Day 24: A scrub and a peel
Istanbul Travel Blog› entry 33 of 260 › view all entries
April 29th, 2010 – by: Biedjee
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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