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Weekend in Istanbul (Part III)

October 22nd, 2011 7 comments

Earlier I  wrote about my Weekend in Istanbul:

          Part I – Where we stayed,  What we visited, What we ate

          Part II – Where we  shopped, Where we went

Here is my  final post about my weekend in this complex, multi-layered city.

What  We Saw

To me,  Istanbul was tidy and charming (at least the areas that I saw). The city was  full of clean streets, green boulevards and hills. (Think San Francisco.) Here  is one of many winding cobblestone streets that I saw.

Istanbul  is a colorful city in many ways.

 

Even the  buildings are colorful. On some streets, every building is a different color.

When the  weather is nicer, Istanbul would be a fabulous place for sitting in sidewalk  cafés. (This photo was taken by someone else on a sunny day.)

What Surprised Me

I knew  that Istanbul is famously divided by the Bosporus strait which cuts the city into East and West, Asia and Europe. What I hadn’t considered was the Golden  Horn, which divides European Istanbul and the Sea of Marmara, which provides water to the south. All this meant that Istanbul has miles and miles of waterfront and so many beautiful views of water, boats and bridges. I loved this.

One can  get right up close to the water in the many cafés and restaurants that line the waterfront. This photo was taken from a place where we ate lunch outside (Assk  Café). Luckily there were heaters.

I was surprised by how darn cold it was. First, I thought it would be a “nice change” from the sun and warmth of Dubai. Then the rain made me homesick for Seattle. After that, I was just cold, wet and a little bit miserable. Even though I had  the proper coat and shoes (for once), I was freezing.

We spent a lot of time riding in taxis, waiting for a taxi or searching for a taxi. Also, we had various communication breakdowns with drivers. I only knew one word in Turkish: merhaba, which means “hello.” I relied heavily on this word. (It’s the same word in Arabic.)

There were a lot of stay dogs in Istanbul. What surprised me was how healthy, well-fed and docile they looked.

What I Bought

Aside from  too much Turkish delight, this is what I bought. I love the handmade tiles of  Turkey.

Here’s a  detail of the hand of Fatima trinket. These types of things were very cheap.

I also bought a Turkish teapot. The top is for strong tea that is slowly brewed over the hot water below. The tea is diluted with the water from the bottom. This tea-brewing method creates a unique taste. I used to think this was a samovar. No, it’s just a teapot.

This is a  samovar. (We didn’t buy it. It was in the Ritz-Carlton lobby café.)

What I thought

I found the Turks to be a smiley, cheerful people (except for one guy). This is what I noticed coming from a place that’s not particularly smiley.

Also, at first glance, Istanbul appears truly secular. Of course, there were gorgeous mosques all over the city. But from my perspective (coming from the UAE), it didn’t have the feel of a Muslim country. I realize there’s a reason for this, due to Turkey’s own unique history and Ataturk’s reforms and laws against the hijab. I also realize it’s a different story outside the city.

Above all, Istanbul felt like Europe. Well, according to the map, we were in Europe.

Lonely Planet calls Istanbul one of “the  world’s great romantic cities.” I believe that. In fact, what I saw of Istanbul reminded me more of Paris than any other city I’ve been to.

So, my first  impression as a weekend visitor was that Istanbul is more European than Middle Eastern, more secular than Muslim. Also, the city is so old, complex and layered, so rich with history, architecture… well, with everything. I got the impression one could spend a lifetime there and still not explore everything.

May my next trip to Istanbul be longer and filled with sunny weather and lots of time spent antique-shopping and sitting in sidewalk cafés.

Question: What are your impressions of Istanbul? 

Weekend in Istanbul (Part II)

October 20th, 2011 9 comments

Earlier, I shared Part I of our weekend in Istanbul: Where we stayed, What we visited & What we ate.

Here’s more about that trip.

Where We Shopped

I wanted to buy something not available in Dubai, and I was set on Cukurcuma, the antique district in Beyoglu. Unfortunately, we had trouble finding the area. (Later, I discovered we were so close but had missed it!) The next day was Sunday and many shops were closed, and some streets were closed due to the Istanbul City Marathon. Alas, antique-shopping was not meant to be.

We settled on the Grand Bazaar, a famous and colorful souk, a sprawling labyrinth of over 4,000 shops. Here we found the usual Middle Eastern  handicrafts, carpets and kilims, pottery, jewelry, leather and more. There were even some antiques, but none called out to me.

 

I’ve been to other souks in Arab cities, and the Grand Bazaar reminded me most of the Muslim Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem. However, the Grand Bazaar felt much bigger—downright overwhelming. It seemed to go on forever. I was buying things left and right because I was afraid I would never find that shop again. We entered at one gate, wandered, shopped and browsed for several hours, then left from another gate, exhausted and unsure of where we were.

 

This bazaar was the one place that felt Middle Eastern to me. The bargaining was intense. We had to go back and forth, back and forth, just to agree on the right price for one teapot. Here are a few things we saw in the Grand Bazaar. Lots of pottery.

Whirling dervishes.

More whirling dervishes. 

And pomegranates, too.

There were many beautiful things that I didn’t take photos of. Actually, I didn’t linger at any shop unless I planned to buy something because the shopkeepers were quite aggressive.

Where We Went

We also went to Istiklal Caddesi, a bustling pedestrian boulevard in Beyoglu, and near our hotel. We went twice; both times it was raining. Still, it was the weekend, and the promenade was filled with locals strolling under umbrellas.

 

This promenade was in sharp contrast to the bazaar. We found modern restaurants, boutiques, cafes and businesses like Starbucks, Nike and The Gap. This was the place to see the young people, who struck me as stylish and hip, and above all, European.

And the architecture was European, too. So quaint compared to Dubai. Here was one of many cute buildings.

The avenue had a streetcar running from one end to the other.

 

I noticed that shops were grouped according to type–jewelry shops, music stores, lighting boutiques, etc. There were lots of charming side streets. Off one of them was the antique area that we never found.

As always, we gravitated to Starbucks. I like to visit Starbucks in various countries. For me, it’s not globalization, but a little piece of home. As we sat by the window, keeping warm and watching people enter and shake raindrops off their umbrellas, I almost felt like I was in Seattle.

Meanwhile, I saw so few women wearing hijab, I was thinking that one sees more women in headscarf in Seattle than in this part of Istanbul.

Below are some of the more Turkish sights of Istiklal Street.

Coming up next: Part III: What we saw, What we bought, What surprised me & What I thought

Question: What is your favorite area of Istanbul?

 

Weekend in Istanbul (Part I)

October 19th, 2011 7 comments

When my husband invited me to spend the weekend with him in Istanbul, I immediately said, “Sure!” I’ve visited nine Arab countries, and  I assumed the city would be another variation of the same Arabic theme.

I was wrong.

Istanbul was something else entirely. Here is a summary of our weekend:

Where We Stayed

We stayed in the Ritz-Carlton, Istanbul, located off Taksim Square with views of the Bosporus. We had a lovely suite with a Turkish-inspired décor. Below was the view from the hotel. Coming from Dubai, I appreciated how green and lush Istanbul was.

 

What We Visited

Because Istanbul is so mind-boggling rich with cultural and historically sites, it seemed an injustice to be there for just two days. But I knew what I wanted to see: the Blue Mosque for starters, an Istanbul icon, and even more, I had to see Aya Sofya (Hagia Sofia), which was first a church, then a mosque, and now a museum—its unique story I had studied in university Art History.

These two structures are both found in Old Istanbul, conveniently and interestingly located right across from each other. Sultan Ahmet I (1603-17) deliberately built the Blue Mosque to rival and surpass the Aya Sofya, just across the street.

The morning we visited the Blue Mosque was wet, cold and rainy. Still, there were throngs of tourists swarming all around and waiting to enter. (Apparently most of these tourists came off of several cruise ships that were in the harbor.) Below is the exterior of the Blue Mosque.

 

The layout of the Blue Mosque is classic Ottoman design, with an ablution fountain in the center of the courtyard.

 

 We waited under these intricate archways in a long line of visitors, all waiting to get of glimpse of the interior.

The “blue” of the Blue Mosque comes from the Iznik tiles that line the inside walls and dome.

 

 

Next we visited the Aya Sofya. Initially built as a church in the 4th century, it served for a thousand years as the greatest church in Christendom. That is, until Mehmet the Conqueror turned it into a mosque. It remained a mosque for 500 years until Ataturk proclaimed it a museum in 1935 (part of his many reforms to make Turkey more modern, secular and Westernized). Below is the exterior  of the Aya Sofya.

 

Apparently the Aya Sofya represents one of the finest examples Byzantine architecture, but what I found fascinating and refreshing were the symbols of Christianity and Islam right alongside each other.

Here is a detail of the Madonna and Child mosaic:

 

What We Ate & Drank

I knew the food would be good. My husband has been to Turkey almost forty times, so he knew what to order. We enjoyed fresh figs and Turkish sesame bread and yummy Turkish cheeses and yogurt. We ate fish, lots of fish—sole, sea bass, red snapper, and bluefish. Of course, we had Turkish delight. It was served in the lobby so we had a sample every time we breezed past.

We had Turkish coffee. (Gotta love the presentation!)

And Turkish tea.

Even lavender tea. This was at a lovely waterside restaurant called the Assk Cafe, located right on the Bosporus, recommended by my Turkish friend.

We tried Turkish kunafe, which is similar to the Arabic pastry, but crispier and served with ice cream on top.

We had coffee each morning, thanks to the cute automatic espresso maker in our room. I got really attached to this machine.

We were surprised to find a complementary birthday cake for my husband in our room. (I’m sad to say the hotel was better about remembering his birthday than I was…)  Anyway, the cake was coffee-flavored and perfect.

Naturally we had to have Afternoon Tea at the Ritz, one of my favorite meals anywhere, this time with a Turkish twist.

Coming up Next:

Part II: Where we shopped & Where we went

Part III: What we saw, What Surprised Me, What I Bought & What I Thought