Marhaba (Hello) from Turkey

Monday, June 23, 2014

We've finished our Olympic marathon of sampling the Greek culinary it is time for some Turkish delights!!!!

We reluctantly left the Katikies Hotel in Santorini, flew back through Athens, and then on to Istanbul where we will start our Tauck tour of Turkey.  Here is a map of our itinerary:

The actual tour does not start until Wednesday morning, so we had about a day to do some preliminary exploring (and eating).

Dinner was at Topaz, a highly rated restaurant not far from our hotel. The room had a beautiful view of the Bosporus. That and the service and the food reminded us of Spiaggia in Chicago. We were given an amuse bouche of a tiny cup of cold strawberry soup. Reviews were mixed. Then we started with minced meat wrapped in vine leaves in a cherry sauce (they are really big on cherries here!); really excellent. Next Wendy had baby lamb (yes, "baby" lamb!) which was, um, lamby (hence no pic), while Wayne had a beef rib, with the most divine intensely reduced beef glaze, over mushroom and veggie risotto:

Tuesday, June 24
Today we had scheduled a private tour consisting of several Synagogues, a Jewish museum, and a walk through the Old Town area. We also added a visit to the Suleymaniye Mosque.

Our guide began by telling us that there are 17 million people in Istanbul (though 50 years ago there were only 1.5 million!). Oddly, only about 12% of the current population are native Istanbulians. As we set out, we figured that about 10 million of them were driving on the same streets as us! The traffic here is arguably the worst we've seen anywhere. It reminded us of Delhi, though without the constant horn honking and no beggars. It was amazing how cars would effortlessly zip over one or two lanes as a small space opened up (no signaling of course!). And the pedestrians crossed the streets whenever and wherever they wanted! But we did not have or see one mishap or accident.

We were very lucky in that our guide was born and raised in Pera; the old Jewish section of town. "Pera" means "the other side" as it was not in the fashionable part of town hundreds of years ago. She grew up speaking Ladino, which is a Judeo-Spanish language from Spain. In the 1930s there were 137,000 Jews in Turkey; now about 18,000. Though Turkey is a secular country, about 99% of the population is Muslim. When the Constitution was made, the number of churches and synagogues was capped at the current level. So as people died off or moved and a new synagogue was opened, an old one had to be closed. So very few are left in this area. Some of them have been converted into museums.

In this area, most of the commercial streets were dedicated to one craft or type of product (as we saw in Hanoi). So there were the banking street, the textile street, and the musical instruments street. Some of that still exists today, although it is more likely to be the electronics, toy and plexiglas streets. It was also interesting to see some buildings that had the date they were built inscribed with the Hebrew year. For example:
look closely at the stone under the window: it says 5660, which was (as can be seen on the door lintel) 1899.

One of the synagogues was bombed in 2003, so since then the remaining ones (which are still active; some are no longer used) have added a front entranceway with reinforced man-trap doors. That is, you have to be let into the first set, then close and lock that door before you can go through the second set and into the actual building. Here is the inside of the first one we saw, Yuksekkaldirim:

Then we went to the Ahrida Synagogue. This was founded in the 1450s by Jews from Macedonia. Since they came to Turkey by ship, they made the Bima in the shape of a ship's bow:

Then we went to the Italian Synagogue. Why Italian? Many Jews emigrated from Venice (home of the original Ghetto).

Note the chandeliers made of Venetian glass. Our guide's uncle was the rabbi there. In this, and in many other synagogues, the floors are covered with Turkish rugs. Not so surprising you say. Yes, but here is why: the rugs are valuable both monetarily and as family heirlooms. So when the last person in a house dies (say the grandmother), the family would donate the rug to their synagogue. That way it would still be used and remind them of their loved one.

Next we went to the Suleymaniye Mosque., which is the largest one in the city. 
Oddly, there was no security to get into the mosque! We just had to take off our shoes, and Wendy had to put on a head-scarf and a longer skirt (which they provided for free; even though her skirt went past her knees, it was not long enough). 

Finally we walked around the Old Town area, where we were oh-so-innocently led into a rug store whose owner "happened" to be a good friend of our guide. We were given cold apple tea and shown a demonstration of how the rugs are knotted by hand (pretty much the same demo we saw in the silk factory in China). Then, the heavy sales pitch began. Though we talked about possibly buying a rug during the trip, we didn't see one we really loved (even at his "wholesale" to us price). 

We ended our tour at Omar's CafĂ©, one in a long line of restaurants on a street overlooking a park. It was quite delightful. We shared a chicken kebab (that comes de-kebabbed) with roasted pepper, rice and... French fries! (why? Although the Greeks also served French fries with their lunch dishes), and a plate of hummus and a basket of pita. Dessert was baklava.

Turkish baklava is usually made with pistachios and is pretty dry, as opposed to Greek baklava which has walnuts and is honey-syrupy. We asked for "one baklava", but apparently "one" is one order of 3 pieces. So we shared them with the Australian couple at the next table.

Then we walked around the area a little more...

This is the "Million Stone". In Roman times, it was the starting point for all roads that led to Istanbul (or, at that time, Constantinople). It was also used to calculate the official distance from any other city to here. 

Then it was time to head back. We had thought about taking the tram + funicular to get back to the hotel, but decided on a taxi ("Taksi") instead. The first driver we flagged down, and showed our hotel card to, said "no", and drove off. Hmm...... The next one said OK, but for some reason when he got to Taksim Square (our hotel is located near there) he said in broken English, "stop here"; he would not go any farther! (The same thing happened on the way home from dinner last night, though that cabbie got us closer.)  We insisted he take us all the way (as we were hot and tired), but he just kept saying "stop here". So we paid and went into the square to walk the 1/2 mile to the hotel.

Adjacent to the Square is a lovely tree-lined park. It was full of families and people just sitting on the benches. There were also food vendors selling their wares:

Tonight, after 9 days away from home, we finally met our tour buddies. We had the traditional Tauck meet and greet dinner; this one was at the top of our hotel in a room with a view across the Bosporus. Pretty neat to be standing in Europe and looking over to Asia. This is the only city in the world that straddles two continents. Previous Tauck dinners have been good, but nothing special, but this one was really great. We didn't want to scare our new friends right away, so we opted not to bring the camera. So words will have to suffice. The appetizer was a mezze of stuffed vine leaves, beans cut into pasta-like strips, baby eggplant stuffed with veggies, and a green pepper quarter stuffed with rice. All were very delicious. The main was a filet mignon with roasted peppers and smoky eggplant puree. Excellent! Dessert was another assortment consisting of clotted cream in a small chocolate cup, two kinds of baklava, and chicken breast pudding. Yes, you read that correctly: chicken breast pudding. It, and all the others, were actually quite tasty! 

More Istanbul and the rest of Turkey in subsequent posts.

Love to all,


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