Tea, a Turkish delight; Istanbul: Tourists meet real people in tea gardens, where the dark 'cay' is gaining popularity.; DESTINATION: TURKEY


Beyond the stone walls of Istanbul's majestic Blue Mosque, a musician plucks out a traditional Turkish song on his autoharp and the men in the tea garden sing.

Loudly, lovingly, the men sing under the chestnut trees. One young Turk is seated on a small wooden stool, a cellular telephone cocked to his ear. An older man with a mustache leans back in his chair, closes his eyes and repeats the refrain, lost in reverie.

Gul Gorgulu joins in. She, too, remembers this song of love from her childhood. "I'm in the dark night of love," croons the musician.

It's after midnight on a sultry night at the Mesale Tea Garden. Gorgulu and her twentysomething co-workers from an Istanbul department store have chosen this spot for their night on the town. Not a disco or smoky bar in Istanbul's Taksim district, but an outdoor tea garden tucked in the shadow of the blue-tiled mosque.

It's not a garden at all, but a swath of sidewalk abutting the walled complex of the stone mosque in Sultanahmet and commandeered by the son of a rug merchant.

"It's nostalgic," Gorgulu says of the tea garden.

Kilims -- the flat, tightly woven rugs for which Turkey is famous -- cover the pavement and the cushions on the wooden benches and couches. Smaller kilims and other carpets from the region hang on the back wall of the mosque courtyard along which the tea garden sits.

Colored lights glow from the tree branches. The tea garden fronts the Hippodrome, the site of a third-century Byzantine stadium that today is a public park. The park houses several well-known Istanbul monuments, including an Egyptian Obelisk built in 1500 B.C. and brought here from Egypt on the orders of Emperor Constantine and a domed fountain that dates from the 1898 visit of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany.

Tea leaves coffee behind

Turks and tourists alike patronize the Mesale Tea Garden. Waiters carry trays full of "cay" -- a dark tea pronounced "ch-eye" and served in small, tulip-shaped glasses and saucers. And what of the famed Turkish coffee? The cafes serve it as well, but as tea farming flourished in Turkey -- with encouragement and help from the government -- the demand for tea rose. Today cay, served without milk, is preferred.

Carpet sellers in the Grand Bazaar ply their customers with a cup while negotiating the price of a silk from Hereke. After a scrub and a rub at the Cemberlitas Baths, a 16th-century Turkish bath, women relax with a glass or a cup of a sweeter apple tea. Browsing through the antique fabrics at a textile shop in the Cavalry Bazaar, a renovated Ottoman stable yard, customers may be treated to a cup by Cocoon owner Seref Ozen as he displays his latest treasures from central Asia.

Turkish coffee also is a favorite at Mesale, but order it as the Turks do: according to the amount of sugar you prefer. Waiters are quick to replace your empty tea or coffee cup, jotting down the additions on the bills, a scrap of paper tucked under the ashtray on your table. Customers sit for what seems like hours, listening to the folk music, munching on an order of lamb chops or smoking a nargile, a traditional water pipe.

Alcohol isn't served here because the tea garden is close to a mosque, explains Gorgulu, a friendly blonde who tries to converse with a visiting American couple. "We enjoy ourselves and drink something," she says to explain the reason her friends chose to spend their evening here. When her sparse English fails her, Gorgulu calls to the table a thin, dark-haired man. Nurallah Sonmez is the childhood friend of one of Gorgulu's coworkers. He opened the Mesale Tea Garden about 14 months ago. Sonmez speaks English well; he learned it, he says, from talking to tourists. The tea garden is not his full-time job.

Like so many in this city straddling two continents, Sonmez works in the family business, carpets. His shop is around the corner from the tea garden.

"Like Germany, [where] there are a lot of places to drink beer," says Sonmez, 30. "This is like our beer."

Of course, Mesale is not the only traditional tea garden in Istanbul. Gorgulu suggests four other stops, including one in the Corlulu Ali Pasa Courtyard in a neighborhood called Beyazit in the old town center.

From the main street of Yeniceriler Caddesi, you walk through a stone archway, past Ottoman gravestones that are crammed beside each other. Take note: The gravestones identify the deceased's social standing, occupation, offspring. Some of the stones are crowned with a replica of the headgear worn by the dead. A fez signifies that a pasha -- a high-ranking military figure or civil servant -- is buried here. The size of a turban indicates a man's social standing. The quantity of carved flowers on a woman's tombstone signifies the number of children she bore.

Once past the gravestones, you walk down an alleyway to the courtyard of a mosque near the Grand Bazaar. Carpet shops now fill the small rooms off the courtyard where students of Islam once learned. Their wares decorate the walls, creating a tableau of color against the white stone walls. Here we also find the Traditional Mystic Water Pipe and Erenler Tea Garden. Turks would refer to this cafe as a coffee shop or "kahve." But on this particular afternoon, Adel Mohammed, a 35-year-old Egyptian seaman, is sitting with his crew mates, puffing away on water pipes.

A respite from crowds

The apple tobacco burning in the water pipe sweetens the air. Mohammed's ship, a Lebanese freighter call the Rimtree, is undergoing repairs at the port here. On their day off, the Muslim holy day of Friday, Mohammed and his shipmates come to the tea garden. The Erenler is filled mostly with men, many of whom prefer the plastic chairs to the rug-draped benches decorated for tourists. When we introduce ourselves, they invite us to join them for a tea, a soft drink or a smoke.

"This is a traditional place. We smoke. We drink tea. The Turkish people, if they are not [sick] in the hospital, they are in here," jokes Mohammed El Gayar, the ship's captain. When the 56-year-old captain understands that we are Americans, he ticks off the ports he has visited -- New Orleans, Houston, Mobile, Ala., the Great Lakes, Baltimore.

"I was in Grand Mardi," says El Gayar referring to the Mardi Gras festival in New Orleans. "Wohhhhhh. I never forget."

He recalls a photograph of himself in New Orleans standing beside a cardboard cutout of Ronald Reagan. "He was laughing and I was laughing," the captain says, smiling.

Tea gardens provide an affordable, relaxing respite from the crowded streets of Istanbul. At Mesale, for example, a plate of lamb chops, Turkish salad, mineral water, a Coke and tea -- too many glasses to remember -- cost us less than $10. After fighting off the carpet merchants in the Grand Bazaar or watching the long-skirted Sufis, members of an Islamic sect, whirl in prayer at the Mevlevi Monastery, head for a tea garden and order up a cup of cay.

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