Saturday 18 April 2015

Various sorts of dampness

So, one full day in Istanbul and impressions are all I have. That it's scruffy, friendly, safe, a bit modern but mainly old, full of commerce and religion, busy, colourful even on a grey day, and very approachable. I like the people, who are very accommodating of my monoglot ways, and encouraging  with attempts at basic Turkish; who are polite, even though being offered a seat on the tram by a young man was perhaps a courtesy too far for my pride; and who - so far at least - are interested in making a sale but not pushy or crabby at being rejected. First impressions, eh. We all know about them.
A long walk from Taksim along the mainly pedestrian Istiklal Caddesi (apart from the traditional tram that trundles up and down it) took us past big chains and small boutiques, restaurants and fast food outlets, boarded-up buildings claimed by street artists and the ancient tower of Galata. Also cats. Istanbul has cats like Santiago has dogs: many, many, and all apparently well fed, and friendly. Nice to see. I hope some of them got to eat at least some bits of all the fish that were being caught from the top level of the Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn: there were fishermen all along it, steadily reeling in what looked like the same sort of fish, dozens of them.
On the other side is the best-known bit of the city: the mosques, markets and palaces. We left most of that for our official city tour next week, and instead cut through the Spice Market - spices, yes, but much else besides - and the back streets around the Grand Bazaar (closed today, Sunday) to our goal for the day, the Cemberlitas Hamami. That's Turkish Baths to you and me, this one built in 1584 by the Sultan's architect.
It's an elegant place, the women's section, under a high domed roof pierced with round and star-shaped holes above the big circular marble platform. My glasses steamed up the instant I entered, so all I saw was a blur of half-naked female bodies lying and sitting together, waiting for their turn with the masseuses, identifiable because they were the only ones wearing bras. We lay on the warm stone, relaxing before our turn to be exfoliated with a coarse calico mitt then spread with soap bubbles and massaged - somewhat perfunctorily, it must be said - before swilling off the soap with ladles of cool water. Our hair was washed too. Then there was more relaxation on the marble, a shower and getting dressed again followed by a glass of tea in the foyer.

Yes, it was relaxing, especially on a cold grey afternoon, even though I was just one of many bodies laid out on the marble; no, it wasn't embarrassing - far too businesslike and production-line for that (and not at all as individual and personal as their advertisements suggest). Even though most of the customers were tourists, there were Turkish people there too, and it felt authentic, if a rather odd thing to do. Tick.

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