Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Grand Bazaar

The Grand Bazaar is one of the most known and ‘must see’ places in Istanbul. It was constructed not long after the Ottomans took over Constantinople and was inspired by Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror in 1455. Over many years, the bazaar has undergone expansions, fires and earthquakes…yet still remains a center for commerce in the old city even today. It started as a forum for textile merchants to sell their goods, then expanded into luxury and textile goods. Now it is a showcase of textiles, jewelry, antiques, carpets, instruments, and (as expected for a major tourist attraction) souvenirs.

When I walked in for the first time, it was an overwhelming site. A large domed street stretches on with side domed ally ways leading off in all directions coaxing you to wander down every isle. Every shop is brimming with eye-catching colors and textures.

People are everywhere…. strolling along gazing at the goods; rushing down streets carrying trays of tea for visitors; men delivering carpets; women trying on their newest piece of jewelry, shop keepers welcoming you into their stand in all the languages they know until you acknowledge them; children holding their mother’s hand exhausted and ready for a nap; and those more interested in photographing everything with little intention of purchasing a single thing. 

I walked into a scarf shop and immediately a man had noticed which scarf I was eyeing, brought it off the shelf, fluffed it out, let me feel it, then effortlessly draped and tied it around my shoulders in the most exquisite fashion I have EVER seen. This man knows his scarves. They all do.

Another scarf shop with amazing patterns in every direction was a breath of fresh air. The shopkeeper has been in Istanbul 6 months and has been learning Turkish. He is from Syria, and his English is quite good! He demonstrated (on me) the way a lady ties her scarf if she is married or if she is single and gave a few pointers on how to find authentically ‘made in Turkey’ scarves. He said, ”If it is a Pashmina, it’s from India; if someone says it’s a hand embroidered Turkish scarf,  they are lying because we do not hand embroider scarves in Turkey…they are undoubtedly Indian; if it’s Alpaca wool then it is from Peru; and camel hair scarves are from Syria. If you want Turkish made, look for the thin and raw silk scarfs with printed patterns on them. All the rest are probably from somewhere else.”

With all the shopping at the Bazaar, you will most probably need a pick-me-up during the day. If this is the case, flag down a man carrying tea or better yet, take a seat at one of the corner cafes. You can get a Turkish coffee and watch all the action simultaneously!

Also, if you find yourself have had too much tea and need a place to relieve yourself, look for “Tuvalet” and the signs Bay (Men) and Bayan (Women). In my experience at the Grand Bazaar, the men are free to walk directly into the facilities but a woman is instructed to ring a doorbell. A few moments after the ‘ring’ a man appears with a key. He will open the door for you, ask if you require paper (from a paper towel roll), and kindly close the door behind you. You will then encounter (maybe your first) “eastern toilet.” This contraption consists of a hole in the ground and a rope hanging from the ceiling. Do not be alarmed! This is typical and is actually more common for public and government building restrooms than the more familiar “western toilet.” 

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Hiking by the Black Sea

They say the Black Sea got its name from old navigation coloring. Red signified ‘south’ and black signified ‘north’ which could explain the Red Sea’s name as well. But after asking people here, they are convinced the sea got its name from it’s unusually dark (almost black) color during the winter months. Either way, we decided to go check it out for ourselves!

A couple enjoying twilight on the Black Sea in Agva, Turkey

There is an amazing Turkish hiking club based in Istanbul. Alper invited us on a Black Sea hiking trip one Saturday that the group was putting on.

We started by meeting on a private shuttle bus at 7:30 in the morning FILLED with Turkish cheer and exclamations of “Güneyden!” (Good morning!) People of all ages were hugging and kissing and singing and ready for the hike ahead. We then drove across to the Asian side and then northward to the Sea.  Once we were in the forests, we stopped in a rural village for lunch before the hike. Everyone brought homemade treats and a wonderful lady shared “Börek” (the Turkish form of Spanikopita.) We had tea from the local restaurant and met our fellow hikers. Most were very interested in the foreigners who were trying to learn Turkish… We had just inherited 30 new Turkish language teachers!

 Enjoying tea and börek before the hike

 The village

These grape vines covered the entire entry and drive of this village home!

 Another village home...ready for winter!

After lunch, most of the group sipped their tea, told stories and laughed, but a few of us went walking around the village. I saw rustic homes and many farms and gardens. Then, as we were walking back to meet the group, an older woman walked down the road herding her two cattle to graze. She greeted us; pointed her stick with a welcoming smile on her face; and said something I could not understand. She was pointing to her pasture and her apple trees. She then opened her gate and ushered us in to pick apples for our hike! It was such a wonderfully human moment.

 The kind woman with her cows

 The apples from her garden

Before we knew it, we were all on the road again and hiking around this massive lake reservoir which kept a reserve for Istanbul’s water supply. We continued into the forest and all it’s assortment of berries. Most of our Turkish companions would stop along the trail and grab a hand full of berries along the way. They would pick leaves and nuts and fruits and herbs...basically anything they saw.  I met so many people and they would teach us new phrases and words and point at things and say it in Turkish. 

 The reservoir

After the long hike, we got back on the bus and drove to a seaside resort town Agva (pronounced ‘Agua’ with a soft ‘g’….like water in Spanish). There I saw the Black Sea for the first time. It was a gorgeous blue this time of year. People were enjoying the sun, the beach and the water on what would be one of the last warm Sundays of the year. Everyone was having fun. There was a vast array swimsuit styles all the way from men in tiny-weeny speedos to ladies in modest Muslim swimsuits.

Black Sea beach

 Ladies sporting colorful swimsuits

After several hours enjoying Agva, we packed back on the bus and headed back to the city. We wound up and down and all around the hilly terrain near the sea and the sunset would peak in and out of sight as we drove. We then took a short break at a fortress on the sea for a glass of hot tea. The view was magnificent and the night sky was a deep blue against the, yes, very BLACK Sea.

 Night view of the rough Black Sea

After a long and fabulous day, I snuggled into bed around 11pm and slept extremely well that night!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Dinner in Asia

One evening our program director Alper treated the four of us to the most incredible dinning experience of my life. Not only was it my first time in Asia, it was the largest and most colorful meal I have ever sunk my fork into. Muazzez Ersoy Senol is the name of this incredible restaurant overlooking the Sea of Marmara and the Islands we visited this week.

After driving across the trans-continental bridge, we were welcomed to Asia! We then drove down the high fashion street of Istanbul with Escada, Chanel and Dior within arm's reach. In many ways it compared to the Champs Elysees AND we happened to catch it all in the middle of fashion week with models walking and fashion shows happening on the sidewalks. 

Crossing two continents on the bridge!

We turned a quick corner, wound through some back streets and opened our eyes to a gorgeous water view. We soaked up the sun and the views for a few moments before venturing on to an unforgettable meal.

 The four of us gazing into the sun

At this type of restaurant there are no menus. You are simply seated and drink orders are taken…but the rest is up to them. They start by bringing two large trays of individual plates and bowls with every color and flavor you could imagine in Turkish cuisine. They cover the entire table with these and even stack plates….and THIS is the appetizer course!

The table during the appetizer course

My plate of appetizer samplings

Bread Basket

Once you have tried everything and enjoyed the fresh flat bread along the side, some plates are rearranged to make way for the meter (3.3 feet long) wooden board with a long piece of flat bread covering it. Then from out of nowhere a long sword carrying the meat and vegetable kebab is escorted over by 4 men, is laid across the board. The men slide the sword out so gracefully leaving the juicy tender lamb, steak, chicken, tomatoes and peppers to enjoy.

 The removal of the sword

 The meter long Kebab

Once you have stuffed yourself even more and can barely move from happiness, the board is removed, the table is cleaned and dessert is on its way! The table is then covered once more but this time with a colorful array of fruits and pastries and ice cream.

 My dessert plate after sampling from some of the dishes

As we finished our dessert and moved into the traditional tea time, the sun set over the water which was a perfect ending to a perfect meal.

 Tea is the national drink of Turkey

 Our view during tea

THIS is a must for a truly exquisite and extraordinary Turkish tradition. Come hungry and prepare to be both full and amazed.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Day trip to Büyükada Island

When the city becomes too much for you and you need a quick get away, island life in the Sea of Marmara is only an hour boat ride away! 

 The first of nine islands in the chain

There is a grouping on 9 islands called “Princes Islands” that have long served as Turkish royalty and elite’s getaway spot. Today the mansions still stand but all are welcome to enjoy the sun of the islands. There are no cars (except for emergency vehicles) on the islands leaving all transportation to horses, donkeys, bicycles and your walking shoes. We ventured to the largest of the 9 islands called Büyükada, which literally means “big island.” It is situated south of the Asian side of the city with beautiful distant views to Istanbul. 

The horse drawn carriages 

 Two local boys on their donkeys

All four of us in the Arcadia Program decided to rent bikes and explore the island. If you decide to bike the entire circumference of the island you will go a little over 9 miles. It’s exhausting but worth it. Most visitors choose the horse drawn carriage, which is lovely but stays along the main roads, and it’s more of a hassle to stop for pictures. If you are up to it, I recommend the bikes! 

The four of us ready to circumnavigate the island.

The town is quaint with old exquisite homes and mansions next to gorgeous new constructions. Tall trees and rot iron fences line the residential streets with peeking views of the Sea as you glance down side streets going down to the water.  When you are close to the shore line, palm trees and more tropical foliage surround you. As you climb to the higher points of the island, crooked pine tree forests create the stage for magnificent views across the water. There are beaches available for swimmers with 25 Turkish Lira in their pocket and may get very crowded with nice weather. 

 View down a residential side street

 Looking off to a sister island and Istanbul on the horizon

 My pink bike and me!

 The crooked pine tree forest

After a trip around the island, we returned our bikes and went in search for gelato. One very common thing in Turkey is to have streets with “themes”. For example, one street has shops all dedicated to musical instruments, another has all shops selling kitchenwares, and another may have only shops selling sewing machines. Well, we found the Gelato Street!!!! YES! It makes it easy to shop around, check flavors and prices, before choosing where you will spend your money. I ended up getting Nutella gelato…my new favorite. 

 Gelato anyone?!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Exploring Sultanahmet

WHAT an incredible city! In many ways Istanbul is a mix of New York (hustle and bustle), San Francisco (steep roads and many stairs!), Paris (romantic outdoor parks with out-of-this–world views), Rome (Roman ruins and aqueducts around so many corners), Athens (Greek ruins and similar cuisines) and Mecca (Mosques every three blocks in most places). It has so much to offer and so much personality. Culture is streaming down every street and passion for life is everywhere.

I live in Cihangir, the artist and actor district that attracts the most “foreign” residents. I've learned quickly that every neighborhood had a distinct personality…like siblings…..but all share the Turkish ideals and culture…..as in a very connected and close family. In Turkey, family ties are of most importance. You can see this everywhere you go in some way. Personal connection is extremely meaningful.

In order to start getting to know the sibling districts I decided to start with the oldest of them all: Sultanahmet.

 View of Sultanahmet from a ferry

This district is the most known, most recognized and most visited by visitors. If you think of Istanbul and see massive Mosques towering above you, underground ruins, large avenues, museums, the Grand Bazaar, a Sultan’s palace, carpet shopping, etc….THIS is the place!

 The "Main Square" looking to the Hagia Sofia, what was once a cathedral, then a mosque, now a museum. A must see for sure!

 The dome of a public drinking fountain between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia

                                             The Blue Mosque, largest mosque in Istanbul

 "Tourism Police" written in English.... If you need help, find these guys. 
Most municipal police are more helpful in Turkish :)

Helen and I walked through side and back streets to explore beyond the main sights and aren’t we glad we did! We noticed a very small sign on a window of a restaurant with the History Channel logo on it. We were very excited to recognize a sign and read further. It directed us into the restaurant (where people were eating on low chairs and tables and sipping traditional Turkish tea) and under the kitchen….down stairs into an old Roman ruin that is believed to be a portion of Constantine’s palace and thrown room during his time in Constantinople! UNDER THE RESTAURANT! Completely hidden from public sight. We were the only two in there. They were in the midst of excavation so there was no charge…but a portion of the proceeds from your bill at the restaurant is donated to the project. If you are in Istanbul some day and are interested in seeing this and eating at the restaurant to contribute to their work…ask me for more info :)

 The ruins below the restaurant!

We walked by the Grand Bazaar and News FLASH! It’s closed on Sundays! But no worries, there will be an entire post dedicated to the Bazaar once I make it there.

 The main door the Grand Bazaar

 A small bazaar on a side street

A few more observations and experiences:

Ladies: We walked all around and ran into a few learning experiences as well. For any young ladies traveling to Turkey, it is good to remember that (generally speaking) men will be extremely friendly if you are alone or with other women. It is important to simply keep walking. It’s not rude, it’s normal. They can be very persistent so just be aware! 

Visitors: Also for everyone who looks foreign... Carpet sellers are ruthless! They will coax you in every way to their store, offer you tea, and have a “no pressure” conversation. I have already experienced one of these scenarios and they literally make it impossible to say no once you stop walking. So if you aren’t interested at the time, don’t stop walking. Pretend you can’t hear or you don’t understand. Go to a carpet shop when you have the time or inclination, on your own terms.

Fashion: The fashion here is incredible! Ladies and men are constantly dressed to the nines whether they are going to work or the grocery store. Heels and cobble stones are a fact of life here. The Muslim women are by far the most fashionable with gorgeous long dresses and skirts and exquisite silk scarfs perfectly complimenting the ensemble. I recommend you take a picnic to the large park by Topkapi Palace and gaze in aw at the outfits that pass on the pedestrian boulevard below. 

  A family picnicking at the park

Animals: There are cats and dogs everywhere... And as you walk down the street you may see little bowls of food and water sitting out. This is because they are the “neighborhood’s pets” and everyone takes care of them collectively. Here is another example of family and community bonds.