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!

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.

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.

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”