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”