Monday, June 5, 2017

"A Turkish Delight on a moonlit night"- the song is right!

     As Constantinople, Byzantium and eventually Istanbul, for almost 16 centuries, this city has beamed as the Imperial capital of mighty empires. Today, Istanbul is the cultural heart of Turkey, a vibrant bridge across the physical and philosophical landmasses of Europe and Asia, located on the Sea of Marmara and straddling the powerful Bosphorus Strait. Beckoning tourists and traders alike, it has utilized its strategic position at the crossorads of two continents to grow into a fast-paced modern economy while preserving its glorious past.

     Arriving at the Attaturk airport and driving on the wide, well maintained highway to the old town, the modern metropolis is on display through high-rise buildings of steel and glass, shopping malls, nightclubs, and restaurants boasting local and international cuisine alike, while cruise ships docked in the port on the Bosphorus Strait, wait for their travelers who seek to soak up the magic of this ancient sprawling city in just a few hours. However, as you start climbing one of the seven hills that the city of Istanbul is built on, it's famed past and rich culture starts to make its presence felt. Slender minarets with golden crescents on top, wide domes of mosques and squat buildings of white and beige topped with red tiles or flat terraces squeeze together in the same space. The excited chatter of hundreds of tourists mingle with the laughter of pretty young women wearing colorful headscarves and brightly colored robes, insistent salesmen calling you to their carpet stores while the sleek Tramway whizzes past  Roman ruins of the Hippodrome and the grand residence of the Ottoman emperors. You are in Istanbul!

Along with mosques and their minarets, kebab cafes and koftecisi, flowers are a constant presence in Istanbul. Flowers and fruits have held a high regard since the Ottoman times and it has been carried on into the present. It is said that when  Mehmet the Conqueror invaded Constantinople in 1453, he was so impressed with the love of flowers of the locals that he commissioned a portrait of himself, sitting with a rose, not his sword.  Seemingly impromptu flower beds appear along main streets and street corners, most of them with vibrant tulips- the symbol of the Ottoman empire - and welcome visitors and locals alike. The love of flowers is on grand display in the expansive urban park in the Erminou district, the Gulhane Parki. Originally a part of the gardens of the Topkapi palace, entering this public garden through the stone archways on Alemdar Caddessi one is greeted with a pleasing colorful sight that is sure to soothe the soul. Carefully crafted flowerbeds of tulips, pansies and other brightly colored flowers thrive alongside playful fountains, leafy Erguvan or Judas trees that sprout pink clusters and old plane and cypress trees  that provide a haven in the middle of the bustling city outside.

     Built between 1460 and 1478 AD under the rule of Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror, Topkapi Palace served as the seat of the Ottoman Empire for almost 400 years. It is now a museum housing weapons and armaments of the Turkish military, porcelains and calligraphy as well as sacred relics of the Ottoman empire. The palace complex is arranged in a series of four courtyards with the buildings surrounding them in an example of  classical Ottoman architecture. Brilliant tile work in the Iznik style along with intricate plaster work in the Rococco style architecture adorns walls and ceilings of every building, the most dazzling display being in the Imperial Council (Diwan-i-Humayun) and the Harem. Exquisitely carved niches, fireplaces and ornate decorations on ceilings using wood and tile immerses the visitor into  a world bygone when the Ottoman empire, at its peak ruled the land from South east Europe all the way through North Africa. 



     The iconic building most often associated with Istanbul's glorious history is the imposing Hagia Sofia. It came into existence as a Byzantine church built under the orders of the emperor Justinian I between 532 and 537 AD. After Constantinople fell to the Ottoman empire in 1453, it became the Imperial mosque until 1935 when the founder of the republic of Turkey and its first President, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk secularized it and turned it into a museum. However, when you enter the large space that exists under the all encompassing dome, you do not think of its glorious history but gaze up in amazement at the incredible Byzantine architecture of soaring columns and grand arches supporting the massive dome, every inch of wall and ceiling space adorned with intricate mosaics in gold leaf and bright hues of blue, green and red that illuminate the space underneath. A series of windows on the upper gallery filter out sunlight through sheer alabaster screens, which falls on the intentionally unadorned minbar, where the imam would lead the faithful in prayer. There is a subtle yellow glow all around you  and in spite of the hordes of awestruck visitors whispering around you, one is are transported to a quiet, peaceful place where you can only marvel at man's extraordinary creativity and the passion with which successive generations have managed to keep this masterpiece intact. 


     Across the Sultanhemt square sits the magnificent Sultanahemt Mosque with its characteristic six minarets instead of the usual four. The pencil thin minarets with three balconies adorned with intricate muqarnas - stalactite decorations on the corbels - encircle a magnificent building complex topped by five main domes. The interior is awash in light reflecting off the brilliant blue Iznik tiles bordered by intricate designs in red, green and gold. More than 20,000 tiles display exquisite designs of tulips, cypresses and fruits. The soaring arches made in the Ablaq style with alternating tiles of dark and light stone, banisters carved in stone, and over 200 stained glass windows take one’s eyes up to the heavens, apropos to this place of worship.


This was also the place for a spirited discussion between the kids and the adults about how does covering one's head  show respect to God, and why do women have to follow a dress code to enter the mosque while all men have to do is not wear shorts. 

     One cannot visit Istanbul and not talk about two essential experiences - the food and the hamam. Whether it was drinking freshly squeezed nar suyu(pomegrante juice) inside the Topkapi palace gardens, or the tangy Ayran that accompanied the succulent kofte at the famed Sultanahmet Koftecisi, savoring braised lamb served over silken eggplant puree with bulgur pilaf and a side of piyaz, or the intriguing Testi kebab - a dish of meat and vegetables slow cooked in a sealed clay pot which is brought to the table or heavenly rose-scented baklava, one can only say “Sherefe!” with a glass of Raki in honor of this satisfying and soulful ancient cuisine. 

     The communal experience of a Turkish bathhouse is as unique in its ancient roots as in the unassuming, un-selfconsious manner in which it is handled. Cemberlitas hamami, designed by the famed Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan in 1584, is a good example of this. The cavernous bath of pink stone with hot marble slabs to lie on, niches along the walls to bathe after a satisfying scrub with a traditional kese, followed by a relaxing massage is cleansing and rejuvenating like no other bath you have ever had! 

     Istanbul is a city like no other. A city of pretty girls in head scarves enjoying hookahs on the sidewalks of nargile cafes at midnight, of the sounds of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer five times a day, of the modern trams chugging through the age old neighborhood of Sulemaniya, crossing the Galata bridge to Taksim Square, of the underground Basilica Cistern built in the 6th century to provide water to the great palaces of Constantinople, of strong coffee and fragrant teas, of spices and carpets sold by insistent traders in the Grand Bazaar, of military vehicles standing guard at the Annual Tulip festival as a testament to the modern troubling times, and of tulips, pomegranates and whirling dervishes. When Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk says “If I see my city as beautiful and bewitching, then my life must be so too”, I cannot help but agree.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Degustation with tranquility - Burgundy

     After a hectic March due to an unexpected, unplanned trip to India, we needed a place to get away, to slow down and rejuvenate. A cross-channel road trip through the famous Burgundy region sounded like just that kind of trip. 

     An hour and half drive from our house took us to the Eurotunnel terminal at Folkestone and before we knew it, I was driving our car into a train that was going to take us under the English Channel, through a 38 km long undersea tunnel! The 35 minute trip in one of human kind's crowning glories of engineering achievements went by quick and we emerged onto a sunny Spring afternoon  at the Calais terminal in France. 

     Driving out of the terminal, we got onto the busy A1 motorway and started the 503 km journey though the heartland of France. The steady traffic of loaded lorries and fast cars with license plates from countries all over Europe had us frustrated as we were falling behind schedule. Getting off the A1 and on to the A6 - Autoroute du Soleil (Motorway of the Sun) however, the landscape changed to rolling hills with large fields in  varying shades of green alternating with blazing yellow rapeseed fields. On the horizon, white windmills stood guard while grey and white clouds played tag with the sun. Our bucolic road trip had begun!

As we made our way through the hills and vales of France crisscrossed with small rivers and streams every few miles, the landscape was agricultural, but no vineyards were in view. We were headed to the famed Cote d’Or, home of the haughty Burgundy wines but there was not a grapevine in sight. What we did see were herds of white Charolais cows, dirty sheep and handsome horses grazing to their hearts’ content. Soon, we were driving through tiny medieval villages with ancient stone houses, leafy squares around the village church with its characteristic slate steeples and musical names like Sauvigny, Joux de Ville and Lucy le-Bois eventually to Avallon and our destination - a farmhouse converted to a charming bed and breakfast. We had been on the road for more than 9 hours and it was time for dinner and an early night.  

     With no sight-seeing stops on the agenda, this trip was about driving through the hills and vales of the French countryside, stopping on the side of the road to ‘frolic in the fields’ as the kids called it and tasting the famed Burgundy wines in tiny family-owned Domaines. We met some of the friendliest people anywhere in Europe as we drove on the Route des Grand Crus passing villages with names seen on wine-bottle labels around the world - Chablis, Vosnee-Romanee, Aloxe-Corton, Nuits Saint George, Gevrey-Chembertin. We explored vineyards with inviting signs for  degustations. We listened as a passionate vigneron explained the essence of Burgundy wines. How unlike Bordeaux wines which depend on the skill of the winemaker, the wines here are entirely a reflection of the terroir where the grape comes from - the composition of the soil, the water and the air where the plant grows. We learnt how the location of the vine -  whether at the crest of a hill, along the sloping sides or in the shade of a rocky hilltop makes the difference between a cheap-ish, everyday-at-6pm Village, medium priced yet lofty Premier Cru or  the high and mighty, only-open-it-for-anniversary or to impress your neighbor Grand Cru.

We walked through ancient towns of Vezelay, Comarrin, Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, admiring the pointed slate steeples of churches that looked like the tops of medieval helmets, drove along the river Yonne and Burgundy canal that nourish this verdant valley, explored the hilltop castle of the Duke of Burgundy at Chateauneuf-en-Auxois and walked along the ruins of Alise-Saint-Reine where Vercingetorix, the last king of Gauls, fought an epic battle again Julius Caesar. 

     There was time for some ‘sight-seeing’ in the charming town of Beaune, in the form of the Hospices du Beaune. Founded in 1443 by Nicolas Rolin as a charitable hospital for the poor, it is now a museum and an excellent showcase of 15th century French architecture. The glazed tile roofs of red, brown, green and yellow tiles laced together in intricate patterns is a trademark of Burgundy architecture. A visit to a local antiques fair and shopping ended another gorgeous day in Bourgogne. 

So, let us talk about the food, shall we? Obviously I am not the first person to rave about French food, but eaten here on the land where it grows, without the pretense of a Paris bistro or cafe, your tastebuds take your soul to a sublime place where the nothing can go wrong. Whether it was home-made, creamy foie gras, or fresh salad dressed with a drizzle of truffle oil or perfectly cooked duck confit or fall-of the bone beef bourgogone, Jambon perseille, Oeuf en gelee, Oeuf en meurette - perfectly poached eggs in a silky red wine sauce or the cheeses - firm and creamy Comte, the sharp Tonnerre or the prickly Epoisses….this list is a long one. The chefs here are quite comfortable with their cooking skills to experiment with unusual ingredients in traditional dishes like a dash of ginger syrup in a light vinaigrette or curry powder on perfectly cooked Potato Parmentiers. But there is such a thing as too much of a good thing, I suppose and we found ourselves seeking out the familiar banality of McDonald’s, KFC(Kentucky French Chicken) and Subway for lunch a few times, although we stayed true to the mood of our trip by washing them down with the local Vueve Ambal!

We said au revoir  to the peaceful Bourgogne region with a renewed appreciation of the rural life, a life led close to the land and in harmony with nature. And wishing we had more time to indulge in this pastoral, peaceful way of life,  we powered up the GPS and plotted our route to the predictable chaos of real life.