Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Back to Asia from Istanbul

Good evening from the Turkish Airlines lounge at Istanbul's Ataturk Airport, on my way home to Asia together with some of Travelife Magazine's readers and friends who accepted our invitation to embark on an adventure together and who have journeyed to Turkey for a week of unforgettable adventures. We're all waiting for our midnight flight back to Hong Kong, and most have engrossed themselves in last-minute shopping for Turkish delights, raki, apple tea and other treats only available in this part of the world.

Finally, time for breakfast!

The day began with a lesiurely breakfast at our hotel in Istanbul (which was flying the Philippine flag outside, in honor of the 70 Filipinos staying at their hotel these past two weeks -- we'll bet good money that not too many Turkey hotels have flown the Philippine flag in front of their hotel before!), where I finally found the time to actually sit at the breakfast table and enjoy a plate of crunchy churros with chocolate, and alongside it a plate of feta cheese, honey and croissants. It's a strange combination, I know. But the churros are done very well at our hotel, which is a Spanish chain with a Spanish operations manager; and the second plate is a typical Turkish breakfast which I also just have to have when I am in Turkey.

This entire week in Istanbul, I'd been so busy catching up on emails each morning that I never had time for breakfast. I usually slipped into my front-row seat on the bus a few seconds after 9 am with a chocolate croissant wrapped in a paper napkin in my pocket and a plastic cup of ice in lieu of the buffet breakfast that everyone else was having. But today, we were checking out just before noon so there was lots of time to eat and pack.

Lunch at Cicek Pasaji and dessert at Saray

At noon I took the second Travelife group to Istanbul's Taksim Square area for lunch and a bit of shopping. For both groups who traveled with us to Turkey, I recommended that we chuck out the tour lunch on the last day and head over to the Cicek Pasaji, a beautiful covered street lined with lovely restaurants and cafes that looks very 1920s. It's one of my favorite places in Istanbul, and I just had to take everyone there this time. Fortunately, everyone enjoyed the Cicek Pasaji and the adjoining Istiklal Kaddesi, which is Istanbul's longest and most famous pedestrian avenue. It's really a commercial street now, but in the past it was the most fashionable area of the city, where fashionably-dressed ladies met to shop and have tea and lunc -- just like how Escolta was in its heyday. Many of them ended up following my recommendations, to have lunch at Cicek Pasaji and then to head over to Saray Muhallebisci for those luscious Turkish sweet treats, baklava and kunefe. Most people have an idea what baklava is, but kunefe is a largely unknown quantity (at least until a few weeks ago -- now, about 70 people have tasted kunefe and thet're spreading the word around Manila on just how good it is). It's basically a baked pastry with a bird's nest-type texture laced with honey and gooey cheese inside; and it's best eaten with some cream.

Iskandar donner for a last lunch in Turkey

Today, however, after depositing everyone at Cicek Pasaji, I decided to have a quick lunch by myself at Saray -- I simply cannot leave Istanbul without a last dessert or merienda of kunefe, and this has now become a little ritual -- in order to get a bit of shopping done, as I too was leaving Turkey with the second group. Everything smelled good when I walked into Saray, but the Iskandar donner looked really good. So I got a table for myself right by the cashier and ordered a plate of Iskandar donner (which is basically shawarma in the Iskandar-style), with rice and yoghurt on the side. For dessert, of course I had the kunefe with a dollop of cream. Extremely sinful, I know, but I wouldn't be meeting the kunefe again until next spring at the earliest, so I gave myself some leeway.

Lots of people seem to have lunch alone in Istanbul as the ground floor of Saray was practically filled with solo diners. And when my lunch arrived, I tucked into it with gusto and was very happy I had gone with my instincts to order the Iskandar donner which was spicier than a regular donner. It went extremely well with the pot of yoghurt and the very delicious Turkey rice (pilaf), which everyone on the trip loved until they were told that the rice was whipped in clarified butter, raising fears about cholesterol levels. But no wonder it's so good.

The magical Spice Bazaar

After lunch, I bought a couple of CDs of Turkish music and then we did a bit of sightseeing as it was a gorgeous day again here, before ending our trip at the Spice Bazaar in the old part of town. I'd really marked this time for my purchases of Turkish delight and other edible goodies, as the Spice Bazaar is a great place for this kind of shopping. Interestingly, tourists and locals alike frequent the place, so you're likely to see as many housewives from the Asian side of the city, for instance, as you are to see camera-toting tourists (and today, there were certainly a lot of Filipino tourists at the Spice Bazaar, courtesy of Travelife).

At the Spice Bazaar, I headed immediately for one of my favorite stalls that sold Turkish delight on the pricey side, but everything was really good. As usual, the old men at the stall made me try all kinds of Turkish delight flavors and I ended up buying about two kilos of a special Turkish delight flavored with pomegranate and pistachio to take home. I also picked up a whole lot of herbal teas from them, and again this was completely unplanned. But the smells of the teas were so unsual and so intoxicating that I simply had to buy a bit of everything. Of course it helped that the guy who sold me the tea -- who said he had previously been a journalist and was now studying medicine -- promised me all sorts of things with these marvelous teas: from weight loss and better sleep to a cure for cancer. But when you're sitting right there in the centuries-old Spice Bazaar, you tend to be a little more relaxed about the accuracy of things as it's just so much fun to poke through all the wares and buy all sorts of delightful goodies.

See you all next year!

And now we're headed back to our part of the world and back to reality after a marvelous -- simply marvelous -- two weeks in Turkey meeting 70 of our readers and friends and enjoying the opportunity to show them a city and a country we're crazy about. It's been such fun meeting everyone, and a great joy in particular to meet faithful readers who read every word of our magazine and love it.

And a phrase we heard over and over again was simply music to our ears: "Count us in for the next Travelife tour."

Next year, Travelife Magazine plans to formally offer incredible experiences in Morocco, Turkey (Istanbul + Capadoccia), South India and off-the-beaten track Japan, among others. We hope you'll consider joining us on a trip -- or many trips -- of a lifetime.


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