Today was a “free day” in Istanbul, so for those of you who know me well, you know that “free” went very quickly to “jam-packed.” Sucking the marrow from the experience, as we’ve said. The alarm went off early, particularly since it was a late night last night. I actually fell asleep writing the blog yesterday!
After a quick breakfast, we walked over to Dolmabahce Palace. The palace we saw yesterday was replaced by this palace in 1856 by Sultan Abdul Mecit who wanted to make the Ottoman Empire more European. By 1922 the Empire was pretty much bankrupt, and the last sultan fled the palace and went into exile in 1924. Looking around the palace, it’s no wonder they went bankrupt. The only palace I’ve seen more lavish than this was Versailles. Tim and I were completely awestruck as we walked around the grounds and the interior. The ceremonial hall, which has the largest chandelier in the world, was so breathtaking that Tim and I stood around long after the tour was over just to marvel at the room. Sadly, no photography is allowed inside the building (though Tim was a rebel and took a few with the camera in the Ceremonial Hall). However, I’m not sure that any photos I could have taken would have done this beautiful building justice. Tim said, “Eat your heart out, Chatsworth!”
After the tour of Dolmabahce, we walked back toward our hotel and had lunch. It had to be a quick one because we were being picked up for our Turkish bath experience.
And what an experience that was! No one really spoke English, and I was expecting a little more guidance than what we got! At the start, Tim and I were sent in two different directions as men and women (for obvious reasons) bath in separate hamams (baths). Fortunately, I had read enough about the bath to know a little bit about what was going on, and hoped that Tim had been listening when I shared what I learned. After being sent to a changing room, the attendant lead you to a very warm room for the bath. The room was really beautiful, with a conical ceiling that almost looked like a luminary–there were holes dotted across it to let in natural light. In the center of the room, there is a large round marble slab. We were told to lay down on the slab and relax. After a few minutes, the hamam attendant came over to start the process. The attendant uses a kind of coarse mitt to scrub you head to toe, asking you to flop around like a fish a bit, back to stomach to sitting to laying. While this vigorous scrubbing was not always perfectly pleasant, the bubbles were amazing! The attendant takes a cloth and dips it into very soapy water, then she pushes all the bubbles from the top of the cloth to the bottom and lets the resulting bubbles fall all over your body. I almost giggled it was so delightful. Next, the attendant takes buckets of cool water and rinses your whole body. For me, the attendant took me into one of the many bays around the outer wall (again, made entirely of marble–marble floor, marble walls, marble sink), and she had me sit down next to the sink. She dumped a bucket of water over my head, and then washed my hair, dumping bucket after bucket over my head to rinse. Then it was back to the marble slab and round two of scrubbing and rinsing. My favorite part was when she massaged my upper back, neck, my calves, and my feet as she scrubbed.
After an hour, the experience was over. Tim said that now that we know what to expect, we have to come back and have another one–we’ll probably enjoy it even more. Tim said this is probably the only time he wouldn’t mind another man taking a bath with him. 🙂 He couldn’t get over how great it was. We both felt cleaner than we’ve probably ever felt in our lives.
Tim asked the driver who picked us up if he could drop us off at the Spice Market instead of back to our hotel, and the driver obliged. The Spice Market is like a much smaller, more food-related version of the Grand Bazaar. There are souvenir stalls, jewelry stalls, and other similar merchandise stalls, but the big draw for the Spice Market is–you guessed it–the spices. Stall after stall had every spice you can imagine on display. The big spice that everyone was pushing was saffron. Many people go to this market specifically for the saffron, because it is more affordable here than almost anywhere else in the world.
After almost two hours of wandering the market, Tim made arrangements with a cab driver to take us back to the hotel. We were barely back at the hotel before we were out the door again and headed out in search of baklava. A guy at work who comes to Istanbul often told me about the best baklava place on Earth (in his opinion), and I decided if I was going to risk the gluten flu to have some baklava, it better be the best. The concierge at the hotel said it would be about a 25 minute walk to get there, so we walked as quickly as possible while it was still light outside and easier to navigate.
Tim had a pretty good sense of direction, and with very little trouble, we were standing outside Karakoy Gulluoglu, the “best baklava place in the world.” The crowd inside told us that the guy at work wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Imagine my surprise when we went to the counter to decide what baklava to get and I discovered they actually had gluten-free baklava! It didn’t look nearly as flaky and delicious as regular, but it meant I could do more than just try some. We got half gluten-free and half chocolate (at the recommendation of my coworker). Tim got some chai, and we both had our first bites of baklava. I did end up taking two small bites of the chocolate baklava, and I can say it was one of the best things I’ve had on the trip. Mmmmmm… Tim really loved it. He said it was for sure worth the walk.
After a little baklava, we decided we should probably eat some food. Tim’s selection at dinner last night was so amazingly delicious that we debated whether we should go back to the same restaurant. Ultimately, we decided to browse the menus at the restaurants built under Galata Bridge and hope that one of them had the same dish. We struck gold with the first menu we saw, so we went in. This stew (or casserole, as it’s also called) was buttery, garlicy goodness at the first restaurant. While still pretty good at this one, it couldn’t compare to last night’s delight. Still, we had an amazing view of the water, so we couldn’t complain.
After dinner, it was the long walk back to the hotel, a walk made longer by the frequent stops to browse the shops.
The walk also felt a bit longer tonight because Tim and I both felt heartbroken at points as we walked. As you may know, refugees from Syria are pouring into Turkey in large numbers (latest estimates put the number around 2 million). Our tour guide yesterday told us that there are not many Turkish beggars–most of them are Syrian. While in Greece, we saw very few homeless people, and even fewer beggars. It’s been a different story in Istanbul, particularly in the Taksim area. They are everywhere, and most of them are women with small children (frequently infants). They will sit against walls on the sidewalks, or even lay in the middle of the sidewalks begging for money. Many of the babies we passed had their eyes half open, so tired but not able to sleep for all the lights and the noise of Taksim. There are plenty of older children running the streets, putting their hands out for money or trying to sell you small packets of tissues, bottles of water, or flower wreaths for your hair. They are often dirty, barefoot, and so desperate for such young kids. There were so many people like this that it is impossible to help them all. I can understand why our tour guide was telling us what a strain it has placed on Turkey to have all these refugees here.
(At this juncture, Tim would like me to make it clear that despite the image I may have painted, Istanbul is an amazingly clean city for the number of people in it–estimates are that 10 million people live in this city.)
Today has been the first day that Tim and I have really felt the wear of travel on us. Getting out of bed was difficult this morning, and we both had achy joints and bodies. The bath helped some, but after all the miles we covered today, we were looking so forward to climbing into bed to rest. We’re looking forward to sleeping in a bit tomorrow before our ride to the airport and our journey to our last stop on the itinerary, Cairo!