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Last night in Istanbul

/ 02:39 AM September 03, 2014

ISTANBUL—Our last day in this city, and in Turkey, actually began halfway through it, when we left the Grand Tarabya Hotel, on the banks of the Bosphorus at nearly noon.

Our first stop was the Spice Bazaar (also known as the Egyptian Bazaar) to pick up such necessities as spices and dates, dried apricots, teas and coffee, purses and scarves, and of course the ubiquitous Evil Eye trinkets that are supposed to protect the wearer and the household from evil spirits.

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Then, stocked with our souvenirs, we proceeded on foot to the Hamdi Restaurant, which began as a humble “kebab” stall on a street corner and grew into a three-storey structure with a terrace on the top floor that affords enviable views of the Bosphorus, the deep-water channel that divides Istanbul into the European and Asian sides, and the nearby Golden Horn.

Our memories and taste buds still remembered a wonderful lunch of grilled lamb and beef in Urfa in the southern part of Turkey on a previous visit, so when we learned that the owner of Hamdi hailed from Urfa, we were filled with anticipation. The kebabs, when they arrived, did not disappoint, although we missed the lamb liver skewers that were a huge hit in Urfa. But it was easy to see why Hamdi would grow as much as it did. The kebabs were moist, soft and tasty, the staff solicitous without being overbearing, and uncomplainingly filled our glasses with ice cubes whenever we asked. (Drinks with ice are apparently unusual in Turkey, with even colas served lukewarm.)

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THEN we were off to the Sultan Mehmet Park, around which stand the most important, iconic edifices in the country. The Park itself used to be the Hippodrome built during Roman times. Nearby stand the Blue Mosque, so-called because of its blue-and-white mosaics which we failed to visit last time because services were going on during the Ramadan; and the Hagia Sophia or Hayasofiya, built in AD 537 as a church by the Emperor Justinian then converted into a mosque in the 15th Century by Mehmet the Conqueror.

We had all toured the Hagia Sophia previously save for Otel from the Manila Standard, so as the rest of us repaired to a café to cool off, Otel with our guide trooped off to visit the Hagia Sophia with its stained glass windows and marble magnificence.

As with all big cities, Istanbul at dusk is choked with traffic. We made our way to the boarding area on the other end of the city, braving motor traffic as we got off at the curb side towards the boat anchored on the banks of the Bosphorus.

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ON OUR previous visit, we had our boat tour for lunch, so this sunset cruise was indeed a novelty.

The wind was whipping up waves on the Bosphorus and luckily we brought shawls and jackets to protect us from the chill. But the minute the boat left our docking spot, we felt the the magic of the water descend.

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Adding to the appeal of the affair were the good-looking wait staff, who solicitously looked after our safety as we walked down the shaky plank. Our “boat” was actually a small yacht, with one bedroom and reception room, and a small open entertainment space at the back.

As our boat made its way down the Bosphorus, the wind whipped the air, the houses, restaurants and clubs on the banks lit up, and cruise ships turned on strings of fairy lights. In all, a most fascinating sight.

As with most Turkish meals, we began with salad and a plate of appetizers, including dolma  or ground meat wrapped in grape leaves, Turkish cheeses and the classic dips hummus and spiced yogurt.

Tiring of roasted meat, we had requested for seafood during the Bosphorus dinner, and we were not disappointed. The cod was simply prepared, and was outstanding with a drizzle of lemon juice and salt. Our guide Erhan ordered champagne to accompany our dessert of fresh fruits, but the best part of dinner was when Domini of the Star rose and urged Erhan to join her for a short dance. The rest of us, including Marian from the Star and Daisy, who had organized this trip, enjoyed the sight of the dancing pair and the starlit sky, marking our last night in this magical city.

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THERE is a growing wave of conservatism sweeping the Islamic world, and the forces resistant to modernity and multiculturalism are fast moving in on once-secular strongholds. Already, Egypt, Syria and Jordan are in the midst of chaos as competing forces battle it out while Isis, which is seeking to establish an Islamist caliphate in the area, is spreading terror and imposing strict limits on secularism.

My own wish and prayer is for Turkey to hold out against the creeping conservatism, although word is that the present government is trying to appease its own conservatives with new laws and strictures.

This is too bad. Istanbul itself is an entirely modern city—glittering, cosmopolitan, international in outlook. But the crowds at the city’s mosques speak of the strength of its people’s religiosity, and the fervor of their devotion. If there is a happy ground between faith and hedonism, Istanbul is it!

Other places we visited in Turkey also seemed to be weathering well the perceived clash between rural conservatism and the modernity brought on by international tourism. But the people of Turkey must realize that it safeguards the history and traditions not just of Islam, but also of Christianity and Judaism. And it is for this important role that one wishes Turkey well and prays for its continued prosperity and peace.

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TAGS: Bosphorus, Grand Tarabya Hotel, Hagia Sophia, Multiculturalism, Turkey
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