This is my Istanbul

The things that shape how I experience the city

This is my Istanbul: Houseguests September 5, 2010

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Live in a city like Istanbul, and your guestroom will get a lot of use. After very sporadic houseguestage in Ankara, I figured my guestroom in Istanbul would play host to the occasional researcher or travelling friend. Au contraire. My guestroom count is at four this summer and more than I can remember since moving in.
My guests have run the gamut from seasoned Istanbul hands to folks who’ve never been this far east before and from old friends to brand-new acquaintances. I think the visit length record is held by a university friend at somewhere approaching four weeks, although the cats I’ve been catsitting spent a solid six months or so chez moi.
I’ve been quite lucky in that I currently have a dedicated guestroom, although perhaps less lucky in that by working somewhere approaching 50 hours a week for the past year I often don’t have the most time to shepherd my tourist-trail-hopping guests around town.
I’ve worked out a fairly good system, though: I set my houseguests loose upon Sultanahmet and the other sightseeing things that visitors to the city inevitably want to see and I inevitably have already toured five times (Blue Mosque, I’m looking at you; Basilica Cistern gets a pass though because it’s just so cool), and after I get back near the city center from Distant Regions of the City, we meet up for dinner, drinks, nighttime strolling and other things that are right up my alley.
Quite accidentally, I’ve developed an informal list of places that my houseguests usually end up at when we meet up in the evenings. Some will remain Trade Secrets (Want to know my best houseguest haunts? Crash at my place for a few days), but others have definitely been mentioned on this blog before or should be in the future, including Bodrum Manti, Falafel House, Akdeniz Hatay, Dubb (protip – top floor at Dubb has stunning views of the Hagia Sofia, and it’s one of the better Indian food options in the city. Might want to make a reservation so you don’t get relegated to a lower, still-charming-but-sceneryless floor), Çiya (I think every single expat in this city has been to and is expected to highly approve of Çiya. It’s quite good, but not exactly hidden.), a fish place, and usually the Sublime Portal’s Thursday expat meetup. I am apparently a bit of a creature of habit.
Not to sound my own horn, but my houseguests and I often end up having ridiculously awesome experiences. C. came to visit in May this year; on our way back to my flat one evening we stumbled across a soap opera being filmed quite literally directly across the street from my flat. We stopped to ask the owner of the restaurant that was serving as the set which dizi it was (Ömre Bedel, apparently; it’s about a “bitter love”. Aren’t they all.) and half a minute later were ensconced smack dab in the middle of the production, looking over the shoulders of the director and sipping tea. Later, in between filming a scene of a dinner party and a scene where a man storms in to the dinner, we got pumpkin/cream dessert and chatted with the production crew. This is why my restaurateur neighbors are awesome.
When E. came to town in March of this year, we set off to Gebze, in a trip that served as the basis of my Gebze post. E. was back in town last week, and this time around we went to Istanbul Fashion Week, where we loaded up on some good swag and soaked up all the high fashion Istanbul had on offer (also the free iced coffees. It was hot out.). My houseguest S. and I ended up noshing on grilled ostrich on a balcony overlooking the Mediterranean. And when K. came to town, we ended up in Antakya, site of the first church in the world, for Easter services. The moral of this story is clearly that if you are my houseguest in Istanbul, unexpected but amazing things will happen. Because my Istanbul is unexpected and amazing and full of visitors.

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This is my Istanbul: Hidrellez May 17, 2010

Filed under: Events — Rebecca @ 10:11 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

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During my time in Ankara I’d heard vague stories of a holiday celebrated each spring where girls wrote down their wishes for husbands, houses, etc. on slips of paper and buried them under rosebushes, but never really figured out what it was all about. Thanks to a few fortuitous events, I’ve figured out the holiday and now started celebrating it here in Istanbul. The mystery holiday? Hidrellez.

Hidrellez is a bit hard to pin down accurately, because it’s truly more of a mishmash of coming-of-spring rites melded together from the Caucasians, Central Asians, Anatolians, Balkans, etc. There are both Muslim and Christian elements – in fact, although the holiday is celebrated on May 5/6 in the Gregorian calendar, Wikipedia tells me it’s celebrated on April 23 in the Julian: April 23 is St. George’s Day, and the Greek Orthodox celebrate it with a whole lot of rituals eerily similar to the Hidrellez traditions, down to making wishes on slips of paper.

Hidrellez at its most essential welcomes the coming of spring, or I guess more accurately truly warm weather. In Muslim tradition it’s the day that the prophet Al-Khidr (or Hizir) met the prophet Elijah (or Ilyas) – the name Hidrellez is a portmanteau of Hizir and Ilyas. Hizir is apparently considered a saint and is very important in Sufism (the whirling dervishes, among others). He appears with a long white beard and is said to be immortal. Once a year, if you ask nicely and if he feels like granting, you may petition him with your wishes. He has the power to grant wishes, which he does when he feels the wishmaker is well-meaning and benevolent. While it seems that traditionally the wish-making is done almost solely by women, at Istanbul’s Hidrellez festival I saw both men and women making their yearly wishes. This is accompanied by lots of folk songs, and later at night people jump over fires.

On to Hidrellez in Istanbul: Hidrellez is still very much a traditional village celebration, so I was surprised to literally stumble into Istanbul’s official Hidrellez celebration on my way home from work on May 5. Apparently about a decade ago the celebration started out as a street Hidrellez festival, and grew steadily until the municipality stepped in to manage it and then move it off the streets because it was just so big. Currently, Istanbul’s Hidrellez is held at Ahirkapi Park, on the shore of the Marmara about midway between Sirkeci and Yenikapi.

Istanbul’s Hidrellez is half traditional Hidrellez and half Springfest. Following the crowds of people headed towards the entrance, I saw more beer being sold on the side of the street than I’ve ever seen in my neighborhood, total. The dress code seemed to be boho/gypsy skirts, flowers, ribbons, and scarves in your hair. I saw a fair number of fedoras as well. It was also most decidedly bring-your-own-tambourine. Once in the gates, it was utter mayhem. People everywhere. The municipality’s website said in 2009, over 100,000 people attended, and they were expecting more this year. There were smaller tents and stages set up with musicians and dancing, but the main eye-draw was the giant pole (looked like a May Pole) set up with ribbons fluttering down and liberally covered with scraps of paper and fabric. This was the wish tree. Actually, there were several smaller wish trees surrounding the main pole as well, to hold the sheer volume of wishes. Some people came prepared with their wishes already written out, but the municipality had paper and pins for those of us last-minute wishers.

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In addition to the wishing tree, Istanbul’s Hidrellez had a large open area with commercial booths, large statues and figures of Hizir to take your photo with, and other things that wouldn’t be out of place at a country fair. Past the food booths, though, was the second main attraction: the main stage. Istanbul’s Hidrellez has turned into a bit of an outdoor spring concert, with Balkans music, beers, and in-crowd tambourine-offs. All quite fun, if not at all part of the traditional Hidrellez celebrations.

Hidrellez is a new part of my Istanbul. Now that I know what’s behind the wish-burying and –tying, I can’t wait for next year’s celebration of spring and hopes and kismet, with a little concert thrown in, because burasi Istanbul.

Hidrellez
Evening of May 5; sometimes April 23
Ahirkapi Parki, Eminonu

 

This is my Istanbul: Hamams May 1, 2010

Filed under: Places — Rebecca @ 3:56 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

Local hamam in Fatih

Hamams have an odd perception in the West. Thanks to a series of Orientalist paintings of “hamam scenes” or “Turkish bath scenes,” mention to the average American that you’re heading to a hamam for the afternoon and if they don’t look at you blankly they’re a little perturbed.
I can’t speak for men’s hamams (sorry guys), but women’s hamams are just great. They’re relaxing, a great traditional experience, intercultural exchange, and fantastic for your skin. My introduction to hamams was in Ankara, so I’m much more familiar with the more traditional, neighborhood-style hamams than the touristy ones in Istanbul. I have been to Cemberlitas, though, and it was beautiful.
Going to hamams is a social experience; back in the day you’d go to the hamam with your friends and your kids, bathe the kids, and catch up on gossip with all your neighbors. The conversation was vital – decisions on whose son should marry whose niece were made at the hamams, or at least debated at length there.

Nowadays there’s less marriage-matching, at least among the yabancis going to hamams. But they’re still awesome. I would recommend the touristy ones for people who’ve not had the hamam experience before. In Istanbul, that pretty much means Çemberlitaş or Çağaloğlu hamams (those ğ’s are mostly silent). Çemberlitaş was built by Mimar Sinan in 1584 and is situated right at the Çemberlitaş stop on the tramway. It is beautiful inside. Çağaloğlu was built in 1741 and is on Yerebatan Caddesi, so down the street from the Basilica Cisterns. I’ve never been to Çağaloğlu, but it was featured in Indiana Jones and also was the scene of a Kate Moss photoshoot for W magazine in 2008, so it’s pretty famous and also gorgeous. At both, the staff are very used to foreign visitors who’ve never experienced a hamam before. They also generally speak a bit of English, German, French, etc. Actually, the attendants when I went to Çemberlitaş spoke more English than they spoke Turkish. But I digress. Because so many of the hamamgoers are tourists, there’s very little full nudity, at least when I was at Çemberlitaş. It’s a bit of a conveyor belt of an experience: after everyone in your group (and I do recommend going hamaming as a group, at least 2 or 3 people) gets down to their skivvies, you’re shepherded along to the hot room, where you hang out on the large central marble stone while waiting for your skin to heat up. After awhile, you’re scrubbed down by one of the hamam ladies, then you retreat to the side of the chamber to rinse at a marble basin before getting a massage, if you’ve paid for a massage. It’s fairly efficient, but also relaxing and a fun experience especially if you’ve not been to a hamam before.

The more traditional hamam I’ve checked out in Istanbul is the Cinili (“tiled”) Hamami, in Uskudar. As the name suggests, the hamam is famed for its tiles. I’d comment on them, but the tiles are on the men’s side, so I’ve never seen them. It was built in 1640, commissioned by Kosem Sultan, a powerful valide sultan or mother of the sultan. Even without the tiles, it’s a very pretty hamam. When you walk in, your group gets a changing cabin, towels and hamam sandals; once everyone’s toweled up (the only bathing suits you’ll see at Cinili, and at most local hamams in my experience, are on the hamam attendants; this is one of the main differences between local and tourist hamams and also apparently entirely not true on the men’s side) you head through a large wooden door to the hot room, liberally dousing yourself with water from one of the many marble basins around the room’s perimeter and catching up on gossip. Once your skin is sufficiently warmed up and such, you get the full scrub-down by a hamam lady on the marble slab in the middle of the room, complete with recriminations in Turkish about how much dead skin yabancis have and how we just don’t exfoliate enough. Then, after some rinsing and hair-washing, it’s massage time, then rinsing again, and then a nice sit-down session in the sauna before ambling out to normal temperatures and a restorative glass of tea.

The biggest differences between the touristy and local hamams are the atmosphere and the price: the full works plus buying a kese (scrubby cloth) at Cinili will set you back 33 lira, plus maybe 5 as a tip for your hamam lady. At the tourist hamams, you’re looking at 60 lira without a massage, before tipping. Still, the tourist hamams have beautiful interiors and are much less daunting for the first-time or linguistically challenged hamamgoer. Also, they’re really convenient to Sultanahmet and more reliable – if you just walk into a local hamam you find while exploring, it might be a little sketchy. I love the atmosphere of the local hamams and find the service generally better as well. There’s a pretty fantastic hamam review website if you’re looking for a different hamam or one that’s closer to you.
Hamams are not an everyday, or even an every week thing for me, but they are so very much a part of my Istanbul. It’s a relaxing communal and cultural experience almost impossible to replicate outside Turkey. I think everyone should visit a hamam at least once, and hopefully time and again. I find the process cathartic.

Çemberlitaş Hamami
At the Çemberlitaş tramway stop
TL 60ish, depending on what’s included

Çağaloğlu Hamami
Down the road from the Yerebatan Sarnici
30-50 euros
(Note: I’d recommend checking around online before heading to Çağaloğlu)

Çinili Hamami
Çavuşere Caddesi No. 204, Uskudar
TL 28-33

Hammam Guide: A guide to hamams of Istanbul

 

This is my Istanbul: Yerebatan Sarnici March 21, 2010

The cisterns are pretty dark. As is this photo.

Once you live in a city for awhile, the things that typically draw the tourists become a  little less of a personal draw. Yes, the Blue Mosque is a must-see, but it’s not a five-time or 10-time must-see. It’s not even the best of the big Mimar Sinan mosques (I’m sure that will be a later post).

My personal exception to the diminishing utility of major Sultanahmet sites is the Yerebatan Sarnici, or Basilica Cisterns. I drag all my visitors through, even though it is not covered by my hard-won MuzeKart.

The cisterns were built somewhere around 500AD, or somewhere around 200 years after the Hagia Sophia. During the Byzantine period, they supplied water for the palace that was brought down from the Belgrade Forest via a pretty impressive network of aqueducts.

After the conquest, the Ottomans used the cisterns as well, although apparently for a while they were completely forgotten: According to lore, people in the neighborhood found out that they had neato magic basements, with small holes that one could drop a fishing line down and actually catch fish from. Eventually a visitor to the area climbed down one of those small holes and realized that actually the houses were on top of a giant subterranean water storage chamber.

The cisterns today are just gorgeous – they were restored in the 1960s and the 1980s, and have been lit with dim, colored lights with ethereal classical music piped in. There are still shoals of fish busying themselves in the water. The columns used to build the cisterns were repurposed from other projects around 6th century Constantinople, so as a result there’s quite a variety. My favorite is one with little spirals all over it; it’s a greeny-blue color.

One of the big draws of the Basilica Cisterns is the Medusa heads. At the foot of two pillars in a back corner of the cistern are large marble Medusa heads. One is sideways, while the other is upside down. It’s pretty incredible that they’ve survived so long, and in such decent condition. No one really knows how they ended up shoring up columns in a cistern, but as this is Turkey there are dozens of theories to choose from.

I enjoy the mood of the Basilica Cisterns. In the summer, it’s a cool, welcome respite from the utter havoc that is Sultanahmet. It tends to be quieter than the other big tourist sites nearby (Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque), with fewer touts to boot. It’s a great place to chill mid-sightseeing, or to just stop by just because. The Yerebatan Sarnici is my Istanbul.

Yerebatan Sarnici

Yerebatan Caddesi 13

Sultanahmet

Admission TL 10 / TL 3 for Turkish students or those who speak enough Turkish to convince the ticket sellers that they’re Turkish students

Official website (English, Turkish, etc)