Freeman Cebu Lifestyle

Turkish delight

JT Gonzales - The Freeman

CEBU, Philippines - Istanbul.  The very syllables rolling down the mouth thrum with exoticism. Mystery. Danger, even.

There I was on an eleven-hour flight from Singapore to Turkey, and I had absolutely no clue about the place except for the half-remembered stories culled from novels, movies, and anecdotes of friends far more adventurous than I was.  What awaited me?

Apparently, plenty. A city straddling both Asia and Europe.  A hub of ancient trade and commerce.  A modernizing city well on its way to full European Union membership.  Not to mention, nearly 80 million people filled with savage pride and sunny smiles.

But first, a more practical matter: the visa. Getting a Turkish visa is easy if one already has an existing OECD visa.  That means, perhaps, an American or Canadian visa that allows a prospective tourist to simply log on to the Turkish ministry's website, and fill out an application form.  After paying the US $20.00 fee online, the Turkish visa is sent via email, and all one has to do is print out a copy for presentation to Turkish immigration.  Isn't that convenient?

Expect the immigration officer to look for the OECD visa, and check a perfect match between the information provided in your application form and the actual OECD visa.  The regulations also require tourists to carry at least US$50.00 per day of stay and a valid hotel booking.  However, the immigration officer I encountered never bothered to check my hotel booking or the cash I was carrying. He just took a bored look at my passport and then stamped it perfunctorily.  It turns out the authorities weren't as strict as I was afraid they would be.

So, through immigration, and on towards ancient land.  What an awe-inspiring sight. Thousands of red roofs, and minarets, columns and spires galore.  It was a hot summer's day, and the haze from the heat made everything seem more dream-like.  Exotic cars and sleek busses were everywhere, and highways unrolled in every direction.  High-rise buildings with modernist shapes sat side by side with ancient mosques and 60's apartment blocks.  A history lesson, come to life!

 I had booked a room at the Grand Tarabya Hotel, which was in the outskirts of Istanbul proper.  The structure seemed imposing, although it was only mid-rise, because everything else around it consisted of two or three stories.  Looming up above the Bosphorus Sea, the hotel commands the most stunning view of turquoise blue waters and the playground beneath.

Did I say playground?  Yes, I did, for that was what was below us.  Yachts flying multi-national flags lay bobbing below in the harbor, and luxury cars were parked haphazardly along the coastal road.  It turns out this area is for vacationers who wish to berth their little boats and have a Turkish coffee at the many picturesque cafés dotting the coast, and perhaps, tuck into roast lamb and yogurt dips if they were looking for something more substantial.

The winding road of this coastline is more likely to be inhabited by stately homes and huge mansions, and the hotel seemed an odd fixture betwixt the residential feel of the coast.  Nevertheless, it had all the comforts I needed, including a gym and a pool.  Apparently, it also had Turkish baths, although I didn't have the luxury of time to experience this unique hot house.

What I did have time for was a foray into the spice bazaar.  More formally called the Misir Carsisi, the bazaar is an experience not to be missed.  First, the hawkers.  The incessant cries of the spice sellers, in a language probably used over centuries of trading, beat down on customers and tourists in a cacophony that's an entire auditory experience.

Then, the wares.  The flowers and fruits and spices, vanilla pods and jasmine husks, as well as teas of every description. (Love tea? Relaxing Tea? Viagra Tea?  They have it!)  The golden jewelry and the brilliant gemstones. And of course, the sticky, chewy goodie called Turkish delights.

We were fortunate to chance upon an accommodating hawker who let us sample all the Turkish delight flavors we wanted, from cherry to coffee, marshmallow, vanilla and pistachio, until we were almost sick of the pastry.  Almost, but not quite.  He explained to us that the boxed merchandise easily available outside or in the airport were cheaper because they were sugar-based.  What was being diced and sliced in front of us, however, were honey-based, so it was a bit more expensive. After gobbling multiple samples of the delicious delights, we were shamed enough to order boxes upon boxes to bring home to family and friends.  Not to worry, stores here have vacuum pack machines to help store the goodies and let travelers safely lug their fattening purchases.

Also available in his store were oils and essences to be used for perfumes, and one could just imagine traders from all over the continents coming to sniff and buy scent for women in their home countries.  Of course, after paying homage to the spectacular mosques that preside over the city.

Where to begin?  The Blue Mosque and its six minarets should be top of the tour list, together with the Hagia Sophia. (The Hagia is under renovation though, so expect scaffolding to block the view).  Visible from almost all angles in the ancient part of the city, the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia bring to life those dusty books about the Moors, the Ottoman empire, and Byzantium.

Five times a day, loudspeakers broadcast prayers, and as the chants wash over you, you are transported to a world dominated by religion and mysticism. It is not uncommon to see women in veils and burqas, accompanied by fierce-looking husbands.  Meanwhile, different tongues chatter and clash.  Ah, Istanbul.

Right outside these places of worship are hop-on, hop-off busses called the Big Bus.  They travel two routes (red and blue), and for those without any agendas, hitching a ride on this easy-peasy alternative is a quick way to navigate the city.   Or, another way to get a feel for the place is to catch a river cruise that will bring you down the ancient routes of commerce.  Either way, the guides will point out the bridges that connect Asia and Europe, and immense palaces, lush gardens, and wistful remnants of ancient civilizations.

Of course, just walking around the old city of Sultanammet could satisfy the wanderlust in any intrepid traveler. On one such jaunt, I noticed a hand-made sign pointing to an art gallery.  I clattered my way up an apartment building, and found myself in a quiet, spacious room with piles and sheafs of art.  On one corner were the souvenirs, cheap reprints of whirling dervishes and posters of scimitars and galloping horses.

But, on other walls, I discovered original art from up-and-coming artists, and I quickly found a couple of amusing sketches by Elif Nursad that were reasonably priced.  What a pleasant surprise, after talking to the proprietor (also an artist) that not only was the creatrice his sister, but also that she had been recently featured in the New York Times!

I quickly googled her and true enough, Elif Nursad was featured in 2013 by the Times, and she was characterized as a rebel with a penchant for sketching toms and tabbies, such as the one I had purchased for my niece.  (To digress, there really seems to be a million cats wandering around Istanbul).  Indeed, my personal choice, which I intend to hang in my office, was a quick pen and ink sketch of a group of Turks just idly hanging around, mohawks and vests denoting that rebellious feel of youth. An emblematic example of Elif, and it was mine to take home!

While I vowed to come back to the gallery on another trip and another time (hopefully, with a bigger budget for art purchases), that lucky discovery was the highlight of my trip.  I spent the rest of the day strolling around the Grand Bazaar, stocking up on bronze bells, evil eyes, jasmine tea balls, and pepper mills for friends.

Unfortunately, I had to pass up silk carpets and entire cow hides, the prices and luggage restrictions conspiring to stop me from maxing out my credit cards.  But, despite this deprivation, I was perfectly content, smug in the knowledge that I had with me a piece of Istanbul no one else would have.

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