Read, Write, Run, Roam

Istanbul

Just the facts, Ha’mam: Navigating a Turkish Bath

While planning this second trip to Istanbul, there was one activity I knew I’d repeat: a brutal punishment beauty treatment at a hamam, or Turkish bath. Though I wrote about my hamam experience in November, I didn’t include much information about what to expect. Here are the ins and outs of getting tubbed and scrubbed.

Discern: Where should I experience a Turkish bath? Answer: I dunno. (Look how helpful this post is already!) I’ve only been to one, so I can’t offer much of an educated opinion. However, our tour guide noted that Cemberlitas, my hamam of choice, is the place a newbie might feel most comfortable. It’s also pretty pricey, but there are ways around that. See below.

coed hamams seem…voyeuristic

Dudes: Are men in there? Answer: it depends on the hamam. There are some mixed-gender baths, but that’s not traditional. Bathing suits are required for mixed baths. In a traditional hammam, the attendants and visitors are the same gender, and no bathing suit is required.

Divestment: No bathing suit…do I have to be naked? What if I’m a nevernude? Answer: No worries, I don’t know if you can be naked. Cemberlitas visitors (who sign up for the kese, at least) are given new underwear to wear in the chamber, a fresh kese (scrubber), and  a peştemal, a thin cloth that is used as a wrap. How much women want to cover up with the wrap is up to them. You can also wear a bikini bottom or entire bathing suit. Keep in mind that few people wear suits, and the keseci/torturer will stretch it out as she works her magic. Denim shorts are probably discouraged, though.

Details: What’ the deal? Answer: Sit in the main chamber and steam. A keseci will then motion you over to her “station” on the pedastal. She’ll direct your movements while scrubbing you with a kese, a slightly softer Brillo pad. It won’t hurt but it will feel like you’re getting rubbed with an extremely cheap towel by an angry person. Afterward, the keseci will rinse you off and wash you with a foamy soap bag. Then the keseci should drape you in towels and lead you to a place to sit. This doesn’t happen at the women’s chamber in Cemberlitas, but it does in the men’s area. It’s like Nordstrom: the guys are treated like kings. Unfair.

Dollars: How can I save money? Answer: If the hamam is empty, bargain for a lower price. That probably won’t work at Cemberlitas, so bring your own beauty products and kese to scrub yourself. Keses are sold at the hammam or stores for $5-20, depending on the material. Soak and start scrubbing. If it’s your first visit, I recommend a keseci. Only then will you learn how hard you can scrub your skin without crying.

The Dirty: How can I look like a local/disguise a germ phobia at the hammam? Answer: Bring your own flip flops, kese, pestemal, bikini bottom and beauty products. In fact, if you have any skin allergies, bring your own liquid soap and shampoo. Pack a hairbrush and personal hairdryer if you’re going at peak hours. The two hairdryers provided are not enough for the Saturday night crowd. While non-RHOB readers wander out with wet hair, you’ll look like a member of a Turkish harem. In a good way.

Despite the Turkish influences in Belgrade, no baths exist in the White City today. Since there are no future trips to Turkey on the horizon, I’ll have to recreate this experience with a strong loofah and a masochistic spirit. So if you see a half-peeling housewife wandering around Belgrade, be sure to say hello!


The culinary delights of Karaköy, Istanbul

Karaköy sits across the river from Istanbul’s most famous sites. It’s south of the Galata tower and dotted with markets selling everything from fish to toilet seats. While it’s not the most popular place for tourists, it might be one of the best places to enjoy a cheap and tasty meal in Istanbul. Thanks to our trusty tour guide, we checked out the following treats.

Muz believes that dessert should be the first course of any meal, so we first stopped by the famous Güllüoglu for some baklava. If you believe the hype, the founding owner of this establishment introduced the dessert to Turkey in 1871. Dentists and diets have flourished since. Muz didn’t want to miss out on any combination of phyllo and honey, and wound up getting a little taste of each kind.

I thought we were being excessive, until I looked at the table next to us. Two Turkish men were sharing a plate larger than ours. Kuma, Muz and I dug in, not stopping for air or conversation. It was all delicious, except for the chocolate. (WHY would you ruin this delicacy with chocolate?!) What wasn’t delicious was the raging headache that followed my sugar high. We needed protein, quick, so we walked to the fish market for a sandwich.

Across the river in Old Town, floating boats are famous for their giant fish sandwiches. Online message boards show heated conversations about the best fish boat. But most of the fish sold there, we were told, isn’t local. So we went straight to the source: the fish market on the opposite side of the river.

Fish boats in Old Town

Fish heads in Karakoy (Image source here)

It was definitely not the tourist scene. Slush water from the fish cooling system spilled on to the path. Vendors scowled at us, knowing we were only there to look. Fish scales were everywhere. Between the little fish graveyards, we saw an entryway and a few tables packed with people. We ignored the extensive menu and asked for three fish sandwiches and drinks.

Once again, the portions were massive. But in the name of bloggerism, dear readers, I managed to finish off my yummy sandwich. It wasn’t a gourmet meal, but it was definitely a cheap one. The bill for all three of us was about $13 USD.

There was more to explore on this slightly sketchy side of the Bosphorous, like fresh squeezed juice pressers and fruit and roasted nut vendors, but alas, we were full. On our way back to our hotel, we discovered the additional benefit of eating in Karaköy: enjoying a much-needed walk home on the Galata Bridge during sunset. It may not have been the fanciest meal in Istanbul, but it was one of the most memorable.


Turkish tea time

Though Turkish-style coffee is ubiquitous throughout the Balkans, tea reigns supreme in Istanbul. The tea is delivered to shopkeepers and passerby throughout the city in distinctive tulip-shaped glasses on special trays.

Tea and clean underwear...what more does one need?

It took a long time to get a decent photo of a tea carrier in action. These men speed walk through the city and dodge through crowds to deliver tea at the proper “freshly boiled” temperature.

In the Kadikoy district, life-and tea-goes at a slightly slower pace. I found this gentlemen taking a rare break after delivering his tray. That, or he was cleaning up after the alligator.

No sugar, please. It's bad for my teeth.


I always feel like/Somebody’s watching me…in Istanbul

You can’t walk through Istanbul without getting the evil eye. Or so one might think, given all the evil eye protection charms in the city. These charms are known as nazar in Turkey (mati in Greece).

They aren’t intended to bring luck. Rather, the charm is meant to prevent bad things from happening to the bearer. It’s all the same to RHOB: if something bad doesn’t happen, I consider that a pretty good day.

You might be tempted to think that nazars are simply sold as tourist trinkets, but the charm hangs from rearview mirrors, random keychains, and even around the neck of beloved pets.

Evil eye cat says shooing her away is bad luck

My favorite nazar location is where I first spotted one: on the wall of the Turkish Air plane we took from Belgrade to Istanbul. I’m hoping the company is relying on more than glass beads for a successful trip, but I’m not complaining about the extra insurance. Even if it IS a little creepy to feel “the eye” watching my every move.

If the title of this post didn’t make the tune stick in your head, here’s the video to officially drive you crazy: 


I’m just not feelin’ you, Istanboo

Time to give Istanboo another chance?

If I were Flavor Flav, and my travels were his reality dating show, I’d let Istanbul stick around for another episode. But as Flav used to say, “I’m just not feeling you,” Istanboo.

I thought Istanboo, or Boo, and I would have a great connection. We have so much in common: a love of architecture, history, and food made with a lot of vegetables. We both like art. Boo came highly recommended: friends kept telling us what a good match we would be.

Yet I sense that Boo might not be The One. His smiles were nice, but I only saw them after I agreed to buy something. He was aggressive, trying to talk me into going into this restaurant or that carpet shop. I didn’t want a carpet, but he was insistent, stepping into my path while he delivered his pitch. “That’s just Boo,” I said to myself. “He’s a salesman.” Still, I was put off.

There were some nice surprises. We both like stray cats and dogs. His transportation system was great. The fresh-squeezed juice stands were a nice touch.

Seeing Boo’s smaller province of Kadikoy was a highlight; we had a great meal at Ciya and walked around the markets. But the fun I had there made me realize what I didn’t like about Boo: he made me feel like a commodity. I don’t need to be considered a local, but I’d like to be an observer or participant, rather than a target.

There was no spark, but I’m still intrigued. I’m going on a second date with Boo in the summer and hope that the warmer weather and additional sights will change my mind. If it doesn’t work out, I’m not too worried. I am definitely feelin’ Belgrade.


Mosque on Sunday: Suleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul

This is my second-to-last post about Istanbul. It’s Real Housewife of Belgrade, after all. But the Suleymaniye Mosque deserves special attention. By most accounts, it’s the biggest Mosque in Istanbul. It was designed by Sinan Pasha, a famous Ottoman architect, for Sultan Suleyman.

Sultan Suleyman was the tenth and longest-reigning Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Under his reign, the Empire conquered parts of Eastern Europe (including Belgrade), the Middle East, and Africa. He also was known as “the lawgiver” because he reformed the Ottoman legal system. Finally, in true US Weekly style, Suleyman broke with tradition to marry a harem girl named Roxelana.

Roxelana was no slouch. She connived to send her harem rival out of Istanbul-with the harem rival’s son, who was heir apparent. Roxelana legally wed the Sultan, raising eyebrows from sea to shining sea. During her time as Hurrem (Sultan’s wife), it’s believed she influenced foreign affairs. Roxelana also may have encouraged the Sultan to kill the son of her former rival, paving the way for her own son to be heir. And I thought the Christina Aguilera rumors were bad. I just love gossip, I mean, history.

For a Sultan of such accomplishment, the mosque’s interior design is restrained. Small and intricate patterns stand out against mostly white walls. The overall effect is grand but peaceful.

We were incredibly lucky to be there in late November, because the mosque has just reopened after a three-year renovation. It’s a “must see” for travelers to Istanbul. While you’re there, be sure to visit Roxelana’s turbe (mausoleum) and honor a Real Housewife of Istanbul.


Istanbul’s gone to the…cats?

You cannot enter...but I can go anywhere I damn please

I don’t want to start an international incident, but: cats in Belgrade are way, way tougher than cats in Istanbul.

Belgrade cats are big, healthy and strong. They live off of garbage and whoknowswhat. I haven’t seen a mouse or a rat yet—even by the waterfront. If Belgrade cats had opposable thumbs they’d club you for a tuna fish sandwich.

Istanbul cats are sleek, cute little cats that are used to attention. They’re everywhere-in restaurants, museums and shop windows. Tourists and locals pet them, feed them, and generally let them go wherever they want. The photo above was taken in the Hagia Sophia. After I took it, a tourist bent down to pet him and the cat put his paw in the tourist’s bag, looking for treats. In Belgrade, a cat would glare at you, decide you weren’t worth his time, and stalk a pigeon. A big one.

Why are cats treated like royalty? Maybe it’s their looks. Even Muz noted that Istanbul was Zoolander for cats. I had to agree, they were really, really good-looking. And probably can’t read good.

Dogs aren’t faring too poorly, either. They’re spayed, tagged, and left to roam around the city. Oddly, the dogs aren’t as friendly as the cats—they basically hang out in their territory and wait for vendors to give them food.

Wait, cats get to go INSIDE of buildings?

We knew that cats were “top dog” when we went to an upscale restaurant and noticed cats walking around…inside. We’d seen cats in other European restaurants and decided to ignore them in this one. Until after the meal, when a cat decided Muz was his new best friend and jumped in his lap, purring.

Muz awkwardly petted him (big mistake) and tried to put the cat on the floor. The cat kept jumping back up until we moved a chair to block his passage. What did the waiters do? Nothing. What did I do? Laugh and take this photo. I’m so helpful.

Waiter, the gentleman and I will have desert. Ignore that other human.

Perhaps I’ve underestimated the cats in Istanbul. Belgrade cats might be more intimidating, but Istanbul cats will walk all over you. Literally.