Friday, June 11, 2010

Glorious Istanbul


ISTANBUL - We arrived early this morning at 4 AM from Hong Kong, after an incredibly pleasant flight on Turkish Airways, which has flat beds and a great a la carte dinner menu in business class. After taking off from HK at 1130 PM, dinner was served and then it was lights out somewhere over China. When we woke up six hours later, it was time for breakfast and then we were descending into Istanbul. There wasn't even enough time to finish the movie.

At the arrivals terminal, we met our guide Ahmed, an enthusiastic young man who had studied tourism and history at a university in the UNESCO World Heritage city of Safranbolu, five hours away from Istanbul by car along the Black Sea coast. "I will be at your service for the next ten days," he said, in a very nice, old-fashioned way. "We will do whatever you wish." It was still an ungodly early hour when we finally drove into Istanbul and across Galata Bridge, and few cafes were open for breakfast.

"Let's drive to Bebek," I requested. Bebek, one of the most fashionable residential areas in Istanbul because of its picturesque seaside setting, has always been one of my favorite non-tourist places. It's filled with million-dollar flats, chic cafes and nightclubs, beautiful buildings and lovely little shops and restaurants; and it has a wide promenade along a yacht harbour for walking around.

If I ever lived in Istanbul, I always imagined getting a penthouse flat in Bebek and having a yacht parked nearby to tool around the islands. "Imagined" is the operative word here, however, although this is certainly one of the things we would do if we won a lottery jackpot.

Bebek was already bustling with fishermen lined up neatly along the promenade with their kits and their big plastic pails. Most of them had probably not even been there an hour but their pails were already full with the bounty of the sea. As I passed by one of them, he handed me his rod and motioned me to reel in my catch. I rolled the fishing rod wire slowly up and there were four fishes dancing along the nylon wire.

"Wow, I've only been in Istanbul an hour and already I've caught four fishes!" I said, rather proudly to my companions, who were frankly not very impressed. If we had had a grill, we would have cooked the fish right then and there with a little olive oil and salt, and eaten it with freshly-baked bread being hawked by an old man with a colorful bread cart.

As I said this aloud, Ahmed said, rather shocked: "Oh, we don't eat those fish for breakfast. We usually only have yoghurt, bread and cheese for breakfast." We had to explain then how in the Philippines, fish such as these were standard breakfast fare along with rice, tomatoes and lots of garlic.

By then, the sun had risen and we were in the mood for breakfast. We headed for a tourist dive a stone's throw away from the Spice Bazaar where we had a standard Turkish breakfast tray each. It had three different kinds of cheese, a bit of ham, assorted breads, a plate of sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, and a little bowl of olives.

Accompanying it was very strong tea. We'd already had a hearty breakfast on the plane so we weren't really hungry, but it seemed healthy and it tasted pretty good so we ended up finishing everything on our plates. Frankly, I think we were just happy to be in Istanbul so we were very easy to please.

From there we proceeded to the Dolmabahce Palace along the Bosphorus, which has been home to generations of sultans and then finally to Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey. I've visited this palace many times before, but it's so lovely inside that I always like seeing it again. We're writing more about this in the October-November issue of Travelife Magazine, but for now, let me tell you about an incident that just made me laugh. We'd been going around the different rooms admiring the beautiful furnishings, all the while accompanied by Ahmed who continuously pointed out objects of note.

"That's a gift to the sultan from Germany," he said, pointing to some large porcelain vases. And then a little later, he continued, pointing to a clock: "That's a gift from Russia." This went on for sometime until we had seen perhaps a dozen gifts from different countries.

When we passed a fire extinguisher along a nondescript corridor, my companion, in his usual deadpan humor way, pointed to it and said to me: "And that's a gift from China." I burst out laughing so loud that Ahmed looked at us quizzically. Of course this sort of perfectly timed joke is very difficult to explain afterwards.

After a morning's sightseeing, we headed to Taksim Square for a bit of shopping. Apparently Taksim is the old Greek quarter of Istanbul. Just diagonally across the square itself is one of Istanbul's main shopping streets lined with clothes shops and eateries that date back to the 1930s and 1940s.

Most of the traditional eateries served Turkish sweets like baklava and a huge fluffy pastry filled with feta cheese that Turks love to have for breakfast. There was also a beautiful art-deco roofed alley -- similar to the ones you see in Paris or Vienna -- filled with lovely bars and restaurants, that we made up our minds to try sometime.

It was also the most fashionable walking and shopping street in the old days, just the way Escolta was. Fashionable Turkish ladies would come to this area in their Sunday best and carry lovely parasols while walking along the street to their favorite tea house.

Today, it's mostly a modern shopping area for young people, although vestiges of its previous elegance still remain in the old tea houses and richly decorated buildings, as well as the presence of many consulates housed in lovely mansions along this street.

We walked the whole road down, endlessly fascinated by the color and vibrancy, as well as by the hustle and bustle around us. On the way back, we rode Istanbul's nostalgic tram back towards where we had left our car and driver, and it really felt like a step back in time. We were seated at the back row, where an old man suddenly spoke to us. I guess we looked pretty exotic to him amidst a sea of Turkish and largely Caucasian faces.

"Where are you from?" he asked us.

"The Philippines," one of us said.

"Oh, Pearl Harbor," he then replied. We had to gently correct him about his geography. Then he smiled at us and said in almost perfect English: "It's wonderful that you young people are traveling about and seeing the world. When I was your age, I once did that too. I spent six months traveling all over Europe. Enjoy and make the most of your time and your travels. I can only wish you luck and godspeed. The football match is finished for me and I'm on my last minutes, just waiting for the end of my life."

His moving little speech ended appropriately at our stop, and with a wave of his hand he bade us farewell. Youth is indeed precious, and travel too a precious oppportunity. Those who can should make the most of their opportunities because it affords an unparalleled education that you can't get through books alone, and shapes your perspectives in a broader way than you can ever imagine. This is precisely the passion on which Travelife Magazine was founded.


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