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Wednesday, July 18

Hamam in Istanbul

I am not done talking about Turkey. You understand, don’t you? You’ll like this one, I hope.

Pre-trip, we’d read about experiencing a Turkish bath so going to a hamam was high on our priority list. A hamam is a Turkish bath where individuals are treated to a spa like experience. In another words like sultans (kings and queens). We heard about one in the old city for tourists and avoided it like the plague. With research we found one in Üsküdar, on the Asian side of Istanbul. After a ferry boat, bus ride and 1.5 mile walk we finally arrived to our destination. (Side note- Üsküdar is a conservative part of the city and 95% of the women we saw were covered up, head to toe.) At a traditional hamam, the men and women’s sections are separated so we came prepared. I brought my own soap and equipped him with one as well. We each brought our shampoos and conditioners, towels and hair brushes.

Here’s my account for the women’s side.

Upon entering, I was greeted in Turkish by one of the three (greeter) women. When she realized I didn’t speak Turkish, she said “welcome, welcome”. She offered me a reasonable rate but being Indian and having read on the Internet to negotiate, I offered a lower price. She smiled and said “come, come, it’ll be 34 Liras.” It was a steal so I accepted, of course. She gave me a towel and a key to a changing room and told me to leave my stuff there.

Once inside the sizable steam room, there is a large hot stone in the middle, big enough for multiple women to lay on, and on the periphery are sinks with water taps equipped with buckets and tumblers. There is couple smaller rooms connected to the large steam room with individual sinks and taps. Important note, women wear just their panties inside the steam room including the masseuses. This may be uncomfortable for some but it’s not big deal, really.

When I entered, there were 3 women already on the hot stone in the middle, getting massages. One of the masseuses pointed me to a sink and instructed me to start rinsing myself with hot water. I rinsed myself for approximately 15 minutes before taking a break; it felt redundant and wasteful. Then I waited for further instruction. By then, the center stone had just one woman on it. An older woman took one of the empty spots and commanded me to lay down on the other empty spot. In a foreign country, I succumb to the authority of older women and do as I am told. The older woman asked if I spoke German? German, well yes I do, I exclaimed. She shared with me she worked in Munich for 35 years before moving back home to Turkey 10 years ago. And she explained the basic process at a Turkish bath.

First the masseuse scrubbed me down, entirely, with a loofah. This is supposed to take dirt and gunk off of your skin. She cleaned behind my ears, on the bottom of my feet, and everywhere in between. (They do not put their hands inside panties, however they do scrub the bum.) Then she instructed me to rinse myself and come back to the hot stone. She then massaged my body, thoroughly. She had me lay on my back to massage my arms, hands, legs and feet, then on my back and all over again. Next, she scrubbed me clean with soap. The one I’d brought was not good enough and she chuckled as she used hers. Then she shampooed my hair. Finally, she rinsed me with hot water from a bucket. After multiple splashes, she pointed me to the sink with tap and told me to finish up.

Here is when my experience went from wonderful to memorable.

I asked the older German speaking woman what happens next. She informed I could stay in the steam room as long as I want. I can rinse, lay on the hot stone, re-rinse for hours if I desired. Some women stay for a whole afternoon. Good to know. As I was rinsing off the soap and shampoo, she returned with a giant bottle of shampoo and informed me she would wash my hair thoroughly. Stunned, I succumbed; sure, did I have a choice? But she cleaned my hair, like a mom washes her 7 year old daughter’s hair, scrubbing, massaging and washing. I was content. This stranger that translated for me was not only helpful but wanted to wash my hair for me. Again, this may seem uncomfortable to some but I found the act to be very caring.

Thereafter, I laid on the hot center stone for 10- 15 more minutes, allowing myself some quiet time. There was a group of women that entered and used one of the connected smaller rooms to rinse themselves, while catching up with each other. One final rinse and I dried off, went to my changing room to get dressed. In the common area I requested a hair dryer and the lady handed me one and said it’ll be 1 Lira extra, a small change.

While I was drying my hair the three greeting women stared and pointed at me. I believe like they were admiring my hair and my skin color but who knows, they could’ve been joking and saying I was a complete fool.

Once ready I paid the 35 Liras, went outside to meet the husband (we’d plan a meeting point and time) and since he wasn’t there I returned inside. As I waited, I sat with the three ladies and watched Turkish soaps on TV. One of the women asked me where I was from and gave me lots of compliments in her broken English. Flattered by all the attention, I wanted to give these sweet ladies a hug. I didn’t.

The look of the women’s hamam is plain and dated (with pale green painted walls and areas of peeling wallpaper). The arrangement is straightforward with a center hot stone and multiple sinks and taps. The buckets and tumblers were plastic and had seen better days.

The hamams take the separation of men and women’s sections very seriously. In Islam, modesty for women means covering up therefore in a place where women are half naked I respect and appreciate the division. This allows women to let loose and be themselves without the pressures of being seen or harassed.
Here’s his account for the men’s side.

He experienced many of the same things as I did. Entering the steam room he had his undershirt and boxers on and was instructed to remove his shirt. He got a decent scrub and massage but it felt shorter than 15- 30 minutes. He sensed the masseuse was friendlier to the locals and treated him like a foreigner and as a result he thinks the service wasn’t as thorough as it was for others. I believe his experience may not have been as memorable because he didn’t have a guide to explain the process.

Explaining to him of my experience, I was speechless. I enjoyed everything about this hamam, the pampering service, the older woman translator and maybe even the attention at the end. I was tickled by their fondness for me and surprisingly it didn’t feel weird. Unlike here in Germany where I often get stared at, this felt innocent perhaps because they were doting on me and not carefully examining me.

What to look for in a Hamam? A helpful staff and lots of customers. The time I was there, there were 5-7 women in the steam room, on a weekday morning. The average time for a scrub, massage, wash takes about 15- 30 minutes, depending on the masseuse. Although the women’s section wasn’t extravagant, the service and staff more than made up it. See what I mean about their friendly people. A reasonable price for service in Istanbul is 30- 50 Liras.

I would highly recommend this particular hamam and suggest you let loose and allow to be pampered, the Turkish way.

Sunday, July 15

Dresden, comical run- ins

Speaking of Dresden, we went to the Bunte Republik Neustadt street festival before heading to the hauptbahnhof (main rail station) for home. We bought the Schönes Wochenende ticket in the morning to travel home as well as in the city. On the tram from the fest, two women dressed in indiscreet clothes checked for tickets. On our turn, he showed the first woman our Schönes Wochenede ticket. She refused it and said it cannot be used for intra-city travel. She asked for our Auslandspass (passports) which we didn’t have so we tried to haggle with her. And by we, I mean he. He asked her if we could negotiate or pay a small fine to resolve quickly. She wasn’t having any of this and sternly demanded for an ID. When he gave her his Führerschein (license), she passed it to the second woman and commanded her to give us a ticket. Looking at the information the second woman (much kinder and more understandable) explained, in German, intercity tickets aren’t permitted on local modes of transportation. She then proceeded and wrote a ticket, using information on his Führerschein. After handing us the ticket we had two options, pay her upfront or receive a ticket by mail and pay later. The ticket was 10 Euros; a no brainer we agreed to pay her upfront. Not one to dispute, we were surprised by the modest fine. Others sitting around us were also stunned it was only 10 Euros. (Looking back on it, we believe she only fined one of us instead of both of us. But this is speculation.)

In Bavaria (our state), tourists can use the Schönes Wochenende ticket for intra- and inter-city travel.

Minutes after we paid our fine, we ran into the station to catch our train. Our train was delayed by 10 minutes so we had a little time to catch our breath.

We boarded and settled into a 4-person booth to stretch our legs. As the train departed the station, a young college-aged woman took the seat next to me. She seemed nice enough so I made small talk with her, in English. “Are you heading to Nürnberg?” Yes, she replied. “Where are you from?” her response, Monte Negro. Before I could ask her anything else she said “I don’t understand English.” Assuming she understood German, I asked her if she was going home to Nürnberg. The puzzled look on her face explained she didn’t know any German. Then she said, “visiting my cousin in Nurnberg.” I concluded the conversation with a smile and a nod and settled into my book.

Couple hours into the train ride, 2 police men boarded our train car and scanned faces. Then they stopped at our booth and asked for all of our Auslandspass. Not having it we offered our Führerschein. One of them insisted we provide the Auslandspass, and I explained we didn’t have them. So he accepted our Führerscheine and the Monte Negro woman’s Auslandspass. They reached into their pocket for a cell phone and disappeared with our IDs. All three of us were disconcerted as were people sitting around us. The nervous Monte Negro woman called someone to explain the situation. Few minutes later, the police men returned and handed us our IDs. He explained they had to make sure we were here, legally. He noted it’s necessary to have our Auslandspass with us at all times. It makes everything easy for everyone. He joked, he’s letting us off easy but if another police man wanted to make things difficult, he could remove us off the train at the next stop and check for resident/visa permits, a process that can take 30- 60 minutes.

Lesson learned.

The husband jokes that we were stopped because I look Indian. Sure, being stared at everywhere I go, his theory isn't so improbable.

Multiple apprehensions with the authority in one afternoon. Lovely.

Comical now it was nerve wrecking at the time, naturally.

As we were walking to the Bunte Republik Neustadt, I captured this. The caption for this photo is, “if God descended upon Earth to look over the people this is how it would look. Tanning also, of course.”

Thursday, July 12

Flickr- TheWalas

As you may have noticed, there are updates on that left column with the photos. That's because I've been updating the Flickr account, like it's a full time job. 114 photos here, 84 photos there, it's becoming an obsession. Not really, I wanted to post all the many photos I've taken. I added a new set for the food shots.

Although the photos almost never coincide with what I am writing about on this blog, bear with me. I am not that awesome, yet. One day.

Check them out, at your leisure. And leave a comment or two.

Monday, July 9

Dresden in June

We traveled to Dresden for a long weekend in June. The weather in Nürnberg was hot and uncomfortable, without air conditioning that is, so we decided traveling will make the heat seem less unbearable. It was good to get away to a new city that wasn't enduring a heat wave. Dresden is approximately 4 hours from here by the Regional (RE) train. We haven’t used ICE (fast train) except traveling to and from Frankfurt for an international flight. A reason for taking the RE was due to Schönes Wochenende (Beautiful Weekend) Ticket. This ticket allows passengers (up to 5 people) to travel outside of their state on certain days for 39 Euros. For traveling to Dresden, 4 hours away, we found this to be a deal worth trying.

Dresden is in Saxony and sits on the Elbe river. An important note of the Baroque-style architecture before and post war is its a shade of black. This is the cause of sandstone. Sandstone quarries are located East of the city and a lot of the architecture is build from sandstone. Sandstone, as I did not know and learned, darkens as it ages so the pictures show the darkened facade.

On the night of February 12th and into the morning of 13th 1945, Dresden’s downtown district and some areas surrounding were completely destroyed from Allied bombings. Post WWII, GDR (German Democratic Republic) assisted in rebuilding parts of the city. Some buildings like the Semper Opera, reconstructed as the original, and Zwinger Palace were rebuilt in Post War Era. The Semper Opera is renown and sells 95% of its seats in high season. For the seats that are unsold 30 minutes prior to a show the box-office sells tickets for 10 Euros to students. (Bring your student ID cards.) We saw Tito on the Saturday night. It was our first opera and we were notably surprised. Tito was done in Italian and had German subtitles on the overhead for those that wanted to follow along in a familiar language. Unfortunately for us, we were working with broken German and no Italian so although understandable it was harder to follow. For our next show, we’d prefer an English subtitle. Due to lack of available funding in GDR, everything wasn’t rebuilt post war. For instance, the Frauenkirche (Our lady of peace) was rebuilt after the reunification in 1990.

Along with few other museums and churches, we visited the Green Vault in the Zwinger Palace and were surprised with its pieces. We knew it was filled with extravagant ornaments but to our surprise there were also other things inside. The Green Vault has 9 rooms and each room is filled with articles made from different expensive material (Gold, Ivory, White Silver, Bronze). For instance, some of the contents of the white silver room were wine glasses and serving platters, while another room was filled with bronze statutes. Many of these survived the bombings however some did not and therefore are replicas of the original. For the in depth experience, I highly recommend a visit to the Green Vault.

Without sounding too boring and long-winded with history, Dresden was a lively city pre-war and even as early as 18th century. August the Strong was the Elector of Saxony in 18th century and had high hopes of becoming the King of Poland (next door neighbor). And since Poland’s nearby, it’s not a farfetched aspiration, right? The only problem was August the Strong was Protestant, as was most of the population of Dresden. To obtain the kingship, August the Strong converted to Catholicism and eventually earned the title of King of Poland. He recommended the citizens of Dresden keep their faith and even today the city’s population continues to be mostly Protestant.

What made Dresden a haven for artists was August the Strong’s love of art and his mission to attract artists to the city and allowing them to express their individuality in art form. Many relocated to Dresden and called it their home. That vibe continued to live on until 1945. And like any artistic city that bounces back from its past, Dresden feels like a city that survived a major event and has resurfaced as a creative outlet. While we were visiting there was the Bunte Republik Neustadt (Colorful Republic of New City). It was the city’s residents celebrating with neighbors, friends and family on closed-off streets. We were amazed by the number of card tables/dining room tables surrounded by people coming together to share a meal. We have never seen anything like this but were happy to witness the communal breaking of bread and storytelling. Additionally, there were children’s game corner, bake sales, stages for music, food vendors, a family selling crepes and waffles from their 1st floor living room window. In simple words a lot of uniqueness.

Onto the important part of any trip- the food and drink. We were hoping to find local, Saxon food in Dresden and were shocked in the searches. There were couple restaurants that were highly regarded as local however we were not able to go due to our schedule and point of area at mealtimes. From a tour guide we were directed to a restaurant that was in her words ‘as local as Saxon food gets’, only to find out it was an all vegetarian restaurant. Although the food was overall good, it wasn’t what we were looking for. Even our server at that restaurant laughed when we asked for Saxon recommendations on the menu because they didn’t have any. Dresden has its own bier, of course. We tried a bier called Dresden Felsenkeller as well as the famous Radeberger Pilsner. Hands down the keller bier won our votes. Although overall this trip was memorable and Dresden is a great city to visit, I was let down in the food options.

Finally, our Bed & Breakfast is worth noting and sharing. We stayed at Villa Sommerschuh for 2 nights and were pleased with the service, price and the room. The villa is 2 stops (on Tram) from Hauptbahnhof and yet in a secluded residential neighborhood. We found it without any trouble, settled into our room and told the host, by phone, of our breakfast requirements. The following two mornings we were treated like the King and Queen of Dresden Poland for breakfast. It came with orange juice, freshly brewed coffee (a carafe), rolls of fresh bread, cold meats, fruit, yogurt and granola, enough food to last us until mid afternoon. The best part of this Villa is the large backyard it has to relish the morning sun. We were surrounded by berry and pomegranate trees, comfortable in the environment, enjoying breakfast like it should be. 

Sunday, July 1

Eating and Drinking in Istanbul

Continuing the Turkey thread

Turkey is surrounded by water in the North and South and because of its close proximity to other countries, foods from other cultures are also represented.  Due to its surroundings, fish and seafood play a large role in Turkey’s food culture.  In Istanbul we tried Hamsi (fried Black Sea Anchovies) and Mussels.  But the obvious stand outs were kebabs and döner.  One place I researched was Istanbul Eats for their recommendations for local restaurants. 

As recommended, we tried Pide, Hamsi, Döner and kebabs.  Pide is (pizza) dough shaped to an oval (resembles hollowed boat), topped with toppings of choice and baked in the oven.  At a Iocal Pide joint near our hotel, we both ordered our Pides with ground lamb and veggies.  It was tasty but we both agreed the dough to meat ratio was off, too much dough and not enough toppings.   

Restaurant wise the standouts that we will always remember were Dürümzade, Köfteci Hüseyin, Hayvore, Zubeyir, and, Siirt Şeref Büryan.  

Dürümzade offers one thing and one thing only, Turkish wraps in lavash (Turkish tortilla) filled with charcoal grilled meats and few vegetables, maybe a tomato here and a lettuce there.  The key to this dürüm is the perfectly seasoned meat that alleviates the experience to a new level. Of course, the crispy lavash that’s slathered with the meat juices makes it better but we were engulfed in devouring the dürüm because of the meat.  On the first visit, we each got a 2nd dürüm because it was that good.  There are several meats (chicken breast, ground beef-Adana, lamb lung, and ground lamb-sheesh) to choose from and we opted for ground lamb-sheesh.

Köfteci Hüseyin is a köfte, ground lamb meatballs, spot that grills the meatballs in the oven and serves it with bread, piyaz (white beans and onion) and spicy red pepper sauce.  The köfte are tender, juicy and rich.  One reason I believe they are so good is their meat to fat ratio, it’s close to 75% meat to 25% fat. When there’s that much fat in a meatball, it’s bound to be mouthwateringly delicious.  The piyaz are seasoned simply, oil and vinegar dressing, and topped with parsley.  Although very mild (almost no salt), they’re a good addition for the well seasoned köfte.   And the red pepper sauce is spicy with a kick and rounds out the meal. Köfteci Hüseyin is only open for lunch and closes when the last köfte is sold.  Good thing we got there in time for lunch because when we went back the 2nd day, he was sold out and we were turned away.  Fortunately this place is close enough to other great Beyoğlu eats and we stopped in Hayvore for a 2nd time.

Hayvore is a lunch spot that serves homey food to locals and tourists alike.  They have a variety of dishes to choose from, all presented on heated tray in a glass case.  The first day we visited, he tried kuru fasulye (beans in sauce) with short grain rice, dolma (grape leaves stuffed with rice and onions) in rich stock.  I ordered chicken with vegetables served with couscous.  The beans were very well seasoned and cooked in a tomato-onion sauce.  (I just discovered a recipe for kuru fasulye and am planning to recreate it at home. It was that good!) Neither of us are fans of dolma, it’s the grape leaf thing but these were notable. Slow cooking the stuffed grape leaves in broth tenderizes the otherwise tough leaves.  The chicken was good but not a stand out.  On the 2nd day we returned, I ordered kuru fasulye with short grain rice and he ordered a chickpea and spinach stew with rice. Both were delicious.

Zübeyir was the only restaurant on our list that we splurged for dinner.  However everything was well worth the money we spent.  It’s a kebab house, centrally located in Beyoğlu near Taksim Square and is a multi level restaurant that has a large, open charcoal grill on the first level.  Everything that’s ordered from the grill is cooked fresh and served hot off the coals.  We started our dinner with few mezes (appetizers) which included bean, onion and tomato salad, tzatziki (yogurt sauce) and gavurdagi salatasi (parsley and chili salad with a hint of pomegranate syrup).  The beans were mildly seasoned with salt, pepper and vinegar.  The tzatziki was minty and perfect accompaniment to the house bread and the gavurdagi salatasi made me a parsley convert.  I hate parsley as much as many people hate cilantro but this salad was made for people like me to enjoy parsley.  From the grill, we ordered lamb sheesh and lamb chops.  Both were tender, moist and seasoned precisely. 

A memorable meal in Fatih, a neighborhood far from the main attractions, at Siirt Şeref Büryan.  This place specializes in pit roasted lamb.  The lamb is cooked for hours in the pit and served cut up in pieces over Pide.  Although Fatih was ways away from where we spent our days, it was worth the trek to get this roasted lamb. 

Onto some other food that’s worth noting.  Manti is Turkish version of ravioli, stuffed pasta with lamb and served with yogurt sauce.  We had this at a restaurant on Istiklal Caddesi, Beyoğlu’s main street.  It was at the same restaurant we tried Gözleme, Indian version of Paratha.  For those unfamiliar with Paratha, Gözleme is balls of dough that’s rolled very thin (think phyllo), stuffed with cheese, potatoes, spinach (or a combination) and cooked on a rounded griddle.  For tourist attraction, this particular restaurant had two older, plump women rolling out the dough to very thin sheets, stuffing them and cooking on a griddle by the main entrance with a glass window.  We ordered one filled with cheese and spinach and another filled with potatoes.  Both the Manti and Gözleme were fitting for an afternoon snack with a glass of Ayran. 

Speaking of Ayran, it’s one drink that Turkish people have with their meals regularly.  Ayran is made of yogurt and lightly seasoned with salt.  Some sell it fresh (definitely try it) and some sell the premade version, none the less it’s a good drink with any meal.  Post-dinner is reserved for Turkish tea.  Turkish tea is made with black tea steeped in hot water and strained into a special glass.  It’s served with couple cubes of sugar on the side.   Also, freshly squeezed orange juice on street carts and stands was readily available in many neighborhoods; we took the opportunity to drink the fresh juice daily. 

We tried Hamsi (fried black sea anchovies) at the Karaköy fish market.  The fish are de-headed, battered and fried.  They are served with lemon juice, onions and arugula.  The onion and arugula are supposed to cut through the richness of fried fish but neither one of us cared for it.  We ate the Hamsi drizzled with lemon juice and with a side of bread.  On the same seafood note, we tried fried mussels at a street stand in Beyoğlu.  It tasted good but not something we’d have again because the mussels were too oily. 

Lahmacun was one thing that we wished to try but did not because it a thin flatbread (resembles a Mexican flour tortilla) topped with ground (beef) meat, onions and spices.

And onto two places that were
disappointing I feel obligated to mention because these are highly regarded on the Internet.  Çiya Sofrası located on the Asian side of Istanbul in Kadıköy neighborhood.  This place is buzzing with lots of people sitting inside and outside but unfortunately it missed the mark on the food.  It may have been a bad night but I believe that if a restaurant that’s this well known is bound to lose its edge when everyone on the Internet is talking about their food and attracts so many tourists.  Some restaurants can keep up with the hype but unfortunately Çiya didn’t that night.  We ordered 6 dishes (they are served in small portions so it’s easy to share) and couple were memorable but overall an average experience.  One of the dishes we both enjoyed was a yogurt soup with chickpeas and the other was a lamb meatball soup. 

The other was Mohti. It’s tucked away in an alley in Beyoğlu and hard to find and that may be enough to keep customers from coming in. It’s on a second floor of an undisclosed building and when we entered on a Thursday evening it was empty. The owner was working on his laptop and the young waiter wasn’t very well informed of the menu.  We allowed him to suggest couple dishes and he suggested 2 different kinds of anchovy dishes on a menu with 8- 10 items.  Once we ordered, the food came intermittently.  Turkish cornbread was the only distinguished food that evening. And the kicker, we were charged extra for sharing plates (even though the waiter had initially suggested it) and extra for things we hadn’t ordered. Mohti is overpriced and underwhelming.

Couple bad meals in 5+ days of eating out is a good record. We couldn't have been more pleased with the results from our searches for the best food in the city. Overall, Istanbul is a city we can return to for the outstanding food.