So, with a mere two days to experience all Istanbul has to offer I checked in with Gem, our expertly knowledgable concierge at the W Hotel, and he suggested a few must-dos for this magnificent and multi-faceted city. That meant Saturday tackling the bazaars and a cruise of the Bosphorus.
1. Still a bit jet-lagged and recovering from our night in Taksim Square, we slept in until 9am, skipped breakfast, then fetched some Turkish lira from a bank machine in the Migros convenience store a couple of blocks away. They didn’t open until 10, so we wandered through the tight-packed tangle of streets admiring the entrepreneurial creativity of the shopkeepers who had wedged their tiny businesses into spaces barely half the size of our hotel room. And each with a small stool or chair outside propped outside, the better for gabbing with the vendor next door. Cozy.
Gem had suggested we visit the GB first and then the Egyptian Spice Market as the path from one to the other would then continue to the tour boat docks, so we had the taksi drop us at the south entrance. And faster than you can say baklava we found ourselves corralled into the dungeon of a carpet seller and being schooled on the unequalled craftsmanship of Turkish carpets, in general, and his specifically. In five minutes he and his teenaged assistant had rolled out before us a dozen silk-on-silk ($$$$$), silk-on-cotton ($$$$), cotton-on-cotton ($$$), cotton-on-wool ($$), and wool-on-wool ($) kilims, soumaks, cicims, and zilis in every color, pattern, and size imaginable. Most of these Anatolian carpets were stunningly gorgeous and he even had us slip off our shoes to feel the soft silk fibers beneath our toes. We were tempted, but No — maybe next time.
3. The Grand Bazaar — how can I even begin to describe a place, an event, an experience unlike anything I’ve ever known. It’s overwhelming. Imagine that aforementioned flea market, then combine it with Rodeo Drive and an outlet mall. Now crossbreed and mutate and mass produce that until it fills a dozen city blocks. And it’s under cover in this stone and brick and plaster structure that’s been there for 500 years and houses 3,000 different shops positioned along 61 covered streets with 25,000 vendors and attracts more than a quarter million customers each and every day.
And then began a slow meander through dozens of wide hallways where we were astounded by the garish displays of t-shirts and tennis shoes and wedding dresses and ceramics and lamps and leather jackets and socks and designer jeans and waterpipes and cutlery and high-end fine jewelry and more of it on the next street and the next and the next. Good thing there wasn’t a mattress store or I’d have taken a nap.
4. After two hours or so we exited through the north gate and began the amusing downhill trudge via Carsi Caddesi and Longmarket Street towards the Spice Market. No longer under cover these streets ebbed and flowed as normal with hundreds of shoppers, delivery carts, mopeds, dogs and cats, water flowing in gutters, and enough signs and banners to spin your head off. And the shops carried an even wider variety of goods than within the GB, including beads, luggage, guns, toys, pastries, bicycles, tuxedos, and lingerie, the latter not exactly Victoria’s Secret, but still a lot of lace.
5. Now, even though we were saving up our mosque attention for the next day’s excursion, I would be remiss not to mention that hey, if your goal in visiting Istanbul is to see mosques, well, you’d better book yourself for a month’s stay. There are that many. Just on the ten minute walk from GB to the Egyptian Market there were two of them. Ancient and beautiful and architecturally extraordinary. And there’s one right there by the EM that we didn’t even learn the significance of until too-late the next day. It’s named the Rustem Pasha Mosque and many feel it has the most vibrant tile work of any mosque in the city. Next time.
6. The nondescript south gate of the Egyptian/Spice Market appeared out of nowhere and boom, eight stone steps down and we were wonderfully assaulted by the sight and scent of the world’s flavors. I tell you, these spice vendors know how to grab you.
Directly on either side of the entry corridor stood brightly arranged displays of symmetrical pyramids, each colored mound a different spice. Some of them I’d heard of or even cooked with before: clove, turmeric, cayenne, paprika, saffron, and cumin — to name only a tiny fraction. Others were as exotic as the market itself: fennel pollen, sumac, asafetida, truffle salt, and urfa biber, that last one a dark sun-roasted chile that smells of raisins and coffee. And they offer pre-blended melanges specified for poultry soups or barbecued lamb or simply to slowly roast in a decorative brazier to scent your home.
And the nuts! The sign in one shop stated it boldly, if only semi-clearly: We sell all nuts on the world.
Dried fruits, fifty different versions of Turkish Delight . . . Oh crap, hold on a second. We haven’t talked Turkish Delight yet.
6a. Turkish Delight. Yummy. Most of the time. In fact, almost always. But every once in a while, not so much. Okay, now anyone who has ever tried an Aplet or Cotlet, well, you’ve basically had a dumb-downed version of Turkish Delight, which is a rubbery-hard flavored gelatin spiked with whatever nut or sweet or fruit you want and dusted with powdered sugar. And they are truly delightful. Like I said, usually. Sometimes they’re just plain weird. Coffee-flavored gel-candy with dried cherries works. Lavender-flavored gel-candy with cloves? Not for this fella.
6b. Oh, and I also forgot to mention Turkish tea. It’ll come up later when we get down to visiting my dad, but for those who didn’t know it (meaning me), tea is a big deal in Turkey. Maybe even bigger than coffee. No matter when and where we ever were we’d see men delivering Turkish chai tea to their vendor friends and neighbors on 12-inch round brass or copper serving trays suspended from a trio of chains. It’s very cool, like a communal ritual that plays out everywhere numerous times each day. And the tea itself is tasty stuff. Once I’d tried it, I became a regular imbiber, a few times a day, in fact.
6c. Okay, back to spice shopping. After an hour or so we settled on a less-in-your-face storekeeper and let him talk us into 3-4 spices and 3-4 teas. Each was deposited in a plastic sleeve, which they vacuum-sealed and then wrote upon with felt pen to identify the contents and best use. I can hardly wait to get home and fire up the grille.
(Though I must admit a small, yet lingering, fear that the packages appear a little too contrabandy, and even though I haven’t seen Midnight Express for 25 years, some memories linger.)
7. We exited the EM through the north gate and found ourselves at the waterfront. Smack. Right there. Deep blue water, colorful boats selling grilled fish, the Galata Bridge packed with weekend fisherman. And people everywhere. A quick two minute walk brought us to the TurYol ticket kiosk. These are private tour boats vs. the government-run ferry system which operates slightly longer tours less frequently and for a few lira less. We boarded, snagged a few of the last bench seats on the rail, and waited 15 minutes for the ship to fill up to the gills. Then, with Germans to the right of us, Russians to left, and a large family of Turks behind us, we shove off. Shoved off? Shoave off? What the hell, we pushed back from the pier and out into the Bosphorus Strait.
And oh what a pleasant trip it was. Definitely, a must do. Not that it was anything world-changing or mind-blowing, but just the fact that we could cool our heels for 90 minutes on the water in the sunshine and enjoy the cityscape sliding by was a joy. And the city itself actually turned out to be more remarkable than I expected. Towering skyscrapers juxtaposed with thousand year old mosques. Jam-packed tenements alongside vast parks of cypress and pine. Modern and new comfortably coexisting with ancient and worn. And on the water itself huge freighters churned alongside solo fisherman, and plenty of tour boats. Before long we looked up and found we were passing directly beneath the Boğaziçi Köprüsü or First Bosphorus Bridge, one of two bridges in Istanbul connecting Europe to Asia. Pretty awesome.
7a. One fun side note: I learned that back in May of 2005 U.S. tennis pro Venus Williams played a 5-minute exhibition match against Turkish standout Ipek Senoğlu on a court built in the center of that bridge, becoming the first game ever played on two continents. Yeah, I know, I’m just a fountain of enlightening information.
The boat sailed a figure-8 route covering both sides of the strait and affording us picturesque views of both the European and Asian halves of Istanbul. Oh, and we saw a school of porpoises. And an elderly angler haul in a mammoth fish. And we wish we’d brought more bottled water. Just sayin’.
8. Back in port we needed bathrooms and the public water closets (W.C.’s) had a line-up, so we walked along the water-level Restaurant Row positioned on both sides under the Galata Bridge until we found the right place. Now, we knew it was the right place because the second we sat down the waiter greeted us with ice-chilled bottles of Efes beer and a bowl of tasty snack mix. And speaking of which . . . that mix also includes dried chickpeas. You know, garbanzo beans. I forgot in my earlier post to mention the chickpeas. So, the final rundown on the Turkish bar mix: soybeans, almonds, filberts, pistachios, and chickpeas. Light salt. Major yums.
9. After returning to the A/C in our hotel room at the W we napped for a few hours, then taksied back toward the Galata Bridge and the restaurant Lokanta Maya. In Turkish lokanta means restaurant, so I guess I was redundant there. Sorry about that. Lokanta Maya is the creation of chef/owner Didem Şenol, New York-trained and award winning, not to mention daughter of Ahmet Şenol, owner of the Dionysos hotel where we’d be staying when we left Istanbul. Ahmet and his wife Rim are great friends of my dad and his wife Angela, and the reason we were dining that evening at Lokanta Maya. Sadly, Didem was out of town, but they took extraordinarily good care of us, though, if I were to admit it, the food would have taken care of us on its own.
In a word — fabulous.
Chef Didem changes up the lunch and dinner menus regularly, but tends to include many with her signature use of local foods, and especially nuts. In fact, one whole wall of the restaurant is decorated with hundreds of Turkish walnuts secured behind a mesh steel screen. Quite cool-looking.
We started with a couple of meze plates: grilled Cypriot halloumi cheese with a salad of of grape leaves, roasted hazelnuts, cucumbers, and tomatoes. And then zucchini fritters served with a minted cucumber yogurt dip. For entrees we went with a house favorite, caramelized sea bass with sautéed chard and apricots, and also grilled chicken with raisins and walnuts. And for dessert — on the house, thank you, chef — we enjoyed lavender ice cream sandwiched between paper-thin wafers of Mastic candy, and of course our cups of Turkish coffee. All of it was absolutely fantastic.
We left at about 9:30 that Saturday night and the crowds were just starting to arrive. If you ever get to Istanbul, you won’t find a better contemporary spin on Turkish cuisine than Lokanta Maya. You should check it out.
Just a thought.