I had itchy feet last week. It happens, even when you’re living abroad. Now, I live on the Sea of Marmara, in a small village on the periphery of what is technically Turkey’s smallest city: Yalova.
I had exactly 24 hours between lessons. I was walking around the bazaar in Yalova (as I do), when I decided, totally randomly and with zero prior thought, what the hell, I’m going to Istanbul.
It was an absolutely beautiful day. The ferry from Yalova – Yenikapı (the ferry port on European side of Istanbul) takes about an hour and a half.
I pointed at some sort of random pastry/pasta type Turkish dish at the concession counter inside and, with my mystery meal, settled down at the front of the ferry, in the wind and the sun. With my plastic fork I proceeded to eat what turned out to be a pleasantly cheesy lasagna-type pastry.
Listening to Bob Marley (it was that kind of day), the ferry brought me across the Sea of Marmara to the majestic spires of the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. Passing the Bosporus straight and the magnificent, iconic bridge that spans the continents, we left Asia and arrived in Europe.
I had absolutely zero idea what I was going to do in Istanbul. No plan. Except that it was a lovely day and it would be nice to walk around. And I figured I should probably figure out somewhere I could spend the night.
So I got off the ferry and walked along the waterfront towards those beautiful spires I’d spotted from the sea, thinking it was likely a touristy area and probably somewhere I could find a hostel to spend the night.
As luck would have it, I happened upon the Bahaus hostel, situated just down the street from a whole slew of rug shops, very near to the Blue Mosque and – excellent – they had room for me! So I checked in (with my purse) and immediately turned on my heels to go explore.
I didn’t love Istanbul immediately.
After a couple of months living in Yalova, Istanbul struck me as loud, borderline obnoxious and a little bit irritating. Everyone was speaking English. Which was nice… for the first three minutes. And then it started to feel like I wasn’t in a foreign country at all. There were so many tourists; I’m willing to bet there are more foreigners in Istanbul than there are actual, bonafide Turks. That being said, I was in the touristy area. On the up-side, I’ve not received so many “compliments” since I left Korea… ;) I was constantly called at from the doorstep of restaurants, whistled at from the threshold of shops and told I was “beautiful” so many times that it annoyed me. Flattery works, but not to this extreme! ;) I was asked where I was from by everyone (as if they really cared, honestly), followed by “requests” to come inside to dine, or just look around, each one offering me “special discount” if I capitulated. I walked away feeling like I needed about six showers. And then I vowed to buy a burqa next time I come back here.
Istanbul is a tourist destination for a reason. I mean, it’s gorgeous. This whole east-meets-west thing is a phenomena unlike anything I’ve experienced elsewhere. The food is delightful (though I would argue it’s better – and more affordable! – in Yalova), the architecture is sensational, the history is awe-inspiring, and the sights and smells are downright intoxicating.
I wandered around the Blue Mosque and then up towards the Grand Bazaar. It was starting to get late and I still hadn’t had dinner, so to escape being accosted from the sidewalk, I eventually caved and let one of the restaurant owners talk me into sitting down for a glass of wine and lentil soup “with discount, of course”. His speech was intriguing. He insisted that, through a dark tunnel at the back of the restaurant was the entrance to some ancient architectural remnants of the Ottoman empire. Nice try, dude. I scoffed at him and probably rolled my eyes, but then thought, ‘hey – this is the most convincing speech I’ve heard all night.’ So I stopped rolling my eyes and decided to indulge. Turns out he wasn’t kidding.
At the back of the restaurant, ducking under a crescent-shaped hole in the brick, he led me into a damp, cavernous tunnel. As the lights slowly illuminated the space, giant arches became visible and room upon room of ancient, byzantine formations filled the spaces around me. It was incredible. Like walking through a portal in today’s world and entering into ancient times, this doorway was like some sort of magical threshold.
I returned, smiling, to my table and my glass of wine. I spent the next hour or so reading my book and people watching, enjoying the ambiance and appreciating how different this city is from Yalova. And here’s something interesting: I no longer have any qualms sitting down in a restaurant and dining alone. Truth be told, sometimes I prefer it. ;)
When I returned to the hostel, there were several people hanging out in the upstairs lounge. I joined them, shared in a pint or two, and indulged in a box of Turkish delight that was brought to the table. I met a girl here who lives in Haiti and is actually a friend of a girl I worked with in Korea! Small, small world. She and I, and another lovely lady from India, decided to take on the Hamam (Turkish spa) experience together the next morning.
The Hamam (Turkish Spa) Experience
Oh. My. God. If you’re ever in Turkey, promise me you’ll go to a Hamam. Much like the Korean jimjilbang experience, except there are fewer spa-treatment rooms, no co-ed areas or karaoke rooms, and Turkish spas provide you with a set of disposable undies so you don’t walk around entirely naked. When we arrived at the Hamam, they gave us a key, an exfoliation glove, a set of undies and a towel, and the three of us headed upstairs to undress. After we’d put on the black underwear and locked our belongings away, we wrapped ourselves in towels and headed downstairs.
Half-naked Turkish women greeted us at the entrance to the spa facilities, ushering us through the threshold and gesturing to a large, circular marble stone in the middle of the room. There were three other women lying on the periphery of this stone, two of whom were getting some sort of interesting looking massage. We were told to remove our towels and lay down on the stone. And just like that, we graduated from being new friends to being well-acquainted-I-know-what-you-look-like-naked-friends.
We lay down on the stone and were immediately struck by the encompassing warmth. It was like the stone had been baking in the sun all day, but the air around us was cool enough to strike a perfect balance. The entire room was made of marble, with a dome-shaped ceiling reminiscent of a church chapel, and adorned with star-shaped carvings allowing the light of day to shine through. More than 500 years old, the periphery of the room was accented with delicate, statuesque fountains functioning as bath areas.
We were approached in succession by mostly-naked Turkish masseuses. I was lying there, totally relaxed on the marble stone, when a splash of lukewarm water between my legs woke me to the face of a smiling, middle-aged Turkish masseuse wearing nothing but the same pair of black undies that I had on.
She motioned for me to move to the periphery of the stone, and asked me to lay face down on my towel. She then used the exfoliation glove that we’d each been given to scrub every inch of me. I was in the middle of thinking how gentle this woman was being in comparison to the Korean woman who exfoliated me, when she pulled me up to a sitting position, shoved my head into her bosom, and scrubbed my neck and underarms like they’d never been scrubbed before. I’ve never had my head pressed into another woman’s breasts before, so this was definitely a first for me. Haha.
After the exfoliation came the pillow-full-of-bubbles massage. I don’t know how else to explain it. My lovely masseuse disappeared for a moment and returned with what looked like a pillowcase. She patted it gently and it released bubbles all over me, like a bubble bath outside of water. It was incredible! Then began the massage. From pinky-toe to earlobe, she massaged everything. I needed this! After the massage, she took me to one of the decorative fountains that graced the periphery of the room and washed my hair for me as I sat on the edge of the basin. Finally, she filled a shallow metal washbowl with warm water and rinsed me off, then gestured to the jacuzzi baths that were recessed into the wall of the room. Like walking into a damp cave, there were two aphotic baths inside, each bubbling away at a different temperature. Totally relaxing. I swam about in here for way longer than was probably good for my health. When I emerged, my friends had finished their Turkish massages too, and it was time for us to get our oil massages.
The oil massage was wonderful, more deep-tissue than the Turkish massage, but it was on a normal massage bed instead of the marble stone. I think I prefer the stone! Anyway, it was the perfect way to spend a morning. I could have spent all day there!
Unfortunately, I had to leave… and go to work! Lame. I said goodbye to my new friends and walked back to the ferry terminal. Hopping the 1:30pm ferry, I arrived back in Yalova, totally refreshed and with just enough time for a Kebab before my first lesson of the day.
Not a bad way to spend 24 hours, if I do say so myself. :)