Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Back in Istanbul

By Chuck
Day 1
We arrived back in Istanbul, tired but determined to make good use of our time. Claire had to have her hair cut, we had yet to see the Little Hagia Sofia, and our online friend, Heather, said we had to see the Cistern. We were shown up to our 4th floor room, a little the worse for wear. We had asked for a different room this time, as we were tired of overhearing the conversations in the lobby and we had poor wifi reception on the 2nd floor room we had before. We have great reception in room 502—the room our acquaintance, Julie, had when we were last here. We have a view of Little Hagia Sofia from our room and we did manage to walk over to visit it on the way back from the Cistern. We can also see the Sea of Marmara from our window—with the numerous ships either sailing back or forth or simply anchored, waiting to be loaded or the reverse.

The Cistern was built in Justinian’s time in the 6th century AD. It is a marvel. A gaggle of 336 (mostly recycled) columns supports a brick ceiling that covers an area the size of two football fields; it is large enough to hold 27 million gallons of fresh water. Although no longer in active use, the water used to come from clay pipes and aqueducts from 12 miles away—those Romans and Byzantines were pretty good architects and engineers. Sometimes, concerts are held down here; today, we saw the setup for a small ensemble that will probably perform tonight.

The Underground Cistern

Claire at the Cistern

The off-kilter Medusas at the base of two columns, may have been put there to ward off evil; then again, it may be that they were simply on columns that were of the proper height to fit the need. We'll never know.

Upside down Medusa in the Roman Cistern

Sideways Medusa in the Roman Cistern

Knife sharpener along the way mixing old tradition with modern life

On the way back, we stopped at Çiğdem Pastanesi, a fancy pastry shop recommended by Heather. We tried to remember: Was it the one with the red awning just down from Starbucks on the tram line near the Blue Mosque? Yes. We had apple tea (elma ҫay), Turkish ҫay and a shared profiterollü pasta [pastry] which was some sort of mocha-chocolate delicacy with a dark chocolate cream-filled egg on top, sprinkled all over with shaved pistachios; it wasn’t bad. But, we have to go back, because Heather had really recommended that we try one of their walnut baklavas—we just couldn’t remember.

Adventurous Claire wanted to try a new way back; I was against it—given our track record for getting lost; but, I backed down—not wanting to short-circuit her desire to master the art of hiking Istanbul. We actually ended up exactly where we usually do after a few blocks, so we both felt good—she got to explore and I felt comfortable again. After a few more jigs and jogs we finally arrived at Little Haffia Sophia It is a delight—small, intimate and colorful. There are no tiles; the artwork is painted on the walls and ceiling; but, its spare appearance is a welcome change—sort of like (my crude conception of) the difference between Chinese and Japanese art.

We were glad to arrive back at the Saruhan Hotel. We each fixed ourselves a cup of tea (apple, Turkish) and I began to prepare for tomorrow’s hoped for outing.

Day 2
We were fully prepared for today's rainy weather and, with backpack full of raingear in hand, we set off for a trip on the Bosphorus Ferry—a cheap way to explore that particular waterway from Istanbul almost to the Black Sea. It actually turns out that the day cleared up and we had cool, clear weather most of the day. We made it to the terminal with an hour to spare—I had feared not being able to find the terminal; we had two minor problems, we went to two wrong terminals before being directed back to the one we thought was not the correct one: Will we ever learn? Then, we could not find a ticket office. Claire finally noticed a closed window and knocked; the man understood enough English to tell us to wait 20 minutes. Could we sit in the waiting area (beyond the gate) and wait for the sales to begin? Yes, of course.

Our Ferry on the Bosphorus

Rick Steves tells us to sit on the left both ways; we obeyed and it seemed to work. Since this is the off-season, seating was not a problem. Some of the time we tried to follow his itinerary; most of the time we just watched—sometimes switching our gaze from the European to the Asian side of the Bosphorus. This is one of the busiest waterways in the world: It is the only outlet for the Black Sea countries of Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Georgia.

Most of the old Ottoman-style houses have been torn down; but, there are a number of restorations—at least they look like what I think these houses should be.

The Good

The Bad

The Ugly

There are a number of stops along the way. The final stop is in a sleepy fishing village that is trying to cash in on the tourism in the area; but, at this time of year, it is depressing to see a covey of restaurants and food shops all vying for the favors of very few tourists. There are two specialties in the terminus of Anadolu Kavaği: midye tava (deep fried mussels) and lokma (crispy donut holes made of wheat dumplings dipped in hot syrup.) We loved the first, with special tarator sauce (Turkish tartar sauce but made with yogurt and garlic); the second is only available on weekends—I think that says something about the tourist trade. So, we substituted helva for our planned dessert—unless you also count Turkish coffee; it was simply delicious: Served hot, smooth, with a custard consistency and tasting like sesame seeds (tahini).

Midye Tava

Helva - We forgot to stop for the photo op!

We meandered up a steep road to the local ruined castle: for the view. It was very nice; but, by now we had no time to go to the far side of the hill to get a better view of the Black Sea—maybe next time.

Old castle and new bridge - This Bridge and another nearby are the only two in the world that link two continents!

The return trip began at 3pm; we spoke at length with a couple from India who have lived in London for the past 29 years for much of the trip and so missed some of the remaining sites; but, it was interesting to see how Western they and their family have become during this time and the challenges that Mrs. Chopra had in finding vegetarian fare in Istanbul. This was probably complicated by her high standards, in addition to her choice of foodstyle.

Mannequin - We can only wonder about the purpose of this

Turkish Venice

We were glad to have finally had the time and the weather to complete this cruise, as we had planned on this from the outset.

We enjoyed the Spice Bazaar so much last time that we decided to cruise it again—on foot, of course. I wanted Medjool dates and Claire wanted a short pen and a small spiral notepad. We never found the notepad; but, we have a spare in the camper and we will pick up Homer this Friday.

Walking back to the hotel from the tram stop we passed a dry cleaning shop. No; wait! There is a sewing machine in there and I have my backpack on. 15 minutes later the tailor at Mevlana Terzive Ҫamașirhane had not only reinforced all the seams of the backpack—most especially the straps—but had also re-sewn the neck of my black long sleeved uniform shirt: I had caught and torn the thread on at least two occasions while trying to get my passport out of my neck pouch, which I wear underneath my shirt. Despite having no English, he interrupted what he had been doing, completed the work with blazing speed and only charged TL 5 for the entire job. I was delighted with the entire experience.

Tailor - The Miracle Worker

Tonight was our final night at our favorite eatery--a traditional Turkish restaurant. As we entered, the junior waiter shook each of our hands and touched his heart—Claire had told them last night that tonight would be our last visit, as we were leaving town the next day. Once seated, I noticed that two men off in the corner were speaking sign language; I pointed this out to Claire and let it drop. Then it was time for dessert; when the waiter served the delicious rice pudding, he failed to notice that we had no spoons; when I asked for some, he picked up two tablespoons, one of the deaf men jumped up to switch these out for two teaspoons. I thanked him in sign language—one of the few signs I recall from a prior existence as an assistant researcher for a mental health services for the deaf project at UCSF, many, many years ago. He was shocked, then delighted. He began chatting with his friend again—this time about this person (moi) in the restaurant who knew signs. Finally they asked if I was deaf, where was I from, was I married to my companion…? I answered, very haltingly, as best I could: No, not deaf; I’m from America; yes, we have been married for 3 years; she has 2 grown children; I have 3. One man began to draw a map of the US and began to write “New Y..” I knew, then, that he wanted to know where we were from. Since the paper was already there, I took his pen and wrote “California” then “San Francisco.” They liked the fact that we were from America.

The Best Little Traditional Turkish Restaurant in Old Town Istanbul

One startling thing about this entire conversation is that one of the men had been there every prior night behind the counter making change for customers; we never had occasion to talk; I would ask “How much?” He would write down the amount of the bill; I would pay and leave a tip and that would be it; I never had a conversation with him, so did not know he was deaf.

As we rose to leave, the deaf customer offered to buy us another glass of tea; since we love tea—and not wanting to be rude—we accepted their offer. Finishing, we rose to pay the bill. Claire asked me, "How do you say goodbye?" One of the Turkish (hearing) men helpfully responded, "Hoşҫakal." We did a round of good-byes. All the staff and the deaf customer came over to shake our hands, wish us well and touch their hearts. Do you still wonder why we like to travel?

Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see. ~ Mark Twain


punkingee said...

Your descriptions of Turkey are so appealing. Peter has been advocating a trip there for years. (The geology is very interesting.)

Thanks for such a wonderful travelogue.

Chuck and Claire said...

Yes, the geology is very, very interesting, even for non-geologists. You must come.