Istanbul, Turkey: Hookah & Hammams

The Backstory to My Travels in Istanbul, Turkey

In late February 2015, I found myself in the middle one of those “I’m 25 and what is going on in my life, society, the world, wait, what, you just froze” Skype calls with one of my best friends, Julia the self-made trilingual.

I had just quit my Belgian Master’s program in Brussels and was trying to figure out my next move; Julia was unhappy in her professional life but was about to take her relationship with her Israeli boyfriend to the next level in her new home of Jerusalem. There were direct flights to Istanbul from both cities …

“Let’s go somewhere and go home fresh,” Julia suggested. After a little research and light squabbling, we decided on Istanbul, Turkey. More or less smack in the middle of Israel and Belgium and affordable non-stop flight for the both of us, it was geographically convenient for a quick three-day getaway. Additionally, neither of us spoke the language, shared the dominant religion, or had been there before. For two adventurous American multi-linguals, Istanbul sounded perfect. And it was, it really was!

Preparing for the Trip to Istanbul

Planning for Istanbul

Two weeks after that Skype call, we set off from our respective countries to meet up for a quick weekend getaway in Istanbul, the city where East meets West. The major goal of this trip was not to binge on sightseeing – We knew we wouldn’t have enough time anyway. Our goal was to soak up as much of Istanbul as we could while having a serious catch up session and life-related pep talk. Given my decision to move to California and her’s to remain in Jerusalem, this trip was designed to last us another couple of years before we’d see each other in person again.

Fortunately we didn’t have very ambitious plans – Istanbul is a huge, intricate, ancient city with thousands of years of history, endless streets, alleyways, mosques, bazaars, pigeons, seagulls, rooftops, hookah, vendors, rugs, lamps…I could go on. It’s a never-ending city of perfume shops, silk scarves, apple tea, Turkish tea, chai tea, handbags, leather – basically, impossible to see or certainly grasp in the two-and-a-half days that we had. But it was a start!

Arriving in Istanbul

I flew Turkish Airways from Brussels to Istanbul, which was a delightful aerial experience with very attentive flight personnel. I was so excited to be trying the exotic condiments of tereyagi and visne receli…only to realize it’s just Turkish for butter and strawberry jam!

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Flying into different airports, Julia and I had hastily agreed during a 4am WhatsApp voice messaging exchange to meet at “the MeDonalds” at Taksim Square on the European side. We figured it might be a bit embarrassing to go around asking for McDonalds as soon as we got to this beautiful, ancient city. But on the other hand, you can almost always count (a) there being a McDonald’s and (b) that McDonalds having free WiFi!

Well, as it turns out, you can’t. (A) There were multiple McDonald’s at Taksim Square, causing understandable confusion. (B) Istanbul in 2015 was not yet one of those cities where free WiFi is your god-given right.

But not to fear! Because when WiFi at McDonald’s doesn’t work, you head for the nearest Starbucks and hope that your ex-pat friend has not lost her American intuition to do the same. Luckily, she hadn’t, and finally we found each other (sans cell phones!) at one of the Starbucks at Taksim Square.

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Cihangir

We stayed at an Airbnb in Cihangir, with a very hip Turkish host named Yasemen. In her late twenties, she runs a website, Bashla, that helps freelance designers and artists sell their work across the world. All the way up a windy fifth floor walk up, when we arrived in the apartment her friendly neighborhood seagull had come knocking his beak on the window to say hello! I think he had a thing for Yasemen 🙂

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The First Night in Istanbul

alice_hookah_istanbul_turkeyThe first night we wandered back up in the direction of Taksim Square and found ourselves on the shopping street with the old fashioned tram. We got a donor and then sat down on a busy street with restaurant after restaurant. We smoked some hookah, pet the stray cat who had already dibbsed the seat next to us, and snacked on popcorn freshly popped by the popcorn vending men (cart + portable stove + pan + kernels. Genius). How I have never seen such a beautiful contraption in America is beyond me.

Julia and I just loved people-watching on a Friday night – Istanbul locals were very lively. We eavesdropped on excited, expressive conversations in Turkish around tables on terraces; we admired their dancing and jiving on the street to the music blasting from the bars and clubs; we tried to decipher the Turkish of the fish mongers yelling out prices and people bargaining for knick knacks in the many kiosks dotting the streets.

The First Full Day in Istanbul

Hagia Sophia & the Blue Mosque

Julia and I tried to find the free tour of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque we had found on Google, but as I had surmised it was too good to be true. But at the very least it was motivation to get us up and over to Sultanahmet (the neighborhood where the Hagia Sophie and Blue Mosque are located) by an early-ish 10:45am. Realizing there was no tour, I regaled Julia with all the facts from the guidebook in my best English accent (I have an English tour guide alter ego named Mildred Foster, makes learning on vacation feel a bit more sophisitiqué).

The Hagia Sophia was stunning, but I was especially taken with the Blue Mosque. Unlike the Vatican (where I had an atheist-style meltdown a few years prior), it’s immense and ornate, but not overdone. This aesthetic is likely due to the lack of imagery allowed in Islam, but there was also no gold or gemstones that made the Vatican feel so royal and wrong. The Blue Mosque is almost understated on the inside. Even with all the tourists, it’s very peaceful – The lights are perfectly luminous, and it’s hard to even process the intricacy of the tiles.

The Blue Mosque also offered Islam 101 classes to the public twice a day, and had a staff member on site who was willing to answer any questions one might have about Islam. If we had come at the right time we definitely would have stayed for the class. I think it’s great that they are taking their position as a tourist attraction to help educate people about what Islam really stands for.

While I am an atheist, I do understand that organized religion in 2015 is a fact and an incredibly complex part of our lives whether we want it to be or not. I support educating people on what all religions are and what they stand for, where they come from, and how they have spiraled into all these different groups, factions, beliefs, and ideas. May god help us all.

The Grand Bazar

After the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, Julia made our way towards Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, which was definitely the highlight of the trip.

A Heart-Warming Interaction in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar

We ducked into a random kiosk just to quickly buy some shampoo, since we’d arrived in Istanbul without any.  The woman behind the counter for some reason greeted us with “Bonjour!” and started talking to us in French. Since I speak French, I responded en francais and told her what we were looking for. We started chatting, me translating between her and Julia, and she said she just happened to be a Francophile and tries her French on the tourists before English.

I happened to mention that Julia lives in Israel and she looked surprised. And then all of the sudden she starts speaking Hebrew to Julia! It turned out she’s one of just 8,000 Turkish Jewish families living in Istanbul. She didn’t speak lots of Hebrew, but she pointed to a Jewish prayer that she had taped to the countertop. So pleased to have met a French-speaking American and a Hebrew-speaking American-Israeli-Jew, good feeling abounded and she gave us a little gift, some rosewater hand cream. It’s safe to say everyone was kvelling.

Bargaining in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar

We wandered and wandered in the myriad of kiosks and stands, almost buying so many things, haggling, trying on fur hats, jewelry, slippers, scarves … The vendors would call out, “Hey, LADY! Come here!” which I bristled at constantly. Even if they don’t really know that calling out “HEY LADY” is quite rude in English, I can’t help but be irked.

I did end up bargaining for a beautiful set of lamps like in the pictures below. It was a more expensive purchase than what I usually go for – I usually end up buying little souvenirs, happy to spend more on food and the experience of being somewhere else itself. But in this case I was imagining them hanging in the kitchen of my future California beachside bungalow and they looked really nice.

(Cut to two years later and they are hanging on the wall in my Tenderloin apartment smack dab in the middle of the downtown San Francisco concrete jungle. Close enough.)

Turkish Tea

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Another thing Julia and I loved about the Bazar (and Turkey itself) was the tea culture. In the bazar and all over Istanbul you see men running about with silver trays, handing off small cups of tea to their coworkers, friends and fellow vendors. When they approach you, you can opt for traditional Turkish tea or apple tea, which is like hot apple cider. No extra sugar needed!

 

Saturday Night Dinner in Istanbul

Dinner that night was late, and in one of the restaurants underneath the Bosphorous Bridge. We were worried it would be really overpriced and touristy, but we seemed to be the only foreigners in the restaurant, so it seemed legit! Fried shrimp, fish plate, halva and fruit.

Interesting fact – you can still smoke in the restaurants in Istanbul. I brought back memories of being a kid and my parents being asked, “Smoking or non-smoking?”, Although in Istanbul there are no smoking sections, you can just light up as you please. There was a Turkish band, but we seemed to be the only table not to get a serenade 🙁

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Sunday in Istanbul

A Day at the Çemberlitaş Hamman

Sunday – Hammam day. After lots of research Julia and I settled on one of the historic hammams, Çemberlitaş. How it received even one or two bad reviews completely blows my mind- it was the best activity we did the whole trip.

Oh. My. God.

Çemberlitaş was hands down the best spa experience I’ve ever had  at about 60 USD dollars for the whole shebang.  Julia and I threw down for oil massages after the traditional body scrub, and it was definitely worth it. The hammam was spotlessly clean and smelled marvelous.

When we arrived we were taken to a calm locker room where we were given a towel and a pair of black underwear. Then we were led down a hall into a massive, ancient domed steam room with heated stone floor, statues, and small star-shaped sun roofs.

Here’s what happens next:

After you get all hot and steamy, a Turkish lady comes over to you, pours soapy water all over you, and takes a cloth sponge and Scrubs. You. Down. Then  you just lounge around dousing yourself in water and lying on the hot floor.

The full body oil massage is the cherry on top. Afterwards you can go back in the steam room. When you walk out of the hammam you feel like you’re walking on clouds, and your skin looks radiant. From the street it looks like any old store front, but what lies inside is truly a sight to be seen!

A Walk Around the Bosphorus

Afterwards we walked back towards Taksim, meaning across the Bosphorus. The view is incredible! You can see all different parts of the city, seagulls, men fishing, mosques, people, vendors…

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We wandered off track up the Yuksek Kaldirim Caddesi, a huge hill of shops, cafes, and kiosks. Julia had me try a wonderful drink called salep that they also drink in Israel, and man oh man was it tasty. It’s a “Turkish winter drink, is made from the dried powdered roots of a mountain orchid. The powder is then heated with milk, sugar and cinnamon to make a thick dairy beverage.” It was like eggnog, except not gross, and I wanted more.

Our Last Morning in Cihangir, Instanbul

Our last morning we went out for the best meal of our trip with our Airbnb host, breakfast at Kahve6. I ‘d seen on Spotted By Locals and was down to go when she suggested it over another popular breakfast place in the neighborhood. We chowed down on the breakfast Yasemen ordered for us – a sort of Turkish eggs hollandaise, cheddary-tasting melted cheese in a casserole (love whoever it was who was just like, “Melt it and serve it, boom!”), and a light goat cheese (tulum?) with blackberries – all in a backyard garden setting and over an interesting and stimulating chat about Turkey, thee States, politics, and life in general. I feel bad I can’t remember the names of the dishes but I learned less Turkish than I even learned Polish

Reflecting on My Time in Istanbul, Turkey

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Afterwards we all parted ways, but that breakfast was the perfect ending to a quick introduction to Turkey and Istanbul. Overall I was very impressed with Istanbul, more or less in constant awe of the sweeping views the city allows you from just peering down a side street. You can feel the ocean everywhere with the seagulls and birds flying around, and the views of the Bosphorus are breathtaking. It’s actually got a very similar aesthetic to San Francisco.

You can really feel that the city has been this collision of Eastern and Western cultures, and you can see the different religious layers to the society everywhere, especially in the way the women dress. Some are covered head to toe, others wear traditional looking clothing that look like they might be from a different part of Turkey, some just wear a hijab, and others wear Western clothing and have hardcore nose piercings.

I got the impression like there were lots of men, many more men than women, everywhere we went. Men in groups drinking coffee, men in groups smoking cigarettes, men in groups walking, men in groups eating at a table…Something I’ve never really picked up on in other countries I’ve been to, but from a Google search it doesn’t seem like there’s significantly more men than women in Turkey, so I’m not able to draw any conclusions here. Just something I noticed.

I’d love to see more of Istanbul, because on a map we really only saw two areas of the city. Much more to be discovered! So til next time, Istanbul!

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