Saturday, July 26, 2014

Two More Days in Istanbul

Today, Saturday, June 7th, we have signed up for a guided tour. It's starts in the Old City at a mosque down by the river. Although we have visited several mosques it's always nice to have someone explain something about what we are seeing. More than one minaret means it is a Royal mosque. Red is the royal color. We admire some nice tiles, then leave the mosque and go back into the Spice Bazaar briefly where we end up buying some saffron. We'll have to make paella when we get home, what else can you do with the stuff?

Now the main attraction of this tour, a cruise of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus. Many many factoids crowd my brain. We get a good idea of the size and scope of Istanbul and see a lot of the city that would otherwise be impossible to cram into a week. We end up on the Asian side for lunch, and then take a bus to the highest point in the city, Camlica Hill .

There are amazing views from the top, and the other tourists and visitors are interesting too. There are many more traditionally garbed women up here, not wearing burkas, but covering their hair with colorful silk scarves. They wear black or brown long cotton coats, or versions thereof. I am accosted by a group of school children, young teenagers wanting to practice their English on me for a school project. They ask me a series of questions and mostly understand my answers. Better practice would have been for me to ask THEM some questions!

The final activity on this tour turns out to be a private tour of the Dolmabahce Palace. This turns out to be worth the price of the tour itself. Even though I couldn't take pictures of the interior of the palace, I'm glad we didn't miss it!

The next day, our last in Istanbul, Lee wakes up with a cold. I run along the sea and ruminate on the lack of female runners, dodging stray dogs, wondering at groups of men swimming in the sea. After a late breakfast in the square outside the Blue Mosque we take the tram over to the other side of the Golden Horn. The tram is super easy to navigate and only costs three Turkish lira a ride. We exit the tram and take the funicular to the top of the hill and Taksim square, scene of the protests of the past year. There is no sign of protesters now, just families having picnics and walking on the dusty paths. We stroll down Istiklal Street. It's a nice walk, supposedly the Turkish equivalent of the Champs Elysees, but it's really just a shopping street in Anywhere, The World. Mango, Zara, H&M, you get the picture. As we descend into the older portion of this part of the city we attempt a bit of a Frommers walking tour. We see the Galata tower, narrow cobbled streets, a glimpse of an old synagogue. We make a stop for ice cream and espresso and then walk back over the river to the hotel to rest. It's our last night in Istanbul. On to Ephesus tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Grand Bazaar - Friday June 6th

Today our goal is the Grand Bazaar and maybe a runner carpet for the hall. We have lots of Persian rugs and really don't need another but we could use one in the hallway. We have read all the information on how to bargain in Istanbul and what to watch out for. We are steeled, expecting some version of Lo Wu in Shenzhen, where you don't dare look at the shopkeepers unless you want to be chased and harassed.

The grand Bazaar itself is kind of nice; huge, old, a maze of little shops and twisty streets, all in a catacomb-like structure. It is warm inside the bazaar, but not horribly so. Of course as we walk along the sales guys approach us, but by now we are used to them. They have funny lines, some of them anyway. We are sort of looking for some shops that Lee found online but have only mediocre results that way. We finally decide to work with a salesman with very good English and a calm demeanor.

Once we are seated in his shop he starts bringing out lots and lots of rugs. We are just not that excited by a standard Persian rug, neither wool or silk. We have a bunch and can get them from a dealer online so why bother? Then he brings out some Kurdish tribal rugs and we start to become more interested. They are embroidered and different. We settle on a couple and start the bargaining process. We are given tea, explanations of costs, shipping, duty, taxes. It's more than we want to spend, but we continue to discuss. We decide that we will carry the rug home ourselves as an extra suitcase (it's not that large, or heavy) and that reduces the price to about twice what we want to pay, so now the bargaining starts in earnest. I quote a price that is about 40% of what he is asking. He looks aggrieved, but comes down slightly, although nowhere near enough. Mentally I am doing the Lo Wu walk away. When bargaining in Lo Wu, if the salesperson is not being accommodating, a popular tactic is to say, "oh well" and start to walk away. Sometimes this backfires and they let you go, but more often than not they'll come running after you, sighing "okay, okay", and you get your price. Back in Turkey, we sit and continue to talk quietly. Lee counters at about 60%. The carpet guy counters at about $100 more than that. Now we are close. I split the difference with him and we are done! Yeah we probably paid too much, but not TOO too much. It was a pleasant experience overall. No "missy missy" no touching. Not very Lo Wu-like at all.

On the way out of the bazaar sales guys tell Lee he needs another carpet to balance things out. Haha.

Outside the bazaar it is pouring. At first we are lost, but eventually we find the street and then the store recommended in the class I took on traveling in Turkey a few years ago. Argammon. But this is crazy, like Tiffany's, or a museum. We wander through in amusement, this is way out of our price range. But eventually we find their restaurant and that part is nice. A long leasurely lunch. And then back to the hotel to rest.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Two Days in Istanbul - Wednesday June 4 and Thursday June 5

Today we are flying to Istanbul. It is pouring rain in Paris, so it must be time to leave. Our trip to the airport is without incident. We find our seats in the semi empty business class section on our Turkish Airways flight. The sweet young steward in a chef's hat takes good care of us, but we are in for a rude awakening when we land in Istanbul. The hotel is supposed to provide a car and driver, and they do, sorta. No one to be seen, but we do find a sign for the Nill HOTEL, which is confusing.

We call the hotel: "coming 2 minutes".

10 minutes later we call again: "wait over here, someone is coming soon" the hotel insists.

A man approaches, "follow me" he says. He leads us to a disinterested young man talking into two cell phones. They both walk away. After a moment I go in search of the "follow me" man.

"Your man is not helping, he is ignoring" I say. The "follow me" man wrinkles his nose and walks away again. Can you tell by now I am pissed off? If this is Istanbul I want to go home!

Finally we are led out of the terminal into a confusion of cars and shuttle buses. We are directed to a small white car with no air conditioning so it's swelter or get blown to bits. Whatever. At this point I just want to get to the hotel.

The hotel is darling and I am relieved. The Blue House Hotel, right in the middle of the Old City, next to the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. I am somewhat mollified.

I'm hungry, so it's not long before we are out the door again to find something to eat. The hucksters are everywhere. "Where you from? My brother is from Boston! Come see my shop, eat at my restaurant, marry my daughter, etc etc.". We find the restaurant we are looking for, quiet, friendly, no hard sell. We have a mezze platter and a mixed grill cooked in a clay pot and brought in flames to the table. They wack the top off the pot and there you go, dinner.

Back at the hotel the whirling dervish restaurant next door is playing music and I worry we won't be able to sleep, but after the very loud call to prayer at 10pm I remember nothing else until morning.

Today, Thursday June 5th, we are tourists. First the Blue Mosque. Outside it is stunning. Inside it is majestic, and full of what else? blue mosaics. Then across the courtyard and park to the Hajia Sophia. This building has undergone many transformations, at first a church, then a mosque and now a museum.

Afterward we have lunch at a kebab place down the street. Then we duck into the underground cistern while the line is short and the tour groups are elsewhere. Inside it is cool, wet, spooky.

No we are not finished yet. We walk over to the spice market, then to the river and finally back to the hotel. We go up to theTerrace restaurant on the roof for expresso and Turkish pastries, enjoying the sunshine, clouds, and the distant sea.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

June 3rd Bistro Paul Bert

The goal today is to try to have lunch at La Bistro Paul Bert. You have to get reservations months in advance, and we didn't do that, but supposedly they will let you in for lunch if you go stand in line when they first open so that's what we do.

It works! We are ushered to our table without any trouble. Contrary to some reviews online our server is friendly and has no problem explaining the menu to non-french speaking tourists.

And what a menu it is! For our starter I get escargot and mushrooms in a pastry shell; Lee chooses the pate; the accompanying bread is excellent. I get the sole with lemon and butter for my main; it's cod with veggies for Lee. And for dessert Lee has the Paris Brest, I have a chocolate macaroon. Brest is a coffee cream on a pastry, mine is chocolate cream filled macaroon. Mine is just crazy rich. It takes a lot for me to overload on chocolate, but in this case I do. Then we have coffee. It was a great meal but it takes forever to get the check.

We think there is some nuance we miss in the check receiving department, either that or we are just not lingering sufficiently over our lunch. The server, who up until this point has been attentive but not obtrusive, is now only seen fleetingly as she scurries back and forth, prepping tables for new customers, and bringing other customers their meals. She is very busy and it doesn't seem to be a priority to get people out of the restaurant. They only serve lunch from 12-2, so maybe once you have a table you are supposed to sit around and relax until two and not bother them. We almost do that anyway, but being antsy American we aren't so good at the relaxing part.

We end the afternoon with a self guided walking tour of the neighborhood behind the Bastile. There is an abandoned elevated railway that has been made into a park, much like the Highline in NYC. In fact The Highline was inspired by this Parisian park, which is older, quieter, with more roses and other flowers. Beneath the railway the brick supports have been enclosed and turned into shops and artist studios. We walk along the street and window shop, then climb the stairs to the elevated park and walk back. Tired, we will eat the rest of our bread and cheese in the apartment tonight, pack, and head to Istanbul tomorrow.


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