Turkey, which is a transcontinental country, spanning Asia and Europe, has always been on the top of our list of places to visit. It borders eight countries, is an Islamic country with a secular democratic government and has a very diverse cultural heritage. Our first week was spent in Istanbul, which is also transcontinental and straddles the Bosphorus, one of the world’s busiest waterways, between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea. Its commercial and historical center lies in Europe, where we stayed and spent most of our visit, while the majority of its population lives in Asia.
Arriving at our hotel at 3AM and sleeping until 5PM the next day was unavoidable and made the 8-hour time change rough on our systems! As luck would have it right next to our hotel was a little barbershop calling Zane’s name. After 3 months of trekking and letting his beard grow wild he got a haircut and a straight shave. He was hardly recognizable in his new baby face!
Taking the free city tour we had a witty, local guide who shared insight on the history of the Ottoman and Byzantine eras, the fall of Constantinople and much more. Each day we walked the squares by the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace all, which have such deep, fascinating histories behind them. The Blue Mosque, named for the blue tiles adorning the interior walls, is the second largest mosque in the world next to Meca in Saudia Arabia. 5 times a day there is a call to prayer broadcasted live from loud speakers located at the top of the minarets surrounding all the many mosques throughout the city. It is almost deafening and was hard to get used to especially the one at 5AM! There are fountains outside the mosques as well as it is a religious practice to wash hands, feet and faces before entering the mosque for prayer.
The Hagia Sophia is a grand structure that dates back to the 5th century. Its uniqueness comes from it being a former Orthodox church, later an imperial mosque, and now a museum. It was interesting to see the layers of religious art reflecting the different eras. Seeing huge portions of the Koran hanging from the ceiling next to crosses and pictures of the Virgin Mary was a bizarre sight.
The Topkapi Palace, one of the largest palaces in the world, was the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans and is now the location of important holy relics of the Muslim world, was another place we visited. Since it is spring the courtyards and gardens were filled with colored tulips where we enjoyed a few naps in the sun. A tip for travelers is to go these places early in the morning before the hoards of tourists arrive.
We tried many versions of Turkish kebabs from the meat spits on every corner always paired with a salty liquid yogurt drink called Ayran. Other street food sold was fresh Pomegranate juice, which tasted a bit like dirt, Turkish bagels, roasted corn and nuts. Our favorite café was visited each day for fresh chocolate croissants in the morning or fresh baklava in the afternoons paired Turkish coffee. Baklava is served everywhere but seeking out the fresh batches is well worth it!
There are Turkish bath houses (Haman) all over Istanbul that have been around since the 16th and 17th century. Turkish bath houses started as part of the Islamic religion since cleanliness is a very important. Nowadays, older men still go but it has turned into a must-do for tourists. It was by far the strangest spa experience I have ever encountered. It starts with a private changing room then into a large steam room where you lay on a warm slab of marble for 30-40 minutes to get the sweat going. Then we separated and were paired with an older Turkish woman for Katie and a man for Zane for the ‘treatment’, which is where the strangeness began.
In my swimsuit at this point I am asked to take it off and lay down on the marble table. As I am doing this the lady does the same and is now only in swimsuit bottoms. She puts on what looks like an oven-mit made out of sandpaper to exfoliate my body. In a straightforward, bossy tone she tells me when to turn over, stand or sit while constantly throwing buckets of warm water over me. Then she takes a large pillowcase full of bubbles and empties massive amounts of foam over my body and continues to bath me. To top it off she shampooed my hair while singing to me in Turkish. There is a first time for everything, as I don’t remember the last time I got bathed by a naked Turkish woman.
Next, we endured a 11 hour overnight bus ride to see the underground and cave cities in the Cappadoccia region in central Turkey.
See more pics… https://picasaweb.google.com/105315223482012434599/Istanbul