Coming in Oct: Japan, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Jordan, Istanbul

Using miles to fly Susan and I in biz on this mini round the world trip (except for some local flights, e.g. UAE to Jordan and back)..

Have a day stop in Istanbul (twice!?) where it’s easy to zip into town. Since I missed the Grand Bazaar last time!

Istanbul: Day 6: Çemberlitaş hamam (Turkish Bath)

Executive summary:

I went to the Çemberlitaş Hamamı (Turkish bath), one of the 2 main tourist hamams that is conveniently located next to the eponymous tram stop between the Grand Bazaar tram stop and Sultanahmet tram stop (or a 5 minute walk from the latter). It’s also open from 6am to midnight (slightly shorter hours for women).

It had 3 options at different price points: 45 TL/$26 basic (you clean yourself), 69 TL/$40 inc. being scrubbed by an attendant, or 119 TL/$68 inc. a 30-minute oil massage as well. Tips included.

Tip: go for the middle option – the massage isn’t worth it in my opinion.

Details:

So what actually happens? I did the full monty so that I could give you, my loyal (?) readers, a complete report.

First off, the hamam is fully segregated by sex (unlike German spas). The attendants in each section are of the same sex.

After paying, you get soap and a new glove-like scrubber, and tokens for the extra service(s) like attendant scrub and massage.

In the change area, you get a booth to strip down and wear a peştemal, essentially a wrap-around-your-waist towel. You lock the booth door and take the key on a bracelet, so your clothes and wallet are safe.

Men must keep the peştemal on; apparently women have the option of removing it.

Then you go into the big domed hot steam room (well, it wasn’t actually steamy) and lie down on the big ~10m in diameter) heated circular marble slab in the middle of the room and sweat. It was neither comfortable (lying on hard marble) nor relaxing as the noise from conversations and the attendants’ stainless steel bowls clanging on the marble would echo.

After 20 minutes or so an attendant came to wash me (I don’t know if you can ask him to wait longer; certainly if you wash yourself, you have more control over how long you lie there and sweat). Moving to lie along the edge of the circular slab, he goes through various phases of rinsing, scrubbing with soap (using that new scrubber), rinsing. You lie down alternately face up and face down – face down is particularly uncomfortable, esp. on the knees. That clanging stainless steel bowl I mentioned? That’s used to pour rinsing water over you (the water comes from taps and basins that are situated along the perimeter of the round room.

The attendant also does a little head/neck wrenching that I found rather uncomfortable.

Then he leads you into the side room (neither round nor domed) where you possibly, wait for your turn at the massage (go to next step if you followed my tip to not buy the massage). The massage room had 4 massage tables crammed in it, with 4 masseurs who chattered too much, so again, not exactly relaxing. You do get a new peştemal to wear for the massage (since your first one is wet and sweaty). The oil massage was ok, but I wouldn’t call it a serious massage. And you are left all oily, the kind of oily that doesn’t come off easily in the next step:

Showering in one of a set of private shower stalls (with a new towel to dry yourself off).

Afterwards, you get another peştemal and a large dry towel to wear back up to your change booth, which you open with the key that should still be dangling from your wrist.

Voila!

So did I enjoy it? Yeah, it was an experience that should be done once for sure (minus the massage), but it’s not the best spa experience on the planet.

At Istanbul airport (IST): in Turkish Airlines’ lounge

This is the swishest, largest business lounge I’ve seen yet. Even nicer than the First Class lounge of Lufthansa in Munich (except for less food). Wow, I am very impressed!

Not enough time to thoroughly enjoy it though. More on that later (and on both Turkish Airlines flights).

Istanbul: Mid-way through Day 6 – Grand Bazaar still closed

Saw the interior of the Blue Mosque today (very crowded with tour groups) and the fascinating Archeology Museums this morning (blissfully crowd free). More on that later.

The Grand Bazaar is still closed due to muslim holiday (it re-opens tomorrow but my flight is in the morning), so I need to rethink my (shopping) plans a bit, and maybe do Dolmabaçe palace after all. And finally do the hamam tonight.

Istanbul: laundry done

Yesterday I dropped off some limited laundry (just enough to get me home in a few days) as it cost TL5/$3 per kg to have the laundromat person do it (no self-service)!

One pair of jeans, one sweater, and four sets of t-shrit/socks/underwear cost TL16/$9.

That’s another way that summer travel is easier/cheaper: smaller, lighter clothes to carry and wash!

Istanbul: Day 5 Summary – Bosphorus Cruise, Basilica Cistern

Highlights:

  • Visited the Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sernıcı) – highly recommended!
  • Did a 6 hour Bosphorus cruise, almost all the way to the Black Sea – highly recommended!
  • Enjoyed a cheese börek and çay (tea) for a whopping TL4/$2.30 at lunch today
  • Enjoyed a large vegetarian dinner at a lokanta just off of Istiklal Caddessi for TL8/$4.60 – and they actually had whole wheat bread, a rarity here

Details:
Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sernıcı):

  • TL10/$6, plus an optional audio tour for TL5/$3 (I was in a rush so I skipped that)
  • Cool! (literally and figuratively)
  • Huge 200x70m underground water “tank” with a few hundred Greek temple sized columns holding up the roof
  • Two carved Medusa heads used to prop up two pillars. One head is sideways, and one is upside down
  • Carp swimming in the water
  • History: fell into disuse and was discovered in 16th century by a French archaelogist who noticed locals fishing by lowering a bucket through holes in their floors!

Bosphorus cruise:

  • TL15/$9 or TL25/$14 round-trip, plus an optional audio tour for TL5/$3 (remember ID or TL100 deposit)
  • The basic (public) ferry run starts at 10:30am and takes 90 minutes to reach the furthest of 6 stops: Anadolu Kavağı on the Asian side.
  • 3 hours later, the ferry does the 90 minute multi-stop run back to Eminönü
  • You can get off at any port and catch the return ferry, or take a bus back to town
  • The audio tour added extra info, as well as showing images of the insides of buildings you cruise by, so it’s worth getting.
    Tip: if you have good or noise cancelling headphones, you might want to bring them as the headsets I received flopped a little on my ears (rectified when I put my toque on, as it was cold on the outside deck) and there is a lot of background noise from all the passengers.
  • Tip: show up early to get a good seat on the outside edge of the ferry for easier photo taking.
  • So what do you see? A few palaces and lots of palatial waterfront homes. Wow. In various architectural styles. And of course mosques, neighbourhoods on the waterfront and on the hills behind them, the boats, the fishing villages, tower ruins, go under 2 bridges connecting continents, etc.
  • At the far end you see the Black Sea where the Bosphorus river begins (apparently the Sea of Marmara by Istanbul old town is 30cm lower than the Black Sea, so you always get a current heading south. And the water does look pretty clean, despite seeing cargo ships and cruise liners.
  • I ended up taking a bus from small Anadolu Kavağı (lots of fish restaurants, and not much else) to Kanlıca (which is the 2nd ferry stop, about half way time-wise up Bosphorus), though there wasn’t much more to see there, before re-boarding the ferry as it headed back, 3 hours later. The bus ride followed the Bosphorus a fair bit through other neighbourhoods, so it was interesting enough and different view than the ferry.
  • There is a “famous” yoghurt made in Kanlıca though I didn’t find it to be anything special (sweet and 3.75% fat). You can buy it on shore or on the ferry.

Photos:

Istanbul: Day 4 Summary – Topkapi Palace

Strange day – sights very crowded, e.g. Topkapi and Blue Mosque, but Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar closed (due to muslim holiday). But Eminönü still very crowded, with traffic jam going northwards over Galata Bridge.

So all I managed today was:

  • Topkapi Palace (overly crowded today – took 3.5 hours, and I skipped some things like the thrones room). The harem was interesting – contrary to popular western belief, it’s where the sultan and his family lived, not just the girls. And the sultan’s mother cracked the whip, so to speak, even telling the sultan which girl he would sleep with when.
    Great building and vistas, but tough place to photograph.Tiring crowds.
    Tip: remember to bring ID for the self-guided audio tour, or an extra 100 TL (I had no ID and only 85 TL extra and had to beg the guy into treating that as enough of a deposit)
  • Took a closer look at the obelisk in the hippodrome
  • Ate (deep)-fried hamsi (anchovies; better than expected with arugula, raw onions and bread) and çerekop, a small blue fish that’s currently in season.
    Hamsi was TL6/$3.50 for a big plate (normally 8 TL) next to Galata Bridge in Karaköy;
    Çerekop was TL10/$5.75, though really, the hamsi was enough of a meal (well, not enough veggies of course).
  • Visited the Blue Mosque (small line this evening) but really need to go back in the daytime
  • I tried to go to the Grand Bazaar but it was closed
  • I tried to go to a hamam but decided on the full monty (inc. massage) and didn’t have quite enough cash with me for that (TL117/$67)

Coming up tomorrow: A cruise up the Bosphorous!

Istanbul: Day 3 Summary – Asian side

(I thought I’d get more blogging done tonight, but I got side-tracked reading up on Turkey tips, shopping and scams, as I believe 2 guys were setting me up for the “let’s have a drink scam” tonight, which I politely declined as I sipped a çay (tea) this evening on a bench between the Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque, both of which are lit up at night)

Today was Sunday and a muslim holiday, so the city was quieter than usual.

Partly due to another late start, the only things I managed to see were:

  • Walked through Gülhane Park next to Topkapi Palace
  • Peeked inside the Istanbul train station, where the Oriental Express used to terminate
  • Took a ferry to Kadiköy on the Asian side, and after a bus ride, back from Üsküdar
    Admittedly I didn’t explore much, but the Asian side was a little disappointing, i.e. it didn’t feel like Asia or particularly different, besides the lack of historical sights; though it did have a fine view back at European side of Istanbul
    Side note: there are in fact two bridges across the Bosphorous linking the continents (one visible from old town), and they are currently building a tunnel as well.
  • Süleymaniye mosque
  • Aqueduct of Valens (large ruins of an aqueduct)
  • Tried some roasted chestnuts (better than I expected)
  • Caved and had a Starbucks latte for TL5/US$3
  • Walked at least 7km today (and no blisters!)

I wanted to take a ferry up the Golden Horn (Haliç), but when I arrived at the terminal it was almost an hour until the next ferry.

I’ve noticed that you can get a döner for as little as TL1.5/$0.86, or as little as TL2/$1.15 with an ayran (yoghurt drink).

There was a kerfuffle at (included) breakfast this morning, which goes from 8:30 to 10:30am. I showed up at 9:45am and the mini buffet was put away! The surly woman simply said “breakfast over!” There were several of us who complained to the front desk guy who argued with her, then put the breakfast stuff back out for the 8 of us (by that time) who would have missed out.

And of course I updated my Istanbul map

Istanbul: Day 2 Summary – Aya Sofya, spice bazaar

(late night power outage while I was writing this kept me from getting photos ready so will follow up tonight)

Day 2 was a day of knocking off more “must-do” items: Aya Sofya, spice bazaar, eat kebaps, drink Turkish coffee, try raki (anise brandy), try Turkish Delights, eat börek, try local pilsener beer Efes and snacks in a meyhane (tavern), walking across Galata Bridge at sunset.
And some not-must-do items, like the New Mosque.
(remember I already ate döner)

Note quite done: Blue Mosque (it was prayer time so I didn’t make it in) and Grand Bazaar (closing time).

Still to do: Topkapi Palace, ferry cruise, hamam, Süleymanyie Mosque, and (maybe) Princes’ Islands.

Istanbul: map in progress

Here is my Istanbul map with the places I’m talking about, to give you some context.
I’ll be adding to it each day.