Date of Trip: April 2010
Trip report Istanbul April 5-7. We decided to go on a cruise, embarking on April7, and to spend two days in Istanbul before the cruise. A week would not have been adequate; Istanbul is big and varied, more so than almost any city I know, and I have lived in NYC, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, and visited London and Paris many times. I must return.
The direct flight from JFK to Ataturk on Delta was very nice. Ataturk airport was confusing. Passport control was AWFUL; they had no one there to meet the plane, and people were milling about for over twenty minutes before any passport control people got there. Then, there was just one person for 20 or so lines, so there was a gigantic merge. Tempers flared and people began to chant. Very unpleasant until finally a few more officials arrived. After passing through passport control, we emerged into the main terminal, and the Backpackers greeter was there. He turned us over, after about 10 minutes, to the driver and a guide (along for the ride) who put us into a mini-bus and delivered us to the airport. I didn’t mind the bus, although it was not exactly the luxury car we had expected. I mention that only because at the end of our stay in Istanbul, Backpackers was to disappoint us very seriously (I’ve already posted about this). The guide who was along for the trip was reading a book intently, but when I asked a question she was informative.
The Armada hotel was very easy to get to from the airport. The lobby was fine, although it did not look as glitzy/luxurious as in the website’s photo. The room was good, with a nice firm bed, and a pretty view of the old city wall and of the Marmara sea, with the ships going to and from the Bosphorus. The shower and the other bathroom fixtures were interestingly different; a user’s manual would not be amiss, but then that might spoil the joy of exploration and discovery for yourself.
I had not realized that Sultanahmet would be quite so hilly; we got in a lot of exercise simply by going to and from the hotel over the next two days. The streets of Sultanahmet are uneven and cobblestoned so that you cannot walk without looking carefully where you are going. It’s even worse than Buenos Aires, but again, if you want atmosphere, then that is part of it. The automobile traffic is constant and enormous, but I got the impression that the drivers were actually careful; I didn’t feel endangered.
After settling into the hotel, we climbed up the hill to Sultanahmet square, where the tulip festival was in full flower; absolutely lovely. After taking bunches of pictures, we decided to go for lunch at the Tahiri Koftecisi, which we found nestled in between several other restaurants, all in a row. That was interesting; clearly fast food, not great, but very tasty. We watched a few businessmen in suit and tie order the same thing we did, and also a couple of women looking like shop keepers. The menu was limited; we ordered kofte and sis kebap, and we enjoyed it. I don’t recall whether we might have ordered wine there, but we were so tired, that we would not have done so anyway.
I had planned to visit Topkapi palace that afternoon, but after lunch, our eyes glazed over and we took an extended nap in our room. It was too late to do much when we awoke, so we asked the hotel to book a nearby restaurant for us, for dinner, and we climbed up the hill again, and wandered around. Then began a series of fascinating encounters. Nancy was certain that we had signs painted on our foreheads: “Rich Americans in Desparate Need of RUGS.” Everywhere we went, we were accosted most pleasantly by friendly people who just happened to have a relative living near us or who were interested in us for some other reason, and who also did just happen to have a cousin or a brother or someone with a carpet store. Seriously, though, I did find everyone to be very friendly, even without a rug to sell. They made it a nice place to visit.
On the way back to the hotel, we visited the Arasta market, and I took pictures of the stonework that harked back to its use as a royal stables. And then we went out to dinner at the nearby Giritli restaurant.
We were brought upstairs and asked if we had been there before. When we replied that we had not, it was explained to us that dinner would consist of a selection of mezes, a fish course, and dessert, and that wine or beer or raki would be included with the price of the dinner. At that point, I realized that the Giritli was a meyhane, which I had not understood before. We were planning to go to a meyhane the following night, so going there on the first night was sort of an elimination of variety in our plans, but we were there and it looked like a nice place. (Interestingly, we noticed that two or three other couples left as soon as the explanation was provided to them. Poor fools, they didn’t know what they were missing.)
I asked to try the raki. I tried it, and it is not going to be on my hit parade. On the other hand, the wine they poured was very much to my liking, and I have the name somewhere so I can buy it here in the USA. We were sitting calmly, relaxed by the wine, when the waiter came to us with a very large tray filled with medium sized shallow dishes. I realized that these were the mezes and I was fully prepared to make my selection; each of the dishes was a little too small to make up an entire appetizer, but two would be fine, and three would be more than adequate, I thought, as I sized up the dishes. But they outsmarted me; they put all eighteen (yes, I said 18) of them on the table, describing and explaining each of them. I have a picture of Nancy rather wild eyed as she looks them over. They were delicious. I liked some of them (notably the anchovies and the bean salad) more than others (eggplant is Nancy’s thing, and she raved about those dishes); clearly we had a division of labor that was divinely inspired.
After polishing off that feast, it was on to the fish course. Or so I had thought. No, now it was the HOT mezes. (!!!) Actually, this was a little less manic, consisting of a wonderfully grilled octopus leg (arm?), a shrimp borek, and a delicately battered cone of calamari with a sweet walnut condiment. Then finally the grilled fish course, which was wonderful. Then two nice sweets, one a pastry and the other a pudding, both interesting and exotic, and I cant describe them further, I’m afraid, although I do have a picture. Turkish coffee (they even had decaf for Nancy), and we were done. This was wonderful. Noone was singing or dancing on the tables, as had been described to me as typical meyhane activities, but I’d go there for dinner anytime; I just wish I could.
We walked back to the Armada in a slightly inebriated haze; good food, good wine, what more did we want? Well, what we wanted was a good tango dance. I had booked the Armada specifically because there was a tango dance (called a milonga) on the night of our arrival. So we went and danced there for a couple of hours. The DJ played all of the usual favorites. The floor was smaller than the ones we are used to in the USA, but about the same as the ones that prevail in Buenos Aires, so as far as we were concerned, that was authentic. The other dancers looked authentic, too; I didn’t see any beginners.
Anyway, that was day #1 of our trip. I’m still getting over jet lag, so I’ll try to do more tomorrow.
Day #2, April 6. We got up late and went to the hotel’s top floor for breakfast, which was magnificent. There were three kinds of juices, one of which was a sort of sour cherry, that was wonderful. In addition, they had someone squeezing fresh orange juice; that incurred a small extra charge, but it was very good. There were cereals and breads and pastries and eggs and yoghurt and cheeses and meats and too much for me to remember. The picture shows a very long table, but there were other tables as well. With the pleasant weather, some of the birds in the neighborhood were pretty aggressive about swooping into the open windows.
After breakfast, we went out onto the terrace and looked at the hotel’s surroundings, including the views of the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofia. We planned to get to the terrace later that night to see the lit up version of the view, which you can see on the restaurant’s website, but unfortunately, it rained that night.
We did get to the interior of the Blue Mosque. As we arrived at Sultanahmet square we were accosted by a rug salesman, and advised strongly to go at that time to the Blue Mosque because if we waited, it would be prayer time, and we could not be admitted. He accompanied us to the entrance, showed us the plastic bags for our shoes, and told us to go inside, that he would wait for us at the exit. It was hard for me to focus on the interior of the mosque; it was too overwhelming. Little pieces of it, like the beautiful carpeting (a deep red with blue flowers- how is it that it looks so good with all the traffic it must bear?) and the tile work fascinated me, and the size of the enormous open interior space was breath-taking. I have to read up on how they accomplished the building of it and also of the Aya Sofia, which we saw later that same day. We spent about a half hour or so, gazing at the tiles, the beautiful windows, and just soaking it in. Everyone was taking pictures, and so did we.
There was only one exit from the Blue Mosque, and when we left and put on our shoes, our friendly rug salesman asked us to join him for some refreshment and we decided that we would do so, although we warned him that we would not purchase a rug. He led us to his shop, where he sat for a short time with us as they brought coffee and apple tea for us, but the demo and sales pitch were taken over by someone else and after a while he excused himself and left to find other potential customers. I liked the Turkish coffee, and Nancy really liked the apple tea. The rugs were magnificent. The salesman was helped by several other silent men and one youngster who was obviously learning the trade. We were impressed with the sales technique and we did finally wind up buying one, a very small one that Nancy bargained for (I am worthless at that game, as we proved many years ago in Morocco). They folded up the rug, and put it into a small bag, but since we wanted to continue our touring, we asked them to send it to our hotel, which they said would be no problem (it wasn’t a problem, but see below for the end of this story!).
We left the rug place, and found Kathisma, where we had a nice lunch of iskender kebap and a shrimp stew. Too filling to have dessert, especially since I wanted an ice cream later on….
We walked back to Sultanahmet Square, and visited the Aya Sofia. I knew that the Blue Mosque was bigger, but somehow the Aya Sofia seemed even more immense than the Blue Mosque. Once again, a cavernous space was overwhelming. Looking upward at the central dome, I understood why it was said to appear to be floating- I couldn’t actually see how it was supported!!! We walked upstairs to the gallery, and the floating effect was lost, maybe because we were looking at the dome from the side. The gallery was housing an exhibit of photos of mosaics, mostly, I believe from Chora; I knew we would not have time to visit Chora, so I was glad to see them. The pictures were brilliant, as were the mosaics we saw in the Aya Sofia itself. The pictures I took, tho, inside the Aya Sofia (with the exception of the photo of the photo) just didn’t come out well enough to show how intense the mosaics actually are.
We left the Aya Sofia, and went exploring, as we walked toward the Grand Bazaar. We passed an ice cream store selling Mado ice cream, of which I heard, so I had some. It was good, but there was a sticky almost caramel texture to it that detracted, for me, from its overall quality.
We got to the Grand Bazaar, and decided that after purchasing a rug, we had had enough of buying and selling for the day. Except that Nancy really did want to buy some Apple tea. We found some at a large store across the street from the Grand Bazaar. In the meantime, I had gotten completely turned around, and realized that we were on upper Divan Yolu, and not at all close to the Spice Market. The afternoon was wearing on, and we were getting tired, again, so we decided to skip the pistachios, and go back to the hotel, which luckily was downhill. We really were much more tired than I had expected, possibly because of all the walking, but I think also because of the jetlag.
When we got to the hotel, we asked at the desk if a package (the rug) had been left for us. We were told that there was no package, and Nancy and I turned toward each other with some concern. Just then, however, the same youngster who had helped to show us the rugs came up behind us, cleared his throat to catch our attention, and handed us the package. He had been waiting for us the entire afternoon! Anyway, we went on to our nap, and awoke to find it raining and gloomy. We decided not to go to the meyhane in Beyoglu, and instead asked the hotel to reserve a table for us at Balikci Sabahattin, which was close to the hotel.
Dinner began with two very good mezes we selected from a tray: striped bass escabeche and smoked grilled eggplant puree. Then an excellent redfish (for Nancy) and a turbot (for me). Unfortunately, the turbot was somewhat overcooked; I found myself wishing that I had ordered the redfish. Dessert consisted of some fruit, then a semolina and icecream with dried apricot (interesting and delicious!). My take on this dinner was that it was good, it was expensive, and it was not quite worth the price. I might have liked the dinner better, I suppose, if I had sent the turbot back, but I didn’t. Also I was tired, and that has an effect on my ability to enjoy a good dinner.
Day #3, April 7. After the same wonderful breakfast at the Armada hotel, we decided that since our ride to the cruise terminal was scheduled for noon, we had enough time to visit Topkapi before then. We had been too tired on Monday to visit, and it was closed on Tuesday. So we walked up the hill and into the palace. It was raining, but the rooms were magnificent. Once again, though, the time available limited the options, and we had to skip the harem. As I’ve said before, I should have scheduled a week here.
We returned to the hotel, passing by a shop run by a Dervish, who chatted with us a bit about the way whirling was a mental state that did not permit you to fall down or make a mis-step. I would have liked to have seen their ceremony, which is open to the public, and to which he invited us. Again, no time. The driver from Backpackers arrived promptly, as had been arranged. He drove us across the bridge, and into the general area of the Cruise Terminal, but although we drove through a checkpoint, it was not the main gate. The driver didnt speak English, and he was supremely unhelpful; if he had asked the person at the checkpoint, he would have found that there was another gate, where there was access to the ships. As a result, despite our protests, we had to take a very long walk in the rain, dragging and carrying our luggage through puddles (did I mention that I have a back problem?), until we found the actual entrance to the port area. As we got there, we saw a taxi come up to the gate there, go through, and park in front of a nice little pavilion with our ship’s logo on it. We followed it, dragging our luggage, and turned our stuff over to the ship. We were far too bedraggled and exhausted to do anything but embark and collapse. We missed Beyoglu and Istiklal Caddesi, and worst of all, we missed the baklava at Gulluoglu. I really wanted that baklava. I guess we’ll have to come back.