Oct 13, 2015

Turkish Diaries: Part 8

To read earlier parts click on the links: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6, Part 7

Following the immense success of the previous day, like a 12th standard student writing his public exams, I copied the exact same process. Just that it was pointless. Not very different from a 12th standard student writing his public exam.

All the key places that were left to visit were next door, barely 5-10 minutes’ walk for the extremely agile, 10-15 minutes’ walk for the senile and 20-30 minutes’ walk for zombies. We fell into the last bucket. Nevertheless, I wanted to check out a few other places as well and wrote them into the plan, even though it was not asked for.

Just like a 12th standard student writing his public exam.

THE PALACE MOSAIC MUSEUM

Following a breakfast which we were slowly getting to detest, we strode purposefully in the direction of Hagia Sophia which was supposed to be our first stop. This decision was primarily to avoid the crowds. But then we found out that there was a palace mosaic museum covered under the pass, and it happened to be on the way. So we (I) decided to make a small detour. I was met with fierce opposition on this, but then on channelling the inner Justice Katju, I made a strong case and won with flying coloured piglets.

It was beautiful to say the least. The mosaics were supposed to adorn the pavements of courts that were parts of the palace earlier. Although, we had already seen quite a lot of them at the Kariye museum, these were still astounding and the effort spent in recovering them is pretty impressive. We walked through the weird images - animal heads on top of human bodies, hunting scenes of both humans and animals, insignias that were extremely disturbing, amongst other half-baked imaginations.

We left the museum in half an hour.




THE HAGIA SOPHIA

The entrance was in a garden which was randomly scattered with Greco-Roman architecture and other assorted Ottoman sculptures. Our hopes fell a bit at this haphazard and evidently dispiriting arrangement. I already have had my share of experiencing monument farces at the Leaning Tower of Pisa. For god's sake, it is a mistake that somehow was not fatal. Something that would never happen in India, with all the engineers relying on B L Thereja. Even had it happened, at least here would be a scribbled engraving - Raj loves Kiran - somewhere, anywhere, on the wall that could act as a poor claim to fame.

Nopes. Nothing. A very disheartening building.

Coming back, we walked with a bit of trepidation.

But once we entered the hall, our minds were blasted into a million smithereens.

Totally.

Absolutely.

Entirely.

Totally.

Ok, MS word has run out of synonym suggestions.

The last time I had felt such a feeling - the feeling of a million goose pimples and awe was when I stepped into the Sistine Chapel. Not comparing the two, but this was just immense.

We took a calm and leisurely two hours, to completely explore Hagia Sophia from wall to wall.





THE TOPKAPI PALACE

We had seen the palace while we were landing in Istanbul and we already knew it was huge. The palace was supposed to be one of the best examples of the Ottoman construction, structure and culture. The palace is broadly split into four courtyards and the harem, which was housed separately.

The road to the palace was easily found - a throng that very closely resembled Ranganathan Street on a Sunday, populated the avenue to the Imperial Gate. We reached and meandered in. The palace WAS vast; the outside courtyard housing a solitary church that was under renovation to be a theatre of sorts - the Aya İrini (Hagia Irene) church. There was nothing great inside and we proceeded to the inner courtyards, through the imposing Gate of Salutation.

We ticked off the places as we passed by, each one increasingly terrifying in their grandeur and awe striking in their pomp - the kitchens, the Imperial Council, the stables, the Conqueror's pavilion, the Imperial Treasury; most of them, located within the second and the third courtyards.

The fourth courtyard that overlooked the sea was the best of the lot where there were many kiosks or pavilions - the Revan kiosk, the İftar kiosk, Baghdad kiosk and the Terrace kiosk. Each of them offered excellent views of the sea and the city ahead. The last one that we saw here was the Terrace kiosk mosque into which we entered and ascended to the top floor. The view was simply dazzling, the sun splashing jewels of light on the water below expanding away into the horizon.

An imperative photo-shoot followed.

We came out of the courtyard, went back to the entrance, and reached the Harem - the place where the ladies and the womenfolk of the court, had been accommodated. Special entrance fees were extracted from mortals. On a beauty scale from Johnny Lever to Deepika Padukone, the Harem was Sonakshi Sinha. All the mosaics and kiosks and rooms and wall calligraphies we had seen till now, could not hold a candle to the sun that was the Harem. It was lovingly maintained and preserved with every room inlaid with detailed paintings and decorations.

Our brains were still seeing mosaics as we left the palace a good two and a half hours later, down the west side of the hill.







THE ISTANBUL ARCHAELOGICAL MUSEUM

As we walked towards Gülhane Park, we noticed the Istanbul Archaeological museum tucked away on one side. The museum was under renovation but most of the artefacts there, were in mint condition. There were hieroglyphs, sarcophagi, coins, seals, medals, pieces of ruins collected from as far as Italy, busts that were enough to make you go number one in your underpants and statues upon statues upon statues, on display.

The artefacts were as old as 1200 BC and gave information on chunks of history littered across the different eras. They were neatly catalogued and it helped you not to get lost. If you have ample time to kill on a day, this place would be a nice visit. Following the museum, we also quickly popped into the ceramic museum that was directly opposite this. It was more of another kiosk; the Tiled Kiosk and housed some good ceramics. But it was less remarkable than the main museum.

TIP 1: These museums are often not visited that much. But they are very extraordinary and it would serve well to at least spend a few hours. It is loaded with history and memorabilia and very well maintained at that.







Our next stop was the Dolmabahce palace.

THE DOLMABAHÇE PALACE

It is the summer palace of the Turks. Once done with the palace, we hopped trams to go to, literally, the other end of Istanbul. We reached with the sun stinging our skin and messing with our moods. The entrance to the palace looked really great; apparently it was the first palace to be built on the European style.

For some reason, the idiots did not cover it within the pass and we were already done with our quota of harems and mosaics for the century. It does sound like the fox and the grapes story, doesn’t it? 

Well, no.

We took a couple of photos outside the place and boarded the tram to Taksim square.


THE TAKSIM SQUARE

It is just a city square called Taksim. It looks like any other European square with offshoots of streets branching away. There were at least ten of them. There was a very clichéd clock tower and a prominent dustbin.

But we found and did something awesome. Remember that old tram we saw the previous day? We took it!

It was very funny. The tram moved at the speed of a bicycle with one tyre punctured. The tram bell did not help its case. But that did not deter people from getting on to it. It went right through the crowded walkway we had walked just the day before. We decided to visit one last museum and stopped just before where it was located, to have a bite and then continue on our travails.



LUNCH

Lunch was, weirdly chicken, and not meat. I think we were suffering from a bout of too much meat, if that is possible. We went into a restaurant that offered plain Turkish dishes and ordered some sort of a Turkish chicken dish. It was just a slice of chicken breast with some mashed potato. It looked and tasted as much Turkish as medhu vadai.


THE GALATA MEVLEVI MUSEUM

This was officially our last museum in Turkey. Yes, it was the same one we had come to, the day before, and were shooed off. This time, we were early and went in. The museum had nothing major; a few notes on the history of the sect and how the artistes learn the whirling. There were several versions of the musical instruments, their evolution, ebru and calligraphies. Outside, there is a host of tomb stones of famous people from the Order, each of them filled with inscriptions.

It was interesting. But we were already tired because of something called the Stendhal syndrome.

TIP 2: Skip this.


THE BASILICA CISTERNS

We took the same route we took the previous day and reached Sultanahmet without much fanfare only to join the long queue to the Cisterns. The cisterns were again not covered under the pass and I was very adamant on wanting to go inside and discover.

That was the last duel I won with my wife. And the reason would come to light shortly.

As we waited, I went and bought a packet to chestnuts to munch. We have never tasted them before and they tasted queer, like mud flavoured peanuts. We did not take a liking to it.

At all.

Anyway, we coughed up the 10TL required and went in. The cisterns were stupendous. Again Turkey had dazzled us. The overall darkness because of eerie lighting arrangements, contributed to the sombre atmosphere.

On top of all this, there was this Medusa column that was highly frightening and hilariously positioned. Because it was on the floor. Also, for a few seconds I had confused the head of Medusa head with the one on my better half. But only for a few seconds. Nothing more.

We came out and then made our way to the next (only) item on my wife's list - the Grand Bazaar.



THE GRAND BAZAAR (cue: Sad music)

Oh well, here it comes. The decision I had made yesterday. The reason for losing any form of clout, I had garnered over the past 7 days. The one that was a cardinal sin. Well, it began on a wee morning, around 4 months back when we were booking tickets for Turkey. My wife made it abundantly clear that one of the main reasons, nay, the main reason she was coming to Turkey was to shop. She wanted to visit all possible shops and buy all sorts of things. It was a hobby that no husband need find a reason to question or doubt.

I understood and agreed. Throughout the trip, I had staved off shopping, citing two reasons.
  • We have to lug the shopping everywhere and find places to pack them safely
  • There is always Grand Bazaar to do the shopping at
And oh, did I mention that my wife was an expert and loved to haggle? Reading about the art of haggling at the Grand Bazaar, she was so much looking forward to the event when the gates would be thrown open and the opportunities at displaying her not-so-common art, unravel.

All that unravelled was my self-respect.

We hunted for the Grand Bazaar for a good hour and could not find the entrance. Discontinuing to rely on google maps, we discreetly inquired at a restaurant nearby and they said that the Grand Bazaar was closed for the day.

It was just 4:30 PM. It did not make sense.

And then, a little bit of googling revealed the gaping hole in our (my) plan. The Bazaar was shut in the second half of the day and only on that particular day – a Sunday. Additionally, we had a flight in the afternoon, next day. There was no way, we were going to shop.

Waves stopped crashing. The wind stopped blowing. Mating seagulls halted mating in mid-air. The chestnut vendor froze in the act of vending chestnuts. Everything came to a wavering standstill. I waited for the eruption.

And then she erupted.

The lesser I say about it the better. But it got over soon, I was none the worse; maybe slightly burnt in several places due to the relentless volcanic lava of castigation. I tried to make amends by planning to somehow squeeze it the next day in the morning before we left for the airport. In preparation, I figured out the tram station, the exact entrance that will offer a straight entry into the heart of Grand Bazaar and even the way out.

We walked back to the hotel from the bazaar, pensive. I needed a distraction and some peace.

TIP 3: Do confirm Grand Bazaar timings and plan accordingly. Unless you are not the shopping kind of chap; like me. You are probably handsome too. Like me.

THE HAMAM

One of the must-dos in any Turkey tourist guide, we decided to get one done. I mean, I decided to get one done. My wife was sceptical and even I was not very sure. But then, I reflected with great exertion, what can go wrong?

So, a Hamam is essentially a steam bath spa. Several of these are located in and around Sultanahmet itself. We chose one that was well recommended, very ancient and was relatively clean - The Çemberlitaş Hamamı. Also, it was a boulder’s throw away from the Grand Bazaar entrance and we probably stumbled by it.

There are packages within them as well - a basic self-service Hamam that had you doing everything by yourself, a Hamam with a massage and a bath, a Hamam with a foot massage included etc. I chose the plain package and ventured. This was not the first time I was stepping into a mysterious closed area with half naked people *wink wink*.

Ok, I meant a swimming pool. Gawd, what’s wrong with you guys?

I was given a towel, a soap, a peştemal (a checked lungi torn in half) and sandals (basically, Bata slippers). I went into the cabin on the first floor. The cabin was a small, 10x4 room with a bed on one side and a small plastic pillow. There was a mirror inside and a coat hanger. The room itself was not so private, it was glassed on three sides and walled on one side, alone. And then I went clueless on what to do.

Well, God saved me. Or rather Wi-Fi saved me.

I connected without further ado and read on what to do.

Armed with the power of the internet, I proceeded to do each of them in sequential steps.

So first, you need to have a bath. I undressed (girls reading this can close their eyes if necessary; the simple thought of this statement might give you offspring). I tied the peştemal around me and locked the cabin behind me. There were several attendants to direct you in case you really do not know what to do/where to go. I went into the showers and had a good shower, cleaning out all the grime and mud from the skin.

Next, I went into the main dome. Remember the hamam pic from the first post? Well, I know you don't. The inside of the dome had small alcoves with huge sinks and taps all around that dispensed both hot and cold water. I was given a battered steel vessel (something like the ones prisoners use to eat from) to ladle the water over me.

The second I entered the dome, I immediately started sweating. And this I realized, was what the Hamam was all about. I sweated and sweated and sweated. When it became slightly uncomfortable, I went to one of the taps, sluiced a vessel full of water over me and then again went back to the central raised marble floor (göbektaşı), to lie down once again. The battered prisoner vessel served as a good pillow. I could see my future becoming all hazy, vague and foggy.

I forgot that I still wearing my spectacles and took them off.

I slept off for some time, sweating away.

I woke up and then repeated the same thing again.

Officially, there is no specific time before which you have to leave. It is not an Andhra mess. From what I read, people stay on as long as 7 hours. I spent just 2 hours and was done with it. The alternate sweating, cold water bath and sweating, made me actually feel incredibly fresh. Now, the third thing to do is to take a nap.

I went back to the cabin, towelled cleanly (with another one that they gave) and laid down for some time. I promptly slept off, relaxed and peaceful. I awoke to my wife calling me and then went down. I had a cup of tea, on the house, and waited until she paid and then we left.
My wife slyly remarked that I have become several shades lighter. 

I took it as a compliment and a form of apology for the outburst.



*ok, the second photo is not me. You are not allowed to take pics inside the hamam. But more or less, this is exactly how it was.

SNACKS AND DINNER

On the way back, I was explaining her what happened at the bathhouse. Unsure about any form of shopping, we did some small ones near the tram station next to the entrance itself. It included a few evil eye pieces of 3 sizes, a huge amount of baklava and lots of Turkish tea. The place where we bought the baklava is one of the best in Turkey and it was delicious. Yes, obviously we tasted before buying. Turkish delight, we discovered to our chagrin, was not so delightful after all.


We walked on and came across this place that sold the famed Turkish street food - kumpir. A kumpir is nothing but a jacket potato loaded with all sorts of goodies starting from veggies to meat, custom made. Something like a subway sandwich. We ordered one and devoured it, sitting on one of the benches near the tram station. It was delicious and rather filling.

We went back to the hotel, dumped our shopping and rested for a while before we stepped out for dinner.

Dinner was a sordid affair at one of the restaurants near our hotel. The Grand Bazaar episode was still rankling with us and we were sure our shopping had gone for a full toss straight back to the bowler. We munched into our last dinner at Turkey, which was again full of meat and disappointment.

Packing was nearly done. Our last night in Turkey was spent strolling about the by-roads around the park, I had mentioned earlier.

I did not want it to end like this.

And it did not.

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