Surprises in Istanbul

Morning sun falls on the city of Istanbul. (QMI Agency/Brad Honywill)

Morning sun falls on the city of Istanbul. (QMI Agency/Brad Honywill)

SUE-ANN LEVY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:51 AM ET

ISTANBUL, Turkey -- I'm lying nude on a slab of marble -- for what seems like hours -- watching my own sweat form puddles of water around me.

Even my hair is dripping in this hot, cavernous room with a line-up of marble sinks standing like sentries along its outer walls.

But before I can curse my partner for convincing me to join her at a traditional Hamam (Turkish bath), an ample woman (wearing only her underwear) orders me to sit up and begins to scrub me from head to toe using a kese (a loofah sponge) laden with thick suds. Recognizing I can't see two metres in front of me without my glasses, she leads me to one of the sinks, washing my hair before she rinses me off.

I'm ordered back to the gobektasi, or marble slab, to sweat a little more before I declare I've had enough heat and return to my private cubicle to towel off, get dressed and have some tea.

My partner and I emerge onto the busy pedestrian-only street full of shops selling mostly North American labels feeling relaxed and renewed -- especially considering we'd flown to Turkey from Israel earlier that very day. For days after our skin is as soft as a baby's and we can't get over how energized we feel even after spending hours exploring this busy, hot, dusty city.

This is Istanbul, the fifth largest city in the world -- home to a population of 12-million and almost as many honking bright yellow taksi (taxis). This is where east meets west and where ancient mosques and palaces are interspersed with upscale four-star hotels and restaurants.

This noisy, forever grid-locked city is also home to one of the largest indoor shopping emporiums in the world -- the famous Grand Bazaar -- and the beautiful Bosphorus Straight, which divides the continents of Europe and Asia. We consider the cacophony of sounds, the traffic and the air sometimes filled with strong body odours -- what happens to people when the fast of Ramadan mixes with the heat -- just part of the adventure.

Each morning, we set out from our four-star Marmara hotel on Taksim Square ready to try to conquer this vast city in four days -- a feat we discover to be impossible considering the number of ancient sites and the lure of fabulous shopping.

One particular day we dedicate to the old city -- Sultanahmet -- where we take in the majestic Haghia Sophia, once Istanbul's premier mosque for 500 years and considered one of the finest remaining examples of Byzantine architecture. We are asked to remove our shoes and cover our shoulders with a blue shroud before entering the church, which is now a museum.

At the Blue Mosque, known for the blue tiles that adorn its interior, we are forced to peek in through one of the arched doors as we've arrived at one of the five 30-minute prayer times per day.

But we spend considerable time exploring the spectacular Topkapi Palace, residence to Ottoman sultans, their wives and their harems from 1500 to 1909. Set on a hill overlooking the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara, we occupy most of our visit in a set of rooms with glass cases -- gawking at the opulent Imperial jewels.

Our day of history behind us, we occupy one of our days exploring the Egyptian Spice Bazaar and the enormous Grand Bazaar, containing some 60 streets and 5,000 shops selling Turkish carpets, silks, jewelry, designer knock-off clothing, purses, pashminas and shoes, to name just a few.

We find we have barely enough time to hit a few of the bazaar's streets. But we're in heaven when we land up at one store selling all kinds of Burberry knock-offs -- bags, polo shirts, coats, wallets and even dog tags. Weeks after I return from Turkey, I'm repeatedly asked where I purchased my Burberry bag.

At one stall, a merchant, trying to convince us to buy his hand-made suede boots, tells us his life story and serves us Green Apple tea, sickeningly sweet even for someone with a sweet tooth. At another, the merchant shows us a picture of him posing with Sex and the City actress Sarah Jessica Parker, who'd bought many of his pricey susanas (tapestries) just a few weeks before.

Another steamy morning we take one of the two-hour cruises operated by public ferry up the Bosphorus Strait, gliding along the European side en route and the Asian side on the way back. In broken English, our guide points out the beautiful palaces, mosques, villas, fortresses and the Bosphorus bridge -- one of the longest suspension bridges in the world -- connecting the continents of Europe and Asia.

Throughout our stay in Istanbul, we have few problems conversing with or understanding the Turkish people -- until our last night. Feeling bold, we decide to visit the Istanbul Balik restaurant a well-known but pricey seafood eatery set in a prime scenic location overlooking the Bosphorus.

When we arrive, we realize the menus are all in Turkish, most of the customers appear to be locals and only one waiter understands English. We can't even read the prices. We learn very quickly why we should come to such places with someone who knows the language. While the food is divine, the lobster tail we choose as an appetizer -- about the same size as a pen -- costs us $100 Cdn.

The man at the next table comes to our rescue, ordering a special spicy shrimp dish that is more within our price range.

We, nonetheless, can't help feeling like two turkeys that night.

Also nearby

MARMARIS, Turkey -- After the hustle and bustle of Istanbul, we can't wait to escape to the resort town of Marmaris, one of many dotting the coast of the Aegean Sea and a short two-hour flight from Istanbul.

We plunk down at the Grand Azur, an efficiently run German hotel with all the amenities, where we spend part of our day lounging by the huge circular pool or on the beach. Later we explore a nearby town, a quick hop by trolley bus or a 2 km.-walk on a beachfront promenade.

One day we take a side trip to Rhodes, Greece, a one-hour fast ferry ride from Marmaris, where we visit the oldest Jewish synagogue still standing in Greece and a memorial to the 1,673 Jewish people living there who did not survive the Nazis once the island was taken over by the Germans in 1943.

Back in Marmaris, we spend balmy evenings listening to the live eastern European music graciously provided for us while dining outside -- and walking along the Boardwalk taking in the Las Vegas-type outdoor entertainment and dancing provided by the many hotels along the route.

It doesn't take us long to discover that there are plenty of shops selling attractive jewelry at good prices, designer knock-offs and other knick-knacks until well past midnight. We feel like we've struck gold.

MORE INFORMATION

While we travelled to Turkey from Tel Aviv, Israel, there are plenty of ways to get there from Canada. To learn more about the sites mentioned or how best to get there, check out goturkey.com and kulturturizm.gov.tr, or contact your travel agent.


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