Our last few days in Istanbul

Last night we caught the night bus back to Thessaloniki Greece. We’ve had such a good time in Istanbul and feel we got to know the city quite well. We did the usual tourist things then walked and walked. We explored all sorts of interesting neighbourhoods. We walked up one side of the Golden Horn. We walked up a good chunk of the European side of the Bosporus. We took the ferry, rode the city buses, trams and metro. There’s a card for that which made this an easy method of getting about. We had our favourite Turkish delight shop, same for wine – the owners of both shops quickly came to know what we wanted before we even entered. We had our favourite take out food place, and of course our fish place by the bridge. 

We encountered no problems worse than saying no to cheeky carpet sellers. Twice we came across police and crowds of noisy men shouting and running. We just turned and went in the opposite direction. Never heard anything about either event on the local news so remain clueless. 

We had our hair cut at a very odd little place – good thing hair grows! Not the best cuts we’ve ever had. We mailed parcels home to ourselves and had fun at the post office. No one spoke English there but everyone was willing to help us out. As we showed up with our stuff in a couple of plastic bags this included getting us boxes and taping the contents up…. For no extra charge by the way. Can’t see Canada Post being quite so helpful.

So, here we are back in dirty, dilapidated Northern Greece. Such a marked difference in attitude, and activity level. No one here has a carpet to sell and even if they did they’d likely not bother to ask if we wanted to buy it. Those Turks hustle customers to buy a coffee. The Greeks sigh if a customer enters their coffee shop because they have to then go to the trouble of making a coffee or two….

Ten days in Istanbul was however enough. It is a busy, crowded (17million), noisy city. It is also mostly beautifully looked after. Yes there are rubbishy bits (but work is on going on those parts) yes there is some garbage around (but there are numerous street cleaners) yes some of their side walks could do with some work (and in many places that work is being done). There is pride. The smallest parks and the largest are tidy, there is no graffiti, weeds are pulled, flowers are planted, shrubs and trees are trimmed. Here – not so much – there is no evidence of pride here at all and it shows.

Some parting shots from Istanbul.


16 Oct – Lunch at the fish market and other stuff

Today Pat and I walked over to visit Galata Tower on the other side of the Golden Horn inlet and then had lunch at the fish market – also on that side of the inlet. We’re getting to know our way around these neighbourhoods quite well now so we took a shortcut through the palace gardens. Across the bridge we went – and then up the hill on the other side. We arrived at the tower really quickly  – and decided to not go up it due to a rather long line to get in. Besides it was lunch time… The fresh fish called! I mean the food was the real attraction! Historic towers  – Ho hum!

Down we went to the fish market. It was just as busy today as the last time we were here. A friendly fellow filled us in on the etiquette for acquiring a fresh fish sandwich. One of the cheapest best meals we’ve had in Turkey materialized before our eyes. The sandwhich was a loaf of bread slit lengthways and involved a whole fish minus head and tail plus salad and a large chunk of lemon.  We headed off to the near-by park where we’ve seen locals consume these delights. It was quite a messy business but we eventually devoured everything! 

Our next mission was to figure out how we will get to the main long distance bus station on the day we leave here. This accomplished – there’s a local bus that we can catch – we searched for the post office – unsuccessful but we do now know where it isn’t. We have a few things to mail home! Then commenced our usual search for affordable wine, some olives and cheese for dinner.

Istanbul mostly delights. It is fairly clean and really beautiful. There are parks and squares and open places. However – this is at times a demanding city. The relentless requests to look in this shop or that, to buy carpets, to eat here or drink there. I imagine Morocco will be worse. Even so there is sometimes a certain edginess when we say “no thanks.” Tourist numbers are down a little so perhaps that is a cause, but some men here might want to adjust their manners if they really want to encourage customers. We continue to be more than slightly flabbergasted by the mixed messages sent by some women’s fashion choices. We have concluded that the women – especially young – attired in Niqab are thus clothed as personal statements of fashion, rebellion, extremist ideologies, or provocativeness …… Not because someone such as a father, brother, or husband has told them this is how they must present themselves. And yes Niqab can be an outstandingly provocative garment – wearing it is clearly not necessarily about modesty.

The five times daily calls to prayer erupt as loud wailings which send seagulls and pigeons fluttering. Cats and dogs twitch and stir but no one else seems to pay much attention. I’m sure someone somewhere grabs their prayer mat and rushes off to a mosque but we’ve not seen that happen. Business is conducted as usual if one can hear to haggle over the general din. There are so very many mosques and minarets here – the beautiful slender spires dominate the sky line – but every single mosque is on a slightly different schedule! The resultant call to prayer is an exotic but unsynchronized racket. Have to say – we like it. Well maybe not the one that happens about 5:45am!

With that in mind – time for shut eye. Will send pictures in the morning.

15 Oct – A surprising Hamam experience

Well! We are clean. So very very scrubbed and soaped and oiled! Rather a delightful experience with a few odd moments tossed in.

We started our day with a visit to AyaSofya – originally built by the Romans, it has been a venerated Christian church, then a proud Muslim mosque, it has been subjected to numerous riots and burnings yet has always been rebuilt. Each rebuilding has been grander than the previous. Multi domed and cavernous it is now a museum of significant majesty and grace. Numerous Christian mosaics decorate the walls and vaulted ceilings upon which hang large wooden discs of Islamic inscriptions. I have to say these circular inscriptions seem a bit like hastily placed decals despite their enormous scale. To think that both ideologies live in harmony within this space would be naive. The mosaics were once damaged and plastered over. Their preservation is due in part to the building now being a museum. Regardless of a troubled complex history, the place is impressive and to visit Istanbul without entering AyaSofya might be considered touristically sacrilegious.

Our next stop was to explore beneath the city into the depths of an ancient Roman water cistern. Also cavernous, but quite damp. A place of remarkable engineering and subtle beauty but not particularly spiritual….other than Medusa’s upside down head. Weird. We didn’t turn to stone when we looked at it so all is well. A bit of a creepy place of dripping water, low lighting, fish and perhaps other creatures rippling the waters. Pat saw a dead rat the other day so has been wondering about other places where they may be…perry much everywhere no doubt. There’s a bar down there in those dank shadowy depths, but we chose to return to the warmth and sunlight at street level.

After lunch we went to our neighbourhood Hamam. We’d checked out a few and this one appealed. It’s historic – been in use since 1777. Not one of the oldest by a long stretch. It is local to where we live – so “legitimate” if you like. It has a women as only time and doesn’t have hanky panky advertised. Say what? Clearly – from our research – some Hamams are covers for various forms of prostitution. We didn’t want to support such a place.

So our Hamam experience went like this:

Upon entry we were shown to our changing room. Changing isn’t really what happens – one simply takes off all one’s clothes. A smallish cotton towel is provided. Once modestly wrapped we were shown into a warm domed room. In the centre of this space is a raised marble slab on which we lay down. People have been doing exactly this in this place for 240 years. Amazing. It was warm enough for us to begin to sweat. After a while we went one at a time into another room. This was smaller and also marble. Here was a marble bench upon which we lay – totally naked. Our washer – also naked – (yup that was a surprise) dumped warm water on us and set about scrubbing us as if we were filthy old pots. And filthy we were. More water was dumped on us to rinse away a rather alarming amount of dead skin. Then back on the marble slab we were lathered up with masses of lemon scented bubbles. Rubbed and rinsed we were finally declared clean. This nakedness of ourselves and our washer felt a bit odd at first but after a few moments it seemed quite natural and comfortable. I guess it saves on laundry as she got quite wet in the process of getting is clean. Next came dry robes then apple tea. This was followed by a vigorous oil massage in yet another room. The massage woman kept her clothes on. We had oil rubbed everywhere! Our skin is so soft and smooth now – I’m pretty sure our pores are all functioning optimally. I can understand the attraction of Hamam bathing practices – it sure beats the mundane practice of hopping in the shower!

Once back in our clothes we set off on our usual evening pursuit of finding a bottle of wine and some take-out food. We are trying to mitigate the exorbitant cost of eating out by eating in!  And so here we are, culturally enlightened, clean, fed and sipping on nice heavily taxed Turkish wine.

First picture is in the Hamam. Second is in the cistern. Yes, Medusa’s head is upside down. Some Roman’s idea of a joke I guess. Last two are of  AyaSofya. See the Islamic discs and the Christian mosaic.

13 and 14 Oct Pics 

Of course the pictures loaded muddled. The second is two harem guards. The next two are of our Bosporus cruise. The others are the harem. The opulent rooms are where the Sultan would entertain his guests – attended by various of “his” women. The first is of one of those fine rooms taken from the courtyard where the favoured and pregnant women were allowed outside. 

14 Oct – An imperial Harem and the Niqab

Yesterday’s adventure was sheer luxury. We were picked up at our hotel,in a van and driven to the boat dock. We boarded a very fine craft with a few others and were soon enjoying a tasty lunch as we set sail up the Bosporus towards the Black Sea. We cruised along, getting commentary about the rich and marvellous mansions along the coast up to where the Bosphorus meets the Black Sea. At,this point we had some time ashore at a village which was really just a bunch of expensive cafes and ice team places. We bought ice cream – it was too hard not to. Back onboard we motored  south again back to the dock where we were met and driven back to our hotel. A very lazy and delightful way to spend the day. We were glad also for the relative quiet of the boat. 

We were among a very few foreign tourists on board – most other passengers were locals. Including a fully veiled (Niqab) woman with her  husband and child. I admit to staring while she ate as I was interested in how that feat is accomplished while so garbed. Numerous subtle flicks and liftings of the veil to enable food to be transferred from plate to mouth. Needless to say knife needs to be set down between cutting and scooping to free up a hand for lifting and flicking of the veil while transferring fork under the veil to month. Complicated. How she could see what she was doing and consuming seemed rather dubious.

Pat and I have noticed a significant number of young women so attired. We are a bit mystified. This is a secular country. Presumably these are educated women. So are they dressing this way of their own free will? If so – it seems a bit reactionary. Is there a message here? And if so what is the message? In trying to figure out what the reasoning might be we’ve found some interesting (disturbing) information. Some research indicates that this is likely a youth movement in the spirit of defiance more than conformity. We have noticed there do seem to be a greater number of young – less than 30 – women in full veil than older women. Maybe the older women are all at home and it’s the young ones out and about – with husbands – not solo. But another explanation is a strongly implied “look and imagine” statement of sexuality.  Unlike the “look at everything because  I’ve left nothing to your imagination” displays of sexuality of young women’s scanty clothing choices at home. The packaging is different but the message is much the same. Young women here are presumably just as rebellious and willing to make their own evocative fashion choices as those at home.

The eye make up that often goes with the niqab veils is significant! Nothing is demure or modest about the amount of make-up these women are using to enhance the eyes that peer out at the world from behind the black shrouds. So what’s that about if it’s not meant as an attractant. These are “look at me” eyes. There is so much palpable pent up sexual frustration in the men we have fleeting contact with (ordering food in a cafe, shopping, saying “no” to carpets, guides, pottery and sweet confections), it’s quite sad really. We watch their hungry eyes following every female as she passes, be she wearing western dress, Niqab or anything inbetween.When guys are making puppy eyes at 60 plus year old women dressed very conservatively – you know something is amiss!

We spent most of today at Topkapi Palace and Harem. An extensive palace complex – now a museum – once the opulent home of  Ottoman Sultans and their extended families. The place is lovely. Great rose gardens, numerous tiled rooms for greeting dignitaries, hearing petitions, dining is state and all those regular trappings of rich rulers of nations. The most interesting area is the harem. This is a large rabbit warren sort of place with few windows, thick walls and a dungeon like atmosphere. Only the special – favoured – pregnant – women got garden privileges. All the Royal women got dumped in this place. The Queen mother, all the wives, all the concubines – there was a hierarchy. They were guarded day and night by soldiers and eunuchs.  An incredibly restricted in-prisoned existence no matter what fanciful stories we might read and hear. 

We have finally found a relatively inexpensive place to buy wine! Alcohol here is ridiculously expensive due to the sin taxes.  However we have persevered in our quest for good wine and an affordable price and have been rewarded! Joy.

Will send this now and pictures separately as the Internet is slow this evening.

12 Oct – The Golden Horn

Another day of rampant tourism! We used the second day of our Hop-on-Hop-off  bus ticket and rode around the Golden Horn Inlet. More great city scape, more mosques and Ottoman buildings. The city is immense. I think it has one of the biggest urban populations in the world. We didn’t hop off until the loop was complete. We then set off on a good city walk. This included walking across Galata Bridge, wandering the fish market, walking back across the New Metro Bridge and around the entire Sultanahmet point where the Golden Horn waters meet the Sea of Marmara, and back to our hotel! A good long walk.

And of course a coupe of funny anecdotes to share with you.

The sea wall along the Marmara is reclaimed land. Back in the day the city’s fortified walls were built right at the edge of the land. Today the old walls are skirted by some park, a wide very busy road, a sidewalk and sea wall and finally at the edge of the sea an exposed strip of huge black boulders. As we walked along we noticed numerous small walls – mini forts – built along the shore line in the boulders. These are hand piled shelters behind which men change to and from their bathing suits, lie basking in the sun, sip beer or fish. As the day was really warm, there were a lot of men about doing these things – fluttering about their nests just like a bunch of featherless ungainly shore birds. Or perhaps, as Pat put it – like seals or walruses. Thing is those creatures don’t make nests….. There were of course no women or any species to be seen.

The other funny of the day was a small gift we received. We met a group of Red Cresent (same as our Red Cross) workers who were giving out little dishes of sweet puddings in celebration of  a Muslim festivity. We accepted the gift, chatted and carried on. Later after dinner we decided to eat our desserts. Well – have you ever eaten something that consists of chick peas, white beans, bits of dried apricot, and raisins within a sweet gelatinous mass, covered with currents and coconut? I know, tres weird. We ate some of it but left quite a few beans. Beware the Turkish dessert.

11 Oct – On the shores of the Bosporus 

The clues were read – with commendable accuracy – and the secret is shared. It is so very nice to be back in a land of healthy commerce, energy and liveliness. The atmosphere here is vibrant and while we’re told that tourist numbers are lower than usual, there are still a lot of us about. There is also a fairly large police presence and plenty of security folk keeping an eye on things – when not focussed on their cell phones. We were “wanded” a couple of times today – fine with us.

Yesterday we visited the serene and lovely  Blue Mosque to begin our day. This we followed with two markets! A small one near the mosque as a warm up, then the famous Grand Bazaar. There we threw caution to the winds and got blissfully disoriented in the numerous cavernous passage ways. We looked, we shopped, we looked some more. I think we explored the entire place! Exhausted, we returned to our hotel after a seriously expensive meal. Restaurants here are kinda pricy and wine is over the top. The equivalent of $29.00 for two glasses. Ouch! They were decent sized glasses mind you – but still.

Today we did one of those hop on hop off bus tours. Saw a lot of the city and crossed three major bridges, including going over to the Asian side. We wandered around Taksim Square and frankly didn’t think much of it. Just a big space. There was a craft market going on in one area. The worst church bazaar type crafts ever. Really bad! But we made up for that by also getting off to see the Egyptian Spice Bazaar! OMG it makes the grand bazaar look like a Sunday school picnic! Much more than just spices are on sale – it was all very colourful and packed with people. There were entire shops devoted to selling Turkish delight in every imaginable guise. These next to shops selling hemp rope also in great variety of shape and dimension. Which are by delis stocked with delicious mysterious dishes – we have three samples in our fridge for this evening’s dinner, along with a bottle of wine. Numerous shops selling party and wedding supplies, others piled high with kitchen utensils and pots, glass shops, ceramic shops, and sweet treats shops…..

Turkish sellers are a cultural phenomenon I think. Outside their shops and restaurants they stand and invite the beautiful ladies in to buy, or eat or drink. They are incorrigible and mostly take a smile and no thanks in polite stride. There are of course a few who don’t take rejection as well as others and get a bit cheeky. It’s a nice change from the rather surly lack of interest we experienced during our last couple of weeks in Greece.