Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Postcard from Istanbul

Visiting Istanbul for the first time, Blue Mosque  |  Postcard from Istanbul on afeathery*nest  | http://afeatherynest.com

Turns out it's not exactly a seaside city—at least not the way Stockholm is. That was the first of many times I was surprised by Istanbul, the secret destination R planned for our surprise 5th wedding anniversary trip last week.

Turkey has been on high on my list of places to go—it and Egypt (for obvious reasons) were actually the top two I mentioned two years ago. There was something about the former seat of the Ottoman Empire's mystique, its tradition of sultans and harems, its food and tea culture, its artisanry—of both a textile and a precious metal nature, its past crawling with invaders and conquerors of every shape and form (clearly a theme), and its transition from a religious to a secular state that all intrigued me.

And as one of my most favorite types of literature (apart from European espionage, art heists and forensic thrillers) is historical fiction, specifically of unsung (or sung) female leaders throughout history, I'd read so much about the conquered concubines that became powerful in the Ottoman court that my vision of Istanbul was incredibly vivid. Perhaps a bit dated, but I could imagine the bones upon which modern-day Istanbul is built upon.

The only thing is, it wasn't exactly as I imagined. Actually, apart from Topkapi Palace and an otherworldly experience at a 500-year old hammam (more on that further down), it wasn't at all the way I thought it would be. At first I was a bit disappointed. Much like my experience with New Orleans, I felt deluded. But unlike New Orleans, which reading back now I see I actually said I "hated", I didn't hate Istanbul—not at all.

I just had to get used to the fact that a city with 20 million inhabitants can not possibly retain the same flavors as I imagined it did—at least on the surface. We were only there for five days, and as we weren't with a local and couldn't understand—or even pretend to understand—the language, of course we didn't really get to experience the heart and soul of the city.

Visiting Istanbul for the first time, Topkapi Palace Harem  |  Postcard from Istanbul on afeathery*nest  | http://afeatherynest.com
Visiting Istanbul for the first time  |  Postcard from Istanbul on afeathery*nest  | http://afeatherynest.com
Visiting Istanbul for the first time, Topakpi Palace Harem  |  Postcard from Istanbul on afeathery*nest  | http://afeatherynest.com


But looking back now at all of the pictures that we took, some of the magic that I knew would be in Istanbul does seem to be lurking in the edges of the buildings and the colors of the tiles and the fringes of the city streets that we walked on. We just didn't happen to tap into it as easily as we did in Spain.

The one thing that did not even remotely disappoint was our morning feasts—our daily Turkish breakfasts were one of the trip's highlights for us. The richness of the flavors, variety of the tastes, and sheer abundance were astounding (and delicious!). The first place we breakfasted was Journey, a charming, non-flashy spot in the residential neighborhood of Cihangir in Beyoğlu that I only knew about thanks to a Turkish woman whose Instagram account I've been following for a while. Besides there being a sweet elderly golden retriever lolling about inside and lovely classical music playing, the cafè was darling on its own, and then when you add in the food, well...

Traditional Turkish breakfast at Journey in Cihangir Istanbul  |  Postcard from Istanbul on afeathery*nest  | http://afeatherynest.com
Traditional Turkish breakfast at Van Kahlvati Evi in Cihangir Istanbul  |  Postcard from Istanbul on afeathery*nest  | http://afeatherynest.com
Traditional Turkish breakfast at Leyla in Cihangir Istanbul  |  Postcard from Istanbul on afeathery*nest  | http://afeatherynest.com

In addition to Journey, we were lucky to find two other equally delightful places to indulge our need for as many traditional Turkish breakfasts as possible: Leyla and Van Kahlvati Evi—both in the same neighborhood as Journey and both gratifying in their own ways.

While in Istanbul, apart from breakfasting, we did a mixture of seeing and touring the major sites (the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, the Grand Bazaar), walking around less touristy neighborhoods (the northern parts of Fatih, Cihangir, Beyoğlu, and Beşiktaş—where our hotel was), sitting in taxis (as the traffic in Istanbul is unreal, not surprising since it has so many inhabitants, most of which seem to have a car, and staying in a residential part of the city versus the Old Town meant we couldn't walk everywhere), and then of course we couldn't be in the heart of the former Ottoman Empire without indulging in the hammam tradition.



And let me tell you, our experience at the sultan's hammam (yep) built in 1556 by the chief Ottoman architect at the request of Hurrem Sultan Roxelana, the wife of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, on the site where the Temple of Zeus once stood, was the culmination of all our spa, bath, and sauna experiences. It was magical and exotic and completely transcendent (even more so to me because I was referred to once as "sultana"). We opted for a slightly more luxurious hammam, mostly because besides behind beautiful it's also historical, and we had 90 minutes that were worth so much more than what we paid for—that's how incredible our experience was.

via http://imgkid.com/hurrem-sultan-turkish-bath.shtml

We entered the Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamami separately, as the men's and women's areas are completely distinct. After changing into peştamals (the Turkish version of a sarong/pareo), we were led (me by an attendant holding my hand raised in the air) to the first part of the hammam ritual: sitting on warmed marble while someone bathes you with hot water flowing from gold-plated faucets into a marble basin that's then gently poured on you from a gold-plated dish. After being warmed up and lightly cleansed by the water, we were led to a different marble room where we were once again helped to sit down at the base of a marble basin so the attendant could pumice our entire body.

(I should say that my entreè to Swedish sauna culture, meaning being released from any American prudishness at being nude amidst other women in saunas or the locker room, greatly helped me to feel at ease with only a wet peştamal covering me—and only at times, not continuously.)

After seeing layers of dead skin rolling off of my body (and swiftly splashed away to swish down a drain), I was led to the main heated marble platform of the hammam pictured above, which is situated directly below a dome through which light filtered in via many openings to the sky. I laid on my back and then my front while the attendant heaped suds all over me and proceeded to give me a scrub down. Finally, I was taken to a different marble niche where my hair was washed and conditioned.

The level of intimacy between my attendant and I came naturally, almost unbelievably so, as at a hammam an adult essentially receives the same sensations a child does when its gently bathed by someone else. I never once felt uncomfortable or uneasy, in fact, I was probably the most relaxed I've ever been in my life! And if that wasn't enough, we opted to add on an oil massage (of course) to the end of our hammam treatment just to be absolutely sure we were as rejuvenated as possible.

I don't know that I'll ever have the opportunity to experience firsthand what it was like to live in that part of the world in that century (as a well-to-do or chosen woman, of course) ever again, and for me, that was the apex of our time in Istanbul.

Directly after our visit to the hammam we toured Topkapi Palace, where the sultan, his family and the harem lived. Besides the hammam, the Palace completely lived up to and surpassed any idea I had—its grandeur, the vividness of the tiles and gold Arabic inscriptions, the opulence that has withstood hundreds and hundreds of years (with a little restoration help, naturally) were a wonder. We spent the afternoon wandering through the courts, the mosques, the pathways and council rooms, the audience chambers and the kitchens, each one showing another beautiful surprise of the Ottoman Empire.

Visiting Istanbul for the first time, Topakpi Palace Harem  |  Postcard from Istanbul on afeathery*nest  | http://afeatherynest.com
Visiting Istanbul for the first time, Topakpi Palace  |  Postcard from Istanbul on afeathery*nest  | http://afeatherynest.com
Visiting Istanbul for the first time, Topakpi Palace  |  Postcard from Istanbul on afeathery*nest  | http://afeatherynest.com
Visiting Istanbul for the first time, Topakpi Palace  |  Postcard from Istanbul on afeathery*nest  | http://afeatherynest.com
Visiting Istanbul for the first time, Topakpi Palace Harem  |  Postcard from Istanbul on afeathery*nest  | http://afeatherynest.com
Visiting Istanbul for the first time, Topakpi Palace Harem  |  Postcard from Istanbul on afeathery*nest  | http://afeatherynest.com
Visiting Istanbul for the first time, Topakpi Palace Harem  |  Postcard from Istanbul on afeathery*nest  | http://afeatherynest.com
Visiting Istanbul for the first time, Topakpi Palace Harem  |  Postcard from Istanbul on afeathery*nest  | http://afeatherynest.com
Visiting Istanbul for the first time, Topakpi Palace  |  Postcard from Istanbul on afeathery*nest  | http://afeatherynest.com


On the non-palatial side of things, besides making the required visit to the Blue Mosque on our first day in town, we also went to the Fatih Mosque in a neighborhood about 20-minutes north of the Blue Mosque by foot. While it isn't as famed, I found it to be even more beautiful. The tiles lining the interiors of its many domes were stunning. And I'll never understand how mosques have such plush carpets! It can't just be because shoes aren't worn inside, there's a reason why Turkish carpets are famous—walking across the mosques and gaping at their domes and artwork felt like what I imagine walking in a cloud would be like.

As you can't visit mosques during formal prayer times, we and other tourists witnessed some Muslim visitors praying individually while their children played, zooming across the carpet and twirling under all the twinkling lights. There was something peaceful and lovely about the combination of the two acts all under the same magnificent dome.

Visiting Istanbul for the first time, Fatih Mosque  |  Postcard from Istanbul on afeathery*nest  | http://afeatherynest.com
Visiting Istanbul for the first time, Fatih Mosque ablutions  |  Postcard from Istanbul on afeathery*nest  | http://afeatherynest.com
Visiting Istanbul for the first time, Fatih Mosque dome art tiles  |  Postcard from Istanbul on afeathery*nest  | http://afeatherynest.com
Visiting Istanbul for the first time, Fatih Mosque dome art tiles interior  |  Postcard from Istanbul on afeathery*nest  | http://afeatherynest.com

It was in Fatih that we saw the less secular and more religious side of Istanbul—the street-side markets were crowded by women in niqabs (where only the eyes are visible), versus the more common hijab (a headscarf) or chador (a full-length body-covering cloth that reveals the entire face). Only once did we see a woman in a burqa (where the entire body and face are hidden from view).

Visiting Istanbul for the first time, Fatih neighborhood market  |  Postcard from Istanbul on afeathery*nest  | http://afeatherynest.com
Visiting Istanbul for the first time, Fatih neighborhood market  |  Postcard from Istanbul on afeathery*nest  | http://afeatherynest.com
Visiting Istanbul for the first time, Fatih neighborhood market  |  Postcard from Istanbul on afeathery*nest  | http://afeatherynest.com


And of course we couldn't think of being in Istanbul without visiting the famed Grand Bazaar, which was as stressful (thankfully we went before the hammam!) as it was exciting. It was a massive maze, heaped with the most absurd tchotchkes as well as the most divine handwoven textiles and exquisite leather, glass, and gold goods. While I didn't come away with any new additions to my jewelry collection (although I tried and came very close!), we did manage to acquire quite a number of lovely things both for us and our eventual home, like:
  • a traditional Turkish tea set with a hammered gold-plated tray, a matching teapot, and 6 gold-rimmed glasses dotted (tastefully) with Swarovski crystals and their accompanying saucers and teaspoons
  • a few beautiful dress shirts for R
  • a cross-body Turkish leather handbag for me
  • a thick Turkish cotton robe and matching slippers for R
  • two light Turkish cotton robes and pajamas for me
  • the most feathery of comforters (that was fun carrying home!)
  • two peştamals
  • a set of Turkish crystal tumblers
  • and a set of Turkish crystal highball glasses

Visiting Istanbul for the first time, Grand Bazaar entrance  |  Postcard from Istanbul on afeathery*nest  | http://afeatherynest.com
Visiting Istanbul for the first time, Grand Bazaar evil eye halls  |  Postcard from Istanbul on afeathery*nest  | http://afeatherynest.com
Visiting Istanbul for the first time, Grand Bazaar lamps lanterns  |  Postcard from Istanbul on afeathery*nest  | http://afeatherynest.com
Visiting Istanbul for the first time, Grand Bazaar ablution faucet washing hands  |  Postcard from Istanbul on afeathery*nest  | http://afeatherynest.com
I should mention that the Turkish lira was trading at very favorable rates for us, the things we purchased at the Bazaar were expertly negotiated down by R, and all the home goods were purchased at a store that was liquidating—meaning we were lucky to create and find exceptional deals.

(Or rather R created them, as I'm not as nimble a negotiator as he is!)

Visiting Istanbul for the first time, streets of Cihangir Istanbul  |  Postcard from Istanbul on afeathery*nest  | http://afeatherynest.com

Visting Istanbul for the first time, Colorful buildings in Cihangir Istanbul  |  Postcard from Istanbul on afeathery*nest  | http://afeatherynest.com

And now we're back in wintry Stockholm, where the snow has been coming down for almost 48 hours straight and everything is silent, white, and still—a vivid contrast to the vibrance, the clamor, and the swarming nature of Istanbul.

I'm so very glad that we went, but I'm also so glad to be home.

Visiting Istanbul for the first time, J. from afeathery*nest  |  Postcard from Istanbul on afeathery*nest  | http://afeatherynest.com


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2 comments :

  1. im just fascinated by these pictures. Istanbul is on my top lists of places to visit, hopefully soon...

    ReplyDelete
  2. That's a perfect way to describe Istanbul, Dixya—fascinating.
    I hope you'll make it there soon! Xx

    ReplyDelete

Thanks so much for taking the time to leave a note!

XOXO,
J.