Istanbul: palaces and beverages

Topkapı Palace: the home of the Ottoman Sultans from the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries. It sprawls over acres of landscaped grounds around the northeastern edge of Sultanahmet, the most strategic point between the Bosporus and the Sea of Marmara. Now, it is a museum and UNESCO World Heritage Site, full of historical and antique treasures, incredibly well-preserved architecture, and beautiful gardens.

Oh and they sell roasted chestnuts (kestane) all over the place.

Prollly one of my favourite street foods. Also just one of my favourite things in general.

Charlotte and I picked up a little paper bag of them as we strolled through the preliminary gates, along with a cup of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice (nar).

That was an intense mouthful. Tart but not quite to the point of puckering. Charlotte is able to handle sour better than I.

Among many treasures in the palace, this was one of the most compelling to me. It was in a tiled gazebo on one of the terraces; inside it were low cushions, old braziers, and these cabinets intricately inlaid with tortoise shell and abalone. Again, geometry.

After the palace it was definitely time for tea. We walked out and down to Gülhane Park, a long tract of green just below the Palace’s escarpment that hugs the hill all the way up to the water. We sat ourselves at a little wooden table overlooking the Bosporus at Set Ütsü Aile Çay Bahçesi and took our Turkish tea (çay). It comes in a small copper samovar.

Seriously. This tea culture thing is totally making an impression on me. Everyone takes tea. Every day. It is one thing you can always count on. A day without tea in Istanbul…nope. Didn’t happen.

Moment of quietude on the blustery bluff. You could see everything and hear only faint sounds of boat horns and maybe the slapping of the cord against the flagpole down below.

Back in the centre of Sultanahmet, we descend beneath the city to the ancient Basilica Cistern, the largest of hundreds of such cisterns built beneath the city to hold water. This one, the most famous, was constructed in the sixth century by Justinian, the same guy who commissioned the Aya Sofya.

It is otherworldly, largely because of how it’s lit. Very theatrical and effective. The ‘spooky’ atmospheric music they play to set the mood, less so. But at least it provided some comedic contrast. To the grand columns, notably of all different classical modes – Doric, Ionic, maybe even Corinthian. Presumably another testament to palimpsest, but that might also be us being eager in our theory.

We ascend back into daylight, and the afternoon begins to slide towards evening. The Aya Sofya turns a soft pink in the sidelight.

Looking back towards the Blue Mosque. Sahlep.

It is a drink made from the flour of dried orchid root and water, or more recently, milk. It is thick and luscious, coating the mouth with a texture that both envelops and never sits heavily. We cradled one cup against the glowering sun.

Piles of brick, a really compelling sculpture.

The ground cinnamon is both delicious and reveals the sahlep’s peculiar texture and surface tension. It doesn’t break to absorb the granules; rather, they sit on top in clumps and a thin coating. The drink itself is highly aromatic yet also comfortingly simple and familiar.

Sahlep is also what they use to make dondurma.

On our way to meet our host for dinner: the street vestiges of tea culture. Whom do these belong to? Will they ever get them back? Do they care? Important questions swirling in the mind.

This entry was published on Saturday, June 16, 2012 at 7:14 pm. It’s filed under adventures, food, general, travel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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