Tuesday, October 27, 2009

September 14, 2009 (From Bodrum, Turkey to Sicily)

Let’s go back in time to my final days of Turkey. Bodrum was one of the most relaxing places that I’ve ever visited. Other than just spending time on the porch and cooking, I did get a chance for a Turkish bath, a visit to the ancient city of Ephesus (Efes), and a boat tour of the southern waters of the peninsula. I’ll quickly run over each of them.

The Turkish bath was…an interesting experience to say the least. I walked into this place and the first thing that happened is that this little, bony guy started explaining to us all the different massage packages that could be added to our bath. He let us smell some very generic lily, orange and lilac oils, which he assured us were special. The couple to my left was from Belgium and didn’t speak any English and had a very confused look on their face. So did I. Anyways, after deciding that I was going to get a massage, I was told to change into my “bathing costume” and put on some slippers. After completing this task, I stepped into a room that was cylindrical in shape. It wasn’t quite a sauna, just very sweaty. Shortly thereafter, the Belgian couple walked in. After a brief period of language barrier confusion (this consists of wrinkling your eyebrows, cracking a smile and shrugging your shoulders) I decided that I would wet myself down with one of the little blue dog bowls that sat by a little sink with a faucet. There were about eight of these lining the perimeter of the sweaty tuna can room. A younger guy walked into the room, sans shirt with wash cloth in hand, and instructed all of us to lay down on this large circular stone that was in the middle of the room. He then proceeded to throw cold water on us while we weren’t looking…I’m sure this is his dirty little joke to pass the boring hours at work. Belgium and I looked very confused again. To make a long story shorter, the guy came back in and rubbed all of the skin off my body with this skin scraper glove that everyone got scraped with—I think that’s gross? Then, I got soaped down by another dude, who wanted to speak to me in Turkish, so I tried my best. Later on, the massage consisted of me getting jasmine oil rubbed into me for about a half hour. My hairy Turkish masseuse was just ok and at one point reached for something over me, which meant that I got a face full of hairy man chest. I guess it was a good experience? When everything was said and done, the man at the front would not let me wash the oil off, because he said it was very, very special. I felt like a marinated slab of meat ready to be plopped on the grill. I was so oily, I think I could have slid all the way home.

My tour around the southern part of the peninsula and Rabbit Island was very cool. I got a full day on this boat called a gulet, with five stops for swimming in beautiful Aegean waters and lunch for only $18…I felt like I had cheated someone. There was a huge space on top of the boat for lounging in the sun on these big pillows and many tables on the floor below.

The tour of Efes was fun and pretty interesting; however, the packaged tour was a little tedious and unnecessary at points. First of all, there were two mandatory tourist stops, one of which was a jewelry outlet. No one on the bus really knew that our tour was going to stop at this place, so my look of confusion was met with equal looks of confusion. When we stepped inside, I noticed that the order of language translation was German, then English, then Turkish, then something else—it was curious. I arrived in the showroom, which was multiple levels and very large, to be briefed on how we could look about for jewelry and was told that all the men with suits and ties lining the perimeter could speak most languages. I decided to pretend like I was going to buy something because I had nothing else to do. I got one of the guys to come and start explaining stuff to me. I acted stupid at first to see what he’d tell me. I got him to tell me that Turkish jewelry production was the best in the world and that some of the gems in front of me were very special and only native to that area…haha! I then took off the stupid face and started to question him about the order of language translation I had seen earlier, and who the investors were. I then told him I was a geology minor in college and knew much more about stones than he thought I did. In the end, I found out that a lot of the jewelry wasn’t actually manufactured there and that the stones were not specific to that region…I felt triumphant and I hope he felt a little ashamed. Anyways, the tour of Efes was cool and it was neat to imagine the ancient debris around me once piled up into archways, statues and buildings. The intact ancient library made me feel like I needed to look for ancient symbols leading to the holy grail or the ark of the covenant or something (who am I, Dan Brown?). It’s not every day that you get to stand in the ruins of a 3000 year old city. It was also very amusing to watch all of the tourist women sit down on something only to find that their butts were covered with dirt when they got up…the looks on their faces were priceless.

That’s enough about Southern Turkey.

My last night in Istanbul was very lovely. I went to my favorite two places (Namli's Deli and Gullioglu Baklava) for food with Nafiz and we ate until we were about to explode. I had numerous Turkish cold mezes and the best baklava in Istanbul, which is really so much better than anything you can get in the states. We sat and talked late into the morning, which is something we did a lot all summer…an apt ending.

So where have I been, calendar wise? Let’s see. Last Saturday, September 5, I was in Bodrum (southern Turkey), the day after that I was in Istanbul, the day after that I was in Venice, and then 2 days after that I was in Palermo, Sicily, where I stayed until Monday morning. I’ll give some of the highlights.

In Venice, I had a little less typical experience. I spent a lot of time exploring the streets that aren’t on the main drag. It’s pretty amazing to compare food prices in the restaurants that are just 2 minutes walk from the main drag. The prices go down by a third to a half in some instances. The food is just as good or better too. I also got to do some of the typical things, such as having coffee at Rialto bridge, a pizza in one of the popular piazzas, a spritz along the Grand Canal, gelato at the Accademia bridge, a walk through the pigeons at San Marco square, and a boat ride up the Grand Canal…but those are boring and touristy. I had another experience that was much more cool than those. I decided to pick out a very fancy restaurant to eat dinner at. At first, I just happened on this place that was tucked in the streets behind San Marco square. It looked very authentic and had a cool premise. It was actually a Medieval, Renaissance kitchen that displayed all of the different dishes with the century they belonged to. There were things such as sturgeon, dates, figs, rose jelly, and green aspic on the menu...I was very intrigued. I actually noticed a lot of similarities with some of the medieval Muslim cookbooks I had been reading in Turkey. It was a little pricey, but I determined that I could make it work with my budget. When I went back to my Hostel in Mestre, just outside of Venice, I looked up the restaurant and found that the Bistrot de Venise was rated 2nd of 489 restaurants in Venice! I was very excited.

Later that night, I chose the 65 Euro chef’s sampling menu. These are the things I tried that night:

1) Onion scampi with Turkish grapes
2) Sturgeon marinated in syrup with green aspic and cherries
3) lamb cheeks and liver over homemade ravioli
4) Glazed duck with liver, cherries and sweet-earthy dried fruits
5) Sturgeon with almond pudding and cherries
6) Ricotta cheesecake with flower jellies and melon sorbet
7) Cinnamon-sugar cookies with sambuca (a liqueur of licorice) custard and spiced cream
8) A nice, but fairly inexpensive white wine (I’m no connoisseur yet)

I was completely stuffed by the end and basically rolled through the dimly lit streets of Venice back to the bus station. I arrived home at about 2:30 in the morning, because the meal took over 3 hours to complete! Phew!

One other thing about Venice is this: I never paid for the buses into or out of the city. I couldn’t figure out how to get tickets and no one ever stopped me from getting on or off the bus. Penny saved is a penny earned. I’ll send the Venetian municipal services 10 Euro when I’m a millionaire.

The morning after my extravagant meal, I hopped a plane to Palermo. This is where I met Mario, who I mentioned in my last post. Palermo was cool, because it was actually a functioning little city, mostly devoid of tourists. The city is about 2 million people and is right on the coast, so much of the cuisine is fish and other sea creatures. I spent five days in Palermo and had a wonderful time with Mario and Glenda as my hosts. Glenda is Mario’s assistant. They wouldn’t let me pay for any of my meals in the five days that I was there and took me all over the city to try the food. I got to try typical Sicilian pastries, rolled and breaded fishes, ricotta cheesecakes, frutti de mare everything, monkfish, pasta galore, fried balls of fish and other assorted things, pistachio dishes (they have the best pistachios in the world here), and many other things. Mario also hooked me up with a place called Burro, which means butter in English. It was run by his good friends and was a very chic chic, popular place. They served stuff from all over Italy, but had many Sicilian dishes that I learned. Here is a list of some of the things I learned:

1) Eggplant and zucchini dolce
2) Creamy sausage and mushroom linguine
3) Truffle Fettucinne
4) Cottoletta
5) Mussel and shrimp scampi
6) Sicilian tuna steak with pistachios
7) Sicilian Capponata Sauce
8) Brioche pasta and variations
9) Panella
10) Cold couscous salad
11) An eggplant, tuna, and shrimp dish
12) Sicilian Pizza (Sfincione)
13) Sicilian Arancine
14) Panzelloto Napoletana
15) Trapani Bruschetta
16) Calzoncini (with Brioche pasta)

Hopefully I’ll have Pasta con Sarde and Cuttlefish in ink-sauce to add to that list.

I also visited the Cappuccini Catacombs (yes cappuccino is Sicilian, and so are cannoli), where they have hundreds of bodies wired to the walls that are dated beginning in 1599. As you walk around the catacombs, you are walking on tombstones and there are coffins and caskets littered about. The bodies were preserved with arsenic, vinegar, and spices, so a lot of them still have the skin, hair, and eyes intact…it’s the creepiest thing I’ve ever seen! There were bodies of males, females, and children, all in their period dress. Some of the bodies from the early 20th century even had a blurry photo of the live person. You can tell that they don’t spend a lot on tourism in Palermo, because the bodies are literally just popped out of the caskets and either placed on a surface or wired to the wall…no glass coverings or anything. I could have reached over and shook one of there hands. Definitely see this if you are coming to Palermo.

The last couple days of Palermo were a bit drab for me, because I contracted a nasty stomach virus, complete with fever, headache, and super sensitive skin. I couldn’t leave my hotel room for about 2 days and I couldn’t even do anything while in the hotel room. Mario and Glenda took care of me and brought me medication, so I eventually came out of it and I’m now ready to grasp the world again and eat. I was on a steady diet of plain white rice and toast for about 2 days.

I am now sitting in Catania, Sicily at the base of Mount Etna, the mythological volcano from Homer’s Odyssey. This area is known for it’s food, because the volcanic soils are very fertile and produce some very quality foods such as pistachios (best in the world…sorry Iran), mandarins, and almonds. The fish in the waters surrounding the volcano are also supposed to be exceptional, because they have to develop stronger muscles to live in the acidic environment, which taste better to humans…I guess. I am hoping to stuff myself, because I need to gain some weight. At the end of my Turkish adventure, I hopped on a scale to find that I had lost about 15 lbs.!! I’m guessing I’ve lost another 2 lbs. as a result of the sickness. Time to gain it back so I can fit into my clothes again.