Turkey — Day Twenty-six — Istanbul (oud shopping)

Friday, November 2, 2007

We woke early to the endless suburbs of Istanbul rolling by. Breakfast was decent enough, though not quite as good as on the Ankara run – ah, back in the land of salami slice on the breakfast plate! We were back in our cabin in time to pack up and watch the blue Marmara sea disappear behind football stadiums and industrial parks.

We pulled into the train station and discovered the bad thing about first class: the sleepers had been at the ass end of the train the whole time, keeping away from the noisy engine, but now they were the furthest from the exit, and we felt every inch of the marble-covered platform as we pulled the RSFH the length of the train. Knowing that this was the easy stretch didn’t exactly help.

We exited onto the street and went to the same ferry dock that we had arrived at, some twenty-four days earlier. Breakfast was not so decent that we didn’t pick up two simit on the ferry dock. Fifty kuruş each: we must be in Istanbul.

Manoeuvring the RSFH through the turnstile along with about one hundred irritable Istanbullus commuters sucked.

Launching it and us onto the ferry sucked a little more. We had repacked it to be a little lighter, but that meant we had the RSFH and an equally heavy duffle bag full of carpet. With our packs, that meant that we had two pieces of luggage each, which wouldn’t have been so bad except that the considerable weight of the carpet bag (ha ha) slowly cut off the fingers of the wielder, and the RSFH often required one person at one end and the other person at the other end to lift it over, say, the gap between the dock and the ferry. It was challenging. Did I mention one hundred irritable commuters? Yeah.

I’m being overly dramatic – while getting ON the ferry was a challenge, once we were on, people very nicely made room for us and our irritating luggage.

Even though I was a little trepidatious about being back in Istanbul, armed with teşekkür ederim and lütfen, even with our RSFH, things seemed easier. Well, except for the lifting part.

Rinse and repeat for offloading, with the addition of the gap we had to leap over as it took so long to get the luggage to the door that the ferry was just about pulling away… very exciting!

When we got to Karakoy on the European side, we at least knew approximately where we were heading: back to the Galata Bridge, through the underpass (scary), right at the fish market (smelly… ok, not really), right into the gun bazaar (scary… really!) and up the stairs (hernia!) to the Beyoglu tram station, where we purchased two tokens and joined a whole new set of irritated commuters trying to get onto the trams.

We just managed to get all the bags off the tram at the Sultanahmet stop and stopped to regroup on the sidewalk. I’m still not sure how we managed it (certainly parts of it have been blocked from my memory), but we lugged all that crap to the hotel over endless miles of cobbled sidewalks. Actually it wasn’t miles – the hotel was just as close as advertised. The Med Cezir is basically opposite the Four Seasons, just down the street from the Baths Of Lady Hürrem and around the corner from one of the ‘Ev’ hotels. It’s in good company!

From the outside, the cheerfully-painted Med Cezir looked like it belonged – a pale lemon-yellow building with a cute little café-style restaurant on the left and the hotel entrance on the right.

We staggered into the hallway that led to the admissions desks where we were kindly, and amusedly, greeted by Erol, the owner. The kindness seemed very typical of him, the amusement mostly generated by the fact that we now had to carry the luggage up three narrow, spiralling sets of stairs to the third floor where our room was. Yay! The first flight was fairly normal, the second, a little tighter and steeper. The third flight of stairs was just as steep and incredibly narrow at the top, and the light in the hallway was controlled by a motion detector that unexpectedly turned off after there had been no movement for, say, twenty seconds. Pretty much the amount of time required to find one’s key, for instance, or to take a breather after hauling a large and unwieldy suitcase up three flights of stairs.

After waving our way down the hallway to get the light on, we made our way into the room, and were pleasantly surprised. There was a double bed, a reading lamp (our first in Turkey), a wardrobe, and a pile of clean towels on the bed. After doing a recon in the hallway, we found two bathrooms to serve three bedrooms: one was possessed of a half-sized bath with shower and the other was a powder room. There were actual little hotel soaps (which we ignored, preferring our Tire olive oil soap during our quick showers) and plenty of spare tp. Everything was spotlessly clean, if not glamorous.

This was so worth the 60YTL per night we were paying: the room was good, the stairs were… healthy, and the location was un-freaking-believable, as we realized when we abandoned our luggage, walked back down the stairs and twenty short steps into the park I only know as Sultanahmet Park between the breathtaking Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

Steve wanted to be sure we got to Beyoglu today to check out the street of music shops. We had asked Erol if he knew of anywhere to go and he had told us, being an oud and guitar player himself, which streets to visit.

We first headed over to the Divan Yolu where we veered off onto a sidestreet and walked a block to a small music shop. The shopkeeper was nice, but not very interested in us, which was fair, as his ouds were nice but not very interesting.

The tram station was close and we had the hang of getting our tokens, so it took no time at all before we were whisking across the Galata Bridge. Just for the sake of entertainment, we decided to deliberately miss the Beyoglu stop and got off at the next one down the line, where we walked back along the street to the bottom of the hill we were to walk up the street of music. We passed storefronts full of Vespas (Alex would have just died) and sidewalks full of astonished Istanbullus (we weren’t in a tourist area) before we found ourselves at the bottom of a fan of streets spreading up the hill above us.

We knew we had to walk up Yüksek Kaldırım Caddesi which would turn into Galip Dede Caddesi, which is the street of the musical instruments. Yüksek Kaldırım was easy enough to find, now that I had the hang of finding the street signs high up on the building on the left corner of the street. From my up-since-six-am perspective, however, it didn’t look all that easy to walk up. From sea-level, the streets of Beyoglu head straight up the hill – there is the Tünel that can take you up from near the tram station to the top of the hill at the end of Istiklal Caddesi, but that would have bypassed the entire street of the musical instruments. We needed to walk up.

Daunted, we stopped to take a look at the street signs to make sure this was actually the right street and were promptly accosted by a döner seller. We weren’t a hard sell, as the tavuk on the pole looked fantastic and the price was just a few lira. We sat under some trees at little tables with little umbrellas and a very aggressive, skinny little cat. He ended up with quite a bit of my tavuk, but his kitty desperation when the food was gone was heartbreaking. It was hard to reconcile the thousands of starving strays creeping around Istanbul: you just wouldn’t see that in Canada. Instead, they would be rounded up and sent to the SPCA where some of them would be adopted into loving homes, and others would be put to sleep. Which is best? In Istanbul they have a chance, I guess, especially with soft-hearted turists possessed of a liberal hand with the tavuk.

Full and fortified, we headed up the caddesi, stopping in what seemed like every musical instrument shop along the way. Now I know how Steve feels when he’s tagging along with my shopping! Only when I’m shopping, we’re not brought constant cups of tea and invitations to sit and visit. Well, not everywhere was that friendly, but most shopkeepers were very pleasant and they all seemed pleasantly surprised that Steve could illicit vaguely appropriate noises from the ouds he tried. Every so often he would also pick up a guitar and blow them away.

We finally found a shop where the ouds were better than good and the salespeople were very nice. Since a lot of this trip was paid for by an inheritance from Steve’s grandmother, and she would have wanted him to have a musical keepsake from it and her, we had kept money aside specifically for an oud. The one that Steve liked the best was a little higher than his budget, but I kindly offered to put his Christmas present money towards it! Suitably revenged for his offers regarding the kilim we bought in Selçuk, Steve decided to bite the bullet and get the one he wanted. Purporting to need some time to think on it, we left the shop and decided to head uphill a bit to see what we could see.

After what was actually a very short time and an easy hike, we came to an open square which marked the start of the Istiklal Caddesi, a long pedestrian-only street which lead eventually to Taksim Square and which seemed to be Istanbul’s answer to Vancouver’s Robson Street. This was also where the Tünel ended up, so I think the neighbourhood is also known as Tünel.

There was a little tram that appeared every so often, carrying the lazy or footsore down Istiklal Caddesi. We didn’t really feel like doing the full-on stroll as dark was coming on and the tram never seemed to be leaving when we weren’t busy looking at something interesting. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the street looked like it was mostly occupied by the young, hip and terminally fashionable. Besides, right in the little square we could see a few little art galleries and went to look for post-cards or other interesting things.

We sure did find interesting things – copies of old lithographs of the city, decorated words in Arabic script, sketches of dervishes and a bunch of delicate watercolour Istanbul skylines with pen & ink boats and seagulls in the foreground. Lovely things! We were delighted to find out that the prices were very reasonable for original works: even though they were made very much to a formula, the execution was still quite wonderful. When we told the shopkeeper that the frames (brown) and matts (not white) weren’t to our taste, he offered to have his wife come to the shop and do some custom frames for us. Even with the custom framing, the price were still very reasonable, so we assessed our Christmas gift needs and picked out a half-dozen paintings.

By the time our order was framed, wrapped and bagged, it was almost full dark, and we had quite a distance to get back to our pension. On the upside, the walk down Galip Dede Caddesi was much easier than going up, and we passed amazing sights including the Galata Tower and cars attempting to drive down a street full of people. We stopped in at the music shop and purchased the oud, which Steve cradled like a babe for the rest of the night.

I couldn’t resist the sight of an open shop manually squeezing fresh orange juice where you could buy a glass for a lira, so we stopped for juice. Steve declined, as his hands were full of oud, but I found it delicious and worth every penny.

Back down the hill, back on the tram, back to Sultanahmet – we felt like old hats at this and my enjoyment of Istanbul increased with every step on a marble paving stone I took. I was no longer overwhelmed by touts and trams and every little thing; more comfortable with Turkish and the Turks, I finally felt able to handle and truly enjoy this amazing city.

We strolled into the Med Cezir with our purchases in hand. Erol and his assistant, Sabo (which means ‘loyalty’ in… Kurdish? we were proudly advised by the young man in question) were delighted to see us. They fixed us some very passable mezes at a fairly reasonable price (by Sultanahmet standards) and watched Steve explore his oud.

It had been a long, long day and we weren’t really up to going out or even visiting that much. We hauled our very sorry rear ends up the stairs, waved at the motion light, got out our keys, waved at the light again and were in our room, soon to bed. It only took a second or two before we realized that the ‘double’ bed was actually two twins pushed together. The foam topper helped a little, but it still wasn’t as perfectly comfortable as it might have been, with a bit of a raised seam where the beds joined. That said, we had no regrets and we felt that we were very lucky to have come across this particular pension; we snuggled across the seam and slept very well.