Princes’ Islands Istanbul

On my last day in Istanbul, I decided to revisit the Princes’ Islands – Kızıl Adalar in Turkish. The Princes’ are a chain of nine small islands in the Sea of Marmara. I discovered them during a visit in March 2013 when I explored Büyükada Island. This time I explored Heybeliada Island.

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Pyrgos Hotel Büyükada Island Istanbul

Princes’ Islands Houses

Festival of Eid-al-Fitr?

Somehow, I got the date of the festival of Eid-al-Fitr confused and incorrectly thought it was Sunday, not Monday. With everyone enthusiastically celebrating, Monday was hectic around Istanbul – especially on Bosphorus ferries!

Ferry Passengers

Ferry Cat

A trip to the islands on Eid-al-Fitr was a unique experience, but not one I would repeat. The overcrowded ferries had people crammed in every corner and standing in the aisles. It took forever to get from Eminönü’ (emmy new new) to the islands. I saw a sign for 453 life jackets – total. There were at least three times that many passengers?!! Unbelievably, the ride back was even more crowded. I got stuck on a level with lots of babies. At the end of the long day, they were hot, tired, hungry, and cross!

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Cafe Heybeliada Island

Frazzled parents tried to soothe and control their children. I watched squabbles between siblings and observed the rare mellow baby “hanging” through the whole hectic ferry ride cute, cool, and never making a sound. I took several “people” photographs, mostly because everyone was so relaxed and festive they didn’t seem to mind. Got a harsh stare from a Muslim woman – but since I wasn’t photographing her…. On the way back, many passengers succumbed to the heat and rocking motion of the ferry and fell sound asleep.

Ferry Passengers

When we finally arrived back at Eminönü’, the Muslim family I’d been hanging out with on the ferry gave me a hug. In their best English, they said “have a wonderful day” ;o) – it was very sweet. Even the naughtiest little boy I’ve ever observed peeked out from behind his mother’s skirt and waved bye, bye…

Turkish Family

About the Princes’ Islands

“The Princes’ Islands evolved from a place of exile during the Byzantine Empire, to a popular destination for tourists and Istanbulites to escape hectic city life.”

Heybeliada Island

Heybeliada Island

Of the nine Islands, four are open to the public:

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Galata Tower from Bosporus Strait

Waiting for Ferry Heybeliada Island

Peace and Quiet on Princes’ Islands

The Princes’ Islands skyline is beautiful with untouched pine-forests and wooden Victorian cottages. In addition to sheer natural beauty, the main feature is silence! Except for ambulances, “motorized vehicles are banned, making the islands an oasis of peace and quiet. Among the sounds heard are bicycle bells and horse hoofs on the cobblestone pavement. That’s right, horse-drawn carriages and bicycles are the primary mode of transportation.”

Ferry Passengers

Heybeliada Island

You can travel to the islands via sea bus (fast ferries) or regular ferries. They depart from Eminönü or Kabataş. Depending on the number of stops, the sea bus trip takes about an hour and the regular ferry twice as long. Neither mode of transportation is expensive. The islands are popular summer spots and colorful clumps of beach umbrellas line the coast. On Heybeliada, I noticed an especially diverse population, with many Greeks and Bulgarians.

Burgazada

Burgazada Island Istanbul

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Except for ambulances, motorized vehicles are banned, making the Princes’ Islands an oasis of peace and quiet.

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Heybeliada Island

Heybeliada Island

The summer sun is strong on the islands, so visitors should be prepared! If you come to Istanbul, the Prince’s Islands are a must see. For smaller crowds and a less hectic trip, I recommend visiting earlier in the day during the week.

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I’m sad to leave Turkey… Next blog post will be from Cape Town!

Hodjapasha Turkish Folk Dancing Istanbul

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

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

The music, choreography, and costumes were extraordinary! 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. Parts of the dance performance would have made incredible video. You can search the Internet for video versions of most dances performed last night.

Turkish Doumbek Drum

Hodjapasha is in Istanbul’s Fatih District. The captivating venue is 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 mystical setting!

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

Mevlevi Sema Whirling Dervish

Traditional Turkish Bath Istanbul

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 soothing. 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 istanbul

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, and refreshed – is well worth any discomfort.

Hamam Lathering Process

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 holes where the sun was shining through in golden beams. For me, this part of the process was meditative and special.

Sauna Vezneciler Turkish Bath

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

Vezneciler Turkish Bath

As I slowly “baked” on the marble slab and wondered how long it would take to become well done – the attendant magically 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 cool bottle of water, and led me to the “scrubbing” room.

Türk Hamam

Soaking and Scrubbing

The soaking, scrubbing, and washing part of the Turkish Bath 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. While slippery and wet, I received a “peeling” with a rough cloth mitt (kese) used to scrub and exfoliate the skin. A finer, less abrasive 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 and spaced out. Ladies should lose any thought of maintaining their coiffure 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 Turkey several years ago. It’s a lighter version of massages experienced at an Ayurvedic spa in Kerala South India about 10 years ago. Those intense body cleansing treatments and deep tissue massages have no rival!

Bosphorus Cruise to Istanbul’s Anadolu Kavağı

Bosphorus Scenery

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 euphoric, mesmerizing day enjoying astonishing views of Istanbul and the Bosphorus Strait!

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 ferry-boat. The excursion cost 25 Turkish Lira ($7).

Houses Along Bosphorus Strait

Tea Garden Near Yoros Castle Anadolu Kavağı

Including stops to pick up passengers, it took about two hours to get to Anadolu Kavağı. Before the trip I was getting bridges, mosques, and palaces mixed up – now, I’m even more confused. From the middle of the Bosphorus you can spot landmarks and Istanbul districts and neighborhoods –  Fatih, Ortaköy, Arnavutköy, Kanlıca, Beşiktaş, Karaköy, Üsküdar, Sultanahmet – and more, all with long difficult to pronounce Turkish names…. It’s beautiful! I lost count of all the bridges we passed connecting Istanbul’s Asian and European sides.

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, allowing time to enjoy lunch at a seaside restaurant, take a walk, drink cay in a tea garden, or climb up 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 incredible panoramic 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 Fortress in 1190 to protect Turkish Straits from invaders. The straits are a “unique system of waterways,” consisting of Istanbul’s Bosphorus, Çanakkale Straits – aka Dardanelles and Hellespont – and the Marmara Sea connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Sea.

Yuros Castle 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 Turkish military protected area.

Bosporus Strait

Sultan_Ahmed_Blue Mosque

Blue Mosque Sultanahmet District Istanbul

Meeting of Two Seas – Marmara and Black

Anadolu Kavağı is like “a gate opening from the Marmara to the Black Sea”. After a climb 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!

Turkish Submarine in Bosphorus Strait

Kavagi Ferry Stop

Kanlica Ferry Stop

Dolmabahçe Palace

Mosque Anadolu Kavagi

Galata Tower

Hillside Houses Along the Bosphorus

Bosphorus Dinner Cruise Istanbul

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 still 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 were friends from California’s Santa Cruz. They were well-traveled with interesting lives and lots of fun! The other cruise members were placid 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 taking photos outside the boat 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 to Istanbul 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.”

Abdulmecid I

Sultan Othman Khan I

Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror

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 fascinating Osmans.

Ramadan in Istanbul

After a few days in Istanbul, I’m smitten with the vibrant, diverse, exotic city where things are always in motion! Communication is slightly more difficult than I remembered from a previous visist, although I’m getting by.

Chestnuts

None of the flight attendants on Turkish Airlines spoke English. When I asked for details about landing and immigration procedures provided in Turkish only, 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, moved quickly, and seemed 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 entry visa was necessary but was mistaken thinking that happened when passing through immigration – lesson well learned.

Blue Mosque

I felt slightly 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 through immigration a second time, and finally finding the right baggage carousel, all the other passengers had already collected their luggage. Some kind person removed mine from the carousel and placed it aside – luckily my baggage was still there and unharmed! The other good luck was a calm, patient airport pickup service. I was late, but they quietly waited for me. I chilled during the ride to my hotel in the Beyoğlu District on the European side of the Bosphorus.

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 even “more special than usual”. “Istanbul-style Ramadan” is lighthearted and liberal compared to other Muslim countries.

Tünel Underground Tram

Ramadan Customs

“During Ramadan, there’s a feeling of anticipation in the air. Multiple calls to prayer are even more vivid. After sunset, it’s a festive atmosphere with music and soft lights. Trees are draped with small, coloured 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.”

Güllaç

Pide

Şekerpare

Baklava Shop

Except for the more conservative Muslim districts, during Ramadan restaurants, bars, and clubs are generally open as usual. They become especially 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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Istanbul 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 pudding with pomegranate seeds and pistachio nuts

Street Musician

Blind Street Musician

Islamic Singers

Young Street Musician

Street Musician

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 Districts

Istanbul Districts

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. Desserts and candies are an essential part of every meal and a symbol of hospitality to visitors.”

Street Musicians Istanbul

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 Tunnel

Tünel Tunnel Bosphorus Strait

Transportation

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

Galata Tower from Bosphorus

I’m happy staying in the Beyoğlu (Pera) district on Istanbul European side – a quarter block from Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue) which is interesting and 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 special Tünel tram that goes under the Golden Horn – an inlet of the Bosphorus Strait – connecting Sultanahmet with Karaköy and Beyoğlu.

Blue Mosque Tiles

Blue Mosque Dome

Riding ferries and exploring the amazing Bosphorus islands is next! Istanbul’s skyline is best seen from the water. I’ve become lazy about taking photos, partly because of the intense, constantly moving crowds. Photographs don’t do justice to Istanbul….