Saturday 30 March 2013

Istanbul, Turkey - Spring 2013

Never stir a Turkish Coffee
Tuesday, 26 March

Just four weeks after Iceland and I am on my Easter break in Istanbul.  A massively historical city and home of the almighty kebab!  We are staying in Sultanahmet which is the hot spot for all of the main attractions. 

Within minutes of getting off the tram, we found ourselves tucking into our first doner kebab (Kebap) wrap.  Pretty much every second shop has a revolving log of meat; be it chicken, lamb or beef.  Having said that, I haven't seen any lamb doners!? It has all been beef or chicken.  Beef doner meat is gorgeous.  None of this pink, dog meat paste moulded into a block.  Actual slices of meat layered up, as tall as me, with herbs and spices.  I am so glad that i decided to delay my diet a little longer. 
Over a Turkish tea we sat in a cafe and planned our trip.  I think that it is fair to say that Turkish tea is the heart and soul of Turkey.  We like to think we are the big tea drinkers over in England, but comparatively we're not even in the same league.  Istanbul is run single-handedly by small glasses of tea with 2 sugar cubes.  Because of tea, we planned an awesome few days. 

For dinner we shared plates of chicken, lamb and beef kebabs which were simply just juicier, softer and tastier than the English counterpart.  Why can we not make them like this?!  The beef koftes in particular saddened me the most in having to share them.  They're so damn tasty! Caramelised on the outside and soft on the inside.  At some point on this trip, i'm having myself a whole plate of these.  Onwards from here we found a cafe and spent a small fortune on Turkish Delight and Baklava for dessert.  I don't even have a sweet tooth, i don't know how we ended up buying so much!  They are both extremely sweet and a little goes a long way.  We finished the night in a bustling Nargile (water-pipe/shisha) house, called Corlulu Ali pasa Medresesi, that we stumbled across on the way back to our hotel.  This was a
top find.  A perfect place to unwind with a pipe and a constant supply of sweet Turkish tea.  Were coming here again!
yes that is a no smoking sign...
This morning i was attracted to a queue of Turkish men spilling out of what looked like a local bakery (a Borekcisi?).  They sold various pastries from Boreks to... urmmm ok so Boreks were the only things i recognised in there.  I pointed at something with the intention of returning tomorrow morning and pointing at something else.  It was called a "Su Boregi" which looked like a cake of pasta sheets before being chopped up and piled into a container.  I don't think it is pasta but it tastes like ultra thin lasagna sheets layered with a salty soft cheese.  Breakfast and tea for about £1.50.  I followed this with a Turkish Coffee in a Denizen Cafe which is owned by two lovely Americans.  I have learnt my lesson with Turkish coffee when i was in Jordan.  The ground up coffee beans are not sifted, it just sits at the bottom and takes up almost half of the cup.  You never stir a Turkish Coffee and you definitely do not drink the whole cup.  The owners here were extremely helpful in planning our day and i would recommend coming just for some local knowledge of the place. 

First stop on our walking tour was the Blue Mosque.  It looks magnificent from the outside but it has quite an empty and dull interior.  Just a lot of space and not much else.  With the exterior looking so grand i guess it's difficult for the inside to live up to expectation.  We planned to go see inside the Hagia Sophia but the queue looked ridiculous and having annoyingly waited in line only to realise that we needed a ticket first, we ditched the idea and agreed that we were happy to leave it out of our itinerary. 
Onwards to being dragged, pulled and lured in every direction in the Grand Bazaar, the worlds largest covered market.  With 4400 different stores but an actual variety of probably about 9 different stores (souvenirs, fake clothes, leather jackets, gold, kebabs, teas/spices, dried fruits, lanterns and carpets), they will do anything to make a sale.  And if you don't speak Turkish, they will do anything to make a good sale (rip you off!).  My general rule of thumb; no matter how good of a deal you think you may have, you have still been ripped off.  My friend bartered a guy down from 15TL for one Spirograph toy to 30TL for three (for his kids) and walked away thinking he got a good deal.  Later we found another guy (and 12 more) happy to come down to three for 10TL.  Don't buy anything until you have bargained with at least 3 different sellers and always go in at a third of their initial price.  You will still be ripped off, but less so. 
The Bazaar is fascinating and another place that is held up by tea.  It's big, noisy, busy and if you don't look local you will be hassled constantly.  It can feel a little overwhelming but if you take it all in your stride it is an amazing place to be.  All three of us decided that we wanted to come back and do some proper shopping.  The spice bazaar was equally busy selling a range of Turkish delights from teas to sweets and most places offer vacuum packaging to help you fly them home.  We spent nearly the full day nosing the bazaars and it's an experience you should not miss when in Istanbul.
For a brief break before walking back to the hotel we found a little back street tea spot where locals were sitting and playing old school board games.  Tea was the only thing they were selling at 1TL a cup.  We pulled out a pack of Uno cards and taught a lovely curious local how to play... and then proceeded to lose every game to him from then on.  Dinner was at the Mesale Cafe where we shared an impressive mixed kebab.  It was served with tissue thin flat bread which you can watch two women making throughout the night.  With the music, the whirling Dirvish dancer and not a local in sight, it is easily labelled as a tourist trap.  But a tourist trap that we all really enjoyed; the atmosphere and food was fantastic!  A night cap back at Corlulu Ali pasa Medresesi finished a busy day perfectly. 

So that's what it's like to be washed by a man...
Friday, 29 March

Over our morning coffee, in Denizen Cafe, the Americans recommended the old underground water system(cistern) as an interesting visit and warned us that we would be missing out greatly had we left without seeing inside the Hagia Sophia.  We did the Cistern(top left) first as the queues for the Hagia Sophia was again ridiculous.  Reading up the history of the Cistern i found this little underworld very interesting.  After filling our bellies and a few strong coffees it was time to tack ourselves onto the end of the snaking queues.  Luckily, within 5 minutes, a guide came and asked us whether we would like a tour that allowed us to skip the queues!? Yes please! 25TL for the ticket (this was standard) plus 10 Euros each for the guide was a price i was more than happy to pay.  The Hagia Sophia(left) is mind blowing and i completely recommend having a guide for it (even if it doesn't help you skip the queues!).  Built as a church almost 1500 years ago, then converted into a mosque 500 years ago and now a museum; it holds so much fascinating history of Christianity and Islam.  Furthermore, the mind just boggles thinking about how they put such an enormous and intricate building together way back in the 6th century.     

Ok so there is a lot more to Turkish food than Kebabs; there is a ton of unique street food.  Chestnuts and sweet corn are the common standards but in amongst that there's Turkish breads with Nutella, sweet syrup cakes, hot donuts, chicken rice and of course grilled meats on a stick.  A grilled fish sandwich (a Balik Ekmek) off a boat near the Galata bridge with a red cup of pickles was a particular tasty treat.  The donuts were the best donuts i have ever had.  Warm, crispy and soaked in a runny sweet syrup.  Sahlep vendors are also popular at this time of year selling a sweet thick, milky drink with a sprinkle of cinnamon and served hot as a hearty winter warmer.  It burnt my tongue and so i decided that i didn't like it. 

Wednesday was actually my birthday and so i treated myself to a Hamam.  Had it not been my birthday i would have still treated myself but it is nice to have an excuse to blow 80 euro.  Yes i spent 80 euros to be washed by a fat, hairy man... and i loved it.  I chose the Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam for its history as it seemed to be the oldest (but probably not) and was used by the Sultans and their wives over the ages.

I went in knowing absolutely nothing about what a Turkish bath entailed and so whatever happened, i knew it was going to be an experience.  On arrival i was given a silk wrap to change into.  No swimming trunks, no underwear, just a silk wrap.  I was then taken through to the baths and immediately felt like a king stood in an enormous, dome topped steam room paved in luxurious white marble and patterned with gold.  And then i caught a glimpse of the buttocks of an obese American (i presume) as he was being washed.  "Being washed!? so that's what i have payed for" questioned through my mind as i was lead towards a marble basin with a floating gold plated bowl.  And yes, that is what happens in Hamams i now know.  I was scrubbed head to toe with a scourer; just like my mum use to when i was a wee child.  The purple silk wrap was all i was wearing... and was all that he was wearing too.  After being soaked, scrubbed and washed; "wearing" is a word i use lightly.  I was then lead to lie under the dome and was covered in bubbles before he proceeded with a full body massage.  He kneaded my back like playdough and it was at this point i lost all care that he was fat, had more hair than skin and possessed a penis.  "very stressed" he uttered as he switched from thumbs to elbows to rid me from lumps.  After a shampoo head massage i was wrapped up in several towels and told to relax in the lounge with a cup of "special tea".  And then i floated home on a cloud.  When i am rich, i am going to buy him and will never need to wash myself again.

Yesterday was seen as a spare day to do as we wished.  A return to the Grand Bazaar for some shopping was on all our lists and so it was here our day started and here where we attempted a kebab crawl.  First stop was a Koftecisi, a place that sells only kofte meatballs.  Kofte and rice with pickled chillies and hot pepper debris is probably one of a favourite things to eat here.  They have always been a little raw in the middle and i am sure that this is why they are so good.  Second stop was just a few yards on from the Koftecisi and had locals pouring out of the entrance.  Skewers of different meats were lined up ready to be grilled over the coals on order.  A mixed lamb and liver kebab was the recommendation and went down a treat.  Some minutes after we arrived at a place selling kokorecs; a mish mash of seasoned sheep offal wrapped in intestines... this one was just for me then.  After grilled over coals it is chopped up finely and put in a half baguette with some salad.  It didn't taste awfully offally at all!  Lastly, a few hours later, a Cig Kofte wrap was on order.  This is a completely vegetarian mince with a shed load of spices rolled up in a flat bread with salad or served wrapped in lettuce leaves.  I have no idea what is in the paste; chick peas? beans? It was alright but i was a bit too stuffed by this time to really appreciate it.  Between us, we baught fridge magnets, soaps, a lantern, a water pipe, tea, a jacket, 3 shirts and a hammock. 

Today was the only warm and sunny day of the trip and we had only half of it to enjoy before we started heading back to the airport.  Typical.  Just enough time for some tea outside the blue mosque during the Friday prayers.  Prayers are over the speakers and are done several times a day.  The Friday "Jumma" is the most important and listening to the sermon, with Turkish tea, was a lovely way to finish our trip.  We started and ended our trip with tea.  The best kebabs in the world paired with some of the most fascinating history; Istanbul has it all for a quick city break. :o)