both the ancient and modern history of an extraordinarily complicated place. His take on Jerusalem was especially engaging – namely, that it is a city that is made up of stories.

Are the stories true? Well, that’s really not necessarily important, as Jeremy opined, given that the history of the Jerusalem is so intimately entwined with religions – and that faith can make the historical veracity of story beside the point.

Jeremy started his tour off in front of the Tower of David by reading a poem by Yehuda Amichai.

The air over Jerusalem is saturated with prayers 
and dreams 
like the air over industrial cities.
It’s hard to breathe.
And from time to time a new shipment of history 
and the houses and towers are its packing materials. 
Later these are discarded and piled up in dumps.
And sometimes candles arrive instead of people 
and then it’s quiet. 
And sometimes people come instead of candles 
and then there’s noise.
And in enclosed gardens heavy with jasmine 
foreign consulates, 
like wicked brides that have been rejected, 
lie in wait for their moment.

It was an apt selection as we began our walk.

Oh, and another great thing about Jeremy? He spoke up! That is, I could hear him throughout our tour – at one point, he was even shushed by the priest outside of the Cathedral of St. James (which Jeremy sincerely blamed on how excited he gets talking about the history of Jerusalem – for example, here pointing out that a long ago proscription on Christians ringing bells lead to the pounding of wooden “cymbals,” here seen hanging on either side of the door).

The tour proceeded at a reasonably rapid clip – we certainly weren’t rushed, but Jeremy wanted to be sure we not only saw everything on his itinerary but also had time to answer our questions.

He took us up to a rooftop overlooking the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock (we were at the end of a Muslim holy week, meaning access to parts of the Muslim Quarter was limited to Muslims) – it was a rather amazing vantage point. He then told us all about the Western Wall – and that rather than take us to the “famous” portion of it that we could see, would be taking us to the Small Wailing Wall – a tiny section of the same wall that for hundreds of years had been the part of the wall that faithful Jews sought out for prayers and lamentations.

When we arrived, he encouraged us all to hew to tradition and write our prayers on slips of paper and put them into the wall. He also pointed out that both Obama and Romney had visited the Western Wall during the 2012 campaign – but only one put a prayer in the wall… and he won the election.

We also had a brief stop for lunch – I wound up at a falafel place with a group of jolly fellows from Belfast who’d been in Israel to watch a football match, followed up by a few days sightseeing. We kind of got busted for being too chatty (I was just getting tips on visiting South Korea from one of them!) when Jeremy rousted us from our table to get moving once again.

Through the Muslim Quarter, populated by 30,000 residents – versus about 2500 each in the Jewish and Christian Quarters of the same physical size. It’s pretty clearly not an easy place to live…

Followed part of the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, with Jeremy stopping periodically at the Stations of the Cross. Once we arrived at the church, we spent a good amount of time out front with Jeremy telling us a variety of stories about the place (the Immovable Ladder is both an entertaining example of the Status Quo at the church, but also a rather telling symbol of how fraught with the competing faiths and sects Jerusalem remains) – and also advising us that the pilgrims within the church were generally not shy about using sharp elbows to make their way through this holy site.

It was certainly crowded inside – but relatively orderly, all things considered. After visiting the various sections of the church (each under the “control” of one of the six Christian sects), we ended our visit at the Chapel of Adam, the site under Calvary where Adam’s skull is buried – and where Christ’s blood from his crucifixion seeped through the ground to redeem Adam’s original sin. Or so it’s said…

We wrapped up the tour shortly thereafter, back at Jaffa Gate. My only regret? That I had a bike tour scheduled for that evening, meaning I had to decline an offer to hoist a few with Jeremy and the Northern Irish fellows. It was really a great tour – it provided an amazingly robust view of both the ancient and contemporary Old City. I heartily endorse this tour – especially if Jeremy is leading it.

Of course, at this point, I was exhausted and sweaty (and I’m sure I stank), so I was eager to get to my place for the night, Zach and Roi’s extra bedroom that they let on Airbnb. Found their place easily enough and was greeted warmly by my hosts (they didn’t even remark on my odor!). Had a much needed shower and a lie-down, before heading back out to meet up with my bike tour.

I stopped for a bite at Café Yehoshua on my way and had a couple of tasty sliders to fuel up for the evening’s activity. Cool place…

Found my way to the Jerusalem Midnight Bike Ride meet-up site, just down the road from the Jaffa Gate. I was a bit early, but luckily so were some other riders. None of us were quite sure if we were in the right place, but if we weren’t, at least we had company… But we were pretty close – one of the fellows got a message to proceed down the road and look for the guys with bikes in the parking garage.

The bikes provided were pretty nice – though I’ve never ridden a bike with shocks and thought my tire was flat! But they were well-maintained and comfortable. Of course for me (warning: bike snobbery ahead) it was really weird riding a bike with front and rear derailleurs. I’m used to my internal 8-speed hub… which of course led to my dropping my chain early in our ride. Kinda ruined my well-deserved bike cred, but what’re you gonna do?

This, by the way, was the only drawback to the tour – and completely not the fault of the tour company. They are very specific that this ride is for seasoned bike riders – and I’d venture to say I was the only person in the group who met that qualification. The other folks were OK – but I got caught behind one gal who never shifted out of low; some other dude was tailgating and smashed into me at a red light; and a couple of times our guide had to stop and go back when the laggards got lost because they couldn’t keep up… Oh well.

Anyway, despite that, I really loved this tour. After two weeks of traveling and tons of walking, it was great to be back on two wheels. I made a conscious decision not to schlep my DSLR along – and was glad. Though I don’t really have any photos, it was nice to simply be engaged in the activity at hand rather than fumbling for my camera at every stop.

We first rode through the outskirts of the Old City, with a couple of stops for explanations. Wended our way through some parks up to a hill overlooking the Old City, with Jordan visible on the horizon. It was pretty great.

Then back down and biked through the cobbled streets of the Old City. What a difference from that afternoon! It was devoid of tourists, the streets quiet and cool. It was really an amazing ride. If you like to bike (and know how to do so!), don’t miss this tour in Jerusalem.

Headed back to my place, had a great night’s sleep and bade farewell to Zach and Roi as I trudged off to the Israel Museum. And what a trudge it was! Not the easiest place to find, despite being visible at the top of a hill, but I made it just in time to take the hour-long Highlights of the Museum tour at noon.

The lady who gave the tour, who’d studied archeology when she migrated from the Netherlands back in the ‘60s, was a fine guide. She shared a wealth of information in our short time together and had a great sense of humor.

We saw a bit of each of the three major parts of the collection: archeology, Judaica and fine art. Perhaps the most amazing piece was the Ketef Hinnom, a pair of tiny silver scrolls discovered in 1979. The inscription on the scroll includes a Jewish prayer that is still in use today and proves that “some of the material found in the Five Books of Moses existed in the First Temple period.” I tend not to be all that moved by archaeology – but this was breathtaking.

In the Judaica section, one of the highlights was a reconstructed temple interior from Cochin, India. What a marvelous room!

And then, for me, the highlight from the museum’s contemporary wing, Adi Nes’ untitled photograph depicting the Last Supper with Israeli soldiers. What an amazing work.

One of the other folks on the tour asked, “Which one is Judas?” and our guide indicated it wasn’t clear, despite the highly-structured composition of the piece.

Now, my philistinism is well-known – but I opined that the one soldier seated second-to-the-right from the Jesus-figure’s was the only one at the table whose gaze wasn’t actively engaged with anyone else’s. And that the half-eaten apple in front of him could represent Adam’s original sin. And that the silver coffee pot in front of him could represent the 40-pieces of silver. I was quite proud of myself for making a trenchant observation!

Even better: our guide said, “Well, from now on, I can tell people on my tour that ‘according to an expert from San Francisco, this is probably the Judas-figure.’” I like her!

Took a quick look at the Dead Sea Scrolls (probably more interesting if I’d taken the time to do the audio tour – the philistine is back!) and then caught a cab to the Central Bus Station.

I’d planned to take the bus again – but it was a 20-minute wait ‘til the next one. Plus the line was quite long, meaning I might not get on until the one in 40 minutes. So, I went back outside and boarded a sherut – a shared taxi. The driver touts his destination and once all nine seats are full, he goes. I boarded and it took another ten minutes to fill up, then we were off. It was very easy.

Once back in Tel Aviv, I actually knew where I was – sufficiently so that I was able to take the bus back home! That’s really one of my favorite things about staying in one place for awhile – feeling like I’m getting to know the place.

Shower, nap, dinner, then home to pack and head back to Istanbul for the weekend. Shalom, Israel! It’s been great.

Pasha Eric

If you don’t think this photo shoot was worth $25 and the indignity of donning a b.o.-infused robe and sweaty headgear, well, then, you don’t even know me.

BTW, this was shot at the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul – and try as I might, I could not resist the siren call of playing dress-up.

Israel – I’ve lost track of what day I’m on…

Tuesday, I schlepped out to the Design Museum Holon – and quite enjoyed my visit. The current show is by Ron Arad – who also designed the rather amazing building that houses the museum – and featured several of his fascinating metal pieces and his trademark crushed Cinquecentos – or is it Cinquecenti? Non so… Anyhoo, I was quite taken with the building’s interaction with its environment (i.e. I took tons of photos).

Oh, and on the way in, a group of kids – two girls and a boy – asked me something. “Sorry, I don’t speak Hebrew.”

“What do you call that? It’s super cool!” referring to my septum piercing. They peppered me with other questions, amazed that I was all the way from SF and saying “Oh too bad…” when I indicated I was traveling alone. They also recommended a visit to the mall across the street. “Zara!” Nice kids… Oh, and the ticket lady at the museum told me she liked my mustache! I seem to be getting more popular every day – it’ll be good to get back home where everyone hates me!

Had a lovely dinner at Cafe 48, which I’d spied across the street from Mizlala over the weekend. I plan to write separately once I’m home about the restos I went to – but I heartily endorse this charming cafe. Really good food, an extraordinarily kind server (who translated the entire specials board for me and gave me some excellent recommendations – and a shot of gin and cucumber on the house. THAT really won me over!).

Today, I was up early and managed to find my way rather easily to the train station for my trip to Haifa and Akko. Other than getting off two stations too early (and fortunately figuring that out before leaving the station – had to wait 20 minutes for the next train). Good thing I’m in no hurry what with being on vacation and all!

Now, I’m relatively good at finding my way around with a map – so I’m going to go ahead and give a big “eff you” to Fodor’s for the shittiness of their Haifa map. It didn’t seem to relate at all to the actual geography. But given that my destination was the Bahai Gardens, which were gloriously visible from the train when I arrived, I figured I wouldn’t have too much trouble finding the funicular which goes up to the crest of the hill.

I was sort of headed in the right direction and sort of not, when an old dude came up to me, seeing me staring at my guidebook, and asked me something in Hebrew. “Sorry, I don’t speak Hebrew,” I advised.

“Oh, English? OK, I speak English. What other languages do you speak? Oh, French? Bonjour, monsieur! What’s your best language? OK, I speak English. Are you Canadian? Oh, where in United States? OK, here I take you.”

And with that he escorted me about three blocks to the funicular station, explaining to me on our arrival that it is called Paris Place because it was built by the French. I think this was pay-off for my attempts to bring good travel karma by helping lost tourists when I’m home in SF – though I suppose now I ought to start offering to escort them to their destination as a thank you to this very helpful gentleman from Haifa.

Rode to the top of the hill, had some breakfast and then took the noon tour of the Bahai Gardens. It was lovely – a walk down the 700 steps toward the golden-domed Shrine of the Báb, surrounded by burbling fountains and beatiful landscape cascading down the steep hillside.

Back to train station and rode another 20 minutes to Akko. Schlepped over to the old city (it was literally one million degrees out – again) and had a bit of a look around. Frankly, it wasn’t my favorite – I guess I’d seen similar-though-far-more-impressive scenery in Istanbul…

Train back to Tel Aviv and I walked past the Azrieli Center just as it was being hit with the setting sun. A wonderful trio of towers.

I was supposed to be taking an “East-West Tour” of Jerusalem on Wednesday – one with a decidedly political slant. Sadly, it got canceled at the last minute. So, with no plans to get up early the next morning, it seemed wise to re-visit the gay bar – where it was drag night and I got to see “Cher” and “Evita.” Lots of fun actually.

Quiet day after. Thursday I go to Jerusalem for an overnight visit!

Tel Aviv

Some photos below from Tel Aviv, mostly from my walk with the Bauhaus Center or down in Old Jaffa.

It’s funny – this city is not particularly photogenic. Yet it’s a really wonderful and charming place – it’s sounds corny, but it feels almost more of a state of mind. I particularly notice it in the evenings, as I’m walking down Rothschild Blvd. There’s a wide pedestrian and bike promenade down the center, lined with benches and kiosks selling drinks and snacks. And it’s always filled with families with kids out for walk; couples holding hands; groups of friends hanging out having lively debates about who-knows-what. It seems like a really wonderful life people are living here.

And with that being said, it’s hard not to feel a bit lonely sometimes. Of course, that’s mostly my fault – I don’t speak the language, which serves to further exacerbate my social awkwardness. And this is not to say I’m not enjoying myself – but it seems like this would be a particularly lovely place to experience with friends.

Oh, and this is as good a time as any to ask, “WTF is going on with the gene pool over here?” I’d estimate greater than 90% of the dudes are extraordinarily good-looking. It can be distracting – lucky for me, I’m a master of discretion and have trained myself not to stare or leer…

As for today, I visited the Diaspora Museum up at Tel Aviv University. It told an interesting story – though the museum is in dire need of updating. The building’s 70’s design is not standing the test of time and the galleries are dark and surprisingly shopworn – some of the signage is actually missing letters.

This was followed by a trip to the Eretz Israel Museum – which was…odd. Coins, stamps, ceramics, glass, a strangely uninspiring pavilion dedicated to Baron de Rothschild. To be honest, didn’t feel like it was worth the trip uptown – though I did manage to take the bus without either getting lost or having locals point and laugh at me. So, win?

Stopped by my place to grab my swim trunks and took the 20 minute walk to the beach. This was my first ever dip into the Mediterranean Sea! It was very nice – still warm out in the afternoon, the water just a bit cool. The only slight poke in the eye? I could literally see right into the apartment I’d originally booked via Airbnb but that was canceled two weeks before my trip by the a-hole host. Now, the apartment I’m in is fine (for the most part) – but this other place looked pretty fantastic, with the floor-to-ceiling windows and the balcony looking out at the sea. Oh well – it’s fine… But did it have to be right there while I was frolicking about in the waves..?

Tomorrow I plan to visit Haifa and Akko – it may be a bit ambitious for a day trip, but I think I’ll just visit the Bahia Gardens in Haifa, and perhaps some lunch in the German Colony. Hoping that’ll leave me time to hit the highlights of the old part of Akko. I guess I’ll find out!

Israel – Days 3 & 4

On Friday, I took a walking tour with the Bauhaus Center. It was quite interesting, learning not just about the Bauhaus architecture here in Tel Aviv, but also how the style of housing reflected the socialist politics of middle 20th century Israel. Really enjoyed the walk, despite the very large group that showed up for the tour. I took plenty of photos – but frankly I’m feeling to lazy to edit them, so this post will consist solely of my blathering.

After the walk, I stopped for a pita sandwich around the corner from my apartment recommended by my host. Oh, man – it was delicious. Cauliflower grilled and then mixed up with tomato, cucumber and tahini. I’ll def be back to try again.

Wandered south to Old Jaffa and the flea market. Oy. It was kinda cool to check out, given the old, ramshackle feel of this oldest part of the city – but total tourist trap with throngs of camera-wielding foreigners (self included, obv). Lovely views of the city and the sea from atop the hill though. Also home of the world’s most well-hidden and unhelpful visitor’s center… And OH MY GOD it was hot.

Walked home along the sea for a bit and popped into HaTachana – “The Station” – and old train depot converted into shops and restaurants. It was very nice, but didn’t stay long – I’m not much of a shopper.

Dinner at Mizlala – the place I’d failed to locate on Thursday – and it was delicious. More to come on the details in a future post – though I will say I didn’t really appreciate getting the Mary-Ann-Singleton seat at the counter – to keep me isolated from the norms I guess – despite the place being only 1/4 full. Yes, it got a bit busier, but the three seats to my left never got filled. Oh well – the trials of traveling alone…

I did visit some gay bars – kinda fun, though it starts WAY too late for me. Stopped at Evita which was populated almost entirely by tourists, then Shpagat which was kinda meh – though again, it may have been due to it being so early, i.e. only midnight.

The bar scene is kinda hard to figure out. I’d passed a place on Rothschild in the afternoon that was packed with guys, rainbow flags flying. When I walked past again at 7PM, it was empty. And on the way out at 1130, it was packed with straight 20-somethings. Most of the bars don’t even open until 9PM, but no one shows up before 11PM apparently. So, I suspect last night was my one and only trip to mingle with the gays – it’s way past my bedtime! But we’ll see…

Today was spent quietly, since I slept in rather late. Had some lunch, then just hung out chez moi, read and watched a movie – I know, I’m the worst! But after seven ten days of being on the move, I really needed a bit of downtime.

Headed to dinner shortly – got a couple of places on my list, so we’ll see how my luck goes getting a table.


Israel – Day 1

So, I actually arrived in Tel Aviv yesterday. The trip from Turkey was something – Ataturk Airport is quite a scene and Turkish Airlines is kinda cray-cray. I actually plan to write all about the various flights on this trip once I’m on my way home.

I’ve really no pictures to post of Israel thus far – which is actually a good thing. I’m just getting into the laid-back vibe of the place. It’s really warm here – a nice change from the unseasonably cold weather in Istanbul. And this city is, despite the insane traffic, quite relaxing in its way. Mostly easy to navigate, very friendly locals (a lady on the street was happy to lend me her phone during the kerfuffle getting into my apartment here). It’s a nice change from the intensity of Istanbul and its 20 million residents. Not better per se – but a much mellower feel.

Plus, my agenda here is a lot quieter. I was concerned I’d be bored – but really I’ve just had to adjust to having only one thing to do or see each day rather than three or four.

Had a lovely dinner last night at Cafe Suzanna – per my gay Jewish podiatrist’s recommendation. Today I had a late breakfast at Orna and Ella, then walked along the shore for an hour or so after that. Home to meet my host Jacob, who explained to me where the washing machine was and where the best wine shop is nearby. Dinner started off disastrously when I got hopelessly lost trying to find Mizlala – but managed to find my way to Abraxas North, had a wonderful meal and then miraculously stumbled across Mizlala on the way home, apologized for failing to show up and was able to book for tomorrow evening.

Tomorrow I’m taking a walking tour with the Bauhaus Center at 10AM. Then I have dinner plans at 8PM. I’m hoping I can make it out to a gay bar or two, but apparently things don’t really get started until midnight. And, jet lag or no, that is asking a lot of this old gal… We’ll see how it goes.

Istanbul – Days 4 & 5

Monday morning and I headed back to Sultanahmet for my second tour with Context – this one of the Topkapi Palace. As always, I made sure to give myself plenty of time to get lost on the way to the meeting spot – and did exactly that. But not too badly and I made it there eventually with time to spare.

Claire was our guide – an art historian hailing from D.C., though she’s lived in Istanbul for 20 years. She provided a wealth of information about the history of the Ottoman sultans – a subject about which I knew virtually nothing. I left that day feeling I’d at least scratched the surface of Turkish history. Her descriptions of life in the palace and in the harem were particularly fascinating.

The palace is much different than what one typically thinks of as a palace, insofar as it is made up largely of a series of courtyards, moving from the most public to the most private as one proceeds through the front gate. Certainly there are buildings and rooms – but it’s a much different feel than a European palace.

The line to get into see the Treasury was ridiculous. Happily, as a registered guide, Claire was able to walk us right through with nary a moment in line. The rooms were still jammed, but we saw the highlights, including some magnificent jewel-encrusted jade and rock crystal pieces and the 86-carat Kaşıkçı Elması diamond.

The palace sits above the Bosphorus and the views overlooking the water were spectacular. I took a few photos during our visit, of course – but frankly, learning about what actually went on there was far more interesting than any picture I might take.

After saying our farewells, I had a really enjoyable lunch at Mozaik, just next to the tram stop. I sat outside on a charming street, eating kofte and yogurt with a glass of rose, watching a trio of kittens scampering among the rugs on display at the shop across the street. Oh, and my waiter was super-dreamy. It was a fine way to spend part of the afternoon.

Headed back home – it was early and I was beat – with a stop at one of the restaurants I’d been trying to eat at. I figured I could book a table in person, since Skype has been pretty much unusable over here for making local calls. Of course the place was closed, so I was foiled again. Oh well… Went home for a nap and thought how nice it would be to visit the hamami again – and that is exactly what I did. I’m sure I’ll be plotzing when my credit card bill shows up after my trip is over, but right now I have no regrets.

Dinner at a local place up the street, then home for my usual four hours of sleep. Though actually, I think I made it to five last night!

This morning I joined the hordes clamoring to get into the Hagia Sophia at 9AM opening. The audio tour was pretty interesting and the mosaics of Jesus H. Christ, Mary and John the Baptist were magnficent.

Next stop: the Grand Bazaar. It was…something. I mean, I enjoyed looking around and there seemed to be some quite beautiful fabrics and jewelry – but it’s kind of stressful having to studiously avoid eye contact with every merchant so you don’t have to refuse their invitations to look at their wares. I mean, I don’t mean to suggest they stop it – it’s their job after all to sell things. But it gets exhausting.

I actually had one shop I wanted to find, that was recommended online for Turkish towels. And I actually found it! Like most of the stalls it was tiny and piled high with goods. I strolled in and was quite literally ignored by the two people working there. WTF? The one place I was actually contemplating buying something from and not so much as a glance up from the sales folk. Weird… I may actually try again when I’m back here on my way home. I’d looked at towels at another shop – they were beautiful, hand-woven, organic cotton – and 115TL each. That means if I buy eight, we’re talking $500. The place in the bazaar was chargining half that – though they are not hand-woven apparently (do I care?). The expensive ones will last 20 years, they say, but still…

Back to Beyoglu for lunch at Datli Maya, followed by a wander through the streets of Cihangir. I started seeing barber shops and was reminded that I needed a beard trim. I’d heard Turkish barbers do a pretty mean shave and was looking forward to one – but which shop? I was plagued with indecision and I’m always paranoid about having haircutting services performed by someone who speaks a different language. Eh, what’re you gonna do? It’ll grow back.

So, I wound up at Ahmet Berber Salonu, on a side street off Istiklal (if you’re looking for it, find the MAC cosmetics store and head down that street). I explained to the fellow in front that I wanted a beard trim and neck-and-cheek shave and that my mustache should be left alone. Another fellow showed up from in back and my request was relayed to him in Turkish.

WELL. The beard trim was pretty straigthforward – clippers on a 2 setting (though it seemed just a tad shorter than I might’ve chosen – but it wasn’t all Miami Vice or anything). But then he went back through with scissors, meticulously getting the hairs around my mouth and mustache in tip-top shape, as well as making sure things were even all over. He went back over the sides with another clipper to very slightly fade it (and no, he didn’t give me an N’Sync). Trimmed my eyebrows. Buzzed my ears. Shaved my neck and cleaned up my nape. Then leaned me back, lathered up my neck and cheeks with a brush and some very hot water before going at me with a straight razor. Once done shaving me (and checking a couple of times that my beard line was symmetrical), he leaned me over the sink in front of the chair and rinsed me off with his hands. Leaned back again while he applied some type of astringent (which he also used to clean my ears) after shave, massaging it into my neck and face. Then a good neck rub and face and scalp massage. And finally, I have a stray hair that grows on my cheek next to my nose – he tweezed it right out and that was that. It was a fantastic experience and I felt like a million bucks.

The price? A shocking 15 Turkish lira – that’s about eight bucks. I tipped him 10TL and it still felt like the bargain of the century. Can’t wait for a return visit when I’m back here on the 19th.

Then home to catch up on my blogging – with a pitstop for some gelato naturally. And now, I need to figure out where I’ll be having dinner tonight and pack. Tomorrow, I leave for Israel! But in the meantime, I’m watching the three kittens who live out back gamboling about the yard.

Istanbul – Day 3

Saturday evening, I tried to get a table at three different restaurants on my list – all booked! I guess it shouldn’t have come as a surprise on a weekend, but it was frustrating nonetheless. Wound up at Ficcin, which features Caucasian specialties – no that doesn’t mean turkey on white bread with mayo – and had Circassian dumplings for dinner. A decent meal.

Another early start on Sunday. The tram delivered me to Sultanahmet by 830AM, which was great – the hordes of tourists had yet to arrive.

When I got off the tram, I wasn’t quite sure where I was, but I did spy a massive domed edifice. “The Blue Mosque! Wow – it’s pretty amazing! But not very blue…” Turns out I was staring at the Hagia Sophia – which is indeed lovely. But then I turned around and was treated to a splendid view of the actual Blue Mosque (it’s really the Sultan Ahmed Mosque – only foreigners use the term Blue Mosque). Thanks to the early hour and the beautiful blue sky, it was breathtaking.

Wandered around the courtyard snapping photos and then headed inside. Apparently, I was addled since I agreed to some old dude’s offer at the entrance to give me a “tour” for 30TL ($15) – he spent a few minutes telling me a bunch of things about Islam and the design of mosques that I already knew. I was really kicking myself for allowing myself to be fleeced – and it hardly seems pious to be scamming visitors to one’s mosque. Though I suppose as a non-believer, I was fair game…

Next a stroll through the cisterns, which was cool despite the mob of pushy cruise line tourists.

Took a nice long walk to the Süleymaniye Mosque, the exterior of which is even more breathtaking than the Sultan Ahmed Mosque. As for the interior, yes, it was lovely. But just as with churches, shrines and temples, they all start to look a bit the same. Yes, I am a philistine.

Headed back toward the Spice Market and had a rather lovely lunch at Hamdi Et at 1130AM (I’d been up since 5!) – I was the only one in the joint, but who cares? It’s up on the fourth floor and has a spectacular view of the Bosphorus. And the food was pretty darn tasty!

Back to my place for a nap. Did some laundry, had a little downtime and eventually roused myself to get some dinner. Many restos closed Sunday evenings. Happily, the fellow I met on my tour the other day recommended Datli Maya – a whole in the wall with a wood burning oven they use to make lahmacun. I’d been dying to try this local specialty (especially since the place recommended for them in my guidebook had gone out business) and Datli Maya did not disappoint. Like a thin crust pizza, but topped with minced lamb and garlic. Served folded in half and you add fresh parsley, lemon and onions and chow down. It was pretty effing delicious. The one drawback? The tiny dining room upstairs was literally (by which I mean literally) one million degrees.

Back home, hoping again for more than four hours of uninterrupted slumber – but no dice. Up early Monday for another tour. More to come on that on my next post.

Istanbul – Day 2

Up early again – not a bad thing (though I wish I were better adjusted to the time change), given that I had to present myself at the Spice Market at 930AM for a tour of the Asian side of Istanbul. I allowed myself plenty of time to get lost on the way there, but managed to find the place in plenty of time – which meant I got to take a wander through the market.

It’s quite a feast for the eyes – spices piled high, mounds of lokum, gold jewelery, textiles. Looking forward to trip back to stock up on candy…

I met two of my two tour companions – a very nice couple from Geneva – as we waited for Alexandra, our guide, from Context (I’ve taken tours with Context in Rome and they were the best walking tours I’ve ever been on – today’s walk in Istanbul proved to be no different. I recommend them unreservedly). She showed up shortly, along with a Canadian fellow who’s been living in Istanbul for six months and wanted to learn more about the city. Alexandra is Viennese, though she’s been in Turkey for four years – and lived in India before that. She was a wonderful guide – thoroughly versed in this city and its history, while also sharing her own experiences with us a both a local and a foreigner.

Started off with a ferry ride across the Bosphorus – traveling from Europe to Asia during the 15 minute voyage! We were treated to cups of tea and simit, just like authentic local commuters. Once in Asia, Alexandra showed us around Üsküdar with a stop at a charming mosque set right on the water, followed by a walk along the Bosphorus. This is where we made a new friend – one of the city’s many street dogs (though they are far outnumbered by cats – I’ve not included any of the hundreds of photos of cats I’ve taken thus far – I think they warrant their own post…) took a liking to us and joined our walk for the next 20 minutes or so as we made our way to the Yeni Valide Mosque. A relatively small but quite charming place – and my first time ever visiting the inside of a mosque. Alexandra had lots to share about the design and construction of mosques – really useful as I’ll be exploring several other mosques during my visit.

After that, we proceeded through an old hamami that is now home to shopping center filled with tat (and none of those 20TL shoes were even available in my size!) – but the building is amazing, including the original domed ceiling, pierced with stars and hexagons to create a skylight. Just lovely.

Next a meander through the local market – cheeses, nuts, fish so fresh they were nearly jumping, piles of fresh local produce, plus dried tomatoes, aubergines, peppers hanging from the rafters. The place was bustling and great fun.

A short ride over to the next little neighborhood. We stopped for tea and sweets (Alexandra treated us to an amazing local specialty – a small, chewy ball with a bit of icing. Sort of marzipan meets cookie meets cake) before walking us through the neighborhood. She’s friends with several of the local shopkeepers – we had visits with a baker, a chocolatier and a guy who produces olive oil and sells it along with cheese and olives. He had us sample just about everything in his shop and it was all delicious.

Hiked up the hill, through narrow streets filled charming houses – and at the top had an amazing view of the Bosphorus and the bridge from Europe to Asia. Ambled back down to the water, said our farewells and hopped on the ferry back to Europe. It was a really great day for me – felt like I was spending time with friends, rather than being marched around by a tour guide. And as much as Istanbul has to offer tourists, it was a real treat to feel like I’d gotten a bit off the beaten path – in the capable hands of Alexandra.

Istanbul – Day 1

I arrived in Istanbul before dawn on a cold and rainy Friday. There was a bit of confusion with my driver from the airport as to where exactly he was supposed to take me – though luckily I recognized the building I was staying in just around the corner from where he originally stopped and started ringing some poor soul’s doorbell at 6AM.

Unpacked, showered, had a lie-down (i.e. was unconscious for several hours) then decided to take a look around my ‘hood. I actually set off in search of couple of places I’d read about, one of which makes lahmacan, the other dürüm. I checked Google maps before I set out, thinking I had a reasonable idea of where I was – which was, of course, completely incorrect.

The terrain here Beyoglu is a bit like SF, insofar as it is quite hilly. However, the streets are also very narrow and not laid out on a grid, so navigation is not so easy. Oh, and the cobblestones plus the drizzle make for a high likelihood of me breaking a hip at some point during my visit…

Anyway, at the top of the hill was Istiklal Street, a wide avenue thronged with locals and tourists shopping and eating. So, I wasn’t completely lost and took a left, then a right looking for Dürümzade. I walked down to the next main street, turned right and thought I’d wind up sort of back where I started..? But no, that would be too easy. Given that I didn’t want to get lost before my late-afternoon appointment at the hamami, I decided to retrace my steps.

And just as I started walking back up the narrow street I’d come down, I spied Dürümzade – it’s an Istanbul miracle! The place is on a corner and is about the size of my bedroom. Ordered my adana wrap and had a seat. The best thing about this place? While the cook is grilling up your meat, he wipes the juicy/greasy cooking tool on the bread that he’ll use to make the durum. Meat, onions, tomatoes on a juice-soaked pide – yep, as good as it sounds. And, thanks to an effective rolling method, surprisingly tidy to eat. Delicious!

Back to my apartment, which I found with no problem despite (intentionally) taking a roundabout route. Had a bit of a nap (look, it’s a ten hour time change!) before the short walk to Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı, where I had an appointment for a bath and a massage.

Found the place with no problem and the interior is just as lovely as the photograph on their site. The place was pretty quiet. I was shown to a seat and served a glass of şerbet before being led upstairs to undress and put on my peshtemal. Back downstairs the fellow who’d shown me in handed me off to my bather Orhan. As for the rest? I’m actually going to put that behind the “Keep reading” link below. Not because I’m shy or there’s anything untoward – but because if you’ve never been to a hamami, I think it’s worth it to keep some mystery about what goes on. The short version? It was sublime and I will be booking at least one more visit before I return home.

I arrived home to still no heat (yeah, there’s been a bit of a kerfuffle there, though my host seems to be doing his best to resolve), hung out for a bit and then went to dinner down the street a Furreyya. Tiny fish place that turned out to be mostly tourists. Had some tasty dolmas and a fresh whole sea bream. It was pretty good – very fresh, simply prepared. Perhaps too simple? Could’ve used a bit more seasoning in my view.

Took a walk up the hill and back home again, looking forward to a warm apartment and good night’s sleep. As I struggled with key to the front door, I hear someone on the other side say, “Hello? Eric?” Turns out Volkan, the fixer, was there – along with a buddy and his girlfriend all hard at work on the water tank and radiators. All very friendly – though sadly to no avail. More work to come…

Anyway, it was fine. I actually prefer a cold bedroom with plenty of blankets which is what I climbed into after downing an Ambien to ensure a good night’s sleep before tomorrow’s walking tour.

Then, a bit later, I had a strange dream – I was hearing the melody from “If I Were a Rich Man.” Oh, wait, this is no dream – the doorbell here plays that tune. And it was accompanied by knocking and “Hello, Eric?” from the other side of the front door. It was Safak, my host, here to try his hand at fixing the heat! Granted, I might not have chosen to receive visitors at 1145PM, but I appreciated the effort. He, too, had no luck – but did show me how to use the AC as a heater – and it worked beautifully for me the next morning! So, that was great.

Didn’t sleep as late as I might’ve hoped (probably got five or so hours of sleep) but I’ve prepared my breakfast and am headed to the Spice Market in Sultanahmet to meet up with my tour guide. It’ll be a bit of a challenge to leave my toasty apartment – it’s another chilly day, though at the moment no rain, so that’s a plus.

Continue reading “Istanbul – Day 1”