Istanbul’s THY Lounge is Amazing

I arrived in Istanbul in relatively steamy heat. The hot summer sun even at 4:30 seems to penetrate everything.

With 4 hours to go prior to my flight to CDG (yes, it’s wonderful to overshoot your destination by more than three hours only to turn back a few hours later).

But, because Star Alliance Gold affords you access to ALL the international lounges, I found myself at the end of the hall in the magical Turkish Airlines lounge, fully equipped with a movie theater, Playstations, a child’s play corner, tons of cush seating, a fully functional espresso bar with desserts, two fully stocked beverage kingdoms, two chefs on hand, and copious amounts of pizzas, dishes and treats. Of course, free wifi is a given.

 

If this place was open 24 hours, I may never get a hotel. Why did I never come here before?!

Istanbul for the second time

Sitting on the plane to Belgrade, I catch myself looking down at my visa. Surely that’s not right. Surely…my entrance stamp says the 18th? No today is the 18th. My exit stamp says the 18th. But what…is…that…number? The 13th? No, not possible. How is it that the days just glide by like this?

Ahhh, the 16th. I entered on the 16th. How was it only the 16th?!? I feel like I’ve been here for a week.

Or perhaps it’s just the combined deja vu of this being round 2.

**

Feb. 16:

I arrive in Istanbul again after the 10-hour flight from EWR, which always seems to fly by watching back to back movies. I swear I love long flights sometimes because it’s an opportunity for the mind to go quiet. No interuptions. No phone calls. No connections. I’ll be sad the day wifi becomes commonplace and free. The airplane is my sanctuary, and one day it’ll be gone. Perhaps that’s why I’m so addicted to going anywhere, any place. I’ll do anything to force myself to disconnect.

Alongside a couple and a man who is en route to Dubai after a weekend in Istanbul, we quickly gather liras from the Citibank ATM (among many in a row at the airport) and head to the metro. I vaguely remember taking it with An-an almost precisely two years ago and knew that Sultanahmed would bring me to the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia, and a transfer would take me across the Bosphorus by tram to Beyoglu, from the Galata Tower to Kabatas. I’ve always felt safer on metros. No traffic. No surprises.

Leaning up against the window is also deja vu, and stepping out into the street at Karakoy, the air is crisp, the sky cloudy and the traffic thick. This is how I remember the city, although staying in Sultanahmed last time really helped ramp up the beauty/exotic factor.

We take a cab from Karakoy, where I am to drop off my new friend at his hotel–the Mermera Palace. I cringe visibly. I have yet to have a positive experience with taxis, thinking back to when An-an and I took one from Kabatas to the W hotel and were taken around for 40 minutes and charged nearly $50 only to find the drive should have been about 5 minutes.

When the cab finally pulls up to the Mermera, it is 40 minutes later and we have gone  from Karakoy to Taksim three separate times. The driver apparently also pulls the 50/5 switch on my friend [when my friend gave him 50 liras for the 45 lira cab drive, the driver switched the 50 with a 5 and insisted he was not paid]. My friend ends up paying 95 liras when it’s said and done. What can he do? One word against another.

Hamam and Goreme

I’m not totally sure what is in store for us at the hamam, although Deniz’s warnings that we should tell them that we want to go separate unless we want to be washed in front of men. I had looked nervously at An-an. I’m not totally pleased to be completely naked..

We decide at the last minute to bring swimsuits… a decision that proves fruitful because when we arrive, they tell us that we must be bathed unisex.

Separate?? An-an asks.

No, the woman’s side is being restored, he says.

Swimsuits thankfully

Go to sauna—prices are 2 TYL for a minute (not the best price), but we are still shivering from day’s ordeal, and we are eager to sit in this warm, steamy place and have our faces painted with mud.

As soon as we are somewhat settled in the center of the hamam’s center room, a group of Spanish people come through, and I start to feel  claustrophobic. We all sit and wait patiently to get bathed, around in a circle, not paying attention to one another, yet unable to not pay attention to one-another.

An attendant comes to scrub me, and it’s a weird sensation to have someone else wash me. I  lay down the warm marble to get bubbled.

Go shower, she commands when she is done. Then for a swim.

The pool is small and slightly warm. I want to be in it before the Spanish crew come to ruin the silence. We dip our heads back to drown any sounds.

After 20 minutes, the Spanish crew starts to trickle in. The change in sound is apparent as the pool soon becomes an echo chamber. We quickly leave the area to lie in some lawn chairs with apple tea.

Still in pain from skiing mishap, I tell An that I will get  a massage. She hesitates at first then gets one with me.

15 minutes, I say to the man with the large belly who asks me if it’s ok that a man massages me

Yes, I say, but I like a lot of pressure.

He sends another man who takes massage oil from a glass pitcher before going to work, awakening muscles I wasn’t quite sure I knew I had. It’s worth the 2 liras per minute.

We lie for a bit afterwards, and I feel a little strange that there are  mirrors on top of the tables.

Because we’ve waited for so long, the Spanish girls are all in the locker room getting dressed when we get in. It is already 7 p.m., although I’m secretly happy because we’ll miss the transport to the special “Turkish night” the pansion had tried so hard to sell us. They’d told us to come back at 7:30 and I’m just tired of people trying to sell me things left and right.

No such luck, though, because halfway through getting ready, our hostel friend shows up and sends an attendant into the locker room to get us. Uhh, your friend. Your friend, she tells us.

I step outside seeing  him shyly waiting. I’m not sure why An-an didn’t kiss him; he is tall and cute. I find out later he is only 18.

We are out of the hamam in a flash and getting back into the van with a half dozen other tourists. We can’t quite figure out if they are heading out to the lights festival or going right back to the hostel.

Hostel? Hostel? We ask.

They kind of nod but we’re unclear.

Turning, we ask the others if they’re going to the hostel.

No, I think we’re going directly to the place.

What the *(#$, I whisper to An-an. I feel like they’re tricking us into going to the place.

No, no, we’ll walk, we declare.

But it’s cold, our drivers protest, pointing to our feet, noting the flip flops.

No, no we’re fine. We’re going to walk, we insist. We’ve already made this journey several times today and know from our position, it’s a mere five blocks back to the hostel. We don’t want to get tricked into paying for the touristy whirring festival that we had no desire to go see. We’ve already decided that it’s much more worthwhile to grab a proper dinner with wine.

An-an and I hop out of the van—much to their dismay—feeling only slightly bad that the others in the van have likely been waiting for us as we took our sweet time at the hamam.

I stop by a corner store to buy a pack of cigarettes. The guy charges me 7 TYL and I don’t know if he’s ripping me off a bit, or if that’s the cost. I can clearly see that other packs cost significantly less, but what can you do about a gringo tax.

There is an army man that walks in to look at some goods while we are around. I don’t take much notice—army guys usually make me feel very safe—but when we leave the store, he follows us.

I whisper to An-an in Chinese and we collectively decide               to duck inside the little patisserie before moving on, just to wait him out. We feel significantly more nervous when another store clerk, adjacent to the patisserie looks inside the window at us.

We order something flaky and Turkish, filled with nuts and covered in honey for one lira. The store clerk here recommends a few places for us to have dinner, and I whisper to An-an in Chinese that we should check out their recommendations but be cognizant that they may not be the best places. In fact, the guy may get a commission for bringing us. I am even more apprehensive when he offers to walk us there.

No use, however, because the restaurant he recommends is closed for renovations, but he does suggest instead a pizza place down the street.

We know what we’re looking for—some place cozy with a nice ambiance.  Yet, as we wander up the street, there is closed storefront after closed storefront and brightly lit restaurants with cheap furniture. We stop at a pizza place to check out the menu. It’s ok, we decide, but we’re stuck on going to somewhere nice.

We head back to the hostel to prepare, when our kind hostel owner tells us we should check out Nostalji, a truly authentic experience that is out of someone’s home. I will walk you, he says. It looks like it’s far, but it’s not really.

We get ready for dinner, putting on clothes that in retrospect was really not necessary, because after a long and roundabout walk up to the restaurant—past a view that must be breathtaking when it is sunny outside—we arrive at a grand house with a restaurant attached. Inside, there are only 4 tables and we are the only ones there.

A young Turkish boy walks through the door to offer us a small menu.  He looks about 15, with the bright blue eyes and dark hair that we keep seeing.

He’s sooo cute An-an coos.

We order a prix-fixe menu, a couple of other traditional food items and a  bottle of wine, since the region is apparently “famous” for them. I wonder if it’s like how Fes is “famous” for its leather.

We want a spicy wine, full-bodied, we try to say. He smiles politely but has no idea what we’re saying.

Ok, wait, wait, there are descriptions, so we settle for the local wine that is described as blackberries and spicy. That sounds about up our alley. We also try to order the home-made wine but are told it’s not quite ready.

Halfway through dinner, the father, who had greeted us when we first walked in, sits with two friends at the adjacent table.  We feel cozy

The son drives us home. How old are you? 19.

Back at the hostel, we ask about bus schedules.

We can look tomorrow, the staff brushes me off. I had wanted to look tonight so we could plan for tomorrow, but it seems the staff is enjoying wine with one another, so I don’t want to intrude.

When I go upstairs to the room, I’m disappointed that for An-an’s first hostel experience, our roommates are already sleeping. I don’t want to hang out with the Turkish guys downstairs. After the day, I’m a little apprehensive about their aggressiveness.

But just when I think all is over, the guy in the next bed rolls out of bed and whispers to the girl “GOOD NIGHT.” Then, she is suddenly up, and we are laughing for the next two hours about Brazil’s sex motels, cultural differences, getting mugged in different countries and “the look”.

The Brazilian guy whose name is Jean tries to go downstairs for a wine bottle opener and runs smack into the guy who bought me the wine earlier in the day. He is angry and makes gestures at me in the doorway. I refuse to look at him directly and pretend that I have no idea what he’s talking about. Mostly, I don’t know what he’s talking about anyway.

Feb 19-20, 2011: Istanbul

Things got off a little slower than expected; I guess that’s to be expected.Because Ilan (a guy I’ve conversed with over asmallworld) texts me and warns me about Istanbul taffiic, we decide to take the Metro into town. It’s convenient, and gauging by the map, we need to get off somewhere by the end  of the T1 line to get to the W Hotel.

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that the booth is only in Turkish, but we fondle around a minute with the machine to figure out how to buy three tokens at 1.75 lira per token, as the Turkey Travel Planner suggests.

The light rail gets busy then empties—a woman actually tells us we need to get off at Kabasi because it’s the end of the line. We pass the Hagia Sofia and landmarks in the old town, as well as so many kebab places lining the streets that my mouth waters. I cannot wait to come back to Istanbul and stay in the Old Town. Street food has my name on it.

When we get off, we quickly flag down a cab who wastes no time ripping us off. We pay 50 lira to go essentially to go a distance that should have been five blocks. I kick myself for not being more diligent. I’m sure in an effort to swindle us again, the driver leaves us his phone number. The hotel advises us to call him and bring him back and they’ll deal with it when he actually arrives. An-an tries, but we ultimately give up. Unworthy effort.

An-an’s Starwood points get us upgraded at the W, into a 2-bed suite that we never actually sleep in. The room is trendy, with a small outdor courtyard and rosy lighting. I warn her that this is much, much nicer than anywhere else we’ll stay during the trip.

Can you rough it, I ask. I’m actually concerned.

Yea, she says. I’m laid back and down. I’ve just never done it before.

Idris, an asw contact advises us to go to Bebek Balikcisi for dinner instead of Poseiden, and since Gohkan (another asw contact) had advised Poseiden would likely cost us 100 euros a person, we decide Bebek Balikcisi is the good call.

I am slightly disappointed by the emptiness when we walk in but quickly realize that most of the patrons are sitting in the back at the tables along the Bosphorus, shielded by glass. We are ecstatic when they show us a table right alongiside the river. It’s so beautiful and mesmerizing, I can’t help but to smile. I even forget that the taxi only cost us 17 lira—and we were in the taxi for much longer going to Bebek than it should have taken. For what it’s worth, at least we’re comfortable with the metro now.

The guys at the table next to us are smoking sweet smelling cigars, and not missing a beat, An-an asks what they are puffing on. They don’t hesitate to offer us two of our own, saistsfying my urge to smoke.

A bottle of wine for 75 lira, an order of sea bass and grilled calamari with butter sauce leaves us happily satiated. Efem meets us at the restaurant—albeit briefly—and we head to Lucca, where an older dude based in D.C. buys us drinks.

Itching to club, we take a cab to Reina—much more our scene. We hang out with a group of guys wh turn out to be 20, At least they’re to hang out with for a drink, and we’re invited to hang out at the owner’s table for another.

Around 2:30, we feel like it’s time to head back to the W. The scene is dying, but someone gets us another round. Or maybe I’m already too drunk…

Drinks at the W

Although a group invites us to go to another diner, we decide to stay put, hanging ut with a guy who is also staying at the W. We order breakfast: a burger, pizza and salad, and watch Sex in the City 2 on-demand: a perfect end to the night.