Thursday, August 26, 2010

A chance encounter in Old Constantinople - thestar.com


Karen T. BartlettSpecial to the Star

ISTANBUL—A pink and lavender dawn backlights the silhouettes of the minarets and domes that define Old Constantinople. From the deck of my cruise ship, I get my first look at Istanbul, the 2000 year-old capital of the ancient Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empires.

I haven’t slept well. Whirling dervishes, with their white capes and pointed hats, kept spinning around in my head, mixed up in my dreams with the smoky haze from hookah pipes. One minute I was lost in the maze of a street bazaar, the next minute I was lounging like a sultana in a steamy hamam, the darkly mysterious Turkish bath of the ancient world.

Istanbul is a port of call on Crystal Serenity’s twelve-day Byzantine Odyssey voyage. I’ll have less than 48 hours to touch, taste and feel the intense flavors of this “city of a thousands mosques.”

From the drop-off point of my cruise shuttle, I head toward the spires of the New Mosque. But I hit a dead end at a massive gray stone wall. I pass through the break in the wall – a soaring Moorish arch, into what looks like a major motion picture in production. A man in a stained white baker’s shirt is maneuvering a cart of oven-fragrant simit (sesame-coated bread) over rough cobblestones. Carpet vendors are barking at each other and passing tourists.

The crumbling wall is covered with Turkish rugs and copper pots, with stacks of silks and pillows at its base. An opening in a second wall reveals a wide corridor with scores of side passages, crammed with swords, magical Aladdin’s lamps, leather, tin, ceramics, textiles and jewelry. Everywhere are cobalt blue orbs with white centers. Evil Eyes: protection against harmful spirits.

I’ve stumbled into Kapaliçarsi, the Grand Bazaar. Lounging on the very first pile of rugs is a tall, leathery character right out of Central Casting: a dapper, 80-something Kurdish aristocrat in white shirt, black vest and cap. I want to take his picture. He’s wary, but flattered. He speaks no English, but a young vendor is happy to translate. A patriarch among the vendors, he says, Ramazan no longer has anything to sell, but he still comes daily to the Bazaar. And now this elder is inviting me into his “royal chamber” for a glass of tea. He draws aside a textile, revealing a miniature marble room like a scene from Arabian Nights. There are exquisite hangings, an ornate marble niche, red brocade benches, an inlaid mahogany table and a carved wooden cabinet containing two shiny copper pots and delicate Turkish tea glasses.

I’m wise to Istanbul’s infamous rug hustlers.

“Thanks,” I say, “but I’m just here for a quick look and then I have places to go.”

“No problem,” Ramazan gestures, “I’ll show you around.”

It’s not so much an offer as a royal command.

His English-speaking friend rolls his eyes. Ramazan needs something to do, and I need help finding the Egyptian Spice Bazaar.

And so we’re off. The elder statesman practically sprints between the marble columns, through the arches, beneath the skylighted mosaic domes, through the vast maze of the covered bazaar. He glances impatiently over his shoulder like a long-married husband, as I pause to pick among the Evil Eyes and silk pashminas. He watches my bargaining with narrowed eyes and steers me away from zealous hawkers.

Ungodly-good cooking smells emanate from one of the corridors in the maze, where I glimpse smoky grills, spitting and sizzling with roasting lamb. A rack of sausages looks so tasty, but Ramazan is on a mission. I trot dutifully after him. I later learn that those weren’t sausages, but kokorek: lamb entrails encased in intestine. Yum.

The Egyptian Bazaar is a flashback to my dream. A kaleidoscope of brilliant colors and fragrances, and a cacophony of market noises assail my senses. There are bins of boxed and loose teas, and great wooden barrels filled with leaves and blossoms. What might that emerald green spice be? This saffron is so fragrant, but could I get it through Customs?

We inspect dozens of bins piled with Turkish Delight—cubed bites of pastel jellied candies rolled in plain powdered sugar or exotics like dates and crushed pistachios. Soon, I’m on sensory overload and can’t make a decision. Wordlessly, Ramazan leads me back through the narrow streets to the Grand Bazaar.

Back at the main gate, I try to thank my charming host with a few Euros. Scowling, insulted, he pushes my hand away. “Mosque,” he says. I get it. Ramazan wants to show me the neighborhood. As we walk, he pontificates and I nod, as though I understand his language. But now he’s visibly tiring. Before returning to the Bazaar, he lets me buy him a borek (feta pastry) at a street stall.

Tonight I’ve joined a Crystal Serenity tour of the neon nightspots of Kapikoy.

I miss Ramazan’s scolding when I lag too far behind. But I make new friends. A dondurma vendor slings his marshmallow-like ice cream dough on a stick and stuffs it into a cone. He smiles for a picture, and shyly offers me the cone. “Please, no charge.”

Some locals dining alfresco at a café smile indulgently at the tourists, especially the one trailing behind. As I skip to catch up with the others, a voice says, “Excuse me, you are from America?”

“Yes,” I answer, not knowing what to expect.

He holds out a glass. “In Turkey, we have a traditional drink called Yeni Raki. My friends and I want you to have this raki glass to remember Istanbul.”

I have my glass, to be sure. But my most wonderful memory of Istanbul is the aristocratic Ramazan.

Karen Bartlett is a freelance writer based in Naples, Fla. Her trip was subsidized by Crystal Cruises.

A chance encounter in Old Constantinople - thestar.com

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