Turkey

Last Day in Istanbul

Last day in Istanbul and I heard mass at beautiful St. Anthony church built in 1912 by the Franciscans. The servers and the congregation are largely African and music is by an African choir. Wonderful to hear robust African songs as liturgical music.

Had lunch at our favorite eatery and as always, enjoyed it. For dessert, I had a slice of this cake which I guess was “tres leches.”

It was very good as it had just the right amount of soaking. What made it different from the usual “tres leches” is the burnt caramel top which added a counterpoint to the milk taste of the sponge cake.

Madame P and I went on our ways. She to shop and me to just take the tram and see the city a bit. I had forgotten that the Grand Bazaar is closed on Sundays so when I got there, I just decided to walk down the road in the direction of Sultanahmet where I can pick-up the tram again.

Discovered other sights such as the tombs of past sultans which I had missed earlier.

Took the tram and disembarked at Karakoy to walk to Galata Tower. However, I stumbled on the Tunel funicular (I had forgotten about it!) which saved me an uphill slog. I had loaded 5 lira on my Istanbulkart so might as well take all the rides I could with it.

Up at Tunel and turned right downhill too look for the shop selling Turkish water bowls for 25 lira which was lower than the 30-40 lira at shops I had passed on my walk to Sultanahmet earlier. Bought a copper one and was given a free tea spoon, probably to make-up for the 5 lira discount the shop owner didn’t give.

That somehow ends any my Istanbul trip as I’ve nothing more planned until we leave for the airport at 9pm.

Bye, Istanbul. I hope to see you again.

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Galip Dede Caddesi: Music Street

This narrow street of Istikal is heaven. It is lined with music instruments shops. To get here, just walk along Istikal Caddesi coming from Taksim Square until you reach a fork on the road. The one on the left is Galip Dede Caddesi.

Went to two shops and I was treated very well by the shop keepers. I was like a kid at a toy store. I was so pleasantly surprised how reasonable the prices were. The shop keepers weren’t pushy and were very patient with my questions.

I bought a mey (flute) and a bendir (frame drum) at the first shop I went to. It was raining and we were offered cay (tea) as we sat out the rain. In the meantime, I had a photo op with the instruments.

The second shop had more stuff including small instruments such as the wooden spoons called kasic which are played like castanets. I was able to bargain down my purchases of an Irinian santur (board zither), baglama (lute), darbouka (drum), and another type of drum to just 380 lira since I was paying cash. Not bad.

The guy playing the baglama was the one who attended to me and he was very accommodating and wasn’t pushy. He would also point out the professional instruments from those for students or for display only. He also demonstrated many of the music instruments.

There are many other music instruments shops and aside from Turkish instruments, they also sold cellos, double basses, violins, and drums. Curiously, I also saw African rattles and kalemba and South American rattles. There were also many toy instruments for kids.

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Moving to Taksim and to the Old Man from Tourist Hell

We checked-out of Gulhane Corner Hotel, our home for 4 nights, after visiting the National Museum of Archaeology in the morning. We had originally planned to just take the tram and the metro to Taksim, having gone the route the day before but decided on taking a cab at the last minute as we were not sure how we were gonna pass the narrow turnstiles at the stations. As always, cabs are nowhere to be found when you need them. After about 10 minutes of waiting, a cab stopped in front of us and unloaded passengers with luggages. One thing I’ve noticed in Istanbul, at least at the Old City, these past few days is that cars just stop anywhere unmindful of the traffic light. I had hesitated to take the cab as we were on a single lane street and it was a green light; however, the delivery van driver behind didn’t seem to mind. We quickly loaded our stuff and got on the cab. 35 lira was kind steep for a short ride to Taksim but it was better than not getting a ride and the driver knew the exact place we wanted to go– the corner of Istikal St where LC Waikiki was. He dropped us right in front of our hotel when we pointed it out.

Taksim is totally different from Sultanahmet. The vibe is more modern and energetic. Rather than small souvenir shops, modern stores in renovated buildings line the wide road.

What I like best about it though are its proximity to my favorite retail shop, LC Waikiki, a few hamam, and Galip Dede Cadesi the street where the music instruments shops were.

The Old Man from Tourist Hell

Since Agoda’s system has been going haywire the past few days, I just decided to head to Hotel Mara to personally book our stay there. The young English-speaking lady was very pleasant and wrote down our reservation. When we checked-in today, there was an old man at the reception who seemed to be the owner. It took time for him to assign our rooms. He also insisted on us paying cash even when I pointed to the card machine. He kept repeating, ” change money.” He then claimed that the card machine was broken contrary to what the lady yesterday said. I knew how to do card transactions from my experience working the front desk of the gym and I could tell he was just pretending to transact, punching the wrong buttons. Such a greedy old man! When asked to convert the Turkish rate to dollar, his conversion factor was way too high so we just decided to go out into the rain and look for a money changer. Really greedy! Couldn’t even wait until late afternoon (we were hoping the lady receptionist would be there by then) for the payment. We were tempted to just move to another hotel but it was raining and it was close to 12 already. We finally paid and got the card key to one of the rooms. We were told the other one would be ready after 30 minutes. When we returned at 4pm, the room wasn’t ready yet. At 5pm, we were given the card key to a room which turned out not to be ours. After a bit of explaining, he finally got it right. Gheez. It almost destroyed by excitement to be at Taksim. Anyway, all is well that ends well. I do miss our spacious rooms at Gulhane with its large windows and chic interiors. Much cheaper too.

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Turkish Eats: More than Kebabs

Cuisine this side of the world is familiar to my palette and something I have always enjoyed. Fresh salads, tasty grilled meats, flavorful rice, and a variety of mezzes make for an exciting culinary thrill. Of course, the breads and the sweets are in a class of their own and deserve their own blog.

Here are my own Turkish delights (not referring to the sweet):

Bread, bread, bread and more bread. Just like in Azerbaijan whose cuisine is very similar to Turkey’s, bread is sacred in the Turkish table.

Breads are everywhere.

Where lots of people are such as squares, you’ll never fail to see these carts with freshly-baked simit, soft round bread with sesame.

Order a meal and you get bread.

Even at fastfoods. there are piles of bread by the cashier. Complimentary, of course. For a budget traveller keen on carbs, you can skip the pilav and just have free bread.

I think the only time you don’t get bread is when you order a sandwhich or a roll. Imagine having bread to complement your sandwhich?

The breads are really delicious and baked fresh. Makes me wonder though what happens to all the leftover breads that people don’t eat? I’m guilty myself for not finishing my bread as I’m just so stuffed.

With a culture so in love with bread, it’s no surprise that meals or snacks made with bread would be popular. This Turkish “pizza” called pide is perfect if you’re caught between a real meal and a sandwhich. A crust boat-shaped flat dough is stuffed with a variety of filling such as cheese, egg, meats, vegetables, then baked in an oven. It’s very filling and quite cheap. Have it with some pickled green chiles.

This is pide with cheese, ground meat, and egg.

This is just cheese and egg.

Lahmacun is also like pizza. Thin flat dough is topped with minced meat, onions, and tomatoes and baked in an oven. Squeeze some lemon over it, slice some grilled chile, roll-it up, take a bite, and weep for its deliciousness. but the dough is thin and flat. Perhaps, this is where Western restos got the idea for those fancy rolled-up pizzas?

It’s not bread but more of a pastry. Borek is love! Layers of thin phyllo sheets filled with either cheese, spinach, ground meat, or a combination of those. Stumbled on Pesrevzade, a nice small cafe at Fatih which serves delicious borek. The one pictured below only costs 10 lira (roughly Php 112).

You can also just have it plain with confectioner sugar dusted on it.

Kebabs are probably the most iconic of all the meats to all non-Turkish including myself. The ground meat grilled in sword-like flat skewers are always tasty thanks to the variety of spices mixed in. It’s still a toss-up on whether I prefer it with pilav (rice) or durum (flat bread).

One of my favorite meals is tandir where grilled meat, usually lamb, is served atop very flavorful pilav.

This particular eatery at Fatih with outdoor seating had such wonderful pilav I had to close my eyes taking a spoonful so I could really relish it.

Talking about pilav, the Turkic’s take on rice is just wonderful. Lovely basmati rice that’s aromatically flavorful. Sorry, bulgur but I’m not too fond of you.

Pilav with a hint of cinnamon.

The Turkish really know how to grill meats. This grilled chicken ordered at at fastfood in Taksim was so tender and had the right salty and smoky flavor. With pilav and a small bottle of sprite, it only cost 15 lira!

Had this meal of green bell peppers stuffed with rice and meat, chicken with vegetables and mushrooms, pilav, and a small bottle of Sprite for only 20 lira!

Istikal Caddesi in Beyoglu has such wonderful eateries where there’s a wide variety of freshly-cooked food to choose from.

Servings are generous and the prices are reasonable.

This is a kind of beef stew with vegetables and topped with mashed potatoes.

This is a large ground beef patty (kofte) with mashed potatoes.

Stuffed green pepper, chicken with mushrooms and vegetables, pilav for about Php 200 only!

Kofte (meatballs) with potatoes and carrots and a think crepe stuffed with chicken and vegetables.

Meatball (kofte) and eggplant.

Baked pasta.

Accompanying these meals are side dishes called mezze such as vegetables, olives, and a whole lot more.

I enjoyed eating my way around Istanbul. Whatever I chose to eat always turned-out delicious.

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Bosphorous Cruise: Bringing out the worst in people

We booked a Bosphorous tour (55 L each) at a tour agency just across the hotel. Meet- up was at the magazine stand by the Aga Sofiya Hamam at 3:30pm. Madame P and I arrived at 3pm just to make sure we would have enough time to look for the place. 3:30pm clocked in and we went to the stand. We had no idea who to look for as the tour agent merely said we will see his friends there.

“Will they be in uniform”

“No. You will see them. ”

It sounded like a covert operation.

As I approached the stand, as if on cue, a well-dressed man offered “Bosphorous tour! Leaving now.” I told him we were already booked and showed him the ticket. He smiled and pointed to a lady in a pink t-shirt and jeans and an official-looking ID lace and ID around her neck and said she was our tour guide and to come back at 4pm. We decided to just wait at a nearby bench.

At 4pm, a sizeable crowd had gathered and pink t-shirt girl arrived waving a small Turkish flag. Indeed, she was a guide. We followed her down the cobbled road behind the Hagia Sofiya where we were joined by an even larger crowd. It was a 10-minute downhill walk to the pier. People seemed to be hurrying to the front. Lining-up at the pier, a dignified-looking middle-aged white woman tugging a young boy with her shoved her way to the front pushing people and causing a commotion. A male voice from behind shouted, “What’s the matter mom? You’re pushing people to the water just to go first in the bloody boat!” Everyone was quiet. An Indian woman in front of me softly said what seemed to be in everyone’s mind, “He is right.” I guess getting herded like cattle just to get on a ferry boat brings out the cattle in you.

Madame P and I took center seats at the open deck. The boat soon left the pier.

Our guide made running commentaries as the boat cruised the Bosphorous.

The tour itself was interesting as we got to see the beautiful structures at both the European and Asian side of Istanbul.

Aside from the ornate palaces, what took my breath were the beautiful homes of the rich by the sea.

Cargo ships are a usual sight at the Bosphorous as it is one of the main sea passages.

The entire trip took about 2 hours. It was quite enjoyable as looking at the city from the Bosphorous gave it a different angle. It was also a way to see the different neighborhoods such as Karakoy and Besiktas.

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How I Ended Up with 7 shirts, 2 sports shirts, 3 pairs of shorts, 1 joggers, and 3 pairs of shoes

I never imagined I would go on a shopping spree for Western clothes in Istanbul. Perhaps, in one of those other cities where retail reigns such as Bangkok or Hongkong; but Istanbul? Nah! Istanbul is culture, objects d’ art, and carpets not H&M style clothes.

We headed to the Grand Bazaar in the morning with high expectations. I had envisioned a souk with curios and treasures. Unfortunately, except for the music instrument shops, I was a bit disappointed. Tourist trinkets such as magnets, bookmarks, wallets, and key chains were more expensive than those at the shops near our hotel. Or perhaps, we weren’t really looking as Madame P was more oriented towards Western consumer goods and seemed disinterested. I did get a few small music instruments such as a thin flute and some finger cymbals. Had to bargain really well and stand my ground to lower it to half price. Also bought some of those metallic kebab skewers from a nice shop with a seller who wasn’t pushy. He had nice shiny things that Aladdin would probably go crazy for.

I did enjoy the bazaar interiors with its colorful ceilings and arches.

I can’t recall how many times I said, “Filipino” to merchants beckoning at doorways who think I’m Malaysian. One carpet guy even thought we were from Columbia! Hahaha!

We spent less than two hours just walking around then heid off to a nearby cafe to rest a bit. Madame P was really bent on going to a mall. Since the entire day was really allotted for shopping, might as well. Google came up with Forum Mall as the nearest and most accessible via tram and metro.

While at the tram, we sat across a young lady who smiled and waved her hand in greeting. Turns out she’s a Pinay from Bulacan whose been working as a nanny in Istanbul for 4 months. She seemed fine working so far from home. She says she’s fortunate to have good employers who even brought her to Canada with them. We bade her goodbye as we exited at our stop to change to the metro.

Madame P and I went our separate ways at the large mall and agreed to meet after two hours. I saw a Decathlon billboard outside the mall and went looking for the store. It seems to be sale season now as all the shops were on sale, just like in Baku. Checked out a shop called LC Waikiki which looked like a Turkic version of H&M. Indeed it was. Clothes were at 19.95 – 49.95 L and shoes at 39.95! That’s less than Php 500! Really cheap. The clothes were really nice, too. I especially liked the light cotton shirts. The best thing is they have large sizes! I spent the next 2 hours hoarding stuff. One local looks at my basket and jokingly asks: “Where’s one for me?”

I’ve never shopped so much in my life. By the time Madame P and I caught up with each other at our meeting point, we were both loaded with bags. The Madame had also gone panic buying at Collezione which had 10 L shirts. Stuff was really cheap at the shops. I had to stop myself from buying more stuff at the other stores. We took the metro and the tram back to the hotel just before rush hour began.

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Luxury at the Cagaloglu Hamami

After my pleasant hamam experience at the Baku Old City, I was ready for more and Istanbul is the place for it. After all, Turkey = Turkish bath.

There are a few distinct hamam at the Sultanahamet area being the old district of Istanbul. Galatasaray, Sultanhayime, AyaSofya, and Cemberlitas are just a few.

I chose Cagaloglu Hamami as it was just 10 minutes walk up hill from our hotel in Sultanahamet. I was supposed to head to another, cheaper one, but two recent reviews at TripAdvisor mentioned being robbed of their stuff at the lockers. I didn’t want to take the risk. Cagaloglu had excellent reviews that mentioned how clean it was and how pleasant the staff were (the other hamam had rude staff as reviewed by others).

The hamami is one of the oldest in Istanbul having been built in 1741 and have just been renovated. According to its pamphlet, Franz Liszt was believed to have visited! Perhaps, to unwind after a concert?

I descended the marble to steps to the entrance hall where a friendly English-speaking male receptionist explained the prices to me. Behind him was the lounging area and the private changing cabins which I mistook for massage rooms (how naive of me).

I would have wanted to have the grandiose-sounding Ottoman Luxury Service, a 2- hour treatment that includes a 45-m aromatherapy massage; but at 120 Euros, it was waaay off my budget. I got the Istanbul Dream (50 Euros) instead which was a 15-minute hot room rest followed by a 10-minute scrub and finished with a 20-minute bubble bath.

I was led to my small private cabin by my kese (scrubber) where I put on my pestemel and rubber slippers.

He then led me to the toilet then to the baths, a large mable room dominated by the large marble plinth where the scrubbing takes place. We walked past the plinth and into the steam room where a dad and his son, Europeans, were “steaming.” A few minutes later, they were called by their kese for their scrubbing. Mine soon came after and I was led to the marble plinth. I then had the most wonderful scrub and bath. What made it even better was it included a msssage that no matter how brief, hit all the right points on my back and my legs. The best part was yet to come. When he released the bubble “bag.” An enormous cloud of bubbles exploded on my body and it felt so good as it cascaded down. I never knew bubbles could caress. Staring up at the domed star ceiling, it felt like I had gone to bubble heaven. I love oil massages but getting massaged with soap suds is even better. My kese had very good hands and it really felt like he knew what he was doing and doing it so well. I could cry from pleasure.

More water splashes then he led me to one of the marble water basins and doused me with water. He then led me out to a room where I was given a new pestemel and a towel. I gestured to him that I wanted to use the baths some more. I went back in and stayed in one of the coves just enjoying the heat and the water. Two other people (another father and son pair) came in and had a scrub. After half an hour, I felt I had enough so I went to the changing area. I didn’t see my kese but I saw a new pestemal and two towels on the marble bench. I changed into the new pestemal just as an attendant came in, draped the large towel over my shoulders then covered my head with a smaller towel, wrapping its ends together at the back of my hand like an Arabian head gear. I felt like I was ready to conquer the world. He then led me back to the entrance hall where I was served hot tea, juice, and turkish delight.

I rested a bit on the narrow bed at my cabin before heading out.

I really enjoyed my stay at the baths. It was clean and I like having that private cabin. I wonder how long you could stay? Perhaps, sleep at the cabin then go back to the baths again. I could easily have spent half a day there.

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Hagia Sofia

Aaaah…. I truly enjoyed myself at amazing Hagia Sofia, one of the jewelled crowns of Istanbul.

I have always loved Byzantine churches with their icons, mosaics, and vaults. Unfortunately, my only opportunity to visit some were during a trip to Bethlehem and Jerusalem a couple of years ago and my experience was not very good. We were on a private tour and our guide was rushing things. Unfortunately, none of my companions seemed to care about art and architecture so the guide’s really bad narratives were ignored. It went something like this, “This church was built on so-so. Around it are Byzantine icons. Look. Ok? Let’s go.” I was so disappointed. I couldn’t even take pictures as we were really rushing. So at the Hagia Sofia, I took my time enjoying every bit of the place in spite of the crowds.

The church was under restoration so certain parts were not open and a huge scaffolding was at the centre. Fortunately, the apse was visible.

The Virgin Mary on the dome above the apse.

Of course, the beautiful ceilings.

On the rear are stone ramps that climb to the second level. It’s a bit claustrophobic as it’s like walking through a tunnel. If it weren’t for all the people all going up, I would have liked to walk slowly, imagining myself as a medieval monk or a Muslim cleric back in those ancient days.

Seeing the church from the second level, you get a clearer sense of its enormity and its layout.

TIP:

As expected, there were long lines at the ticket counter. Make sure you have the Museum Pass. It allowed us to simply head to the entrance.

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Madness and Peace: Topkapi Palace and Hagia Irene

It was a Saturday and Madame P and I were still quite sleepy from the 6:20am flight from Baku. Check-in at the hotel was still at 1:30pm so we just left our luggage and went out to the busy street and ducked into a cafe. We couldn’t spend the rest of the morning eating bakhlava so we just decided to walk uphill and go to the Topkapi Palace. Our mistake was not buying the Museum Pass at the Archaeologi Museum which we passed by on our way as the line was so much shorter there than at the palace.

It had just rained a bit so the air was damp and hot. The lines to the ticket counters were long and slow. I couldn’t quite get it why some were taking so much time at the counters. Shouldn’t it be as simple and quick as paying for and receiving your tickets? It took us about a minute to give 200 L and receive change and our Museum Pass.

We went to the palace kitchens first. Hahaha! Of course! I managed to get a few pics before a guard told me no pictures. They should have placed bigger and more signs (I didn’t even notice them) as the exasperated guard kept going around the chambers stopping people from taking pics.

In the days of the sultan, the kitchen would feed up to 5,000 per day! That explains the huge vats and cooking utensils. If I was the chief cook, I would probably never have eaten as the smell of cooking food would have made me lose my appetite.

It was a Saturday and the main palace grounds were filled with people.

Getting inside the beautiful and ornate rooms was a challenge as they were really packed. It was hot inside and it stank of people’s sweat.

Better to have gone on a weekday when there would have been less people. But then again, it’s peak tourist season. It would have been relaxing to just wander the palace grounds just taking in the lovely structures.

It’s mostly forbidden to take pictures inside the buildings which is a pity because the tiled walls and ceilings are so ornate. The only building where you could take them are in the meeting room for court officials.

Exiting the palace, we were drawn to a building to its left. It was Hagia Irene.

The ancient church is empty but you can still sense how beautiful it was with its choir loft and arched apse.

It was so peaceful inside, just as its name suggests, the Church of Divine Peace. A stark contrast to the madness of the palace.

It reminded me of the ancient churches of Israel.

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From Baku to Istanbul

We arrived from Baku at past 8 am. The immigration lines were quite long in spite of many open counters for foreigners. Fortunately, the one manning the lines beckoned to me and a few others behind to an empty counter for Turks. The officer didn’t seem too happy about it as he was busy fiddling on his phone. He perused my passport for quite a bit of time, holding-up the page with my visa up to the light, most probably checking the hologram. He even did the same to my Azerbaijan visa. I just stood quietly but in my mind was like, “what the hell?” He finally stamped me in. Whew!

Collected our luggages and went out to the arrivals area. Our hotel didn’t answer my email asking for a hotel transfer so we were at the mercy of dozens of counters offering transportation. We went to the counter that was the least aggressive and paid USD 25 to bring us to Gulhane Corner Hotel at Sultanahmet.

After the peace and quiet of Baku, Istanbul came as a shock. The Sultanahmet area was choking with traffic as cars, people, and trams competed for space in its narrow streets. Our driver parked the car, took out our luggage and walked us down a side street to our hotel. It was too early to check-in so we just left our luggage. We headed down the street and stumbled on a branch of Golluogloo which my sister highly recommended for bakhlava.

Very good, indeed, especially when served with ice cream and thick Turkish coffee.

Our initial introduction to Turkey was via our taste buds! I’ve always loved bakhlava and finally I got to eat it at its home ground.

The guy manning the store was extremely friendly and chatty and said he wanted to go to the beaches in the Philippines. He was also nice enough to book tickets for us at the Hodjapashah for the 7pm “show” featuring Dervish spinning.

Spent the rest of the morning at the Topkapi Palace which was full of people being a weekend.

TIP: Buy the Museum Pass (125 TL) at the Archaeology Museum where there’s a shorter line. It’s enroute to the palace anyway.

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