Friday, April 29, 2005

Karyn's Istanbul Trip - Day 3 (April 26)

After breakfast, we hopped on a really swanky bus and were driven to the Asian side of Istanbul. Our first stop was an Egyptian ambassador’s mansion, which is now a fancy restaurant where a lot of weddings are held. I’m not sure what the point was in going there. There were some lovely views from there, but the upstairs of the mansion was closed and we were only given access to the downstairs, which consisted of some really fancy dining rooms, but nothing particularly special. Again, there were a lot of feral cats on the premises, and I was disturbed to see one adult cat suckling another. Only in Turkey, I guess.

After our visit there, we went to the highest point in Istanbul, which had a nice café where you could sit and order something to drink and take in the view. Ruth and I found it crowded, and we saw a little ice cream stand by the parking lot when we got off the bus, so we walked downhill a piece to get some ice cream. I decided that I also needed a Cola Light, so we went to another little snack stand nearby and I ordered one. He brought out a Pepsi Light, and I explained that I did not like Pepsi, only Coca-Cola, so he actually ran to another snack stand down the way and brought me a Coke! And then he begged me to stay for ice cream, but I told him that I already had some. But he kept ringing his bell and yelling, “ice cream for the pretty lady!” It was funny.

After spending several minutes there, we drove to Beylerbeyi Palace, an Italian and French inspired baroque palace that was once the summer palace of the sultans. It is right on the Bosphorus, where the cool breezes come in. Umut informed us that it would cost 6 lira to bring in our cameras, and that we wouldn’t be allowed to use flash. I debated, but I’m glad I ultimately decided to pay the fee. And I took a ton of pictures (which you will notice, if you look at my photo albums). I was one of the few who paid, so Kate gave me a lira toward the cost as long as I send her the pictures. They came out pretty well. The palace was so beautiful. I have never seen anything like it. We even had to wear blue booties over our shoes to protect the very expensive Turkish carpets that are all over the floor.

Around 2 or so, we headed to some seafood place for lunch. We all figured it would actually be on the waterfront, but it was high in the hills, where if you squinted hard enough, you could see water. It was a lovely restaurant though, and we ate outside. First they served us a Turkish delicacy – warm pickled green beans. They were so incredibly good. Then they served us dolmas – cabbage leaves stuffed with ground lamb meat. We had a lovely salad, and then they brought out our sea bass – scales, fins, and face still intact. I’m a bit grossed out by that, but I tried to look past it and the fish was delicious. Some other not so brave souls had a choice of chicken or meatballs. For dessert – BAKLAVA! One of my most favorite things on earth. I was in absolute heaven. It was an amazing lunch. I was so happy.

One thing I thought was interesting as we were driving around was the extreme opulence and extreme poverty, all located in short distances of one another. We saw houses that were barely standing and really huge fancy mansions, all on the same street. We saw mosques that were crumbling, and huge ones adorned with gold.

After lunch, we went back to the European side and visited the Haghia Sophia. It’s a former mosque that is now a museum and a tribute to Christ, and it has mosaics of Jesus and the Virgin Mary in addition to things you would find in a typical mosque. Such an interesting juxtaposition of Christianity and Islam. It was really beautiful, although a good portion of it is being redone on the inside, so there was scaffolding everywhere.

After Haghia Sophia, Umut took us to a leather showroom, where we were treated to a fashion show. We even made Umut get on the catwalk and model. He looked like a natural up there and he enjoyed our catcalls and whistles. The other male model was embarrassed though because we cheered and whistled every time he came out on stage. He was bright red. It was hilarious. I figured the salespeople would descend on us like vultures again, but they didn’t. They served us some apple tea and let us look around at our leisure, without any pressure to buy. Of course, I wasn’t in the market for anything leather, so I just walked back to our bus and waited for everyone else to join us.

After we were all back on the bus, Umut dropped us off at our hotel and announced that he would not be with us the next day, much to our consternation. Although he said he would be with us at night for the dinner and show at Sultana. He did say, however, that he could be bribed to be with us for a few kisses (he had tickets to a soccer game). But nobody took him up on that. And he made jokes about wanting to join us for the Turkish bath, which we were doing that night with Rabia, our guide from day one.

We were on our own for dinner, but most of us were still stuffed from lunch. I just went to the hotel bar and ordered a salad, which was way too expensive and not very good. Others grabbed a döner kebap from next door (shaved chicken meat in a flatbread) for a mere two lira. I wish I had done that instead, but I was not really even hungry. I just knew that if I didn’t eat something, I would be famished after our Turkish bath.

At 7:30, Rabia met up with us at the hotel lobby. Some people opted out of the Turkish bath, but most of us decided to go. We took the tram up to the bath. It was a weird experience, I must say. Without getting into too much intimate detail, you go into this room that is very hot and humid and lay down on this heated marble stone until you start to sweat (by the way, you are not alone in the room…several other women are in there with you, some laying on the stone waiting to be bathed, and some being bathed). Then you are doused with water, and you are scrubbed with a loofah mitt – HARD - in front, then you turn over and are scrubbed from the back. Then you sit up and have your arms scrubbed. Yes, there is a strange old woman (or if you’re male, a man) who is naked and scrubbing you within an inch of your life. Anyway, after the loofah, you lay on your back again and are doused with water again. Then you are covered with suds and massaged. Then you flip over onto your stomach and are massaged in back – she worked out the kinks in my shoulders and the foot rub felt really good. Then she slaps you between the shoulder blades several times – REALLY HARD – and then she whacks you on the butt, which indicates that you need to sit up so she can suds your arms. Then she rinses you off, and if you want a shampoo, you go into a separate room with her and she shampoos your hair and washes your face. Then you’re done and you do whatever you like…I wrapped myself up in a dry towel and sat in an armchair for awhile. Most people go back into the bathing room and lay down on the marble slab again.

I don’t think I’ll do the Turkish bath again (if an opportunity would ever present itself). There were a few other people that felt the same way, but most of our group loved it. I felt more relaxed afterwards though. And maybe a little less self-conscious.

While we were waiting for everyone else to finish, I sat with a couple of other people at a café a few doors down and enjoyed some fresh squeezed orange juice while the lights came up in Istanbul. Then the call to prayer came on, and we were between 3 mosques, so we could hear it echoing all around us, which didn’t exactly leave me with a peaceful feeling.

After everyone was done and Rabia was getting her bath, we decided that we wanted to walk back to the hotel. It was a beautiful night and it wasn’t that long of a walk. So we left a message with her that we were getting ourselves back to the hotel and we split off into small groups and started meandering. We were startled by the sight of the Blue Mosque lit up at night. It truly is a breathtaking thing. There were a lot of people out – merchants and tourists – and we stopped to browse in interesting shops or watch people making their handicrafts. Some of the men were calling to us, because our hair was still wet, “Ooooh…just came from the baths…nice, clean, pretty ladies!” There was a man on the street making copper etchings…we watched him do it for awhile. I decided to buy a hair barrette from him. His work was beautiful and he wasn’t pushy like everyone else. We had a very enjoyable stroll. And then it was back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep…or something.

Pictures here

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