Saturday, April 30, 2011

Chilling out in Istanbul

The Turkish call it "Keyif,'' the quiet art of relaxation. All that's needed is a little tulip-shaped glass of tea, a newspaper, a nargile (waterpipe or hooka) and a cay bahcesi or tea garden such as the one above. There are dozens of these tucked away into alleys off busy streets in Istanbul. Even though we' have only a day and a half here at the start of our trip, we've managed to visit several. We don't smoke, but I love thhe smell of the sweet, apple-scented tobacco.

Our favorite was the little family-run Anemas Cay Bahcesi built over the recently excavated ruins of an ancient dungeon near the Chora Church, a Byzantine church in the 11th century, later a mosque, now a museum showcasing a spectacular collection of mosaics that were plastered over during Ottoman times, and rediscovered in the 1940s.

After visiting the church, we followed a RIck Steves walking tour back to town, and passed by the Anemas on Friday, about a half-hour before the Royal Wedding was set to begin. Turns out they had a T.V., so we settled in at one of the little, low tables for tea and gozleme, thin, crepe-like pancakes filled with cheese or potatoes. The grandmother making them in the kitchen and everyone else stopped work to watch the wedding ceremony. It was an unexpected and fun shared respite in a day where we were trying to pack in as much as possible.

More Keyif

Turks were practicing the art of relaxing in a "third place'' long before Starbucks came along, but now there are plenty of those too. It's been five years since we've been to Istanbul, and there have been many changes. Public transportation, always good and cheap but not always efficient, is much improved. Instead of taking the bus from the Chora Church back to our hotel in Sultanahmet, we walked to a dock,  and hopped aboard one of the speedy ferries that work like water buses, taking people from the European side of Istanbul to the Asian side, and back and forth across the Golden Horn, connecting the old city with modern Istanbul.

A taxi ride from the airport is $20, but we used light rail and the tramway to get to our hotel for a total fare of about $2.20 each. Below is the little old-fashioned trolley that trundles along the Istaklal Cadessi, an otherwise pedestrian 19th century shopping street in the new city, mostly lined today with shopping malls and chain stores.

Sultanahmet (named for Sultan Ahmet who built the Blue Mosque in the 1600s) is the oldest part of Istanbul, and although it's full of tourists, we still like staying here  at the Side Hotel, a budget hotel across from the Four Seasons, that we discovered on our first trip to Turkey 10 years ago. Most of the restaurants in this area are tourist traps, so it's  wise to eat elsewhere, but for atmosphere, there's just no better location. All the major sites- the Blue Mosque, Haghia Sofya, Topkapi Palace-are here, and it's exciting to be able to step out the door in the evening and wander around, listening to the call to prayer or popping into the lighted parks and courtyards. Last evening, we passed by the Basilica Cistern, and discovered a violin concert going on in the underground cafe. The cistern was closed for tours for the day,  but the concert was free.

One downside of staying in Sultanahmet was always the constant pestering by aggressive carpet salesmen. For some reason, they've all but disappeared. Maybe it's the economy, or it could be that we're here ahead of the main summer tourist season, but we have seen or heard from very few. I kind of miss them.

That's not say there aren't touts with talents for picking up a few extra lira from unsuspecting tourists. This picture of levitating ice cream cost us more than it should have. Of course, We should have known better than to not ask the price before ordering, but Turkish ice cream has a texture like taffy, and buying a cone usually comes with a pretty good show.


  1. Your Istanbul photos brought back wonderful memories of our time there last year. The trolley in particular ended up in many of my photos. Hopefully if you were that close, you dropped in to explore The Pera Perla - hopefully I remembered that right -- the wonderfully restored hotel that was a favorite of Agatha Christie. Keep the posts coming!

  2. Love the photos and stories. They make me want to visit Istanbul again! I think I stayed at the Side in 1998 based on your recommendation and I loved the ambiance and the location. Happy Travels!