Istanbul, Turkey

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Feeling rejuvenated and ready for adventure, I hopped on a plane and touched down hours later in Istanbul, Turkey (after another lovely airport overnight in Athens). Before I left Yellowknife, my good friend Mike (more commonly known as Rug) and I had made plans to go on an epic six week adventure together. It started with him joining me in Africa. I had settled on the country Namibia and I still to this day cannot recall how it was I chose Namibia out of all of the countries in Africa, but I believe it was one of those ones that the universe seemed to be sending me subliminal messages about, over and over. Experience has taught me it’s best to listen to the universe, and so, without knowing anything about Namibia, I decided this would be my African destination. I was interested in Turkey as well and he told me his mom and step dad owned a really cool cave hotel there, and that maybe we could check out Turkey together as well!  Jordan had of course been on my wish list from the start and after some planning we figured we could spend a week in Turkey, a week in Jordan and then use the rest of our time down in Africa.

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Chance had it that not long after this discussion, Rug’s parents surprised him and all the kids in the family with a trip to Turkey, and it just so happened to be at the exact same time that we had planned to go – seriously… what are the chances?! He told his parents his previous plans and they were generous enough to allow me to tag along on their family vacation! This was all working out so perfectly, we couldn’t believe it. The only answer was that it was simply meant to be! We re-worked our schedule to accommodate to the family’s plans, and would now spend 12 days in Turkey, 4 days in Jordan and the rest of the time in Namibia.

I was so fortunate to be able to tag along on family vacation. Brenda, Rug’s mom, had a jam packed and exciting itinerary all planned out for us – we merely had to show up and enjoy. I was so used to spending so much time planning and organizing, that I was really looking forward to letting someone else take the reigns and lead the way. What a treat to be able to just sit back and enjoy! I touched down in Istanbul just an hour before Rug, his sister Val and her husband Dave. We found each other at the airport and had a van waiting for us outside to take us to our hotel, ‘Side’ (pronounced seedehh ) in the heart of Istanbul just a few minutes walk from Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Butch, Rug’s step father met us at the hotel with warm greetings and allowed us all to take a quick nap as we had all spent the night in airports or on airplanes, travelling for a long time, and some of us jet lagged for the first time.

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We made it to Istanbul!

After a much needed rest, we walked up to a small bazaar, and sat down for a gözleme (Turkish pancake) in the late afternoon sun. It was stimulating to be taking in the sights, sounds and smells of Turkey, a country I had heard so many wonderful things about in my travels from fellow backpackers. The streets were cobblestone, and lined with small shops selling the wide assortment of goods Turkey is known for; the coloured glass lamps, lush pillow cases, thick detailed carpets, the powdery treat of turkish delight in endless flavours, dazzling and unique jewellery, a vast assortment of pottery decorated with elaborate designs and colours, and so much more. The smells of roasted corn and hazelnuts, and wafts of shisha smoke filled the air. And above it all, the towering minarets of the Sultan Ahmet (Blue) Mosque penetrated high into the sky, the haunting cry of the adhan poured from the speakers atop them.  My eyes were wide and my brain was in overdrive trying to take in the sensory overload. These sights, sounds and smells were all so new and exciting to me; this was my first experience with an Asian/middle Eastern part of the world and all the flair that came with it!

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We sipped on Turkish tea, savoured our gözmeles and then made our way back to the hotel to meet Brenda as she was arriving that evening. We set up some tours for the following afternoon and then walked 15 minutes down to Hamdi restaurant. Our first turkish meal was elaborate, or so I thought, until I realized this is how they did all meals in Turkey! If I had to sum Turkey up in one word, it would probably be food. The Turkish LOVE food. They take such pride in their food and their ability to serve an exquisite meal. It reminded me of Italy, the way people in the food industry took such pride in their work and were clearly so passionate about what they did. We ordered far too many mezes (appetizers), then the traditional kebab followed by desserts. There was tsatiki, acili ezme (a spicy tomato, herb and onion dip), green salad, çoban salatasi (cucumber, onion, tomato and herb salad), humus, olives, bread (oh my god, so much bread), kizartma (eggplant yoghurt dip) dolma (stuffed wine leaves), beef, chicken and lamb kebab, baked pumpkin, sütlaç (rice pudding) and revani (a dense creamy like cake made from semolina that tastes just like sweetened cream of wheat!) for dessert.

It was such an absurd amount of food and we all left bursting;  I was thankful (on this and every successive evening in Turkey) that I had my stretchy leggings on! We were relieved to have a bit of a walk home in the cool evening air so ease the discomfort of the gluttony we all indulged in. I was officially excited for the food in Turkey; while kebab was what they were known for, they had so many mezes that were all vegetarian that I knew I would never struggle to find something to fill me up. And if all else failed, there was always bread and tzatiki. The amount of bread served with meals in Turkey is astonishing. And it comes fresh out of the oven in most places, piping hot and steaming (seriously, watch your hands!), and simply irresistible! And the refills are endless. I love that they finish each meal in Turkey with Turkish tea to aid with digestion, and that was something we all were clearly going to need a lot of help with from the amount of food we were indulging in!

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The next morning we were allowed to sleep in a bit and met for breakfast on the rooftop terrace. In Istanbul, and all over Turkey, terrace’s are all the rage. Every restaurant you walk by will try to entice you with the sweet words of, ‘we have a terrace! Please, come enjoy our terrace!’.  The draw of the terrace was that you got to sit on top of the building and were often afforded spectacular views of the coast on one side, ships all lining up to cross through the Bosphorus strait, and the Blue Mosque on the other. Our hotel offered a delicious breakfast of yogurt with granola and honey, mandarins, olives, bread, boiled eggs, tomatoes, cucumber, cheese, coffee, tea and juice each morning, which we always ensured we filled up on. It was strange to be eating olives so early, but with my new found love of them, I was delighted to find them on my pate each morning! We took a walk down by the water with everyone after breakfast, and then went to our tour that afternoon of the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia.

The Blue Mosque was famous for its size when it was completed in 1616. There are larger mosques in Istanbul now, but this one has remained the most famous in all of Turkey. In order to enter the mosque, you must adhere to the religious rules – women must cover their hair with a scarf (which is provided if you do no have your own) and no shoulders or legs should be showing. The feminist in me fired up for a moment, but I quelled the rebellion inside me as I reminded myself that I must respect the culture and beliefs of this new unfamiliar culture if I want to take part in it, and be an observer. This was my first time in a muslim country (Turkey is 99.98% muslim) so it was an adjustment for the feminist and agnostic that I am. Thus, with scarves tied around all our waists, as we were all in shorts or skirts, and scarves around our heads for the ladies, we slipped off our shoes and entered the mosque. 

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It was breathtaking. It was free for the public to enter, to view the magnificence of the building from the sidelines, as the entire middle was left for those who were here to pray. The whole building was decorated elegantly with beautiful patterns, mostly in blue, and with designs often of tulips and roses (very important flowers in Turkey -representing Allah and the prophet- they say his sweat smelled like roses!-, respectively). In mosques, there are never any faces, animals, people, angels etc. because it is seen as idolizing one other than Allah. The abundance of blue in the mosque is due to the over 20,000 blue ceramic tiles on the walls, and the blue stained glass windows. This colour dominates the mosque, which in turn is where the English name ‘blue mosque’ came from.

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The feminist in me roared her head again when we were told only men were allowed to enter the center of the mosque praying area, and the women had to stay in the very back behind raised half walls, nearly hidden. I buried my discomfort at the inequality, and lost myself in the beauty of the building instead, and kept my mind open to learn as much as I could about this religion and culture I knew so little about. We returned our scarves and made our way across the square toward the Hagia Sophia. Ayasofya (Turkish) means ‘holy wisdom’. The Hagia Sophia was the largest cathedral in the world for over 1000 years and was the epitome of Byzantine architecture, thanks to its impressive dome. Built in 537, it was a Greek Orthodox church, converted to a Roman Catholic church and then finally a mosque in 1453 where it remained as so until 1931. It was then turned into a museum to showcase the beauty of the building, with both the original christian and later muslim aspects of each religion through the architecture and design.

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Ayasofya

The beauty of the Hagia Sophia is not only in the architecture and interior design, but in the fact that Istanbul decided to turn the church/mosque into a museum instead of keeping it as a house of worship. They removed some of the islamic design to reveal the Christian design still hidden beneath, thus creating a stunning combination of Christian and Islamic faiths in one magnificent building. It is so contrasting to see the opposition of the faiths, housed together under one roof, undoubtedly a rare sight to see in a world where religious beliefs are rife with the idea that theirs and theirs alone is the best religion and all others should be abolished. I preferred the Hagia Sophia for this reason, to be able to explore the juxtaposition of the two styles of religion, architecture and design in one building.

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Our tour ended with us being dropped off at the entrance to the Grand Bazaar, where we met with Brenda and Butch. We set a time and place to meet as we would surely all be separated once inside. There are no words that can capture the magnificence, the excessiveness, the extravagance, and the absolute majesty that is the Grand Bazaar. It is every woman’s dream come true. With over 5000 small shops on 60 streets and up to 400,000 visitors per day, this place is a massive undertaking for even the most experienced shopper! The streets range in length and width, and each have an overarching theme: jewelry, carpets, antiques, clothing, ceramics etc. which dominates the shops on that street. The colours explode from the shops, the wares pouring out of the entrance to each store, the merchants hanging around like busy worker bees, buzzing at you to come and try their turkish delight, sample their spices, browse their pashminas.

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“Hello! Excuse me, please, I have more inside, come and see!”

“Lady, look, it doesn’t cost to look!”

“Pretty lady, would you like a pretty necklace?”

I’m not going to lie, I couldn’t help but feel like Jasmin from Aladdin in the bazaar as she walked through the market, the merchants calling to her endlessly, a similar accent, using almost the exact lines from the movie! My favourite line however was as we walked past a shop filled with pashminas, the owner tried to lure me in and as I declined politely he said, “But pretty lady, you deserve a better scarf!” I laughed, bewildered, because he was right! I was wearing my now rather drab scarf that I’d picked up in Paris at a tourist shop, as I had recently lost my last scarf in Iceland and needed a new one. I nearly went in and bought a scarf because his comment was so hilarious and accurate.

The whole Bazaar is an assault on not just your eyes, but your nose too, from the tepid smoke of the merchants sitting outside their shops, cigarettes hanging from their lips, tea cups in hand, puffing away, to the heavy aroma of the blend of spices hanging in the air as you passed their shops, taking a nose full with you. I walked up and down aisles and rows, losing myself in the labyrinthian maze of shops, not knowing if I had passed the same shop twice or thrice because so many sold the same things.

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Nothing in Turkey is drab, the place is constantly bursting with vibrant colours. Mountains of turkish delight, pink, yellow, green, orange, all covered in a thin layer of powdery white sugar, poured out of shops; heaps of spices- the tawny tumeric, the golden saffron, the rusty paprika, the crimson sumak; pashminas of mint with white lace, turquoise with gold hyacinths, violet with silver spirals; carpets of intricate design, each telling a story with their rich, velvety fabric stained with every hue of azure, crimson red, golden yellow and sage green; and ceramics delicately crafted and painted with every colour imaginable. We walked past old men sitting on small stools immersed in their games of backgammon, the sounds of the dice tinkling on the wood surface every second, their moves made in their mind before the dice even settled on the board. Other men crowded around them to watch, cigarettes hanging from the corners of their mouths, clear brown turkish tea in the signature hourglass cups in hand. I’ve never seen such a wonderful, colourful, aromatic place in my life. 

I knew I could spend days in this place and never see a tenth of what it had to offer. I was simply fascinated by the wild assortment of goods, the explosions of colours, smells and sounds, and the interactions of the merchants with each other and the buyers. Even if you don’t want to buy anything, the Grand Bazaar is a beautiful and enchanting place to lose yourself for a few hours to admire the wares and watch the people. It was hard to drag myself away but I knew we would have a chance to come back again before we left so I reluctantly said goodbye to this magical place and we headed home to get ready for yet another epic meal on the town.

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On the way home, we stopped in at one of Butch’s friends shops, who had arranged to get us on a Bosphorus strait cruise as a gift. We all thanked him kindly and he insisted we sit down and join them for a Turkish coffee- how exciting – my first! The coffee was delicious and strikingly different from all other coffee I’ve ever tried. There is a thick muddy sludge at the bottom of the cup and when you’re done drinking the liquid, you flip your cup onto your saucer and have your fortune read, if you’re lucky enough to be in the presence of someone who knows the trade! Luckily our host did and so we all flipped our cups on our saucers, swirled them three times, put a coin atop the bottom of the cup (for fortune) or tapped a ring (for love) and waited while it cooled. Our host read Val’s fortune, long and detailed and eliciting some laughs from us all. Butch offered to read mine next and it was full of positivity which was not surprising – my life had taken a turn for the best since I left on this journey! I offered to read Rug’s next, not actually having any idea what I was doing but I kid you not, I saw a freaking elephant loud and clear and showed it around to prove it!

Putting on my best mystical voice, I said,“Hmmm how strange, I see an elephant in your future- are you… are you going to Africa?!

And then I saw the strange formations that are clearly the fairy chimneys in Cappadocia, and showed it around again to prove I wasn’t making things up.

“Ah, and it seems you will be heading to Cappadocia soon, if I’m not mistaken; the grounds see bright things for your future, exciting times of travel!”.

We all laughed and shared fortune reading stories and then thanked our host most graciously for the coffee, the readings and the generous gift of the cruise the next evening. We headed off to dinner across the street from our hotel at Seven Winds. The mezes again were enough food to fill you up entirely, but we all had full meals coming as well. Seafood casseroles, grilled swordfish, baked sea bream and mussles were all cleared from our table before an array or rice pudding, baked pumpkin and pistachio ice cream were set in front of us for dessert. This time we had only a street to cross to make it back to our hotel and went to bed with bellies so full, we all had strange dreams and trouble sleeping.

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It was an early start in the morning as we had a tour of the Topkapi palace, the Basilican cistern and the Hippodrome. The palace was beautiful, dating back to 1465, but somewhat modest for what I imagined of a palace. We viewed the clock room, which I thought sounded dreadfully boring, but turned out to be stunning a collection of spectacular and ornate clocks given as gifts from royalty around the world. Next was the armoury, another display of extravagance in weaponry and then into the rooms with the jewels where the 86 karat spoonmakers diamond was displayed. Next we went over to the Basilica cistern, named for the Stoa Basilica that once stood above it.  It was left to ruin after many years and in 1985 underwent major restoration with over 50,000 tons of mud removed!  The pillars all came from different sites all over turkey, and the two Medusa heads of stone at the back are a huge draw for tourists. Sitting one on the side, one upside down, the Gorgon’s gaze is thus disabled, stopping her from turning you to stone when you look at her. The cistern was beautiful and eerie, with soft orange lights illuminating each huge pillar as it sat in two feet of crystal clear water while massive, bloated carp swam about lazily.

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The last stop was the hippodrome which doesn’t exist any longer, but was Istanbul’s version of the Colosseum, and now is home to a huge square with some monuments left over, including the over 3000 year old obelisk from Egypt. We met with Butch and Brenda again after the tour, stopped for lunch and then made our way to the Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam – also known as known as a Turkish Bath. A hamam is a traditional bath house where people would go to bathe (not everyone had a bathtub back in the day!). They were all marble as the stone held the heat well and for a long time. You would lay on hot marble, splashing hot water over yourself and then soap down. Today’s hamam’s are more luxurious and pampering – this one especially!

You get changed in your own private dressing room, complete with a little wooden box for your jewelry and then wrap yourself in a towel. You are assigned a staff member who takes you by the hands after introducing herself and leads you into the steaming, hot white marble abyss that is the hamam. She takes your towel, leaving you standing in nothing but your paper like thong they gave you to change into and asks you to sit down on the warm marble near the marble sink jetting out from the wall. She then begins to use a gold bowl to scoop the hot water from the sink over top of your head and body. She then gives you the bowl to continue bathing yourself for a few minutes while she preapres the rest. She returns to take you by the hand once again, and leads you to a separate sink where she begins to rub you down with a special mitt and you stare in awe and horror as dark brown chunks of skin begin to peel and clump together. She gets every inch of you: armpits, groin crevices, butt and all. It’s amazing.

Next she rinses you again with the gold bowl and hot water and then leads you to the main event – a huge expanse of raised extra hot marble where she lays down your towel and has you lie face down. She dips a large hollow towel in a huge soapy bucket of hot water, flings the towel from side to side to gather air inside it, which creates bubbles, then uses her hands to squeeze all of the bubbles off the towel on to your body. She does this several times and then sets to massaging every inch of you with a bar of olive soap. You flip over and she does the other side. Once done, she gently awakes you and leads you by the hand to the next room where there is another marble sink and gives you a scalp massage while shampooing your hair. Twice. Then she rinses you with hot water and gives you one splash with cold water; once totally clean she wraps you up in a huge fluffy towel after drying you off, and then wraps your hair for you as well in another fluffy towel. And voila, you’re done! She slowly lead me back out to main room and puts pillows behind my back to ensure I was comfortable on the lounging couch and brought me ice cold water, blackberry water with honey, and turkish delight. You’re allowed to head back in the hamam to use the facilities if you like but I felt like the whole experience had been so fabulous I didn’t want to end it any other way!

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I’ve never felt so pampered in my life! It took a few moments of overcoming the fear of being naked in front of total strangers and two women whom I’d only known now for two days, but I knew that was how Turkish baths worked and so was at least a little prepared. I tried my best to subdue my slight discomfort over others seeing my naked body, a body I was not comfortable with myself and after some mental work was able to relax and just enjoy the ride. Trust me, its impossible not to relax in this tepid, soothing environment! The white walls seemed to glow softly, everything had a slight mist to it from the humidity and heat, the soothing smells of the clean, aromatic soaps and oils, and the calming countenance of your spa girl was the perfect concoction to ease your mind, body and soul into tranquility.

We left the hamam feeling like new, fresh, extremely clean and utterly relaxed women. And we even had time to squeeze a little nap in before our dinner plans that night – we were heading off on that Bosphorus cruise in the evening!  We all got dressed up in our finest and were picked up by the tour company and taken to the boat. The tables were laden in white linens, the chairs too, and were set beautifully.  A soft warm light set the whole inner deck aglow. The bubbly staff excitedly received us and showed us to our table. Our server set the mood with his over expressive facial expressions and huge belly which he kept patting as he made his jokes, and danced about lightly on his feet.

The place slowly filled and as our drinks came we began to snack on the amazing array of mezes already ono our table. The food was divine, no surprise there, they were much of the same style mezes we had had the previous two nights. Dinner came next, with an endless supply of drinks  on the house, and after dinner a delicious dessert.  Before our plates could be cleared, the fabulous entrainment began. Two male dancers and two female dancers took to the stage and set themselves to twirling and skipping about nimbly on their feet to traditional turkish dance music. After a short break and huge applause, a belly dancer took the stage (which was just the middle of the deck where no tables were). She had a long and amazing set, showcasing her skills and doing her best to engage the audience. She kept getting men and women alike to join on, or at least tried, and while half refused embarrassedly the other half submitted. She came my way, and I had been thinking the whole show, ‘Oh god, what if she comes to me? I have to hide!’.  And then I chastised myself for the thought and came back with, ‘damnit woman, seize the day! When else will you dance with a belly dancer on a cruise liner on the Bosphorus strait in Turkey?! LIVE A LITTLE!’ And so when she came over to me, I did! I got up there and danced around with her and was elated to have done it!

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After the belly dancing, the four other dancers rook turns rocking the stage with their amazing routines; their dizzying spins, high kicks and nimble jumps. The dancing and music was absolutely brilliant and my cheeks were aching from the smile that had not left my face for the last hour. What a treat this evening was! We all went to bed that night feeling blessed and grateful for the generosity of Butch’s friends, and at seeing such excellent entertainment, especially us first timers to Turkey !

It was lovely to sleep in a tad and in the late morning we were off to see the Dolmabahçe Palace. Built in 1856, it was commissioned by Sultan Abdülmecid. The largest palace in all of Turkey, it’s leviathan with 285 rooms, 6 hamams, 68 bathrooms and 3 massive chandeliers, the largest of which weighs over 4.5 tonnes. Abdülmecid’s father was the last to use the old, much more modest palace, Topkapi. This palace was absolutely ridiculous. I’ve never in my life seen such elaborate and excessive wealth and extravagance.  The palace was a lavish display of art in the form of gifts, always in twos, for the sultan explained to his contributors the symmetry of the palace  – if their gifts were to be displayed in the palace, there must be two so as to not upset the symmetry!  

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Guards at the palace have a laugh

This place oozed royalty. It was really fascinating to see such an intense level of richness as this, as I had never seen the like of it before. It was gaudy to me, as excess is, but it was also astonishing.  The grand hall was spectacular and the chandelier was simply remarkable! How all four and a half tonnes stayed held up in the centre of the dome ceiling was an engineering mystery to me. I undoubtedly left the palace feeling like a lowly peasant!

We then took to the spice market which was absolutely crammed on a Friday afternoon, and my senses went into over load yet again as the piles of paprika, sumak, tumeric, mint, cumin, cinnamon, and urfa exploded out of each shop and the merchants called to you, piles of spice in their hands pushing towards your nose, others scooping the mountains with spades and letting it tumble back down to its pile to entice you with its spicy rainbow. We walked through, stopped at a baklava shop for a couple of specimens including – lokmas, which is basically a deep fried ball that is then laid to rest completely submerged in a vat of honey until the ball becomes entirely soaked through so when you bite into it, honey explodes in your mouth- lokmas. Or as I call it, heaven!

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We were a little overwhelmed with the amount of people so Rug and I took to the side streets, and wandered through the more calm local market streets, this one primarily containing mannequins for sale, until we reached the Grand bazaar again. I simply had to go back and explore the place a little more and just take it all in. It was just as fascinating the second time and I wished I had an entire day to myself to spend lost within the streets of the Bazaar.  But after a while I began to feel the ache of my feet from the long day of walking, so we headed home to gather up the rest of the family as they arrived that afternoon  – Rug’s brother Bryan and his wife Leah, and Butch’s son Perry and his girlfriend Natalie.

We went for dinner all together at last at a place Josef, Butch’s friend from the tour place had wanted to take us. The feast was excessive and delicious as always.  This time, when the kebab came, they first bought out a five foot long wooden narrow table about five inches wide that had a four foot long piece of bread on it. ‘Oh god, more bread’, I thought. ‘We don’t need more bread, there are still baskets full on the table!’. But then came the four foot long skewer of lamb, chicken, vegetables and beef. With forks pressed atop it, the staff and us at the table held the kebab meat down while one waiter expertly slid the skewer out with a flourish. They brought two of these  – that’s over 8 feet of meat – for the 13 people at our table. It was easily enough food for 20!

I ate far too much that night, and went home with a belly ache. I woke up two hours later feeling like I was going to be sick, and with awful heartburn – something I’d never really experienced before. As I awoke the pain and discomfort intensified and I found myself wrapped in a blanket on the bathroom floor shaking, rocking back and forth in agony knowing it was going to be a bad night. Poor Rug opened the door to go pee and nearly stumbled on me and in my head I imagined (perhaps it was the delrium) that I must have looked like a little Yoda, wrapped up in a blanket, rocking to and fro on the floor hunched over. I was violently ill for hours, puking, stomach cramping and diarrhea. Oh god I hated how familiar I was with that from my travels! Finally around 6am, after taking some Pepto I was able to fall asleep for two hours before we had to get up and hit the road for our travel day. It wasn’t exactly how I wanted to end my time in Istanbul, but it happens. Rug had been sick the two days before and Val was sick that night as well. The food, though glorious, seemed to be taking a toll on all of us! Brenda even got sick a couple of days later, too.

Of course I didn’t let that dampen my time or feelings about Istanbul. I loved this place. It was the best introduction you could have to Turkey, this vibrant, exciting, gastronomic city. I knew from day one that I would have to return to Turkey, and I could only think how badly I wanted to bring my mother here! The wares are what impressed me most in turkey, I was constantly floored by the beautiful ceramics, textiles, jewelry and fabrics – I  wanted everything I saw! It was a luxurious and flavourful city, the beautiful Istanbul. The four days flew by, and yet we saw and tasted so much of what this urban sprawl had to offer. With my introduction to Turkey under my belt, we all said goodbye to Istanbul and began our trek to head down the coast to explore Ephesus and Kas!

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2 thoughts on “Istanbul, Turkey

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