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Another Weekend In Istanbul

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Last month my best friend and I met up for a long weekend in Istanbul.  Since I have class on Friday and Girl Scouts on Saturday morning, Sara did all the big tourist sites on her own and then met me in Taksim Square late in the afternoon.  It’s hard to tell that the square was consumed by protests this summer.  Now it is clean and full of pedestrians going in every direction – a perfect spot for people watching while waiting on a friend.

We walked from Taksim to our apartment from airbnb, which was in my favorite neighborhood, Cihangir, while watching what we could see of the sun setting over the Bosphorus through the buildings.  As usual I got lost a few times, while constantly checking google maps on my phone, but this was an excuse for us to get a few more hills counted on the fitbit.  Istanbul has been known as the City of Seven Hills from way back when it was Constantinople, but after walking around a bit, I’d say it’s more like 7000 hills!

That night I took Sara to my favorite fancy restaurant, Asitane.  I’ve talked about it before on the blog.  It serves food from the historic Ottoman Palace archives, and is currently offering items from the fall menus.  There are so many choices of meze that we had a hard time agreeing on what to choose for the two of us.  Luckily, the portions aren’t huge, so you can actually eat most of what you order if you decide to go big!  We had a chestnut/lentil soup, green bean fritters, baba ghanoush, some rolls with mastic (a weird touch, but it works in the bread), and quail on eggplant, as well as a nice bottle of Turkish wine.  Sara was really impressed when the waiter offered us each a jar of quince jam as a parting gift – so Turkish to me, but a nice touch.

Sunday was all about the Bosphorus.  We grabbed a quick breakfast down the hill from our flat, then walked along the water to meet some friends at the newly opened Maritime Museum.  Because Sunday was also the anniversary of Ataturk’s Death, the streets were lined with people waving flags and wearing pins and hats in commemoration.  The entrance to Dolmabahce Palace, where Ataturk died, was mobbed with people going to pay respects.  We also saw a couple of interesting displays.  Here’s one made of baklava – that’s Ataturk on the left.

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The main exhibit hall of the Maritime Museum is full of galleons from the early Ottoman days to the end of the empire.  This is obviously where the renovation money went, as the rest of the museum is pretty disappointing.  Now that my Turkish is decent, I try to compare the info signs in each language.  On the panel describing the Ottoman’s sack of Constantinople, the English side was so bad that it actually didn’t tell the correct story!  This is pretty common all over Turkey but manages to disappoint me every time.  There are plenty of English speakers in the country to prevent these kinds of things.  Other exhibits in the museum, such as the much-touted Piri Reis map-making exhibit, are laughable with their lack of actual things to display.  It’s just a lot of panels and 3D video art that doesn’t quite fit the story.  Oh well.

Later we walked through a very lively part of Besiktas, and then took the ferry across the Bosphorus to Kadikoy.  The ferry, for the bargain price of 2 TL, is a great way to see the Bosphorus like the locals.  It’s usually a 20-30 minute ride and you get to skip the blasting bass music and weird sales pitches of the tourist boats.  At Kadikoy, we walked through the pedestrian area while Fenerbahce fans chanted cheers from restaurant to restaurant up and down the paths.  It was really impressive and one of those experiences of life in full blast where you just have to smile!

The next day we met friends for a great Turkish breakfast up in the Rumelihisar area, which is farther up the Bosphorus and where the Ottomans first gained control of one of the sea lanes into Constantinople.  The cafes there are famous for their breakfast spreads, and our choice, one of the many Kale Cafes (Kale is Turkish for Castle) was excellent.  My favorite part, as it always is at Turkish breakfast, was the kaymak and honey.  Kaymak is kind of like clotted cream, and goes excellently with fresh honey and warm bread.

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a fisherman by our Kale Cafe Turkish breakfast place

Next stop was the Grand Bazaar!  Sara did some serious shopping.  We even briefly fell for a rug sales pitch, but really just used it as a break to sit down and drink some apple tea.  When we had more shopping bags than we could comfortably carry for the day, we headed to the Aga Hamam, which was built for one of the Sultan’s wives and recently reopened to the public.

It’s one of the largest in Turkey.  This was my first real hamam experience, and I wanted to do it at a tourist site so that someone would be there to shepherd us through the process.  Obviously, you couldn’t take pictures, so I’ll describe it briefly.  I’m not a big fan of exfoliation, so I was a little scared of the whole idea of getting a scrub-down by a hamam lady.  First we were given lockers and changed into thin plaid bathrobes.  Next we were led into the hamam and given an alcove to hang out in and wait our turn.  Everything is lined in marble, and around the alcoves and some of the main walls are sinks with small bowls inside.  You use the bowls to pour water all over yourself.  Everything is slightly steamy, so I guess sitting and waiting allows you to relax while your pores are opening.  Our ladies came and got us, then led us to another room where sinks on a small ledge lined one wall.  Here they scrubbed us down with a slightly rough mitt – it wasn’t at all painful.  Next they led us to the large marble platform in the center of the room, a octagon or bigger.  Every customer got a side, and they first gave us a bubble massage and then a deeper pressure massage.  Afterward, we were rinsed again, and led back out of the steam area of the hamam.  I thought that was it, and after enjoying my juice, I went into to change – I wasn’t sure where my friend had gone.  As I was putting on my boots, my hamam lady came and asked if I still wanted the massage – I thought we already got one.  It turns out the standard package is for a bubble massage in the hamam, and then another one on a standard massage table.  So I once again undressed and went for massage 2 or 3 – I was so relaxed that I didn’t really know what I was doing anymore!  I think it was a great experience, and since then I’ve gone to a more local hamam which I’ll talk about in a future post.  The only problem is that because the massage rooms are screened and not complete walls, during the regular massage I heard everything going on with reception, including a lady taking 20 minutes to decide whether or not she wanted to cancel her appointment.  The noise was less than peaceful.

Our final event was a dinner with locals in Istanbul that I booked through Intrepid Urban Adventures.  We walked through the back streets behind Sultanhamet and met a couple of families living in an apartment building.  While their mothers served us a simple meal, the kids all told us about their school and what they wanted to be when they grew up – a teacher, a doctor, and a barber.  It was neat to see how average Istanbullu live, since so far I’ve seen more of the expat or tourist side. We also had quite a connection as there were four of us there with Sara-ish names, and I was the first visitor they had that spoke any Turkish.

We ended the evening with a backgammon lesson and some nargile (sheesha or bubble pipe).

If you’re going to Istanbul, November is really a great time.  The weather is really pleasant and I think everything is slightly less crowded than the summer months.

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