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Turkey: Tales from the Seraglio 21st Century Style

Updated: Oct 26, 2020

A Courtyard Hotel may not be an exotic start to a trip to Turkey, but after another long brutal flight it is a bed and shower that counts. There is time later for the exotic, or to see if the exotic has changed in the seventeen years since my previous visit. The great art, the famous tiles of Izmir, the archeological wonders and historic sights should still be here. In the morning it will be off to Kayseri and the wonders of Cappadocia before 3 days of meetings and conference sessions. Rest is what I crave now, along with some clean clothes. And something to replace the hair gel left sitting on my dresser.

photo: Donna Zabel, CC BY 3.0

Actually, it is pretty clear this isn’t Northeast Ohio. There is the security screen, the charming front desk staff, the occasional chardor-clad woman, and the restaurant. My first (and definitely not my last) glass of Turkish red wine and a Halloumi Salad, partly at my waiters suggestion. The salad had pieces of eggplant with a distinct smoky flavor, fresh olives, and thick slices of a slightly spicy, mozzarella-like Halloumi cheese lightly fried. My satisfaction brought big smiles from my waiter. With that face, I almost ordered more.

The next morning Istanbul’s domestic airport the next morning was a pleasant surprise. It is new, clean, modern and efficient. I even found a kiosk selling something purported to be styling gel. With non-existent Turkish language skills, my pantomime elicited giggles from the adorable clerks. I’m not sure what they sold me, but for 7 lira I’ll take a chance. At this point my options for the week are looking like Medusa’s first cousin or James Dean’s slicked down sister circa 1956.



photo: Donna Zabel, CC BY 3.0

There is an airport now, unlike 17 years ago when the Cappadocia area was only accessible overland. Other than that, and more people, the striking landscape has not changed. Catacombs of cliff dwellings, entire cities created out of the limestone rocks, make the region the first condominium complex. Stretching over what is now eastern Anatolia, our stops include the large outdoor museum complex of Goreme, Cavusin, Pasapag, Zelve, and, of course, the rug factory. There is a reason why 70% of American tourists to Turkey come home with a new piece for the decorator. These guys have been at it for millennia. I’m still waiting for my delivery.

The only way to feed a large group of tourists is a buffet. The hot dishes aren’t very interesting, but Turkey shines in its starters: eggplant prepared a dozen different ways, fresh greenbeans, stuffed banana peppers, and grilled banana peppers (must be in season?). olives, tomatoes, white cheeses, fresh carrots. It is all tasty if not outstanding. Buffets aren’t meant to bring lasting memories, anyway. Those will come.

photo: Donna Zabel, CC BY 3.0



It is a good thing the flight back to Istanbul was uneventful. At 5 am that’s about all I can handle. Of course the plane was late, of course the transfers were messed up. People on afternoon excursions through the convention hosts had no time to relax. Glad I had decided to just explore the hotel and surrounding neighborhood and get ready for a special evening.

The Marmara Hotel is right on busy Taksim Square and outside my window the square was always busy. My room was spacious, with touches to remind me that while this is a five-star hotel, it is a local hotel in Istanbul, not a cookie-cutter that could be anywhere. The spacious and high-ceilinged lobby has framed beautiful old Turkish traditional robes. The walls in my room have framed maps to remind me of the majestic Ottoman Empire. However, I’m grateful the plumbing is modern—and Western.

My first stroll down busy pedestrian Istikalal Caddesi shows how western Istanbul is, but with its own Eastern flair. There is a McDonald’s, a rather discreet and low-key storefront, but there are mostly local outdoor cafes, a few with backgammon enthusiasts, and endless opportunities for little glass cups of sweet Turkish tea. Plus, lucky me!—there is a friendly simit dealer right in front of the Marmara hotel. I’d been anticipating those round chewy, sesame-coated breads and they are as wonderful as I remembered. Inflation and prosperity have raised the price from around five cents to fifty cents (one Turkish lira), but they are worth it. Besides, I loved the smile on my simit dealer when he saw me approaching for my daily fix.

photo: Donna Zabel, CC BY 3.0



The history of Istanbul, its position through millennia as the crossroads of East and West, all relates to the Golden Horn and the waters surrounding it. Old and new, east and west, Islam and Orthodoxy, all come together over the Bosphosur straights. Capture and control of the Horn was the deciding factor in many battles both before and after the fall of the Byzantium to the Ottoman Empire. With Europe on one side and Asia on the other, a cruise up the Bosphorus is always a special experience, as I discovered years ago. This time I decided to do it at night, on a dinner cruise. It was an evening to remember, with delicious Turkish mezes, salad, a whole flavored local fish, dry Turkish red wine, music, and dancing, all while cruising past elegant mansions and hotels, and under the brightly lit bridges.



Taksim is the heart of a modern, vibrant and upscale Istanbul, but it is across the Galata Bridge and into the Sultanhahmet where the magic and the history of the Orient are found. The unbelievable Topkapi Palace complex, the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, the Archeology Museums. Here is the huge Grand Bazaar and equally famous Spice Market. The ancient Hippodrome anchors this intense cluster of history. Once a place of Roman chariot races, it is now full of crowds heading to the sights. And in April, it is also full of tulips. Turkey claims to be the original home of the tulip bulb, a little fact generally overlooked by a certain northern Europe country.



Trams and trolleys later, back across the Galata Bridge and up to home on Taksim, it is time for one last reminder that this is home of one of the world’s greatest cuisines. Mehmet Dervis ( is determined that few other lucky conference attendees and myself will properly appreciate this fact. Our dinner is at the Hanedan Restaurant ( overlooking the Bosphorus, with terrific mezes, hot starters, and grilled-to-perfection fish. This is my last night in Istanbul, so time to join my host with traditional raki. European style red wine can wait until I am back home with both feet in western culture. Right now I want to enjoy this delicious cultural mix and savor all things Turkey. Except the hair gel—that stays behind.

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