Edit Blog Post
Published: March 23rd 2019
Blue skies and colourful houses early on my arrival morning
So my journey home is nicely delayed by a three day stopover in Istanbul. The good news is that it’ll shorten my sitting in a plane seat time and slowly return my body clock to UK time. And the very good news is that friend Julie Dent from the Clover Mill Ayurvedic Yoga Retreat in Cradley is going to join me there for a few days of winter break. In fact she’d booked us into a little guest house near the Blue Mosque and had already been exploring Istanbul for a full day. Straight into the tiny reception office from the sleepy early morning street outside and phoned to see if Julie was awake. Of course she was! So after I’d dumped the luggage and jumped into a welcome hot shower, we climbed the steep marble steps right up to the fifth floor rooftop breakfast room. Light and sunny, with an already crisp azure blue sky overhead and a view of the Bospherous out of the window . Breakfast looked expansive with a great variety of jams and cakes. The beginning of our Istanbul sweetness overload! It felt strange to be layering up the clothes and wearing boots and a padded
Approaching the square
coat. But despite the blue sky the air was crisp and chilly in the shade. A shock after the warm steamy air in Thailand! But it felt clean and clear.
Our little guest house was only a few streets from the big square with the famous Blue Mosque on one side and Haghia Sophia on the other side. Both impressive buildings with high domes and tall slender minarets. The square was wide, clean and clear. We decided to go an visit the Famous Grand Bazaar first of all, but progress along the street was very slow, so much to see. Curved glass fronted shops with dark polished wood interiors and exquisite cakes displayed in the windows with gallery-like simplicity. Each cake a work of art. Other brightly lit stores with intriguing displays of teas, sweets and spices. We were at first easily lured in with tempting slivers of sweets and delicate glasses to sample pomegranate tea. Protesting that we didn’t want to buy was of no consequence, and offering to return later was dismissed with impatience by the compelling shop assistants. It was just impossible to walk past those beautifully displayed, neatly stacked slabs of lokum, flavoured Turkish delight and
Cakes , with Turkish rice pudding beneath
the trays of glistening baklava , without stopping to wonder and delight. True ‘eye candy’. Once inside the shop and tasting the tempting slivers of sweets ( it would be rude to refuse) we felt rather like insects caught in the spiders web, and the heady sugar rush could have led us to buy kilos of candy, as the earnest shopkeeper whispered his latest knock down price , only for us and only if we bought now. Protesting that we had no intention of making purchases that day, we would extricate ourselves from one emporium of sticky sweetness only to fall into the clutches of the next shopkeeper. We perfected the art of appearing to be deep in conversation whilst peering sideways to see if we really wanted to enter into negotiations for anything. The building itself was a maze of covered streets with high vaulted ceilings. It’s like a maze and apparently there are about 4000 shops and 66 of these vaulted streets. We kept asking each other, “Have we been down here before?” There were shops overflowing with the most beautiful rugs and carpets, and it was hard to keep walking , and not stop to admire the
colours, designs and fine workmanship. Pausing before one shop the charming shopkeeper quickly approached us as we insisted we weren’t going to buy any carpets ( many shops displaying signs discouraging photographs) but he soon had us sitting in his coffee shop ( he had six shops in the Grand Bazaar) sipping small cups of thick dark Turkish coffee and sweet sticky baklava . There were gold and silver shops, clothing shops, coloured glass lantern shops and piles of bright hand painted ceramic bowls. Throws, Turkish towels, teas and spices. Beautifully soft leather shoes and bags. I had expected the Grand Bazaar to be crowded with tourists but I suppose it’s a quiet time of year and we found ourselves the focus of attention as we wandered in and out of the streets . Most of the shopkeepers were pleasant and friendly so it was great fun, but when we eventually realised that by some miracle we’d found the entrance we’d entered by, we deciddd to beat a hasty retreat.
Outside the sky was blue and we both felt the need for ‘proper ‘ food after all the sugary temptations.
To get into the sun we headed for a rooftop
restaurant. The first one had a lift, and by the time we got up there we’d decided that it looked a bit stuffy, the tables available were all in the shade, and workmen were painting the roof so there was quite a strong paint smell. Using the paint fumes as an excuse we beat a hasty retreat and headed down the street to a little restaurant quite near to our guesthouse which boasted a rooftop terrace restaurant. No lift here..... so we plodded up and up the steep five flights of stairs and found ourselves in a tiny rooftop restaurant, but with only one table on the outside balcony in the sunshine, and it was occupied. We were a bit disappointed, but the maitre d was a lovely smiley man who told us to wait a little, the people on the balcony were just leaving. And they did! And when we stepped out onto the balcony there was the Blue Mosque just behind us. Sometimes things just work out and it’s meant to be, isn’t it? So in true holiday mode we ordered food to share and a bottle of red( we can always take it back to the guesthouse
Lamp and rug shop
and finish it later) But somehow, with help from our charming waiter, the bottle was empty and it was somehow gone 5 o’clock! We paid up and carefully descended down the steep narrow stairs to the street, planning to do a couple of tourist sights before they closed. We hurried to the Basilica Cistern, an ancient underground reservoir built to supply the Great Palace of the Byzantine era Constantinople . CLOSED. Oh dear! We hurried across the square to the Blue Mosque and had half an hour to take off shoes and pad around this 17th century building which takes its name from the predominantly blue Iznik tiles which adorn the cavernous exterior. Glorious to behold , but much of it shrouded in coverings to hide the restoration work going on inside. We wondered if that was what happens this time of year when there aren’t so many visitors.
With daylight fading we decided to see if we could find a rooftop bar where we could watch the sunset over the Bosphorus, so armed with a Rough Guide to Istanbul and my trusty maps.me app on the phone ...... we tracked down the Arcadia Blue Terrace, which promised “ one
Heady delights in the sweet shop
of the best vantage points in the city”. We were not disappointed. It was stunning. So relaxing with sundowners , we watched and took photos as the sky changed from blue to orange to pink to red, and the lights becan to twinkle over the water and the mosques were gently uplit and the Sea of Marmara glimmered behind the Blue Mosque. Behind the Haghia Sophia the lights were twinkling on the Asian side of Istanbul, and the thin ribbon of the Bosporus to the north-east. We were delighted to have found the perfect vantage point, open to the skies .
Next morning, after our rooftop breakfast at the guesthouse, we set off to the Basilica Cistern, determined to see and do as much as possible in the day and not get too sidetracked by late, long lunches in the sunshine! Out of the daylight and down a flight of stairs into the dimly lit cavernous underground chambers, the domed roofs supported by an orderly forest of columns. Apparently it could hold over 80,000cubic metres of water to supply the city back in the 6th century. I’ll have to return another time to appreciate the size of the place, as
Spices and tea mixes
much of the underground vaulted space was being restored and large hoardings prevented us from seeing further. Walkways above the floor led us through parts of it and past the “ Crying Column “ carved with tear shaped symbols, the light shining off the wet stone and making it appear as if the column is crying. It’s said that it was erected in memory of the slaves who died during the construction of the Basilica Cistern. At the far end of the walkway there were two massive carved heads at the base of two of the columns; Medusa. One head is upside down and the other on its side. Quite creepy in the half light.she looks trapped by the weight of the columns. They were erected during a period of Christianity and would have been seen as pagan. I wonder if it’s a homage to the old beliefs-like the carving of the Green Man high up in the vaulted ceilings of some medieval British churches?
All the darkness and damp dripping underground walls put us in need of a coffee and we were delighted to take refuge in a lovely cafe. We were too overwhelmed by the amazing cakes and
instead decided to try a Turkish rice pudding ...... just because it seemed like rather an odd speciality in this exotic locality! Luckily we shared one as they were huge, served cold and slightly disappointing as we’d expected them to be exotically spiced and they were very plain. But maybe better for us than the more sugary brightly coloured desserts. It’s so good for us both to be away from our businesses and we are never at a loss to recount a funny story or reflect on life around us. And laughter and the possibilities and freedom of eating cake and drinking coffee and having a glass of wine ( or two) over lunch is such a heady mix for us self employed working girls! We both enjoy chatting and laughing with all the Turkish people we meet -it’s what makes the world go around!
Julie had already located the Spice Market when she’d explored the day before I arrived, and she’d also earmarked some things she’d like to buy. My luggage was already at capacity of what I could physically manhandle ...... so I just enjoyed going to look. So we followed the tramlines down to the waterside, snacking
Grand Bazaar .
Julie prepares to get past all those waiting shop keepers
on chestnuts, freshly roasted in the street ( to combat the sugar overload from sweet sampling)
The Spice Bazaar is like a smaller version of the Grand Bazaar, with high vaulted chambers with painted vaulted ceilings. In addition to the spices after which it is named, there were also all the other shops, several cotton Turkish towel shops, scarf shops, Turkish delight and essential oils. Shopkeepers were less pushy than in the Grand Bazaar, and there seemed to be very few tourists other than ourselves. It gave us time to think, walk around a bit and then go back to the shops we liked. Purchases made , and back out into the outside world. Large, relaxed and well fed dogs basked in the spring sunshine and shoppers walked carefully around them , not disturbing their slumber. Maybe they belonged to the shop owners.
The guesthouse manager had given Julie a travel card for bus, tram and boat so we decided to work out how to use it. First we tried putting a few more Turkish lira onto it at the machine fit for the purpose down by the harbour. Friendly Turks helped us to work out what to do (
Coffee and Baclava at the Lucky Table
or maybe they were just impatient with the time it was taking for us to work it out!) Then we were through the barriers and onto the ferry for the short trip across to Beyoğlu. We marvelled at the ferries ‘ducking’ under the Galata bridge , seemingly with only millimetres to spare. When we disembarked on the other side of the narrow waterway we found ourselves in a lovely fresh vegetable market which then led into a fish market, which then led into a simple fish restaurant. Slightly disappointed that we couldn’t indulge in a lunchtime crisp white to go with our ‘hamst ‘ (sardines to us) we nevertheless tucked into crispy fried sardines and deep fried shellfish and potato chips. That fortified us to climb the steep cobbled streets that led up to Galata Tower.
Lucky I hadn’t had a tipple at lunchtime because we had to negotiate a busy, tricky intersection. I thought it was best to follow the example of some local women who were weaving fearlessly through the traffic, but when we reached the other side of the road there was a high barrier to the pavement, so we had to hurry along the side of
Colourful hand painted ceramics
the road.Skirting a stationary van, my left foot caught in one of those plastic parcel ties that hadn’t been cut and was still in a loop. And in one of those freak accidents ( which is why they are called accidents) my right foot got entangled in it too and with my ankles virtually tied together I came down n front of Julie like a felled tree! She helped me scramble to my feet , along with some local bystanders, and shaky but bruised I hobbled onto the pavement. I could see that I could put weight on my right leg so no hip or leg break. Poor Julie! She was powerless to stop me taking a tumble and visions of ambulances, hospitals and crutches must have gone through her head!! Anyway, walking up to Galata Tower seemed to be the best option so we did that. Galata Tower is reputed to have the best view over Istanbul, but we are not able to verify this for you because the queues to climb the tower were very long and slow moving . Not our thing. So we had a hot chocolate and a mooch around some shops. Luckily we were
still very satisfied with the purchases we’d made earlier in the Spice Market.
So , growing weary, we scrambled back down he steep cobbled streets to the waterfront, and crossed that crazy road with greater care( this time following in the footsteps of some older local people!) And then caught the ferry back to ‘our’ side along with lots of tired workers returning home.
We had wondered whether all those shops full of sticky honey sweets and baklava were aimed at the tourists, but realised that local people were queuing, purchasing and eating on their way home -in fact we couldn’t get near the shops by the waterfront. So we headed back to Osmanlizadeler, nearer to our guesthouse and where we’d stopped for coffee in the morning. Julie bought baklava to take home. And the young shop assistant was so delighted that we’d actually come back to buy. They must get sick of people saying they’ll come back later or tomorrow....... and then getting side tracked in another shop! We set off back to the square of the Blue Mosque and some shopkeepers rearranging their shop window asked for advice ,” We’re selling textiles , scarves and clothes, but also
rugs. Do you think we’ll frighten tourists away if we put a rug in the window? They are tired of being hassled in the rug shops.” We warily advised them to display a rug, or they might miss customers who were looking for rugs. It seemed a genuine question, and not an ingeniously tricky way to sell us a rug. In fact they didn’t try and sell us anything. Just trying to understand the way tourists’ minds work, and that not everyone comes to Istanbul to buy a rug. I’d certainly buy ten if I could afford to.
So we got back to the guesthouse and showered and although both fit to drop we ventured out to one of the nearby restaurants to eat.
It was entertaining to watch the young people and their attempts at blowing smoke rings from a hubba bubba or hookah. The waiter showed off his skills, especially impressing three beautiful young women with fake bambi eyelashes. We felt invisible, but then he remembered to bring our order.
Julie was heading home on an early morning flight (she had to give an Ayurvedic talk in Stratford on Avon that evening) . So she packed her bags
and took some of my things back too , so I wouldn’t have so much to carry.
Early next morning, Julie left. I have a day on my own in Istanbul. Tempted just to stay in bed and write my blog ........ but it’s the last day of my holiday, the sore hip needs exercising and there are things to do from my To Do List.
So I limped up the marble steps to our rooftop breakfast buffet. Cake for breakfast. Oops. And another bald man with a black bandana at the breakfast table. I say ‘another’ because we’d been puzzled and since I’d arrived in Istanbul I’d noticed these men with stubby regrowth on their heads, some lines as if drawn or cut on and all with black towelling bandanas. I thought it must be some special religious sect. Julie had noticed it too. So I googled ‘ bald men, black bandanas, Istanbul’. Of course . Istanbul is now one of the hair implant centres of the world! Julie at the same time had spotted more at the airport and had also consulted Google. Mystery solved!
So under a blue sky. Set off to cover some of the places
Grand Bazaar sweetie shop
Fasting explains something about Turkish Delight and why I should buy a ton now. Not tomorrow.
I’d missed and Julie had already done , either on a previous visit to Istanbul some years ago, or the day before I’d arrived.
So I walked to the big square and followed the signs for Topkapı Palace. Can’t come to Istanbul and not see the Palace. Early in the morning it was very pleasant to wander through the gardens ( and there were more relaxing in the sun dogs.) I paid for my ticket and decided to visit the Archeological Museum first. Good choice. Very few people about and some amazing things on display. It’s always very humbling and awe inspiring to see beautiful pieces from B.C.and statues of people who could be walking past you on the street today if they were in modern dress. Oh , and here’s Medusa again-no sign of snakes in her hair ( an allegory?) looking rather matronly and disappointed with life.
There were beautiful old tiles from the length and breadth of the Ottoman Empire, and stained glass and fabulous Babylonian glazed brick lions, bulls and a dragon that looked like a horse with a snake’s head..
I then entered the gateway of the palace itself and began exploring the rooms which
were richly decorated in gold and brilliant colours. I began to realise that my progress through the palace was getting slower and slower. More and more Turkish school groups were arriving and children everywhere rushing around with notebooks and clipboards trying to find the next item on their questionnaires and speed on. Teachers waving flags and counting heads. Ha! Time for me to beat a hasty retreat I think! Back to the favourite coffee shop for baklava and coffee and then back to the waterfront to make my way over to Galata again. For I’ve been invited to tea with Julia, a friend from Worcester, who just arrived in Istanbul the night before. Julia and her husband Tarkan have beautiful apartments in the old residential areas of Istanbul which they rent out long term or as holiday or business lets.One has just become available again, and Julia has come to organise a freshen-up and to take new photos.
Had plenty of time so I decided to saunter( with the occasional limp) across Galata Bridge instead of taking the ferry as we had done the day before.
Workers eating their lunch, grandparents showing toddlers in pushchairs the water traffic, young
Sometimes you have to take a selfie to prove you were there!
courting couple having a lunchtime tryst....... and fishermen all along the bridge. Some with just one fishing rod and others with many, propped over the railing. I wondered how the fishing lines didn’t get trapped in the boats and ferries that swooshed under the bridge.
I took GREAT care in crossing that busy road again , sticking close by an old man and his wife with a stick ( having to clamber over the concrete barrier in the middle of the lanes of traffic) The car drivers seemed to respect her progress and she occasionally waved the walking stick aloft. I took a different route to Galata Tower ( still very steep) and in the quieter streets noticed lots of sleek cats squinting and sunning themselves. Outside many of the small shops there were bowls of water and dried cat food. So none of those lazy dogs on this side of the water or they’d have wolfed it all down!
Everyone seemed jolly, there was music on the streets and , as before, a very long queue snaking around Galata Tower. As we’d arranged, I met Julia by the Galata Fountain. Another strange moment when the world seems so small!
Lunchtime rooftop balcony with a view of The Blue Mosque
I followed her just a short distance from Galata Tower, down the narrow cobbled streets with high overhanging enclosed balconies. In the doorway of her apartment our access was blocked by a street vendor who had used the doorstep to set up his portable Macun . When he realised where we wanted to go he was very apologetic and prepared to move on , but we talked to him and bought one of his sweets. His circular metal container was divided up into five segments and each segment contained a brightly coloured sugary viscous liquid. He told us what each one was flavoured with, bergamot, cinnamon, rose, kiwi, lemon, mint. It almost sounded healthy! One by one he threaded the multi-coloured sticky stuff around and twirled the stick , finally squeezing lemon juice on it. I commented to Julia that people in Istanbul must suffer with diabetes and keep the dentists busy with all the sweets I’d seen them consuming. She began to translate this to the man, who said “ I understand, I lived in Denmark for ten years”. I wondered where his life story had taken him. He seemed sad.
We walked up he spiral stone stairs to
A lunchtime glass of red in Istanbul!
the apartment....... me holding the sticky sweet concoction very carefully in case it started to drip. When Julia opened the front door of the apartment it was “ Wow!” A beautifully restored high ceiling with elegant cornice and polished wooden floors. First carefully depositing the Macun on a saucer as it was threatening to slide off, I stood in the doorway of the living room. Light, bright and a view of the Bosporus. We sat in the overhanging balcony and sipped tea and Julia told me how she and Tarkan had lived in Istanbul and worked on each apartment themselves.
If you fancy staying in Istanbul and want to try staying in one of these lovely places, with interesting information and back up from your hosts, try looking at www.istanbulplace.com
Julia asked if I had any other plans before I left Istanbul next day. I told her I’d like to buy some baklava and go to a hamami.So Julia gave me the name of her husband Tarkan’s favourite baklava shop which would be on the way back to my guesthouse and began checking the internet for hamam that would be open for women in the evening . Some hamamis have
hours for women, and then hours for men, usually in the evening, as they have to share the same facilities. But , here’s a famous hamami available to both men and women in the evening ( separate facilities of course) in fact it was built in 1741, many famous people have been here and it’s listed as one of the “ 1,000 places to see before you die”. Well I’d better go there then. Only the best, and I’ll only have another 999 places to see when I’ve been there. Now for those who don’t know ( and I didn’t until I got to Istanbul) a hamami is a Turkish bath house.
So I said goodbye to Julia and headed down towards the Galata bridge. My trusty mobile phone app, maps.me led me to Karakoy Gulluoglu, the huge baklava shop which was packed with locals tucking into the rich buttery pastries packed with pistachios and walnuts. There were queues at the take away counters, but all was executed with the flourish of a stainless steel spatula to scoop up a mixture of baclavas which would fit perfectly into the box,payment was made at a central till, and collection was made
Carpet in the Blue Mosque
all the more pleasurable with a baclava sample delivered to the purchaser with a flourish and a smile.
Placing my trust in the maps.me app I then followed the little arrow on the phone screen to find the Cagaloglu Hamami. Up and down narrow streets, I had completely lost sense of direction and was beginning to think the app was having a laugh and leading me to an unsavoury part of town.... when suddenly I saw the sign. A rather dark and dubious entrance...... and then I was in a beautiful reception area with a very sophisticated and coiffed lady greeting me from behind the desk , and a very sophisticated suited and groomed gentleman bowing as if I were royalty. “ do you have a reservation Madame? We only take previous bookings”
Oh no! After all that they wouldn’t let me in? But of course they did, I’d just have to wait 40 minutes for a therapist. I was happy to sit in a comfortable lounge space, charge my phone ( these apps eat up batteries) and sip mint tea.
It was a strange experience to be led gently into the inner sanctum and a changing room where I
The Blue Mosque
could leave my belongings and wrap myself in a cotton sarong. The led into the cavernous steam room with marble columns , under a large dome with star shaped openings in the roof. Feeling a bit like a fish on the fishmongers marble slab, my therapist directed me to lie down on the huge marble slab in the middle of the room and the heat from the steaming marble was a surprise. As best I could , I forewarned my therapist about my sore shoulder blade and battered leg, as she set to work on my body with a scratchy glove thingy. I resisted yelling out when she got to my knees, scarred from the previous days tumble. Then the soft soapy bubbles treatment. A sort of pillowcase full of soap bubbles that she swung around and then emptied over me. Sluiced down with hot water and wrapped in a towel, I was led out of the steam room to a sort of rest bed, and presented with a tray of Turkish delight, roasted almonds and a delicate glass of tea. Then led to the cosy massage room to be gently pummelled and rubbed with exotic oils and massaged from
top to toe. Finally a chance to dress and dry my hair before feasting on a tray of succulent fresh fruit. I was just about their last customer by the time I left, and I think it was about nine o’clock. My photo won’t be on the Wall of Fame at the entrance ....... but this hamami has been visited by many famous people including Opra ,Tony Curtis, Rudolf Nureyev, John Travolta and......... yes .......... Florence Nightingale!!
Now , coming out onto the dark cold streets after such an experience was a bit of a shock to the system. But I put my trust in maps.me to get me back to the guesthouse. Don’t panic ........ yes, panic, as the directional arrow started to turn around , like a whirling dervish changing its mind over which direction I should go in! I thought I was in the right part of the city and it told me it would only take 29 minutes to get back to the guesthouse, but it wanted me to go down some very dark, poorly lit and dubious streets. So I turned it off , then on again and asked it to find the Blue Mosque.
From Arcadia Blue Terrace
Eventually I got to familiar streets and was never so relieved as when I slipped through the front door of the guesthouse and up the marble staircase to the room.
And so the next day I took a taxi to the airport, and the flight back to Birmingham where lovely friend Pat was waiting for me on a blustery rainy day. And back home to Home End Farm , where Lottie-dog immediately and generously forgave me for being away so long. Sad that there’s no Tracey Pig to greet me, but Gormley came trotting up was he field for a chat and seemed pleased to see me. Bought one of sculptor Luka’s scrap metal music boxes in the shape of a pig when I left Chiangmai. It looks just like Tracey Pig, or at least the spirit of her, and plays “ Only you”.
It’s been hard to finish this last bit of my travel blog for the year. Such fun to stop in Istanbul on the way home, and it certainly helped with getting over jet lag.
blue-ginger gallery will be open one week today ....... and there’s lots to be done. Thanks to Jo Verity and Tamsin Abbott
From the rooftop
there’s an exciting new exhibition being set up. So I’ll just load up the last photos, publish this and I’d better get back to work!
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