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!

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