A Fantastic Last Weekend in Istanbul

After bidding a fond farewell to Tel Aviv, I was back in Istanbul for a couple of nights. I’d decided to splurge on a stay at the House Hotel Galatasaray, a rather fancy boutique hotel – and it was an excellent decision.

I’d done some reading up on the place and while the reviews were consistently good, a couple of folks indicated that rooms in the back of the building were darker and could be noisy in the evening thanks to an adjacent nightclub. So, I sent an email to the hotel a couple of days before I arrived, requesting a room on a high floor that was quiet.

When I arrived to check in, I was advised that no deluxe suites (the room type I’d booked) meeting those criteria were available – so they’d upgraded me to the Executive Suite at no extra charge. To say I was pleased is an understatement – especially once I got upstairs to my suite. It was huge! To paraphrase one of my Facebook friend’s comments, “If there’s a chandelier in the bedroom, you’ve arrived.”

Anyway, my original plan was to head back to the Grand Bazaar and maybe purchase some Turkish towels. But I decided (wisely, I think) that I was just going to relax for the final two days of my vacation rather than rush around trying to see more sights or squeeze in some shopping.

So, as soon as I’d unpacked and showered, I headed up the hill to Istiklal St. I’d been looking forward to a return visit to Ahmet’s Barber Shop for another shave – and figured I’d get a haircut too, because why not?

My timing was perfect. Selman, the fellow who’d given me such a great shave last time, was just finishing up with a client. After a short wait, I was back in his chair. Shave much the same as last time – save that the nice young kid who was assisting in the shop prepared the shaving mug for Selman. Actually, I think the shave might’ve been better – he spent a lot of time navigating around my septum ring to ensure my mustache was in perfect form. Having someone else shave your face is a really great thing and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Haircut followed – and it was very traditional (none of that fancy salon sectioning!). Now, I don’t know what exactly Selman did – but the sad peninsula of hair that resides at the front of my remaining hairline is problematic. It always looks so sparse.  After shampooing my hair (which involved leaning face forward over the sink while my barber basically scrubbed my entire head and face clean, followed by the vigorous application of some kind of tonic to my scalp), he got out a small round brush and blow dried my hair (I KNOW!) – I was a bit concerned I was going to get a Tony Manero cut. But I should’ve known better than to worry – because once he was done drying and de-poofed it with a little product, those three hairs that remain at the front of my hairline had been transformed into a tiny yet lustrous mane – by which I mean, my scalp wasn’t peeking through. It was some kind of tonsorial miracle!

To finish things up, he took care of my nape and even trimmed down the chest hairs poking over my collar. And tamed my brows. And cleaned my ears. Oh, and he also spent a good ten minutes re-waxing my mustache into place. Got out of the chair, got a once over with the whisk broom from the young apprentice and then it was time to pay up: 40 Turkish lira. Which is US$20. Which is an astonishing bargain. And of course, just as last time, I left feeling like a million bucks (while also depressed at the prospect of returning home and having to shave my own damn face…).

So, I’m sure there are plenty of great barbers in Istanbul – but my recommendation is to seek out Ahmet’s Barber Shop. Seriously, guys – if you’re going to Istanbul, don’t even bother packing your razor. To get to the shop, find the M.A.C. Cosmetics store on Istiklal St., then walk about 20 meters down the street to the left of M.A.C. (The address is Balo Sokak No: 8/2). And tell them Eric sent you! Which probably won’t mean a thing to them – but if you tell them it was the loudmouthed American (yeah, redundant) with the handlebar mustache, the nerd glasses and the septum piercing, that might ring a bell.

Back to the hotel for a lie-down before a fancy dinner at Gile. I’ll be posting about my meal separately – but it was quite an evening, what with the 14-course degustation and all…

When I arrived back at the hotel, the fellow at the front desk was just on his way out after his shift ended. We chatted a bit and I asked him what time would be good to go to Tekyön (a gay disco).

“Oh, not ‘til 1AM,” he replied.

“Well, that’s a bit late for me…”

“Take a disco nap!”

OK, I officially love the House Hotel Galatasaray. And I did take a disco nap. And I went to Tekyön. And it was cray. I don’t know why I was expecting something sort of low-key – but it certainly wasn’t. The place was PACKED, the music pumping (typical gay dance stuff, though most with Turkish lyrics) and it was dimly lit, with lots of doors, short stairways, ledges, a big fenced in balcony for smokers and other various obstacles and potential hip-breakers. It wasn’t until my third beer that I was able to stop thinking, “What if there’s a fire? And how do you say ‘Cocoanut Grove’ in Turkish?” Anyway, I stayed for a bit and had an OK time – as I observed the next day on Facebook, I am way too old for this shit…

Anyway, I was out rather late so had a low-key Sunday, occupied primarily by acquiring Turkish delight to bring home. And I was apparently out of my mind, given the paltry amount I purchased. It barely lasted three days in my kitchen!

On Sunday afternoon, I’d made my third appointment for a visit to the Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı. Now I already described my first visit (oh, and BTW, I obv couldn’t take photos of the place while I was getting bathed – but check out their site to see how lovely it is. And there’s a few good photos here. Or just do an image search…). It was wonderfully relaxing way to start my holiday after 30 hours in transit (yes, first class transit, but still…). And I enjoyed it so much that, when my dinner plans fell through during my earlier visit to Istnabul, I said to myself, “Self, you ought to spend that money on something. How about another Turkish bath?” And so I did.

My second visit that part of my trip was much like the first – up to the point where my therapist, a fellow called Erol, asked me after he’d soaped me up, “You like strong?”

“Yes, I like strong,” I replied. WELL, THIS WAS NO JOKE. He gave me quite a workout – neck, back, shoulders, arms and particularly on my calves, which tend to be tight-as-a-drum due to bike riding. He had me groaning and grunting as I endured what he smilingly referred to as “Turkish torture.” He finished up by wrapping my arms around my chest, grabbing my elbows from behind and squeezing every last breath out of me – twice.

And it was fantastic. Yes, I was wincing, but I left there feeling so good. I’d spent the last five days walking, lugging my camera, climbing up and down the hills of Beyoglu – getting an intense round of body therapy was just the thing.

After drying me off, he led me out to the main hall, shook my hand and thanked me. I think I managed to mutter a sincere thank you back to him, though I was so relaxed I may have just drooled and grinned like a simpleton. Had a bit of lie-down and some apple tea, before getting a massage with Murat. He struck just the right balance between strong and relaxing and I left the hamami feeling simply marvelous.

Anyway, when I booked my final appointment for Sunday, I requested Erol again, since I really liked his technique. And I was not disappointed. Other than the fact that I was a bit more prepared for his ministrations (though there was still a lot of grunting from me), it was another wonderful bath.

At the end, when he took me to the smaller room to dry me off, he’d wrapped up my waist, head and shoulders and was drying off my legs – and then he began singing to me in Turkish, his voice sweet and reedy. And I managed to only get a bit teary-eyed while he sang – though I was on the brink of blubbering. It was just such a lovely moment and I was so happy that it was one of my last memories of this trip.

Had a massage with Murat again – wonderful again. And then I bade my farewell to all the folks there who’d treated me so wonderfully during each visit. I hope I get to go back again some day soon.

For dinner, there was a café I’d wanted to try. But when I arrived, there were no seats available and they were out of the first three things I ordered from the menu. OK! Plan B – I returned to Dürümzade, the place I’d eaten my first meal in Istanbul 16 days prior. Sure, it wasn’t fancy, but both the chicken and the lamb were delicious. I took them to go, headed back to my gigantic suite, opened a bottle of wine and ate them while watching the Turkish version of “X Factor.” It was perfect.

A good night’s sleep, up at a reasonable hour and in a taxi to the airport by 10AM. So long, Istanbul. It’s been grand!

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