Friday, August 20, 2010

Istanbul - 2010 (Part III)

The one primary requirement for a trip to Istanbul: comfortable shoes. Yes, expect to log anywhere from three to seven miles daily tramping around the Old City. Make it 10 or more if you’re traveling with me! [those ‘fortunate’ enough to partake in some of the Adrian-led escapades know exactly what I’m talking about].
The idea is: you’re there, so make the most of it. You can go at a slow pace and see half of it, or chose my pace… You’ll likely curse me out at first, but thank me later. What I’m trying to say is that – with enough willpower and proper planning – one can squeeze in a week-long itinerary in a four-day trip. Just make sure you take plenty of pictures so you can later relieve the experience at a slower pace…
Talk about relieving experiences, here’s a few of note [also, giving credit where credit is due, see earlier disclaimer regarding picture copyrights]:
The Grand Bazaar. A labyrinth of stores and parlors where eager shopkeepers are touting anything from leather goods to colorful pottery, carpets, jewelry, spices, clothes, toys… you name it. God forbid you dare ask for a price. It’s just as good as a purchase, but the ‘haggling experience’ is part of the deal and if you’re good at it, expect to pay anywhere between 40%-60% less than their initially quoted price! [at some point I was told: “you American, but deal like Romanian!”]. Word of advice: walking away as they quote their “final” offer [saying it’s still too much] will typically earn you another 10% discount. And if it doesn’t, what have you got to lose? You can probably find the same exact product two doors down and start the process all over again. Just keep it all on a positive note; these guys are relentless and getting stressed out about it won’t help… My favorite quote (almost ad litteram): “I give you good price … great price … excellent price … best price … free!” [That’s when they typically put one of the products in your hand, then say ...”ok … two for 5 Lira!”(or the price of one).
No matter how you look at it, the Bazaar experience is something that will stay with you for a long time. You feast your senses on some incredibly-crafted trinkets, beautiful jewelry, plenty of cheap imitations, but also authentic leather goods and carpets. We watched this lady working on this silk-on-silk masterpiece of a rug and her fingers moved faster than I could focus on what she was doing… Apparently, a simple area rug (less than 1meter wide by 1.5 meters long) can take up to 7 months to complete. No wonder they were asking thousands of dollars for a hand-knotted one!

Galata Tower. At some point a prison, later on a watchtower, the Genoes-built structure (1348 AD) is now a major tourist attraction on the other side of the Galata bridge. From the observation deck 85 meters above sea level the panoramic views of the Old City, Galata bridge, the Golden Horn and all the surrounding water are worth the climb (they actually installed an elevator, so there’s barely any climb at all). There’s also a restaurant open for dinner at the top, but I would advise against it; it’s just an overpriced tourist trap. Head over to one of the roof top cafés in the Old City for a much better deal (food and wallet-wise).

Galata's answer to Lombard Street in San Francisco (pedestrian only)

Roof-top Cafés. ‘Real estate’ at street level is scarce and comes at a steep price. For that reason, most hotels in the Sultanahmet area have transformed their roofs into restaurants and cafés. Some did so quite lavishly, others took the rustic approach; but in every case, the food was outstanding, very affordable and the views simply fantastic. Having a drink right under the shadow of the Blue Mosque as the sun was setting behind it, watching the ships lining up in the Marmara for the trek through the Bosphorus while enjoying some out-of-this-world lamb chops does wonders in relaxing your spirit. I never wanted to leave and the waiters always seemed to be well aware of that fact. More Efes? Coffee? Baklava? Anything to help extend the stay…

Check out the ships in the Marmara, awaiting entrance into the Bosporus...

The World Cup final. I have already touched on the experience in one of the earlier blogs [July 11], but thought I’d drop in a few more pictures. One thing worth mentioning [going with the idea that they’d do anything to earn your business] is that I spent a little bit of time earlier in the day “scoping out” the best place to watch the final. Each of the cafés and restaurants offered plenty of ‘freebies’ to lure us in (free coffee, desert, appetizers, etc.) but what sealed the deal for me was the guy offering the Spanish flag after he heard who I was rooting for. The one you see in the pictures was waiting for us at the reserved table. Now, that’s service!
Hanging out with "the enemy" before the game...

Oh, yeah! Football, beer and a huge hookah... the definition of "Life"!!!!

The Spice [Egyptian] Market. Right next to the hustle and bustle of Ferry stop near the foot of the Galata Bridge is the 350-years-old Spice Bazaar, where the aromas of spices, nuts, tea and dried fruit whomp your olfactories the second you step in. The best part about it: free samples of … everything. Just walking through the market I gained a couple of pounds. We had to get Minola out by force!
All kidding aside, the Spice Market is a great way to take in the culinary nuances of oriental cuisine. I think that proper knowledge of all the herbs and spices available here could turn an average cook into a great one. Hard not to. For example, I saw [smelled rather] the difference between Turkish and Iranian saffron. Night and day. And I think the price difference justified it; I just wasn’t in the mood to haggle over price, and wasn’t going to pay $20 for 4 grams. I also saw rose-bud tea that sold for 120 lira per kilo (that’s about 40 bucks a pound); smelled fantastic and I’m sure it was well worth the price. In the end, we settled for sampling all kinds of Turkish delight (my favorite was the one mixed in with nuts or pistachios) and other local sweets. Loved the sesame-covered nuts. Outstanding! What I didn’t care for was the Turkish Viagra, some herbal mix that apparently enables one to make love 5 times a night. Really… No thanks [and don’t even go there!]

On that sweet note, I’m wrapping up the Istanbul experience. Part of me wonders how much more different we (as Romanians) would be today [as a nation, or a culture if you will] if Stefan (Stephen the Great) was not so resilient in fighting off the Turks… or if the Ottoman Empire lingered longer north of the Danube… Still, for those of us who grew up on the Black Sea coast, the impact is clear and still tangible. The fried ‘Hamsii’ was just as good in Constanta as the one I had under the Galata Bridge.
So, until the next time we’ll hear the muezzin’s calls to prayer five times a day blaring from the Blue Mosque’s public address system, until the next time we’ll stuff ourselves with goodies in the Spice Market, or simply enjoy an old fashioned hookah in a sidewalk café up in Sultanahmet,

Güle güle!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Istanbul - July 2010 (Part II)

Did I mention I became a big fan of Istanbul after visiting last month?
I think I did! Part of it it’s because I went in with low expectations; I was thinking dirty, crowded, low quality (on products and services), unfriendly, so to speak. Yet I discovered a city that was vibrant, yet laid back, authentic yet cosmopolitan, a city that offered beautiful vistas from every high point, splendid scenery along the Bosporus and Marmara and a wonderful tapestry of art, culture, history and tradition. Absolutely amazing!

Istanbul does not have the “je ne sais quoi” of Paris, but there are just as many people frolicking or relaxing in the parks, sipping “chai” and playing backgammon [tawula] on the sidewalk cafés, and the history (present around every corner in one form or another) is simply overwhelming!

Am I going over the top with this? A little? The nomad in me can’t help it!

Before I go into more detail, let me stop briefly and give credit to the contributing photographer for this article; I’ve been admonished, no… castigated for a lack of disclosure in reference to the copyrighted value of the pics you saw in the first part of this blog. So here goes: full credit for capturing all images incorporated wherein goes to a little known artist (for now) by the name of Laura (last name similarity could be coincidental). So with that potentially litigious matter out of the way, we can proceed:

The first encounter with Turkey’s past and religious identity brought us bright and early (before huge lines started to form) to the famous Blue Mosque – the centerpiece of the Old City, and best known of all the religious edifices. An imposing structure from the outside it’s the only mosque with 6 minarets [the story goes that Sultan Ahmed ordered the construction to have gold minarets, but since the Turkish words for “gold” and “six” are very similar, then…]. On the inside, the breathtaking detail is enhanced by natural light flooding through the 200+ stained glass windows. Not to mention 20,000+ hand-painted ceramic tiles that give the mosque its name. No entrance fee, but the strict ‘dress code’ meant most of the female visitors had to wear… this:

Blue Mosque Interior:

the Blue Mosque at night

view of the Blue Mosque from the Hagia Sophia

Across the park, an even more imposing structure (for those of us of Christian descent): Hagia Sophia – the “epitome of Byzantine Architecture”. If the Blue Mosque is only around since the early 1,600s, the current version of the Aiya Sophia was built between 532-537 AD under emperor Justinian [there were a couple of previous churches on the site – 360 and 415 AD – first one built by Constantine the Great’s son, but they both burned down; check out the link below for more detail].

So, standing inside this historical site 1,500 years later brings all kinds of inexpressible feelings (on the inside) and goosebumps (on the outside) to a mere mortal. Yes, time (and Muslim conversion to a mosque) took its toll on the structure [scaffoldings and ongoing restoration efforts abound] but it’s still imposing and able to generate a feeling of ‘grain of sand in the infinite desert of time’ for anyone staring at its grandiose ‘floating’ dome and imposing 20-meter granite columns. There are no words to describe how overwhelmed by history and its significance I felt. The best writers could not describe it fully, the best painters could not bring out its beauty, and pictures (no matter how good a camera) can’t give it justice… It’s simply… indescribably grandiose, while exuding a complex mixture of timelessness, unrest, faith, survival, pain, salvation, and human spirit in one convoluted set of feelings. Oh, if those walls could speak…

The other major mosque in the city – Süleymaniye – built by Suleiman Pasha [defeated by our own Stephen the Great if I remember correctly] was unfortunately being renovated, so we could not get in. Only saw his imposing sarcophagus inside an adjacent building (next to the once-Russian-slave Roxelana, who graced by certain ‘qualities’ [wink-wink] rose through the harem ranks to become his official wife).

Day two carried our fatigued legs and knowledge-hungry eyes to the Topkapı Palace [Topkapı Sarayı] the Sultans’ home for over 400 years and presently a very well preserved museum. The ‘Harem’ building was exquisite, with over 400 rooms (not all open to visitors, of course) reserved for the Sultan’s wives, concubines, children, servants and …yes, eunuchs as well. The rest of the Palace contained several ‘wings’ where all the looting that occurred during Ottoman occupancy [yes, they call it ‘national treasures’] is on display for all to oooooh and aaaah over… Personally, I would not want to ‘blemish’ a ruby-emerald-and-diamond encrusted sword [yatagan] with the blod of the ‘infidels’… All kidding aside, judging from the things we saw at the Palace, the Sultans lived like… ehm…kings!

the Harem

nice Bosporus view from one of the Topkapi balconies

Other mosques of note are the Yeni Cami [New Mosque] – seen here in the background, at the foot of the Galata Bridge (near the Spike Market)

Rüstem Pasha, Bayezid II, and Eyüp Sultan (the last one listed being one of the more venerated by Muslims; it was the first built by the Ottomans after taking over Constantinople and contains some of Prophet Muhammad personal belongings).
Eyüp Sultan Mosque

From this mosque – a bit outside of the old city walls – there’s a short cable-car ride to the Pierre Loti café, with beautiful views of the Golden Horn.

Some would say that all mosques are the same, and once you’ve seen one you’ve seen ‘em all… but it’s really not quite true. Each has its own character, its own uniqueness, and for the Muslim world, its own significance.

And speaking of significance, the last religious vestige visited was Hagia Irene (or St.. Irene) – the first church built in Constantinople by Constantine the Great. It served as the Patriarchate before Hagia Sophia was built and Christian artifacts are still present (helped by the fact that they were preserved well by the plaster used by the Ottomans to cover the icons of Jesus and Mary).

This was all above ground; but on a hot day, visiting the Basilica Cistern - one of the biggest water reservoirs under the Old City, with a capacity of over 2.8M cubic feet - was a nice way to cool off. Check out the Medusa heads (sideways so that their gaze won't petrify you):