Istanbul – Day 1

I arrived in Istanbul before dawn on a cold and rainy Friday. There was a bit of confusion with my driver from the airport as to where exactly he was supposed to take me – though luckily I recognized the building I was staying in just around the corner from where he originally stopped and started ringing some poor soul’s doorbell at 6AM.

Unpacked, showered, had a lie-down (i.e. was unconscious for several hours) then decided to take a look around my ‘hood. I actually set off in search of couple of places I’d read about, one of which makes lahmacan, the other dürüm. I checked Google maps before I set out, thinking I had a reasonable idea of where I was – which was, of course, completely incorrect.

The terrain here Beyoglu is a bit like SF, insofar as it is quite hilly. However, the streets are also very narrow and not laid out on a grid, so navigation is not so easy. Oh, and the cobblestones plus the drizzle make for a high likelihood of me breaking a hip at some point during my visit…

Anyway, at the top of the hill was Istiklal Street, a wide avenue thronged with locals and tourists shopping and eating. So, I wasn’t completely lost and took a left, then a right looking for Dürümzade. I walked down to the next main street, turned right and thought I’d wind up sort of back where I started..? But no, that would be too easy. Given that I didn’t want to get lost before my late-afternoon appointment at the hamami, I decided to retrace my steps.

And just as I started walking back up the narrow street I’d come down, I spied Dürümzade – it’s an Istanbul miracle! The place is on a corner and is about the size of my bedroom. Ordered my adana wrap and had a seat. The best thing about this place? While the cook is grilling up your meat, he wipes the juicy/greasy cooking tool on the bread that he’ll use to make the durum. Meat, onions, tomatoes on a juice-soaked pide – yep, as good as it sounds. And, thanks to an effective rolling method, surprisingly tidy to eat. Delicious!

Back to my apartment, which I found with no problem despite (intentionally) taking a roundabout route. Had a bit of a nap (look, it’s a ten hour time change!) before the short walk to Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı, where I had an appointment for a bath and a massage.

Found the place with no problem and the interior is just as lovely as the photograph on their site. The place was pretty quiet. I was shown to a seat and served a glass of şerbet before being led upstairs to undress and put on my peshtemal. Back downstairs the fellow who’d shown me in handed me off to my bather Orhan. As for the rest? I’m actually going to put that behind the “Keep reading” link below. Not because I’m shy or there’s anything untoward – but because if you’ve never been to a hamami, I think it’s worth it to keep some mystery about what goes on. The short version? It was sublime and I will be booking at least one more visit before I return home.

I arrived home to still no heat (yeah, there’s been a bit of a kerfuffle there, though my host seems to be doing his best to resolve), hung out for a bit and then went to dinner down the street a Furreyya. Tiny fish place that turned out to be mostly tourists. Had some tasty dolmas and a fresh whole sea bream. It was pretty good – very fresh, simply prepared. Perhaps too simple? Could’ve used a bit more seasoning in my view.

Took a walk up the hill and back home again, looking forward to a warm apartment and good night’s sleep. As I struggled with key to the front door, I hear someone on the other side say, “Hello? Eric?” Turns out Volkan, the fixer, was there – along with a buddy and his girlfriend all hard at work on the water tank and radiators. All very friendly – though sadly to no avail. More work to come…

Anyway, it was fine. I actually prefer a cold bedroom with plenty of blankets which is what I climbed into after downing an Ambien to ensure a good night’s sleep before tomorrow’s walking tour.

Then, a bit later, I had a strange dream – I was hearing the melody from “If I Were a Rich Man.” Oh, wait, this is no dream – the doorbell here plays that tune. And it was accompanied by knocking and “Hello, Eric?” from the other side of the front door. It was Safak, my host, here to try his hand at fixing the heat! Granted, I might not have chosen to receive visitors at 1145PM, but I appreciated the effort. He, too, had no luck – but did show me how to use the AC as a heater – and it worked beautifully for me the next morning! So, that was great.

Didn’t sleep as late as I might’ve hoped (probably got five or so hours of sleep) but I’ve prepared my breakfast and am headed to the Spice Market in Sultanahmet to meet up with my tour guide. It’ll be a bit of a challenge to leave my toasty apartment – it’s another chilly day, though at the moment no rain, so that’s a plus.

I did mention that there’s been a problem with the heat in the apartment – the fellow I’m letting from is sending someone to work on it, but I’d been cold all day. So, you can imagine how much I was looking forward to a trip to the hamami to lay on a warm slab.

I was handed off to my bather (is that the right term? “Body servant” feels unseemly…) called Orhan who led me into a large, ocatagonal room most of it made from marble. It was a beautiful room. He set me down in a little marble niche next to a marble basin. He poured a few bowls of hot water over me and then instructed me to lie down on a large round marble slab in the center of the room – the metal bowl he’d used to douse me served as a headrest. The slab was delightfully warm and as I lay back I was staring up at the high domed ceiling, pierced in the center with a series of round holes, surrounded by concentric rings of hexagons and six-pointed stars. I have to confess, I got a little teary-eyed – it was one of those moments where I’m reminded of how lucky I am to have the means and the desire to travel, to experience things that many people never will. It was blissful.

There were maybe six or so other fellows laid out around the slab, like the hours on a clock. I heard them being instructed to get up and then bathed, but just laid there relaxing, feeling warm to my core for the first time all day. After awhile, Orhan returned, got me up and sat me back in the niche. He doused me again, asking if the water temperature was OK (“YES!”) . He had a scrubby mitt that he first used gently on my face. He then had me lean forward and scrubbed my back – when he ws done, showing me the layer of my skin he’d scrubbed off onto his glove. The same for my torso, my arms, my feet and legs. More rinsing.

Next, he filled a bucket with soap and water and dunked a cloth in it – the cloth was actually like a sack. ONce he extracted it from the pail, he spun it around and it filled with masses of foam which he wrung out on top of me, repeating eight or nine times until I was covered from head to toe in a mountain of bubbles. More scrubbing of my back, chest, arms and legs, followed by shampoo. Rinsed off with hot water, then a few bowlfuls of shockingly cold water (yes, he’d warned me first – but I still jumped and let out a bit of a yelp).

“OK, stand up. Take that off. OK, here, I put this on.” I was wrapped in a fresh peshtemal and led into another chamber. He first dried off my back and chest and wrapped a towel around me, then sort of flapped it around me to get me drier. Another fresh towel dried my legs; another for my feet. And finally, one for my head and hair which he wrapped around my head and tucked in the back.

Then back to the main room, which is surrounded by a lounge area, piled high with cushions. Lay down, had a menthol-scented damp cloth placed over my face and relaxed, while I waited for a cup of Turkish tea.

The whole process lasted over an hour – and it was marvelous.

Oh, and then it was time for massage (I know, right?). Extraordinarily relaxing in probably the loveliest and most comfortable massage room I’ve ever been in. A highlight? Directly below the table where one rests one’s face, an urn of beautiful flowers – it was a lovely and unexpected sight.

Anyhow, I cannot recommend Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı highly enough. Frankly, the experience was completely worth 30 hours of travel time.

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