Hodjapasha Turkish Folk Dancing

I booked a whirling dervish performance through my hotel in Beyoğlu – or so I thought…. Communication isn’t always easy in Istanbul since few people speak English. The person I usually ask for help wasn’t available, so I talked to a Turkish concierge who misunderstood me. Instead of the Mevlevi sema ceremony, he booked me for a cultural show of traditional Turkish folk dances. The surprise turned out to be an incredibly entertaining Saturday evening!

The talented dancers performed expressive harem, traditional, and belly dances from diverse cultures and regions throughout Turkey:

The music, choreography, and costumes were extraordinarily! I had a front seat, and the strength and talent of the young dancers was impressive. The principal belly dancer performed several flawless solos, and the fire dance was spectacular!

Amateur photography – no flash – was allowed. I plan to start using video but need practice first. Parts of the dance performance would have made incredible video. This website has video versions of most dances performed last night.

Turkish Doumbek Drum

Hodjapasha is in Istanbul’s Fatih District and their performances are held in a transformed 15th-century Hamam. The performance area has a circular glass dance floor and a musician’s stage. Spectators sit around the circular floor surrounded by dramatic lighting and decorations that turn the intimate space into a mystic place!

I saw a sema performance several years ago and wanted to attend another. Sema, a Turkish custom inspired by Mevlana Celaleddin-i Rumi, is a religious ceremony. The entirely different dance performances last night opened a new chapter of Turkish culture for me – understanding these diverse regions and their influences on the country!

Traditional Turkish Bath

Vezneciler Turkish Bath Göbek Taşı

Yesterday I experienced my second Turkish Bath – Hamam. Travel can be stressful and a sauna, soak, scrub, and massage sounded appealing. Hamams in Istanbul are inexpensive and the one I visited – Vezneciler Turkish Bath – in Fatih District is said to have “curative water” – yeah!

Vezneciler Turkish Bath

Ottoman Ruler Sultan Beyazid II built the small traditional Hamam in 1481. Renovated in 1950, the private bath opened to the public to provide income for the madrasa.

Why take a Turkish Bath?

The benefits of a Turkish bath include:

  • Deep cleansing the skin
  • Discharging toxins from the body
  • Accelerating blood circulation
  • Stimulating the immune system
  • Improving muscular and arthritis pain
  • Helping heal respiratory issues by expanding air passages
  • Diminishing inflammation

Vezneciler Turkish Bath

The woman who helped with my Hamam was gentle, but it’s an extremely thorough process which I’ll try to explain below. I highly recommend having a Hamam – but parts of the procedure are not comfortable. The result – feeling clean, rejuvenated, vibrant, and refreshed – is well worth any discomfort.

Lathering

Turkish Bath Procedure

Loosening Up

The first step is relaxing and “loosening up” your body. It’s important to sweat during this process. After undressing and wrapping myself in a Turkish towel, I proceeded to the marble Hamam room and the heated central marble platform. No one else was in the room, and it was totally silent. I laid flat on my back on the heated platform for about 15 – 20 minutes. I was looking up at a large circular ceiling dome with small round holes where the sun was shining through in golden beams.

Sauna Vezneciler Turkish Bath

“The loosening up part of the Hammam process is a perfect time to explore the architecture of a Turkish bath. In most cases, an impressive room completely covered in marble featuring a big dome, several decorative water basins, and an impressive göbek taşı – the central, raised platform above the heating source.”

Vezneciler Turkish Bath

While I slowly “baked” on the marble slab and wondered how long it would take to become well done – suddenly the attendant came back to save me. She led me into an adjoining room with an extremely hot sauna where I remained for another 15 looooooong minutes. If the marble slab seemed hot – yikes for the sauna!!! I tried to relax but just as I was about to wimp out and escape the sauna, the attendant came back, handed me a bottle of water, and led me to the “scrubbing” room.

Türk Hamam

Soaking and Scrubbing

The soaking, scrubbing, and washing part of the Hamam process took place in a small room off the göbek taşı next to an ornate water basin. The attendant soaked my body with soap and warm water and while slippery and wet I received a “peeling” with a rough cloth mitt (kese) used to scrub and exfoliate the skin. A finer mitt was used for the face and neck.

Washing, Rinsing, Cooling, Oil Massage

The vigorous scrubbing was followed by a second more thorough lathering with a sudsy cloth swab and a wet full-body massage – head, face, and hair included – then a refreshing rinsing with cold water! After the bath, I sat in the tea room covered in Turkish towels and sipped a cup of green tea followed by a 30-minute oil massage – absolute heaven!

Bath Circular

The Hamam sends a driver to your hotel to pick you up and then takes you home afterwards – an excellent idea since at the end of a Turkish bath you’ll be feeling a bit rubbery. Ladies should lose any thought of maintaining their hair or makeup during the process.

Dome Vezneciler Turkish Bath

There was no opportunity to take photos so I’ve attached media shots from the Vezneciler Turkish Bath website. In comparison, the experience was like the first Hamam I had in Cappadocia several years ago. It’s a lighter version of massages experienced at an Ayurvedic spa in South India about 10 years ago. Those intense body cleansing treatments and deep tissue massages have no rival!

Bosphorus Day Cruise to Anadolu Kavağı

Yesterday I took an excursion from Eminönü to Anadolu Kavağı, a small seaside village on Macar Bay at the entrance to the Black Sea. It was a mesmerizing day enjoying astonishing views of Istanbul and the Bosphorus!

In a matter of hours, the weather changed from partly cloudy to overcast to clear and back again. Even with sunscreen, I got sunburned. The ferry leaves Eminönü at 10:30 and returns at 5:30 – we had less than 100 passengers, a mere handful on the huge boat. The excursion cost 25 Turkish Lira ($7).

Houses Along Bosphorus

Tea Garden Near Yoros Castle

Including stops to pick up passengers, it took about two hours to get to Anadolu Kavağı. Before the trip I was getting bridges, palaces, and mosques mixed up – now, I’m even more confused. From the middle of the Bosphorus you can spot landmarks and Istanbul’s different districts and neighborhoods – Ortaköy, Arnavutköy, Kanlıca, Bestikas, Karakay, Uskudar, Sultanahmet, and many more places with long Turkish names …. I lost count of the number of bridges we passed.

Anadolu Kavağı

Trail to Yoros Castle Overlooking Macar Bay

Yoros Castle and Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge

The boat anchored at Anadolu Kavağı for several hours, giving passengers time to enjoy lunch at a seaside restaurant, take a walk, drink cay in a Turkish tea garden, or climb to the ruins of Byzantine Yoros Castle. With the help of a local fisherman I found a beautiful, less-traveled shortcut to the castle. At the vista point, I gasped at views of the Black Sea, Bosphorus, and Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge!

Ferry on Macar Bay Near Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge

Yoros Castle

The Byzantines built Yoros Castle in 1190 to protect the straits. The fortress originally had eight massive towers and was restored and reinforced by the Genoese in the 1300s and later by the Ottomans. Today it’s a military protected area.

Meeting of the Seas – Marmara and Black

Anadolu Kavağı is like “a gate opening from the Marmara to the Black Sea”. After climbing to the castle – the reward is nature’s spectacular treat – unforgettable views of “green turning blue” when the Sea of Marmara meets the Black Sea!

Bosphorus Dinner Cruise

Dolmabahçe Camii at Dusk

Over the weekend, I went on a Bosphorus dinner cruise with traditional Turkish music and dancing – hoping it would be as enjoyable as the Vltava River cruise in Prague. It was completely different from what I imagined but lots of fun!

Ortaköy Camii and Bosphorous Bridge

I sat at a table with three lively women travelers in their 30s. One was an Australian now living in England and the other two, friends from California’s Santa Cruz. They were well-traveled with interesting lives and so much fun! The other cruise members were mostly Turkish families with children under ten.

We enjoyed chatting and dancing and it was fun hanging out for the evening. They were on 2 – 3 week trips and unlike me, spending only a few days in Istanbul. It was a rainy evening so going outside to take photos was difficult, but I managed a few interesting shots and got wet again….

Palace on the Bosphorous

When the weather clears, my plan is to spend time riding day and night Bosphorous ferries to explore the Princes’ Islands and admire Istanbul from the water. I booked a Hodjapasha dervish performance this weekend and am looking forward to it! The dancers perform in the circular of a 550-year-old converted Hamam – Turkish Bath.

Hillside Mosque at Dusk

Topkapi Palace Istanbul

Chamber Sacred Relics

During a previous visit I slighted Topkapi Palace, but made up for it by spending the better part of a day exploring the massive complex. The palace chambers are as entertaining to see as views of the Golden Horn are difficult to describe! Musical compositions have been written to praise the beauty of Topkapi Palace and its extraordinary views of Istanbul’s Bosphorus Strait.

Theodosian Wall of Constantinople

It rained late in the afternoon, and I got soaked. While it was raining hard, a Turkish man let me share his umbrella to walk between pavilions. I haven’t learned to read Istanbul clouds, but clearly the ones yesterday meant business. The blustery weather created dramatic skies and a great backdrop for Istanbul’s famous skyline.

Bosphorous from Topkapi

Topkapi History and Ottoman Sultans

Construction of the Topkapi Palace complex completed in 1478. The complex sits at the tip of the peninsula between the Bosphorus and Golden Horn.

“For almost four hundred years, from the time of Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror until the thirtieth Sultan Abdulmecid, Topkapi Palace was the residence, administrative, educational, and art center of the Ottoman Dynasty. In the mid 19th century, the Ottomans moved to the Dolmabahçe Palace, but Topkapi preserved its importance in Turkish history.

“The Ottoman dynasty ruled the Ottoman Empire from c. 1299 to 1922. During the Empire’s history, the sultan was the absolute regent and head of state. At times power shifted to other officials such as the Grand Vizier, the Prime Minister.”

After the Republic of Turkey formed in 1924, Topkapı Palace became a museum. The first museum of the Turkish Republic and one of the biggest palace-museums of the world, Topkapi Museum covers about 300,000 square meters (3,229,173 sq. ft.). It includes Turkish baths, mosques, schools, and a hospital! The complex has a Roman Wall – known as the Theodosian Wall of Constantinople – separating it from the city.

Topkapi Grounds

An array of gardens, chambers, courtyards, pavilions, architecture, and collections surround Topkapi Palace, including:

  • Hagia Irini Church
  • Alay Square – first palace courtyard
  • Justice Square – place for the state administration meetings
  • Gate of Felicity – entrance into the Sultan’s private quarters
  • Chamber of Treasury
  • Pavilion of the Holy Mantle and Relics
  • Tower of Justice
  • Inner court – wards and structures belonging to the Palace School

The interiors of some of the rooms and mansions in the palace complex are exquisite examples of the “classical mosque architecture of Ottoman art”!

  • Marble Sofa
  • Sofa Mosque and Pavilion
  • Chamber of Sacred Relics
  • Baghdad Pavilion
  • Revan Pavilion
  • Mecidiye Mansion and Esvab Chamber – last buildings constructed

I had a map and audio guide – but it was still confusing following everything.  The Portleri Section with Sultan portraits was one of my favorites. The ornate domes throughout the complex were fascinating. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Culture and Tourism Minister Nabi Avci, recently welcomed a new oil painting depicting the Osmans.

Ramadan in Istanbul

Istiklal Caddesi at Night

After a few days in Istanbul, I’m smitten with this vibrant, diverse, exotic city where things are always in motion! Communication is slightly more difficult than I remembered, although I can communicate with a few people at my hotel.

Chestnuts

None of the flight attendants on Turkish Airlines spoke English. When I asked for details about landing and immigration procedures provided in Turkish, I got the “deer in the headlight” look. The plane landed away from the terminal, so we disembarked down the plank and took a bus to immigration. I followed the other passengers – they were stoic and focused on getting to the front of any lines. I made my way through passport control and discovered I had to get a visa (30 Euros cash) not at but BEFORE immigration. The immigration officer reprimanded me.

Istiklal Caddesi Musician

Turkey isn’t a member of the European Schengen countries that “abolished internal borders with other member nations and have unrestricted movement of people, goods, services, and capital”. I knew a Turkish visa was necessary but was mistaken thinking that it could be issued when passing through immigration – lesson well learned.

Blue Mosque

I felt rattled and hoped I’d make it to the baggage carousel in time to retrieve my luggage. After waiting in the passport control line, then walking to the visa counter to pay for my visa, passing immigration a second time, and finally finding the right baggage carousel, the other passengers had already collected their luggage. Someone removed mine from the carousel and placed it aside – so lucky my baggage was still there and unharmed! The other good luck was a patient airport pickup service. I was late, but they waited. I chilled during the ride to the hotel.

Hagia Sophia

Ramadan

In Istanbul, May 27th to June 24th is the 2017 Islamic holy month of Ramadan. It’s a mellow, happy time – a “month of fasting, prayer, empathy, and celebration across Turkey”. During Ramadan, Istanbul is “more special than usual”. “Istanbul-style Ramadan” is liberal compared to other Muslim countries.

Tünel Underground Tram

Ramadan Customs

“During the day, there’s a feeling of anticipation in the air. The multiple calls to prayer are vivid. After sunset, it’s a festive atmosphere with music and lights. Trees are draped with fairy lights and mosques display sparkling celebratory messages between their minarets. Families and friends come out together to promenade. Stalls sell religious items and provide traditional snacks for children.”

Except for the more conservative Muslim districts, restaurants, bars, and clubs are generally open as usual. They become busy at sunset – the time for fast to be broken, called iftar in Turkish. Some restaurants offer a special banquet-like iftar menu with unusual dishes on display – an opportunity to taste something new!

Mosque Cat

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“In Istanbul, May 27th to June 24th is the 2017 Islamic holy month of Ramadan – a month of fasting, prayer, empathy, and celebration across Turkey””

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Iftar Table

Even if you’re not Muslim and haven’t fasted you can join an iftar table. Temporary “marquee tents in crowded public areas allow local families to enjoy iftar provided by the neighborhood’s district governors”.  Along Istiklal Caddesi near my hotel, there’s a large iftar picnic. Special foods enjoyed during Ramadan include:

  • Pide – a large baked round flatbread for sharing
  • Güllaç – a milky pudding with pomegranate seeds and pistachio nuts

Baklava

Baklava is one of my favorite sweets, and last night I stopped at a shop along Istiklal Caddesi to buy some of the treats. The person who waited on me explained the various kinds of baklava – he pointed to a special baklava only made during Ramadan – called şekerpare (sheh-ker-pah-reh). Şekerpare is prepared by “baking soft balls of almond based pastry dipped in thick lemon-flavored syrup”. It’s incredible!

Istanbul and Bosphorus-Map

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“In Turkey, sweet foods symbolize happiness and goodwill, and no special occasion is complete without sweets and candies.”

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Inside Blue Mosque

“Golden baklava baked pastries drizzled with syrup served with rich clotted cream, crumbly homemade halvah with roasted pine nuts, cheese fillings served hot, custards sprinkled with rose water and ground nuts, honey, and strings of walnuts coated in grape molasses. Each version is delicious, but they’re more than that. In Turkey, sweet foods symbolize happiness and goodwill, and no special occasion is complete without sweets and candies. This is especially true of Ramadan, when desserts and candies are an essential part of every meal and a symbol of hospitality to visitors.”

Street Musicians

Ramadan Music

During Ramadan, you hear “nasheeds” – Islamic singers – everywhere. I’ve noticed the sweet exotic sounds made by street musicians playing wonderful traditional Turkish instruments. In some neighborhoods, an hour or so before dawn, “Ramadan drummers and their entourage walk the streets while beating rhythm to wake everyone in time for sahur – the early morning meal eaten before sunrise and fasting.”

Tünel Tracks under Bosphorus

Transportation

On the last day of Ramadan, the streets are hectic with “everyone trying to reach extended family for the three-day Şeker Bayram – also called Eid al-Fitr.” Şeker Bayram marks the end of Ramadan. It’s a busy day on Istanbul’s trams, ferries, and subway.

Galata Tower from Bosphorus

I’m happy in the Beyoğlu (Pera) district on Istanbul’s European side – a quarter block from Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue) which is always hopping! Bought an Istanbul card good for metros, ferries, funiculars, and tramways. Metro and tram connections are nearby. Yesterday I visited the magnificent Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia on the old historic side. I took the Tünel tram that goes under the Golden Horn – an inlet of the Bosphorus Strait – connecting Sultanahmet with Karaköy and Beyoğlu.

Riding the ferries and exploring the amazing islands is next. Istanbul’s skyline is best seen from the water. I’ve become a little lazy about taking photographs, partly because the constantly moving crowds are so intense….

Arrivederci Roma!

These two weeks in Rome have passed so quickly! It’s sad that just as I’m settling in and finally beginning to conquer the Italian learning curve, it’s time to move on to Istanbul.

I sometimes resist the “moving part” of each leg on a long trip – knowing that everything is going to change completely overnight and the orientation process will begin anew ;o(. Once aboard the airplane, it’s better.

Istanbul Mosque

Turkish Airlines seems efficient – but as with all European airlines their baggage rules and allowances are skimpy when compared to the US. Clearly the rules are designed to boost revenue and glean every Euro or Turkish Lira possible from their passengers. They seem to allow MUCH more baggage for people flying from Africa or to the US… Haven’t figured that out yet but there must be a logical reason – to their benefit of course. Qatar Airways has a more reasonable baggage allowance but….

Next visit to Rome I will stay longer and heed suggestions from locals to arrive in October, November, or December when the weather is cooler and there are fewer tourists. Rome is an unbelievably rich city – so much to see and learn here! I’ve attached some uncaptioned photos taken near the Coliseum.

Luca Brasi

Most of all, I will sorely miss the delights of my favorite neighborhood Italian restaurant – Sora Pia. I will always have a soft place in my heart for a waiter there who looks like Luca Brasi (really) from the Godfather. He speaks little or no English but always looked after me and never watched me eat my pasta or frowned when olive oil dripped down my chin! He taught me about “digestivos” when noticing a distraught look on my face after a full meal – starter PLUS primi piatti and secondo piatti!

More later from Istanbul – a huge city of 14.5 million. After the time in Rome, it will be a massive change – basilicas to mosques! I’m prepared for the same Internet restrictions experienced during a previous visit in 2013 – won’t know until I get there. My hotel is in the Beyoğlu district. During the last visit, I stayed in Sultanahmet where most of the major tourist attractions are found.

Istanbul

Ciao!