Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Istanbul, day 1

Erol, our private guide, came to meet us at 9am. The first stop was the site of the former Roman hippodrome. When Constantine beat out his rival to become the sole ruler of the Roman Empire (this was before Rome fell in 476), as was traditional for the Romans, he brought shit from the empire to adorn his new capital city, which he renamed from Byzantium to Constantinople. When the Turks toppled Constantinople, the hippodrome fell into disrepair because the Turks weren’t into horse racing, but the open plaza remains, as do the monuments that were in the center median of the elliptical hippodrome track: two Egyptian obelisks and a bronze serpentine column the Romans brought here from temple of Apollo at Delphi (sweet irony, since it had been moved to Delphi from this region when the Greeks conquered the Persians). The obelisk that looks better-preserved and is one solid piece (traditional for Egyptian obelisks) was taken by the Romans from the Temple of Karnak in Luxor, Egypt, which is kind of cool because it is one of a twin pair and I have seen its twin (though that was back in 1998).

The next two stops were the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. There are photos of these all over the Internet, plus the Blue Mosque is undergoing extensive restoration so what you could see inside was limited, but it was impressive for what it was. But of course the Hagia Sophia ("Holy Wisdom"—an innocuous impersonal name that saved it from being renamed by Muslims later) is what people come here to see. Built in 537 as a Christian church by Justinian (well, really slaves did the work, Justinian just commanded it) of brick coated with plaster, it was actually the third church on this site. The second was destroyed by taxation riots (“Lock her up! Lock her up!”) but fragments remain, giving a glimpse into a transitional period around the time it became legal to be openly Christian in the Roman Empire and before a new architectural language had developed for decorating Christian buildings; the motifs on the ruins include some halfhearted crosses, but a lot of the imagery has more in common with earlier pagan temples.

The Hagia Sophia was originally largely unadorned because it was built during the iconoclastic period. This was a case of religious practice (Islam forbids images of deities or prophets in its places of worship) spilling over too enthusiastically into secular life. The prohibitions were lifted around the 10th century, when amazing mosaics were installed; these were subsequently plastered over (but not defaced) by the Turks in the 16th c. when it became a mosque. Some are in better shape than others, but a notable aspect of the artwork is its humanistic appearance, which presaged the Renaissance and was a stark departure from medieval art.

At the time HS was built, it was the largest enclosed space under a dome in the world. (It’s now the fourth largest, after St. Peter’s in Rome, St. Paul’s in London, and the Seville Cathedral. It occurs to me I’ve visited all those places in order of descending size.)

Lunch was in a small knot of alleys in Sultanahmet that have a bunch of restaurants where locals eat, surprisingly for an otherwise touristy area. Turkish food is awesome, and I was not disappointed by my entrée of Iskender in casserole—basically gyro meat sliced and marinated in a really amazing sauce, and the whole thing baked with vegetables and topped with sour cream or something. Whatever it was, it was amazing.

Almost none of the non-tourist restaurants serve beer or wine. Turkey isn’t a teetotaling culture like Morocco, but it is definitely partitioned. There are bars and taverns where locals go to consume beer, wine, and rakı, a national anise-flavored spirit that I’ve grown to like and am enjoying right now as I write this. But in most restaurants, it’s juice, soft drinks, and of course tea in those tiny cups.

Over lunch I got to learn some about Turkish politics, as Erol was quite forthcoming. As he pointed out, Istanbul has way more mosques than it needs for its population. People don’t mind because the sound of so many live muezzin calls makes them feel good about their religion. But the muezzins and the imams are paid public servants—as Americans we often take separation of church and state for granted, but in Turkey, the Department of Religious Affairs pays these folks a salary from public dollars. And every Friday, the imams are given a message from the Department (whose head is appointed by the President) to convey to the faithful. As public servants, they’d basically lose their jobs if they refused to do this. And these days, the messages are propaganda from Erdogan against the ruling party. So basically the mosques provide a taxpayer-funded mouthpiece controlled unilaterally by the President (who, unlike in the US, is basically not answerable to anyone) whose sprawling network of communications is run by employees funded at public expense. Hmmm.

We talked about Trump, of course, and Erol said he’d seen TV footage in which Trump’s limo procession was driving down some US street or other, and there were protesters shouting obscenities at the passing motorcade and holding up raunchy signs, “and the police just did nothing!” In Turkey, he said, the police would have been all over that—most countries don’t have anything as strong as what we think of as freedom of speech. So all is perhaps not lost.

After lunch was a trip through the spice market, locally called the Misir market. Misir is the Turkish word for Egypt, and the market got its name because many of the exotic products originally available there were shipped through Egypt. (Interestingly, misir also means corn. New World foods coming to Europe and continuing on to Asia also came through here, and the name of this particular food became associated with the name of the market itself. Most other New World agriculture, such as tomatoes and potatoes, are named in Turkish via loan words.) At my insistence, Armando stopped at the best Turkish Delight confectioner in the market, and because the proprietor loved me, we got some tasty samples of this confection that is made in dozens of varieties.
Next it was a walk across the Galata Bridge (all the way across, this time) to the underground funicular up Galata Hill. Our first quick stop, at Armando's request, was the Hotel Pera Palace. It was built in 1892 to give Orient Express passengers a nice place to stay, since there were no hotels in Istanbul at that time that offered European service standards. Unlike Sirkeci Station, this hotel still looks every bit the part; Agatha Christie allegedly stayed here while writing her famous novel, and Hemingway was apparently a regular visitor too, along with Rita Hayworth and some other Hollywood nobility.
The queue for the Galata Tower was too long, so we did a nice walk around Beyoglu (the shopping area around Galata) instead before heading back to the historical center, where we parted ways with Erol.

We decided to use the rest of the afternoon to cruise around different neighborhoods. Erol had recommended Kadiköy, a 20 minute ferry ride away on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, as an up-and-coming cultural neighborhood, so we went there. It was nice enough, but the highlights were really the ferry ride and the long walk along the waterfront in Kadiköy. The photo is hazy but you can see the first Bosphorus Bridge behind me; on the right is Asia, on the left is Europe (north/east shore of the Golden Horn), and where your right shoulder is when you're looking at this picture is the historic center (south/west shore of the Golden Horn).

We got on the wrong ferry when trying to return homeward (Armando thought “Besiktas” meant “departure,” but it was actually the name of a neighborhood…the fool), though easily rectified by a bus ride thanks to our handy Istanbul Kart, which Armando is adding to his collection “transit cards of the world.” (Honestly, who collects that?) Anyway, by bus we managed to get back to Galata easily enough, and as there's no shortage of rooftop bars and cafés there, we chose one more or less at random that claimed to offer a good view of the city, which was true.

A pretty full day overall—we rode trams, a funicular, two old-time streetcars, and two ferries. The only thing we didn't ride was the subway! But there'll be time for that tomorrow, after seeing Topkapı Palace and maybe some museums!

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Armando's hamamı experience

I’m sitting on the roof deck of my hostel in Sultanahmet, enjoying a pleasant breeze and a view of the confluence of the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus. Maybe this is what it’s like to be a travel writer. Hmmm.

So Travel blogged about our first day, but he wasn’t interested in joining me in the hamamı experience (note spelling: that’s the Turkish “short i” that is pronounced like a schwa) since he said it looked very steamy in there (it was) and he’s not into very hot climates.

I went for the “traditional”, which includes a vigorous soapy rubdown but not an oil massage. On my sis-in-law’s recommendation, I went to Çemberlitas, built in the 16th century and the real deal. Although I didn’t plan it this way, I went after the evening rush was over.

The hamamı experience is definitely a sensory stimulus, and I can imagine how it might not be appropriate for, say, Iowans. (No offense if you’re reading this and from Iowa.) You start by stripping down in a changing room (there are separate men’s and women’s areas) into an oversize towel whose fabric actually reminds me of wrapping myself in an enormous dish towel, which isn’t a bad framing for what’s about to happen.

My host (facilitator? scrubdown guy?) was Ahmed, and I had watched him do another customer so I had some idea what was going on. The bathing room itself is circular and maybe 25 feet across, with of sinks with bowls around the perimeter and a large circular marble slab in the center at bench height, which was very warm (think marble on a sunny day) so that I’m not sure if it was heated from within or just holds the heat well. (It felt like a mild sauna, and indeed you’re supposed to lie on the slab and relax for a few minutes before you are treated.)

The first step was for Ahmed to don the hamamı scrubby sponge (your personal one is included in your admission) and exfoliate you on both sides, while you lie on that same marble slab where thousands of others have been exfoliated. Though it gets rinsed constantly so I’m sure it’s fine.

Next is a soapy scrub down with a substance I can best describe as bubble bath, using a large scrubbing sponge that was definitely not included in my admission so whatever. This rubdown includes a few well-placed massage strokes on the quads, hamstrings, and shoulders, at a level I would estimate at half a Moore. (The Moore is a unit of massage pain inspired by my excellent therapist Courtney Moore back home. At 1/2 Moore I make involuntary sounds; 1 Moore is the level just before I have to ask her to back off. So in that sense, I can always take 1 Moore. Thanks, I’m here all night.)

The scrubdown is rinsed away by bowlfuls of water that are, by any standard, hot. My not-insignificant experience with hot tubs says 102 or 103°F. This is followed by a trip to the rinsing room outside the main baths, for another scrubdown and rinse; by this point there was nothing left to wash off, and I’m pretty sure I could feel my epidermis growing back. After reminding me several times of his name and number (“10”) so I wouldn’t forget to tip, Ahmed indicated I should shower and change back into the dirty, sweaty clothing that had brought me to the hamamı in the first place.

Truth be told, it was so refreshing (and getting off my feet for awhile probably helped, as I must have walked 7 or 8 miles at least) that I’m inclined to do it every day. Now that I know the protocol, I can find a more locals-oriented place that is a bit less pricey (though at about $45 US, it wasn’t ridiculous, and this place is known to be more expensive).

So that was my experience. The breeze caresses newly-exposed pores as I write this up, so I hope you enjoyed reading it.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Travel Penguin's Istanbul diary, arrival day.

Armando and I arrived uneventfully after a 13 hour flight that should have been more uncomfortable than it was. I slept through most of the flight but Armando only got about an hour of sleep by design, to ease adjusting to the timezone. The most interesting thing about the flight was that on the inflight entertainment system, you can read the Qur'an and bring up an app that tells you which direction Mecca is in at all times.

The airport was a breeze, though the customs guy seemed baffled by Armando's passport and stamped the entry on a random page of text. Hope it won't be a problem when we leave. The new airport is a good hour from downtown by car, and the highway is apparently very strictly speed controlled despite being a multi-lane controlled access road, but the ride was uneventful. I was happy to get the adoration I richly deserve when we checked in to the hostel.

To power through the evening, I convinced Armando we should go for a brief walk rather than collapse into bed at just 7pm. As a nominal destination, he chose Sirkeci Railway Station, former terminus of the famed Orient Express, though today just a commuter terminal. The grandeur is certainly gone, but you can sort of see what it was, and there is a period-atmosphere restaurant still operating there. (But we found better Orient Express ambience at other stops we'll mention later!)

We continued to the waterfront and walked halfway across the Galata Bridge, which spans the Golden Horn. The lower level of the bridge has a number of restaurants—obviously touristy, but we were too tired to care, and we really wanted a beer. The guys on the left really tried to sell it to us to eat at their place.

The waterfront is a highlight of Istanbul, I think. Ferries are crawling everywhere, like Hong Kong. There is life and atmosphere. Across the Golden Horn is the hill on which Galata Tower sits, a lookout built in 1349 by the entrepreneurial and seagoing Genoese. Just around the corner to the left is the Bosphorus (literally “ford of the cow,” whence also “Oxford”), which means just around the corner to the right is Asia. The weight of multicultural history is heavy here.

But, by this time, so were our eyelids, so we let the melatonin do its work and put us to sleep so we could jump into a full day tomorrow!

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