Istanbul: Blending The Cultures

Istanbul is the perfect blend of European, Middle Eastern and even Asian culture. It is a huge cosmopolitan city of more than 13 million people that straddles two continents Europe and Asia and retains a lot of its’ old world flavour. For western tourists afraid to venture to far outside their comfort zones, Istanbul may be one of the best places to visit. There are two main areas where tourists stay; Sultanahmet and Beyoglu (Taksim). I chose the latter and was glad I did. While Sultanahmet has most of Istanbul’s main tourist attractions, you can’t beat Beyogolu for its’ energy day and night, its’ shopping and the diversity. The main street that cuts through the area is Istiklal Caddesi, a wide pedestrian only street with a streetcar track running down the centre. Here you will find everything from Benetton and The Gap to small family run shops that have been in the same location for generations. There are hundreds of places to eat, you can grab a doner or Kafte (meatball) sandwich or sit down and enjoy an expensive meal at a 5 star restaurant. Of course there are the usual McDonalds, Burger Kings, and Pizza Huts but why would you eat there when there are so many amazing foods to sample. Don’t forget the sweets too.  On a hot day there’s nothing like a scoop (or two) of Turkish ice cream, served up by a unique brand of street performers that will spin their meter long scoops. The ice cream is more like a gelato so it is very slow melting.  And you can’t leave Turkey without experiencing Turkish Delight (or any of the other sweet confections), nothing like the candy bar sold in the west, sometimes combined with Pistachios or other nuts or dried fruit.

It’s also easy to get around; an LRT network, buses, taxis, a few operating trams (streetcars), even a funicular. On my first day exploring I used the hop-on hop-off double decker bus, the same as the ones in New York, London, Paris Barcelona, Toronto, and dozens of other cities around the world. They give you the chance to get your bearings, figure out where the key attractions are with a running commentary (in several languages) about the highlights and history. You can also hop-off at any time to explore and then hop back on to go to the next attraction. I tried to see as much as I could, and among the highlights for me were a visit to the beautiful Blue Mosque (I was shocked to see women inside without head coverings – Haram (or sin) in most mosques, especially those in the Middle East. When I asked one of the workers about it, he just shook his head and said ‘what can we do?’ While I’m certainly not religious I always respect the local customs. Tourists have a responsibility to follow the rules and remember that they are guests).  Enough of my rant.  The Mosque itself is massive and exquisitly constructed with inlaid marble everywhere, and beautiful painted vaulted ceilings.

I also toured Topkapi Palace, a massive Ottoman palace built for the sultans and their family.  As you enter you might think you are entering the Magic Kingdom at Disneyland, but this is the real thing.    You can wander through the Harem and some of the royal apartments.  Of course my favourite part was the Imperial Treasury, and apparently everyone elses too… it definately had the longest lineups. It is full of the clothing, thrones, the spoils of war and best of all the spectacular jewels and gold. The most famous by far, is the Topkaki Dagger, gold and covered in diamonds and other gemstones including 3 huge emeralds and topped by a golden watch hidden under an emerald lid. It’s also home to the Kasikci (or Spoonmaker’s) Diamond, the fourth largest in the world at 86 carats. It’s said to have been discovered in a trash pile, believed to be crystal but when it was discovered to be a diamond the Sultan had it confiscated. It is set in silver and surrounded by 49 more diamonds. It is spectacular to see, unfortunately no cameras are allowed inside the treasury so you’ll just have to see the picture through this link.

As I mentioned you can’t beat Istanbul for shopping and the ‘Mecca’ for shop-a-holics has to be the Grand Bazaar, one of the largest and oldest in the world. It actually covers 58 covered streets with more than 4 thousand shops that attract as many as one million visitors a day. If you can’t find what you are looking for in the bazaar or on the very busy shops all around it, chances are it doesn’t exist. It isn’t cheap though, while bargains can be found, prices are just as high in the bazaar as anywhere else in Istanbul. I spoke with one shop owner who had four shops selling ceramics and dishes and he told me he bought his one shop 4 years ago for 3million Turkish Lira (more than $1.8million USD) but he claims that he pulls in an average of 20,000Euro or $26,000USD every day, from just the one shop. There are dozens of jewellery stores, many side by side trying to woo customers in for that one big sale, you can also buy gold bullion if you are more interested in the investment. There are also numerous shops selling lamps, t-shirts, trinkets and souvenirs, candy stores selling the famous Turkish Delight, as well as clothing stores, cookware and glassware shops and an entire section devoted to leather and pelts, just about anything you could imagine.

I also checked out Aya Sophia (or Hagia Sophia), first an Orthodox Basilica, then a Mosque and now a tourist attraction. While it is beautiful, the stone work and mosaics are breathtaking, I felt a little let down. I had heard how it was spectacular and a must-see but I was a little underwhelmed, maybe I’m just a little jaded after seeing so many Mosques, Churches and  Cathedrals, this just kind of combined them all in one place.

A couple of other sites to check out, if you have time; the Basilica Cistern, not what you might think, yes there is a giant pool of water down in the bowels of the earth, and yes there are fish in it (but you have to look closely) but it looks like a Cathedral inside with all the carved pillars and the coloured lights. There are two pillars, with bases of the head of Medusa on its’ side or upside down that have been coloured by centuries of algae growth. Also check out Galata Tower, a massive stone tower with a circle staircase and a view at the top that is the best in all of Istanbul (you can even eat and drink at the top).

And if you feel like I do after a day of touring around I felt like I needed some personal attention so I stopped off at the Galatasaray Hamam in Beyoglu, just off Istiklal Caddesi. Visiting a hamam is definitely one of the things you MUST do when you visit Turkey and it was everything I expected. I entered the reception area and booked myself in for ‘the works’; massage, head massage, skin abrasion and of course… the bath. I was led into a small ‘cabana’ that had a single bed in it, but I wouldn’t be resting. I was told to undress (completely) and wrap a cotton wrap around me (like an Indian Lungi or an Indonesian Sarong) and slip on the sandals that were provided. So far so good, I could do that. I emerged from my cabana ready for my massage… until I saw the huge man that was going to be giving it to me. He led me into the main room that was a large room with a big marble slab in the centre. He put down a pillow for my head and another cotton sheet and told me to lie down… and then he left. It was hot… I mean really really hot and humid. It was like a steamroom, on a low setting because it wasn’t hot enough for steam but it was still very hot. I laid down and relaxed staring up at the big domed ceiling and the dozens of little skylights that brought in extra light. But the heat was taking its’ toll and after about 15 minutes of waiting I went back to the reception area and asked for some water… I was absolutely drenched in sweat. There was only one other man in there at the time but he didn’t seem to be sweating as much as I was. I downed a full bottle of water and laid back down waiting for the masseur to make an appearance. After another 10 minutes or so he came into the room and told me to follow him. We went out to another room with a smaller marble slab and he told me to lie down. First he soaped me up, head to toe, and then he started working me over. It was the most intense massage I have ever had… I really couldn’t call it a massage it was more like he was just trying to hurt me. At one point I actually grunted a loud ‘ahhhhhhh’ and not from pleasure but from pain. I was told I should have a woman do the massage since they are not as rough, but I wasn’t given the choice. I grinned and bared it for the 10 minutes or so while it lasted. He then told me to get up and follow him into another smaller room that was surrounded by several large sinks. He told me to sit down on the marble floor and he proceeded to pour hot water all over me. He then took a stick that had a bunch of fabric strips that he dipped in soapy water and then slathered all over me. When he did my face I couldn’t breathe, I was choking on the soapy water, so he started pouring more water over me, which only made it worse, I was sputtering trying to catch my breath. Then came the loofah mitt which he scrubbed me down with, very roughly… I’m sure he took off the top layer of skin (is that what’s supposed to happen?). Soaped me up again and rinsed me off… and that was it. It was all over in about a half hour. He led me over to another man who had a bunch of towels which he dried me off with and then wrapped me up, one around my waist, another around my upper body and a third which he tied on my head like a turban. He then led me back out to the reception area where he told me to have a seat and a cup of apple tea. That was actually the most relaxing part of the adventure. After getting dressed I decided to walk back to my hotel, but if you know Istanbul, it is a city of hills and stairs and every step I took was painful. My calf muscles felt like rocks, like I had just run a marathon and every step caused more pain. By the time I made it back to my hotel I was absolutely exhausted so I decided to have a short nap before heading out to Camlica hill on the Asian side, where you can see the whole city and watch the sun set. Unfortunately my short nap turned into a few hours and I awoke at 7:45pm. The sun was already setting and I realized I had missed my opportunity. As I looked out the window I could see it was a spectacular sunset too… so I grabbed my camera and headed to a nearby vantage point… a car park (that smelled like urine). Instead of my plan to watch the sunset at one of Istanbul’s best vantage points I was trying to take photos from a parking lot. Still the sunset was spectacular (one of the best I have ever witnessed) and I’m glad I got a chance to see it. Since it was my last full day in Istanbul I vowed to come back again and make it up to Camlica Hill and to see more of the city. Until then I have my photos to remind me of the spectacular beauty of Istanbul.

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