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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

June 21, 2011

It's our first morning in Istanbul and we started it off with fresh squeezed orange juice (literally they squeeze it in front of you) and Turkish coffee. They also love cherry jam here so I tried that too. We are staying at the Esans Hotel (I think I mentioned that) and the staff here is lovely. Each room has a name and ours is the "Dervish Odour Room." The sign says "It is known as 'musk odor' obtained from a gland of the male musk deer. It is used to take out negative energy and brings a feeling of getting away from troubles. Mostly Dervishes and wise people used in Ottoman times." This is hilarious not only because we get the "stinky" room but because it is must to take out negative energy and solve lost bags? Let's put this shit to work!

Full from breakfast we headed out to the first site on our list was the Hague Sofia or "Ayasofya" which started off as a Roman church that was then changed to a mosque. They plastered over beautiful mosaics of gold and tile. But since then it has become a museum so parts of the plaster were removed so you can see the Christian tile. It is a little strange walking into a religious center and seeing writing in Turkish with a picture of Madonna and child. Very confusing. It costs 20 Turkish lira per person for entry and it was worth seeing but not my favorite. Also disconcerting was two Turkish girls in full Muslim garb asking to take pictures with me. I guess I do look like a blonde, blue-eyed giant to them.

As we came out I saw a line of ATMs and walked over to get money out. Low and behold my Bank of America debit card didn't work because of "irregular activity" on my account. I wanted to pull my hair out - I'd called and double confirmed with them before leaving yet what do you know.

Next we wandered towards the Blue Mosque which I was really excited about, but of course Mom passes her first carpet shop and is hooked. Two and a half hours later she's bought two Turkish rugs and the owner, Hamit, (the store is called Motif Collection) had told us about as much as you can possibly know about carpets. We drank Turkish tea (it comes in an awesome hour glass cup with two cubes of sugar) and learned that the different emblems on the rugs have meaning. For example, a spider design means protection, the tree of life or river of life means fertility, and the evil eye protects against, you guessed it, evil. The colors of the carpets never fade because they are made from vegetable dyes. Pistachio for green, walnut/saffron/onion for oranges and tans, indigo for blue, and a red bug I can't pronounce for the deep blood reds. We also found out that a carpet selling in Turkey for about $3,000 is worth about $17,000 in the U.S. I am in the WRONG business! After spending more than she planned, Hamit shook our hands and I extricated her from the store.

The Blue Mosque was conveniently located around the corner and there I donned a scarf (because I was wearing a tank top and you must be covered from wrist to ankle in the mosque). On a note here I should add that as a woman I feel fine walking around in a tank top. It was a little bit see through (accidentally) though which wasn't as good but yeah if I had more than two outfits I'd change it up! The Blue Mosque had amazing hand-painted tile though it was very similar to the mosques in Egypt so I wasn't terribly interested. It is free though so you might as well! Just don't forgot to take off your shoes and stay quiet inside.

From there we set out for the Grand Bazaar which is like the Walmart of Istanbul - get it for a bargain. It was really overwhelming! Leather jackets, bags, jewelry, ceramics, shoes, scarfs, carpets, ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh. My eyes finally glazed over and I followed Mom like a lost puppy. I remember in Cinque Terre when our friend Jack said that Venice was like "Dante's eighth level of hell for men who hate shopping." Clearly he hasn't been here yet. Mom LOVES to haggle so after making three grown Turkish men cry we walked out with three gorgeous scarfs that are probably made from recycled paper and will fall apart with the first wash (they were 20 lira a piece FYI).

On the way back my sweet tooth was starting to hurt to I walked into a confectionery store on the street and asked which of the crazy looking candy was Turkish Delight. The owner made a sweeping gesture that took in the entire store. What?? Turns out Turkish Delight comes in every flavor available, kind of like taffy. I settled for mint, orange, rose, cinnamon, and chocolate nut. The fruit flavors are kind of like Botan Ame, the Japanese rice candy. It is sort of chewy with a dusting of powdered sugar on the outside. The chocolate and cinnamon ones were nasty.

We dropped off our stuff and walked to dinner down the street from the hotel. We had already "approved" the view from the restaurant earlier and met the chef. The really cool thing about the restaurants is that they have the outdoor cafe on the ground floor and then you can go up the elevator to the rooftop terrace. It's the best of both worlds. This restaurant was called "Tria" and the waiter was Turkish but had lived in England for 16 years. The view of the river was fantastic and the chef was an adorable, overly tan, wiry little man with a happy face. We ordered his suggestions - the meze platter, slow cooked lamb with saffron rice, and molten chocolate lava cake. The Anatolian wine that accompanied the meal was delicious! The waiter I think liked us a little too much as he then offered to show us around on his day off. I had to say "no" because I didn't want to give him the wrong impression.

Once we got home (around 10pm) I spent the next two hours getting extremely heated trying to get my debit card to work. I was told via email that I could sign into my online account and chat with a rep to get the card working again. I chatted with him for 30 minutes only for him to tell me at the end that I needed to call the phone number. I DON'T HAVE A PHONE!!!!!!!!!! What part of that do they not understand. I had an amazing day but all these issues are starting to really fucking wear on me. I finally gave up around 2am and went to bed.

June 22, 2011

Today we woke up first thing to visit Topkapi Palace. Before leaving the hotel, the staff called the airport to check on our bags as we still hadn't heard a word about them. Guess what? The courier had taken them to the Milan airport who then SENT THEM TO A MILAN HOTEL! When I politely pointed out that not only did we not stay in THAT hotel but we never stayed in that CITY, she apologized and said she would do her best. Then she hung up. I will never fly through Milan again or fly Alitalia. For all of those reading please boycott them too so they change their attitude.

Turns out the entrance to Topkapi Palace is right next to the Hague Sofia and therefore right next to our hotel (20 lira entry fee per person). It's a little intimidating to see guards holding machine guns outside but I later learned why. We got there at 9:30am which was perfect because the tourist crush wasn't up yet. We got in line for the treasury first because you can't take pictures inside and so everyone moves at a snail's pace to see everything. Get there after 10am and you will spend all day in the line.

First let me say that I have seen treasuries in Italy, Japan, and multiple other foreign countries and wasn't terribly excited by the myriad of swords and gold coins. This treasury? It was fucking sick. Not only do they have an 86 carat diamond on display that a diamond collector said is worth close to 100 million dollars (explains the guards yeah?) but they also had what I swear was the dagger from the movie, Prince of Persia, the Sands of Time (yes the movie where Jake Gyllenhaal's biceps are irresistible). There were thrones, daggers, and bindings for the Qu'ran all covered in rubies, emeralds and diamonds. No wonder these stones are so rare now - they were totally used up by the Turkish! Next we zoomed through a religious building that housed the "supposed" robe of Fatima and the golden casket that once housed Mohammad's robe. You can't take pictures there either.

Then we entered the Sultan's Harem (an additional 15 lira per person). It was the most amazing building interior I think I have ever seen. The entire building is hand-painted tile with gilded gold beds, velvet pillows, paintings, marble floors, and copper fireplaces. Let me say that being a concubine must have ROCKED. Eventually when I have more energy (probably when these blogs get re-posted to the website) I will fill you in on everything I learned about the Harem and the Muslim religion.

We spent some more time wandering the grounds and eating meat pastries at the palace restaurant which were tasty. The view of the Bosphorus is even more tasty.

Back at the hotel, I finally got Skype credit so that I could call Bank of America and fix my debit card. I find it evil that in order to call to get my card to work I have to BUY Skype credit to call them with a card that oh wait doesn't work. That's what moms are for :-) Also at the hotel, we booked a boat tour on the Bosphorus for Friday for 45 euro per person which includes entry fees of a palace and fortress, an English speaking guide, a minivan back, the boat, and snacks for lunch. I'll note here that it's important to check when you first arrive in Istanbul when different sites are closed. For example, the Hague Sofia is closed on Mondays, Topkapi Palace is closed on Tuesdays and the spice market and Grand Bazaar are closed on Sundays.

Speaking of spice market, we wanted to get that in today so we set out north in the general direction. Along the way we stopped at Joseph's store. He is a shop owner we kept passing to get to the hotel and promised we would visit at some point. Turns out he lived in Idaho for a couple months as a valet and then spent the next seven months touring the U.S. He is like the Turkish man version of me!

He also taught us more about carpets. A lot of the store signs in Turkey say carpets and kilim. Kilim are still carpets but they are made by a different weaving method that makes it so they are completely reversible (you can use either side). Then Persian carpets, of which he had many, are a single knot weave and Turkish carpets are double knot weave, which is the strongest. There is a starting and finishing end on each carpet (obviously). If you rub your hand from start to finish the carpet is soft versus rub it the opposite way and it is rough. Also, if you look at the carpet and face the starting end the carpet looks darker than if you rotate it around and look at the finished end. Crazy shit.

Each carpet is also based on the story of the tribe that creates it and many carpets are even more expensive because the tribes that created them have long since stopped making them or are extinct. Each tribe makes its own dyes so one carpet might have a blue that is lost forever after the tribe disappears. It's really sad.

Joseph is also well known for his kittens - he almost always has a litter of them in a basket in the window. The joke is that you get a kitten if you buy a carpet. The mother of the kittens is famous and has been in multiple international magazines because she is so rare. She is pure white with one blue eye and one green eye. Apparently you won't know if a kitten will have this trait until they are 45 months or so and even then only the white ones have the propensity. The ones that do inherit the eyes can be worth up to $1,000 a piece (or so says Joseph).

What's nuts is that as soon as my mom noticed the kittens she realized that my aunt, who had been in Turkey five years ago, bought a carpet from a man who had kittens in the window. Joseph said he didn't know if he sold her the carpet but he could pretty much guarantee that he was the only shop owner in the area with kittens in the window. His store is called Artemis if you ever want to play with some cats. Cats in Turkey are like dogs in Thailand - EVERYWHERE.

Finally we left to try and make it to the spice market which closes at 6pm. We stopped along the way and my mom bought a plate and a lamp from a store called Mil & Art. I also found shoes I really liked but was too cheap to buy them for $30 U.S. I miss China prices...These guys just refuse to bargain! We ended up coming back before we even made it to the spice market so we will try again tomorrow.

On the way back I discovered a new treat for my sweet tooth - Osmanli Macunu. Basically it looks like taffy and comes in kiwi, banana, cherry, lemon and orange flavors. The guy wraps the "taffy" around a wooden stick over and over again, flavor upon flavor. It was really fun to watch. The taste is very sweet and it must be 100% real fruit because the flavors are very intense. The only difference is that unlike taffy which hards, this stays very flexible which ensures it gets stuck in your teeth. I likened it to a Sugar Daddy that was left in the car on a hot day and is kind of gummy - only the flavor is ten times better. I'm actually making it sound bad when it is really good but hey try it for yourself! It's certainly better than Turkish ice cream which you can practically chew.

For dinner, we went to Seven Hills restaurant which has the highest patio in Sultanahmet with a perfect view of the Blue Mosque and the Hague Sofia. Make sure to reserve a table in advance so you get an outside table with a view. We had lamb skewer, Coban Kavurma (a pot of lamb, potato and vegetable) and a fig and honey dessert. I felt very Turkish. The Kavurma was very spicy, hot, and delicious.

I really wanted to hookah but we were far too tired and have to get up early in the morning so that we can make it to the Cisterns before all the tourists show up.

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