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Saturday, October 13, 2012

Turkish Delights

Turkish Delights

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

We arrived in Istanbul by plane from London about noon on Tuesday, a gentle journey, in part because Jim had purchased one Business Class seat, and he offered it to me. I do not always understand how and why Jim does things when we travel, but he is a great planner and organizer, and on this occasion, I was most grateful for an upgraded mode of travel. Wider and softer seats, more choice from a menu and real utensils. It was a great way to start this, the final part of our adventure. (Yes, Jim sat in economy for the duration of the flight.)

A driver from the hotel picked us up at airport and the wheelchair service once again delivered us through baggage claim, immigration and customs efficiently and without a hitch. The kind man even took me right to hotel car in parking lot.

It was a beautiful day with clear skies and warm sunshine. The road we travelled runs along the shore of the Sea of Marmora.  The water sparkled in the sunshine. The city of Istanbul extends on both sides of the water for as far as the eye can see. We were on the Asian side and Europe stretched out before us on the other side of the sea.

Parkland flanks the seashore, space filled with trees, picnic areas, bike paths, playground equipment and people.  As in Singapore, there were loads of ships at anchor, awaiting their turn in the port to be unloaded and/or loaded.

As we moved from the newer parts of the city into the older areas, we could see the old city walls that once encircled Istanbul. Standing in great disrepair, the walls remain a monument to the history of this city, reminding us of the strife and struggles that Constantinople and later, Istanbul, has endured over the centuries of its existence.

Another observation along the way had to do with language. Not surprisingly, all street and directional signs are written in Turkish!! Yikes! We do not know a single word of Turkish and had to acknowledge that we may have some difficulty in communicating here.

After a long drive in heavy traffic, we turned off the main road into an old section of the city, Sultanahmet.  We were enveloped by narrow cobbled streets, zigging and zagging like sheep trails, flanked by ancient buildings housing hotels, shops, restaurants and more shops and restaurants. Exploring in this area is going to be fun. We took lots of turns on short blocks and many one way streets. Oh, and have I mentioned the hills? The whole city is built on hills …. Lots of ups and downs on the route we followed.

Finally we reached Hotel Sarnic, a recommendation from our friend, Altan. And it is a fine hotel. We were thrilled with the courtesy and helpfulness of the staff, the ambience of the facility and the location in Sultanahmet.  But there was one challenge to be overcome …. 5 steps up to the door, 8 steps up to the lobby, 15 steps up to our room on a curved marble staircase. This is going to be challenging with a boot on my foot.

We did receive a warm welcome and enjoyed Turkish coffee in the lobby prior to making our way to our room. Our luggage was delivered to the room for us.

Our room was large and comfortable.  We were fortunate to be at the front of the hotel and have a street view. We could already tell that this street was a place of action, people and colour.  And we had a great vantage point to enjoy it all.

There was a message awaiting us from Altan and we arranged to have dinner with him that very night. It was thrilling to actually be in Istanbul and be able to spend some time with this long time friend in his city. He has been to Waterloo and Toronto at least three times in our acquaintance but this is the first time we have been to Istanbul in recent years.

We settled into our room and went out for a stroll. Within close range of our hotel, we visited the Blue Mosque and the Hippodrome with its Obelisks. We passed by many shops featuring carpets, ceramics, fabrics, clothing and all manner of other things. We were invited in to see the merchandise and share a cup of tea over and over. We refrained from these offers as our intent today was to simply explore and get our bearings. We did enjoy a glass of fresh pomegranate juice squeezed in our presence by a street vendor.

We took a different route back to our hotel. We found a much needed ATM. We paused for a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and walked back down a hill that we were sure would lead to our street. My goodness, we were mistaken! We got thoroughly lost in this rabbit’s warren of cobblestone lanes and winding streets. We had to ask for directions at least 3 times to find way back to hotel …. And it became abundantly clear that language was going to a challenge. We climbed up hills and down hills and we were both very happy when we found our hotel once more.
I had a very tired leg when we got back. Lesson learned …. Never venture out with out a map and the address of the hotel!

We arrived back just in time to change for dinner. We quickly donned fresh clothes and Altan was there. Hugs all around and animated chatter. It was going to be a great night.

Altan gave us a choice of restaurant, either red meat or fish. Having not had red meat for a while, that is what we chose. We headed off to Gelak Atakoy, a restaurant known throughout Istanbul as the best place for red meat. We enjoyed a delicious meal (kebab platters, fresh salad and Turkish desserts) shared with great company. Altan and I became friends in 2000 when I was an avid online bridge player. We would play with two other people for about an hour or more each day for about 3 years. And the friendships among all four of us were forged and have continued into the present day, even though I no longer play online bridge.

Altan returned us to our hotel at the end of the evening and we made plans to reconnect again before we left Istanbul.

It had been a long day (we got up at 4 am in London). We slept well that night!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

After our experience yesterday, I was reluctant about walking far today. Although it was relatively close, we took a taxi to Hagia Sophia. This structure was originally built as a Christian cathedral and later adapted to be a Mosque. It now stands proudly as a museum to the religious journey that is central to Istanbul’s history and culture. It is startlingly beautiful, with magnificent painting on its walls and in its domes. The marble flooring is worn with deep grooves from the feet of the millions of people who have passed through its doors and into its sanctuary over thousands of years. A truly awesome place.

We walked through an adjacent park, a beautiful place with trees, gardens, fountains, ancient and wonderful buildings … and hundreds of tour busses with thousands of people! We located the ‘Hop on Hop off’ tour bus which offered a 90 minute circuit of city, narrated in English (one of 8 languages to choose from). It was a beautiful day and we sat on the top level of this open-topped bus where we were able to take loads of photos – old town, new buildings, Asia, Europe, bridges, Golden Horn, Sea of Marmara, minarets and mosques.

Mosques and minarets are both dominant features in the landscape and architecture of Istanbul. Mosques are easily identified by their globe-like domed roofs and are a key element in each neighbourhood (much like churches at home). Minarets, tall and proud, soar above the mosques into the sky. Most mosques seem to have one minaret but there are many that have four … and the Blue Mosque is proudly surrounded by six minarets, all very ornate and beautiful structures. (It has been a challenge to find a vantage point to photograph all six at the same time. Ironically, it was from the rooftop of our very own hotel that it was possible.)

This may be a good time to describe a unique feature of Istanbul and most other Turkish cities. Being predominantly Muslim, there is a cycle of prayer that occurs five times each day.  A call to prayer is broadcast from the minarets that are situated throughout the city and have a very powerful speaker system. Beginning early in the morning and continuing at predictable intervals throughout the day, a male voice rises above the traffic and other city noises to call people to prayer. The voice sings in long phrases, punctuated by periods of silence.  The call begins at the Blue Mosque and is echoed from other minarets throughout the city. The call to prayer lasts approximately five minutes (maybe longer) and occurs five times each day, every day of the year. This cycle dominates the soundscape and in fact, punctuates the flow of the day in the city. We have not observed men setting out their prayer mats and facing east so I am not certain how much the call to prayer is heeded, at least in public. But it is certainly present in the lives of the residents here … and all the visitors as well.

And while we are on the topic, let’s speak briefly about women. In tourist areas, it is difficult to differentiate between visitors and residents of Istanbul. But what becomes clear when away from the main tourist areas is that there are in fact very few women out in public. Men hold all the roles that one might associate with women in Western culture – hotel clerks, shop assistants, restaurant servers,  tour guides etc. I am curious about where the women are and how they spend their time. What I can say is that the attire for a woman on the street is extremely variable, ranging from typical western style clothes with no head covering, to wearing scarves, to wearing long but stylish cloaks over their clothes, to being fully covered in traditional burkas. Almost no women that we have seen have had their faces covered. There does seem to be a trend that older women dress more conservatively and younger women are more liberally. That paints the picture with a very broad brush and we are not experts by any means. There is such depth to this culture and religion and we have barely scratched the surface.

Following an excellent bus tour of the city, we returned to the area around Hagia Sofia where we enjoyed a delightful lunch at a small café. Once again we ordered salads and once again we were very happy with the result - crunchy fresh salads filled with lettuce, tomato, cucumber, carrot and other tasty delights. Turks do salads well!!

At this point we actually went into the Hagia Sophia, described earlier, and were enthralled with the beauty. We remained inside for a quite a while, unable to pull ourselves away from this place of history and architectural brilliance. Light filtered through all the windows and created an aura that is quite indescribable.  Truly awesome.

It was time to head back to the hotel and my leg was very tired! So we decided once again to take short taxi ride as a means of getting there. Hmmm ….. not so fast! First of all, we were in a very large pedestrian area and the nearest taxis were a healthy (aka long) walk away. We paused for a cold drink, girded our loins and set off for the taxi stand. It was a struggle but I made it. And then ….. no taxi would take us. The ride was too short to make it worthwhile. One driver offered us a deal …. 35 lira …. We had paid 5 this morning to go the same distance. So, we walked on …. And on …..and on until we found another group of taxis. Same thing …. No one wanted such a short trip. Finally after quite a long wait and a lot of pleading, we simply got into a taxi fresh on the scene before we told him where we wanted to go. He was not delighted to say the least but he did finally set off in the direction of our hotel. He also overcharged but not by as much as the other drivers were trying to. Even with all the steps up to our room, we were both very happy to be back ‘home’. And a bit reluctant to take another taxi any time soon.

Istanbul is a walking town. There are large pedestrian malls where no traffic is allowed. Streets are circuitous, narrow and often one way (although at times that seems only to mean one way as long as no one is coming the other direction). Cars stop randomly at the side of the road or in the middle of the road to pick up or drop off passengers … or even to run a quick errand ... and delivery trucks and tour busses take far more than their fare share of the road. All these factors make driving difficult! And traffic jams are a given as most streets were built hundreds of years ago and not designed to handle the traffic of a population of 15,000,000 plus all the tourists. No wonder the strong recommendation is not to even think about driving in Istanbul!

When we travel we often refer to the Trip Advisor website for ideas about places to explore and restaurants to patronize. Tonight especially we did not want to go very far from our hotel. I checked out Trip Advisor and there were several highly recommended restaurants within a few blocks of our hotel. Perfect! The most highly recommended in the area was Sultan’s Kosesi which also happened to be the closest to us, only one block up the street. We were absolutely delighted with the outcome.

Sultan’s Kosesi featured a design and décor that reflected the Ottoman empire, patterned ceramic tile tables tops, geometric designs on richly coloured cushions, brass wall decorations and brass pots and jugs. It was all quite luxurious, esthetically pleasing and comfortable. We chose a table at the front of the restaurant at a large open window. Fresh air poured over us and the night scene of lights and action on the street was at our very fingertips.  We settled in for a long, relaxing evening meal.  As we perused the menu, our eye fell upon the signature dishes for the restaurant. It was difficult to choose between the individual dishes and a tasting menu that had a bit of everything. We finally settled on two individual dishes. Jim ordered water jug lamb kebab and I selected eggplant stuffed with a ground lamb mixture. We also indulged in another of Turkey’s crisp fresh salads; this one included fresh mint along with lettuce, tomato and cucumber.

Water jug lamb kebab was prepared using a fascinating process. It was actually cooked in a sealed clay water jug and came to the table on a tray with flames engulfing the jug. When the flames died away, the server very carefully removed the bottom of the jug … that is, he tapped the bottom with a knife all around the jug until the bottom flat part actually came away from the jug and the rich lamb stew flowed out onto Jim’s plate.  I suspect it took more than a bit of practice to perfect this technique. Of course, all the food was served with a lovely hot bread, fresh from the oven. Delicious!!!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

This was a wonderful day!! We left our hotel early in the morning to head to the Grand Bazaar. What an amazing place, thousands of little shops in corridors in a great covered bazaar. Words cannot begin to describe the scope.  Whole aisles of gold, carpets, jewellery, luxurious fabrics, cushions of all sizes and designs, trinkets, leather, tea shops, fine china -  each aisle supported by tall round columns and all under a glorious roof that is painted with ornate mosaic designs. Needless to say we ran out of time and need to prioritize time to return again next week. We did accomplish a couple of goals, though. We are definitely in the market for a Turkish carpet and spent some time in a shop recommended by a friend with experience in this area (thanks, Carroll). We had a good look at a variety of sizes, textures and colours and are ready to make a final selection to bring home with us. This is very exciting for us!! We also picked up some trinkets along the way, identified some ideas for great Christmas gifts and enjoyed breakfast at a classy café where the coffee and tea were served in freshly polished ‘silver’ cups with lids. It was very elegant!

But now, we were in a hurry and needed a taxi to get us back to the hotel toute de suite. We did not want to be late for our cooking class. Of course, we were in a large pedestrian area and had to walk several blocks before we could reach an area where taxis might be.  After last night’s experience, we were not optimistic about being successful! Luck was with us, however, and the first taxi we saw was available and willing to whisk us back to the hotel for a reasonable price. Hmm, maybe our faith in taxis and their drivers is restored!

The general manager of our hotel is a trained chef and offers Turkish cooking classes on occasion. We were again in luck to be here when a class was offered and space was available. There were 11 people in class, 3 from Australia, 1 from Ghana and the rest from Canada (BC, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario) .  Of course, the common language was English which made the entire experience more fulfilling and, frankly, more fun.

Under the direction of Mehmed, we prepared a bountiful meal – kirmizi mercimek corbasi (spicy red lentil soup), zeytinyagli taze fasulye (green beans in olive oil), sigara boregi (cheese pastry sticks), etli yaprak dolmasi (ground meat in grape leaves), incir tatlisi (figs stuffed with walnuts baked in honey syrup). We learned how to properly peel a tomato and make one of those tomato skin roses. We learned a new way to separate eggs. We learned how to chop a carrot, a cucumber and zucchini with little danger to our fingers. We learned how to roll dolmas (grape leaves) and how to roll sigaras (pastry).  Everyone had a great time. The class was punctuated with laughter, photographs, learning and a sense of pride and wonder at our success.  We enjoyed lunch together on a roof top terrace overlooking the Sea of Marmora with the Blue Mosque rising into the glorious blue sky right behind us. (This is where I captured all 6 minarets in one photograph.)

After lunch,  while Jim ran some errands, I labeled photos, began this diary and frankly, had a little nap. But soon it was time to head out again, this time to the Suleymaniye Hamam, a 500 year old Turkish Bath.

The Hamam arranged to pick us up at our hotel. Thank goodness …. We may never have found our way. The streets of Istanbul look very different at night and, if possible, have more pedestrians that in the daytime. Restaurants burst from their walls and spill out onto the narrow streets with menu boards and tables encroaching the thoroughfares.  Shops are all open and their proprietors are clamouring for your business. Thousands of coloured lights add a hue to the atmosphere that is quite fantasy-like. En route, we wove through many such streets and wished that we had more time and energy to simply stroll and explore.

We arrived at the Hamam and entered through a very nondescript doorway with nothing but a simple sign labeled Suleymaniye. But when we got inside, we knew something magical was going to happen. The room was amazing with subdued colours, rich carved wood, Turkish furniture and decoration, with gentle music setting the tone. We were graciously greeted by soften-spoken gentlemen who showed us our options in terms of services available. 

Having made our choices, we were guided to a private dressing room to change into appropriate ‘bath’ attire. I had taken my boot off for this activity and, I must say, the staff who supported me were very accommodating and solicitous. I felt very safe in their hands, in spite of the wet and slippery marble floors.

Once ready, we were led individually into a wondrous chamber made entirely of marble (built 500 hundred years ago) where we sat and relaxed in the heat for about 40 minutes.  Sweat poured off our bodies and I could feel a deep clean setting in.  Just when I thought I would have to leave that room due to the heat, the tellak (masseur) came to pick us up and take us to the next area. There we laid on cool marble slabs while the tellaks bathed us in silky soap bubbles, removing all the dead skin, and leaving us with a wonderful tingling sensation. The tellaks then provided a relaxing yet firm massage topped off with hair being washed and wrapping us in warm, soft towels. We dried ourselves and wrapped ourselves in more gowns. We were seated in a cooler space and served drinks and simply relaxed. This was a great way to end a full day.

We enjoyed a late night snack of soup, hummus and bread at a sidewalk café next to our hotel. We then prepared to leave Istanbul early in the morning. We were leaving most of luggage here and indeed travelling very lightly for the next several days. 

Friday, October 12, 2012

This morning began early as we caught the 7 am ferry to Bandirma, across the water south of Istanbul. The ferry ride was smooth and pleasant. We watched a glorious sunrise through the east window and generally spent our time chatting and reading. We were blessed with another very fine day, a good thing indeed as we had a four hour wait for the train from Bandirma to Izmir, on the Aegean Sea. Bandirma is not what one might call an exciting city. Other than the short walk from the ferry terminal to the train station, there did not seem many places to go. Jim took a walk along the street and found two very run down hotels (not going for coffee there) and a local fish market. Even the café at the train station was not open although we occupied a table and chairs there for several hours. I had a fluffy novel to occupy myself and, Jim, as usual, was busily reading more information about things we can do when we are in the area we are going to.

At lunchtime, we sought out the only café that seemed to be offering food (not the one at the train station). The café was called A Kebab place so we were encouraged that we might be able to order something interesting and tasty. We were very mistaken!! The only thing that was available was a toasted white bread sandwich made with pepperoni, tomato and some kind of nondescript cheese. Oh well ….. it was at least warm.

We boarded the train only to find that our assigned seats were beside a wall, not a window. Once the train left the station we moved to the empty pair of seats directly behind us that had a clean window to see through and to take photos. It was a pleasant journey and as passengers came and went, no one seemed concerned that we were not in our assigned seats. That is, until about an hour or so before the end of the 8 hour ride. A lady and her son boarded at a station and insisted that we switch back to our proper seats. We, of course, did that with no issue. It was sunset anyway and the view was vanishing into the darkness.

Along the way, we travelled through a wide variation of landscape. Much of it was quite mountainous and rocky, dry and barren at this time of year. As we travelled further south and west, more agriculture became apparent. Corn was a predominant crop in large areas. Most of it had been harvested already although there were still some fields that remained untouched. Much of the land was already ploughed and ready for winter.

Soon, olive groves covered the landscape in every direction. The soft green leaves shimmered in the light and we could see the abundant olive crop veritably dripping from the branches. Clearly, it has been a good season.

Vineyards were also present in many locations as well as abundant market gardening – luscious tomatoes, vivid red peppers, melons laying in the fields awaiting collection, and cabbages, large, fresh and ready for harvest. At times, we saw flocks of sheep and herd of cattle, but not too frequently.  Most homes along the way had neatly kept gardens and the crops seemed to be flourishing there as well.
It appears that this part of Turkey is a rich agricultural area.

We finally arrived in Izmir at about 8:30 and made our way via taxi to our nearby hotel. Although it is called Comfort Residence Inn, it has no connection with the Comfort Suites or the Residence Inns that we have often stayed in in North America. Nonetheless, it is a clean and well appointed suite that we are in and we have decided to stay for two nights and use this as a launching point for exploring the area around Izmir.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The early morning call to prayer awoke me today. It was early but a good time to work on this diary and organize photographs. Later this morning, we will pick up our rental car and travel out of Izmir in a southwest direction by car.  We will spend the next several days travelling by car and visiting cultural and historical sites as well as exploring villages and countryside in this corner of Turkey. We are looking forward to the change of pace and less dependency on walking as a form of transportation. We can go where we want, when we want and stop to see anything we like.

The thought of driving is causing a few grey hairs, though. Turkish drivers are known to be random and opportunistic. That means that we have to be prepared for unexpected lane changes, u-turns midstream, sudden stops in any lane, running red lights just a bit after they change, horns honking, pedestrians making their way across busy streets, motor bikes travelling in and out of moving traffic, street vendors pushing their carts along major thoroughfares …. Things like that. Add to that the fact that we have no local knowledge of cities, streets or highways and we are in for a real adventure!!

Language is a barrier – what do those road signs say? We figured out the DUR means STOP (a helpful beginning) although not everyone adheres to that.  And lack of maps is an issue as well. Hertz could only provide a schematic map of the area; there are no GPS systems in Turkey; and the tourist office is closed until Monday.  So we tried out our by hook or by crook approach to travel. Where is the sun? What direction do we want to generally go? What is the name of the town we would like to reach? And, relatively speaking, the day went pretty smoothly. We enjoyed the scenery on all the roads we travelled and finally ended up on Cesme (pronounced ChessMe), our ultimate destination.  And we made it back to Izmir before the sun set.

Along the way we came upon the delightful town called Alacati. It is a small town nestled along the shore of the Aegean Sea (yes, the water sparkles just like it does in the ads). Windsurfing is a major sport here and we were lucky enough to see several windsurfers flying in the breeze today. There is also a lovely sand beach and quite a few people were actually in swimming. We did not go to the shore to test the water temperature but we are hoping to do some swimming a little further south later in the week.

And speaking of wind, this is one of Turkey’s major production areas for electricity created through wind turbines. High on the hills all around Aticali are installations of wind turbines. We counted more than 100 of them. And, to transmit the electrical power they produce there are also major transmission line systems running from Aticali to other communities who make use of the electricity. Because most of the turbines are installed in uninhabited areas, I suspect there is little resistance to them. And they are clearly effective in power production.

Aticali appealed to us because of its markets and its beautiful cobblestone streets lined with restored Turkish and Greek-style buildings.

We spent quite a while this morning strolling through a local farmer’s market, enjoying the autumn harvest produce as well as many other Turkish delights. We purchased fresh pistachios, sun-dried tomatoes, and tree-ripened mandarins. We sampled from an array of forty different types of olives before finally making our decisions. We bought small portions of several flavours of Turkish Delight to try out. And we found some delicious hazelnuts and a lovely trail mixture to tempt our palates. Fresh fish, cheese, pastries, eggs, melons, cabbages, red peppers, eggplant, pomegranates, apples and a myriad of other items were available from the many vendors who had set up their tents and umbrellas.

We left the market and found our way to the centre of Aticali. The entire central area of this town is a pedestrian mall complete with hundreds of cafes and craft/trinket/tourist shops. Along cobblestone streets. It is a delightful place to spend the afternoon … and if the hotels and people are any indication, many visitors are there for the entire weekend.

We even saw three brides and grooms today, using the streets of Aticali as a backdrop for their photos. They, like us, must have been thrilled to have chosen such a glorious warm and sunny day to get married.

We had lunch in one of the local cafes. I enjoyed some fresh fish while Jim feasted on barbequed calamari. Both dishes were excellent along with the fabulous fresh salad that accompanied the meal.  We had some guests at our table who were very interested in what we were eating and what we were leaving behind. Two friendly cats made their acquaintance with us and spent the entire meal on top of a garden wall next to our table.

Have we mentioned cats? Cats are a common sight in Turkish cities and towns. They are quite tame, seem to live on the streets and ‘own’ certain territories, especially in the area of restaurants. If you are a cat lover (we are), this would not be a problem, but I can understand how someone who has a distaste for felines might find it offensive to find these little creatures under your table in a café or patrolling the perimeter of an eatery in search of a handout. I know that people are one or the other – cat lovers or not – but really, these cute little critters do add to the experience of the city.

And now, a quiet evening in our room awaits. Dinner will consist of the many treats we have brought from the Aticali market. We will finalize our plan for tomorrow and get some rest so that we are ready for another big day of driving and exploring.

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