I have seen beautiful places in the world…and then I have seen Pamukkale. I separate those two because Pamukkale, with its stark white travertines and milky blue water, needs to be put in a category all its own. It’s downright otherworldly, one of those places whose beauty is so off-the-wall and unexpected that you think Mother Nature must have been a little tipsy when she dreamed it up.
Make no mistake about it; Pamukkale was a place that had been on my bucket list since the day I put it down on paper, and it was one of the things that put Turkey above a few other places for my summer vacation destination of choice. Even though a few months have passed, the views I took in there remain unbelievably beautiful in my mind, undimmed and undiluted.
Turkey is so old it’s intimidating. In America, we get excited if something is more than a hundred years old, since we’re fairly new to the whole “independent nation” game, at least relatively speaking. In the United Kingdom or Japan, it takes something being a few centuries old to become impressive. But in Turkey? If it’s not a thousand years old, it’s basically not considered old. (Case in point: the New Mosque in Istanbul? Four hundred years old.)
There are ruins everywhere you look in Turkey, and I do mean that literally. And they’re often presented without fanfare; they’re just another part of everyday Turkey. One of my favorite restaurants in Sultanahment has remnants of five-hundred-year-old structures in its basement. In Pamukkale, you can swim over columns and flagstones that are over two thousand years old. In Selçuk, you can see the last remaining column of the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and yet it just stands, without any sort of fence or sign or hullaballoo, in a field. Even when they’re crumbling and decrepit, ruins are as much a part of Turkey as kebabs and the Blue Mosque.
If the Grand Bazaar is Istanbul’s haven for shoppers, then the Spice Market is for the foodies. Also called the Egyptian Bazaar (or Mısır Çarşısı in Turkish), it’s the second largest covered market in Istanbul, second only to the Grand Bazaar. Where the Grand Bazaar is filled with stall after stall of jewelry, clothes, carpets, and other myriad souvenirs, the Spice Market – as you might guess from its name – is all about food. While a few shops sell small souvenirs, they’re far outnumbered by their neighbors that purvey all manner of dried fruits, nuts, teas, sweets, and every sort of spice you could wish for.
The Spice Market is located in the Eminönü neighborhood in the Fatih district, only a stone’s throw from the Galata Bridge and directly behind the New Mosque. (Which, incidentally, is four hundred years old. Only in Istanbul would that be considered ‘new.’) Compared to the Grand Bazaar’s maze of corridors, its hundred or so stalls are a dream to navigate.
As you walk down the center arcade, vendors plying Turkish delight will offer you tiny cubes of the gummy, pistachio- and hazelnut-laden stuff in flavors as varied as pomegranate, cinnamon, rosewater, mint, or orange. Other sellers will beckon you into their shops to marvel at the dozens of teas that perfume the air. Powdery piles of red pepper, mint, saffron, and sumac tickle your nose with their pungent aromas.
Some of the best meals I’ve had on the road have been dirt-cheap. A bowl of fresh bhelpuri, bursting with pomegranate seeds and topped with a handful of fresh coriander, on the streets of New Delhi? Fifty cents. A plate of spicy fried rice heaped with loads of fresh vegetables and a fried egg in Indonesia? A dollar fifty. A dozen piping hot buffalo momos in Nepal? That set me back an entire five bucks. Even in Denmark, one of the most expensive countries in the world, a massive (and I do mean massive…it was about the size of my head) slab of apple strudel only cost me about three dollars. In so many cases, I’ve paid for meals abroad by rummaging through the change pocket of my wallet…
If you like your personal space, peak travel season is not for you. That’s definitely the case for Istanbul at the height of summer. The line to get into the Blue Mosque is almost always ungodly long, the Grand Bazaar is crowded with people looking for an amazing steal, and even Gülhane Park’s shady grass is strewn with loungers seeking to beat the heat. Cities are packed with people; it’s – duh – what makes them cities. And sometimes an escape to a quieter place, even for just a few hours, is in order.
In Istanbul, there’s the perfect alternative to the sun-baked asphalt and sweaty throngs: hop aboard one of the Şehir Hatları boats at the Eminönü docks near the Galata Bridge in the mid-morning and sail an hour or two up the Bosphorus River to Anadolu Kavağı, an itty-bitty little town that sits at the mouth of the Black Sea.
If you’re recovering from a shopping addiction, Istanbul – particularly the older, tourist-packed areas like Sultanahmet and Eminönü – is probably not the place for you. From every shop window, golden and silver jewelry winks, rich carpets beg to be touched, and vibrant piles of spices and teas tickle your nose with their pungent scents. I’d love to meet the person who makes it out of Istanbul without having lightened their wallet at least a little bit; they’d have to have a miserly will as unyielding as the strongest iron.
Of all the places to spend your lira in Istanbul, the most famous is probably the Grand Bazaar, a covered market that collects some four thousand stalls that peddle everything from jewelry to lamps to knock-off designer clothing to belly dancing outfits. Ceramics, embroidery, spices, Turkish delight, carpets…they’re all in the Kapalıçarşı (in Turkish, “covered market). Continue reading Shopping Nirvana at Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar→
In August, Istanbul is an oven. The temperatures hover right around ninety degrees, but the swampy humidity and sweaty crowds that mob the sun-drenched city make it seem far hotter. Any place that provides the tiniest bit of shade or breeze becomes a refuge from the heat, be that a marble mosque, a rooftop terrace of a café in Sultanahment, the shady avenues of Gülhane Park, or the air conditioned hallways of a museum. Istanbul’s best place, though, to beat the heat can’t be found in any of those places; it’s underneath them.