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Miniaturk – Touring Turkey the Lazy Way

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Spread across some of the most beautiful land in Europe and the Middle East, Turkey lays claim to a jaw-dropping number of incredible sights. Visiting everything the country offers would take a lot longer than 91 days, so it’s lucky that there’s an alternative. Welcome to Miniaturk.

Miniaturk Istanbul

Opened in 2003, Miniaturk is a strange little theme park that reproduces the wonders of Turkey in miniature. It’s exactly as kitschy and fun as you might expect. Found at the end of the Golden Horn, across from Eyüp, the park is worth visiting when you’re in the mood for something different.

Miniaturk is split evenly between the sights of Istanbul and those spread across rest of Turkey. It was fun looking at detailed recreations of the mosques and monuments we’d spent the last couple months exploring. Even in miniature, the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque are impressive. You can walk across a shrunken version of the Bosphorus Bridge, listen to football chants at Atatürk Stadium, and even pay a lira to steer a model ferry across a mini-Golden Horn. Inside a darkened room, there’s a “Crystal Collection”, with holographic carvings of Istanbul’s monuments in big glass bricks. Weird, cheesy and awesome in equal measure.

As an advertisement for touring the rest of the country, Miniaturk could hardly do a better job. I knew about some of Turkey’s more popular sights, such as the chimneys at Cappadocia and the stone heads of Mount Nemrut, but the great majority of things displayed in Miniaturk were new to me. The ruins of Ephesus! The castle at Bodrum! The white terraced waterfalls of Pamukkale! And much more. Turkey is amazing, and Miniaturk has helped convince us to make a return visit as soon as possible.

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May 31, 2013 at 11:17 am Comment (1)

The Ottoman Fortress of Rumeli Hisarı

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It was the mid 15th-century, and although the Ottoman army had long since surrounded the city, Constantinople was proving stubbornly resistant. In order to more effectively isolate the Byzantine capital, the invaders hastily constructed the Rumeli Hisarı. This fortress along the Bosphorus is still in marvelous condition, and makes for a fun outing.

Fortress Rumeli Hisarı

By running a heavy chain between Rumeli Hisarı and its Asian counterpart, the Analodu Hisarı, the Ottomans were able to prevent any of Constantinople’s northern allies from sending assistance to the beleaguered city. The fortress was completed in 1452, and a weakened Constantinople fell just one year later. A section of the original chain which helped break Byantium can be seen in the Military Museum.

We had already walked past the Analodu Hisarı on our way to Kanlıca, and hadn’t been terribly impressed by its meager remains. But the Rumeli Hisarı is another matter altogether. This fortress is massive, and a lot of fun explore. From the ramparts which soar high above the Bosphorus, you can enjoy some incredible views, especially of the nearby Fatih Bridge.

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May 30, 2013 at 2:08 pm Comments (5)

The Bosphorus Villages of Arnavutköy and Bebek

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They’re side-by-side on the European shore of the Bosphorus Strait, but the towns of Arnavutköy and Bebek couldn’t be further apart in spirit. One we loved, but the other we couldn’t get away from soon enough.

Arnavutköy

Arnavutköy and Bebek. One of you has the charm of a sleepy fishing village, with narrow alleys, affable residents and a peaceful seaside atmosphere. The other is an obnoxious mess of playboys tooling around in Porsches. One demonstrates the subdued and tasteful application of accumulated wealth, while the other flashes its bling like an insecure rapper. One is Katherine Hepburn, all easy grace and effortless beauty, and the other is Kim Kardashian.

Sorry, Bebek, but you’re the loser in this pageant. From the moment we arrived, we took a disliking to this town, where an atmosphere of glitzy, egotistic chaos reigns. The streets are bumper-to-bumper with honking SUVs, and the sidewalks full of silicon-lipped lady jerks wobbling along in high heels. Getting down to the Bosphorus is almost impossible, as the shoreline is dominated by upscale restaurants and mansions. If you want to enjoy the water, expect to pony up for a ridiculously-priced cup of coffee. Clad in jeans and sneakers, we felt horribly out of place in this superficial town, and wanted to leave immediately after arriving.

Compared to Bebek (a name which translates to “Baby” by the way, in case you didn’t think it could get more annoying), Arnavutköy is a breath of fresh air. There’s money here, too, but you don’t notice at first. Instead, you’re lured in by the town’s humble charms. With strong Armenian, Jewish and Greek heritage, and a name which translates to “Town of Albanians”, Arnavutköy is proudly multicultural, and its winding streets are neither overly crowded nor empty. It’s comfortable and fun. The yalıs along the shore are lovely. The boats anchored in the water, impressive. The restaurants, tempting. Prices, reasonable.

We were as thoroughly won over by Arnavutköy as we were repulsed by Bebek. Maybe if we’d visited them on different days, our opinions would have been different. But based on our experience, if you only have time for one of the mid-Bosphorus European neighborhoods, the choice is clear.

Locations on our Map: Arnavutköy | Bebek

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May 30, 2013 at 12:30 pm Comments (3)

Mant More Manti!

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Manti are best understood as Turkish tortellini. There’s very little to distinguish them from their more famous Italian cousins. Pockets of dough stuffed with meat, potato, cheese, spinach, or anything else, this delicious Turkish staple immediately won a place in our hearts.

Spinach Manti

The classic manti are tiny, peanut-sized dough pockets filled with meat, usually lamb, and served in a bowl with a healthy wallop of yogurt and garlic sauce. Their diminutive size makes it easy to scoop up four, five, ten at a time. We most enjoyed manti, though, because of their versatility. I never had two plates which were the same. Wheat-flour manti filled with lamb, green manti made of spinach. Potato manti. Large, dumpling-sized manti filled with fish. Fried manti.

The best spot we found for the dish is Hingal Manti, at the foot of the Büyük Çamlıca in Üsküdar. It’s a small restaurant, with just a few tables inside, but they serve up some very large manti. These bigger “hingal” dumplings are a traditional dish from Dagestan, and they come in a variety of flavors, from salmon to walnut. We each ordered sampler plates, and found it difficult to decide upon a favorite type.

Another excellent spot to try the dish is Bodrum Manti, in the charming village of Arnavutköy, where we first sampled fried manti. Like Hingal, Bodrum has a wide selection to choose from, but also boasts a great seaside location in our favorite Bosphorus neighborhood. And when our waiter brought out a plate of ice cream on the house, Bodrum won our eternal approval.

Locations: Hingal Manti | Bodrum Manti

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May 29, 2013 at 3:50 pm Comments (0)

Üsküdar’s Çınılı Camii & Hamam

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After hiking up Istanbul’s biggest hill, the Büyük Çamlıca, our tired bones had earned a reward. So we made our way to the gorgeous Çınılı Camii, Üsküdar’s Tiled Mosque, and ended the day in a hamam.

Çınılı Camii

Built in 1640, the Çınılı Camii is a miniature work of art, reminiscent of Tathakale’s Rüstem Paşa Camii: perhaps our favorite of Istanbul’s mosques. The doors were locked tight when we arrived, but it wasn’t difficult to find a caretaker who was happy to open up. The Çınılı Camii’s nickname, the Tiled Mosque, is certainly deserved. The interior is covered in wonderful Iznik tiles, colored blue, red, white and green, making this one of the more richly decorated mosques we’ve seen.

Just around the corner, we found the Çınılı Hamam. I’ve come to learn that there are two types of hamam experiences a person can have in Istanbul. One is the tourist-oriented luxury of the larger, downtown hamams, which charge spa-like prices and provide spa-like services. The other is an experience like that offered by the Çınılı Hamam: local, cheap and authentic.

The Çınılı was exactly what I had expected from a Turkish hamam: an ancient bath house full of locals washing themselves, an invigorating massage on the marble slab under the star-shaped skylights, a ridiculously hot sauna, and a no-nonsense scrubbing by the sinks.

There was a musty smell in the hamam, and my massage toed the precarious line between vigorous and vicious: while there were bits of brutality that I perversely enjoyed (such as an unexpected punch to the middle of my back), there were others I didn’t. Still, I’m happy that we found the courage to try the hamam out; there were a surprising number of locals getting the same treatment as us, and no other tourists. The whole program, including sauna, scrubbing and massage, was just 35 lira per person.

Whether or not you’re in the mood for a bath, this little-visited area of Üsküdar merits a visit. It’s uphill and difficult to reach by walking, but a taxi ride is inexpensive. And the downhill walk back down to the ferry terminal is very pleasant, particularly after your body has been twisted, pounded, rubbed and scrubbed.

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An other Hamam we visited: The Kılıç Ali Paşa

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May 29, 2013 at 1:54 pm Comment (1)

Büyük Çamlıca: Istanbul’s Biggest Hill

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As anyone who’s spent time walking around Istanbul will know, it’s a city of hills. Giant, soul-crushing hills which suck the very life from your legs. Although we had been dreading our ascent up the tallest hill in the city, the Büyük Çamlıca, we were also excited to be done with it. After this, it couldn’t get any worse!

Bosphors Bridge Istanbul

Istanbul is big, but it’s hard to grasp exactly how big until you’ve seen the view from the Büyük Çamlıca. From here, on a clear day, you can see for miles in every direction. And what will you see? Istanbul: for miles in every direction. Istanbul stretching out infinitely to the north, the west and the east. And to the south, as well, until it’s mercifully cut short by the Sea of Marmara.

Besides the view, the park has a pleasant tea garden, and is a great place to spend a lazy couple hours. Taxis drive all the way up the hill, so taking in the bird’s eye view of Istanbul doesn’t really require any effort at all. If you’ve got some extra time, and want to see the true extent of this gigantic city, definitely make the trip out to the Büyük Çamlıca.

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May 29, 2013 at 11:18 am Comments (2)

Sirkeci Station and the Orient Express

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Favored by the kings, statesmen and spies of Europe’s tumultuous 20th century, the Orient Express is almost definitely the most famous line in the history of trains. It linked the capitals of Western Europe to the Ottoman Empire, with a terminal stop in Istanbul’s magnificent Sirkeci Station.

Sirkeci Station Istanbul

Today, Sirkeci Station retains only a fraction of its former glory. Built by a Prussian in the “European Orientalist” style, the building is beautiful, but has an atmosphere of decrepitude. It’s old and dusty; a forgotten relic. The room where the upper crust of European society once waited on their departures, is now the hang-out of a rough-looking group of unemployed men. The former office of the Orient Express has been converted into a drab museum dedicated to the line’s glory days. And the main entry hall of the station is today used as a stage for touristy whirling-dervish performances.

Things weren’t always so dreary. When it debuted in 1883, the Orient Express was an instant hit. The Ottoman Empire had long been fashionable across Europe, and now there was a luxurious means of visiting it. With a route cutting through so many different countries, the train was a natural breeding ground for intrigue. Famous spies such as Robert Baden Powell and Mata Hari were among the passengers on board. And in 1929, there was a murder aboard the train while it was stopped by a snow storm; an event which inspired Agatha Christie’s most famous book.

The museum is rather drab, and the experience of visiting Sirkeci is akin to walking around a graveyard. But we still enjoyed being there. We’d just watched the movie based of Christie’s novel (the 1974 version starring Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot), and it was fun to be in a place of such historical importance. This is where Western visitors were first introduced to the Ottomans; in its heyday, it must have been quite a sight.

It’s a shame that the Golden Age of rail travel is over. Were it still an option, I might prefer the slower trip by train, rather than plane. Squishing into the middle seat of a low-cost flight to Paris has none of the glamour of strolling onto the Orient Express. And choking down airline food while being elbow-jabbed by the fat Polish guy next to me is decidedly less romantic than a taking a seat in the restaurant car across from the erudite and charming Polish count whom the CIA has tasked me with seducing. Sigh. I guess was born a couple of generations too late!

Location of Sirkeci Station on our Map

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May 28, 2013 at 1:06 pm Comments (4)

The Istanbul History of Science and Technology in Islam Museum

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The Istanbul History of Science and Technology in Islam Museum needs a new name. Look, Disneyland wouldn’t be nearly as popular if it were called “The Anaheim Place of Enjoyment and Fun with Cartoon Characters Theme Park”. Yes, we know exactly what to expect from the Istanbul History of Science and Technology in Islam Museum, but by the time we’re done saying its name, we no longer feel like going!

The Istanbul History of Science

While Europe was mired in the Dark Ages, the world’s most advanced learning was being done by Islamic thinkers. In the West, we like to pretend that humanity’s higher scientific achievements all happened after the Renaissance. But the IHSTIM (I’m not typing that out again) is there to remind us that Copernicus wasn’t the first to look toward the stars. Descartes didn’t exactly invent the scientific method. And one the first tasks of Renaissance-age medicine was the translation of Arab medical texts.

Most of the items on display in the IHSTIM are modern reconstructions of historical devices, based on plans and blueprints, and not the ancient models themselves. That was initially disappointing, but it’s actually better to examine the intact replica of an antique Armillary sphere, for example, than the rusted old remains of an original. The museum had a ton of exhibits; we particularly enjoyed the ingenious clocks, which used elements like water and fire to keep track of time. The celestial globes, the models of early observatories, and strange mathematical devices like beautifully-designed astrolabes were also worth spending time at.

The museum was larger than I expected, and we were visiting toward the end of a long day spent in Gülhane Park, so we eventually succumbed to fatigue. Turns out that there’s a limit to the number of antiquated sextants a person can admire before losing interest. But still, the museum is certainly worth a visit, especially for anyone with curiosity in scientific history.

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May 28, 2013 at 7:28 am Comments (2)

The Galata Bridge

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No visit to Istanbul is complete without walking along, ferrying under, taking the tram across, or enjoying a drink on the Galata Bridge. The bridge spans the Golden Horn to connect the city’s two European sides, and is one of Istanbul’s most iconic landmarks.

Galata Bridge

Walking across the Galata Bridge, it’s very likely you’ll find yourself hooked. And I don’t mean “addicted”, but very literally hooked. In the face, with a hook. The bridge’s most enduring image is its shoulder-to-shoulder fisherman casting off into the water below. The almost unbroken line of bobbing rods is a romantic sight, but not all the fishermen pay careful attention to where they’re swinging.

The Galata Bridge is on its fifth iteration, with the current version dating from 1994. The first design for a bridge at this location was drawn by none other than Leonardo da Vinci in 1502. Sadly, his plans never came to fruition, and Istanbul had to wait until 1845 before Galata was connected to the old town.

The bridge is quite low to sea level, meaning that only small ships can pass under. And those, just barely. Its height also makes it an unlikely spot for suicides: in fact, it’s not uncommon to see local kids jumping off for fun.

One of the nicest ways to end a day in Istanbul is to grab a drink at one of the many restaurants found underneath the bridge. Even if you’re not thirsty, just walking past these places is a memorable event. Competition is fierce, and the doormen will try every conceivable trick to make you choose their establishment over the others. It can be comical; after we said “no” to three in rapid succession, another guy approached us rubbing his hands, and said “Now is my turn! You can not resist me!” Having been brought to laughter, and (more importantly) offered half-off beer, we succumbed to his charms.

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May 27, 2013 at 2:35 pm Comments (4)

Kitten Drama at Gülhane Park

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An afternoon spent exploring Gülhane Park reached an unexpected conclusion when we discovered an abandoned baby kitten and attempted to reunite it with its mother. “Attempted” being the operative word; nature, we were bitterly reminded, is not a Disney movie.

Kitten Gülhane Istanbul

Gülhane Park surrounds Topkapı Palace and is one of the few green areas in the old city. It’s a lovely place, particularly in April with the blossoming of Istanbul’s famous tulips, and we had a nice time here, sitting on the bench in the sun, visiting a museum dedicated to the History of Islamic Science, and drinking tea at Set Üstü Çay Bahçesi, which has a view that overlooks the mouth of the Golden Horn at the very tip of the peninsula.

Leaving the park, we were detained by an insistent and desperate cry from above. About ten feet up the wall which borders the Archaeology Museum, a kitten had trapped itself on a ledge. It was clinging on, but would eventually fall. Using Jürgen as a stool, I managed to clamber up the wall and grab the kitten by its scruff. The mewling, terrified thing was no more than a couple days old, and couldn’t even open its eyes.

It must have fallen from above, so we carried it to the gates of the Archaeology Museum. The staff immediately agreed to help us and, together, we located the kitten’s mother. She was on a different ledge in the wall; about fifteen feet below us, and ten feet above where we had found her kitten. And she was nursing other babies. “Now”, I thought, “comes the joyful reunification scene!” We fetched a rope and a bucket, and placed the kitten carefully inside. “Are you excited to go home?” I whispered into its ear. “Mommy will be so happy to see you!”

Mommy, though, was not happy. Mommy was a cold-hearted beast. We had managed to lower and overturn the bucket, but after taking a brief look inside, Mommy turned away. I couldn’t believe it. Here was her baby, still blind, mewling its head off just a foot away, and she remained absolutely unmoved. After ten minutes, we lost hope and hoisted the kitten back up.

It wasn’t the cheerful ending we’d been expecting, but a guy working at the museum was happy to bring the baby to his office and raise it there. On reflection, we concluded that the kitten, who was too young to walk, must have been carried to the ledge by its own mother and deliberately dropped. Maybe she didn’t have enough milk, or maybe she didn’t like the smell of this one. Who knows? Only one thing is for sure: nature is awful!

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May 26, 2013 at 6:51 am Comments (4)

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Miniaturk - Touring Turkey the Lazy Way Spread across some of the most beautiful land in Europe and the Middle East, Turkey lays claim to a jaw-dropping number of incredible sights. Visiting everything the country offers would take a lot longer than 91 days, so it's lucky that there's an alternative. Welcome to Miniaturk.
For 91 Days