The Rose Garden House in the old city of Istanbul our base from which to explore for the next few days. The best part of which is that on the corner is a delightful supply store with local wine, water and a cork screw! We have a balcony that looks out over the courtyard, a room elaborately decorated in brocade, with hot water and attentive service.
Getting through immigration was a tad frustrating as we missed the (well concealed) South African passport queue signs (Visa 2) and got caught up in the European and then West Africa queues. No drama once we were in the right place, but Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.
First impressions: clean, cats, engaging, minarets, hills and cobbles. Sitar music, definitely not on my greatest hits list!
Sultanahmet Fish House Restaurant
The first thing to know about the SA (Sultanahmat) Fish House Restaurant is that asking for directions is almost a waste of time. Every person you meet knows their own Fish House and have their pitch, together with business card and Trip Advisor rating lined up to derail you. If you have a map, and actually have some idea where you are, that is a slight improvement, except that again their are bunches in the same street. We did, however through persistence find our way to THE SA Fish house Restaurant.
A bottle of house white wine, a pale and delicate Anatolia, revived sagging spirits, our menu choices decided by our travel weary senses. Saffron and sea bass arrived for me, while Terry had a seafood stuffed calamari in a grilled cheese sauce. All scrumptious, with great service and the olives in the salad were amazing.
We walked for five hours around the old town (blue mosque, Sophia, Topkapi Palace, and gardens). The cistern definitely the highlight of the day. Fascinating and being able to sit underground, floating above the water drinking coffee, surreal. The spice market, overwhelming senses. We tried samples of Turkish delight, engaged and were entertained without hassle. A street-side restaurant, under autumn leaves with massive glasses of white wine, accompanied by a range of food flavours to rest weary feet.
Market day. Vegetables and fruit, rich colours, artfully displayed by grizzled men. One of whom carried his newspaper-insulated teapot and a tray of glasses between stalls, dishing out lumps of sugar with abandon. A checked table cloth: snapped outside a second floor window to remove crumbs, without regard for where they land. Men sit at small tables drinking tea, unconcerned that they are blocking the street. Not a raised voice, not a suggestion of angst, not a suggestion of rancour. Isn’t this how its always been done??
Call to prayer in every corner of the city.
Bosporus, the link between continents. Palaces, fisherman, pomegranate juice, ships, bridges, impossibly expensive houses, and most amazing of all, dolphins! Unexpected in the busy shipping lanes.
After working out the effective tram system, we walked down the main shopping area of Istikial that sits on one of the seven hills, with a stop for a morning cappuccino at Starbucks. Haven’t managed to balance the stifling interiors (where they seem to think we are in the midst of a freezing winter) and outdoors amongst smokers. The historic tram was innocuous and the whole place a tad disappointing.
There were jewels, like pomegranate pips caught in the sunshine. An art supply shop, with a tight circular staircase to the upper level, where paints were from Russia. Book shops, dark, mysterious and intriguing. Musical instruments, in rich woods and sparkling brass, interspersed with record collections of Miles Davis. My bum not happy with the millions of stairs!
With everything starting to get busy and crowded we vanished into our ‘local’ eatery for large glasses of wine and their kebab special. A mix of lamb, chicken and beef, which was far too much food. Not that the kittens that Terry fed minded.
My Kavaklidere Anatolian wine from Cappadocia, sounds like something from a Sunday School lesson! Surprisingly good, with hints of buried treasure and moldy magic carpets.
Grand Bazaar, a massive, upmarket shopping arcade. Rich, clean and fascinating. We stopped to have a coffee and baklava (heavenly) while watching the store holders prepare for their day, with tea and newspapers. Glancing up occasionally to judge whether anyone passing had potential. The odd line tossed randomly into the breeze to see what lure to use this early – “maybe you buy today? Maybe not?”. An alley of coffee shops. Dark wood, carpets of inspiration. Tables adorned with brass and silver, stories hanging from the domed ceilings. Tin-Tin and the Golden Fleece territory. We forgot to do the bargaining thing and probably paid too much for our bits.
In the park, between leaves of gold on emerald lawns, patterns of a zillion pansies being planted. A tapestry of colour. Up one of the twisting streets alongside the palace, a narrow grotto entrance to an art gallery. Amongst depictions of tourists sights in scrambled acrylic, subtle portraits and great charcoal sketches that make me think I haven’t done enough of them this year.
We haven’t seen the ceramic wall tiles that I expected. Outside the palace there was one turret which still had some glazed brickwork visible. A bit like a moth eaten carpet, but enough to show the grandure there once was.
Wine tasting at our hotel, with robust Vinkara wines from the Ankara region. With rain threatening, we did the roof-top terrace view thing at a venue up the road, to see the lights. The food dreadful, the wine worse. Not our best choice, and of course, we have passed a zillion much better looking options since then! But the city lights and night-harbour view was pretty.
After trawling mosques and Byzantine churches-turned-to-mosque, trailed bazaars and markets, fragrant and colourful, bruised soles on cobbled streets and indulged in local wines, fresh pressed pomegranate juice, cruised the Bosphorus and eaten kebabs and mezze, there was only one thing left (for Terry) to do:
And it was magical!
Built in 1741, the Turkish bath ‘room’ (Hammams) was huge and round and lined in marble, with a domed roof with tunnels of pin-prick light, mesmerising enough to make relaxing on the hard marble dias (gobek tashi) natural.
The tiny Turkish cotton towel (a peshtemal) (more like a large dishcloth) was just enough to keep me from blushing. The humidity in the ‘bath room’ was warm enough to glow, without the melting steam of a sauna. And it was quiet and empty enough not to be distracted or embarrassed by other bodies. I chose the Ladies only option.
My masseuse soon rearranged me – taking my towel and laying it flat on the marble then inviting me to lie down. I kept my eyes tightly shut – a mistake – as the bowl of water, when thrown over me – was a huge surprise! Fortunately it was warm and my fear of being doused in icy water never materialised.
Then she exfoliated every inch of me with a washing mitt (bath glove), rinsed me again with more warm water, sat me up, lay me down and then washed me in a bubbly mixture that was satin smooth and fluffy and completely indulgent. In a soapy state she led me to a marble basin, where I again sat on a step while she rinsed me off, washed my hair, poured more basins of warm water over me, washed my face and rinsed me once more before sending me to the jacuzzi to relax.
When I asked for a towel, she promised me one ‘after jacuzzi’. So in my newly polished skin, I walked across the ‘bath room’ to the other end and slipped into the warm jets of water.
Did I mention that she sang to me – in Turkish – while she performed her age-old ritual ?!
The jacuzzi was in its own arched, raw brick vault with muted daylight from high-up dusty windows.
Overheating from the bubbly water, I had to leave. My modesty forgotten, I left footprints across the marble floor and exited to where I could wrap up in a soft fleecy towel and wait for my sight-seeing-sore-muscles to be pampered with a deep tissue massage.
Thank you to attendants No 40 and No 62. Apart from the singing it was a quiet experience.
Upstairs, I changed, retrieved my bag and shoes from my locker – and made the most of the dressing tables and hair dryers and couches and quiet rooms along the circular balcony.
If I thought my ladies had missed a spot that still needed exfoliating, soaping and massaging, I would go back tomorrow!
Constantinople city of the worlds desires Philip Mansel
The forty rules of love Elif Shafak
Birds without wings Louis de Bernieres
Istanbul Orhan Pamuk