Recycled religion and hamam nakedness in Istanbul

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Middle East » Turkey » Marmara » Istanbul
June 12th 2012
Published: June 17th 2012
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We woke at 7am, organised our packs and headed up to the top floor of the hotel for breakfast. The view of the Bosphorus and Golden Horn from the breakfast area was incredible, as was the bread and feta cheese that we washed down with cay (Turkish tea). After breakfast we showered, checked out at 9am and headed back to the Constantine Boutique Hotel. It was too early to check in, so we dropped our bags and headed to the Intrepid Travel office.

We met our guide at 9.15am and walked to the Aya Sofya. There was something strangely enticing about this place. While no longer used as a mosque or cathedral, it retained a spirituality that had not been diminished by the thousands of tourists pouring through its doors every day. A group of schoolkids had positioned themselves upstairs and were drawing various sections of the museum. I have fond memories of my own school trips (and I always enjoyed drawing things as part of school trip projects), so I love seeing buildings and monuments through the eyes of young artists (I’m using the word artist loosely here). Two friends had decided to reproduce a marble column – one was using a ruler to get defined edges and near perfect symmetry; the other was going for an expressionistic image of the column – no defined edges, no symmetry, no perspective – just a few indiscriminate scribbles here and there. They both seemed to be immersed in their projects, but I’m pretty sure the abstract column was not destined for great marks.

We then walked to the Blue Mosque, which is an operational place of worship. This was to be a very different experience. When thousands of tourists remove their shoes in 30+ degree heat, the smell is overwhelming. I felt sorry for the people who had come to pray, and I couldn’t help but feel we were intruding upon their faith (and contributing significantly to the foot odour). We didn’t stay long. As we navigated the throng of tourists on the way out of the mosque, we helped an old man down the stairs, and this amused his wife to no end. She just stood at the bottom of the stairs, shook her head and laughed at him. We picked up some water and wandered into the Hippodrome. The heat of the day was setting in, so we decided to rest in the shade of the trees before setting off. It was midday.

A carpet salesman tried his best to entice us to his shop. He sat with us while I jotted down a few thoughts from the day. He asked if we were journalists preparing a documentary on Istanbul. We told him we were just tourists. He asked what we did for a living. We told him we were involved in education. He asked if we were history teachers. We said we weren’t. Not to be put off, he asked us back to his carpet shop where he would show us the educational value of Turkish carpets. I have to admit, he was very good and very entertaining. We had to tell him we weren’t interested in carpets. He eventually shook my hand and left after 30 minutes. We ran into him again that afternoon, and he still tried to lure us to his carpet shop.

We found a small tea house and relaxed with a glass of cay as we watched life in a Turkish street slowly drift by. We dropped into a small music shop and checked out three professional ouds – beautiful instruments – and then walked the cobbled streets in the midday sun before catching a tram across the Galata Bridge to the other side of the Golden Horn. We lunched at a small cafeteria before starting a walking tour of this trendy side of town. I had the special meal – chicken and rice with a yoghurt drink (ayran). It was fantastic. Ren had meatballs with rice. We finished lunch and wandered the streets before visiting a Greek Orthodox Church. It was closed, but an old assistant let us in (reluctantly). We had the place to ourselves, but while we were wandering around, the old assistant leant on a pew at the back of the church and had a very loud conversation with himself. It was disconcerting so we both made a beeline for the door that he had closed and locked as we entered. He stared at us with disgust and slowly unlocked and opened the door. I’ve wanted to get out of many churches in my life, but I have never wanted to escape a church this urgently. We rushed out and didn’t look back…

We then dropped into a local cafe for a Turkish coffee. It was fabulous, but it also had a dual purpose. We were to have our fortune read. When we finished our coffee, we quickly turned the cup upside down on its saucer and placed a lire coin on top of the upturned cup. I volunteered to go first. I picked up my cup and was guided into a small, dark, smoky room with thick red curtains. Three very seedy guys were sitting and staring as I walked in. One stood and gestured for me to sit with him at a small table. He asked my name, age and star sign, which we wrote on a piece of paper. He started scribbling on the paper as he stared directly at me (reminiscent of that great scene in The Changling when the psychic channelled a young boy who had been murdered in the house). He then dipped the paper in water and asked me to choose eight cards from a deck in front of me. The piece of paper had been left in the water and he started frantically scribbling on another piece, all the time looking directly at me. It was hard not to laugh, but I had to participate. He eventually drew four cards from the deck and was ready to tell me my fate. So here it is:

I have a wife with dark skin (no kidding – he had direct line of sight to where we had been sitting for the past 30 minutes with our coffee). I have had mental and emotional troubles over the past three years – troubles between my heart and head. These troubles will heal in August. I lost a lot of money in my business over the three year period 2009 to 2011, but I will make it all back in August. I had two children. I shook my head. I had one child. I shook my head. I would have a son in the future – with another woman. I would move to another country to live (apparently with the new woman). All this was going to happen in August. He asked me to make a wish at the start of the session, and he asked me to make a wish at the end of the session. He told me both wishes would come true. They did. I made the same wish both times – to get out of the room as quickly as possible. At least he got something right. He asked if I had any questions. I shook my head. He was surprised. He scribbled a bit more, put more paper into the water in front of him, drained the remains of my coffee into the saucer and told me he had finished. I was relieved. August is shaping up to be an interesting month. 😊

We headed back out onto the streets and dropped into a Catholic Church. There were many people praying, so we didn’t spend much time wandering around. It was a very hot afternoon, and we were reasonably exhausted from the day’s walking, so we made our way to the hamam and arrived at 3.30pm. Ren had to enter via the women’s door, which was pretty dingy from the outside. Once Ren had disappeared into the segregated women’s section, I was taken to the men’s entrance, which was grandiose and off the main street. I was directed to a small change room and given a small towel (similar to a sarong) and a pair of wooden thongs. I changed into my bathers, slipped on the sarong and walked into the main foyer. I was led into a room by a very large Turkish man in a sarong, and I felt the intense heat surround me. There were seats and showers all around the walls. However, this was simply a pathway into the main room. When he opened the second door and gestured for me to enter, I felt the heat intensify 1000-fold.

The room was enormous. It was round with a large square marble slab in the middle and small hand-basins around the walls. Two men were lying on the marble slab, and the large Turkish man (who turned out to be my masseur) laid out a sheet and head cushion and gestured for me to lie down. I jumped onto the very hot slab, lay down and looked up. Small diamond shaped glass windows dotted the ceiling, from which an enormous cast iron chandelier was suspended. There were no lights on this ornament – it just hung a few centimetres above my head. I stared at the ceiling, mesmerised by the shadows of birds flying outside and by the irregular drops of water that seemed to take an eternity to reach the slab once they left the ceiling. Traditional Turkish music was emanating from the left side of the room, and I had become entranced by this magical environment. Sweat poured from my skin as I lay there. I was so mesmerised by the ceiling that I had no desire to look anywhere else in the room.

In the next 30 minutes, the other two men got up and left the room via the door I came in. It was only afterwards that I realised they were going there to cool down. My masseur had directed me to lie where I was, so with no direction otherwise, I didn’t realise I had an option to move. So I just lay there with no relief from the intense heat for 30 minutes. It was incredible. The distant music, shadows of birds and dripping water created an amazingly relaxing atmosphere. Perspiration was pouring from my body as I drifted in my thoughts, slipping in and out of lucidity until one of the other men’s masseurs entered the room with a giant silver bowl. Things suddenly changed.

The groans emanating from the man being massaged drowned out the music. I clung to the bird shadows and water dripping from the ceiling, but I had a very loud insight into what lay ahead. Eventually the man left the room with his masseur and I realised I was alone (the other man had also left). I could once again hear the music. My mind cleared. This really was relaxation at its finest.

Enter my masseur!!! The relaxation was over. My sarong was ceremoniously removed and my entire body lathered with soap. My thighs were still a bit sore from the London soccer match, and the masseur decided they needed some serious attention. My stomach, chest, shoulders and feet also needed work. I was then directed to roll over. As he ran his thumbs up my calf muscles, I nearly left the table. Whenever I grimaced, the masseur would sing, smile, ease back on the massage and then drive his thumbs into my calves. He was at least 160kgs, and when he was working on my back he needed to counterbalance his weight on something, and my head was the best option. There were times when I thought my skull was going to be crushed into the marble. I’ve had a continual crick in my left shoulder for many years, and he found it. When he had finished, he had completely eased the discomfort I had been feeling.

When he finally finished, I thought the process was finished. However, he directed me to one of the basins around the wall. I sat on the floor as he threw cold water over me, covered me in suds with a giant brush and then threw more cold water over me. He then directed me to sit on the marble slab for two minutes and then to go through to the room with showers. He was waiting for me when I went in and pointed to the shower. I stood under the cold water for at least 15 minutes. I then sat on a seat as he dried me with a large towel and tied a smaller towel around my head. I walked back into the main foyer where I was guided to a soft chair in front of an indoor fish pond with a coloured light above me that changed every 15 seconds. I was served a hot cay, and I just sat there sipping tea and coming to grips with the events of the last hour. In all my travels, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything like this. It was an incredibly relaxing and purging experience.

Whenever we return to Turkey, we will always visit a hamam. And if there is a chance over the next few weeks, I’ll jump at it. Walking out into the late afternoon sun, I felt I could make this a weekly experience. 😊

I waited for Ren to emerge (only a few minutes after me) and we walked the back streets of this new side of Istanbul. We caught the funicular back down the hill, jumped on a tram to cross the Galata Bridge, picked up our laundry and walked to the Constantine Boutique Hotel where we checked in for the second time. I picked up some beer and water, unpacked and settled down with a cold glass of Efes to catch up on my trip notes. What a long and memorable day. We LOVE Istanbul! It is such a vibrant city, and so easy to embrace. Throughout our travels, there have been a few cities that have really entranced us (Rome, Chiang Mai, Granada and Hanoi). Istanbul has well and truly added itself to this list.

We rested in our room before heading out at 9pm. We strolled through an intriguing park that led us to the riverfront and then walked alongside the river until we reached the Galata Bridge. We wandered through the bustling night market and ended up at the fish punts. We sat down on tiny chairs on the wharf and tucked into fish sandwiches and iced tea. The taste was unbelievable. The fish were fresh from the Bosphorus, barbequed over hot coals and then slammed into a fresh crusty roll with lettuce and onion. It may sound basic, but the taste was anything but!

We strolled back to the hotel, passing small bars and numerous Turkish Delight shops on the way. We reached the hotel at 11.30pm, ordered two cays and sat back on the bed eating Turkish Delight, and recovered from another long day in Istanbul.

After another traditional fabulous Turkish breakfast on our second morning, we walked out into another hot and sunny day. We visited the iconic and beautiful Aya Sofya (Hagia Sofia in Greek, and Church of the Divine Wisdom in English). It was built as a Greek Orthodox cathedral, but converted into a mosque when Constantinople was conquered. Typical Islamic mosque features such as the four minarets (tower for the call to prayer), mihrab (niche showing the direction of Mecca) and mimber (pulpit) were retrofitted; while the Christian altar, bells and icons were removed. In 1935 Kemal Ataturk (founder of Turkish Republic) declared it a museum, I guess as a gesture to assert the secular values of the new Turkish Republic. Aya Sofya is thought to have been the largest cathedral in the world for about 1000 years (until St Peter’s Basilica was built) and considered to be the world's finest example of Byzantine architecture. It’s now a UNESCO site and the beautiful mosaics and Christian references that were plastered over are slowly being restored.

Even though it’s not a ‘working’ religious site like the Blue Mosque across the road, the prayer and meditation it once carried in its earlier reincarnations is still palpable. I loved the high dome and ceilings, the intricate mosaics in the upstairs mezzanine gallery, the gorgeous coloured marble, the Islamic medallions mounted on the pillars and the newly exposed gilded murals of Madonna and Christ on the walls. It’s easily a big favourite of mine!

Next we walked across Sultanahmet Park and over to the very imposing Sultanahmet Mosque (known as the Blue Mosque). I had read a lot about this monument and I was excited. The mosque only welcomes non-Muslim visitors outside the five daily prayer times, but we’d timed it well and walked straight in. I love the concept of being welcoming to all visitors but also being respectful of the primary purpose of the building and enabling the worshippers to pray in peace. I wish the custodians of churches around the world were able to have the same level of crowd control of unruly tourists.

The Blue Mosque is very similar in design and feel to the Suleymaniye Mosque, but ten times busier! We queued for the first time here and slowly shuffled our way towards the entrance. When we got to the front door we realised what the hold-up had been – tourists being issued with head scarves and sarongs because they were either too lazy to bring their own or too arrogant to care about the dress code. The massive crowds spoilt my experience here; it was impossible to walk around without elbowing someone or getting elbowed yourself. Plus there was an overpowering smell of foot odour when we entered the mosque, which also contributed to us shortening our visit. The blue Iznik tiles on the walls and ceiling are supposed to give the Blue Mosque its common name. Even though the tiles were beautiful, after seeing the Rustem Pasa Mosque the day before, this seemed somewhat dull by comparison. All-in-all a disappointing experience.

That afternoon we were continuing our walking tour from the day before, so we decided to look for a teahouse we could relax in for a bit. We are well and truly hooked on cay (Turkish tea) and have one at every opportunity. We stumbled upon the cutest little place on a back street that had just one table in the shade. The owner seemed overjoyed at getting our custom, and even offered Andrew a Kurdish cigarette he had been rolling as we walked in. The hospitality and generosity of the people here is phenomenal. I can’t think of another city or country where the people are so genuinely friendly. Even the insistent carpet salesmen are so polite.

The day before we had walked around the old European side of Istanbul, and now we caught a tram across the Golden Horn River on the Galata Bridge into the newer European side to visit the modern neighbourhoods of Karakoy and Taksim. We went to the last stop at Kabatas, then caught the funicular from sea level uphill into Taksim Square. There is a small park attached to Taksim Square and has Pietro Canonica’s 1928 Monument of Independence that features Ataturk. Even though the square itself isn’t attractive, the famous shopping and entertainment strip Istiklal Cadessi (Independence Avenue) starts here. A very cute antique tram also begins at Taksim Square and runs the full length of this street filled with shoppers, both locals and visitors. The street was lively and buzzing, full of brand name shops, bars, cafes and restaurants. This is Istanbul's modern face – it’s the stylish end of town where fashion and art live. Personally I prefer the old Sultanahmet and Eminonu areas for their atmosphere, but it was interesting to see the modern side of Istanbul, with its young people hang-outs and fashionistas parading about.

Our guide for the afternoon was Gurhan (from the home visit the night before). We started off the walking tour by stopping for lunch at a local lokanta, which is a steam-table (a bain-marie) restaurant where all the food is precooked (or just being cooked) and on display for you to point at. It’s essentially a good option for a fast and fresh lunch. At Pehlivan Lokanti, Andrew and I shared a kofte (meatballs) and pilav (rice) dish, a very tender chicken roast dish and mixed grilled vegetables. It was lovely homely food, and the flavours were brilliant.

Istiklal Cadessi houses all the major international brands on the main street, but most of the side streets and little connecting lanes are brilliant and hide small shops and old houses now renovated and restored into cafes and restaurants. We walked down the cobbled pedestrian road and window shopped, popped into a music shop to look for a few Turkish films (recommended by staff at the Istanbul Intrepid Travel office), admired the gates of Galatasaray School and then walked into a small alley and enjoyed a Turk kahve (Turkish coffee ) at Chilli Cafe. This particular cafe had resident Fortune Tellers who can apparently tell your future from reading the coffee grinds in your cup. We were led into a smoky room one at a time, and after the usual hocus pocus, I was told that I should prepare for more travels this year and that I would be meeting a new man in July; but that’s OK, because Andrew was told he would be meeting a new woman in August! We’ll keep you posted. 😊

It was a bit of a laugh and at the very least the Turk kahve was good. I had been looking forward to lots of that thick and powerful mud-like Turkish coffee that I love having in Melbourne; however Turk kahve is not that popular here; most locals prefer cay instead.

We explored the narrow back streets and passages to secret courtyards. Historically, this was where the non-Turks in Istanbul have lived, and we visited Aya Triada, a Greek Orthodox Church which was quite an influential religious structure in its time. It was closed, so we asked the caretaker if we could look inside. He obliged, but stood at the door muttering angry sounding things quite loudly to himself. At one point I actually though someone else had joined him, but then realised that he was ‘doing’ two voices in his conversation. This freaked us out so we left quite quickly. We then visited the neo-gothic St Antoine of Padua – the biggest Catholic Church in Istanbul. We didn’t stay long here either, as a pilgrimage group was praying and we didn’t want to intrude.

We were at the end of our two day walking tour, so before we bid farewell to Gurhan, he showed us to the hamam (Turkish Bathhouse) we had organised for the evening. Istanbul is famous for its wonderful bath houses and I had been looking forward to an invigorating scrub down at the Galatasaray Hamam. Andrew wasn’t so sure about this. The bath was gender segregated (thank god!), so Gurhan abandoned me at the door to the female section (a non-descript door in a back lane) and then took Andrew around to the men’s section (through a beautiful marbled entrance).

A woman led me to a change room where it was mimed that I should strip, then barely covering my bits with a sarong I was led into a large room with marble floors and a large domed ceiling. It was steaming hot inside. The woman then gestured that I use the little copper pots to pour water over myself from the marble basins and sit back on the heated marble slabs. I did as I was told for about 30 minutes (I worked this out later as I had completely lost all track of time). There was only one other customer in the baths when I entered, and when she finished I was all alone is this gorgeous centuries-old bathhouse.

The female baths are run by babushka-like tough old women, and one of them came over. What I hadn’t expected was that she would be near naked too. I was starting to get a bit nervous. My babushka indicated that I lie down on another part of the marble table. She then proceeded to scrub me very, very, very hard with a very, very, very scratchy loofah. After about five minutes I was convinced she thought my colour would scrub off if she tried hard enough. After ten minutes, I was convinced she was using the loofah to dig her way into my internal organs. Eventually she stopped the scrubbing and soaped me up, after which I got a gentle full body massage and a rinse off. This all took the best part of an hour, by which time I was well and truly exfoliated and squeaky clean from head to toe!

Even though the process itself was slightly unpleasant, the end result was so lovely that I definitely want to go back. I felt very clean, fresh, relaxed, slightly sleepy and strangely high for the rest of the evening. However, it was an extremely weird experience to be scrubbed and washed like a child again! It had been quite a long day of walking, so after our scrub down we headed (read: limped) back onto a tram and re-crossed the Galata Bridge from Beyoglu into Eminonu and headed to our hotel.

Dusk is just gorgeous in Istanbul and we fought our tired feet and headed out for a walk and dinner. We had been eager to try Istanbul’s famous balik ekmek (fish sandwich) since we had arrived, and tonight was the perfect night to do it. We walked through a beautifully lit Gulhane Park to the waterfront, and then along the water to the Galata Bridge. In the shadow of the bridge, there is a small flotilla of fishing boats on the wharf where freshly caught fish is cooked on grills that have been fitted to the boats – we looked for the one with the most locals. The fish fillets are stuffed in half a fresh baguette-type bread roll and served with a scoop of salata (lettuce and salad onion) and a squeeze of lemon if you wish. I had to spit out a few little bones that had escaped the filleting knife, but otherwise it was fabulously delicious, quick and cheap street food (5TRY Turkish Lira, which is about $2AUD). The little cafes under the Galata Bridge also serve them, but they looked seedy and you just can’t beat the ambience of eating straight off the bobbing boats. The whole waterfront area seemed to come alive in the evening and the hustle and bustle of the night market added to the very rustic feel of eating balik ekmek in the cooler night air.

We walked back to the hotel following the tram tracks, and we had to avoid some seriously crazy drivers. Although the roads may seem European in their condition, the traffic here is definitely Asian flavoured, with pedestrians randomly darting across streets and the drivers blaring their horns. We decided that the tram would be our transport of choice for the inner city Istanbul area. The tram lines covered all our areas of interest quite well. A tram ride costs 2TRY to go one way to any stop (no matter how far down that line). You either buy a 2TRY jeton (a round token) or use an Akbil Card (similar to the Oyster Card in London / Octopus Card in Hong Kong). The jetons can be used on trams, buses and ferries – a very simple and efficient system.

The ferry is also a major form of transport here and we are yet to partake in activities like crossing the Bosphorus strait into Asia –so that is exactly what we’ll be doing sometime over the next few days. At the very least it will give our poor feet a rest from two days of intense walking. What an adventure it has been so far! I’m looking forward to more relaxed and slower paced days.

We ended the day drinking cay and munching on Turkish Delight in the hotel room… and feeling very pleased at being awarded Blogger of the Week by the good people at Travel Blog. It spurred us on to catch up on our writing which had slipped a little.

See you around Istanbul!


18th June 2012

You are such a wonderful couple to follow. Thank you for all of the information you provide. Travel safely, I look forward to your adventures.
19th June 2012

Thanks Jill! :)
18th June 2012

An Interesting Hamam Day Indeed
Reminds me a bit of my Air Force medical all those years ago. (They probably aren't allowed to do that any more...) No word from A-M yet, although you both do sound at least as enthused about Turkey as she was/is.
19th June 2012

Re: An Interesting Hamam Day Indeed
Hi KD, we are in Pamukkale right now, will let you know if we run into AM :)
18th June 2012

Hi Guys. Great reading. Sounds like you are having a great time. Glad to hear Andrew recovered well after the fainting (?) spell on the plane. Istanbul sounds like an amazing place to visit. Looking forwrd to your next entry. Cheers Mark
19th June 2012

Hi Mark! Yes having a great time and Andrew is completely back to normal...the rest of Turkey is shaping up to be quite interesting too :)
18th June 2012

Great views on Istanbul
I like the 2 for 1 information! Hope you are feeling well now. Would love to see Istanbul. We are off to Marrakesh in October which may have a similar feel to it.
19th June 2012

Hi Meryl! We are travelling with a couple who have just been travelling in Morocco and they say the weather is similar, i.e very hot! if you keep a blog of your rtip, let us know... :)
22nd June 2012

Blogger of the Week
Reading these blogs of yours in Turkey it is easy to see why you were bestowed with this Award - engaging writing, gorgeous photography and a charming "He Said", "She Said" approach.
24th June 2012

Re: Blogger of the Week
Thanks Shane! Very kind of you to say that...we enjoy writing our two versions very much and it facinates us to see our different perspectives.
7th November 2012

Fortune teller
Guys, I would have spent more time finding out about my future. Could you go back to that cafe with my dob please! What a hoot! Did you pay for the predictions? Turkey sounds delicious! xxx
7th November 2012

Re: Fortune teller
Rom the fortune tellers were such a laugh, they were trying to make it all mystical! We paid 1 Turkish Lira for the 'experience'... :)
20th September 2015

Love the stories
I've always loved your writing style and stories.
21st September 2015

Re: Love the stories
Thanks MJ! :)

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