Paying a visit to the beautiful city of Aachen, Germany in Christmas time. We went to the Dom, Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas market), Aachener Brauhaus, Grotesque Absinth bar and tobacconist Schneiderwind. Not my best filmed video, I definitely learned some things for coming uploads! Anyway, I wish everybody a merry Christmas and a smoky New Year!
Adieu, vaarwel, goodbye café De Waagschaal… For years your smoking room was the last refuge for the smoker in the region I live in. Myself and other pipe smokers had so many great and cosy meetings there over the years. Also I just liked to sit there alone with a good cigar/pipe, read a book, have a cup of coffee and look at the people outside walking over De Brink (the central square in Deventer). Now a (grumpy) owner closed it down due to recent regulations, although those are not enforced until April 2020. I was hoping for one last warm winter of smoking but unfortunately there is a small club of anti-smoking people here (Clean Air Nederland) who sued the Dutch state about their smoking room policy, and won… Unbelievable… I fetched my own drinks in the café below and carried them to the old smoking room, personnel did not even had to come there, and I bothered no one. Civilisation, don’t make me laugh… Luckily I still have the pictures, thanks to all who took them.
September 21st it was once again time for one of my annual highlights: The Inter Tabac fair in Dortmund. For those of you who missed the blogposts I made of the visit the last couple of years; the Inter-Tabac (which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year) is the leading and biggest trade fair of the world for tobacco products and smoking accessories. Last year 625 exhibitors from 54 countries presented trends and innovative tobacco products. This included cigars, cigarillos, cigarettes, E-cigarettes, E-pipes, E-shishas, smoking accessories, pipes, pipe tobacco, shishas, shop equipment and spirits. And yes, one is still allowed to smoke inside. Unfortunately the fair is for retailers, not for consumers. Like the previous years I was able to secure a ticket through Fred. The saying goes, the more the merrier, so (with approval of Fred) I invited good friend Ed. A couple of years ago he should have went with me but unfortunately had to cancel at the last moment because of a migraine attack. Now we agreed to meet each other at the McDonald’s in Apeldoorn near the highway. About the same distance from home for each one of us so very convenient.
Entrance to the Inter Tabac
I got there first and after 10 minutes Ed followed. We grabbed an invigorating cup of coffee and stepped into Ed’s car. Or to be precise, the lease car from his wife. A big luxurious Peugeot (don’t ask me which model, I’m a car noob, I own a 1996 Toyota Starlet and am very content with it) with a German environmental sticker which you need in most German cities. The main reason he did not bring along his own vehicle. Thanks to the modern navigation system in the Peugeot the ride to Dortmund went smooth. Part of highway we had to take was closed down which the intelligent navigation knew and effortlessly guided us through an alternative route. Also the weather was heavenly, blue skies, sun, a beautiful late summer’s day. When we arrived at the Westfalenhallen we could park near the entrance. Which had changed somewhat. Last year there was a big renovation going on and now we could see the result, modern and spacious.
Okapi & Kiboko, new Danpipe blends
Like the years before the first stop was Danpipe. Simply because I know a lot of people there and they always serve coffee. We were greeted by former masterblender Andreas Mund and his charming wife. Former masterblender? It turned out that Andreas’ wife has that job now. “Her tasting palate is way better than mine.” Andreas explained with a grin. “But I still do things like buying in raw tobacco.” I asked how Danpipe was doing and while winking if they had something new which I could smoke. Last year they had a new blend which no one could smoke because they had only a prototype with them. You know, like sucking on a joint and don’t inhaling it. Andreas answered: “We are doing fine, I am busy as hell, only Herr Behrens (one of the directors) is not here because he has to undergo surgery for his hip. He is getting old… But we have two new blends (which were put on the table by his wife), Okapi and Kiboko. Okapi was created by my wife and Kiboko by Michael Apitz.” I took a sniff of both, Okapi is Virginia based, a bit of a rubbed out flake with some rose leaves but still pretty natural. Kiboko is a full frontal aromatic and to be honest I forgot what was in there.. It was nice to see the new division of roles at creating new mixtures at Danpipe. Andreas’ wife for the more natural tobaccos, Micheal Apitz for the aromatics. I asked if I could fill up a pipe with Okapi which was graciously allowed. A fine blend, smooth despite being very young, could be an all day smoke.
Danpipe’s cigar lady at the stand
Andreas and his wife had to attend to some clients (a Davidoff representative who, hopefully for Danpipe, wants to have another year-blend made there) so another, tall, woman came standing with us. Damned.. I recognised her but could not lay my finger upon it. “You don’t recognise me??” she said almost offended. “Last year when you visited our shop in Lauenburg I sold you some cigars!” “Oooooh, of course!” I said with a fast reddening face. “Did you know we don’t bring out our (famous) catalogue anymore?” she said. Well, normally the catalogue would be on all the tables and now it wasn’t I noticed. “We decided to skip it and put the money in a larger and better website to crank up our sales, it is going to be fantastic.” In the mean time Fred had joined us, always very nice to see and speak to him. He is busy growing his own Virginia leaf in The Netherlands near where he lives. I sometimes see pictures on his Facebook page and it is looking well. Last year I smoked some of his first batch and it was amazingly good! He grinned because he had a good adventure with the Dutch tax authorities. He said to them he grew so and so much of his own tobacco. They had nooo idea what to do with that. Tobacco is taxed when it is sealed in pouches or tins, but raw tobacco?? Just go on, they said to the amusement of Fred.
When I took a look at the Danpipe assortment I was approached by a man. “Excuse me, but are you the Dutch Pipe Smoker? My name is Torbjörn, I am from Sweden and I read your blog and sometimes comment on it.” Wow, I got recognised! A very friendly man, he was looking for a good Danpipe Virginia so I gave him some advice, being a bit familiar with the assortment. We chatted for a bit and had our picture taken for the Swedish Pipe Club of which he is a member. I just love this kind of meetings with pipe smokers from another country. Back at the table with Ed and Fred I suddenly felt some hands on my shoulders, it was Michael Apitz. Always a delight to speak to him, you put in a dime so to say and he keeps on talking, wonderful chap. He makes a blend for his own which includes tonka bean essence and explained how to make the latter. “Very easy, you take a lot of tonka beans, put them in a towel and bash them to pieces with a hammer. Those you do in a large mason jar and fill it up with pure alcohol. Then let it rest for about 4 months. After that when you have a blend you put in 5% of it, put it away for a while and ready!”
At one point Fred said, let’s go to Elbert (Gubbels, of Big Ben amongst others). Elbert has a bit of a lounging area at his stand so we sat there. Despite being very busy he took the time to speak to us. Of course we know each other longer because of the whole forum tobacco Flatlander Flake project. Elbert is been having a rough year. The pipe-making part of his company he had to let go bankrupt. He had way too much stock and everyday new pipes were added to it. So with lots of pain in his heart he had to fire several employees and shut down production. Now he is selling his stock and looking for companies in Italy to produce pipes for him. That is to be said, only the less expensive lines. The high end ones are still going to be made at the Dutch factory. I wish him all the best of luck with that!
Fred wanted to go somewhere else so Ed and I strolled through the alleyways. I have been many times at the Inter Tabac but it could be that this was my last one. As far as pipes and pipe tobacco goes I have the feeling it is going downhill. It always amazes me how Danpipe and Gubbels can cough up the costs for their stands each year. Samuel Gawith no longer attends the fair since Bob Gregory left. I read on PipesMagazine the following: “Chris (Gawith) has recently taken over the company with the passing of his father and is now in the process of applying his expertise in engineering (he’s an engineer by trade) to the company with process improvement and oversight.” Well, I know Bob left for a reason, mainly because he was fuming that the company wants to do things wholly different than the last 200 years and he could not stand behind it. So I hope Chris understands that the quality of the Gawith product still has to be spot on because otherwise I think he is going to lose a lot of customers and murders a centuries old company.. Also MacBaren was not present, they held court at a nearby hotel. But I had made an appointment with Per Jensen later that afternoon. Planta was also not present, the reason of it I heard later that day. Walking through the halls I noticed an increase in cigar companies, the cigar is booming as far as I can tell (almost every damn brand has some Cuban cigar-roller at the entrance of their stand). To the delight of Ed because he likes them a lot. It was like wonderland for him sometimes. “Oh! I know that guy! I follow him on the internet!” He exclaimed several times. Drew Estate had a large stand with some good looking girls. I don’t smoke cigars that much but I like a lot of their offerings, especially the Kentucky Fire Cured range. “Look! There is Jonathan Drew, the co-founder and president!” Ed said awestruck. Jonathan, while grinning because he saw the pipe in my mouth, patted my shoulder and said “hello mate!” “I don’t think I would wash that shoulder for some time.” Ed said with a wink.
Cornell & Diehl
After lunch (I told Ed to bring lunch with him because food and drinks are very €xpen$ive at the Inter Tabac but he left it in the car and opted for some fries) we went looking for Cornell & Diehl (Laudisi). Last years they had just a small desk and that was it. This time there was a bigger stand with lots of Peterson pipes and beside the always friendly Ted Swearingen owner Sykes Wilford was also there. I really wanted to shake hands and speak with him but he was busy with a client and you know, business first! Luckily Ted was talkative about the new Peterson pipes and tobacco situation in the USA. Last times I was at Peter Heinrichs in Bergheim there was no new Peterson stock. Which surprised Ted because nothing changed distribution-wise. The USA tobacco situation is a bit on hold. They even began with taking of the warning labels from the tins again. They had some loose tobacco in a container without label. I smelled it and immediately recognised it; Autumn Evening, one of my favourite aromatic blends. When I asked if he had the newest GL Pease offering, Penny Farthing, with him he said no. “But I do have an aged tin of Bayou Night with me that you can have.” “Excuse me? Wow, wonderful, thank you very much!” I blurted out. Thank you very much Ted!
Then we went to the stands of Kohlhase & Kopp and Vauen. At the former you could really notice the rise of the cigar and the “downfall” of pipes and tobaccos. It is getting a bit less each year. Despite that, I have to say the stand was well visited. Vauen is one of the few pipe makers who try to innovate each year. This time they had the Edgar model, a sporty designer pipe with cooling ribs made of ceramic composite. Ed and I wanted a drink so I opted to go the huge stand of the Scandinavian Tobacco Group. One of the places where you can sit relaxed, have a (free!) drink, smoke and no one bothers you. Of course we went to see the Winslow, White Spot (No, no Dunhill.. White Spot! Idiots…) and Stanwell pipes first. As usual Poul Winslow had a whole range of beautiful pipes, some really big! When we sat down with a drink (brought by a lovely lady with one pair of the brightest blue eyes I had ever seen, no picture unfortunately) I put my pipe-bag on the table, filled with several Winslow pipes, and we had a smoke. I tried the Bayou Night and it was excellent! I am going to enjoy smoking up that tin. Suddenly Poul Winslow himself spotted us, or to say, his pipes on our table. He asked if he could take a picture from us for his Facebook page. Of course, go ahead! And indeed, a short while later my fat head was on his social media: Winslow fan! Between the halls there also was an interesting stand: Cigar Rights of Europe. In short, they advocate the right to smoke a cigar (or a pipe) in Europe which is becoming increasingly difficult because of all kinds of laws and regulations. So I would say, go to their website and become a member!
We took a fast stroll through the water-pipe and e-smoke halls, which amazed Ed. “Like walking in the Middle East or India! Those people and smells!” he exclaimed. Then the time had come to go to the mighty MacBaren, who were located in a private room in the nearby Dorint hotel, only a short walk from the Westfalenhallen. We were greeted by product manager Per Jensen, who was glad to see us. “The sales-representative guys from us have enough work, but I just sit here..” Per recently got married so as a present I gave him a bottle of genuine Dutch jenever saying that as a married man he probably now needed this. We sat down, Per got us some drinks and I asked him why they were in the hotel instead of the Inter Tabac. “Well, as you know the previous years we were in a large stand together with Arnold Andre. This year they decided they did not want to have a stand in the Westfalenhallen and opted for a room in this hotel. We still could have gone but then we would have nothing to say about the location of our stand..” said Per. So this was a better option indeed, can you imagine MacBaren between the water-pipes? He asked me if we visited the Inter Tabac. “Of course” I said “but it is going downhill.. I mean, no MacBaren, no Gawith, no Planta..” Per veered up “Ah! It has a reason Planta is not there.” At which he guided me to a big sign at the entrance (which I did not see) which read: “Planta, we are delighted to bid you welcome to our MacBaren family.” Holy sh*t! MacBaren had bought Planta! For a moment I thought I had a scoop but later I read the news on PipesMagazine.com which I totally missed. Bummerrrr…
Prototype of a new MacBaren flake with Nicotiana rustica
“Besides other things they had trouble implementing all the European regulations. The factory in Berlin will be closed and production will go to Denmark. Which is a good thing! Not to bash Planta but they were pretty old-fashioned. Not a single recipe was written down, all in the heads of the employees!” Per said while shaking his head. “Of course the most well known Planta brands will stay, but some I had to let go. The first being McLintock Syrian Latakia Blend. They did not have Syrian latakia for years!” Which I already thought, not too long ago I smoked a couple a Planta blends which said to have the Syrian dark leaf. To my taste it absolutely wasn’t. And what about Presbyterian? I know Planta had 2 versions, one sweetened 100 gr. for the German market and the original 50 gr. for the rest of the world. “I have to look into that, but Presbyterian always has been about the latakia for me. A great entrance into the world of the dark leaf.” Per said. I’ll keep my fingers crossed. “Talking about latakia, I am working on a project with a whole new kind of latakia, but I can’t say anything about it yet. Next year when you are here” Per said with an evil grin. Damn! Then he fumbled in his backpack and took out a blank tin with something written on it. “This is a another project on which I am working. It is a blend which also contains Nicotiana rustica. I like you to smoke it.” Normally the tobaccos we smoke are from the Nicotiana tabacum variety. Once I had a snuff tobacco which had some rustica. Lets say it kicked like a mule, very potent stuff. So a pipe tobacco with it.. Whoah… It was a flake so I took my smallest Dunhill pipe, filled it halfway and lighted it. The taste was good but after only a few puffs I could notice the potent rustica. I did not finish the bowl. “Excellent!” said Per. “It is then precisely what I wanted. A kick-ass blend for the American market.” I wished him luck while sipping on a sweet beverage to counter the nicotine.
New Amphora blends
Time flew by while talking to Per. Very enjoyable and very informative I can say you! It got to dinner time, our bellies were grumbling so we said we had to go. “I can’t leave you without anything!” Per said. He reached back and produced two pouches of new Amphora mixtures: English blend and Kentucky blend. “They are for the American market and next year they will also be available in Europe.” Ehrr, thanks!! And that was not the only thing he gave us. Tins of snus (for my good friend Rob) were put on the table, the whole (!) HH range and 2 tins of the (excellent) new Three Nuns. “Do you want something from the Planta assortment? Pouches only I am afraid.” “Ehmm.. Danish Black Vanilla please!” I squeaked with a high voice. Unbelievable! Per, thank you so very much!!! Of course I divided the stash between Ed and myself. “Let’s make this a yearly tradition, see you next year!” Per said while guiding us out.
Yes, life was good
“Wow, what an experience, this whole day! Everything! The companies, the people, the water-pipe hall, Per Jensen..” Ed said on the way to the El Greco Greek restaurant in Herne. The traditional dinner stop. I totally agreed with him. Despite the downhill feeling at the Inter Tabac itself the few pipe (tobacco) companies that remained still were going strong. And of course the MacBaren experience in the hotel was mind-boggling. The weather was still warm so we sat outside at El Greco with a tasty German beer and a big plate of grilled meat. At that moment life could not have been any better.
This day was going to be special. Before we left I searched on the internet if there was a pipe smoking club in Istanbul and to my delight I found one, İstanbul Pipo Derneği (Istanbul Pipe Club). I mailed to them and asked if there was anywhere I could buy some tobacco and pipes and if it was possible to meet up somewhere. Soon I got a reply from Mr. Turgay Ocak who turned out to be the founder of the club. He answered that no pipe tobacco is sold in Istanbul because off all kinds of government regulations but that I was welcome to smoke some pipes with them. We arranged a date and time. The location, I later found out, was at a pipe shop called Pipo Market based in Perpa, a huge trading centre near the Beyoğlu district. And guess who is the owner of that shop: Turgay. At the beginning of the afternoon Ellen had her own program (mainly walking through the city) and I had to take a cab to Perpa. When I was there all I had to do was app Turgay and he would come and fetch me. But the ride was a rough one. I just had stepped in the taxi and the driver took off at breakneck speed through the wobbly, windy streets of Sultanahmet. I have been in Cairo where the cab drivers also can ride like crazy so it was not a big surprise. The thing was that I got carsick.. It only was 8.5 km but man, when you are feeling very ill that is a long way, especially in twisting Istanbul with a Max Verstappen wannabe at the steering wheel. Just when I was about to spill the contents of my stomach over the leather taxi interior we thankfully arrived. I sat down on a low wall before the Perpa entrance for 5 minutes, just slowly breathing, before I apped Turgay.
Part of Turgay’s shop
Soon I was picked up by Turgay and another IPC member. First of all, even with Dutch names I am bad in remembering them, let alone foreign ones. So sorry! Anyway, now I understood why I had to app, Perpa is one big giant maze. I could have wandered aimlessly there for hours without finding the shop. Soon we were there, a surprisingly nice looking medium sized store with lots of pipes, especially corncobs and Italian brands. And indeed no tobacco at first sight except for some cigars. All the tins I did saw were empty and hung on the walls or were standing in displays as decoration. The shop has 2 rooms, the main store and one with couches which functions as the IPC hideout where other members sat. One of the first things that I was shown were all the medals that Turgay won. It turned out that he is a competition pipe smoker and a damn good one, top of the world! He asked me if I knew Cornelius from the Dutch Federation for Pipe Smokers. I explained that I have met the man on one or two occasions but that I am not a member, I don’t do competition pipe smoking. I am a member of the Dutch/Belgian Pipe Smokers Forum, who only are active on internet and on some meetings.
Looking into the IPC room
When I was sitting down I was offered some water and coffee, which was very welcome because I still felt a but queasy from the car sickness. I had a brought a gift with me for the IPC, which I presented them: a tin of Samuel Gawith Flatlander Flake. Which was received very well. I discovered that Samuel Gawith almost has a godlike status at the IPC. Everyone has friends abroad who send tins of the old English brand or bring them in the country themselves. Especially the flakes are popular, Balkan Flake, Navy Flake, St. James Flake etc. Turgay and the others also had some gifts for me. First of all a beautiful Sultan meerschaum pipe! Wow! Further I got a mug, button and bag all printed with the IPC logo. Thank you again so very much!!!
Bosphorus Balkan Flake
I was just thinking what I should smoke when one of the members put a tin before me I did not know, Bosphorus Balkan Flake. Hmm, Virginia, latakia and Turkish orientals, interesting! It was opened and smelled delicious. I put it in my pipe and started smoking. Very, very nice but whoah, a real nicotine bomb. I said I was confused because I thought no pipe tobacco was made or sold in Turkey. Well, it turned out that there is a guy in Istanbul (later I found out his name is Birol Salman if I am correct. I tried to contact him but sadly to no avail) who makes these Bosphorus tobaccos with mainly ingredients from Turkish soil. For example the Turkish oriental is called Adiyaman. A name which rang a bell inside my head. Pipe smoking friend Kees used to go to Turkey on holiday many times and on such an occasion he brought some Adiyaman with him of which I got a sample. And indeed, from what I could remember was that Adiyaman packs a vitamin N punch. Turgay and the others said that some tobaccos also came from Syria. Huh? I thought that because of the war nothing came from there. Nono, in the North there is no war so tobaccos is grown there according to them. Interesting.. About my story of Cyprian latakia made in the Izmir region and then shipped to the Turkish part of Cyprus they were not sure, it could be.
The rest of the afternoon was spend chatting, smoking and looking at all the wares in the store. Damn, they even had an estate Lord of the Rings Aragorn and Gimli pipe! Just when my belly started to grumble I was kindly invited to have dinner with them. Just before we left I luckily was able to buy some Bosphorus tobacco tins, the Balkan Flake I already had, Navy Flake and English Mixture. I could ride with Turgay and another member to the restaurant they picked. In order to get to the car we had to walk through a traditional Turkish market. Busy as hell but no tourists, a real sight! The restaurant called Olimpiyat turned out to be beautifully located beside the Bosphorus near the Galata bridge with stunning views over the water and Hagia Sophia. Turgay had reserved a large table on one of the upper floors and the best thing was, we could smoke there. Some more IPC members joined us (who spoke English). I had also brought some real Dutch De Olifant Brasil cigars with me which I handed out and were eagerly accepted. Soon all kinds of delicious appetizers were served under which samphire/picklegrass, something I never had but tasted great on toast with some Turkish cheese.
To drink I had to try one of the national beverages, rakı. At first I kindly declined (I had not eaten much at that point) but no, I had to drink it. So a generous amount was poured in my glass, then some some water and ice-cubes (always in that order!). It reminded me of the Greek ouzo, also anise-flavoured, yummie! After the appetizers Turgan asked me what I liked to eat. Wel, uhmm.. Something typical Turkish, I answered. We all got pieces of lamb meat which tasted very good. But during the interesting conversations about all kinds of subjects and after my second glass of rakı the alcohol really started to hit me. Hmm, that is strange, I thought, I am used to Dutch jenever which has an alcohol percentage of 35%. That rakı can never have more than 30%. So I asked for the bottle and saw to my horror and the amusement of the members that it was 45%! While laughing they poured in another glass. Let’s say I don’t remember much of the rest of the evening except that suddenly my understanding of the Turkish language became much better. Especially Turgay had some hilarious stories about his endeavours during the pipe smoking championships all over the world. At the end of the evening the inevitable bill came. I fetched my wallet but no, I was their guest. So very friendly and hospitable, thank you! Seeing me in my inebriated state they also decided to drop me off at my hotel. Once we got there I hugged the old Turgay like we had been friends forever and thanked him for a splendid day.
After a good night’s rest I felt reinvigorated. Which was good because we were going to visit the beautiful Princes’ Islands, to be precise Heybeliada. Together with Ozan from the hotel reception we looked at the best options to get there. Which was to go by tram to the ferry boat terminal of Eminönü and there take the public ferry. Public transport costs almost nothing in Istanbul, for the two of us the round trip was about €3.. Earlier we had bought an Istanbul Card which works as an all-around public transport boarding pass, very handy. Going to and finding the correct ferry was surprisingly easy. On the large boat we went upstairs and sat outside at the stern. All around us were Turkish families with children who clearly went for a day out. The trip to the Islands was very enjoyable. There was constant “entertainment” from salesmen and women and there was a guy selling simit bread, which we took, very yummie. When we arrived at Heybeliada we wanted to hire some bikes. All the Princes’ Islands are car-free and despite the presence of the traditional horse and cart we were advised (I heard from the IPC members that the horses are ill-treated..) not to take those. Soon we had our bikes and started climbing. I thought there was only a bit of it but man, it was more hilly than I expected. Out of breath we were glad when the road starting going down.
After an hour of biking we decided we had seen enough (the island is pretty small) and head back to get some lunch at a seaside restaurant. When we got there some tout tried to lure us in. Normally I walk past restaurants who have that kind of people but we were hungry and thirsty. Sadly I can’t remember the name of the place.. Immediately he started to push the sea-bass dish; fresh, fresh! To convince me he took me to the kitchen where he showed me the actual fish. All alarm-bells rung in my head because the eyes and skin of the fish looked dull, an indicator that freshness has long past. We should have walked away then but foolish me opted for a different fish dish. Ellen was smarter and took the köfte meatballs. Afterwards Ellen wanted some ice-cream, there was a seaside café which sold it so we sat down there. While Ellen enjoyed her ice I got some shooting pains in my stomach. Oh oooh… Despite that the trip back with the ferry went smooth, except for one incident. When the boat wanted to moor at one of the jetties of the islands something happened and it started rocking sideways. The motion only grew stronger up to the point we were or going to capsize or smash into the pier. The deck below almost made water, everyone was holding on and big waves were splashing over the pier, making the people wet who could not get away fast enough. Just as I was seriously contemplating jumping off the ship the captain got it back under control. Phewww, everyone laughed nervously. The rest of the journey there were no incidents until someone started to shout and point to the sea. Jeeeez, what now? Someone fell overboard? No, he pointed at a wonderful sight: dolphins! Just magical! Less enchanting was the night, the shooting pains in my stomach worsened and I spent a lot of time on the toilet. No further details.
The things I got from the Istanbul Pipe Club
In the morning thankfully my stomach felt a little bit better. Good, because we were going home. After breakfast Ozan called a cab, we thanked him and the wonderful, friendly hotel staff and went on our way. The taxi ride to the airport was amusing because the driver had another, much larger, car horn build in which he was not afraid to use. In the plane I had a precarious moment when I was on the toilet (my stomach acted up again). That space is so damn small so when I pulled up my pants I hit some emergency button with one of my body parts. Immediately the crew knocked on the door. “Sir! sir! are you ok??” “Yes I am, I am!” I shouted while I hastily tried to make myself look decent before they would smash the door. Luckily the train ride home went smooth. All by all Istanbul had been an amazing experience. We met so many nice people (and sadly less nice ones too) there. But it is such an enormous city that I felt we only scraped the surface. Also I expected more of a Cairo experience but Istanbul is less rough around the edges, cleaner and more European. I will be glad to come back one day to see more of it and all the sights that were under renovation now.
For this year’s vacation Ellen and I were supposed to go to beautiful Burgundy, France. Already in January I rented a nice, rustic holiday house there where I (of course) could smoke inside. About a week before leaving I took a look at several weather websites and was not amused. Auwtsch, it was going to be rainy every day in Burgundy and even colder than in The Netherlands… I told Ellen and immediately her face became like the weather it was going to be. I don’t mind sitting inside somewhere for a week. There was a hearth, I could smoke, read etc. But Ellen needs to be able to go out, take long walks and she hates rain. Later that day she sneered that in Seville (where we have been before) it was going to be sunny and warm. Ok, that did it for me. I cancelled the holiday house and went searching for a location where the weather would be better. Seville was an option but we had been there before (twice) and the flight times were very inconvenient. Then I thought about a place I always wanted to visit, the eternal city on two continents (Europe and Asia), formerly known as Byzantium and Constantinople: Istanbul. It ticked all the boxes. It was going to be sunny and warm there, lots of things to do and see (after all I have a love for the (romantic) Middle East) and the flight was not too long. Ellen immediately said yes when I proposed it.
In the train on the way to Schiphol Airport I closed my eyes and imagined I was on the once famous Orient Express. Which got me slightly annoyed because the evening before I had turned my tobacco closet upside down in order to find a tin of Cornell & Diehl Star of the East Flake (with beautiful artwork of the Orient Express with mosques on the background) I thought I had to take with me. Sadly I could not locate it so instead I went for a tin of Sutliff Bosphorus Cruise. Also very fitting. In the plane I already got in the Middle Eastern mood. Ellen and I were sitting in the same row but the seat in the middle of us was taken by a very handsome young Muslim woman, wearing elegant clothes and a headscarf. When we were up high in the blue sky the sun was scorching the aircraft, it became hotter inside. Suddenly the woman began taking off her first layer of clothing and then even a second. Out of respect I did not plainly look but in the corner of my eye I could see she was doing it in a way so that she retained her dignity as a Muslimah. She even did not remove her headscarf! And her odour.. She smelled like exotic spices mixed with only a hint of musky sweat. I am a bit ashamed to say this but it almost was an erotic experience. Later she fell asleep practically against my shoulder, so sweet.
View from the roof terrace of the Dersaadet Hotel
When we arrived at Sabiha Gökçen Airport the best option to go to the hotel was to get a taxi. Sadly Turkish cab drivers are well known to try to scam foreigners. I wished there was an app like the Bluebird one I had in Bali where you could order a taxi, see which driver you were going to get, afterwards leave a review and get a mail in which you saw the route you drove and the amount of money you paid. We took the first cab we saw and crossed our fingers. Luckily taxis in Turkey are not expensive. The starting tariff is 4.50 Turkish Lira (± €0.65) and per km 2.50 Lira (± €0.35). I very roughly knew the route we had to take, the E80 highway to Istanbul, about 1 hour and 50 km to the hotel. After almost 1.5 hours, 73 km and going over some toll-road (which we of course also had to pay) we finally arrived at our destination: Hotel Dersaadet. Which I had picked because of good ratings/reviews and the central location in Sultanahmet, the old city. At the reception desk my foul mood about the cab-ride disappeared like a puff of smoke. We were welcomed warmly with a hot glass of apple flavoured çay (tea) and some Turkish delight sweets. If I had any stress left it went away when I later smoked a pipe on the panoramic roof terrace of the hotel with stunning views of the Sea of Marmara and the Asian side of Istanbul.
We had a busy but exciting day ahead of us since we were going to visit some of the major old “highlights” of the city. Normally a long time before the trip I would have read everything I could find about the subjects in such a way that I was able to almost professionally guide Ellen and myself through them. But now I only had less than a week and besides, I am on holiday, come on, no need to extra pressure my brain there. So before we left via a tip from the hotel I booked a private tour guide for a day, the charming miss Didem Tan. We met in the morning in the hotel and she said “You are a rare breed nowadays. Very few Dutch come here now. These days it are more Russians and Asian people.” Which could be correct because on the streets we heard a lot of Russian and saw many Asians. The reason I kept more or less before me, politics is not a nice subject.. First on the to-go list was the ancient Hippodrome which is now called Sultanahmet Meydanı (Sultan Ahmet Square). Only a few fragments survive today under which the mighty Obelisk of Theodosius, the stripped Walled Obelisk and the mysterious Serpent Column, brought from the Temple of Apollo in Delphi. We came to Istanbul during Ramadan so the square was covered with wooden benches and tables where people could enjoy the iftar (the evening meal with which Muslims end their daily Ramadan fast) at sunset. Next was the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, better known as the Blue Mosque. I was really looking forward seeing it having recently watched the Turkish Netflix The Protector series where you see some great shots of the breathtaking building. Sadly the outside and especially the inside were under heavy renovation which totally killed any magical vibe. Almost nothing from the beautifully decorated ceiling and walls could be seen.
For me one of the highlights of the trip was seeing and visiting the magnificent Hagia Sophia. When I was a boy I had art class on high school and one of the subjects was architecture. There I heard the story of the building and saw pictures, which totally mesmerized me. Some of the perks of having a licensed private guide in Istanbul is than you can bypass waiting queues, which speeds up the process of visiting something tremendously. We were quickly inside and one of the first things you see is the large Emperor Door, which is said to have been made out of wood from Noah’s Ark, with above it a brilliant mosaic of Christ as Pantocrator. Then when you go over the molten wax looking doorstep you walk into the jaw-dropping building’s main space. Famous for its dome, huge nave, marble pillars (some come from the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World), gold mosaics and coverings of great artistic value. In fact it is so richly and artistically decorated (I also loved the two large alabaster Hellenistic urns that were transported from Pergamon) that I could easily understand why emperor Justinian proclaimed: “Solomon, I have outdone thee!” I won’t go further into describing Hagia Sophia, you just will have to see it for yourself. You won’t be disappointed.
Next on the list was the subterranean Basilica Cistern, which you can know from movies like From Russia with Love and Inferno. Normally you can see the mysterious mirror reflection of the 336 columns in the water but due to an ongoing renovation it was all dry.. Luckily the eerie, dark atmosphere, otherworldly Hen’s Eye column and the Medusa head column bases made up for it. Our bellies grumbled a bit so it was time for lunch. Didem directed us to the famous Pudding Shop (Lale Restaurant) where we had an ok meal. Personally I thought the food was not that great and the price was on the high side. Soon we were off to the last and biggest stop of the day, the enormous Topkapı Palace, the main residence and administrative headquarters of the Ottoman sultans. Having seen Muslim architecture at the Alcázar of Seville, Mezquita of Córdoba and the Alhambra in Granada (Ok, all examples of Moorish architecture, not Ottoman architecture, but nonetheless..) my expectations were almost off the scale. Skilfully we were guided by Didem through the vast complex. Renovation seemed to be a keyword here also because parts of the Harem and Imperial Treasury were closed. Damned, I really wanted to see the famous Topkapı Dagger, the ebony, walnut and gold-plated thrones, the valuable Spoonmaker’s Diamond etc. etc. Oh well.. Despite that there was more than enough to look at. Like the Pipe Room of the Tressed Halberdiers (consisting both of servants used to provide general services to the palace and the Harem and of soldiers forming a part of the sultan’s household troop) where puppets with chibouk pipes were placed. Of course the Imperial Hall was impressive with all the beautiful decorations under which blue-white Dutch ceramics. One of the strangest rooms was where the relics were kept. There the Qur’an was being recited continuously by a mufti and you went like “Oh, there’s Moses’s Staff, and there David’s Sword, oh, a footstep, tooth and hair from Muhammad!” It all felt a bit unreal walking past those legendary relics.
A very rare sight, Ellen smoking!
After the tour we were knackered but satisfied, Didem did a great job. Later that evening we went out or dinner. One of the downsides of being in the heart of the tourist district is that there are many (often foreigner catered) places to eat who range from “mwah” to “ok”. A good one is hard to find and an excellent one, well, don’t make me laugh. Ellen and I walked some streets away from our hotel when on a corner we saw a nice looking restaurant with a small terrace beside it called Lale Sultan. Being tired from a day of sightseeing we decided to look no further and sit down there. And boy that was a good choice! The owner Mehmet and staff were friendly and with everything we ate we had something like, whoah, that’s tasty! On top of that we got a free dessert, çay and a trinket that wards off the evil eye. Needless to say that most of the other nights we went there. Afterwards I wanted to go for a nargile (waterpipe). Just past the Lale Sultan there was a café where we could sit, drink and smoke. It took a while for the staff to prepare the nargile but then I was in for some Middle Eastern smoking heaven. And not only me, even Ellen enjoyed it a while, a rare sight! Smoking a nargile is not that different from smoking a pipe. Once you get into a rhythm the (apple-flavoured) smoke comes evenly. After an hour of smoking I felt the nicotine creep up and we decided to go. Apparently an hour was a short time because when we had walked away I looked back and saw the staff enjoying the nargile I paid for. Oh well…
View from the boat
The weather was a bit more clouded but ideal for a Bosphorus cruise! Ilhan from the hotel reception had it arranged together with me, very handy. I don’t like boats (seeing a boat passing by already makes me seasick) but Ilhan assured me it would be ok. At the end of the morning we were picked up by a small bus with other tourists, mainly noisy Russians all wearing the same “Istanbul” shirt. At the harbour we waited for the boat until we heard some music in the distance which quickly grew louder. It turned out to be our ship with hip Turkish techno music blasting at full volume out of the speakers. So far for my romantic idea of a quiet Bosphorus cruise. On the boat the noise luckily was turned down and the guide took over. With a funny accent he told us all about the sights we saw on the river banks. And I have to say, it was a relaxed trip, no sea sickness and the breeze was refreshing. There also was a photographer who took pictures of all the passengers. I got a bit suspicious (Didem told us that Turks never actually steal your money but certainly try to hustle it out of you) but Ellen thought it was fun. So to the amusement of an elderly Asian couple beside us (I already noticed in Bali that for some reason Asians find my fat bald head hilarious) we posed in all kind of manners.
View from Rumelihisarı fortress
After a while we moored at a jetty so we could visit the mighty Rumelihisarı fortress. The complex was commissioned in preparation for a planned Ottoman siege on the then-Byzantine city and build in only 4 months and 16 days. All by all it was nice to see and after some climbing the views were very good but to me it was not really noteworthy. Back in the boat the photographer approached us again. In the time that we visited Rumelihisarı he had printed out all the pictures he took and put them in a book which he gave us to see and moved to the other tourists. The photos were good but not that good that I would buy one. So I quickly took some snapshots of them with my smartphone. Later when the photographer came back I understood that 1 picture would cost us €7. €7!!! I can have a full meal for that money in Istanbul! I declined and did not feel like bargaining. But he had seen me taking pictures of the photographs and insisted I deleted those from my phone. Which I did, I showed it to him. What he did not know was that after I delete a picture it is saved for 30 days on my phone. Hah! I hustled the hustler! Don’t feel sad for the man, he sold many pictures to the noisy (and quickly getting pissed drunk) Russians. In the end when we had some more time to look at the snapshots we did not like a single one and I permanently deleted them all.
One of the entrances to the Grand Bazaar
When the cruise was done we were dropped off near the Spice Bazaar. In one of the streets there we had a tasty lunch consisting of a dürüm filled with döner kebab and some veggies and my first Türk kahvesi (Turkish coffee) of the trip. After that we went looking for the enormous Grand Bazaar because I wanted to buy some Meerschaum pipes. Finding the “covered market” is not too hard, just go towards the omnipresent Süleymaniye Mosque and almost directly beside it the bazaar is located. It was a weekday, Ramadan, but still the narrow streets and alleyways were bristling with activity. I had found a Meerschaum Pipe shop in the bazaar on internet but navigating there was a different story. I discovered that Google Maps did not really work in the covered market..
Looking at some Meerschaum pipes
After some walking and watching at all kinds of displayed wares I knew I was getting close. One of the salesmen saw I was looking for something and approached me so I asked him where the Meerschaum shop was. “Aaahhh, Meerschaum! Over there!” He pointed to a nearby small shop, basically a glass desk with some glass shelves behind it all filled with indeed, Meerschaum pipes. Not the one I was looking for but ok. When I asked Didem before about buying things in the bazaar she said to first compares prices if you wanted to buy something. Fine, I was not going to purchase anything there, I was just going to ask how much the pipes were. I had to buy 2, one for myself and another for pipe-smoking friend Mark who knew I was going to the Grand Bazaar. The salesman showed me some fine high quality block Meerschaum examples and I picked out 2. One beautifully decorated with a silver rim for me and one “golf-ball lookalike” for Mark. He gave me a price, saw my face and immediately made a “special” price. I calculated a bit in my head and thought “Fine, I now roughly now the prices.” I thanked the not so happy man (no one likes to see a customer go) and said I was going to look elsewhere.
The two Meerschaum pipes I bought with the tin of Bosphorus Cruise
A few turns later I finally found the shop I was looking for, but no one was there. The guy opposite it had the number of the salesman and called him. Soon he came and let me see his pipes. Some were very beautiful but all or too big or too small. In the end he smiled and asked me to follow him. “Ok, probably we go to his storeroom or something like that.” I thought. After some more turns I had to laugh out loud because he led me, and was pointing at, the first shop I visited where the salesman was grinning diabolically. Of course I had to then haggle down his “special” price. After a while of going back and forth I gave him my final amount. Nonono, I can’t do that, thisthatsuchandsuch etc. Fine, I shook his hand again and walked away. “Hooo!” I heard behind me “When I shake hands with someone that means the deal is done, I accept your price.” Yesssss!!! While feeling high from the bargain I was almost literally pulled in the shop of another vendor, his business was scarves. By chance I was looking for a light, summer one. I am not sure what happened then, it is all a bit blurry, but in the end I walked away with an in my eyes beautiful scarf and an annoyed Ellen who said I paid way too much and that I should have listened to her…
Click here for part 2 in which I visit the Istanbul Pipe Club.