Showing posts with label Ortaköy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ortaköy. Show all posts

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

An afternoon of nargile at Cırağan Palace Kempinski

 My friend Barb and I had planned to meet a bunch of friends in Istanbul's Yıldız Park for a fitness challenge this weekend. Unfortunately, none of them showed up! We lost our motivation to explore the park. "Let's go across the street to the fumoir in the Cırağan Palace and I'll teach you to smoke nargile," I said. So we did.
First, we wanted to explore the palace.
A view of the Palm Court
from the Grand Staircase.
Imaginative use of glass
creates an aesthetically-pleasing
 foyer within the grand stairwell.
The glass chandelier was unlit
but we could imagine its warm glow.
Cırağan Palace Kempinski artwork
of ladies like us
enjoying the Bosphorus
back in the day.
A view of the Bosphorus
from the Sultan's balcony.
The hospitable and lovely Barçak
at the Hendrick's gin cart
Nargile pipes at rest
The eye-catching array of nargile water pipes
and the pots of fruit flavors
waiting for us to choose.
I suggested apple flavoring
because it is most popular.
Our drinks arrived
and rested on cloth coasters.
They were served alongside Mediterranean treats
of olives, hazelnuts, and cashews.
An Istanbul still life!
The drinks were so quenching!
A refreshing slice of cucumber
set off a glittering gin and tonic.
The drink on the right was gin
infused with rose flavoring.
It was called the Sebestian Vettel
(named for a famous Formula 1 driver).
We selected it from the part of the beverage menu
that showcased drinks
celebrities chose when they stayed there.
Barb said Hendrick's gin was especially known for the
herbaceousness of its flavor.
Naruttin primed the coals
and showed us where the flavoring
went in the pipe.
I'm always struck how by deeply
nargile staff breathe in the smoke.
They prime the pump
by getting the coals burning.
Barb about to try her first puff.
Each smoker uses a disposable tip
that they remove every time they pass the pipe.
It is the yellow part at the top of the pipe.
Barb's first puff of nargile.

Not a bad spot for a relaxing
afternoon conversation.
The expat life!
With typical American attitudes about smoking (we're both against it and find it unattractive), neither of us thought we'd ever try nargile. Yet living in Istanbul makes one appreciate the joy of slowing down, breathing deep, and engaging in conversation with a fellow human being in an unhurried, almost meditative manner.
I like this tradition better than the American tradition of staring at a screen in a sports bar and not talking to each other much. Sharing nargile seems very intimate and close. Besides, it was fun to watch the staff set up for a wedding happening later that night under the palms.
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Thursday, August 15, 2013

Five Minutes of Magic

I saw the man first.
He was in a long royal purple tunic with white pants.
A cult member, surely, I thought.

Then I rounded the corner
and saw another man in the same dress.
Ha! A cult convention.

Then I came up against the limits of my knowledge.
It couldn't be a cult.
There were so many of them.
Not just men. Whole families.
And so many beautiful women.
 Her sandals.
Those "I Dream of Jeannie" sandals!
Crackling with energy.

I laughed at myself, recognizing my own American parochialness.
Don't we always compare new information to our old information?
I understood instantly these were a people I had never seen or met before.
exquisitely dressed woman
after another
poured out of the hotel.
"Where are you from?" I asked.
"Pakistan, he said. "We are here for a wedding."

The island of Jamaica
sent spectacular sunshine.
"Are you from Pakistan too?"
I asked a gorgeous young woman
dressed differently than the others.
"No, I'm from Jamaica." she said.

"Of course you are!" I thought,
marveling at Istanbul's constant ability
to make the ordinary encounter extraordinary.
I'm sure Jamaicans at Pakistani weddings are a common sight,
don't you think?
Do they have ring bearers
at Pakistani weddings?
I wondered.
A tween
in all of her finery.
I'll picture these lovely people
when I read a story about Pakistan
in the future.
I'll picture this little girl
in all of her bracelets
and veils.
The beautiful Pakistani women
blew me kisses
from the bus
as they left.
I hope they had a wonderful time.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Turks and their Hammams - a couple stories of how they use them

Recently, I enjoyed my first Istanbul hammam at Çirağan Palace Kempinski, the famous Ottoman Imperial Palace hotel on the Bosphorus, which I described in the following two blog posts: part one and part two.
The aesthetic beauty of a hammam space
 is part of the attraction.
Zeynep, the Sanitas spa manager at Çirağan Palace Kempinski, credited the Romans with the development of public baths; she said the Ottomans simply absorbed and carried on this tradition. If so, the Ottomans perfected it, because the experience is worthy of becoming globally famous. Since the advent of water in every home though, hammam culture is threatened as Turks no longer need to use it as their bath. Instead, they treat it as a quarterly or semi-annual treat.

It's interesting to me how differently some Westerners view a hammam than most native Turks. A Westerner tends to appreciate the skin exfoliation AND the extended massage that happens afterwards. The last thing I want to do in a hammam is talk to anybody. To me the whole point is to zone out in solitary bliss.
Tools of the hammam: soap, peştamal,
kese (the scrubbing mitt),
and a  tas (water basin for rinsing).
According to Zeynep, local customers don't see it that way though. Turkish customers view the skin scrubbing as the point of the hammam and all of the extra massage features as superfluous. Çirağan Palace Kempinski Hotel's spa offers a 40 minute skin scrubbing as an entry service, because for many Turks maintaining healthy, glowing skin is what they want and expect from their hammam. It is the tourists who sign up for the 55 minute and 80 minute experiences that include massage.
The Turkish bathing tradition includes running water,
not the Western tradition of sitting in still water
contained in a bathtub.
In Ottoman times, women would gather in the hammam as one of the few places out of the home where they could spend time together. They could be there all day, eating, enjoying their friends, socializing and gossiping. Mothers of sons, would often suggest a potential bride for their sons based on their observations in the hammam. That sounds a bit creepy, but mostly these mothers were checking to make sure a potential bride was a healthy woman.
A traditional hammam bowl
for pouring water over a bather
Zeynep remembered going to the hammam with her grandmother and socializing with family and friends. They would bring in food and enjoy an extended period of relaxing after the heat and water and conversation. She also described a wonderful tradition where the bride is taken to the hammam with her female family and friends to prepare for her wedding. Her hammam is completed with a henna party where beautiful designs are drawn on her hand in henna ink for her wedding day.

One of my teenage Turkish friends described the perfection of his weeklong hammam experience with friends at basketball camp. He said "everyday at basketball camp we would play two basketball games. At night our team would go to the hammam and relax. One friend brought his guitar and he would play it as we all sat around, and relaxed and discussed how we did that day in the games. We'd bring in food and eat there. Imagine one whole week of getting to do what you love all day [play basketball], going to the hammam at night to hang out with your friends, and no parents to ask you to do this or do that. It was very, very nice."

Listening to him, I really appreciated the wholesomeness of the hammam experience. His North American teenage counterpart might be likely to go drinking at basketball camp once evening came. While I'll stick to hammam service my way, zoning out in solitary joy, I admired the wholesome way Turks used hammams to make the most of the moment, enjoy each other's company, using time together to do something physically healthy.
The heated marble slab in the center
is where a hammam visitor
is scrubbed and washed
It will take both the Turk and the Westerner to preserve hammam culture.  If you come to Turkey, and choose to experience a hammam yourself, you are truly giving back to your hosts by helping them preserve a beautiful intangible cultural heritage.

In case you missed them:

My first Hammam in Istanbul at the Çirağan Palace Kempinski Hotel, Part One

Part Two of My First Istanbul Hammam Adventure at Çirağan Palace Kempinski Hotel

Photos courtesy of Çirağan Palace Kempinski Hotel and Sanitas Spa

Friday, February 22, 2013

Part Two of My First Istanbul Hammam Adventure at Çirağan Palace Kempinski Hotel

There are some discoveries in Turkey that are so delightful, they bring the immediate thought, “why aren’t these global? Why doesn’t every country have these? The Ottoman Hammam, or traditional public bath, is one such Turkish cultural institution. Anywhere the Ottoman Empire conquered and ruled, hammams and hammam culture remain.

I had come to the famous luxury hotel Cirağan Palace Kempinski to experience my first Istanbul hammam courtesy of the hotel. I entered the Cirağan Palace spa on the lower level and enjoyed the beautiful Indonesian statuary everywhere. At first it seemed so incongruous with Turkish hammam, but I learned later that due to the international nature of  Cirağan Palace hotel, many kinds of massage were offered, including Balinese massage. Indeed, just as there were Turkish hammam specialists in the spa, the hotel also had Balinese masseuse staff available for an Indonesian-style massage if that is what guests want.

The spa lobby itself was small yet very inviting. I could see beyond the room through a window to the very well-appointed fitness room which had every piece of equipment someone would need for a great workout. On the coffee table, a tray with pitcher of refreshing water garnished with orange slices awaited spa visitors. Gülay, the receptionist, knowing the unfamiliarity of North Americans with hammams, came from behind the desk and walked me through step-by-step what would happen during my visit.

A Turkish peştamal

Knowing that some visitors could be uncomfortable with nudity, Gülay pointed out there was disposable underwear provided in each locker to wear along with the abundant piece of cloth called a peştamal that hammam visitors strategically use to cover themselves as they move through the process. Peştamals are thin pieces of Turkish cloth specifically designed for the Turkish hammam experience. They are large enough to cover someone's entire body; they don't get heavy when wet and they also dry quickly.

I entered the luxurious locker room and changed into the big white fluffy bath robe provided and took my pestamel. I love these grand hotel locker rooms because, like every part of the hotel, every possible need a human could have had been anticipated. Did you need to sqeeze the water out of your swimming suit? There was a machine for that. Weigh yourself? There was a medical-quality scale. Do you hair? Every possible hair product was there waiting: combs, hair spray, blow dryers, etc. Every possible tooth care product was waiting too: toothpaste, brushes, floss.

Hamam visitors have a choice of prepping their skin in either the steam room or the sauna before going into the hammam. I chose the steam room. Sri, one of the Balinese masseuses dressed in a beautiful Indonesian dress, instructed me to take off my rings and slip them into my bathrobe pocket before I entered. The ultimate luxury provided was trust. I knew I could do that and they'd be there when I got back.

Those five minutes in the steam room help soften the skin for a scrubbing, yet they are pleasurable anyway because of the slowness of the experience. There is deep silence, semi-darkness, and the luxuriousness or warm marble with intense heat and intense steam. Do we have enough moments like that in life - where our only job is to slow down, take deep breathes, and do absolutely nothing but concentrate on restoring ourselves. I felt gratitude for the moment.

Sri came to get me all too soon and introduced me to Gül, my Turkish hammam specialist. Gül was wearing white shorts and a white swimsuit top. During the next hour she would be working very hard in a very warm room so this attire made complete sense. I was immediately comfortable with her. I entered the all marble hammam and took in the beauty of the marble fountains in the side walls, the large marble slap in the center of the room for hammam guests, and the heat.

Gül asked me if I wanted a soft, medium, or hard scrubbing. I chose hard, although it didn't feel hard. It felt just right.  Using a special bath mitt, Gül proceeded to slough off my winter skin. I felt like a baby kitten! It was fantastic and I knew my face and body would have a new rosy glow when she was done. My relaxation deepened.

Next came a foam massage, unlike any massage I've experienced anywhere in the world. A giant sleeve of effervescent foam is squeezed out along the length of the body and accompanied by a rush of  warm water to make a magnificent sensory experience. With the warmth from the foam and the water still present, the therapist slowly massages aromatic jasmine oil into the skin, starting at the feet.

I almost started to doze off as my relaxation could not get any deeper. I was so content and in such a wonderful meditative, joyful state, I hardly noticed when the spa music started to taper off and the room became completely silent. I waited for the next record to start.

A complete surprise! Completely unexpected by me, Gül, my therapist, started to sing a long, slow Turkish ballad. This is what it must have really felt like to be the Sultan, to not only enjoy the physical sensations of the hammam, but to also have a beautiful female voice singing out and silencing all thought with beauty! She sang a beautiful Turkish song called Berivan.

Later, Gül lead me out of the hammam to a sitting area to rest and recover. She gestured with her hand that the sultan's divan before me was where I should rest. I marveled to myself at the perfection of the experience. While I sat there drinking my tea, I understood instantly that the story of Hürrem, Sultan Suleyman's slave who was so inspiring she became his wife, was the Turkish equivalent of the fairy tale Cinderella. I had just received treatment worthy of the best Cinderella tale every written.

I was filled with contentment and expressed to Gül just how beautiful I found her singing and my hammam experience. "Actually, my song is my gift to you. I don't do it in every hammam, the energy has to be right. For example, if a male guest says, 'I don't want to use my peştamal, I want to take it off, the energy becomes wrong and I don't sing. But your energy was fantastic." I'm so glad!

Later, I was explaining to a friend that everyone thinks of soldiers as the great patriots, but truly, Gül, my Turkish hammam specialist, is for me, a true Turkish patriot. In one hour, she communicates and transmits one of the most beautiful aspects of Turkish culture to visitors and sends folks raving about the glories of Turkey all over the world when they get back home.

In case you missed part one of this adventure:

My first Hammam in Istanbul at the Cirağan Palace Kempinski Hotel, Part One

and if you're interested in reading Turks and their Hammams: a couple of stories of how they use them

Hammam photos courtesy of Cirağan Palace Kempinski
Peştamal photo courtesy of

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Sunday, February 17, 2013

My first Hammam in Istanbul at the Çirağan Palace Kempinski Hotel, Part One

in the snow
In my new Beşiktaş neighborhood in Istanbul, not five minutes from my house, is the only Ottoman Imperial Palace Hotel in Turkey. It sits right on the Bosphorus shoreline. In Turkish, it is called Çirağan Sarayı Kempinski. In English: Çirağan Palace Kempinski. It boasts exquisite views once reserved exclusively for the Sultans.
The original Imperial Ottoman Palace
as seen from the Bosphorus.

The Grand Ballroom,
 frequently the site for weddings,
is on the top right
enabling guests to get a magical view of the grounds
and the Bosphorus Bridge
while dancing the night away.

This very special palace
also holds eleven magical suites.

I am crazy for historic luxury hotels and love to hear the stories of a property well run, especially those properties beloved by guests, community, and staff alike. Properties like this are larger than their mission - indeed, I would go so far to say these places are as close as businesses can come to having a soul.

I've visited many iconic hotels like this in my travels. To name a few favorites: the Banff Springs Hotel, Chateau Lake Louise, and Empress Hotel in Western Canada, the Homestead and Greenbriar, in Virgina, the Pink Hawaiian, on the island of Oahu in Hawaii, and the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

You can really tell if someone knows Istanbul, by whether or not they know this hotel. Only the most erudite Americans do, as Kempinski, the hotel operating company that runs it, runs hotels in locations exotic to the American traveler.

Indeed, this was my first introduction to Kempinski. I knew for them to be trusted with the operating the premier hotel property in Istanbul, a city Napoléon deemed worthy of  serving as "capital of the world," they had been judged incredibly worthy stewards.
John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette
on their wedding day
Some Americans already knew of the property though. The lobby walls are filled with photos of celebrities who have chosen to stay there.

John F. Kennedy Jr. brought Carolyn Bessette here on their honeymoon on the recommendation of no less a style icon than his mother, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis.

Oprah stayed here when she took her entire staff and their families, 1,600 people, on a 10-day Mediterranean cruise to thank them for making her show such a success. She threw a fabled party here for her entire crew at the hotel complete with whirling dervishes and an Ottoman Mehteran band. The original palace boasts an jaw-droppingly-gorgeous grand staircase which made it the perfect place for her to make a sweeping entrance with everyone going wild.
 The Hotel Lobby
where guests are greeted
by smiling, professional staff
and the smell of beautiful flowers
exquisitely arranged
The outdoor infinity pool
overlooking the Bosphorus
In keeping with the
international clientele
of the hotel,
pool safety guidelines are posted in
Turkish, English, and German.

The Imperial Palace is straight on
in the above photo
along the Bosphorus
with the
newer hotel facility
 to the right
The pool, the palms, the placid water -
all of it sends one silent signal: relax.
The view to the left
if standing on the shoreline.
And yes, it is possible to arrive by boat.
Entering the hotel and walking the hotel grounds immediately began to increase my serenity. I could feel my whole body slowing down in response to the timeless views of shipping traffic plying the Bosphorus. To the right of the hotel, ferries delivered their fares to appointments on the European side. To the left, is the Örtakoy Mosque, currently being renovated and hidden behind curtains. Behind the Mosque is the iconic Bosphorus Bridge.
The East Garden
While walking the grounds I couldn't help but think of another American celebrity. I thought Martha Stewart would love the orderly allee of palm trees in the East Garden that silently signal prosperity. Each one was manicured with nary a cuticle of palm bark astray and lush with fertile seed pods bursting with demands for a chance at life. 

Showing off the long-term outlook of the management, another allee of plantain trees was planted in the West Garden. One of the pleasures of driving up to the hotel is driving through a several block long allee of plantain trees that line the corniche road called Çirağan Caddesi. Currently, this garden allee of plaintains in between the hotel and the Bosphorus was merely at the adolescent stage. In 100 years, they would be spectacular. I wished them well as they would need luck to survive the relentless quest for unimpeded views of the Bosphorus.

After enjoying the grounds and taking in their beauty, it was time to go find the spa and enjoy my hammam, Çirağan Palace-style, courtesy of the hotel. Cinar, PR Department head for the Çirağan Palace Kempinski hotel had said with a laugh, "just talking about hammams makes me relax." I couldn't wait to experience this incredible Ottoman gift to the world.

My first Hammam in Istanbul at the Çirağan Palace Kempinski Hotel, Part Two

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All photos courtesy of Çirağan Palace Kempinski

Thursday, September 15, 2011

A Birthday Hike in the Belgrad Forest

 The entrance to the
Belgrad Forest
Back in Istanbul, after a week in France, I was excited to see that a Turkish friend was organizing a hike in the Belgrad Forest.  It was scheduled to be on my birthday.  As nature can often seem far, far away in Istanbul, I loved the idea of spending my birthday meeting new people by going on a hike.

Aren't you grateful for friends that take the time to organize things? They always deserve a little extra appreciation, don't they? Yasemin, my Turkish friend who put this together, hadn't hiked here before, but she did all the work of finding out what bus to take, where it leaves from, how often it leaves, etc. When someone has done all of that work, it makes it so easy for the rest of us to go out and discover new places and opportunities, doesn't it? If you're one of those people who are always connecting others by organizing events, thank you!

To give you an idea of what a commitment it is to get to an event in Istanbul, I took a bus to Taksim Square (50 minutes), and then got on the 42T bus to go to the Belgrad Forest (another 50 minutes).  That second bus has a route all along the Bosporus, so it often seems like I'm getting a sightseeing tour at a municipal bus price! The scenery was fantastic, and since another hiker from France and I guessed we were each going to the same hike and started talking, so was the company.  The 50 minutes flew by. We got to the end of the line of the 42T and there was the forest!  After paying a 2.25 TL entrance fee ($1.27) we were in.
 It's not every forest
that has a cafe
with checkered tablecloths
 Or horses and bicycles to rent
Paths were wide enough
for all kinds of traffic:
foot, hoof, or wheeled
 Yasemin, our organizer,
is the tall woman in green
in the middle.
Fun folks I met:
Jackie, a fashion designer from Ireland
and Ibrahim, an importer/exporter from Turkey
Beautiful, isn't it?
We were surprised the park was so deserted.
It was the middle of Ramadan though.
Anyone fasting couldn't even
take so much as a drop of water.
Not good conditions for locals to go hiking.
Another view of the beautiful lake
in the middle of the park.
The forest paths were so beautifully maintained
it was as if we were the first people to use them.
It turns out we were.
We came across a maintenance crew laying down
rubber backing (like under carpet)
and then covering it with this natural material.
If you are a runner,
this would be a very healthy place to run.
The path was springy and easy on the joints. 
 The majority of our group
headed back to Istanbul.
I finished our hike around the lake
with Misty and Kristin,
two fun American women
I was meeting
for the first time.
A last calming view of natural beauty.
What a terrific resource this forest
is for the urban dwellers of Istanbul!
The view as the municipal bus starts back to Istanbul.
 This is an Ottoman-era grove of trees. 
In France and in Turkey, I kept coming across these
magnificent tree groves planted under
authoritarianism forms of government.
I kept wondering if democracies
could create such gorgeous groves
for future generations.
  Are there any where you live?
Planting groves like this
requires a long-term view,
doesn't it?
 In my country,
people often don't seem to want to invest tax money
for those living alongside them,
let alone those who aren't even born yet.
On the bus back,
Kirstin and Misty talked up Mehmet's,
their favorite kebabci in the
Istanbul neighborhood of Ortaköy
with such gastronomic fervor
I had to try it for myself, no?
We ate fabulous Turkish comfort food
(mine was chicken shish kebab).
They introduced me to "ezme,"
which they described as a Turkish version of salsa.
On the hike,
these two hip, happening, can-do women
mentioned that they were organizing
a trip to Bulgaria...
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