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Lost in the Grand Bazaar

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With over three thousand stores and 61 streets, Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is unlike any place I’ve ever been. It’s one of the world’s largest covered markets, and a visit is guaranteed to leave you exhilarated, frustrated and, above all, disoriented.

Main Entrance Grand Bazaar

In the Grand Bazaar, it’s not so much “whether” you become lost but “when”. The jam-packed streets curve confusingly and the shops all look the same. There’s no sky or sun to point the way, and the mad jumble of people, whether they’re shoving by or trying to win your business, will spin you around until you’ve lost your bearings. Enter a store, engage in a bit of haggling, spend too long admiring an oil lamp, and it’s already too late. Good luck trying to remember the direction you came from, or where you were going.

Immediately after the Conquest of Constantinople, the victorious Ottomans set about Turkifying their new capital. The Hippodrome was razed, churches became mosques, and the Grand Bazaar was established near the newly established university in Beyazit. Despite recurrent earthquakes and fires, the bazaar grew and thrived, and was soon famous across Europe as the Mecca of shopping.

Today, an estimated 400,000 people visit the market daily. Over 27,000 people are employed within its walls. The bazaar, in almost every meaningful sense of the word, is a city unto itself. There are restaurants, barbers, banks, a police station, even a mosque — everything a decent-sized town of nearly 30,000 might need to sustain itself.

Souvenir Shopping Grand Bazaar

We love the Grand Bazaar, and invent an excuse to dart inside anytime we find ourselves nearby. Of course, in the wrong mood, or on a Saturday when the number of visitors increases dramatically, it can be stressful. And though the great majority of vendors are respectful, a few are unbearably pushy. True bargains are very hard to find, if they exist at all; we found identical nargiles in nearby Tahtakale for less than half the price as in the Grand Bazaar. And if you’re not proficient in the art of haggling, you’ll leave with either empty hands or an empty wallet.

But somehow, none of that subtracts from the experience of visiting. You don’t have to buy anything to have fun, and we almost never entered the gates with the intention of shopping. We’d go to explore the hans, have lunch, watch gold-makers and silver-smiths ply their trades, and lose ourselves in the maze. Photo opportunities are everywhere, and many of the shopkeepers are happy to chat even if you’re clearly not planning on buying. We were once invited to try some çiğ köfte one guy’s wife had made for his lunch. And a carpet seller took us to the top floor of his shop for a view of the roof. Turkish people, in general, are friendly and welcoming to strangers, and this seems to be even more the case within the Grand Bazaar.

Location on our Istanbul Map

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June 9, 2013 at 8:37 am Comments (7)

The Formidable Facial Hair of the Turks

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Although the glory days of the Turkish mustache might have exited with the Ottomans, Istanbul is still a Mecca of facial hair. Turkish men have the innate ability to grow a lustrous beard, and most emerge from the womb with a thick baby-stache already plastered across their upper lip. That, my friend, is a fact.

In the USA, mustaches are a trend that comes and goes. They were standard in the late 1800s and enjoyed a resurgence in the 1970s and ’80s. Magnum PI, anyone? Ravishing Rick Rude? And after a couple decades of suffering in the corners of uncoolness, they’ve been making a comeback among American trendsetters.

But in Turkey, mustaches never go of style. Why should they? The Turks are world-renowned for their amazing facial hair. After careful and meticulous research (glancing up from my computer and looking around the bar), I’d estimate that at least two-thirds of Turkish guys sport some sort of beard, mustache or goatee. I’m a big fan of good-looking facial hair, and have never seen so much of it as in Istanbul.

Always eager to blend into our new environments, both Jürgen and I tried growing beards, with inadequate results. Oh well, we’re not Turkish. We have an excuse. But woe be the Turk who can grow no stache! How can he even be trusted? It sounds ridiculous, but this is a serious issue here, and many hair-challenged Turks have even turned to modern medical science for mustache implants.

Of course, the ability to grow such great facial hair is really just an extension of the Turkish man’s ability to grow hair, period. For both your sake and our own, we’ll cut this article short before getting into a detailed description of the glories of Turkish back rugs.

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June 8, 2013 at 8:53 am Comments (0)

Üsküdar’s Çınılı Camii & Hamam

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After hiking up Istanbul’s biggest hill, the Büyük Çamlıca, our tired bones had earned a reward. So we made our way to the gorgeous Çınılı Camii, Üsküdar’s Tiled Mosque, and ended the day in a hamam.

Çınılı Camii

Built in 1640, the Çınılı Camii is a miniature work of art, reminiscent of Tathakale’s Rüstem Paşa Camii: perhaps our favorite of Istanbul’s mosques. The doors were locked tight when we arrived, but it wasn’t difficult to find a caretaker who was happy to open up. The Çınılı Camii’s nickname, the Tiled Mosque, is certainly deserved. The interior is covered in wonderful Iznik tiles, colored blue, red, white and green, making this one of the more richly decorated mosques we’ve seen.

Just around the corner, we found the Çınılı Hamam. I’ve come to learn that there are two types of hamam experiences a person can have in Istanbul. One is the tourist-oriented luxury of the larger, downtown hamams, which charge spa-like prices and provide spa-like services. The other is an experience like that offered by the Çınılı Hamam: local, cheap and authentic.

The Çınılı was exactly what I had expected from a Turkish hamam: an ancient bath house full of locals washing themselves, an invigorating massage on the marble slab under the star-shaped skylights, a ridiculously hot sauna, and a no-nonsense scrubbing by the sinks.

There was a musty smell in the hamam, and my massage toed the precarious line between vigorous and vicious: while there were bits of brutality that I perversely enjoyed (such as an unexpected punch to the middle of my back), there were others I didn’t. Still, I’m happy that we found the courage to try the hamam out; there were a surprising number of locals getting the same treatment as us, and no other tourists. The whole program, including sauna, scrubbing and massage, was just 35 lira per person.

Whether or not you’re in the mood for a bath, this little-visited area of Üsküdar merits a visit. It’s uphill and difficult to reach by walking, but a taxi ride is inexpensive. And the downhill walk back down to the ferry terminal is very pleasant, particularly after your body has been twisted, pounded, rubbed and scrubbed.

Location on our Istanbul Map

An other Hamam we visited: The Kılıç Ali Paşa

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May 29, 2013 at 1:54 pm Comment (1)

Kitten Drama at Gülhane Park

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An afternoon spent exploring Gülhane Park reached an unexpected conclusion when we discovered an abandoned baby kitten and attempted to reunite it with its mother. “Attempted” being the operative word; nature, we were bitterly reminded, is not a Disney movie.

Kitten Gülhane Istanbul

Gülhane Park surrounds Topkapı Palace and is one of the few green areas in the old city. It’s a lovely place, particularly in April with the blossoming of Istanbul’s famous tulips, and we had a nice time here, sitting on the bench in the sun, visiting a museum dedicated to the History of Islamic Science, and drinking tea at Set Üstü Çay Bahçesi, which has a view that overlooks the mouth of the Golden Horn at the very tip of the peninsula.

Leaving the park, we were detained by an insistent and desperate cry from above. About ten feet up the wall which borders the Archaeology Museum, a kitten had trapped itself on a ledge. It was clinging on, but would eventually fall. Using Jürgen as a stool, I managed to clamber up the wall and grab the kitten by its scruff. The mewling, terrified thing was no more than a couple days old, and couldn’t even open its eyes.

It must have fallen from above, so we carried it to the gates of the Archaeology Museum. The staff immediately agreed to help us and, together, we located the kitten’s mother. She was on a different ledge in the wall; about fifteen feet below us, and ten feet above where we had found her kitten. And she was nursing other babies. “Now”, I thought, “comes the joyful reunification scene!” We fetched a rope and a bucket, and placed the kitten carefully inside. “Are you excited to go home?” I whispered into its ear. “Mommy will be so happy to see you!”

Mommy, though, was not happy. Mommy was a cold-hearted beast. We had managed to lower and overturn the bucket, but after taking a brief look inside, Mommy turned away. I couldn’t believe it. Here was her baby, still blind, mewling its head off just a foot away, and she remained absolutely unmoved. After ten minutes, we lost hope and hoisted the kitten back up.

It wasn’t the cheerful ending we’d been expecting, but a guy working at the museum was happy to bring the baby to his office and raise it there. On reflection, we concluded that the kitten, who was too young to walk, must have been carried to the ledge by its own mother and deliberately dropped. Maybe she didn’t have enough milk, or maybe she didn’t like the smell of this one. Who knows? Only one thing is for sure: nature is awful!

Location of Gülhane Park on our Map

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This ratty-looking tomcat was also paying careful attention to the mewling kitten
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May 26, 2013 at 6:51 am Comments (4)

Our First Hamam: The Kılıç Ali Paşa

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It’s hard to imagine that we could have found a better place for our first Turkish bath than the Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı. This historic hamam in Tophane is one of Istanbul’s most beautiful, reopened in 2012 after years of restoration. We were invited to visit on a Sunday afternoon.

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Contemporary Turkish hamams find themselves in a difficult position. For centuries, these public bath houses were an integral part of Ottoman life. Islam places great significance on cleanliness, and hamams were the only place to go for a hot, soapy bath. They were buildings of such importance to society, that the empire’s greatest architects were often employed to design them. But then came the advent of indoor baths with hot water, and the primary function of the hamam vanished. Sure, they were still pleasant communal areas to meet friends and catch up on gossip, but for day-to-day life, taking a hot shower at home was a lot more convenient.

What to do? These are buildings of great architectural beauty, and you can’t just let them sit around empty. Luckily, hamams generate a lot of interest from visitors. For many, a trip to Istanbul would be incomplete without experiencing the famous Turkish bath. So in order to survive, many of Istanbul’s hamams have reoriented themselves to serve tourists.

Marble-Stone-Hamam-Istanbul

Built in 1583 by the master architect Mimar Sinan, the Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı is incredible, all domes, white marble and water. After decades of neglect, it was purchased privately and beautifully restored by its new owner, who was intent on returning it to its original purpose. The interior bathing room is stunning, with a large marble stone in the center, bathed in rays of light. Looking at it, I could hardly wait to get my clothes off.

And I soon did. While I was heating my body on the stone, hypnotized by the star-shaped holes in the ceiling, an assistant came to fetch me. He sat me down at a sink, grabbed my wrist, lifted my arm into the air, and began to scrub me with a rough sponge-glove. After scrubbing the dead skin off every inch of my body, he soaped me up with something called a “loofah”: basically a cloth sack that’s pulled tight to produce an unbelievable amount of foam. He remained silent throughout the procedure, and was extremely thorough. Hamams are not for the modest. Or ticklish.

Eventually, he finished, and I don’t know if I’ve ever felt more clean. I was helped into a big, comfy robe and then led into the lounge area to relax with sherbet and tea, before my massage. For 25 blissful minutes, my back and legs were worked by strong, professional hands. At the end of the session, after being cleaned, rubbed, scrubbed, and massaged, I was amazed to find myself hovering in the air. I floated out of the hamam, up the hill to our apartment and settled slowly onto our couch, like a leaf falling onto a patch of soft grass.

The Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam – Website

Location of the Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı on Our Map

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May 7, 2013 at 9:00 am Comments (3)

The Istanbul Film Festival and Turkish Cinema

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Run by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts since 1982, the Istanbul Film Festival brings excellent movies from around the world to the city’s theaters, with a special focus on home-grown cinema. And as we’ve learned since arriving, there is plenty to celebrate about Turkish cinema.


Bir Zamanlar Anadolu’da (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia)

Although we’re huge movie-goers, we only managed to make it to one screening. Luckily, we chose well. What Richard Did, a bleak and punishing Irish drama about the fallout of a terrible mistake, walked away with 2013’s top prize: the Golden Tulip. But we’re still kicking ourselves for not attending a screening of one of the films from Turkish cinema’s golden age: the Yeşilçam Era.

From the 1950s through the 70s, Turkey had one of the world’s biggest film industries. Yeşilçam, a street just off İstiklal Caddesi, enjoyed a reputation as the “Turkish Hollywood” and the studios based here churned out both popular hits (often starring Kemal Sunal), and political films such as 1982’s Yol (The Road): a movie which, although banned in Turkey, won the Palme d’Or. By the 80s, with the growing popularity of television, Yeşilçam and the country’s film industry eventually faded into irrelevancy.


Üç Maymun (3 Monkeys)

In recent years, though, Turkish cinema has been making a comeback. Both 2008’s Uzak (Distant) and 2011’s Bir Zamanlar Anadolu’da (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia) won Cannes’ Grand Prix. Nuri Bilge Ceylan picked up the 2008 Cannes’ Best Director award for Üç Maymun (Three Monkeys). Semih Kaplanoğlu’s “Yusuf Trilogy” tells a life’s story in reverse-chronological order, and has won admirers around the world. And we loved 2010’s Çoğunluk (Majority), which follows a directionless young man struggling to come to terms with his place in society.

But as in America, Turkey’s most successful films aren’t thoughtful art-house pieces, but big-budget action flicks like the controversial Kurtlar Vadisi: Irak (Valley of Wolves: Iraq), ridiculous comedies like Recep Ivedik (about the misadventures of a fat man with a unibrow), or patriotic historical dramas like Fatih 1453 (Conquest 1453).


Gegen die Wand (Head On)

Although he doesn’t necessarily belong to Turkey’s film industry, we have to make mention of Fatih Akın, who was born in Hamburg and whose best films deal with the plight of Germany’s Turkish minorities. Gegen die Wand (Head On) is simply one of the best movies I’ve seen in the last ten years, and Auf der Andere Seite (The Edge of Heaven) is nearly its equal. Akın also directed a popular documentary called Crossing the Bridge, which examines the music of Istanbul.

Istanbul Film Festival – Website

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May 1, 2013 at 4:09 pm Comments (3)

Istanbul’s April Showers

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We had been suffering through some rough weather for weeks, but spring finally arrived toward the end of April. The bad weather had us a bit of an emotional rollercoaster — overcast days are not normally our thing, but somehow the clouds struck a melancholic note appropriate to Istanbul.

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April 29, 2013 at 3:15 pm Comments (3)

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Lost in the Grand Bazaar With over three thousand stores and 61 streets, Istanbul's Grand Bazaar is unlike any place I've ever been. It's one of the world's largest covered markets, and a visit is guaranteed to leave you exhilarated, frustrated and, above all, disoriented.
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