Well, so how’s Istanbul? Our intrepid traveler has some thoughts.

Istanbul has long been at the top of my list of places I’ve wanted to see. The Bosphorus Strait, which bisects the city, also serves as the dividing line between Europe and Asia.

bosphoros

Ships ply the Bosphorous. Across the strait is Asia.

That seems interesting. The city has been the capital of both the Roman and Ottoman empires. Must be important. These days, it is overwhelmingly Muslim, and you can count on the call to prayer at 5:00 am or so to wake you up unless you’re a very heavy sleeper or you’ve remembered to put in your earplugs. At the same time, you can easily get a drink. It seems that you see just as many women in jeans as headscarves. What’s going on here? I’ve always wanted to know. For my entire adulthood, I have wanted to experience this amazing stewpot of history and culture.

There are three buildings that everyone associates with Istanbul, and for good reason.

The Hagia Sophia is maybe the most famous of the three.

Inside the Hagia Sophia.

Inside the Hagia Sophia.

It began its life as a church, was converted into a mosque, and is now a museum. It was built in less than six years by 10,000 men, many of whom, I suspect, would have preferred to do something else.

The Blue Mosque is an extraordinary artistic and architectural achievement, and welcomes millions of visitors of all faiths every year while clearing the place out several times a day so the observant can pray.

Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque

The Topkapi Palace reminds you that until the early twentieth century, a sultan ran an empire right here, complete with a harem full of eunuchs and concubines, among other anachronisms.

These three important structures are within five hundred meters of each other.

How can you not be fascinated by a culture such as this? On the other hand, is it possible to meet such outsized expectations?

Well, probably not.

In between all the history and all the east-meets-westyness, Istanbul is an onslaught of sales without marketing.

Walking down the Grand Bazaar helps me understand what a cocktail waitress at the Tailhook Convention must have felt like.Or maybe a nice Midwestern kid off straight off the bus at the Port Authority. Janine and I have a running joke about the shopkeepers who venture out into the street inviting you back to their shop, just to look. “C’mon, honey, let’s go back to my place. We’re just gonna talk.”

I have written in the past about the sheer terror that a tourist feels when trying to buy something in Morocco. Well, if Turkey’s not any worse in this regard, it’s certainly not any better.

There are thousands of carpet shops in Istanbul, and I would be willing to wager that if you ask about the price of ANY carpet in ANY one of these shops, you will be quoted a price that is outlandish and obscene. This is exhausting. If you ask me, if Istanbul wants to become a truly great city, it has to cut this out. It has to treat its visitors like guests, not marks.

On the other hand, if you are lucky and intrepid (and my dear wife is both) you can find stuff that is unusual and maybe even unique, and you won’t have to sell a kidney to pay for it. For example, Janine, who has made pilgrimages to flea markets in Rome, Athens, and now Istanbul, found a seven story market called the Horhor antique flea market in which we succeeded where many others fail. Mind you, we had to take a tram out of the city center and then stumble our way through a nondescript semi-residential neighborhood in the rain to find the place. Once we arrived, we discovered that we were the only customers in the place. In Istanbul! On the fifth floor, amid a graveyard of lamp parts and other detritus, we settled on an old Turkish lamp that will assume a prominent place in our apartment, if we can figure out a way to get it home.

IMG_2363

Our Horhor lamp. (The blue one)

We didn’t buy a lamp, we bought a chapter out of Homer and a story for the poor sap who looks up at the lamp back home and says, “That’s nice. Where did you get it?

Next time: We meet some of the archetypes of Turkey – let’s call them the Turquetypes.

Have you ever been to a Turkish bath? Yup.

How do you visit Turkey and not go to the Turkish bath? Well, I suspect lots of people manage, but they would be missing out on the opportunity to strip naked and be ordered around by a man in a loincloth for a couple of hours.

The brochure for the Çemberlitaş Hamami says that the bath was commissioned in 1584 by the wife of Sultan Selim II. There are gauzy photos of bath salts, soaps on ropes, and beautiful people (mostly women) reclining with beatific expressions wearing strategically draped coverings.

2 hammam

The hammam beckons…

How could you resist the sheer, unctuous ecstasy of a five hundred thirty year old Turkish bath built by a sultan’s wife? I couldn’t. Not to mention the history. I yearned to lie on the very marble reclined upon by sultans and such.

I was all in. Besides, travel is terrible on your body. You sleep on weird beds with all sorts of crazy pillows. The one I’m using now has the size and texture of an anvil. Then there’s all that lugging of luggage and the airplane rides and the walking and schlepping and such. Sometimes you just need to recline on a five hundred thirty year old piece of marble, sweat out the stress of the day, and be massaged back to wholeness. Besides, according to the brochure, a visit to a traditional Turkish bath even “increases the happiness hormone.” Yes! That’s what I need! I’m a most happy fella, but I’ll always sign up to increase that hormone.

Janine agreed. She wanted more happiness hormone too.

Better still, it was a chilly, drizzly day in Istanbul – perfect for a bath.

We descended the stairs into the hammami and were greeted by a woman who handed us small cardboard boxes with scrubbing mitts inside. Janine also received a pair of black underpants. We were then sent to our respective sections. The lounging ladies with shimmering skin and faraway eyes go to the right. The chiseled gents with the six pack abs, strong jaws, and good haircuts go to the left.

Upon entry to the men’s section, I was immediately struck by the lack of soaps on ropes. There was also no piped in strains of Enya or seashore to calm my frazzled nerves. I was beginning to get the feeling that this experience would not involve essential oils either.

Nope, I was sent upstairs to remove my clothes and wrap a little cloth around my waist. I spent a little time experimenting with different ways to make sure that the cloth would stay in place, because to get to the men’s hammam, you have to walk back through the lobby. I sucked in my gut as best I could and made my break for the men’s spa.

Once inside, a fellow gestured toward the shower, and I dutifully performed my ablutions. After that, I joined the group of well-fed gentlemen who were laid out in the center of the room like tunas at a fish market. The hammam is an impressive room. There’s a massive round marble slab in the middle and a high domed ceiling with tiny windows letting in a bit of light. I could be in the sixteenth century except for a single bare lightbulb that hung down from to top of the dome. It’s pretty wet in here and it’s just a regular light bulb with no weatherproofing or anything, I thought. How could that be legal?

Oh, and what’s that I smell? After consulting my mental olfactory catalogue, I determined that the room smelled vaguely of pee. Five hundred and thirty years of it, I guessed. If this is aromatherapy, I’ll pass.

I reclined on the slab for a few minutes more, pondering the light bulb and the pee when a felt a tug on my toe. I looked up to find a fellow with a weird glint in his eye clad only in a cotton sarong gesturing for me to follow him. All of a sudden I wondered if I was part of some Stanford-funded psychological experiment. If you take a man’s clothes and put him in a strange setting and then have some wild-eyed Turk tug on his toe, will he acquiesce like a docile lamb? Yep.

The fellow led me to another part of the room and says, “lay down.” I did, of course.

My Turkish friend then took the scrubbing mitt I was issued when I arrived, which I had been carrying around like a baby blanket, and used some kind of abrasive matter to remove a thin layer of skin from most of my body. When he finished with one part of me he barked another command. “Turn over,” “sit up,” “lay down.” It was like Turkish Simon Sez.

I couldn’t decide if I was in a Turkish bath or a Turkish prison.

Then he attempted to break the tension with a little conversation. “Where from?”

“America,” I offered. He grunted. That was it. The small talk was over. I decided that he was collecting demographic information for a study.

When the scrubbing subsided, he ordered me to sit back up, at which point he began dumping water over my head. Then he commanded me to lay down again, and I decided that I was simply in puppy training class.

I closed my eyes and pondered my life for a moment, when I felt a whispy, soft cloud of something that felt like powder puffs or cotton candy. I cracked one eye open to see that I was now covered in big, fluffy clouds of soapy froth. I don’t know if they have the world’s largest kitchenaid in the next room, but my buddy has produced a soft, luxurious lather. He lathered me up this way and that. I must say it was kind of nice.

That's not me, but it might as well be. But you get the picture.

That might as well be me. Foamy, frothy fun.

Before I could enjoy myself too much, I was ordered to sit up again and my friend began throwing buckets of water at me like I was on fire.

There was a brief lull. Part one, it seemed, was over. My attendant had one more bit of communicating to do, however. He began making a series of intimidating gestures that made me understand that if I would ever be allowed to retrieve my clothes that he would appreciate a tip. Those gestures included pointing at me, rubbing his fingers together, pointing at his eyes and mine, which is a joke in the rest of the world, but clearly not here, and then pointing to the only other thing he was wearing, a little plastic tag with the number ten on it. Got it. Give money to Mr. Ten because he’s watching me.

When this little exchange ended, he pointed back to the slab and said “lay down,” which I did, of course. I guess the point is to break the customer down before you build him back up, like the army or the New York public schools of my youth. The effort has succeeded. I have been broken like a fresh recruit at West Point.

A few minutes later, there was another tug on my big toe, and a slightly denser, older fellow, Mr. Thirty Two, who was also only wearing a sarong (Janine reported that the masseuses wear black bikini tops and bottoms), led me into a room full of massage tables that looked more or less like the McDonald’s of massageries. I guess you could call it an actual sweat shop!

Mister Thirty Two was a little less guttural than his colleague. The conversation was familiar, though. “Where from?” “California,” I said. “San Francisco!” he replied. How did he know?

Mister Thirty Two rubbed me with oil this way and that, keeping a respectful distance from my personal effects. I appreciated that. After half an hour or so I was released to the shower. As I was showering, some guy started banging on the shower stall shouting “Hallo! Hallo! Woman!” This one had me stumped. Was he calling me a woman? Was he telling me that there’s a woman in the shower? I opened the shower and he pointed toward the lobby. “Woman.” Ah, I think he was telling me that Janine was waiting for me in the lobby. I peered out into the lobby. There were a number of European looking women, but none that I recognized. “Not my woman,” I told the fellow, and retreated to the marble slab for a final round of basting.

I don’t know if my happiness hormone had been increased, but after all that, I must admit that I was feeling pretty good.

There is something profoundly intimidating about being ordered around, nearly naked, by a series of guttural, minimally dressed and even more minimally communicative Turkish men, but as I emerged into the Istanbul evening cleaner, shinier, minus a small amount of dermis, I smiled. The folks back home will enjoy this one, I thought.

I Heart Athens! Who knew?

Raise your hand if you’re a big fan of Athens. I know, right? It’s hot, it’s noisy, and as Yogi Berra probably didn’t say, nobody goes there anymore because it’s too crowded.

Well, the hip, happening bars are crowded, that’s for sure. And so are the very good restaurants. It’s crowded in a good way. Now that summer’s over, the only tourists here are the childless and the Dutch.

I’m not entirely sure why we’re here in the first place. Janine always wanted to go to Greece, but she really wanted to go to the islands. Having decided that beach season is over, we plugged Athens in for a week anyway, just because.

We have been delighted by the warm reception. After Greece’s brush with economic death, Athens feels like that girl who has finally been asked to dance and she responds with, well, let’s call it enthusiasm. People have been friendly and welcoming. I have to confess that by contrast more than a few Italians seemed like they were doing their best impersonation of Parisians.

We arrived with no expectations whatever. Would we be able to communicate? In most of Europe we seem to be able to get by just fine, but Greek is, well, Greek.

What looks good to you, honey?

What looks good to you, honey?

We needn’t have worried. Pretty much everybody in this part of town speaks English better than we do. I had assumed that we would like the food, but I didn’t realize how much. Greeks know how to eat (although they’re not sure when).

Our Greek arrival party started ominously, when a dour woman answered the door to the apartment we rented. The apartment is right off Monastiraki Square, which is not as touristy as Plaka (which boasts pedestrian alleys all selling the same I Heart Greece t-shirts), but more conventional than Gazi, where you find the techno clubs and gay bars.

Athens!

Athens!

Our landlady Valentina, a serious woman in her fifties, started to warm up as she pulled out a map and gave us the lay of the land, telling us where to go and what to do. She also wanted to make sure we felt safe. “In Athens, you don’t worry from nothing,” she reassured us, although she reminded us to leave our passports in the room. Trust everyone, but cut the cards, as the saying goes. Why does every city think it has the best pickpockets?

Often, the first night in town sets the tone for the visit. For us, it’s the most unstructured time of the trip. I usually haven’t found the out of the way restaurant in the hip neighborhood yet (more on THAT later). Most of the time, you just want to get your bearings and find something to eat. Sometimes this results in the lousiest, most touristy thing you do. Other times, you hit paydirt. On our first night, we made a trip to the supermarket, and then started wandering in search of a meal. At first, the pickings were looking kind of slim. We were in a fairly commercial part of town and nothing was open. Then, all of a sudden we found ourselves on this charming plaza full of restaurants and cafes in which happy, hip young people were tucking into plates of fish and meat and bowls of other stuff. Things were looking up. We approached one of the restaurants, called Melilotos, and were greeted by a fellow who seemed genuinely happy to see us. I wanted to hug the menu. Everything looked good. We settled on a very fresh salad and a roasted boneless chicken leg coated with some nifty blend of Greeky spices and stuffed with greens and just a bit of greek cheese. For four euros, we had a half a liter of a light, fresh, white that was everything I love about Mediterranean wine. I think the whole thing was thirty bucks. This was a very good start.

On our first full day in town we did one of the most touristy things you can do – we hopped aboard the hop on, hop off bus. I actually like these things. They’re an amusement park ride of whatever city you’re in. You sit and watch all the attractions go by. Sure, you can hop off and do something, but doesn’t that really defeat the purpose? The goal, as far as I’m concerned, is to sit and do nothing, but feel like you’ve actually accomplished something. If you’re really ambitious, you make a few mental notes of places to return to. This also was very much in keeping with our sightseeing philosophy – try to walk the thin line between boredom and exhaustion.

A perfectly good view from the hop on hop off bus.

A perfectly good view from the hop on hop off bus.

After we finally hopped off, we settled into what has become our evening ritual – cocktails at a bar or café, preferably on a nice plaza, and then dinner.

I should note that Athenians eat really, really late. Like Madrid late. We have pushed the cocktail hour later and later and we are still the first ones in the restaurant at 8 or 8:30. Anyway, we had our cocktail at a fun little place around the corner called Bar Osterman, and headed off to dinner. (I herewith make a very shameful disclosure – I discovered all three of the establishments we patronized this evening in an article in the New York Times. I am now the middle aged, post-yuppie who outsources his travel advice to the New York Times.)

Our division of labor generally proceeds thusly – Janine is the expert in selecting our lodgings and does so with verve and panache. I make restaurant recommendations and I am the navigator. For dinner, I had selected a place called Manimani, at which you can get a “modern taste of hearty Peloponnesian cuisine” according to, yes, the New York Times. Armed with Google Maps, which has changed the modern traveler’s life, we set out for the restaurant. Things didn’t go quite according to plan, however. Google Maps seemed confused, with the little blue arrow twitching this way and that. Janine wasn’t fully invested in the selection of the restaurant in the first place, nor did she particularly feel like walking the twenty minutes the Google told us it would take to get there. When this happens, she either starts walking slower or she just pulls up, like a steeple chase horse who refuses the jump.

By this point, my confidence in the whole endeavor was flagging, but I was not ready to throw in the towel just yet. I was a one-eyed Sherpa with diminished lung capacity and a bad back, but I was determined to lead the summit push. After much backtracking, we arrived at our destination, but something was obviously wrong. There was no hip, New York Times-recommended hotspot, just an empty storefront. “I think we’re on the wrong street,” Janine offered, unamused. Thank heavens. We redirected to the proper street, where we found…another empty storefront.

Oops, I was looking at the wrong number. There it was, little more than a staircase with a very small sign leading to the restaurant above. There was still hope.

Once inside we were welcomed like old friends. We had no reservation but were seated at the last two-top in the place. We had a great meal with more ridiculously cheap but delicious Greek wine. The highlight was a perfectly roasted lamb on a celery root puree.

Roasted lamb on celery root puree. Even Janine admitted it was worth the shlep.

Roasted lamb on celery root puree. Even Janine admitted it was worth the shlep.

Our server wrapped up the meal by bringing us a complimentary little bottle of mastiha, a grappa-like boozy thing from the island of Chios, wherever that is. It’s hard to describe, but it smelled like a pile of raked leaves on a fall day and tasted like I imagine the bark of a tree would taste like if you fermented and distilled it. But in a very good way. I love a meal that ends with a bit of free tasty hooch that I’ve never heard of. Janine forgave me.

We ended the evening with a nightcap at a very cool spot next door to our apartment called Six d.o.g.s, a place that would be quite at home in Soho. It has a gallery space, a club with live music, and a courtyard bar packed with hip young people. We sipped our drinks, took in the vibe, and couldn’t believe that we were in Athens, of all places. I heard about it, you guessed it, in the New York Times.