Star studded Istanbul – Part Two

Next day off to Princes Island – Nick has already described out innocent old man who then robbed us blind.  I expect he lived in one of the Hollywood style sea front houses.  However it entertained us that evening.  We also had an encounter with our first celebrity lookalike – Hugh Jackman – but Turkish, a foot shorter, 20 yrs older and in flat cap with no smile.  After a tiring time walking the car free island gave us no choice but to grab Hugh, his 2 horses and tacky but colourful carriage. This was on our schedule at some point anyhow.  After much debate with 2 words and pointing to the tariff of street names we did not know, us pointing at a map – we think we got him to 30.  We had a 5 min journey through some woods – we decided to snuggle in and be romantic as that is what you must do when paying over the odds for a horse and carriage. The farting horse added to the romance.

The he stopped – pointed to the hill – he walked off without any facial expression and brought back his friend who could speak 5 words of English.  Much pointing of map – much pointing at hill – he told us we must walk up the hill as no horse, have a cup of tea and then carry on.  No – we just wanted to get back to “town” – after thinking we had agreed another price we set of again. We were clearly in the wrong as not acting like normal day trip tourists.

Prince’s island is a surreal place – playground of the rich in Istanbul when it got too hot – there are lots of wooden houses.  Some palatial and luxury to a Hollywood star standard, others have no roof and look like a house you would dare your mates to go in or be part of a film set for the Goonies or Addams family.  Lots of stray cats and dogs – all quite happy although some a little battle weary.  We were in the minority as everyone day tripping was Turkish; it was probably the equivalent of a trip to Blackpool.  The sea front cafes had old men playing cards, the girls all wore flower garlands in their hair bought by their young suitors.  I bought one as if felt I should although have no idea why.

Our second celebrity spot was David Banner – aka Incredible Hulk in the Ali Baba.  He was our chosen restaurateur for both evenings – on the boat over a chap had been given out free tea “from his heart” – he helpfully gave us a map with his restaurant name on – Ali Baba, it worked.  We had to battle through Turkish men hurling themselves out at us begging/complimenting and all had the best price and menu although these all seemed the same from our point of view.  David banner had a great toothy smile – mix of sincerity/insanity and charm – I would not make him angry though.  He pulled out all the stops – the second evening culminated in fresh flowers for our table and an amazing fruit display with a bowl of firelighters in the middle like a virgin fruit sacrifice. I wish we could have stayed just to see what he could produce the next evening.  Our several male waiters were inefficient but attentive – one UK woman could have replaced all of them.  One wore a fonz like leather jacket whilst serving, the only requirement is a sparkling white shirt & no smiling.  David the boss was allowed to smile and talk to the sacred guests. There was a portly man in a suit inside who seemed to deal with bills nut not approach any customer – money seemed to be a very serious male business.  An enlarged photo of Ataturk eating there was pride of place.  Each evening cost exactly the same – each evening the choice – fish or meat.  Our extra baklava and surprises were not requested or ordered but tasted better for it.

On our return our ferry arrived 10 mins after our Turkish Haman appointment had started.  Another true taste of Istanbul was our taxi ride across the main commercial centre, through the aqueduct and a few sharp turns down packed cobbled streets.  The method is to keep going –any hesitation would cause an accident.  A British driver in the one way cobbled streets packed with pedestrians & coaches would take 30 mins compared to his 4 1/2.

The Haman is one of the only mixed/family ones, but the oldest and built and used by Suleyman in the 15th C, so hardly like your local rec centre. – more for the tourists rather than the full cavity search by a hairy Turk a real one offers.  We dressed in cloth and were scrubbed with lots of foam and a bath mitt with loads of cold water poured over our heads.  It was very much like being washed down by your mum after a day in the mud, – however your mum was a young man in his 20’s with a towel round his middle and he poured more cold water on himself as was working with bubbles and in a sauna – literally. The massage was quick, firm and routine.  You are then shuffled along toward the changing area and another young man wraps you in cloth and you hobble through in your authentic wooden sandals.  No mirrors – just as well as a red faced Nick looked not so much Lawrence of Arabia as he hoped but more Terry Jones from Life of Brian. I doubt I looked very Sophia Loren though.    www.suleymaniyehamami.com.tr

It was Ataturk’s birthday – although he would be over 100 if still alive.  The city was covered in Vivid red Turkish flags.  From all the pictures and banners – he did somehow resemble the evil brother in Thunderbirds, but I can only say that from the comfort of the UK, he was a big deal, and they love him.  The others witnessed a big white limousine in the city with lots of kerfuffle to attend something important.  The chap was clearly a Turkish Super star. He could have been anyone to us – but quite nice that the blanket of samey western Hollywood fascination has not reached Istanbul… yet.

Finally we braved a trip through the grand bazaar on a mission.  This is a great place – so long as you like certain things & walking ten yards in 10 minutes.  Every third shop was pashmina – even I could not keep them all in business, yet they were all socialising and chatting, blocking the view of the stock. In the shirt shop he literally dragged Nick in and started dressing him – Nick looked at me with panic saying he did not like the shirt.  Luckily he has an expert shopper on hand – it was my turn to point and say yes or no as the man unpacked different shirts – real and fake ones.

We asked one chap who wanted us to sit and eat in his cafe how to get to the tram – he pointed and said good luck my friend.  That 400m took a long time, on the outside there were still more shops but with glass fronts. Alex had been there for 40 yrs despite being in his 30’s.  Alex Tacyildiz is our new best friend – he shut the shop door and was interrupted several times as he tried to secure our sale. We declined tea, as we didn’t want any and had not even looked at the shoes yet – he showed us his holiday pictures from Kenya to prove he did international trade – he wants us to go back in 2 yrs and thank him. The shoes were bigged up so much they have magical powers.  I babbled away like a fish on a hook, Nick is not a great fan of any shopping so his silence & boredom made him look like a serious man weighing up if the shoes would change his life or not.  He did not make eye contact and then swooped in with a crazy price, Alex laughed and bargained a tiny bit (£6.72) – he then took the price of the undrunk tea that we did not want of. (£1.68)   Success by British standards.  We bought the shoes – result for all.   We will remember him but I doubt we made the same impact. He earnt every minute of his sale – just for his standard of English alone he should be rewarded compared to our complete lack of Turkish.  Lets see in 2 yrs when we return to see if the mythically blessed shoes are still bouncing Nick from the promised success to success.

 

Our final evening in a fancy place for the tourists in the old town had lots of choice – such as chicken curry. We were grateful to be away from traditional cuisine – our waiters were dressed in matching “turkish” looking silk shirts.  The piano player & violin girl were playing various versions of Andrew Lloyd Webber mixed in with snippets of “ Those were the days”.  The chairs and table were chunky wood armchair style – it meant that with the background noise and distance you could hot near anything anyone said.  It was an old roman cistern, they had large iron “Errol Flynn” style chandeliers and go with the theme the tables had candelabras. Our waiter was a bit of a Turkish stud – the sort you don’t want your daughter to meet on holiday – however the other waiter who was lighting the candles bore an uncanny resemble to Egor.  Being so tall as well he had developed a sort of hump to add to the effect as he bent to light the candles.  All in all a good meal but twice the price, I missed being told what to eat and the simplicity of Princes Island. www.sarnicrestaurant.com

 

The Crew brothers debated for about a week on this blog about essence and the point of travel – Istanbul is all about colours, smells, banter and people, lots of them.  Impressive buildings are full of sounds and vibrancy, old men in a questionable variety of hats, old ladies with headscarves sat still watching wisely.  It certainly had lots of essence and therefore i feel travelled, even for only 5 days.

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Star studded Istanbul – Part One

Al and I flew over to see the boys on Turkish Airlines, a surprise for me used to recently doing easyjet and Ryan air was the allocated seat, free drinks and palatable dinner.  Alot had happened in 4 weeks – but I spotted the motorbike jacket & “tanned” nose in the massive crowd at arrivals, hugs and kisses and a crazy night taxi ride in the torrential rain.  I hoped this was not the Istanbul feel for the next 5 days.  Rain had been predicted so I chose not to wear Bermuda shorts and flip flops like any true brit on a plane – I had jeans and a cardy, plus a jacket and pashmina.  I had in my case rather hopefully packed a bikini and floaty tops to aid with hot and sticky days ahead.  Alas my cardy/jacket/pashmina combo saw more use than I would have liked.

Our hotel was right in the tourist district but the guidebook said this meant it was quiet at night… maybe relatively compared to other parts of the city.  All mod cons – after reading marks recent blog about toilets I should think it was Nirvana. Istanbul seems to have gone for western charm but there always seems to be an element of eastern crazy – our room overlooked a rather stunning railway, a few abandoned land plots and looking into some poorer residential verandas and flats.  However if u looked beyond there was indeed a view of the Sea of mamara and its romantic oil tankers.

Buffet breakfast –I could eat via buffet every meal forever. This one looked fab but maybe on closer inspection there were about 6 plates of the same cheese in different formations. Lots of plates of coriander, olives (not for breakfast I am british), gloopy  jams and assorted breads etc.  Some fried breakfast items including chips, however I am not that british.

Shades firmly attached to my head out of principle: first day was spent getting our bearings and mooching about holding hands. We went up to the Blue mosque where I was very charmingly asked to put my tits away, my cardy had parted & my womanly disgrace was visible.   Before we went in there were the ladies WC – translated as “Place for woman” – I did comment I should know my place and there it was – signposted.  A note on carpets here – bare footed I walked sinking into the lush endless red carpets – I did have an urge to run beyond the barrier and roll around.  I sensed though maybe this would not be particularly seen as a good laugh.

Whilst sat in the open yard, there was a husband posing for pictures with his wife – in full Black burka.  Somehow this seemed really bizarre – it could have been a body double and no-one would know looking at the picture.  Imagine the slide show – oh that’s a lovely one of you Sandra, really brings out your eyes.

 

I am rambling and only on the first afternoon.  Each evening the 6 of us met at 7 for dinner.  The first evening we strolled just up the road and were typically ambushed with charming men jumping out with compliments and politely enquiring whether we liked carpets. Why yes, thank you I do – oh you want me to buy one. Well I guess so as I did not realise before what they were; I wondered why my feet bled every time I walked across my living room floor.  I love rugs and could easily browse for hours just looking at the fabulous patterns, or indeed roll about on them – but window shopping is not really an option in Istanbul – as indeed it seems free will and having an opinion.  But I should know my place.  It was signposted after all.

A roof top terrace meal overlooking an abandoned roof terrace in front of us, a roof top water tank and a distant glimpse of the sea and its oil tankers.

 

One more full day on mainland – just about got our bearings which is tricky until you study a map for a few hours.  My Istanbul moment came as we caught the tram up to the port just to check out any riverside restaurants – we found the cheaper Del boy style market in the subway and coming up into the sunshine a man offered – or Istanbul style told us to – take a ferry up the Bosphorus for 10 Lira ( £3.36 each).  Spotting a bargain we hopped on.  I realised I was without a coat and about to go out on a boat with rain threatening.   Nick had bought me under instruction to get a pashmina from the home of pashmina:  Kathmandu which he done so obediently without question.  For all readers who are pashmina aware – the real ones are of course made of pashmina wool – hence warm and worn by those Himalayan ladies for a purpose rather than accessory – to keep warm. Before I educated Nick in the ways of pashmina – he had thought I carried a comfort blanket.  Cut a long story short – you are grateful for a real one when at sea.

 

After we sat there for 40 mins – the helpful chap did not point out the boat would not leave until full, the call for prayer in the mosque opposite began.  Hence my real Istanbul moment – we could hear it reverberate and mimicked through the city.  It was spiritual, it is – and me being an atheist sounds a bit stupid too, but it was so beautiful & spell binding: to see everyone heading of to the mosque I suddenly found myself agreeing momentarily for organised oppressive religion.  I rather like the way you can gather several times and have a “slice” of silent personal worship rather than sitting through hours of sermon, boredom & guilt.

The houses on the banks of the Bosphorus are very Hollywood – the whole prosperous city seems to be stretched on river/sea fronts.  When it started to rain torrentially we headed downstairs and met an enthusiast Chicago man with a happy glint in his eye and his sour faced wife who had once been pretty – and their two guides.  He was fascinated with the bike trip & travel, he had circum-navigated all of Wales coastline in his by car back as a young man.  He was so knowledgeable about Istanbul and the culture/art I felt we had seen all the things by the way he described them with relish.

Coming off from the boat we docked/crashed into the more functional part of the port beyond the bridge and then stepped/dodged through a chaotic bus station and boats selling fresh fish kebabs.  As it started to rain we were surrounded by boys selling umbrellas – an offer of 1 lira then became 5 when I produced my purse.  Our hard bargaining brought us down to 4 lira (33p of but a victory).  The boys gathered together but did not fight or compete – all vendors I have noticed sell the same things in a group but help each other – it is all good natured and makes it a pleasure.  Some are mixed with sadness as a granny sits on concrete steps with piles of tissues next to her – not hassling you, but also not begging so with dignity.  Road side stands had come out at snack time selling home cooked pretzels, grilled sweetcorn, peeled apples etc.  I wish the uk could have this healthy fast food culture – cheap, fresh and delicious. But more – enterprising & hard working.  Alan Sugar would love it.

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