Thursday, May 15, 2014

Istanbul, Turkey: Back in the City of Romance

Cruising the Bosporus


As someone obsessed with the sea, I could not go to Istanbul and not take a cruise on the Bosporus. So I booked this activity before leaving for my trip to Turkey. A simple google search could have saved me some money. I paid $89.00 for the same cruise offered at ten Turkish Lira ($5.00) in Istanbul. The only added benefit was that we had a boat chartered by the tour company and a guide, but we had to pay for our drinks (tea, orange juice) and they were not cheap. So let me give my travel tip right off: You can take the same cruise for 10.00 Turkish Lira (about $5) or even take a public ferry for less than $5.00.

The scenery from the boat was overwhelmingIt was nice to have a guide that gave us information about the scenery and about Bosporus like how deep the water was when we reached the point where it was the deepest (300 feet). We were on a 2-hour cruise that started in Eminonu. We saw a row of men throwing fishing lines from the bridge. The view beyond the water varied. Both on the hillside and water’s edge were the most expensive real estate in the world. We saw modern mansions on a high hillside, said to be owned by some rich and famous. Just below the hillside were the most expensive hotels and residences. Not too far from the mansions on the hillside was a castle where the Byzantine, Roman and Ottoman Empires had ruled, and a castle wall where it stood for centuries watching over the Bosporus sea where the Hellenistic and Roman galleys, Byzantine ships, Turkish caiques had passed, and in recent times, the boats that carried tourists like us. According to our guide, 60,000 – 70,000 ships crisscross the water annually. Laid along the water’s edge was a mixed of architecture: a university, modern hotels and classical mansions. We passed the Yali summerhouse along the water. We saw trendy-looking couples eating at the glamorous places along the water’s edge, young people playing at the park or simply walking by the banks.  

To one side of us, Istanbul did not seem a wealthy city: we saw government buildings and drab apartment blocks. Red-roofed residential buildings peeped from behind the hills, almost hidden in the late afternoon hazeAnd there was something for the nature lover in me. I spotted a dolphin. Not too far from our boat and under the second bridge that we passed, a flock of birds danced across the water. Seagulls gazed at their rippling shadows; a single bird prancing and walking on water like Jesus Christ.


The cruise on the Bosporus was a great way to get a glimpse into a captivating city that intrigued me: from its antiquity and history to a modern city, and the water that physically divides east and west, but metaphorically blends all that distinctions of old and new, east and west. We got off the boat before sunset, the minarets and the mosques of Sulthahmet were not quite illuminated; the late afternoon sun came out just to highlight their natural colors. The sunlight gave in to an overcast sky, leaving the minarets and mosques in their shadowy splendor, looking more mysterious than ever.


Walking the Spice Market


After the Bosporus cruise, we explored the Spice Market, a covered market with 350 years of history. It started as a marketplace for the goods brought from Egypt that included spices and medicinal herbs. Today the goods come from different parts of the world like saffron from Iran, curry powder from India and tea from China.

We walked through the underpass to get to the Spice Market. The underpass was packed. The Spice Market must not cater to tourists alone, I thought. It was Saturday. It happened to be a market day for locals according to our guide. I was edging slowly trying to mind my step and my purse when suddenly I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was our guide’s. He said, “Sorry, I’m using you as an anchor. I’ll get in trouble if I bumped and touched them,” pointing to the two women clad in black chador. When our guide said goodbye and left us at the spice market, I realized that I only focused on the beauty of the sites and the landscapes on this trip that I did not pay much attention to the people and culture. The only Turkish I got to know well was our guide. He was very modern in his manner and speech, but still embraced tradition like going into an arranged marriage and still living with his mother, his sister and his wife. Looking back to the past weeks' event, I could only assume that the Turkish people generally still embrace the old tradition. I did not see any women working in the hotels and restaurants, except for a woman server at a nightclub in Canakkale (the college town). I did not observe a woman storekeeper or clerk at the Spice Market either.

The Spice Market was not that big, but very colorful. The profusion of spices: curry powder, rosemary, mint, chamomile and rose oil and the hurrying crowd drowned my sense of smell. However, the market stalls had very sensuous color: we saw a display of saffron, curry powder and tea, a stall with a display of dried fruits and nuts.


We stopped in the middle to try the famous ‘Turkish Delight’ (sugar powdered stick made of the fruit molasses (e.g., pomegranate, plum, and blackberry) and whole pistachio nuts hidden inside.). The store clerk across the stall with a banner that says, “The Best Turkish Delight in the World” hijacked us (for lack of a better word) to try some samplings of their Turkish Delight. I planned to have a full course meal for dinner that night, but the store clerk forced a pile of Turkish Delight in front of us. He insisted that theirs were made with savory and healthier ingredients like honey instead of sugar, pomegranate, banana, etc. I could not resist. He was good at his craft that my tour mates from Canada bought ten packages to take home.

When we emerged from the Spice Market, the area looked familiar. I realized I had dinner at a restaurant nearby on my second night in Istanbul, and the photo I took with my iPhone confirmed that it was at Mısır Çarşısı. The Spice Market was part of the New Mosque area. The plaza was crowded with mostly young men probably on the night out on a Saturday night. For the last time, I looked across the water before heading back to my hotel. The Bosphorus Bridge was turning blue, the neon lights from the Spice Market reflected on the water. The minarets and mosques illuminated against a blue-black sky. It truly was the Istanbul of my daydream, a place of pure escape.

PHOTO GALLERY
 

NOTE:  All photos by the author

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