Below is a re-post from my trip to Istanbul in November of 2010. I thought this might be a good way to introduce the next grand adventure. After posting this last entry, I sent an email to the list of people who had been following along. In the email I mentioned 3 more destinations on my top 5 international list; Scotland, Argentina, and Southeast Asia. A good friend from high school days wrote back right away and picked Scotland. Well Lucia, here we go!
THE FINAL DAY IN ISTANBUL, TURKEY. Nov. 12th 2010.
So this is the last full day of the adventure to Istanbul. It begins like all the others – breakfast on the terrace. The fog that enveloped Istanbul in a veil of mystery the first few days has given way to a continuous stretch of sunny mornings and very pleasant days. There hasn’t been a rainy day the entire trip.
I’ve eaten breakfast for the last few mornings with Ken and Martha from Florida. He’s in the medical transport business and is here for a conference. They are flying home this evening, but before leaving Istanbul they want to see the Mosque of Sulyman the Magnificent. The hotel staff has been insisting all week that we go there. The great Ottoman architect, Sinan, designed it. Interestingly, a student of Sinan designed the Blue Mosque. Zeki, a 24 year old, part-time desk clerk of the hotel, and an art history student insisted yesterday he was going to take me there today himself. Despite declaring no more sightseeing, I’m interested to se it. Besides, I packed the night before and only have a couple more things to purchase before departing.
I go to the lobby to see if Zeki is ready for a visit to the Mosque, only to be told by Abdullah that Zeki is in the employee’s room asleep. No problem, I’ll just go with Ken and Martha. It’s about a half-an-hour walk from the hotel. The route takes us by the Grand Bazaar again, but instead of walking through the maze of 4,000 shops and its merchants, we take the alley along an exterior wall. It is nearly as bad, and just as crowded, but at least there is a narrow patch of sky above as we weave through the crowd.
We finally make it to the mosque only to learn it is closed for renovations. The courtyard is open for visitors, which is no small thing because of the 2 large marble buildings that dominate the space. One houses the tombs of the Sultan Suleyman I, and his son Sultan Suleyman II. The other building houses the tomb of his wife, Roxelana. The story of Roxelana is very fascinating. She was a captured slave girl from an invaded country who was brought back and put in the harem. By means that rival the best stories of an impossible rise to power, she ended up becoming the wife of the Sultan – something there-to-fore unheard of in the Ottoman empire. We are able to explore the courtyard sufficiently before everything closes for prayer services. Today is Friday, the muslim holy day.
Ken uses the GPS function on his i-phone to plot a course from the mosque to the Museum of Archeology. The route winds through local neighborhoods instead of going back to one of the major roads with a wider sidewalk. It’s a great walk – one of the best of the trip. We are on little streets inhabited only by the locals. We pass shops where only the locals are shopping. We go past a shop that specializes in various degrees of conservative Muslim dress (coverings) for women. It is the first time all week I’ve seen this kind of shop. The outfits on display are actually quite beautiful. The next block is very fascinating – and answers a question that had been discussed back home before leaving. What do you suppose the Muslim women wear under the full coverings. Is it possible some are walking around wearing sexy and provocative lingerie under there? Well, every shop along this block is dedicated to the finest, sexiest undergarments one could imagine. Silk, lace, nylon, leather, you name it, from nighties to garter belts and stockings, it is sold here. Business is brisk… and not from tourists.
We decide to go our separate ways upon reaching the archeological museum. Although I would like to visit the museum, there are some other things I want to wrap up this afternoon. One is to re-record the call to prayer. I’m not satisfied with the previous recording and I know the best time to catch it is 2:30pm. After retrieving the laptop from my hotel room, I head to a tranquil courtyard discovered earlier in the week. Another recording is made. Although, this time the call from various mosques in the area run together creating sort of an off-pitch chorus of Islamic song. And that is what it sounds like most every time.
Earlier in the week, I received an email from Jim Hall, (Aka, Nick) a good friend who now lives in Fallbrook, California who has been receiving the travel blog. He sends a message recommending the Turkish bath experience. Jim is a smart fellow who has cast his shadow in an ever-increasing number of great haunts around the globe, including Istanbul, so this recommendation deserves serious consideration. Coincidentally, I walked right past a Hamam (Turkish bath) earlier in the day. The sign out front announces this Hamam is known as the 300-year-old Haman and is listed in the book of “1000 Places To See Before You Die.” I have that book and really enjoy reading through the pages of the worlds most interesting places. I’ve told myself that if given the chance to check one of those places off the list, I’m going to do it. I made a mental note of its location.
Later in the evening, after dinner, and after all the bags are packed (we have a 4am departure from the hotel) I tell Ron there is one more thing left to do. A Turkish bath will be a great way to cap off the trip to Istanbul.
We walk the darkened streets back to the Cagaloglu Hamam (click for a link to the Hamam’s website. There is a cool virtual tour on the site also). It was established at this location decades before the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Except for the Wooden doorways, glass windows in the dressing room, and brass fixtures, the entire Hamam is marble; Marble floors, walls, columns, domed ceilings, benches, stairs, and sinks.
Here’s how it works: You walk in and pay an attendant for one of 3 levels of service – self wash, attendant-assisted wash, or attendant-assisted wash with massage. There is no mixing of the sexes. Men assist men and women assist women. Men and women utilize separate areas of the bath, or different days or hours depending on the facility. You are given a key to a dressing room and a thin, cloth wrap to go around the waist. Shoes are removed prior to entering the changing room and replaced with wooden sandals. From there, you are given a small bar of soap and led into the actual bathing room. This room is all marble, round, and has a high, domed ceiling supported by marble columns. In the center of the room is a large, elevated marble platform about 10-15 feet in diameter. all the marble in the room is heated from below by furnaces and is very, very, warm. The whole bathing area is like a sauna with temps in the 100’s and very humid, although it is not a steam room. You can either lay on the marble platform in the center or sit along the exterior walls where there are water basins built into the walls at regularly spaced intervals. You are sweating profusely in a matter of minutes. Eventually, when you decide you can’t take the heat anymore, you move over to an exterior wall near a water basin and with a silver bowl douse yourself with cool water.
Next comes the scrubbing. You either scrub yourself with the soap provided or an attendant does it for you. The attendant, also in a similar wrap, puts on a long, textured mitten, and gives you the sudsiest, brisk, scrubbing of your life, then quickly dumps bowls full of cool water all over you. From there, if you have purchased the massage, you move to the center marble piece, lay down on it, and receive one hell of a beating.
When ready to exit the “hot” room, you move into an intermediate area and sit on cool tile benches while trying to regain your senses. When you think you can stand up and walk, you grab a dry cloth wrap and a towel then move back into the dressing area where you can further relax following the bath, perhaps with a water, tea, or coffee. This area is actually public. Men and women alike walk in off the street to see what it’s all about and to inquire about prices at the desk.
After the Turkish bath, I shuffle along the cobblestone streets back to the hotel for a short night of sleep.
****To see my “Best of Istanbul” photo album, click on the flickr link at the right of this page and open the corresponding album.