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A Week in Istanbul

The hotel instructions said “give my phone number to your taxi driver and let him call me for directions.” But being public transit people, we bought a transit card at the airport, took the clean, modern, and quite well-utilized metro to within a few miles of our destination, and then took a taxi. Had it been daylight, and had we known where we were going, it would have been easy to get all the way to busy, touristy Sultanahmet. It turned out we’re only about seven minutes from a tram stop.

Although we were staying 5 to15 minutes’ walk from the city’s most magnetic attractions including the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia), and Tokpaki Palace—our hotel was located in a much-less touristy section: a fascinating hodgepodge of ancient, teetering wooden houses, small shops, narrow alleys, and a refreshing absence of touts. There were plenty of hotels here, catering to student travelers who choose charm and location over amenities (our room was small and spartan, but clean—and amazingly quiet!)

Once we were settled in by Ali, the very friendly hotelkeeper, we walked around for about an hour, going both directions along Kadirga Limani Street. Almost outside the door, we stumbled on the Little Aya Sofya mosque. A couple of blocks farther, we found the Blue Mosque, and across the street, the long, narrow green of the Hippodrome, home to Istanbul’s most ancient monument: the Obelisk of Theodosius, built some 3400 years ago in the Luxor region of Egypt and moved first to Alexandria before arriving in Istanbul in the year 390. This plaza also holds another obelisk, many centuries newer, as well as the a now-headless serpent column that looks like modern art but is actually ancient, and the beautiful German fountain given by Kaiser Wilhelm II (under renovation during our December, 2013 visit). The main Aya Sofya, the old cistern, and many other attractions are steps away.

Many of the monuments including the Blue Mosque are lit at night, and stunningly beautiful.

For our first full day, we started with Istanbul’s most glamorous: the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya. On Shel’s last trip to Istanbul, in April 2011, he’d waited at least an hour to get into the mosque, and was pressed against thousands of other people on the way in. On this snowy December morning, we walked right in. There were a few hundred people inside the mosque, spread widely through its vast and beautiful interior and courtyards.

The Blue Mosque, built by Sultan Ahmet I, is the second-largest of the roughly 3700 mosques in this city. It feels enormous and elegant. Stained glass on multiple levels, a series of small and large domes, and a latticework of lamps. Admission is free, and the main job of the staff seems to be making sure that you take off your shoes before you enter, and that you don't put them on until you've crossed out again. Mercifully, since it was snowing, they were letting people wear shoes immediately up to the entry and after the exit doors, ignoring the usual 18 inches or so of perimeter—which is good, because otherwise, a lot of people would be walking around in very wet socks all day. There was a charming sign at the Islam information booth inside the main prayer area, describing the religion in a few short sentences, inviting visitors to enter and ask questions, and informing us that now you have “a friend in Turkei” (as the sign spelled it). In the courtyard was a series of large posters explaining Islam in more detail and displaying pictures of the pilgrimage to Mecca.

A few short steps from the mosque, the beautiful old Aya Sofia church stands on the site of two earlier churches, the second of which was built by Constantine I after his conversion to Christianity in the 300s. At the dedication of the new church in the 6th century, Emperor Justinian, who had commissioned the domed cathedral and shepherded its construction—involving 10,000 workers in just five years—claimed he had bested King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.

After the Ottoman conquest, the church was converted to a mosque. Among the additions: a gilded private area for the sultan and family that looked like a beautiful, ornate cage, a spectacular gold-trimmed shed outside for ablutions before prayers, and a marble stairway and balcony for the Imam to deliver Friday sermons.

The ticket price of 25 Turkish lira (TL) might seem high for just the first floor, but it includes a visit to the second floor, overlooked by many—and well worth visiting. Here, we got to be quite close to the amazing mosaics, some of which are still visible in whole or in part. There’s also a series of large posters of the mosaics as they must have been in their original glory.

On the way out, fortuitously, we headed toward the outdoor bathrooms—and passed a stone frieze of rams, dating from the 5th-century second church, and then a work area where we could peek around the barrier to see other antiquities awaiting restoration.

Shel had posted on Facebook about settling into Old City Istanbul and gotten a response from an old friend who now lives in Uzbekistan; she also happened to be visiting. So we met for lunch at Taksim Square, the heart of modern, urban Istanbul (and the center for massive antigovernment demonstrations earlier in the year). All the cars and buses that used to run right through the square have been rerouted. Now, they’re underground: a huge improvement. Lunch was at the Marko Paşa,a cozy place on several floors, full of interesting artifacts on the walls—and great food! Everything we tried was superb, including some dishes we’d tried elsewhere that were just an order of magnitude better here. Our carnivorous friend liked her homemade noodle dumplings stuffed with meat, which one of the workers was making in the restaurant window.

And then our friend wanted to buy a kilim carpet, so we all trundled over to the Old City together and headed into the Grand Bazaar, which bills itself as the world’s oldest and largest shopping mall (construction began in 1455). We had the fun of sitting back and relaxing while she negotiated with Omar, the rug merchant—which was much nicer than being sold to directly.

It was fun to watch Istanbul residents deal with two or three inches of snow, which they’re clearly not used to. Some went racewalking down steep, slush-covered hills with no change in their usual rhythm (not a wise idea, as we New Englanders know), some just looked perplexed, and one group of older teens managed to make snowballs out of the rather thin cover and have a big snowball fight in the hippodrome, which much running and dodging. One shopkeeper was valiantly attempting to clear his sidewalk—with a dustpan!

We started the next day at Topkapi Palace, just on the other side of Aya Sofia. Seeing the place and harem together took about three hours. A lot of the museum focuses on the royal collections of precious stones: rubies, emeralds, and diamonds, some of astonishing size and clarity, plus smaller stones set into gold, rock crystal, and other materials. There were also numerous weapons, garments, thrones, and assorted objects of ceremony. Beyond some cursory attention to harem culture, ordinary life was not much documented, surprisingly.

Not to be missed:

·        The sacred objects collection, which claims to hold such relics as a cooking pot used by Abraham, some pieces of Mohammed’s beard and a tooth he broke in battle, a turban belonging to Joseph, Moses’s staff, and David’s sword.

·        The fascinating clock room—especially the clocks with multiple dials or alternative ways of telling time.

·        Three pavilions near the rear of the palace grounds, including the “privy library”— done in magnificent blue tile of assorted patterns. Two of these buildings were octagonal.

Our afternoon destination was the Spice Market, another large ancient indoor mall with lots of spices, dried fruits, cheeses, and nuts. As at the Grand Bazaar, buying pressure was pretty over-the-top here, and what purchases we made were from the stalls in the alleys just outside the indoor market.

On the way back, we stopped at the once-glorious Sirkeci railroad station. The platform area has been modernized, but the old station, a bit tired, remains. It contains a small one-room museum of railroad ephemera, including one display case on the Orient Express (this was its eastern terminus). Not worth a special trip, but worth ten minutes if you’re in the neighborhood.

Then it was time to play tourist: dinner and a show. We went to a Whirling Dervish performance at Alemdar, Almendar Street 2/5, across the street from and just steps north of Hagia Sophia on the street with the tram.

We deliberately chose the touristy version of the dervish experience, where we could sit together, have an alcoholic drink, and be done in an hour. (Shel tried raki, a tasty and strong anise brandy.) And thus, we use the word “performance” and not “ceremony.” So we went in with fairly low expectations and were pleasantly surprised.

First, three musicians came out: a flautist, a tambourine player/vocalist, and a man playing something Shel thinks was a zither but Dina thinks was an Anatolian version of a hammered dulcimer. The sound was amazingly full and rich, with layers and echoes—and the music was simply beautiful. After two or three music-only songs, three dancers emerged, wearing black full-length caftans. They did some standing and kneeling bowing, walked in circles a few times, and then pulled off their caftans to reveal the all-white tops, skirts, and pants you’ve seen in all the pictures. They spun gracefully in circles for about ten minutes at a time, bowing to the musicians and the audience at the end of each song, then starting in immediately with no break and apparently no dizziness—going about 40 minutes altogether. And the food, though overpriced, was also better than I’d have expected in such a tourist-oriented place.

The next day we walked across the Galata Bridge, (with its fishermen on the upper decks, and rows of fish restaurants on the lower levels, serving their catch) to the quirky little Turk Musevileri Muzesi (Jewish Museum), Perçemli Sokak Street, in the Karakoy district.

Housed in an old synagogue, this museum pays tribute to Turkey’s role since Ottoman times as a bastion of freedom for the persecuted Jews in Europe—and to the Sephardic Jewish culture of Turkey.

We were still in a walking mood, so we walked up to Galata Tower, but since it was a foggy day, we chose not to pay to go up. Instead we walked all the way to Taksim, had another great lunch at Marko Paça, and then walked back intending to see the Carpet Museum, located in the Topkapi Palace compound but outside the fee area. Unfortunately, it had closed for the day.

While the day was enjoyable, the highlight of the whole day was our evening. We walked another mile and a half or so to the Suleymaniye Hamam, adjacent to the large Suleymaniye Mosque—both built by the amazing 16th-century architect Mimar Sinan, who also did hundreds of other glorious buildings in Istanbul (about 360 all together, and whose apprentices built the Blue Mosque). For the first of his three royal patrons, Sultan Suleyman (Solomon), he constructed an elegant wonder of wood and marble, between 1550-1557, as part of the whole mosque project.

We were given towels and welcomed by a man in a fez and a folkloric vest, who led us to our private changing room, appointed with a leather divan. Then we entered the bath, where we lay on a hot marble slab to sweat out toxins for half an hour or so, before being taken into one of the massage chambers. We happened to get the one the Sultan used to use, but all four looked pretty much the same. There, we were each vigorously massaged with orange-scented liquid soap bubbles, occasionally doused with cold water, and shampooed. Then we went back out to the hot slab for a while, before exiting to be draped in three towels and sent back to our changing room. It was divine! I’ve had lots of massages, but the liquid soap allowed the masseur to go very deep without the body resisting. Although the actual massage was only 15 minutes or so, it felt as deep and healing as the typical one-hour session. After we unwrapped and changed back into our clothes, we relaxed in the sitting area on cushions and pillows made of Turkish carpet. As we exited, they had us each pick a piece of candy.

But our hedonistic evening wasn’t quite over. Istanbul is mad about sweets, with dessert shops everywhere. We’d spotted one we wanted to try every time we passed, and this time, we were ready. Hafiz Mustapha Confectionary, founded in 1864, offered an exquisite array of baklavas, cakes, puddings, nut-stuffed fruit, and more. We tried a strongly flavored rice pudding custard with grated almond, pistachio and coconut, lots of cardamom, and something else I couldn’t identify. It was my favorite rice pudding ever. And they were sampling two other delectables: the best almonds rolled in cocoa I’ve ever had—the nuts in Istanbul are incredibly fresh—and tiny cookies covered with some sort of edible copper-colored film (think Ferraro Rocher, only much, much better). We went back the next day and tried a pistachio birds’ nest, a little baklava-like cookie, and the strongest Turkish coffee we’ve been served. Hocapasa Mahallesi Muradiye 51 in Eminonu, and three other locations.

Something that continued to surprise us was how empty the streets are at night, outside the tourist areas. Coming back from the baths between 8:30 and 9:30 p.m., we went through block after block of nearly deserted, often dimly lit streets, and that was our experience in other neighborhoods too. As New York City natives, we didn’t feel unsafe, but we both felt like we ought to. Of course, we exercised typical urban precautions when walking at night: keep away from doorways, walk at a good pace, act like you know where you’re going—and of course, don’t carry a lot of valuables.

After all these intensely urban days, we were ready for some country air. While fascinating, Istanbul is also noisy, crowded, and polluted.

And conveniently enough, the next day, the cold snap lifted and we had temperatures in the 40s and even a bit of sun in the sky. So we walked over to the official IDO ferry docks in Eminonu—we were warned away from the unofficial tours, whose touts line the streets of the Old City and Karakoy—and took the day cruise up the Bosphorus: Europe on the left, Asia on the right.. The boat leaves at 10:30 daily (you’ll want to be there at least half an hour ahead if it’s tourist season, but in December, during our visit, there was no line). The price was 25 TL for a round-trip ticket, and they do check tickets when you reboard.

It’s about an hour and a half from the junction of Istanbul’s three main bodies of water to the edge of the Black Sea, stopping at several points but only long enough to pick up and discharge passengers. Most of the way is heavily urbanized, and lined with many palaces, among them the Dolmabahce (former residence of the last Ottoman sultans as well as President Attaturk before he moved the capital to Ankara) and Ciragan Srayi (both in Besitkaş on the Europe side), Beylerbeyi (across the strait in Asia), and many others. Also Ottoman-era boathouses, and densely developed recent residential developments along the hillsides, several mosques, and a few charming looking older neighborhoods including Ortakoy, which Shel had explored on foot during  his first visit to Istanbul. And, of course, stunning views of the two bridges across the Bosphorus, and the castle ruin immediately before the second bridge.

Only after the second bridge did the development ease up, other than the large town of Sariyer. The shore was still lined with Ottoman-era buildings, but mostly boathouses, not palaces. Some of these boathouses, though, were as big as a good-sized apartment building. But the hillsides were more likely to be forested, especially on the Asia side, which appeared more lush.

North of the bridges, the boat stops in the cute village of Kanlica and brings on cases of the local yogurt. When the salespeople come through offering this luscious cream-topped delicacy, the correct answer is yes. 200 grams for 2.5 TL.

At the northern terminus, we had our choice of Asia or Europe for a 3-hour layover. We chose Anadolu Kavagi on the Asia side, because we knew we could hike uphill to an old Byzantine castle ruin. The numerous village dogs stand ready to escort hikers up the hill, and they’ll even show you the shortcut. It’s a short hike with several alternative routes, and from the top, you have views of the Black Sea, the Bosphorus, the castle walls of course, and an archeological dig at the castle site. It’s easy to see the strategic importance of this castle; a few centuries ago, controlling the Bosphorus was pretty much akin to controlling the world.

The hike only takes about 30 minutes round trip. Then you choose a restaurant (we chose one in the main square, right near the boat dock on the same side, that was vegetarian-friendly and quite good—but we didn’t write down the name). And then, you think you’re done but it’s not time to reboard, so of course, you go shopping. Fortunately, at least some of the souvenir shops have excellent quality and very decent prices, so this is not a bad use of your time.

For dinner, we chose Bukhara, right around the corner from our hotel and from the Blue Mosque. They’re very vegetarian-friendly, do a decent job with most of their dishes, and do among the best of the many fresh-squeezed pomegranate juices we tried (it is amazing to feel those vitamins soaking in). Why is theirs so much better? They strain it, getting rid of the bitter white lining. Theirs is also a wonderful purple, while most of the others were red.

Returning to Istanbul after a week in other parts of Turkey, we were in the mood for something other than the traditional Turkish fare. We explored the area immediately behind the Sultanahmet tram station, but were disappointed to find it jammed with tourists and touts, and with restaurant prices about double what we were used to. So we were fairly excited to find a New Cuisine Turkish restaurant called the Medusa. Prices on the menu posted outside were lower than most other places in the neighborhood, and the food looked interesting.

However, the menu inside was totally different. We ate there anyway, and we have to say the cereal salad was delicious. Bursts of surprises in every bite: salty cheese, sweet dried apricots and cherries, and amazing bursts of flavor in every pomegranate seed. But for a so-called cereal salad, there was maybe a teaspoon of grain, a dozen white beans, and one walnut cut into quarters. The base was nothing but a large amount of iceberg lettuce with a handful of better greens. And while our dinner bill was no more than we’ve been paying elsewhere, it was for a lot less food.

Our last full day, we decided we’d had enough of tourist Istanbul, especially since it was a Monday and most of the museums were closed. So we caught a city bus to Balat, about 4 kilometers north of Eminonu along the Golden Horn, and spent all afternoon exploring several real-people neighborhoods as we meandered back to the Old City on foot. First we walked about 20 minutes to the Eminonu bus station, hub for a few dozen routes. Asking several people, we eventually found our bus. The ride was surprisingly short, only a few stops. It probably took longer to find the correct bus than to ride there.

Then, more-or-less following the Balat and Fener itinerary suggested by Emma Levine in her excellent guidebook, Frommer’s Istanbul Day by Day, we went up the hill to the former Jewish quarter: an ancient neighborhood of twisted alleys, overhanging balconies, and some wooden houses, anchored by several pedestrian-friendly commercial streets. We walked by the çavuş Hamam, a ritual bathhouse built by Jews of the 15th century. It still functions as a bathhouse, though now a typical Turkish one, open to the public but sex-segregated. The lobby we glimpsed through a window near the men’s entrance appeared quite luxurious.

From there, we passed the Holy Angels Armenian Church, a gray and gloomy edifice that didn’t appear to be open, then turned the corner to the Ahrida Synagogue. Founded by Jews from Macedonia in 1430, this is Turkey’s oldest Sephardic synagogue. Unfortunately, admission requires a few days advance notice, and we hadn’t planned ahead. But we got to see the famous red door, at least, and then walk down busy Kurkcuçeşme Street with its markets, cafes, and Old Greek House.

Even though there’s a picture of it in the Frommer book, we were not prepared for the massive and ornate Greek School, a bright red Gothic castle towering above Balat. Founded in 1556, in the current building since 1881, and still in active use (though with only about 50 students, currently). It’s gorgeous, and Shel kept his camera quite busy. Around the corner is a church with the odd name Saint Mary of the Mongols, which we could catch glimpses of beyond the high surrounding wall.

Then we went up the hill into fascinating, deeply Islamic Fener. We saw more women robed in black from head to toe in this little neighborhood than we encountered in all of the rest of our Turkey trip—and yet, these women had a sense of freedom and urbane attitude that we haven’t experienced in out admittedly limited travels to other parts of the Muslim world. Much laughing and joking in the streets, plenty of women smoking cigarettes (more than we observed elsewhere, in fact), women in the cafes (though the locals were in a separate section), and plenty of women driving.

The streets—and particularly Manyasizade the main shopping street—were lined with religious book shops, clothing shops aimed at religious families (and especially the women, who were offered long outer coats and very fashionable ankle-length dresses to wear underneath their black robes and headscarves).

 Here, we tried a neighborhood pizzeria, Oz Karadeniz Pide, Manyasizade No. 8. The menu was all in Turkish, prices were low and the place was decorated with beautiful copper colored metallic tile work. It looked like the inside of a modern mosque. Food was good, prices were very reasonable, and nobody cared that a mixed couple sat in the main seating area rather than separating. We also walked through the courtyard of the beautiful Sultan Selimiye mosque, and watched the young boys in their white skullcaps race around the yard playing hide-and-seek during school recess.

Heading back down the hill to Balat again, we passed the white St. Stephen of the Bulgars church. Though it looks like stucco, it was actually assembled (in 1898) as a kit from cast iron components floated down the Danube. One more block to the square Women’s Library and Information Center, the only such resource in Turkey, with women’s archival materials as old as 1867. It should have been open during our visit, but we saw no lights on and no door that looked promising.

The final point of interest in these neighborhoods was St. George’s Church, seat of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate since 1586. You’ll know you’re near the entrance when all of a sudden, souvenir stands selling worship beads spring up on the quiet streets. Emma Levine describes the interior as “a combination of ostentation and serenity,” and recommends spending half an hour looking around inside. But by the time we realized we’d missed the entrance, we didn’t feel like retracing our steps—knowing we still had quite a bit of walking to do.

So instead, we came out to the harbor, walked through a string of docked fishing boats and several fishermen, navigated around the Attaturk Bridge ramps, and turned right into a neighborhood full of hardware and plumbing stores, tailor shops, and other non-tourist businesses, plus some more touristy restaurants and sweet shops.

One of the things still on our “to-do” list was to try a real kunyefe: a birds-nest pastry with pistachios, honey, and cream. We chose to go to Mado, right near the Sultanahmet tram station at Yolu #24, At 12 lira (about $6), it would be our most expensive dessert in Turkey, but we decided to try it there anyway, because everything in the store looked fabulous and the café’s second floor was a very pleasant place to hang out, with a great view of the illuminated mosque across the street. When a huge and tasty heated portion with a side of home-made ice cream appeared, easily big enough to have shared with a third person, we were quite pleased with our choice.

Block by block, Istanbul changes character. One block away from a rather slummy street, with several derelict buildings, two parked minivans blocking the street and an \unpleasant odor of burning brake pads is Kuçukayasofya (Little Little Aya Sofya Street). Here we found a glitzy neighborhood of expensive-looking hotels, shops offering very high quality rugs, pottery, and textiles, and lots of eateries. Yet this neighborhood had none of the pressure of the really touristy section around the Blue Mosque through Tokpaki Palace or the desperation of the touts in the poorer neighborhoods struggling to get a few customers in the door of their kebab shops)—and much lower restaurant prices, too.

By luck, we had our final Istanbul dinner at Sultan Koçesi, another elegant high-ceilinged restaurant with amazing food and midrange prices. We had a mixed mezi plate that was scrumptious, particularly the haydari yogurt dip and the imam biyaldi (an eggplant dish). The big loaf of balloon-shaped flatbread topped with sesame and onion seeds was also quite tasty, with its mixture of soft and crunchy. In fact, the food was so good that we decided to give salap (the orchid pudding we’d tried and disliked in Goreme) one more try. And here, it was delicious, topped with a generous helping of very fresh cinnamon.

A few magical moments in Istanbul

·        Emerging from the Metro with our suitcases and seeing one of the larger mosques—a definite “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore” moment

·        Watching doves fly around the minarets and domes of the Blue Mosque at night, illuminated by the bright lights that shine on the building

·        Walking on Sultanahmet Plaza and hearing the Muslim Call to Prayer arising from the Blue Mosque and a dozen others within a couple of blocks, all starting at slightly different times—and, much later in the trip, two different mosques, two muezzin: one high tenor, one midrange baritone, doing the call to prayer in counterpoint

·        Tasting the amazing freshness of a walnut-stuffed fig, an unsulphured apricot, and a piece of pistachio Turkish Delight from separate vendors at the spice market

·        The intense richness of a chopped tomato and onion salad called “esme” at Marko Paça

·        Listening to a street musician play Anatolian bagpipes in the Taksim Square funicular station

·        The entire Turkish bath experience at Suleymaniye Hamam, followed by melt-in-your-mouth ecstasy at Hafiz Mustapha

Logistics tips

·        At places like the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market, look for stalls frequented by the locals. Often, these will be on the outside, in alleys surrounding the building. Prices are about the same, but quality tends to be better, and there’s much less hassle.

·        If you use a wheelchair, think seriously about whether this is the right city for you. Many of the attractions are not at all accessible, and neither is the tram, though many Metro stations have elevators. And even if restaurants are ccessible, often, the bathrooms are not.

·        Istanbul has very good, and very popular (i.e., crowded) public transit. If you have the option to get on at a line’s first stop, your chances of getting a seat are much higher. Transfers require an additional fare, which is a little cheaper if you buy a transit card instead of tokens. If you’re staying outside the Old City (where everything is walking distance if you don’t mind a mile or two), you may want to buy an unlimited pass.

·        If using a taxi, either ask the driver to use the meter or negotiate a fixed price at the beginning.

·        A good city map is essential. The Istanbul tourist office puts out an excellent one, which is available at the airport if you ask at the information desk. You will also see racks of a really crappy map in the arrivals lounge—but you want one that actually labels the streets, especially since often, not every side of an intersection has a street sign. If you know the names of smaller streets that change names when they cross a major street, you can figure out the major street. Many businesses also include maps on their brochures.

Shel Horowitz’s latest book is Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green. D. Dina Friedman is the author of two young adult novels: Escaping Into the Night and Playing Dad’s Song.


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