Day 24: A scrub and a peel

Istanbul Travel Blog

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spices at the spice bazaar
People I met here and/or traveled with: Derk & Ed (Netherlands)

As the weather forecast was particularly good for today, and clouds were expected tomorrow, we had planned to do a boat trip up the Bosphorus today. However, as we had quite a late start (you know, this being a holiday and all) and I had some personal errands to do first (buy a bus ticket to my next destination for Sunday) we arrived at the Eminönü docks too late in the day to do the trip. Instead we figured we'd be better off visiting the Topkapı palace and surrounding sights today.

First stop was the spice bazaar. Whereas the Grand Bazaar is now strictly a tourist trap, the spice bazaar is still visited by more locals than tourists on a daily basis. While the two covered streets seem to cater primarily for tourists, the sprawling streets behind the bazaar is the place where locals still do their daily fruit, cheese and meat shopping, as well as the obligatory T-shirts and jeans.
Derk getting an unwanted mandatory shoe shine


On our way to the Topkapı palace we nearly fell for a very original shoe-shine scam. As we were walking down the pavement, a shoe polisher walking in opposite direction dropped one of his brushes. Honourable men as we are, we pointed this out to him and he thanked us with a dozen thank you's and just as many handshakes. In return to our kindness he offered to polish our shoes. Free of charge, he said, “no money”. Since refusal is considered an insult in this culture, we let him, though none of us were surprised that afterwards he demanded payment anyway. We had to disappoint him. We are honourable men too and when someone says something is free of charge, we will honour that agreement. Not too sure he liked us after that. We advised him to work on his act a little more (it had been a good one after all) and walked on.
tea with a view


The palace is surrounded by the popular Gülhane park, where we had a nice, though seriously overpriced tea in a tea-garden with views to die for over the Bosphorus and Golden Horn. The lokum, or Turkish Delight, we had bought at the spice bazaar accompanied the tea perfectly.

The Topkapı palace is the old residence of the former rulers of the Ottoman empire, with illustrious names like Mehmet the Conqueror, Selim the Sot (who drowned in the bath after drinking too much champagne), Ibrahim the Mad (who went crazy after being imprisoned up in the palace's cages for four years) and of course Süleyman the Magnificent.

It was built by Mehmet the Conqueror, after he had captured Constantinople from the Byzantines, which spelled the end of the Roman empire and the start of the Ottoman.
in front of the Felicity gate
The original Roman city walls were used as fortifications of the palace and are still left standing to this day.
Inside the walls the palace is a collection of pavilions, barracks, gathering halls and private quarters. The entrance tickets we had bought allowed us entrance to the four courts of the palace, but its most impressive section, the harem, required another entrance fee. It is a bit of a double edged sword this, on one hand I hate it that you have to buy a second entrance ticket to see the highlight of an attraction, but at the same time this practice keeps the big groups away, making sightseeing in the harem a far more enjoyable experience. And the extensive quarters are definitely worth the extra dough.

By law a sultan could only have four wives, but they generally had hundreds of concubines living in the harem.
inside the harem
These concubines were the most beautiful girls coming from the far corners of the Ottoman empire. And while these girls were essentially sex slaves, they could gain high political status if they'd bore the sultan a heir to the throne. And these boys would grow up in the harem, being prepared for the sultanate by the concubines and the eunuch servants. There are worse places to grow up, me thinks.
That said, as the Ottoman dynasty did not give right to the throne to the first-born son, many deadly struggles between the brothers and half-brothers occurred. One even went as far as murdering his entire family before gently coercing his Sultan father into an early retirement.

After the majestic harem quarters the rest of the palace was a bit of a disappointment. Many sections were closed for restoration (damn that Cultural Capital of the year rubbish) and many of the smaller rooms were turned into museums with expositions of varying degrees of interest.
view over the Bosphorus from the terrace mosque
One of the most interesting (and bizarre) expositions was in the Safekeeping Room, were several sacrilegious artefacts are on display, including a footprint of Muhammed and the headgear worn by Abraham. Since Muslim religions forbids the worshipping of depictions of living beings, I always find it interesting how they resort to worshipping artefacts which may or may not have been owned by biblical characters instead. When I was in Damascus three years ago I visited the tomb of John the Baptist. Well, his body may be in Damascus, his right arm is actually on display in the Topkapı palace in Istanbul!

We finished our afternoon back at the Galata bridge, with a few beers, some snacks, an obligatory nargileh and an absolutely stunning sunset over the Golden Horn and Istanbul skyline.
Sunset over Istanbul


Another quintessential Turkish experience is a visit to a hamam, a traditional bath house. Derk and I had visited one in Damascus and wholly enjoyed the experience, so we decided to introduce Ed to this as well. Part of the fun is visiting a historic hamam, so we opted for the Çemberlitaş hamam, which has been doing business since the 16th century.

It was an utter disappointment. Its popularity with tourists means that the place is virtually out of bounds for Turks. At 55 TL for a bath and a soap massage this is serious money, and it wouldn't have been so bad were it not for the fact that the whole experience felt extremely rushed and the masseurs had the guts to dare to ask for tips even. And it was just a sauna, a scrub, wash, a quick massage and shower that we were rushed through within 20 minutes, whereas in Damascus we had spent hours in a hamam which had included a steam room (called a Turkish sauna, mind!) and unlimited çay for less than a tenth of the price!
What made matters worse was that we shared the hamam with a large group of very noisy French students, which made relaxing virtually impossible.
enjoying a sunset drink and smoke


I have to say, the Turkish massage was an interesting experience though. Not sure if getting your shoulders, neck and ribcage cracked is particularly healthy for you and it was quite a scary getting my neck mangled by someone strong enough to snap it like a twig. Three weeks of lugging a heavy backpack around had made me quite stiff, and my masseur knew to find the painful spots in my shoulders perfectly. Yet all his massage did was make it more sore. I didn't feel all that much better afterwards.
So my top tip for visiting a hamam: don't do it in Istanbul. Perhaps you shouldn't do it in Turkey, even.

As we'd had quite a few snacks while sitting under the Galata bridge, we opted for a simple kebab for dinner. The second mistake we made that day. Most of the small kebab shops close early in the evening, and the one we ended up at was already closing down, but the owner lured us in with promising stories anyway.
scrubbed and peeled and washed and kneaded, but not feeling all that refreshed
His chef did not appreciate this and didn't agree with his boss forcing him to prepare our kebabs in the microwave as the grill had already been switched off. We didn't agree to this tasteless preparation method either, which resulted in quite a heavy argument between the owner and the chef right in front of our eyes. The chef apologised for the poor and tasteless food to us, which infuriated his boss even more. We made sure we made the hell out of there as soon as we had filled our bellies and we bought some takeaway baklava for desert at a place near our hotel.

All in all it had been a great day, but the misguided evening program had put a bit of a damper on it. Fortunately this turned out to be the only bad experience we had in Istanbul.

(You can also read Ed's Blog here)
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spices at the spice bazaar
spices at the spice bazaar
Derk getting an unwanted mandatory…
Derk getting an unwanted mandator…
tea with a view
tea with a view
in front of the Felicity gate
in front of the Felicity gate
inside the harem
inside the harem
view over the Bosphorus from the t…
view over the Bosphorus from the …
Sunset over Istanbul
Sunset over Istanbul
enjoying a sunset drink and smoke
enjoying a sunset drink and smoke
scrubbed and peeled and washed and…
scrubbed and peeled and washed an…
tip for future visitors to Istanbu…
tip for future visitors to Istanb…
view of Galata, with the Galata br…
view of Galata, with the Galata b…
having some post-breakfast, pre-lu…
having some post-breakfast, pre-l…
Yeni Camii
Yeni Camii
stack of nougat, guaranteed to sat…
stack of nougat, guaranteed to sa…
spices at the spice bazaar
spices at the spice bazaar
spices at the spice bazaar
spices at the spice bazaar
the spice bazaar
the spice bazaar
spices at the spice bazaar
spices at the spice bazaar
the streets beyond the spice bazaar
the streets beyond the spice bazaar
fruit stall at the bazaar behind t…
fruit stall at the bazaar behind …
Turkish delight!
Turkish delight!
met at the spice bazaar
met at the spice bazaar
Trying to sneak some candid shots …
Trying to sneak some candid shots…
shopping for Turkish delight
shopping for Turkish delight
Yeni camii
Yeni camii
The Orient Express - while I didn…
The Orient Express - while I didn…
trying to take a shortcut past the…
trying to take a shortcut past th…
interesting pedestrian crossing - …
interesting pedestrian crossing -…
view over the bosphorus
view over the bosphorus
interesting tea pot construction. …
interesting tea pot construction.…
view from the Topkapi palace
view from the Topkapi palace
entering the palace
entering the palace
Ze Attack of Ze Touriztz
Harem - concubines not included!
Harem - concubines not included!
inside the harem
inside the harem
inside the harem
inside the harem
Derk admiring the rooms in the har…
Derk admiring the rooms in the ha…
Sultanate bathrooms
Sultanate bathrooms
decorated walls in the harem
decorated walls in the harem
taking a little break
taking a little break
inside the palace
inside the palace
view over Galata from the Topkapi …
view over Galata from the Topkapi…
*yikes!*
*yikes!*
The blue mosque - a closer look wo…
The blue mosque - a closer look w…
I love the smell of nargileh at su…
I love the smell of nargileh at s…
I guess this is why they call it b…
I guess this is why they call it …
Ed and me enjoying our nargileh
Ed and me enjoying our nargileh
Sunset over Istanbul
Sunset over Istanbul
Sunset over Istanbul
Sunset over Istanbul
hard at work capturing the previou…
hard at work capturing the previo…
Sunset over Istanbul
Sunset over Istanbul
Süleymaniye camii
Süleymaniye camii
the binoculars calling it a day
the binoculars calling it a day
Istanbul
photo by: Memo