Istanbul, article Istanbul

"If I have only one life to live, let me live it eating baklava at hacibaba"

Antoinette May
66 Newell Rd #F Palo Alto, CA 94034 650 322-9334 s.s. 569-41723

SAVORING TURKISH DELIGHTS: How to Feel Like the Sultan’s Favorite By Antoinette May If I have only one life to live, let me live it eating baklava at Hacibaba.

Yes, it is that good, that wonderful. Hacibaba is the best restaurant in Istanbul. Surely their baklava with its rich double cream and marzipan flavoring must be the best in world.

Holding a tiny cup of Turkish coffee in my hand, staring into its rich depth, I considered the sheer indulgence of the meal I’d just consumed. It had been a no-holds barred dinner beginning with mezes—small appetizers that included fried calamari, stuffed grape leaves, marinated mushrooms, stuffed mussels, and slow roasted eggplant topped with fried onions.
Then came a crisp salad of tomatoes, olives, onions, cucumber and goat cheese served with tender, savory lamb kabobs washed down with a bottle of Yakut, one of Turkey’s pleasantly fruity and inexpensive red wines.

Istanbul—for a visitor, anyway—is about indulgence. Indulgence, pleasure, and beauty. The sumptuous city is a feast for the senses--all of them.
No question but that Hacibaba oozes romance. Though built on the foundation of a 16th century church, the walls and ceiling pay homage to the Dolmabahce (pronounced dole-ma-BA-chay) Palace. And what a palace!
Abdul Mecit, the sybaritic sultan who built the place in 1843 as a cozy getaway from his larger Topkapi Palace requested only one thing of his architect. “Just make it surpass any other palace of any other potentate in the world.” The result is a Rococo riot—Baccarat crystal chandeliers as big as small cars, a solid silver bed, immense mirrors, filigree, gold leaf and flamboyant paintings. Your standard palace, right? Could be Versailles or Windsor. Guess again.

You know you’re in Turkey when you see the bath or hamam. This marble suite wasn’t built to impress anyone. The exquisite chamber of alabaster so intricately carved that it looks like lace was for the sultan’s own indulgence.

What is this Turkish bath thing? Though a little nervous at the prospect, I deter- mined to find out. Istanbul has hundreds of public baths, but I decided on the 300 year old Cemberlitas Bath frequented over the years by Florence Nightingale, Kaiser Wilhelm and Tony Curtis.

Following in Nightingale’s footsteps to the female side, I was greeted by a very large woman in a tiny bikini. Her bra was a “meet the public” concession. The rest of the staff wore only bottoms, the patrons nothing at all. The hostess handed me a towel, clogs and a key, then gestured toward the changing room.
When I emerged clutching the towel sarong-style I was shown to a large marble room lit by shafts of sunlight filtered from holes in the domed ceiling. At the center was a round marble slab. Looking about I saw perhaps a dozen women of every imaginable body type.

Nudity is a great leveler, I realized, dropping my towel. “Fatimah,” an attendant announced, thumping her large breasts by way of introduction. She looked like a Sumo wrestler. Fatimah’s hands were strong, very strong, as she led me through great arched doors into the domed bathing chamber. Everywhere I looked I saw gleaming white marble—floors walls, and arched recesses lining the walls where ornate fountains spouted cool, refreshing water.
I felt that I’d stepped back in time. This is surely how it must have looked in 1583.

Seated on benches or lying on a round raised slabat the room’s center were perhaps a dozen women of every imaginable body type all totally naked.

Nudity is a great leveler, I realized, suddenly feeling overdressed.

Dropping my towel, I followed Fatimah to a marble basin where she proceeded To splash me down.

Now I know my car feels in the carwash. “Massage?” she asked, gesturing toward the wet slab. It was hot, but I obediently lay down. Above me, holes in the domed ceiling allowed sun beams to break the steamy veil.

As I lay on my stomach, Fatimah performed a series of high-pressure rubs and squeezes on my back, arms and legs. I felt like a trained seal as she pulled me about, flipping me over and sliding me across the soapy, slippery surface. It was unlike any massage I’ve ever had. Sometimes it hurt—like muscle being pulled loose from bone—but gradually I relaxed and my muscles loosened.

Finally Fatimah led the way to a low marble sink and plunked me down on a small bench. She dumped several bowls of warm water over my head and scrubbed my skin with a loofah-like thing as if trying to eradicate tattoos. She shampooed my head, soaped my body and rinsed me. At times the sight of those wildly swinging size 48 double D breasts of hers was disconcerting. I didn’t just close my eyes to avoid the soap.

Finally, she placed several bars of soap that smelled of olive and laurel in a bowl. Adding water, she stirred and sloshed and whipped the concoction into a fluffy meringue, then lathered it over me. When this final soap massage was over my body felt like silk.
Surely this is what it was like to be the sultan’s favorite, I speculated, floating out onto the street. Such a feeling of indulgence could only lead one place--to the House of Joy— otherwise known as the Topkapi Palace. One might say that this opulent palace—now a museum--was a man’s world.

One man’s world, the sultan who had as many as 900 women from which to choose.
Of course,only a few qualified for presentation to him, bearly a fraction walked the fabled “Golden Way” by which the favorite of the night entered the absolute monarch’s private chambers.
But still, the demands on the sultan’s stamina must have been great.
I recalled a popular item at the Spice Market. “It’s the Sultan’s own recipe,” a shopkeeper had assured the man at my side. The label read, “Harem. 1001 nights. Royal love potion.” The list of more than 40 ingredients included ginseng, ginger, cloves, honey and royal jelly—something honeybees produce to feed the queen larvae.
Apparently it worked. No one even bothered to count the children. Walking about this luxurious pleasure palace, I marveled at the walls, floors and ceilings covered with tiles painted in the most exquisite blues and greens.
Admiring the many splashing fountains, I wondered how many whispered plots they’d muffled? It’s easy to let one’s imagine wander, speculating on the passions and whims of the sultan, the enterprise of his ladies, the intrigue and danger implicit in such a highly charged setting. The sultan’s love offerings tell a story of their own-- emerald ear rings, giant golden candleholders, a jewel studded spoon collection, fabulous rugs and the emerald dagger made famous in the movie “Topkapi.”

Unbelievably, one more pleasure waited. The Topkapi has a wonderful restaurant, second—in my opinion--only to Hacibaba. More than 100 years old, Konyah has a stunning View of the

Bosporus and an exciting menu—some of it based on original palace recipes.

Their piece de resistance is a lamb and eggplant puree topped with yogurt. The delicious dish is called hunkar begendi, meaning “the emperor liked it so much he fainted.” I believe it!

WHEN YOU GO To dial the phone numbers from the United States, precede them with 011-90-212


THE EMPRESS ZOE is named for the 11the Century empress who was one of the few women to rule Bysantium. The location is conveniently near the Sultanahne where you’ll want to spend most of your time anyway. Prices are reasonable, each of the 12 rooms is charming and the American owner, Ann Nevans, is one fantastic personal shopper Quite reasonable. Phone: 212/518-2504; faz: 212/518-5699

YESIL EV (or GREEEN HOUSE) is on the park between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. All 20 rooms are decorated in old fashioned Ottoman style. Excellent food is on the roof garden-- one of the best views in town Phone: 212/517-6785; fax: 212/517-5780.

PERA PALACE once the only place to stay for passengers arriving on the Orient Express. Mata Hari stayed there, not to mention the actress who portrayed her, Greta Garbo. Agatha Christie wrote “Murder on the Orient Express” there and you can still see her room. A little funky, but still an art nouveau treasure. A ride in the antique bird cage elevator is worth the price alone. Phone: 212/517-4560; fax: 212/517-4089.


is surprisingly reasonable. Two people can have a great dinner with wine and a tip for under $40 Conveniently located on Istiklal Cad. 49 near Taksim. Reservations advised. Phone: 212/244-1886

not only does this restaurant have justifiably famous food but a view of the Golden Horn. . Go early to miss the tour buses. Located down stairs from the Topkapi treasury. Lunch only Phone: 212/513-9696.

is touristy but still a fun place to see the obligatory belly dancing. The food’s good too. Tiyatro Cad.27. Phone: 51734 88 THINGS TO DO

Cemberlitas Bath
at Vezirhan Cad. No. 8 offers the ultimate bath experience for about $20. Phone: 522-522 79 74 Turkey/may 6 The Topkapi Palace, is in Gulhane Park, near Sultanahmet Square. Phone 212/ 512-0480. Admission $2.50. Open Wednesday-through Monday. 9:30 to 5:30.

Dolmabahce Palace
overlooks the Bosporus on Gumussuyu Cad. $2 buys a guided tour. Open from 9 to 3 daily. The Spice Market, built in the 17th century, is filled with herbs, spices, folk remedies, as well as that wonderful olive and laurel soap. You’ll see plenty of the famous Turkish Delight as well as the “royal jelly” which will certainly be your ultimate souvenir.

across from the Galata Bridge.


1) “Harem” clothes are still sold in the Grand Bazaar

2) The “washboard” at a Turkish bath

3) Marble looks like lace at the Dolmabahce Palace

4) A Topaki Tile

5) The sultan sat here—an intimate nook in the Topkapi harem
6 and 7) You can find a harem nook anywhere in Istanbul

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