Read Part I HERE
I woke up Friday morning in Istanbul excited to explore the exotic Turkish city. With so much to see in such a limited time, our morning itinerary was busting at the seams with activities and adventures. I laced up my dorky sneakers and greeted the rest of the girls, who were defiantly rocking stylishly strappy sandals. I was tempted to do a quick shoe swap (blisters be damned!), but this was no time to be a sartorial superhero.
We exited the Ceylan InterContinental, and our fast-talking tour guide led us on foot through the Pera district, which is known as Little Istanbul. We walked along Beyoglu-Istiklal Street and peered into the windows of all the small shops, bars, cafes, and restaurants. I drooled over the delicate desserts on display and found myself running inside to buy boxes filled with sweet souvenirs. (Note: Turkish Delight is not as pleasant as the name would imply. It's chalky, chewy, and the direct opposite of delightful.)
We made our way to the imposing Galata Tower, where I'm pretty sure I saw Rapunzel drop down her long blond waves. I opted for the elevator—I never did excel at the rope-climbing exercise in gym class. The panoramic view of the sprawling city from the circular balcony was picture-perfect. I was perplexed and astounded that I was standing in Europe while looking across at the Asian side of the city. How could it be that one city could exist on two continents? And is it shameful to admit I didn't know this geographical tidbit about Turkey until I'd traveled there? I made a goal to somehow cross the invisible line (Swim? Charter a boat? Walk the bridge?) that separates Europe from Asia. I wanted to check another continent off my been-there-done-that list, and this seemed like the fastest, cheapest solution.
After a few minutes of snapping pics and striking poses, we hopped in our private van and took a drive to Topkapi Palace, the original residence of the Ottoman sultans. Beautifully majestic, the magnificent property is now home to imperial treasures, sacred Islamic relics, weapons, jewels, and museum-worthy tokens. Situated on gorgeously manicured grounds, the historic site boasts three lush lawns sprinkled with colorful flowers and lively greens.
We navigated through the sultan's private rooms, concubine quarters, and buildings that housed his countless wives and endless children. It was a whole other world that I can't even begin to fathom. A woman confined to the palace could go her entire life without ever laying eyes on a man other than the sultan. She could devote her life to him, serve him as a slave, and bed him as a concubine ... and then she could be put to death the next day for getting knocked up! Needless to say, birth control options were few at the time, so there was a whole lot of concubine-killing going on. (Someone should really make an HBO series about this.)
Pretending to be the sultan's safe-from-slaughter first wife was exhausting work, so after an hour of touring, I was famished. We went the short distance to Karakol Restaurant, located at the former guards' post on Topkapi Palace. We were treated to a hearty meal of fish, lamb, hummus, and other tasty Turkish temptations. I couldn't help but feel as spoiled as the sultan himself. A post-lunch iced coffee canceled out the two glasses of wine I had previously downed, and I felt awake and revived. What a satisfying meal!
I was thankful for the extra calories. I needed all the energy I could summon for our next awesome activity: shopping! We were off to Istanbul's famous Grand Bazaar. The biggest souk in the world, this overwhelming shopping center boasts nearly 400 boutiques, where aggressive sellers peddle antiques, jewelry, gold, leatherwear, and souvenirs. While our guide coached us to "haggle, haggle, haggle," I might as well have had the word "SUCKER" tattooed on my forehead. The shop owners took one look at me with my wide-eyed innocence and muttered to themselves, "We've got a live one!" I found myself grossly overpaying for pashminas that would sell for $5 in New York City. Evil-eye key chains, necklaces, and mirrors were everywhere, and it didn't take much coaxing for them to persuade me to buy charm bracelets for each of my friends at home. A traditional Turkish symbol, the evil eye is supposed to ward off negativity. Perhaps I could use one of those too.
While I would have loved to splurge on an authentic Turkish rug or an ornate glass lantern, I knew that these items wouldn't travel well. My luggage was already bulging, and my wallet was considerably thinner thanks to my previous jaunt to Paris.
After a few hours of frantically failed bargaining, I was spent ... and so was my spare cash. We retired back to the hotel, where I was able to relax a bit before dinner. Thank goodness for those sneakers—despite their ample cushioning, my feet were throbbing. And the only thing that made them feel better was the hot, soothing Jacuzzi. I could have stayed in there forever. I would have happily ordered room service and a bottle of bubbly for one, but time was a-wasting and reality was calling.
Our hungry group headed to the iconic Develi Restaurant in Samatya, the historical side of Istanbul. Specializing in the spicy cuisine of the Gaziantep region of southeastern Turkey, Develi is legendary for its kebabs. Our table was piled with samples of every imaginable dish. We ate and ate and ate, and I Ioved every gluttonous moment ... now that is what I call Turkish delight.
Stay tuned for tomorrow's post. It's my last day in Istanbul, and I make it to Asia—well, technically speaking. I also rock out at the hottest Turkish nightclubs. Cue the Euro techno music ...