Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Istanbul: The Turkish Delights

Sunset in Istanbul
The first time I was introduced to “Turkey”, I was in my 4th grade geography class. Turkey, pronounced Too-Ra-Kee in my language, sounded so foreign and funny to me. Little did I know that I would be visiting this fascinating country where east meets west some 12 years later.

So the four of us or “The Fab Four”-as  I’d like it to be known but not to be confused with the Beatles, or even the SATC girls- it’s just us boys, P& G, J & me, set out to Turkey via Singapore airlines. Usually the one who watches 6 or 7 movies back to back while drinking lots and lots of wine, strategically annoying the flight attendants, this time, I slept the entire flight.

Warm beautiful morning sun was awaiting us in Istanbul when we landed. We were swept up thereafter by our pick-up guy and chauffeured to our serviced apartment at The Bosphorous Lodge in Kabataş. The three and a half bed-roomed apartment was centrally located and well-furnished in contemporary style with the stunning view of the Bosphorous. There were large glass windows all around the apartment from every possible angle allowing us to soak in the spectacular 360° view of the famous waterway. And that was our little nest for the next 7 days in this famed city of Turkey, formerly known as “Constantinople”.  
Our apartment overlooking the Bosphorous
Turkish Delight #1 : The attractions

Istanbul, known worldwide as the land of mosques, has just so many alluring places that visitors will need at least one full week to be able to visit, I would not even say all, but most of them. We started out with the historical sites such as The very popular Blue Mosque(The combination of both Byzantine and Ottoman architecture), the marvelous Hagia Sophia (The former Orthodox basilica dating back to 6th century, now a museum),  the awe-inspiring Topkapı Palace that housed the Ottoman Sultans for approximately 400 years, now a UNESCO world heritage site and the incredible Dolmabahçe palace (complete with the world’s largest Bohemian crystal chandelier: a gift from Queen Victoria, the crystal staircase, 45,000 square meter (11.2 acres) and 285 rooms. Need I say more?) 
The Blue Mosque
On our first day, we waltzed into the heart of Istanbul, also known as Beyoğlu to witness the city’s energy and of course do a bit of shopping. Just a wee bit! Every day, thousands of people walk up and down on this super trendy İstiklal Avenue, the main street which resembles the Nanjing road of Shanghai. The city’s electric youth force marches out in style on this avenue especially at weekends, flaunting the latest fashion trends, feeding appetizing meals to the eyes of people watchers. The shopping is exciting over here as there are many Turkish clothing brands rivaling with the famous ones such as Zara, Topman and Diesel but with local brands, you pay a lot less for the same quality and fashion. I had a ball picking up so many items.
The Grand Bazzar, Istanbul
Since we are on the same topic of shopping, you may also want to know about the legendary Grand Bazaar of Istanbul. Well, I must say it was quite a disappointment for me. I just felt that it did not live up to my expectations. It’s big, it’s busy and it’s festive but seeing hundreds of shops that sell more or less the same things does not make an outstanding shopping experience. After a while you get tired of it. The littler spice bazaar near the New Mosque (also known as Yeni Cammii) was a lot more interesting for its aromatic values. I truly enjoyed walking through the narrow lanes of it while brushing shoulders with the Chinese tourists who seemed to be taking pictures of themselves with literally everything from a heat stroked pigeon to a recently discarded cigarette butt. (I mean, seriously?)

My personal favorite was “Istanbul Modern”, the museum of contemporary art situated beside the Bosphorous with the view of Topkapı Palace triumphantly sitting atop of the hill above the Mamara Sea. The museum houses the art works prominently by the Turkish artists. Sculptures, Paintings, Pottery, Multimedia display, Mixed Media art, Photography and Cinema- these awesome artworks take you on a memorable journey of Turkish lifestyle over the years and its cultural background. Simple yet modern two storied building is one of the best museums I have ever visited.
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Initially, I wanted to write about my Turkish Hamman experience and include it as one of the Turkish delights. Unfortunately in reality, it was far from a delight. In fact, it was a complete rip-off. We read up on line about the Hammans, reviews on Tripadvisor and picked the best reviewed/recommended one called Cemberlitas Hammam (operating since 1584, apparently) It was a lovely historical Hammam complete with a large hot marble platform and beautiful bathing basins. However, the burly Turkish bath attendant kept asking for tips all throughout. The body wash (or rather manhandling) he gave probably lasted about two minutes and then he poured a huge bucket of water on me and that was it. Tada! DONE! The oil massage began subsequently, which was not too bad but what could a mere 30-minute massage do? We had to line up to get that massage and there was this factory sort of feel that we hated. Such a shame because we were so excited about our very first Turkish hammam experience but it ended up being super lousy. (I did have slightly better hammam experiences in other cities, Fethiye and Göreme but still…)

Turkish Delight #2:  The restaurants
Turkish Food, Istanbul
Turkish food in general, although simple and earthy, lacks the sophistication and versatility when compared to, let’s say, Chinese or French cuisine. However, Istanbul has a wide range of restaurants serving international cuisines all around the city. You could get spoilt for choice here.

Our favorite was The House Café in Ortakoy. We went there for dinner one night. The view was of course fantabulous. We sat by the seaside admiring the beautiful Bosphorous bridge that connects Asia and Europe. However, the chilly sea breeze that night was too much for this tropical boy to bear so I had to ask for a blanket and wrap myself up. (What a wuss, right? I know what you are thinking.)
The tram on Istikal Avenue
We also loved their other outlet on the bustling Istikal Avenue. This one has more urban and youthful atmosphere. The food was excellent so we went back there twice. Also there’s another, quite popular but rather small restaurant called “Meze by Lemon Tree”. The food, I thought, was quite decent but what made us go back there again was the impeccable service. Superb! If you happen to be in Istanbul, I’d recommend these two restaurants.

To be honest though, all our restaurant experiences, be it at a small inexpensive Turkish wraps shop with the splendid view of Gelata tower or dining with the 360° view of the glowing city at the posh 360° restaurant on İstiklal, were all amazing. However, I would not recommend eating at any of the restaurants under the Gelata Bridge on Golden Horn. We had one exceptionally bad experience at one of the restaurants there. Really, they are nothing but tourist traps and they sell crap. Period.
The Gelata Bridge with the view of  The New Mosque in the background
Turkish Delight #3: The men

Turkish men in general are handsome with strong features: hairy chest, angular face, big nose, facial hair and…arrrrm…big hands. They act mucho macho: Yes, The go-out-work-hard-bring-home-the-bacon-I-am-the-provider type (well, obviously not “bacon” in their case! But you figure.) They dress very smart. Even on a hot steamy day, you won’t see them strolling in the streets in singlet, Bermudas and flip-flops.  It’s easy to set them apart from us, the tourists.

Turkish men can sell too. Shop keepers and vendors mostly are men. From carpet seller to ice-cream boy, they charm you with their megawatt smiles, invite you into their shops and make you buy whatever that they are selling. What I love about them is that they have humor and they use it to get your attention. They are able to laugh at themselves, the situation and they laugh at you. Some can be quite aggressive too but hey, they’ve got goods to sell in the scorching heat.

Men, even the younger ones, usually sport a fuller, healthier midsection which, I believe, comes from the food they eat. The six packs are not a usual sight here and that made me feel good as I, myself had been binging on surprisingly great Turkish wine and Kebabs. Hey, gotta live a little. Je suis en vacances, right?

Turkish Delight #4: The Bosphorous
Life on The Bosphorous 

To me, any city by the bay, sea, river or whatever kind of water involved is magic. Venice, Sydney, Dubrovnik, Paris, just to name a few. The Bosphorous strait divides the Asian and Europe sides and the life on the Bosphorous is quite hectic yet truly enchanting. Big boats, small boats, ferries, private yachts to the big mama cruise ships and tankers, together they paint a lively scene of Istanbul in the water. We took a ferry to Üsküdar and visited the lovely Maiden’s tower. Then we hopped onto a big ferry (kind of look like the one from “Yentl” to go back to Kabataş where we stayed. The sea breeze, the sea gulls and the panoramic view of this gorgeous city, standing tall with my arms wide open on the deck, I had a Papa-watch-me-fly moment on the Bosphorous. (Hey, Barbra!)

Turkish Delight #5: The city’s energy
The Bosphorous Bridge 

Istanbul is a feel-good city. Its relaxed yet pleasantly lively ambiance makes the visitors want to return to this city after one visit. Turkish people are generally friendly- they are willing to help foreigners and tourists alike. Young generation speaks good English. They show interest in us, the visitors. They asked questions about where we live, where we come from and gave advice and suggestions on things to do or see.

There are plenty of things to do for The GLBT community as well. Gay clubs, discos and even restaurants proudly waving the pride flag can be found in the city. Our favorite club is called “X-Large”. It used to be a movie theatre but now a club where you can see drag shows and uber-hot Go-Go boys on weekends. There were straight people- boys and girls- enjoying themselves along with the fairies and blue birds which, I thought, was very cool.
The Cats of Istanbul

If Buenos Aires is known as the city of dogs, Istanbul certainly is the city of cats for anywhere you go, you will feel the presence of feline. The kitty-cats are everywhere and they are so cute. Turkish men certainly adore their pet cats. “The cats and their masters”, it is a usual sight of Istanbul.

The city is clean, organized and most importantly safe. Effective transportation system plus reasonably-priced taxis that can be hailed from anywhere in the city makes our travel comfortable and hassle-free.

To wrap up such lovely time I had had in Istanbul, I went solo to Gelata tower, the super cute medieval stone tower on my last day and admired the city from its observatory deck. Travelling with friends are fun indeed but sometimes, it just feels great to be on my own, soak up the ambiance, do a bit of self-reflection and just BE. Looking at this incredible city from the tower, I finally understood why people say “I pinch myself”
The Gelata Tower, Istanbul

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