Thursday, June 23, 2011

My Very Own Top 10: Tbilisi and Istanbul

So, I have not blogged in a while because I was away. I took a little time for myself, some much needed R&R, and went to Tbilisi and then Istanbul for 6 days. It was so cool to visit two countries I had never seen before. I got to eat dinner in Tbilisi and breakfast in Istanbul. I spent the night in the Caucasus mountains, the morning in Asia, and the afternoon in Europe. How great is that?!

I don’t want to brag or anything, but I have to be honest, it was one of the best trips I have ever been on. It was relaxing and refreshing, but at the same time such an exciting, new adventure.
I am back in Balakan now, and fully underway and overwhelmed with work, yet again! Our summer arts camp begins on Sunday, so supplies need to be bought, lesson plans need to be finalized, and volunteers (about 10-15) will start arriving on Saturday.
At the same time,  we have started our Social Media club. The club has two objectives. The first is to give students interested in FLEX (a program that sends the highly motivated and accomplished students from Azerbaijan to America for a year to study in an America high school) an alternative way to prepare, by writing compositions in English every week. The second is to teach self-expression and the power of social media outlets. I have not been around much lately, so Bailey has been running it. She’s clearly doing a fantastic job! A couple of the kids already had their own blogs, and some others have since started their own. This week, the theme is ‘Top 10’. So, to keep you all informed about what I am doing at site, but also reminisce on my trip a little bit, I will make a top 10 list of the best things to do and see in Tbilisi and Istanbul. Enjoy!

1.    Sulfur Baths, Tbilisi, Georgia: They are one of those experiences where you don’t really have any idea what to expect until you do it. My friend and I got a private room for 35 GEL (the medium sized room) for an hour. Inside were very comfortable leather couches and chairs, a changing area, and bathroom. As you walked into the other room, there was the bath on the left, two showers straight back, and a marble bed for massages on the right (an hour scrub and massage only costs 10 GEL). The rooms are adorned with tastefully colored tiles that create a very relaxed ambience. The bath itself was perfectly hot, yet only had a slight smell of sulfur. The bath is about 8 feet by 8 feet, and approximately 5 feet deep, with benches on two sides. Even without shampoo or soap, I felt so clean and refreshed afterwards. Plus, the women who run this particular bathhouse are wonderful. They are Azeri and incredibly welcoming, but don’t take any s@#$! One man kept leaving his room while wearing only a speedo and was staring at my friend, so she shoved him back into his room and put a mop through the door handle to lock him in his room from the outside.
2.     The Wine Stores in Georgia: These are not just any wine stores. I’ve been to Napa, and as great as it was, I couldn’t help but feel a little pretentious afterwards. In Georgia, another country famous for its wine, they’re just out to have a good time! The wine stores look like any back home, except in the center of the store is a table covered with 30-40 open bottles, free to try. So you think, “okay, free tasting…pretty standard.” WRONG! Drink as much as you want. Ask for a full glass. Ask for seven. Stay late (they’re open ‘til 2am), and even admit that you have no intention of buying anything. The guys who run the stores just love wine and love meeting people. Not to mention Georgian wine is S-T-R-O-N-G. You’ll only need to try a few kinds before you’re really feeling it, trust me.
View of the city
3.     Climb up to Narikala Fortress: We spent a couple of hours up there just looking out over the entire city as the sun set. The crumbling ruins of a once-great fortress have very few rules; feel free to climb around! It is situated on a hill overlooking the Mt’k’vari river. Many couples can be spotted strolling around the nearby botanical gardens and the fortress, enjoying the solitude and beauty. Just watch your step, it can get steep!
The Fortress from below
4.     Visit the sites around Sultanahmet in Istanbul, Turkey: These are not to be missed! From the unique combination of Byzantium architecture as an Eastern Orthodox Christian cathedral to its Islamic features as a mosque under the Ottoman Turks later on, the Aya Sophia has no equal. It is so big that the Statue of Liberty could do jumping jacks inside of it...with room to spare. The Blue Mosque, in all its beauty, is one of the most welcoming and peaceful places I have ever visited. Topkapi Palace is the perfect combination of tranquil beauty and fascinating history, while the Basilica Cistern, approximately the size of two football fields and once the home to the entire water supply for Istanbul, is one of the creepiest places you could ever visit.
Inside the Blue Mosque
Notice the contrast with the Christian Mosaic just above the Islamic writings
Inside the Aya, it's big!
5.     Walk at night on Iştikal Caddesi (Independence Avenue), the main drag in the hip neighborhood of Taksim. It doesn’t matter the day, the streets are always packed and the bars and restaurants are always overflowing. Don’t make any plans or reservations, just enjoy the atmosphere and go where the night takes you…that might be to a bar called Montreal (where they had a Carey Price jersey hanging up), or to a free concert by once-famous Turkish pop star Mirkelam.
Megan and I and Montreal Bar in Istanbul
Hail to the King
6.    Çemberlitaş Hamamı (Turkish Baths): For an out of this world, Greek god-like experience, this place is a must. Matt and I stumbled upon it, unaware of its rich history, but this is the premiere bath house in Istanbul! Spend the extra cash to get a 15-minute scrub/massage, and then spend the rest of the time lying on the giant, original marble tables unwinding after a long day of sight-seeing.  I promise you will leave this place a new person!
The crew after the baths
7.     Spice Bazaar: There is NO place in the world more interesting than here. The smells and tastes that consume you as you step into the market are unlike anything you could possibly fathom. From Iranian saffron to Turkish delight and pure silk scarves, you’ll undoubtedly spend a significant amount of time and money here! It’s worth it!
Mind blowing!
8.     Fish Sandwiches and Mussels on the Bosphorous: Whatever you do, don’t miss out on this! At Eminonu, the sandwiches are simple: a fish grilled and slapped on a bun with some onions and lemon juice…simple and delicious; simply delicious! Just don’t forget about the bones! Oh ya, and they are cooked on a boat. The mussels can be found throughout the city. Vendors walk around carrying a tray full of them. You pay between 50 cents and 1 TL for each depending on the size. Spot the guy a 5-er and you’ll be noshing on seasoned, rice filled mussels ‘til your heart’s content. Don’t forget the lemon juice!
Fish Sandwich...heaven
9.     Sit On a Rooftop Terrace or Street Café and Smoke Turkish Water Pipe Over A Couple Pints of Efes: Don’t forget to take some time to sit back and relax, it is vacation after all. The number of street cafes and rooftop terraces are endless, and you usually can’t go wrong. The roofs offer the view, the street cafes offer comfy outdoor sofas. Either way, order some watermelon/mint water pipe and a couple Efes beers and unwind for a few hours!
10. Eat a Turkish Breakfast on the Bosphorous: Head up to the neighborhood of Bebek near the Fatih Bridge. Find any café along the water and order the “Kahvaltı”. This spread will include fresh juice, tea, breads, cheeses, lamb sausage, pastries filled with magical goodness, eggs, honey and cream, fresh tomatoes, peppers, tomatoes, and so much more. We chose Kale Café, as suggested by Anthony Bourdain on his show, “No Reservations”.  The place did not disappoint! We sat on the second floor and ate for a couple of hours while overlooking the water. You’ll be full, so walk it off by strolling back downtown along the boulevard. Watch out for dangling fish hooks, as many people will be along the water fishing for Red Mullet. And don’t be afraid to cool off with a quick jump into the Bosphorous! Plenty of teenage boys and overweight men do it. It was actually quite refreshing!

View from Breakfast
Gone Fishin'
Matt and I Cooling Off
So there you have it, my top 10 list of things to do in Tbilisi and Istanbul on a quick trip.

1 comment:

  1. Where exactly did you go to have a sulfur bath in Tbilisi? Do you remember the name of the establishment?