We went first to Istanbul, via Turkish Airlines. I was delighted with the flight... the plane was very nice, lots of leg room, some empty seats, and we got nice little packages with socks to wear on the long cross-Atlantic flight, a travel toothbrush, comb, blindfold, and shoehorn. We flew through the night and arrived late morning in Istanbul. We met our guide, Sinan, who spoke English very well and was very helpful, patient, and knowledgeable. He wasn't bad-looking either :-) We were taken to our hotel, the Golden Age in the Taksim area, and had the rest of the day to orient ourselves to the time zone and environs, which was helpful. I wouldn't have wanted to do anything that first day. The weather was pretty cold and wet off and on--much like Spring in the mid-US now, I imagine (although those of us from Florida and California thought it yucky, the ones from Minnesota thought it was fine weather... of course, they'd left a snowstorm).
The next day was important to this bellydancing group... it was dedicated to shopping! First we went to visit Bella, who is probably the top costume maker in Turkey (Dahlal vends her costumes here in the USA). She had lots of assorted costumes available "off the rack", and I'm sure can custom-make them also, although since we only had about 4 days left that wasn't an option for us. She had nice, fully beaded bra and belt sets (I believe they came with some accessories, but I'm not sure) for $175 US (price was initially quoted as $250 but went down the longer we stayed), and had various dresses and more ornate costumes for prices up to about $1000. Some of the more expensive stuff was exquisite. Anyway, some of the women bought costumes here. (She also had several cats hanging around her showroom... in fact, I saw lots of cats all over Turkey...)
From there we went to the Grand Bazaar, the largest covered shopping area in the world, if the descriptions are to be believed... 4000 shops. First Sinan advised us on how to bargain, and how all the shop owners will try to be your friend and get you into their shop; then we went to a costume-maker there (almost to the end of the main street, hang a left, just outside). Again, lots of pre-made costumes... not quite as nice as Bella's though, and nowhere near the variety of styles either. Most people didn't hang around here very long... but we had the whole Grand Bazaar for the rest of the day. What an amazing assortment of stuff! Gold, silver, other jewelry; carpets; leather; brass; ethnic clothing and costumes; souvenirs, T-shirts, and other assorted goodies. And some decent places to eat too. I had a lunch of some wonderfully-seasoned beef-veggie concoction. It was fun to see what people had bought when we connected with the bus 5 hours later.
The next day was scheduled for sightseeing: a cruise on the Bosphorus, visit to the Blue Mosque, St. Sophia's (museum now), maybe some related items. I was feeling poorly that day (a recurrence of something I had before I left, not a travel thing), so didn't go, but I understand it was nice. Instead, after sleeping the morning, I was feeling better so I walked down to the area near the Dohlmabace Palace, where there was a nice little taverna (don't know what they call them in Turkey) on the water and I could look out over the Bosphorus and watch the boats and the gulls.
I caught up with the group that evening, when we went out to a Turkish nightclub called Karavanseray (spelling?) to have dinner and see a show with folklore and bellydancers (the tour included 4 dinner/shows in Egypt, but this one in Turkey was an unscheduled optional add-on). It was a fun, worthwhile event. There were 3 bellydancers, one bellydance troupe, 3 folklore groups, and some singers. The folklore groups were good, but now I understand why they say what they do about Turkish bellydancers... One thing I read mentioned that the Turks don't think of bellydancing as part of their folkloric heritage... they consider it an Arabic dance, not Turkish... it's mainly presented in some clubs because tourists want it. There did not appear to be any Turkish people in the club either--only tourists, from various countries. And it was apparent the women who danced were not really "into" it the way they were in Egypt, for example. What can I say about their dancing? Well, the first one had a very pretty, albeit failry skimpy, white costume. She was also very pretty, nice body, came out and wiggled around a bit, then went around posing for pictures with the patrons, which were of course made available for sale at the end of the evening. Later she returned to the stage and did some audience particpation--she picked Cassandra out of the audience (we later found out Sinan had suggested that to her) and pulled her up on stage... when Cassandra started dancing, it was painfully obvious how much better she was than the performer--you could see the other lady's jaw drop... at least for a moment, then she smiled and took it in good spirits.... The troupe was 3 dancers, all wearing lovely matching pink costumes. They came out and did a few little numbers. They were OK, I guess... but the husbands in our group decided they were not wearing underwear., The 2nd solo dancer was average... not tacky, but not terribly interesting either. The last dancer, who were we advised was one of the most popular in Turkey, wore and even skimpier costume than the first one. The belt came up really high and narrow on the sides, like a G-string. There was just a flap of beadwork and fringe in the front and back... it reminded me of a loincloth. It covered a minimal skirt that was just a small sheer piece of fabric tucked to hide some key areas. This dancer had some technique, but her two most memorable moves were the breast hold (she put her hands around her boobs and kinda bounced then up and down) and the butt toss (making that back flap of her costume go flying). Well, at least she smiled a lot and seemed to be having fun. When we all got back on the bus, Sinan asked us which dancer we liked best, and we all said in unison "Cassandra!"
Bellydance troupe in Turkish nightclub. Photo by Jeffrey Valentine.
The next day was more sightseeing: we crossed over to the Asia side of Istanbul and visited the Beylberi Palace. Built in the mid-1800s, this was the "summer palace" for some of the latter sultans/kings--hence it had no heat, which was noticeable since it was probably around 40-50 degrees F and raining outside. It was interesting that here, and at the other palaces we visited, we had to go through a "security checkpoint" with a metal detector similar to those at airports. The palace was amazing--very ornate. Designs painted all over almost every wall and ceiling. Tapestries. Gilded furniture. Chandeliers of Bohemian crystal. Ming vases. Pictures cannot convey what it looks like in real life. (By the way, you had to pay an extra fee to bring a camera into the palace, and a higher one for a video... and this was common at many of the historical sites in Turkey and Egypt as well...)
We went back to the Europe side and visited the Topkapi palace (the main palace) and had lunch there. For this meal, as with almost all of the meals we were served (except breakfast, of course), we had a choice of chicken, or fish (which was always "sea bass", which everyone pronounced "seabus", which became a running joke on the trip), or mixed grill ("mixte grrillll", assorted mostly red meats). The vegetarians on the trip always had to ask for something special; sometimes they got some pasta, usually a few vegetables, maybe some french fries... I must confess, I was glad not to be a vegetarian... The middle east doesn't seem to understand the concept of vegetarianism, at least not for tourists. This palace was also splendid, and very large--3 major courtyards, and many buildings. Of note is the display of treasures from the royal treasury: the Spoonmaker diamond, the throne of the Shah of Persia, the worlds largest emeralds, and much more. Some folks were disappointed that we didn't get to see the Harem here (I'm not sure they had one at the summer palace), but our guide (Sinan) explained that there was an extra fee to enter the Harem, and they only showed you 12 rooms out of the 200 that were there, so it really wasn't worthwhile. He suggested that on a free day we might visit the Dohlmabace palace (walking distance from our hotel) and see the Harem there, where they had the whole thing open. (Some of us did do that on a later day.)
Then, at the request of several of our group, we went to a carpet factory. Here we saw a demonstration of how the carpets are made using a double-knot technique, how silk yarns were made from silk threads, how silk threads are made from the silkworm cocoons (did you know they get 1 km of fiber from a single cocoon?), and how the yarns are dyed using natural and chemical dyes. We saw the new contender for the World's Finest Carpet being made (this factory is currently in the Guiness Book of Records with the World's Finest Carpet, and they're going to beat their own record). The "fineness" for carpets is based on the materials used (silk is the best, of course), the number of knots per inch (the record is over 3000--I believe this is in a square inch), the intricacy of the design, and the number of different colors used. Then we got to the main part of the presentation: the showroom. They showed us lots of various kinds of carpets: wool, wool and cotton, all cotton, silk, and kilims (the last is a different weaving technique... more like a mat, not fuzzy). We got to feel the carpets and crawl around on them if we wanted (several did, especially the silk). They served tea (I tried the apple tea, which is a popular drink in Turkey--it was really good). Then they wanted us to buy, of course. This was the first of several "store-thinly-disguised-as-factory" visits we had on the trip (the others were all in Egypt), but they certainly put on the best and classiest show here. There were a few folks who were interested in buying, too, even though I personally wasn't. I didn't feel pushed.
Next I went to St. Sophia's.... it was once a pagan temple, then a Christian church, then a mosque, now it's a museum and is being renovated. I was lucky to have Peg and Ken Blader (from Minneapolis area) along to play "guide" for me. They had seen it earlier in the week, but they wanted to spend more time there because they're both SCA types and were especially interested in period Constantinople (Ken's SCA persona is a Crusader). They had seen a TV show some time ago that said there was some Viking graffitti on one of the columns upstairs, so Ken especially was in quest of that. It was a huge place... I think Peg said the dome overhead was 150 feet high? I was intrigued with the oldness and the *connectedness* of it all. For example, they had some old urns that were used to hold wine in the "pagan" times, were used for baptisms when it was a church, and for ablutions before prayer when it was a mosque.
Then Peg and Ken went their own way leaving me (and my Mom, who was traveling with me) to wander on our own. We went to the Blue Mosque (my Mom had seen that day earlier in the week, and advised it was worth going to). Unique because of its six minarets, this mosque is often considered one of the most beautiful in the world. The inside is covered with tiled designs in various shades of blue. I had never been in a mosque before but was advised of the etiquette: you take off your shoes before entering... also you need to have your arms and legs pretty well covered (this was not a problem here, since it was pretty cold outside, so nobody was going to be sleeveless or in shorts, but I saw it later in Egypt). The mosques that are tourist attaractions have shelves for the tourists to put their shoes on, and people who seem to expect tips (presumably optional) for watching the shoes for you. The natives carry their shoes in (soles together). There are no chairs in a mosque--just a large expanse of carpeted floor, to kneel and pray. I found it very conducive to meditation.
Next we wandered down toward the water, with the intent of getting to the Spice Bazaar (aka. Egyptian Bazaar), again something I had missed previously... we found ourselves getting away from the tourist stuff pretty fast. We wandered into a park with a small zoo (we saw some Turkish Turkeys) and a small carnival with rides and stuff. I was amused because the spinning-platter-that-tilts ride was designed to look like a Whirling Dervish, which is not something you'd see here in the USA. We found our way down to the water (I was pleased that our Turkish guide had given us all maps of Istanbul, so we could wander around without fear of getting lost) and had a nice walk along the water, past a ferry port (there are LOTS or port or boat-docking areas in Istanbul, so I could hardly call this "the" port), past the terminus for the Orient Express (which apparently isn't running any more), and on to the large plaza where the Spice Bazaar is. There's also a large mosque there (we didn't go in) and a lot of pigeons... and of course, a popular pastime is feeding the pigeons.
The Spice Bazaar is heavy on spices and stuff like that, as you might expect (I was amused by one shop that had a sign for "Sultan's Love Potion Aphrodisiaque"), but it also has assorted other goodies much like the Grand Bazaar, but on a much smaller (and easier to deal with) scale. We did some shopping here for gifts to bring back... I also picked up a couple of videotapes of Turkish dancers (1 oriental, 1 folkloric), but they turn out to be in the wrong format (they say VHS, and PAL-SECAM underneath... I tried asking, but was confused by the response... I figured I could always get them converted over here anyway if I needed to... I now know (after checking with my Dad, an electronics engineer and gadget freak) that our USA format is called NTSC or something like that). Outside the Spice Bazaar we found a small fish market and other shops where the locals were actually shopping. Then we took a cab back to our hotel for the evening.
It was after 2:00 by then, so those of us who wanted to see the Dervishes headed back to the hotel. We took a quick look in the small mosque next to the palace, though, to see what a "regular" mosque was like... it was also very beautiful and peaceful. We made it back about 5 minutes to 3 and Cassandra was in the lobby with some other people. She passed along the word: Ali had just left with about a half-dozen others. They had found out the show *started* at 3:00. To get there, we had to go back the way we had just come... we got kinda discouraged and decided to instead go get some dinner with Cassandra and the other folks who were waiting. So we went a half-block down the street to a Middle-Eastern restaurant (it's relevant to say that... I saw all kinds of restaurants in Istanbul, including Thai, pizza, and McDonald's) and had a wonderful meal and were back at the bus in plenty of time.
While we waited for everyone to arrive, we compared notes with the folks who had gone to a Turkish Bath. The Baths are segregated by sex... and one thing that was interesting was that the women were naked on their side, but the men were not, over on their side. One of the husbands who did the Bath said he thought it was really kinda weird... at one point he was rinsing or something and dropped the towel he had wrapped around himself because it seemed sensible, and he got the sense from the guys around him that he had just comitted a horrible *faux pas*. So he put the towel back on pretty quick.
And we kept waiting... it was approaching 5:30 and Ali and the whole gang who had gone to the Dervishes were missing. Sinan, our guide, was getting pretty antsy... he relaxed a little when he checked and found our flight time was later than he had first thought. But it was still getting late, and still we waited. I guess it was around 5:45 when we heard the cry of "They're coming!" and shortly saw them all running toward the bus. We found out they had tried to leave earlier, but they would not let anyone out because it was a religious ceremony. We also found out that they almost didn't get *in* to the show, because the doors were closing right in front of them... but apparently Ali slipped the door guy a $20 and he let them all in.
So anyway, the bus took off, we made our flight OK, and we were on our way to Cairo. But if you decide to go to Istanbul, I suggest you not schedule your departure the same day the Dervishes dance.