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Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Land of Magical Minarets - Istanbul


It is not after every vacation that you have a  burning desire to go back to explore and learn more about a country. Turkey surely did that for me. It was truly one of our best vacations, and I would love to go back again. We were there for a week last Thanksgiving and spent most of our time taking in the rich history and culture of Istanbul. We went to mysterious Cappadocia for a couple of days, and the hot air balloon ride there has to be one of our most unforgettable experiences. 

Turkey was born in 1923, when Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey, rescued it from European Colonialism. He divided mosque and state, replaced Arabic script with English, worked toward women's civil rights, and gave the battle torn remnants of the Ottoman Empire the foundations of a modern nation. Cliche as it might sound, I really felt that Turkey symbolized  "East meets West". It is on the move, looking west and getting there. However, in doing so it has kept intact its deep and strong cultural roots.

We stayed in Sultanahmet (Old city) which is essentially what used to be called Constantinople. It is the best place to stay as all the attractions are walking distance.

Blue Mosque:  It was built in the early 1600s and the blue tile surrounding the interior walls give it its name. In addition to being a tourist attraction, it is an active mosque. It closes for over an hour during prayers 5 times a day so keep that in mind while planning a visit. We walked to the mosque at night as well and it was absolutely beautiful with the lighting. At that time it was very safe at night, and we would walk till way past midnight.







We could walk to the Blue Mosque in 5 minutes from our hotel. We stayed at the Best Western Premier Regency Suites and Spa. Although owned by Best Western, it is an independently operated boutique hotel. It was the perfect mix of modern and traditional and we loved our stay there. The hotel served amazing traditional Turkish breakfast and had a great Turkish bath that is called Hamam. They had a pretty basket of fruit waiting for us:






The Haman is a traditional turkish bath where the bath area or the marble slab is heated and the room is like a sauna:



Hagia Sophia: This was a church that was build right across the Blue Mosque in the year 573. It was the largest dome in Europe until Renaissance architect Brunelleschi built Florence's great dome, almost a thousand years later. From 1453 to 1931 it functioned as a Mosque, and was secularized in 1935 and opened as a museum.




Topkapi Palace: This palace was the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans between 1465-1856. The art and architecture is beautiful, and the view of the Bosporus strait from one of the terraces is gorgeous. Plan to spend a few hours there to walk through the main chambers.






Basilica Cistern: I just loved the Basilica Cistern. It is amazing that in the 6th century they built this architectural marvel. It is the largest of many cisterns that lie beneath the city. It is capable of holding 80,000 cubic meters of water. 


Spice Market/ Egyptian BazaarIf we were even remotely interested in cooking we would have got a lot of spices from here! This is the second largest market in the city, and has a wide variety of spices. We did get some dry fruits and lots of sweets. When in Turkey, Lokum or Turkish delight is a must try. It is a chewy dessert that comes in various flavors and contains dates, hazelnut, pistachio etc. It has a long shelf life, so it is great to bring home to share with family and friends.


Lokum or Turkish Delight. You can mix and match a bunch of flavors and they cut bite size pieces:

The street food in the Spice Bazaar (Doner kebab):

Turkish lollipop in the making:

Grand Bazaar: This is the oldest and largest market in the world, and truly lives up to its name. I was a kid in a candy store, and we were there for over 5 hours. The souvenirs are just so beautiful and intricately designed. We had to get another carry on luggage just to take back our loot from there:) The Turkish rug that decorates one of our walls now is my favorite purchase. The Grand Bazaar has over 3000 shops and attracts over 250,000 visitors daily. Even with my husband's direction sense, we got lost a couple of times. 

Important Tip: You need to bargain a lot with the sellers. If they get an inkling that you are from the US, they quote higher prices.






The blue amulets in the picture below are used to ward off evil eye or Nazar in Turkish. Charms and decorations featuring the evil eye are very common across Turkey.



We did a trip to Capadoccia and returned to Istanbul for the last couple of days of our vacation. We stayed at the Neorion Hotel. I cannot say enough good things about this hotel, no wonder it is rated No#1 hotel in Istanbul on Tripadvisor. The rooms are beautiful, the service impeccable and the staff very friendly. The breakfast was the best we had on the trip. There was so much variety: Simit (soft Turkish bagel), sauteed veggies, Fried cheese, variety of jams, and desserts were some of my favorites. Yes, a traditional Turkish breakfast is very heavy. 

We highly recommend this hotel. However, you do need to take the tram to Blue mosque and surrounding attractions. It is a short ride and the trams stations are very near.

The ingredients in Turkish food are very fresh. I really liked the  honeycomb:





I was not very fond of the Turkish coffee. It was way too strong for my liking:


The tea on the other hand was amazing. It is called Cay ( pronounced chai) and is served in a small glass. They consume this refreshing drink throughout the day and is the first thing they bring out at restaurants:



Food: The food in Turkey is just incredible. There is so much flavor and freshness. There are a lot of options for vegetarians as well.

The waiter breaking the clay pot containing Turkish lamb stew with eggplant at our table:





We really liked the food and service at Pasazade in Old Town. It was traditional Ottoman cuisine with more of curry dishes rather than kabobs.






At another place we tried this sampler with hummus, baba ganoush, tzatziki, dolmas, and some fish dishes.


Honey and cheese with bread is a popular combination:


Lahmacun is a thin pizza often topped with minced meat or vegetables:


Our absolute favorite dessert in Turkey was Kunefe or sweet cheese pastry: 



Quick tips:
  • A meal facing the Bhosphorus is a must try. We went for brunch to a place called Kale Cafe and loved it. You can see Asia from here.
  • To get a completely different and modern perspective of the city go clubbing at Taksim.
  • Stay in the Old city or nearby areas. The city is easy to walk and trams are very convenient.
  • Enjoy 360 degree views of the city from the Galata Tower.
  • We could not see Dolmabachi Palace but have heard good things.
  • We found the locals very friendly and helpful, so leave apprehensions behind and enjoy!

This post is getting too long, so I should stop here. I still have a lot to share about our time-travel in amazing Cappadocia where we stay in a Cave hotel, explore a 6th century underground city called Derinkuyu, learn pottery in Avanos, and take in the unique formations of its surrealistic landscapes on a hot air balloon ride.

Stay tuned!

-Yam

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