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Middle East » Turkey » Marmara » Istanbul
March 5th 2016
Published: March 6th 2016
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There are a few things you can't not do in Turkey. One of them includes eating traditional Turkish food. If you've ever had burek, you know why. If you've ever had baklava, you really know why. If you've ever had both for breakfast, you probably have been to Turkey. Welcome to Istanbul.

After breakfast, we wandered across the Golden Horn again and through Gülhane Park, which runs just north of the Topkapi Palace and is meticulously maintained and beautiful. The designs on the benches and even the lamps and trashcans are beautiful, along with the flower patches and trees. There are also a number of strays, both dogs and cats, to be seen around the city, and especially in parks. Luckily they are all very tame, often tagged, and definitely well taken care of and almost arguably loved. One of them came over to say hi to us while we were sitting in the park, and she was the cutest.

On the way to the park, a shoe-shine walking ahead of us dropped his brush. I picked it up and rushed to give it back to him, and he was so gracious he offered both of us a free shoe shine. Granted, I bought new shoes on Wednesday, so I didn't particularly need it, but I'm not going to turn down free stuff. We did tip him generously. However, two interesting patterns showed up. One came into focus: Turkey loves Germany. Every time anyone hears Marie's from Hamburg, they get excited, and many speak better German than English (granted, even three words of German is better than my Turkish). The other pattern began with him and appeared through the day: Turks love Obama. Or perhaps only know Obama and no other Americans. That's unclear. But often when they heard I was American, they'd say something like "eyyy, Obama Obama!" or "go Obama!" or something to that effect. It was quite amusing.

Anyway, the park spits you out just feet from the Hagia Sophia, so we wandered around the walls and fell in to a tour group and learned a bit about some stuff outside the walls. The Imperial Gate is how sultans and guests would enter the Hagia Sophia. Directly across from that is the the fountain where they could collect water (no more...in fact, nobody drinks tap water here. As such, every street vendor sells water by the pack. A standard 20-oz bottle is usually about 1 lira, or 33¢!). We wandered the grounds of the Topkapi Palace for a bit before getting fresh-squeezed juice and heading in the direction of the Grand Bazaar.

On our way to the Grand Bazaar, we saw a sign for the Basilica Cistern. Marie said it was something she'd wanted to see and it sounded cool, so we went inside. The Cistern itself is about 450x215 feet, supported by a couple hundred columns. It was built 1500 years ago for water storage, although now the water is only a foot or two deep and certain parts have hundreds of dollars of coins on the ground. The pathways walk between the columns and do allow you to go the whole length and width, as we did, with only minimal drippage from the ceiling. At the far end from the entrance, two columns are supported by Medusa heads: one inverted, one on its side. In the middle of the Cistern is the Hen's Eye column, which has tear-shaped markings thought to pay tribute to the deaths of slaves during its construction.

After the Cistern, we continued our quest for the Grand Bazaar. Much like Boston, this city was not designed for navigability. Much like many older cities, nor was it designed for both pedestrians and cars to share the road. As such, finding the bazaar (or even getting around) without dying was quite a feat. Once inside, it was pure pedestrians, which was beautiful in its own right. Of course there are dozens of knock-off shops, but many do peddle authentic goods. One in particular had very high-quality, real pashmina scarves that they were selling (at least Marie vouches for their real-feel). We shopped there, then wandered the bazaar, finding lamps, shot glasses for my collection, intricate backgammon and chess and even Rummikub boards, and, of course, tons of shops for shisha, tea, and coffee and their respective paraphernalia. As would be expected in such a place, the sales people were fairly aggressive. Most spoke English and/or German, so it got to the point eventually where I started responding in Spanish, because it was a much easier way to get them to give up...otherwise some would even follow us for a bit trying to get us to come back to their store! Of course, the few that did speak Spanish could work around that, but it was more rare.

After leaving the bazaar, we found a lunch of Hürum Sultan (spelling? It's a mix of figs, prunes, and lamb) and Moussaka -- a bit more traditional than yesterday's meals. We headed from there back to the Hagia Sophia, which, it turns out, closed at 4:00, not 7:00 as Google said (don't trust the internet, I suppose). In a typical act of spontaneity, we decided to take a boat tour of the Bosphorus instead. By catching the 5:00, we were able to see the sun set over the water while seeing parts of the city we wouldn't have had time to otherwise. After the tour, we headed to the Çemberlitaş Hamamı. A Hamamı is a Turkish Bath, which was an experience for life.

They split up men and women (except for one bath in Istanbul, this is true across the board) and send you each into changing rooms. There, you get buck naked and put on a towel, then go to cavernous room with a massive marble slab about table-height in it. The room itself, although not steamy, feels like a steam room, albeit a circular one that is about 3 stories tall 15 yards in radius. The slab in the middle is probably 7-10 yards diameter itself, and either heated or just hot due to the air. You sit there and warm up for a bit, before an attendant comes in and calls you over. You lie down and he (or she, I'd assume, for the women) goes at you with a scrubber. It feels like a softer version of the rough side of a sponge -- definitely cleaning you off, but not painful. After that, they have you sit on the floor next to a basin of warm water and splash you down. Then it's back on the table, and massive amounts of soap and suds, which they literally massage into your skin. It was truly reminiscent of my orthopedic massage and I wouldn't be surprised if they're trained masseuses. After the suds, it's out to a hip-height shower, where you sit down and they stretch your muscles in ways I'm pretty sure humans aren't designed to stretch, and then it's back in to lay back down and get scrubbed down, rinsed off, and then you're left to try to recover whatever delusion you had held that your body wasn't covered in knots. If nothing else, you feel extremely clean. You finish with a shower and a cheap, strongly-suggested fresh-squeezed juice outside the sauna room.

After that, we headed back to rest, recover, and plan the night. Marie wasn't feeling up to going out (Istanbul, interestingly, despite being a fairly religious city, has a very busy nightlife), so we went and found kebabs up near the Galata Tower, which required walking through what we discovered was one of the bar-loaded areas of Istanbul. They all played fairly heavy, bouncing music, so it made the walk a bit more fun. The dinner was delicious, and then a nice slow walk home and bed, so that tomorrow we can see the Hagia Sophia before heading on south to Tel Aviv!


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