Getting to Know the Real Istanbul
By the time you read this, we’ll be back in (let’s hope not) “Gray Paree” after five days of sun, warmth and blue skies in Istanbul. These missives have mostly been constructed while sitting in the dining room of our little hotel that has two walls of windows overlooking the Bosphorus and a flock of sea gulls that visit us hoping for some crumbs.
One Italian tourist decided to be cute, open a window and feed a seagull one of the (inedible) cakes the hotel serves for breakfast, hence getting bitten by seagull, the cake flying everywhere, landing in my lap and all over the computer. No matter — it’s just another aspect of adventure in the Turkish town.
Monday we made the Basilica Cistern our first stop in the morning — the “Sunken Palace” — the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city of Istanbul. It’s huge — cathedral-size capable of holding 80,000 cubic meters of water. “The ceiling is supported by a forest of 336 marble columns, each 9 meters (30 feet) high, arranged in 12 rows of 28 columns each spaced 4.9 meters (16 feet) apart.” (Wikipedia.org) Fish of all sorts live in it, some quite large. In one corner, on the bases of two columns, are carved Medusa heads — the origin unknown. It’s both eerie and fascinating and definitely worth a visit, located steps from the main attraction — the Topkapi Palace.
Late morning we braved the crowds at the Topkapi Palace, standing in long lines to see the Sultans’ residence of 400 years (1465-1856) and setting for state occasions. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985, and is described under UNESCO’s criterion as “the best example of ensembles of palaces of the Ottoman period.”
Not visiting the Palace while in Istanbul would be like coming to Paris and skipping Versailles or traveling to India and leaving without a stop at the Taj Mahal. We simply weren’t leaving without seeing it, although the lines to enter one major area were so long, we opted out. What we didn’t miss, however, were the displays of the Imperial Treasury — a vast collection of works of art, jewelry, heirlooms of sentimental value and money belonging to the Ottoman dynasty.
The most impressive item of all is the “Spoonmaker’s Diamond” — 86 carats, pear-shaped and the fourth largest diamond of its kind in the world. It’s set in silver and surrounded by a double row of 49 old-mine cut diamonds (brilliants). I could imagine it, if not around my own neck, around Elizabeth Taylor’s, for instance! In the gift shop a smaller replica is purchasable as a pendant, earrings or ring — but to seriously wear it seemed a bit “gauche,” especially in France while Socialist President Hollande is in office!
From the Hippodrome (a one-time circus that was the sporting and social center of Constantinople and today is a square named Sultanahmet Meydani), bus tours line up for willing riders. We became two of them, opting for a two-hour Open-Bus excursion to the other parts of the city we might not see otherwise. In spite of getting stuck in traffic for an additional 30 minutes, we crossed the Galata bridge, headed to the modern European part of the Istanbul, crossed the Bosphorus on the “First Bridge” to the Asian side and back again, passing notable spots along the way. I’d say it was worth it for first-timers to get a ‘lay of the land’ and acquire a bigger picture than just the Sultanahmet district.
As “synchronicity” goes as a thread throughout my life, we had planned to meet with an old friend and her husband traveling here to celebrate with her an important birthday. We discovered during the day that not only had we breakfasted in the very spot they had taken breakfast only a few minutes earlier (at their own hotel, no less!) and that we had crossed paths all morning long at the Topkapi Palace. Later that evening together we dined at “Hamdi,” one of the city’s most well-known touristed restaurants just near the Egyptian Bazaar that’s been grilling kebabs since the late 1960’s.
No matter that you are surrounded by folks of every persuasion (our adjacent diners were French, nonetheless), the views from the terrace are superb, the service impeccable and friendly, the food authentic and of great quality and the cost more moderate than you will believe. Four of us ordered up Raki (a Turkish unsweetened, anise-flavored hard alcoholic drink much like Pastis) aperitifs, appetizers (humus and eggplant), four kinds of kebabs, desserts (baklava and fruit) and Turkish coffee — all to a bill of $27.50 each including tax and tip.
I can’t say that we’ve had great food on this adventure — it’s been a bit ‘hit and miss,’ with more ‘miss’ than ‘hit.’ But of course, that’s because Istanbul is a tourist town and there are hundreds, if not thousands, of eating establishments that simply don’t care what they serve to unsuspecting tourists. I do advise scoping out local spots as much as possible, although even the most researched traveler may end up wanting to simply satisfy his hunger without traveling across town to accomplish it…as we have — and naturally, those have been the ‘misses.’
One ‘hit’ was a surprise — an open terraced large eatery at “Eminönü” steps from Hamdi and the Egyptian Bazaar that we landed in quite by accident. Open roasting spits have quail, chicken, kebabs and a variety of meats and fish for the choosing. The fresh grilled dorade (sea bream) and sea bass were divine and the meal was a silly bargain at about $12 a person. This is an address to keep in mind for something authentic, good, easy, inexpensive: “Beceren Koftecisi.”
Another Istanbul specialty not to be missed are the desserts — baklavas, Turkish Delights, dried fruits, etc., and one Turkish specialty called “Chicken Breast Pudding” or “Tavuk Gögsü.” Walking home from Hamdi, we landed at “Hafiz Mustafa 1864” where late at night the pastry chefs were still hard at work pumping out a myriad of Turkish specialties, but came away with only a box of Delights and chocolate covered coffee beans. On the way home last night, however, not to miss a thing, our taxi stopped to let us hop out to pick up a Chicken Breast Pudding…just for the tasting.
It is known to have been a favorite of the sultans and is thought to be a ‘signature’ dish of Turkey. Made with chicken breast meat, milk, sugar, cracked rice and possibly other thickeners, it’s tasty with a sticky consistency, but we later regretted having made the special stop as it had an immediate affect on our intestinal tracts (guess your body has to have a tolerance for such fare!).
Our last day in Istanbul might have been one of our best, taking time to ferry to “Kadiköy” on the Asian side for a lunch of fresh fish. Just near where the ferries dock is a market area of stalls of fishmongers, fresh produce and every other thing imaginable alongside a string of restaurants. This is where I dined with Parler Paris reader, Holly Garner, Saturday evening at Ciya, but of course, the market was closed shut at the time. Yesterday it was in full regalia and provided a more authentic view of Istanbul with few tourists and true local flavor.
Lunch took place at an outside table at “Kadi Nimet Balikcilik” (Serasker Caddesi, No. 10/A, Kadiköy, phone: 0216 348 73 89) which cooks up fish from its own stall. Erica picked out the fish off the ice and a bit later it came grilled with lemon and salad. The fishmongers bark their catches of the day at the passersby and the scene is too picturesque to be believed. It was not only one of our best meals, but refreshing to finally get to know more of the ‘real’ Istanbul.
All this was just the beginning to an adventuresome day to discover Istanbul even better, except for one detour to the Hagia Sophia — for the sole reason to ‘get it out of the way’ as it’s one of the top tourist attractions. Akin to a visit to La Chapelle in Paris, we wouldn’t have felt complete without some time there. A former Orthodox Church-turned Mosque-turned museum, it’s as old as 4th century, and now that we’ve canvased its entrails, and certainly enjoyed seeing its beauty and learning more about its history, we could move on to the Istanbul the Turks know and love.
This led us to go north to Bebek north of the Bosphorus Bridge, for drinks at Lucca Bistronomique Lounge and Bar and a stop in the Bebek Hotel to see what all the hullabaloo was about before ending up at Ortaköy just next to the bridge for dinner at the House Café. The tram took us to Kabatas, then a taxi took us further north only to be stuck in traffic for an extra 30 minutes before driving up the coast which closely resembles the most beautiful aspects of the French Riviera. We felt right at home. Desirable living for wealthy Istanbullus, clearly this is where life takes on a different form.
Lucca’s is the trendiest spot with well-dressed, good-looking 30 year-olds seeing and being seen. Across the street is the famous Bebek Hotel where dining on the terrace is as elegant as it gets. Ortaköy is maze of little streets radiating from a beautiful port and the House Café is the crown jewel of all the restaurants on the water. Could we happily live there? Yes!
Should you make a trip to Istanbul, and only if you have a few days, I’d recommend foregoing some of the ‘main attractions’ for getting to know the real side of the city. It was in these spots that we felt more of the heart of this Turkish town than among the tourists standing in line to see what made the city tick to begin with. Istanbul is a city of many faces…from the west, from the east, of every religion and ethnic origin. As one local friend of my daughter described it, it’s in chaos discovering who it really is as the people struggle with contemporary life steeped in centuries of profound history.
Istanbul, so long…for now.
A la prochaine…
Director of The Adrian Leeds Group, LLC
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