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Istanbul – 10/12- 21/12 – Fish, boats, Mosques and sexy pants

January 26, 2011
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And so begins 10 days spent trying to find a kebab to emulate those we have become so used to in Stoke Newington, sight seeing, gourmet dinners, Hamsi (anchovies) by Galata bridge, Raki (Turkish anaseed liquor) & Whiskey, changing accommodation 5 times, surprise airport welcomes, ferries and various other treats. Here are some of the highlights:

Hagia Sophia & Sultan Ahmet mosques – Its difficult to miss the grandeur of these two buildings in the Sultan Ahmet (or Sultana helmet as it became known) district of Istanbul they also provided a handy landmark when returning to the hotel. Using the Dorling Kingsly guide books to give us a bit of knowledge assistance, the best way to experience was to simply sit on the carpet and soak up the atmosphere of the buildings. On one visit Harry and Sash we’re invited to join the afternoon prayers and stood line astern attempting to follow the prayer moves of the masses- A spiritual experience and one which coincided with Harry buying a copy of the Koran.

Hamman (Turkish bath) – Fresh from our bath experience in Budapest all parties we’re keen to sample Istanbul’s offering, although with the promise of being pummelled into a pulp by a hairy Turk on a hot stone, we entered with a degree of trepidation. Separate sex sections meant Alex, Emily and Barbara got a chance to get to know each other well and Stevie, Sash and I equally so. Entering the main room in a loin cloth the air thick with moist heat and the sound of a man being slapped and contorted into all manner of directions. Barbara was the only brave individual to take the ‘massage’ option the rest of us lounged on our respective hot stones asweated out all the impurities before dousing ourselves with buckets cool water. In hindsight i think we should have all plucked up the courage and followed Barbaras lead because as enjoyable as the hot stone was it felt like we missed out on the full experience.

Galata bridge, ferries and fish – I’d heard alot about Galata bridge which spans the golden horn of Istanbul and is a hub of local fishing activity. Day and night the length of the bridge is populated by fishermen catching small Hamsi (anchovies), their lines drape down into the water right past the tourist restaurants which sit on the underside of the structure. Each persons catch is proudly displayed the tub which sits behind them and the men drink tea, stoke small fires and talk or watch the water in solitude. Ferry rides between the Asian and the European sides of Istanbul we’re an almost daily occurrence and gave a new perspective of city. This was the first time we’d seen a large mass of water since boarding the ferry on a dark night in Harwich some 3 months ago, so this was a special time for us. Once we’d worked out the system of buying small golden tokens and timings, this local form of public transport, which in comparative terms would be getting the 79 bus in London, added a new dimension to our experience of Istanbul.

The water brought a whole host of culinary treats to munch on whilst absorbing the city. Of particular note were the grilled fish sandwiches sold at most corners on portable vending barbeques. Fresh fish caught that day was served with onion salad and a squeeze of lemon in a baguette, and provided a healthier alternative to kebabs. One of my absolute highlights was sitting in a small cafe in the fish market by Galata bridge with Alex, surrounded by the hubbub of market traders regaling their catches of the day, quick deals for bags of shimmering contents and the ground covered with water used to douse the fish to keep them fresh. We sipped tea from our glasses ate deep fried hamsi and watched the various interactions and goings on, superb!

A Julian post wouldn’t be complete without a full run down of the days dining experiences and so 10 days had a wealth which i’ll retell to you all now. As i’ve noted we were keen to sample some of Turkeys best kebabs and after days of searching out i have to admit it was a little disappointing. We had a few decent ones in the Sirkeci area and stumbled upon a vegetarian substitute which turned out to be really tasty near to the Grand bazaar but overall they didnt rival The Best Turkish in Stokey. Lamachun (Turkish thin pizza with mince) and Boreki (pastry filled with potato, meat or cheese) were our staples of the visit.

We stumbled on a very local workers cafe in Sirkeci that would serve a plate of boreki and tea for about 2 quid so as you can imagine we frequented this fairly often. Further into our time in Istanbul we we’re recommended a canteen called ‘Balkan’which served plates of rice and various stews for minimal money and became our local dinner haunt, much to the displeasure of the competing restaurant across the street.

On a more exclusive excursion we we’re treated to a fantastic meal by Barbara and Stevie in ‘360 degree’ restaurant. After a long elevator ride we we’re met with a breathtaking view of the city, the glimmering lights stretching out beneath us as we dined on fine Turkish cuisine in absolute luxury. After the meal and feeling full on double chocolate cake we all went out onto the balcony and admired the city and the sculptures made from empty bottles of Absolut.

The Grand bazaar offered a wealth of sensory experiences each separate due to the segregation of market into different areas for different products – The huge quantity of herbs, spices and teas on offer created a rich palette of intense colour, each aroma would sift up your nose and combine in a heady concoction. In one section the Turkish coffee was being ground by men in long brown jackets and sold by the kilogram in paper bags, next to that Emily picked up a mixed bag of dried fruits. Further out the bazaar, still segregated, seem to provide more day to day fare, pots and pans, lighters, fruit and veg and even an underwear. Watching women in full head dress shopping for skimpy red lace underwear was certainly an eye opener!

I’ve only touched on a wealth of experiences and good times we had in Istanbul. Having everyone there including some good friends we’d made on the road and the UK faction made our celebration of the crossing the frontier from Europe to Asia all the more enjoyable.

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