We didn't need to tunnel out of Macedonia after all. We breezed through Macedonian Immigration and exited Macedonia without a hitch. I admit I was anxious until our Turkish Air flight left the ground, but we had no problems at all--even the Turkish Air flight was on time.
We visited Istanbul and much of Turkey almost 15 years ago; it will forever be a place we fell in love with. Fifteen years ago we stayed in a friend's parents' home near the Ortakoy Mosque under the first bridge on the Bosphorus. The early morning call to prayer woke us each day, but the muezzin had a beautiful voice. This time, we stayed in the mostly renovated Sultanahmet neighborhood in the welcoming Neorion Hotel very near the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.
Blue Mosque by Night
Interior of the Blue Mosque
Hagia Sophia Museum
Interior of the Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia on a Full-Moon Night
During our four days in Istanbul, we reacquainted ourselves with landmarks we had visited before. We went to the Grand Bazaar and found a couple of the merchants from whom we purchased carpets (Adnan and Hassan) or brass items (Murat Bilir) from 15 years ago. Murat Bilir has now worked in the bazaar for over 50 years--he was just a young boy when he began.
His shop is packed with metal items from Persia, Armenia, and the former Ottoman Empire. Murat took us to a fish restaurant, Balikçi Aşçinin Konaği, just outside of the Grand Bazaar. I don't know if many tourists eat in this small, immaculate restaurant, but the fish soup, the grilled blue fish, the baked halvah dessert were great. Then, we returned to Murat's shop and bought the antique Persian tray he is polishing in the above photo.
Inside the Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar, while still a maze-like, over-whelming collection of shops, seems more organized now with signs indicating the names of the covered avenues within the bazaar. It has become less intimidating and more tourist friendly--like a shopping mall with a long, exotic history. There is even a newly renovated, clean, well stocked public toilet that costs 1TL (about .56 US cents) to use.
The bustling Egyptian Spice Bazaar (Misir Çarşisi) established in 1664 is another fun place to shop for spices like Iranian saffron threads (I hope they are real), salep, dried fruits, and every other spice you can think of. The fruits, nuts, and spices are beautifully presented like colorful fine jewels. The Egyptian Spice Bazaar is much more than just spices. A new shop with beautiful textiles and jewelry from Syria has recently opened in the Spice Bazaar.
The spice bazaar is much smaller than the Grand Bazaar making it feel more manageable despite the crowds of shoppers. Free samples were being distributed the day we went so people were packed like a jar of pickles around the free stuff.
One of the many spice shops outside of the Spice Market building
A Macedonian friend introduced me to an Oriental drink called Salep; it is a Turkish drink that not only tastes good but is said to be good to drink when you have a cold. After unsuccessfully trying to have a cup of salep in Istanbul at our hotel and at a restaurant, I bought a cup from a Salep seller near the Hagia Sophia one cool evening. He had a sign on his cart that listed the ingredients: salep (powdered orchid root), milk, honey, cinnamon. It was delicious. When I went to the Egyptian Spice Bazaar, I bought some "first-quality, authentic" salep. The salesman said to use 1 teaspoon per liter of milk. I found this recipe online:
Salep for six people:
Combine 2 teaspoons of salep flour with 2-1/2 teaspoons of sugar
Slowly add 3-1/2 glasses of cold milk and stir to mix
Over low heat, bring the mixture to a boil while stirring (10 to 15 minutes)
Serve hot in a cup dusted with ground cinnamon, nutmeg, or ginger