Monday, November 28, 2011


Still working on the non-Istanbul parts of my trip, but I realized that I forgot to mention the turkish ice cream, Dondurma. There are stands all over the tourist sites in Istanbul manned by guys with red vests and caps who churn the ice cream all day long. The ice cream is yummy, but, most notably, it's chewy, with the texture of those big pink bubble gums from when we were kids (was it Bubblicious?). The more you know ...


Friday, November 11, 2011

Istanbul Redux: The Grand Bazaar, the Istanbul Archaeology Museums, Tea and Doughnuts

After the first week in Turkey, we left Istanbul for the Aegean coast and then Cappadocia. But we had to go back to Istanbul for a couple of days before leaving the country. On the return visit, we stopped by the Grand Bazaar, built in the 1450s.

The sellers weren't nearly as aggressive as I expected -- which was both relieving and a little disappointing.

We also went to the Istanbul Archeology Musuems. The highlights there are several giant sarcophagi dating from the late 4th century BC and discovered in Sidon, Lebanon. The most famous is called the Alexander Sarcophagus, which depicts Alexander fighting the Persians.

That's 4th century BC paint!

This one is the Sarcophagus of the Mourning Women. Look at their faces.

We visited Turkey during Ramadan, which we were worried would be odd or awkward but was actually totally awesome. Every evening, the Hippodrome would fill with families picnicking. There was a stage for musical acts and a little Ramadan bazaar with stalls selling food or arts and crafts. The atmosphere was like the 4th of July (including people selling light-up toys for kids) every night.

At the Ramadan bazaar, there was a stall which sold these honeyed doughnuts.

They look like those honey doughnuts you get at Indian restaurants (which I do not like), but instead of being soft and mealy (I'm sure fans of them probably describe them as 'gooey' and not mealy) they have a crunchy shell and in the inside has the texture of youtiao. We got them nearly every night.

And some random assortment of observations that might be helpful to tourists:

We didn't really have any language problems -- everywhere we went people had at least sufficient English for us to get by.

At restaurants, the waiters were generally friendly and nice and surprisingly flirty when Sean wasn't around.

People don't really drink Turkish coffee in Turkey. Instead, tea is the drink of choice -- anytime and all the time. When confronted with a set-up like this

the top pot contains concentrated tea and the bottom pot has hot water. Use the hot water to rinse your glass, then fill it 50% (maybe 30% is better) full of the concentrated tea. Fill to top with hot water. Add sugar to taste.

There are a lot of stray or semi-stray animals in Turkey. Not as many stray dogs as you might expect, and the ones I saw seemed docile if mangy. But all over Istanbul there were tons of cats and kittens. Waiters at outdoor cafes were constantly trying to shoo them away. They didn't look mangy or feral, so I suspect most of them had some person taking care of them at least occasionally.

Finally, and I don't think there's any way to say this without sounding condescending even though I don't mean it to be, but Turkey was way cleaner than I anticipated. Far cleaner than Taiwan, likely cleaner than the US, not quite German levels of clean. In particular, the public toilets were very clean and maintained and I only had to use a squat toilet once or twice during the whole trip.

By the way, this isn't the end of my Turkey blogging, I have more posts to come on the Aegean coast and Cappadocia.


Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Spice Market, the Bosphorous, Fish Bread, the Hamam, and the Great Palace Mosaic Museum

After the first few days in Istanbul, I thought that in the end Turkey would be an interesting place to visit but I wouldn't really like it. It was too hot with too many tour buses and tourists. (Truthfully, even though there were a lot of tourists, there weren't any really long lines to get in to see the sights. It wasn't like going to Versailles; the most we waited was about 20 minutes.) Anyway, the weather got a little better, and Istanbul starts to grow on you after a relaxing afternoon or two of sipping tea and sharing a nargile.

In our last couple of days in Istanbul, we went to the spice market,

which is near where we caught a 90 minute Bosphorus cruise.

There are lot of palaces along the way.

And the awesome looking Rumeli Fortress. It's giant and appeared to have all of 4 tourists inside, but it's so far from the normal tourist spots.

Next to the Galata Bridge, not far from the spice market and not far from where we caught the boat, there are 3 boats that sell 'fish bread.'

The boats rock back and forth to nearly 45 degree angles, but that doesn't faze the guys on board who are constantly grilling fresh fish. Toss a fish in some bread with some lettuce and onions and hand it off to the customer on land for 4 TL (a little more than 2 USD). On land, some guys sell drinks, and there are some scattered stools and tables with lemon juice and salt to put on your sandwiches. They taste awesome.

In terms of activities to do, going to the hamam (Turkish bath) may be the most popular, aside from buying a carpet (people in Turkey will constantly ask you if you're going to buy a carpet or ask you to come see their carpet store). We went to Cemberlitas Hamam, which is in a historic (1500s) building and has nice but separate women's and men's baths and caters to tourists (so no one minds that you have no idea what to do or where to go). In the bath, you relax on a heated marble slab and then some old woman (or man, in the men's section) scrubs you down. Sean had an awesome time, but from his description of his experience, I think that maybe the women's experience is watered down: not as hot, less crazy scrubbing, no massaging component. On the other hand, the women's section had an awesome room with hot and cool water pools to hang out in.

The Great Palace of Constantinople once stood (AD 330 to 1081) where the Blue Mosque now stands. Excavations in the 1930s and 1950s uncovered some of the mosaics which decorated one of the courts and date to the 500s. It's giant:

Here's an elephant strangling a lion:

And here's a monkey catching birds. Awesome!

Even though there's a walkway to keep the tourists off the mosaic, the janitor can just stroll on them to clean to walkway railing.