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.
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.
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.
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.
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
**** 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.