This Year’s Hot Competition to Paris — Istanbul!
We’re where east meets west — that Turkish town on the Bosphorus known as “Istanbul” that once was called Constantinople. Since being here, I learned that there was a Turkish town called “Adrianople,” too, now known as “Edirne,” but it’s not on this trip’s schedule. (I don’t think my parents had a clue about this when they named me.)
EVERYONE is going to Istanbul these days. It’s the HOT destination of the year putting Paris to shame as one of the world’s leading tourist spots. While in Istanbul, we’ve connected up with several friends who just happen to be here at the same time and have heard from several others who are planning trips or just returned.
I had been here once before — for only three days with a friend attending a convention, staying at one of the city’s luxury American-style hotels. I remember little except for an elegant dinner in one of the city’s palaces on the Bosphorus, wandering through the Grand Bazaar and a seafood dinner in a restaurant along the water. This has been a very different experience.
We booked the Hotel Legend, steps from the major tourist attractions in the Sultanahmet district, that does not compare to the luxury of any of our Parler Paris Apartments, but the staff is friendly and the location superb. Its best attribute is the terrace on the roof and the window-laden breakfast room from which you can see the Sultan Ahmet Mosque (known as the Blue Mosque) and the Bosphorus. As I write, a sea gull is pecking at the window to be let in and we can see hundreds of boats of all kinds on the water.
The taxi from the airport, thanks to traffic, was a one-and-one-half hour ride costing 150 Turkish Lira — about $81.21. Friends from California were waiting for us at the hotel and without much further ado, we headed to the Four Seasons Hotel for an elegant (and slightly expensive) dinner.
Once the Sultanahmet prison, the luxury hotel has special significance. Built in 1918-1919, it was the first jailhouse of the Ottoman Empire and served mostly for “writers, journalists, artists as intellectual dissidents.” In 1992, it was renovated into a deluxe hotel with 65 rooms and suites located minutes from Istanbul’s most visited sights. It’s the ‘jewel’ of the Four Seasons crown and was named ‘Best Small Hotel in Europe’ in 2012 by Travel & Leisure’s coveted annual readers’ poll. It was well worth a dinner and a stop on the tour.
The first morning we decided to head for the most important sights, but that changed rather quickly. Once inside the impressive Blue Mosque, after waiting in a long queue to enter, the sickening feel of the clammy carpet and the odor of humanity along with the hoards of tourists was enough to send us running out and scrambling to find hand wipes to clean off our feet before putting back on our shoes. That’s when we decided to leave the Topkapi Palace and the other mosques aside for another day and head for the Grand Bazaar not far away.
The Grand Bazaar may not be a facet of Istanbul you would want to miss, but once you’ve seen it-done it, there are better places to shop for authentic Turkish goodies. Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing quite like Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. It is a maze of (now) sophisticated stalls selling everything China can produce and sell to unsuspecting tourists filled with the best salesmen the world has to offer, ready to part with their goods for as high a margin as they can. Sensory overload is not the word for it.
From there we further ‘tortured’ ourselves with a visit to the famous Spice Bazaar (“Misir Çarsisi”, aka the “Egyptian Bazaar”). There is no more concentrated a spot on the planet for spices, Turkish Delight (“Lokum”), nuts and fragrant oils. The Spice Bazaar is an “L”-shaped building not so easy to distinguish from the others around it, consisting of 88 vaulted rooms. Surrounding it are streets and streets of open stalls selling everything from soup to nuts. The open market streets are more interesting, but no doubt, we have never seen so much product of every sort for sale anywhere in the world…not me.
Erica, just having come from a month in Nepal where life is very simple and poor, couldn’t help but remind us constantly how scary it is actually, how much useless product we humans produce in the name of earning a buck while polluting the world. Sad, but true.
The modern tram in Istanbul conveniently connects the important sights and certainly gets a lot of use by locals and tourists alike. The system lacks the finesse of Paris’ Métro or even Nice’s tramway by making it accessible only from the ends of the stations, but effectively it works to get you from point A to point B for three Turkish Lira a ride ($1.62). We have been on it lots to cross the Golden Horn (“Haliç”) — the inlet of the Bosphorus dividing the European parts of the city. Yesterday we took the tram to Kabatas, switched to the funicular to Taksim and then walked all the way down the busy Istiklal Avenue through the Beyoglu district (also known as “Pera”), passing the French Institute along the way.
Istiklal Avenue is not so different from a zillion other European shopping streets lined with the same chain stores that one might find on rue de Rivoli or avenue Jean-Medecin in Nice. We felt right at home. Continuing down, however, we landed at the Galata Tower, too tall for my old bones and muscles to manage climbing, even for the spectacular view it affords, then crossed the Galata Bridge by foot back to “Eminönü” — a major station for trams, buses and boats.
Along the upper portion of the bridge, fishermen are lined up catching minnow-sized fish using bate of worms and other delicacies. Along the lower portion of the bridge is a line-up of restaurants from beginning to end along both sides. Saturday evening after dinner on the Asian side of the city (“Üsküdar”) at “Ciya” (a well-known Turkish restaurant) with Parler Paris reader, Holly Garner, who lives outside of Istanbul, we stopped in one of these Galata Bridge restaurants for a Turkish Coffee. Out of politeness, we asked the proprietor if we could have ‘just’ a coffee, to which he replied, “With pleasure and may I offer this to you on the house?” He then brought two coffees and a large bottle of water along with their business card so we would remember to return, noting his name, “Ahmet” (of course!) on the card.
My first thoughts were how different an experience this is to Paris! If we were to ask the same thing of a Paris restaurant they would have quickly shooed us out even if all their tables were empty! The idea of making a customer rather than just a sale is so prevalent here, it’s refreshing! The people are certainly among the friendliest in the world. On several occasions, and I do mean several, someone we randomly asked for directions on the street took us to our destination, thinking nothing of their own time or effort! Can you even imagine this happening in Paris? That elicits a laugh and a no!
By the end of a long day walking in the bright sun and warm air, a hammam sounded like the perfect antidote. There are hundreds of them in Istanbul. A traveler should not leave the city without experiencing an authentic Turkish Bath. We opted for a lesser known one that our hotel touts and was quite a bit less expensive than those on the ‘beaten path.’ Bring a bikini bottom, although it wasn’t mandatory and expect to be naked, really naked. If you can’t handle this, then don’t go, but if you can, allow the full pleasure of being steamed, scrubbed and pampered under warm water.
My masseuse was a very fat woman named “Nadisse” who spoke no language other than Turkish wearing a bikini and a big smile. She laughed and made kissing sounds as she encompassed me in masses of foam, warm water and then massage oil, kneading my muscles until I was turned to jelly. As she leaned over my body, massaging every crevice, I could feel the folds of her big belly and large breasts fall into my open arms and hands. She loved that I was turned to a blob of human cells at her hands and laughed some more as I made gestures of worthlessness. Erica and I left with spotless skin and hair in total euphoria. The cost — about $50 for the works.
Istanbul is like no other place on the planet, much like Paris cannot be compared to other cities. The masses of humanity are overwhelming — people from all walks of life mixed with wildly large quantities of tourists. I’ve heard every language on the streets one can imagine, seen faces of every color and clothing of every style. Women in full black “berkas” are prevalent, although there are three men to every woman on the streets.
In fact, the abundance of men dominating this society is not surprising, nor frightening, but impressive. The young Turkish men are seriously handsome — swarthy and of strong bone structure. But ladies, even though they appear to be friendly and quite sweet, expect them to be as macho as it gets, something independent American women, such as my daughter or myself, would be difficult to manage!
We have two more days of adventure in Istanbul, so stay tuned for more observations — this year’s serious tourism competitor to Paris! Deservedly so!
A la prochaine…
Director of The Adrian Leeds Group, LLC
(Adrian & Erica at the Blue Mosque)
P.S. Don’t miss the House Hunters International episode “Sizing Up the Parisian Suburbs” on June 1, at 7:30 p.m. E/P. As a job opportunity brings them to Paris, will Rich and Rachel find enough space for their soon to be family of four? Find out when House Hunters International peruses the villages surrounding Paris.
P.P.S. On Thursday, May 30th at 5:30 p.m., three wonderful Paris-based poets will share their orignial work in French and English at Le Café Rouge. This festive evening is part of a month-long series of events celebrating the University of Southern California’s “The Poet in Paris Program.” Featured poets are Gabrielle Althen, Margo Berdeshevsky and Heather Hartley, and they will be introduced by my friend, poet Cecilia Woloch. Entrance is free but there will be a one-drink minimum. From 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at Le Café Rouge, 32, rue de Picardie, 75003, Metro Arts et Metiers or Temple. For more information on upcoming poetry readings visit Paris Lit Up.
P.P.P.S. I am looking for someone who can translate a two-page legal contract from English to French. If you can do this reasonably priced (doesn’t need to be ‘official’), please email me at [email protected].