Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Big Trip: Eastern Greece!

The Where: 
Our first trip of course had to be to be the beautiful city of, well,...(Quickly, lets get the cliche song reference out of the way), whether you call it Istanbul or Constantinople we don't really care. 

For point of reference, I have supplied the most accurate and appropriate Greek Map.  While many might say we left the country, Greeks might just say we're time-sharing it.
The Rough Start:
We arrived into Istanbul around 9am having slept through the incredibly short 1 hr flight.  After buying our visa permits, and exiting customs I stopped at the ATM to withdraw some Lira:

Yup. Pretty horrifying. So, I'm standing in a country now with my AAA Travel Card  (like a gift card with money), which for some reason wasn't working either, and my debit card has been swallowed into the depths of the Citibank ATM. Without a single Lira, Euro or Dollar, I joined Matt and our Hotel Driver and we head to the hotel.

Our hotel was in the perfect location less than a two minute walk to Agia Sofia and the Blue Mosque. Down below, was their restaurant which had some of the best food from our trip. Huge puffy bread with amazing kebab dishes. The restaurant was a favorite of Jimmy Carter, so the walls are bedecked with photos of President Carter and the Restaurant-Hotel Owner.

View of Ayia Sofia from our rooftop


We went and visited Agia Sofia, the huge Greek Orthodox Byzantine Cathedral-turned Mosque. The frescos were stunning, and the combination of Christian and Islamic art made it truly unique.

We also went and saw the underground cistern which looked oddly like a subterranean Venice, with columns and lighting and walkways through the water. It was too dark for photos but there were some REALLY weird looking fish living in the cistern. They were breathing out of the water and were just totally creepy looking.

Of course, we walked around the square and saw the Blue Mosque! Vendors all around were selling grilled corn on the cob and roasted chestnuts.

the Blue Mosque
Of course, the highlight of our trip was most likely the Spice Market! We wandered through the indoor spice market where dozens of vendors sold all kinds of spices, teas, and Turkish Delights imaginable. As foodies we were in heaven. We bought 1/2 kilo of Turkish tea, which will supply us into perpetuity. SO MUCH TEA.  We also bought curry powder, garam masala, blooming jasmine-balls, cinnamon sticks and saffron! If we had had the space we would have gladly bought tons and tons more spices.

Our next stop was to the Grand Bazzar where all the shop owners were hawking their wares and were desperately trying to get us to buy their stuff. Somehow, unbeknownst to us, we found ourselves in a rug store where it turns out Seth the Carpet Man (as we affectionately call him) used to work and live near Princeton NJ and it seems that my mom might have purchased rugs from him a few years back!
In the end, we bought a woven geometric patterned rug. Intending to offer a price so low he wouldn't sell us the rug and thus allowing us to politely escape somehow became an incredible bargaining feat and we walked out with rug in hand.
Me with our brand new rug!!!
Wandering through the streets, we stumbled upon open markets and shops, dozens of mosques and even  the Istanbul University!

The Istanbul University

Kitty in an Urban Jungle
As proper archaeologists we toured the Archaeology Museum:

Living the life of Riley:

Really, when we weren't walking our feet off we were eating and sipping turkish tea and lounging around.

Everyone in Turkey goes to little cafes and orders either turkish tea or apple tea (surprisingly good!) and spends hours chatting or smoking hookah(water pipe, aka nargile).

Matt playing the local.

Lounging in the pillows!

One night, we went to the Bridge to Asia and got dinner on the lower deck where all the best fish restaurants live. We had the greatest view of the Bosphorus and all the boats coming in and out of istanbul, and DEFINITELY ate some of the best fish ever.

The Bosphorus 

On our last day in Istanbul when it was cold and rainy, we decided to go to a traditional Turkish Hamam. I originally wasn't too keen on the idea because I thought that it would be filled with half-naked old turkish ladies. However, we saw lots of touristy hamams and heard at our hotel how nice and relaxing and wonderful of an experience it was. 
(These pictures aren't ours, I took them from our Hamam's website )

Inside the Hamam.
The Process: You enter the hamam and you sign up for what type of bath you want from a minimum soak and steam or a soak steam and scrub/foam massage. (We of course went for the scrub and rub in addition to our steam and soak, when in Rome right?)

Then, the ladies in the locker room provide you with a cloth towel you wrap around yourself and your bathing suit or the available disposable bikinis. Once you're dressed you go into the main hot room and lie on the large marble platform for a while getting all warm and sweaty and relaxed. 

The steam and scrub
Eventually, once you're all nice and hot a lady will call you over and proceed to scrub all the dead skin off your body. Once you're nice and pink and raw, she'll suds you all over with a ton of bubbles and give you a pretty quick massage.

The soak
You then get all rinsed off and can choose to either go back and steam on the rock some more, continue to rinse off and bathe at the fountains, or go get into the hot hot hot-tubs.  Of course, this was probably the best part and by the time I got out, I felt like jelly. (Poor Matt somehow missed the hot tubs, and was pretty jealous when we got out!)

While initially the experience was a little strange, the hammam was pretty great and totally worth it!

Our short but wonderful trip to Turkey will hopefully be the first of many more adventures this year!!