An Evening in Istanbul

January 30, 2015

Yet another fun thing to do in Istanbul is to take the underground funicular up to Taksim Square. Taksim was not part of my original plan, but the husband prevailed. “No trip to Istanbul is complete without going to Taksim Square!”, he insisted. That’s what I thought about the Turkish baths, but oh well!


As we got out of the station, the first thing we noticed was the extraordinary number of armed policemen around the square. They were not patrolling the area, they had formed a ring around the square. I wanted to find out more, but language barriers and the husband’s don’t get us into trouble  kept me from asking. From here we walked down  Istiklal avenue to the Galata Tower. The idea was to enjoy the sunset over the city from the top of the tower. Istiklal avenue is one of Istanbul’s most popular avenues. Shops on either side of the road, street vendors and *musicians encroaching the sidewalks,  teeming with people and with a tram running down the centre Istiklal avenue looked as crowded as Dadar station at peak hour. Although it looked packed, we quickly realized it was just an illusion, there was enough space for everyone to walk, and for tourists to stand and stare, and make pictures. Ours was an easy walk downhill. We took our time in taking in the sights and sounds, and reached the tower close to sundown. We thought we had timed it well, but had failed to account for the long line of tourists ahead of us who had clearly thought the same.

Galata Tower

Galata Tower

We decided to spend some time at the bridge instead and then head to Antiocha, where we had reservations for dinner. In Istanbul, it is wise to make dinner reservations in advance. Last night we were turned away from a meyhanesi for not having reservations. Luckily we found another place down the road from there. With arty looking patrons and cat wandering around, this local bar  we ended up in looked more like what we expected the place we wanted to go to look like, and we quite liked it.  Coming back to Antiocha, it was again nothing like I thought it would be yet it turned out to be a great place. We went in a little early and the place was empty, but as the evening wore on it started filling up and was soon packed. This was clearly a popular place. As the name suggests, they promise to serve authentic Antiocian cuisine.

Antiocha lies in Turkey’s southern Hatay region, wedged between Syria and the Mediterranean Sea. It was founded  near the end of  4th century BC by Seleucus I Nicator. Seleucus I Nicator was one of Alexander the Great‘s generals, and those familiar with Indian history will remember him as the one who waged war with Chandragupta Maurya, the founder of the Mauryan empire. Chandragupta Maurya later married Selecus’s daughter Hellena.

People  can be seen fishing from the Galata Bridge  any time of the day

People can be seen fishing from the Galata Bridge any time of the day

Since we got in early, we had the waitstaff to ourselves, and they were more than happy to explain their menu and make suggestions. The food was delectable and very satisfying. While in Turkey, do try Ayran, traditional Turkish buttermilk. (Personally, I like buttermilk the way the **Maharashtrains make it best.) Also try their super thick gelatos.


Back in the hotel, we decided to go down to their Turkish bath. The husband was not too thrilled by the idea of a public bath, but was sporting enough to join me. Perhaps it was the late hour, but we had the bath all to ourselves, helping us get over any reservations we had about public bathing. Steam usually makes me feel dizzy, yet that was not the case here. The husband was quick to break into a sweat as always, and decided he was done with the steaming much before I was. The next step is to lather up with soap and wash down with hot water.  You can book a massage in advance, but I travel with my personal masseur, aka the husband. The man has magic in his fingers. He knows my pain points and gives heavenly massages. Occasionally I will pretend to be in agony, just to blackmail him into giving one. We had been walking up and down slopes for two days; after my massage and bath I was good to walk for another two.

*street musicians on Istiklal Avenue – Click on the Instagram widget on the left and see video on our Instagram account.

**Maharashtrian – from Maharashtra, India

P.S –Check out the Istanbul, Turkey album our FB page to enjoy our journey through pictures.


Istanbul; Day 2

Shortly after returning from India via Turkey, we went to dinner to a charming place in New Jersey called The Bosphorus. The highlight of this place for us was that is a *BYOB restaurant.Talking of alcohol, sale and consumption of alcohol is not prohibited in Turkey, but the prices in Istanbul were quite prohibitive. We tried the local drink Rakı (pronounced “ra-keh”) on the flight to Istanbul and hated it.  I am not one to shy away from strong drinks, but I returned by glass half drunk to the airhostess. The popular beer, Efes on the other hand was quite nice.


The Turkish breakfast spread is something I could easily get used to. Local bread (it’s called Simit and is available on street carts everywhere), with a host of spreads, olives, olives and more olives, dryfruits, some cheese, honey and fresh tea or coffee – so light yet so filling. The honey is put out not in jars, but as honeycomb bits. I had no idea honeycombs were edible, and delicious. The husband on the other hand found it too icky**. We tried salep, a hot Turkish beverage that tastes, as the person behind us in the line helpfully put it, like ***badam milk, at the airport, on our way back. In retrospect, I wonder why there was no salep on the buffet.

I thought one of the most exciting foods being sold on the streets of Istanbul was some sort of golgappa version of mussels. The vendor would crack open one, squeeze some lemon over it, the patrons would pop the contents in their mouth and the vendor quickly would pass them the next piece. Check out the video on our Instagram account.

Photo Courtesy - Ganesh Sankaran and Cat

Photo Courtesy – Ganesh Sankaran and Cat

The Suleymaniye Mosque was grander than the Blue Mosque. This is the magnificent building, with its domes and minarets, that dominates the Istanbul skyline when seen from the Galata side of the Golden Horn. It goes without saying that this building has one of the best views of the Golden Horn. The mosque and its surrounding buildings were designed by Koca Mi’mâr Sinân Âğâ, often considered the originator and the most important figure in classical Turkish architecture, and the ****guru of Sedefkâr Mehmet Ağa, the architect who built the Blue Mosque. This imperial edifice is grand from the outside,  and  spacious, aesthetic and simple on the inside. The architectural elements of the interior are beautifully balanced and in perfect harmony with each another. Back when this mosque was built, only mosques endowed by the Sultan could have 4 minarets, all others were allowed only two or one. The hamam that was once attached to this mosque complex is a very popular tourist attraction and was the hamam recommended to us by our hotel.

Turbans and Tombstones

Turbans and Tombstones

Women are usually not allowed to enter Islamic graveyards, but the tombs of the royal family are a tourist attraction and this area is open to all. I must say, the turbaned headstones reminiscent of the life that has been, and the planters over the graves symbolizing eternal life made it  one of the most haunting graveyards I have ever been too.

The Fish Market

I had originally planned to have lunch at the Fez Cafe, another place suggested by AntheasChronicles but it was still early in the day so we decided to take the ferry to the Asian side of the city and have lunch there. Istanbul is a truly wonderful city. A large number of people speak or atleast understand some English, and almost everyone, down to the cab drivers, can read English. Every morning we would note down the names and addresses of places we wanted to visit on a piece of paper and if we couldn’t find our way, we would simply hand over the chit to the nearest knowledgeable looking person and they would point us in the right direction. If they did not know, they would go out of their way to find out and tell us.

The Asian side of Istanbul is distinctly different from the European side. It’s more crowded, more chaotic and definitely cheaper. We had lunch at the delightful *****Çiya Sofrasi. I washed my meal down with sumac sherbet, while the husband opted for the mulberry sherbet. After lunch we walked through what seemed to be a mostly fish market. What was most noticeable about this market was the stink, so overpowering in Indian fish markets, was remarkably missing here.

You can be King and I'll be your Queen -at the Dolmabahçe Palace

You can be King and I’ll be your Queen
-at the Dolmabahçe Palace

We took the ferry back, but this time to the Galata side. Istanbul has a wide and varied public transport system, all of which is very simple to use. Next on our list were the harems of  Dolmabahçe Palace, the first European-style palace in the city. The first thing that struck us about the Dolmabahçe Palace was how ornate it was compared to the Turkish style Topkapı Palace. The harems seemed like the perfect opportunity to be transported into the world of wily sultanas, debauched sultans and palace intrigues. Here is where the great sultans; just, magnificent, saint, conqueror were all brought to their knees.

In the Ottoman Empire, the harem was a part of a house reserved for the women of the family. Non-family males were not allowed there. The sultan’s harems were guarded by eunuchs. Not only were they considered “safer” than male guards, it was also thought since they could not be tempted by the women in the harem, they were more likely to remain loyal to the sultan. The women in were entertained by female musicians and dancers. Belly dance was performed by women for women. The female dancers, known as a rakkases, hardly ever appeared in public. Male rakkas performed publicly for wedding celebrations, feasts, festivals, and in the presence of the sultansInteresting fact – the head of the harem was not the sultan’s favourite wife, but his mother. Unlike the courts and other public areas the harems are not designed to impress or inspire awe in visiting dignitaries and the general public. These are the private chambers of the royal family. In public the royalty appeared in heavy silks, weighed down by jewels the size of pigeon eggs, (they had an image to maintain, much like the celebrities of today), but in private they probable opted for their equivalent of pajamas.Stripped of their original decor and rearranged as a museum, the harems were less romantic than we expected.

Massive crystal chandeliers with innumerable candles hazily lighting up a room covered with soft thick hand woven carpets, private baths,  heavy oil based perfumes and the most magnificent view of the Bosphorous. Close your eyes and live the life, albeit for a few seconds.

*BYOB – Bring Your Own Booze/Bottle

** and I am the vegetarian in the family

*** badam – almonds. Click here to read an Indian recipe for badam milk. Not to be confused with Almond milk

**** guru- master or teacher

*******Çiya Sofrasi serves Anatolian cuisine

P.S –Check out the Istanbul, Turkey album our FB page to enjoy our journey through pictures.

Istanbul; Grand Bazaar

January 29, 2015

The apartment we live in right now has wooden flooring. The husband has been wanting to get a carpet or an area rug for our living room for a while now, and I have been putting it off because

  1. Carpets gather dust
  2. I haven’t liked any of the carpets we’ve seen enough to buy them

I have been putting it off by saying that someday we will travel to Turkey and then we’ll get a Turkish carpet. Little did I know, that day would come so soon. While the husband was delighted to finally be getting his carpet, I was determined to buy towels. Soft, thick Turkish towels that make you feel like a princess everytime you step out of your bath. We were both on the fast track to heartbreak.


The Grand Bazaar is like entering Aladdin’s cave, except everything comes at a steep price here. The first store we stepped into was being manned by a youth in love with mainstream Hindi cinema, and if you believed him – my eyes. He could quote Bollywood backwards and wouldn’t stop doing it. The young man was thrilled to know I stayed near **Lokhandwala, where the stars stay. I was floored that in the bazaars of Istanbul there was a boy who knew where Lokhandwala was. The husband, who has no love lost for *my corner of Bombay, was stumped.


The husband is a great bargainer. It’s not that he needs to bargain, he loves to bargain. Sometimes he bargains so hard, it’s embarrassing to stand with him in the shop, but when he comes away with the loot I can hardly contain my glee.  My play is to select, let him start bargaining and when it gets a little hot, walk away seeming uninterested. This gets me out and helps the bargain by putting the pressure of losing a sale on the seller. Most of the times it works. When it doesn’t, it gives us a rough idea of the possibly lowest selling price so we raise the bid accordingly a few shops away.

I finally found my towel shop. The one I had carefully researched. They were moving stores and we caught them just in time. The towels were  luxurious and fit for princesses who bathed in milk and honey with rose petals floating, but the price could only be paid by a king. Fine!! They were not that expensive, but they cost way more than I was willing to pay for towels.


Carpet shopping was even more tragic. In the true spirit of Turkish hospitality we were treated to cups of tea as carpet after carpets was laid out before us. Some of these we hated and some loved. Carpet sellers in Istanbul don’t  talk in Turkish Liras, all rates were quoted in USD. A few carpets later we couldn’t bring ourselves to even ask for the price. The funny thing is, when we went back the day after to look for cheaper carpets, we somehow found ourselves being led back into the same store, much to our embarrassment and the amusement of the carpet seller. If you are serious about buying carpets, I suggest you look at shops outside the bazaar. We found a shop called Anatolian  Carpets, Kilims and Sumaks located just outside Gate 1  to be far more reasonably priced than the shops inside. They had some good designs too. There was one carpet here that both the husband and I fell for because it reminded us of a carpet we saw in the Dolmabahçe Palace, sadly it was not to be ours. Not this time atleast.

*my corner of Bombay – Andheri West

**Lokhandwala – an area in Andheri West

P.S –Check out the Istanbul, Turkey album our FB page to enjoy our journey through pictures.

Istanbul; Day 1

January 29, 2015


Sultan Ahmet Camii or the Blue Mosque

Most tourist attractions in Istanbul are close to tram stations and walking distance from each other. If you start early, you can cover a lot of ground.  We had seen the Hippodrome the previous night, on our way back from dinner at the lovely Khorasani Restaurant recommended by AntheasChronicles. The Hippodrome is not an enclosed space and can be seen as early or late as you like. Since the Hippodrome  is adjacent to the Blue Mosque (the Sultanahmet Camii), and the visitor entry to the Blue Mosque is from this side, our original plan was to do it early in the morning before going to the Blue Mosque. In the morning, we followed another set of tourists and ended up walking all around the mosque, before finally going in. This was not a bad thing at all because it gave us the opportunity to admire this magnificent structure from every angle. The architecture is a striking mix  of traditional Islamic architecture and Byzantine elements. Mosques traditionally have one, two or four minarets. What makes the Blue Mosque unique is that it has six minarets, one of which was under repair. It says online that women need to cover their hair and shoulders inside the mosque, however it is not enough if you cover all your hair with a cap, you need to wear a headscarf, which is helpfully provided  free of cost to all tourists. The mosque gets its unofficial name from the 20,000 sixteenth century blue tiles of Iznik design that line its high ceiling. The oldest of these tiles feature flowers, trees and abstract patterns. It is a little disappointing if   you’re looking for lots of blue because the blue tiles are mostly in the inaccessible upper galleries. The interiors were once  lit by two hundred and sixty windows, filled with stained glass of the seventeenth century. Today, one can only imagine the grandeur.


Aya Sofya or Hagia Sophia

The husband was quite keen on checking out this imposing  edifice opposite the mosque, while I was determined to stick to schedule. Turns out both of us got  our way. That beautiful building was the Hagia Sofia, the next stop on our list. If there ever was a building that could tell a story, this would be it. I can almost hear her speak in a deep faraway voice, saying,” I was once a temple dedicated to Gods long forgotten. Food, wine and precious objects would be offered here to bribe and curry favour with the deities. Sometimes animals would be sacrificed and the offal burnt as an offering. Back then this city was called Byzantium….

Somewhere around the 4th century AD, the city was rebuilt as the eastern capital of the Roman Empire by Emperor Constantine I  christened Constantinople. Emperor  Constantine the Great ordered a “Great Church” to be built on the site on the old pagan temple. When Patriarch John Chrysostom was sent into exile by the Emperor Arcadius in 404 AD, rioters burned down this wooden-roofed basilica. On the orders of Emperor Theodosius II, a second church was built on the charred remains. The second church was completely destroyed during the Nika Revolt in 532 AD. Emperor Justinian the Great, with some inspiration from his wife (purple makes a fine shroud) suppressed the riots, and commissioned  two *mechanikoiAnthemius of Tralles,a mathematician and physicist,and the Elder Isidore of Miletus, a professor of geometry and mechanics to build greater and grander church in place of what had been destroyed. Interestingly, neither of them is known to have any prior building experience, yet what they created was recognized as a major work of architecture of its time. More than ten thousand people worked for the construction and the third church was inaugurated by the emperor in 537 AD.


The Hagia Sophia has been damaged several times by earthquakes and fires, and each time it has been repaired and rebuilt. The decorations inside the church have changed to reflect the religious views of  reigning monarchs. With the Latin occupation of Constantinople between 1204 and 1261, the church became a Roman Catholic cathedral. In 1261, Byzantines recaptured Constantinople and it became a Eastern Orthodox church again. It was said that Muhammad,the prophet of God in Muslim religion, had prophesied that the first Muslim to pray in Hagia Sophia would go to paradise. Don’t ask me why, I don’t understand either, but it was said and since it was said it was a great ambition for Muslim leaders of those times to get into Hagia Sophia.In 1453 when Istanbul fell to the Ottomans,  Sultan Mehmet II went straight to Hagia Sophia  and ordered that this Byzantine cathedral be converted into a mosque. In the following years, Sultans added, strengthened and restored the building. Finally in 1934, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of Turkish Republic, ordered the building to be transformed into a museum. The  white plasters covering the mosaics were taken off, carpets on the floor were removed and for the first time in centuries, the original marble décor could be seen. The Hagia Sophia Museum opened on 1 February 1935.

The tiered structure of the Blue Mosque, the cascading domes, perfect proportions and elegant curves make it as  gorgeous a rival as intended to the Hagia Sophia. Inside, however, the Hagia Sofia with its cavernous, seemingly unsupported dome, artistic motifs, jewel-like mosaics and richly coloured frescoes  was far more impressive.

Stand under the main dome of the Hagia Sophia and whirl like a dervish, as fast as you can. When the world around you starts to spin, look you and see the seraphim on the vaulted ceiling fly.


Basilica Cistern

The entrance to the Basilica Cistern is across the street from the Haghia Sophia. This marvelous piece of engineering was built during the reign of Emperor Justinian I in 532 to meet the water needs of the Great Palace, which once stood where the Blue Mosque stands today.  The water was transported to the city center by the 971-meter-long Valens Aqueduct (Bozdoğan Sukemeri) and the 11.545-meter-long Mağlova Aqueduct (Mağlova Sukemeri), and stored in this immense underground water container. The cistern  is 143 meters long and 65 meters wide and could hold upto 80.000 cubic meters of water.The cistern forgotten for centuries, was accidentally rediscovered in 1545 by a Frenchman who noticed that people in the neighborhood simply lowered buckets through holes in their basements to get fresh water. At the far left hand corner of the cistern are two Medusa heads, mysteriously positioned – one upside down, and the other tilted to the side, used as column bases. .

Let's pretend we are Ottomans

Let’s pretend we are Ottomans

Time seemed to be on our side. We spent as much time as we wanted inside the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and the Basilica Cistern, and surprisingly by the time we were done, it was only lunch time. Rearranging our schedule a little, we visited the Topkapı Palace in the afternoon. Topkapı Palace was the primary residence of the Ottoman sultans for approximately 400 years. With its tree- shaded courtyards surrounded by functional buildings;  each courtyard serving a different purpose and opening into the next through monumental gates, Topkapı is a classical example of Turkish palace architecture. Each sultan added and altered the palace according to his tastes and requirements.


Photo Courtesy Ganesh Sankaran aka the husband

The pavilions in the fourth court were by far my favourite part of the palace. The court and the treasury were grand no doubt, but the tastefully done pavilions with gardens on one side and views of the Bosphorus on the other are what royal life is all about.  On a break from weighty affairs and lengthy discussions with crafty statesmen, I imagine the sultans would be drawn to this courtyard by the sweet scent wafting in from the gardens. Shaded from the afternoon sun, cooled by an occasional breeze from the great river, the pavilions would make a ideal place for an afternoon siesta. I can imagine myself curled up here with a stack of books and a flask of sumac sherbet.

After the 17th century, the Topkapı Palace gradually lost its importance and in 1856, Sultan Abdül Mecid I finally moved his court to the newly built Dolmabahçe Palace, the first European-style palace in the city. When the rule of the Ottoman Empire ended,Topkapı Palace was transformed into a museum of the imperial era in 1924. The museum displays large collections of porcelain (rumored to be prized by sultans not just for their beauty but also because they changed colour on contact with poison), robes, thrones, weaponry, Ottoman miniaturesIslamic calligraphic manuscripts and murals, as well as Ottoman treasures and jewelry. The sprawling courtyards, aesthetic  pavilions and fabulous jewel-filled treasury (and extensive Harem which we did not visit) allow a glimpse into the lives of the Ottoman royals.

*mechanikoi – masters of the science of mechanics

P.S –Check out the Istanbul, Turkey album our FB page to enjoy our journey through pictures.

Istanbul; The Whirling Dervishes

January 28, 2015

We are back from our almost monthlong super short vacation to India, via Istanbul. Three and a half weeks just flew by and here I am sitting on my couch wondering how to get them back.

We broke our journey in Istanbul and spent a couple of days in this grand old city. Divided by the Bosporus, partly in Europe and partly in Asia, this city is the perfect embodiment of the word picturesque. It reminded me of Delhi, a cleaner, better preserved, grander Delhi with much better weather.

The night we were scheduled to fly out of New York City, almost every other flight had been cancelled on account of an impending snowstorm. The streets of NYC wore a deserted look and usually the bustling JFK airport had fewer people than a local bus terminal. Fingers crossed, we waited for our flight to take off.

I bow to Thee, for there is Light in each of us

I bow to Thee, for there is Light in each of us

The husband knew I was very keen on catching a whirling dervishes performance. It is not a really performance, it is a ceremony; a prayer. We had tried booking one online, but had not been successful due to technical issues in making payments. We were staying at the Best Western Premier The Home Suites & Spa. As soon as we checked into our hotel the husband asked the uber helpful man at the reception about the ceremony and in no time we had reservations for the show at the Orient Express Train Station (Sirkeci Event Hall–Istanbul Gar). Set to haunting music, the ceremony is fraught with spiritual symbolism, right from the attire to the spinning. A short video of the ceremony can be seen on our Instagram account.

Truth is one, but men describe it differently -Rig Veda

Truth is one, but men describe it differently
-Rig Veda

I am not a religious person. I believe in God, yes. I like to think of myself as spiritual, but what is spirituality? Is it contentment? Or is it discontentment? The constant ache, the yearning, the longing, the neverending search to attain the unattainable? As the dervishes whirl themselves into a trance, they seek  love; eternal and everlasting. Like the earth revolving around the sun, their bodies spin around their hearts. They strive to achieve self-realization, and by understanding themselves they hope to  understand the Creator. I too believe that God lives in us. The conscience that guides me, that is my God. If you can be true to yourself, you will never be in danger of worshiping false gods.

You are the universe in ecstatic motion -Rumi

You are the universe in ecstatic motion

God is too big to be contained by religion and too great to be concerned with what you wear or eat. He is more likely to care about how you treat your fellow creations. How much you pray is less important than how much you care and how you express it. To me, God is the flow of energy. Omniscient, omnipresent; that which can neither be created nor destroyed.

*Mo ko Kahan Dhundhere Bande Mein To Tere Paas ... Khoji Hoye Turat Mil Jaoon Ik Pal Ki Talas Mein Kahet Kabir Suno Bhai Sadho Mein To Hun Viswas Mein

*Mo ko Kahan Dhundhere Bande Mein To Tere Paas

Khoji Hoye Turat Mil Jaoon Ik Pal Ki Talas Mein
Kahet Kabir Suno Bhai Sadho Mein To Hun Viswas Mein

My religion says there are two ways to attain the Supreme. One to give up all worldly pleasures and concentrate only on **Him, the other is to devote yourself entirely to the tasks that have been set out for you. Give your all in every relationship. No matter what work you do, give it your best. Seek pleasure not in the results but in every little thing you do. Service to man is sacrifice to God. Mine is the second way. I have not reached the top of the mountain, but I am content that I have found my path.

**Mo ko Kahan Dhundhere Bande Mein To Tere Paas

Khoji Hoye Turat Mil Jaoon Ik Pal Ki Talas Mein
Kahet Kabir Suno Bhai Sadho Mein To Hun Viswas Mein

– beautifully explained here 

**Him/Her/Whatever. I’m using Him merely for convenience, otherwise I believe God is gender free.

P.S –Check out the Istanbul, Turkey album our FB page to enjoy our journey through pictures.