Eat, Heat and Sleep In Istanbul
Feature Photo Credit: Hurrem Sultan Hamami
Other than a few layovers in the beautiful Istanbul airport, it’s been 20 years since I first set foot on the country’s terra firma. Turkey, or Turkiye as they now refer to it, is a fascinating country with Istanbul proudly depicting the history, culture, food and traditions that make it one of the most popular destinations in the region.
Of course you’ll want to see the iconic Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace if it’s your first visit but if time permits I encourage you to delve into the food culture of the city and allow yourself an afternoon to be pampered in the warmth of a Turkish bath.
So Here’s The Meal
We are never ones to be shy about noshing into the food culture and Istanbul serves up a treasure trove of culinary delights. As we have done in so many other destinations we reached out to the food experts at Culinary Backstreets to set the table for a six hour journey into the back alleys and the cafes of the local scene.
We met up with our guide Ugur near a kiosk at the foot of the Galata bridge and set off on foot through a colorful alleyway of sidewalk shops hawking a mashup of plumbing supplies, fishing gear, hoses, electronics and various nuts and bolts. …..Wait…isn’t this supposed to be a food tour?
Ducking into a bustling hallway with men toting boxes of building materials on their backs, Ugur motions for us to have a seat at a single table in the corner. With a knock on the adjoining door, a man emerges, takes note of our group, nods and returns with six glasses of tea. As it turns out, this single table serves as a makeshift private club where local laborers sit and sip a glass of tea. As Ugur produces a bag of freshly baked smit, a sesame crusted Turkish version of a bagel, we become honorary members.
It’s local color at its best but we have places to go and more food to sample. With a stroll under the bridge and through a maze of market stalls we arrive at an obviously very popular bakery for sampling a savory type of turnover, one with a cheese/spinach filling the other a seasoned beef, both encased in a flaky phyllo dough wrapper. A quick bite and a few steps later we step into a hole in the wall shop, clamber up a narrow stairway and are promptly served a quintessential Turkish coffee. It’s potent and delicious but what’s left at the bottom of the cup is likely where the phrase ‘here’s mud in your eye’ comes from!
The real estate of Turkiye holds the unique distinction of residing on two continents, Europe and Asia, separated by the Bosphorous Strait. Embarking a ferry boat, we cross over to the Asian side and wander through an open air fruit, fish and vegetable market before munching our way through an extravaganza of regional dishes and mezes passed down through family traditions. To finish off a gorge fest of seafood it’s time for a toast with Raki, a crossed rendition of Ouzo, Sambuca or Pastis. “Serefe” (cheers)! Here’s to Culinary Backstreets for a memorable day of Two markets, Two Continents
The Heat Is On
There is nothing more synonymous with Turkiye than a Turkish bath and although the city is host to several bath houses, the Hurrem Sultan Hamami is without question the best of the rest. This legendary 500 year old hammam has been restored in pristine style, adhering to strict hygiene protocol yet retaining the authenticity of the experience.
Conveniently located a few hundred yards midway between the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, the building is divided into nearly identical men and female sections. Prior to the traditional ritual, guests can enjoy a tea before entering the magnificent three level atrium with fountain and dark wood doors that guard private cubicles for changing. Donning the provided robes and sandals and passing through the atrium, the warmth of the white marbled sauna room marinates the skin for the indulgent pampering to come. The marbled floors, walls and sinks with gold taps sets the ambiance as your private therapist begins the ritual that has earned it’s reputation for centuries.
It’s off with the old and on with the new as the entire body is exfoliated along with a soapy massage. Rinse and repeat with warm water, the next installment of an afternoon in paradise is a full body mask for detox.
Making your way to the centerpiece heated marble platform your body is smothered in a layer by layer blanket of warm bubbles. With another massage in the silky and soapy cocoon, you realize why this form of pleasure bathing is so popular. Absorbing the experience, a relaxing rest on a private bed and a platter of fresh fruit follows.
A full body massage by the therapist is an optional addition to the bath and is perfect ending to the experience. Due to the popularity of this specific hammam, reservations are a must.
Istanbul is a crossroads of history and culture and probing those attributes is well worth your time. Helping yourself to a heaping handful of Turkish food and bathing rituals is the perfect way to experience the city.