Mar 17, 2009

Turkish Delights

Recently, we hopped on a Turkish Airlines flight direct from Brussels. We took off at 8 am and by 12:30 we were worlds away and donning our headscarves to enter into the Blue Mosque. For anyone wondering what Istanbul is like, all I can say is Istanbul is huge. Roughly 15 million people in a city that spreads out 129 km (+/-) along the Bosphoros River, according to our guide Emre Onal, Istanbul is a kaleidescope of culture and color. We hired Emre at the recommendation of many of our friends and in hindsight, we are so thankful that we did. Not because we were nervous to find our way, but rather because we wanted to maximize our short stay. Emre is fluent in English, Italian and French and is well connected to the city. He is Turkish and is passionate about his culture and heritage and takes great care to explain small details not available in a book (or at least not easily locatable in a book). We visited the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia---once a basilica, turned mosque, now museum. Here, the mosaics of Christian images that were covered with yellow plaster that is slowly being chipped away to restore its former glory. On a large private yacht appeared, we leisurely viewed the old Ottoman palaces and estates along the river,then hopped off to take a drive along the river road until the entrance to the Black Sea (only 450 Kilometers across is Russia Emre reminded us.

The food of course for me is as main of an attraction as the mosques and the river. It is said that there are three major kinds of food in the world : Turkish, Chinese, and French. Having gorged myself plenty on the latter two types, I was eager to try a Turkish lunch. We were off to a good start when our table was loaded down with with various Mezes ("Hors d'oeuvres" or appetizers). Cold mezes include stuffed mussels (midye dolma), humus, pureed aubergine salad (patlican salatasi), stuffed vine leaves (yaprak dolma) and a spicy bulgar salad whose name escapes me but whose memory does not. Among the selection of hot mezes was borek, similar to spanikopita with thin layers of pastry stuffed with cheese. Our mezes extravaganza was followed by fresh fish, in it's entirety, sprawled out on our plate. And a gooey Turkish coffee.
Our meal at Feriye (once an Ottoman police station) was outstanding and made all the more memorable because of the beautiful candle lit room, draped ceilings and views over the Ataturk Bridge that changed colors every few minutes. Lamb is the meat of choice in Turkey, from Kababs to racks, fillets and stews. All good.

We got caught in a downpour when we visited the Topkapi Palace, built on top of the ruins of an ancient Roman city in 1475-78, and was seat of the Ottoman Empire for about 400 years (history books came to life)! Hiding under the arches and behind pillars made us wonder about life as a woman here all those years ago. The large gardens and harem, the amazing jewel encrusted treasures and gifts from various royals and heads of state around the globe, and of course the marble and tile and gold make this a place to easily pass a few hours in awe. We of course did not have a few hours but got a good taste of awe thanks to Emre's extensive knowledge. The bazaars, both the grand bazaar and the spice market, are worth a visit and as bite. I liked the latter the best. It felt more authentic and was more manageable in size. Bartering is a must in Istanbul though they don't come down as much as you might think, about 25% is normal. We purchased beautiful ceramic bowls in the pattern similar to the tile found in the Blue Mosque, with tulip motifs (Did you know the Dutch stole the tulips from the Turks?), pashminas, and various Turkish spices and saffron. Rugs, tea, candy, jewelry, leather goods , ceramic and pashminas are the main staples here but you can find many other great buys as well. Of course you'll also see lots of Turkish Delight, the chewey nut filled sweet that is ubiquitous at the markets and handed out by smiling (and sometimes toothless) Turks to willing passers by.

Istanbul moves and surges with colors and smells, chaos and calm. It's this melange of cultures and the care Emre took to introduce us to his home that, for me, was the real delight of Turkey. We saw only the tip of the iceberg, I am sure, and I am anxious to see and taste more.

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