Istanbul: Discovering Galata

For Allison and Kelli’s last couple of days in Istanbul we stayed in the Galata side of Istanbul, across the Golden Horn from Sultanahmet. The main historical point of reference for this area is the Galata Tower, which once was the apex of the Genoese section of the city and was used as a look-out tower with views across the Golden Horn.

Galata Tower

It was nice to stay in a different part of the city–Galata’s scene is very different from the tourist-heavy Sultanahmet area, and feels more like a modern city (or certain parts do, anyway). The main shopping street, Istiklal Caddesi, gives you a good sense of just how many people live in or come through the city:

Istiklal Caddesi

And this was just a typical day. At night it’s equally crowded, and the same number of people squeeze themselves into the narrow side streets, which are lined with restaurants and bars. Many of them are fairly fancy and expensive–people are definitely spending money here.

Speaking of spending money, we finally made it to the Grand Bazaar, although I think the walk through the street markets to get to the Bazaar were more crowded than the Bazaar itself. Turkish people generally shop in the crowded streets outside the Bazaar, where you’ll find anything you can possibly want, and at better prices. Inside the Bazaar it’s still crowded, but the crowds there are generally tourists. It is a huge maze, but you quickly start to see the exact same things for sale at every shop, which makes the place feel much smaller, or like you’re stuck in a space/time warp walking down the same hallway over and over and over again…

Grand Bazaar: Hallway #1

Grand Bazaar: Hallway #2

Grand Bazaar: Hallway #3

One thing you’ll see all over Istanbul; for sale or just hanging from rearview mirrors, stuck on the outside of buildings, dangling on necklaces, or covering your shopping bag are the bright blue charms against the evil eye:

As I understand it, we all have negative energy inside of us which is emitted through our eyes when we look at something/someone with jealousy or hate. This charm draws our eyes, deflecting the negativity away from the source of jealousy. Great idea, but if no one is jealous of you, how do you know you’ve “made it”?

Allison and I also fit in a visit to a local hamam! Eschewing the large, beautiful and expensive “tourist” hamams, we opted for the locals-only hamam recommended by Allison’s guide book. The neighborhood was definitely off the beaten path, and after being waved away from the nice, large, main (men’s) entrance set within a small courtyard, we found ourselves rounding the outside of the hamam to find the women’s small sunken entrance right on a busy street. Humph. We went through the hanging strings of beads and were immediately welcomed by a rather large women wearing nothing but underwear, by which I mean panties only. It was a bit disconcerting, but, you know, all bodies are beautiful. And if you’re going to be hot and wet all day, well, why not?

We asked for a scrub and massage and were led to the changing rooms and given slippers and a towel. The hamam (or at least the women’s section), although built by the famous architect Sinan who built many of the glorious mosques in the city, was a bit run-down and certainly not luxurious. But locals don’t need glamour! After disrobing, two more large and mostly naked women led us to a room with taps in the wall running into basins underneath. They sit you down, pour water over you with a plastic dish (no fancy-pants embossed metal dishes here!) and leave you there to steam and periodically cool yourself off with more water. After quite a while of sitting and sweating, the women came back and had us lie on a large flat marble slab in the center of the room and scrubbed us with (most likely used) washcloths, which really did get the old skin off. We then had a shampoo and a 4-minute massage (remember, our masseuses had on nothing but panties!). Allison, ever the haggler, deftly kept extending her treatment, specifically asking for some hair conditioner and then shoulder-kneading. The hamam woman said “finished” on three different occasions before Allison let her go–now that’s getting your lira’s worth! My skin did feel much smoother than it has in a long time, and it was certainly a memorable experience, but I think I’m good for the rest of my life. Sorry, no photos!

One last experience we had to fit in before Allison and Kelli left was eating a fresh fish sandwich under the Galata Bridge, which connects Galata and Sultanahmet. Fishermen line the top of the bridge, catching small fish, just for sport, I assume, and fishing boats from the sea dock next to the bridge and sell their catch at the fish market.

Men fishing off of the Galata Bridge

Fish in the fish market--the gills are exposed to show they are fresh, I assume, or maybe just for a decorative flash of red.

Grape leaves for sale in the fish market

This, in turn, supplies strings of restaurants along the bridge and on either side. The waiters at the restaurants are very aggressive as they, themselves, fish for customers, but we held out until we found a place that seemed to have only Turkish customers–it must be good, right?

Oh, the anticipation! Fresh fish sandwiches under the Galata Bridge

Unfortunately the fish is really just halved, cooked, and stuck between bread so there are a disturbing number of bones with each bite:

and the disappointment...

And what is even more unfortunate is that sometimes you also get a bellyful of bacteria, as Kelli discovered that night–she was down for the count the whole next day. Food poisoning is NEVER worth it.

On their last full day, Allison and I (minus poor sick Kelli) first went to visit the Pera Palace Hotel, which was built by the Belgian millionaire who built the Orient Express, so that the wealthy passengers on the train would have a suitably expensive place to stay once they arrived in Istanbul. The hotel had numerous celebrity guests, including Agatha Christie, who was rumored to have written “Murder on the Orient Exress” there. The hotel is newly renovated and just reopened, so as we entered through the metal detector (there are metal detectors in numerous buildings throughout the city), a woman met us in the lobby and told us the hotel was closed because the President was visiting that afternoon to officially open the hotel, but that we could look at the lobby and cafe. ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! The President of Turkey is going to be there in maybe 4 hours and they let two foreign women wander through the same door he’ll be entering? Anywhere in the U.S. the hotel and surrounding four blocks (at least) would have been shut down two weeks ahead of time. So we didn’t see much, and the cafe was really overpriced, so our visit was very short. Actually the best part of the story was telling it to poor sick Kelli, and seeing her face light up as she said, “Really!? Obama is going to be here??”

After the hotel we wandered the back streets of Galata, which are incredibly steep and often quite picturesque.

We found ourselves huffing it through fairly traditional neighborhoods, as well as the antique district, which contains primarily small, old, humble shops. The shops have all kinds of interesting things, and if you disturb one of the owners while he is eating lunch, he just might give you a recently hard-boiled egg. From the antique district we went to the Cihangir neighborhood, which is a trendy area full of ex-pats and wealthy Turks, with cool (and pricey) cafes and vintage stores.

On Monday morning Allison, Kelli and I did some last-minute shopping for souvenirs and then they were off! And I was all alone, in Istanbul….


About Stephanie Beck

Exploring the international world of art.
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