THE KAERU KID: Talking Turkey

Editor’s Note: This is the first part in an ongoing series on Turkey.

If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul. — Alphonse de Lamartine 19th century French writer

On a recent visit to Turkey, I departed from my usual independent travel to book a tour through a travel agency. It certainly costs more, especially the hated single supplement, but much of the aggravations of deciding where to stay, booking hotels, deciding where to eat, transportation and so on are mostly done for you. However, the chance to interact with locals is markedly reduced. I will gladly tell you the travel agency and tour company, if you ask.

My 12-plus hour flight from LAX to Istanbul was on Turkish Airlines, which has no worries about being rated as a top airline. There was mass confusion while boarding; passengers mobbed the gate because our tickets weren’t marked by boarding priority. The food on a scale of 10 was around 3. The bathrooms quickly became filthy and the crew made no attempt to clean the area.

We were told visas could be obtained on arrival in Turkey. The visa window was closed, however, and we had to make a long trek to another area that lacked signage. We had to wait in a long line just to pay $20 — no paperwork was required — and receive a stamp in our passport. The passport control lines were long, but moved rather swiftly.

Because this was a tour group, the early arrivals had to wait a few hours in the airport until the whole group assembled and boarded a bus to Orka Royal Hotel in Old Town Istanbul. The streets are so narrow in this area that buses cannot travel on many streets. We were let off a few blocks away and had to walk, but our luggage was delivered. My previous visits to Istanbul included delivery right to the hotel door, but that hotel was located in a newer area.

Orka hotel is in a good location for walking about to check the neighborhood. While my room was clean, it was as tiny as those in old cruise ships. The free WiFi was as slow as dial up.

Four hours after arriving at the airport, some fellow tour members and I went searching for dinner. The street on which the hotel was located had several restaurants. We picked the first one that lacked a tout beckoning passersby to enter. We shared a huge delicious platter of shish kabob-type meats and delicious bread at a low cost.

While the tour didn’t specifically cater to Asian Americans, fellow passengers included Stella and Hisashi Matsuda of Thousand Oaks, Calif., their friends Midori and Ted Yamane from the San Fernando Valley and Glenn and Katherine Yamada from Glendale, Calif. Talk about a small world, it turned out that Glenn’s employer was a close friend of mine.

A CITY ON TWO CONTINENTS ­— Istanbul (not Constantinople)  is a major city in Turkey and once the seat of power for the Ottoman Empire. The Kid advises a meal on the top floor of Hamdi, a restaurant that offers a view of the Bosphorus Strait (above). It’s strategic location between Asia and Europe has made Istanbul a stop for many travelers including hippies who stopped by The Pudding Shop (right) since the 1960s. photo by the Kaeru Kid

A CITY ON TWO CONTINENTS ­— Istanbul (not Constantinople) is a major city in Turkey and once the seat of power for the Ottoman Empire. The Kid advises a meal on the top floor of Hamdi, a restaurant that offers a view of the Bosphorus Strait (above). It’s strategic location between Asia and Europe has made Istanbul a stop for many travelers. photo by the Kaeru Kid

Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) has approximately 15 million inhabitants, and lies in both Asia and Europe separated by the Bosphorus Strait, which is the passageway for the Black Sea, which eventually leads to the Mediterranean. Some 90 percent of the citizens are Muslims, but there is certainly a secular population.

Travelers should know the history of modern Turkey and its founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk before coming here. Ataturk insisted on secularism and other modern reforms, but today the presence of hardline Islamist groups is evident.

There are ancient Roman castles and aqueducts indicative of the country’s historic past.

I had been to Istanbul a couple of times, but it was quite some time ago. It was fun to revisit some of the major sites, including the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, the underground Basilica Cistern, Hagia Sophia Mosque, Grand Bazaar, and a boat tour on the Bosporus and the Istanbul Archaeological Museums. There are other fascinating sites that most tours do not include, such as Chora Church, Süleymaniye Mosque (the largest mosque in the city, and is visible from everywhere) and Galata Bridge Fish Market (for a fish sandwich from docked boats).

Near Galata Bridge is a highly rated and recommended restaurant Hamdi (Tahmis Cad Kalcin Sok No 17 Eminonu, Istanbul), which has spectacular views from the top floors overlooking the Bosphorus. It is one of the most popular restaurants, so make reservations immediately upon arrival or make advance reservations, and be sure to ask for the top floor. Note: There have been complaints about rude service.

A fun nighttime activity is to see the Whirling Dervishes perform in one of Istanbul’s oldest bathhouses. No photographs are allowed, as this is considered a religious activity. Information can be obtained at most hotel desks.

To get the most from any trip, it’s important to be well versed in the place’s history, and the discoveries and recommendations other travelers have made. I find the Internet to be the mother lode, and recommend printing out a copy of the best tips and assembling them in a folder to be reviewed again just before going to that day’s destination. While I like perusing the Internet more than using guidebooks, I also suggest going to the library and reading several guidebooks, as you may want to buy a copy. Check guidebooks’ Websites for additional information as well.

Unfortunately, most tourists expect to be spoon-fed by guides and what you get will be pabulum. Doing some prior research should be fun and not work and will easily double your pleasure if you really want to know about the culture of a new place. Unfortunately, there is rarely enough time on packaged tours to visit places not on the itinerary.

An example of what I am recommending is illustrated by the following: Most tours start at the square near the Blue Mosque. If one reads and prints sources such as this Wikipedia post (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hippodrome_of_Constantinople) the night before visiting, it will add greatly to their enjoyment, as some guides may not have the inclination to discuss the sites in depth. Of course, there are many tourists who complain about guides who give too much information and slowly a guides’ enthusiasm wanes and they end up just pointing at structures and only answering questions if asked.

One can read that the square was built over the hippodrome where chariot races were held. It is now 50 feet below where we stand. Several monuments were placed on a spine about 10 feet below the present street level. These include a 1,000-year-old Egyptian obelisk, of which only the top third portion survived transportation, a relatively modern (1900) sculpture dedicated to a visit by German Ruler Kaiser Wilhelm II, and a spiral sculpture called the Serpent Column that the Greeks made. The famous Sultan Ahmed Mosque is more commonly known as the Blue Mosque because of the blue tiles throughout the interior. It has six minarets, tall slender mosque towers with balconies from which the summons to prayer are made. It is said that Sultan Ahmed wanted the minarets to be covered in gold, but the word for gold and six are similar, so the architect misunderstood. This created a problem because the Grand Mosque in Mecca had only four minarets, which resulted in more minarets being added to the mosque in Mecca. The mosque in Mecca now has 11 minarets. Shoes must be removed to enter any mosque so be prepared with the appropriate footwear.

The Pudding Shop. photo by The Kaeru Kid

The Pudding Shop. photo by The Kaeru Kid

Random notes: The Pudding Shop is a place to stop for lunch near the Blue Mosque (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pudding_Shop) and serves tasty food. It is also a historic place where hippies traveling through this area would leave messages for friends. If you see ice cream stands near the square, have your video recorder ready for scenes such as this: www.youtube.com/watch?v=HUkzvfh5rmM.

Tulips were first commercially cultivated in Turkey and taken back to Europe by a German representative to the Ottoman Empire before finally finding its way to the Netherlands.

This two-week Classic Turkey tour continues to Ankara, Cappadocia, Antalya, Pamukkale, Kusadasi and Canakkale.

Las Vegas Tidbits

For shabu shabu fans, Swish (5115 West Spring Mountain Road #121; 702-522-9345) is now open in a mall across the street from where Raku, Monta and other restaurants are located. Swish is Korean owned and operated but billed as a Japanese shabu shabu and sukiyaki restaurant.

I mention this because the flavoring leans toward Korean, with more emphasis on spiciness and garlic. As an example, one choice of broth is a spicy miso for the shabu shabu. Their
Website that’s listed on their business card is no longer valid, which isn’t a good sign. The food was average.  There is better shabu shabu in Henderson, but those options cannot compare with the best in the Los Angeles area.

The Kaeru Kid lives in Las Vegas and hopes readers will send him comments at KaeruKid@yahoo.com. The views expressed are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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