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Büyükada – The Big Island

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With a name that literally translates to “Big Island”, Büyükada is the largest of Istanbul’s nine Princes’ Islands. We spent a day biking from one end to the other, enjoying fabulous views of the sea, swimming with jellyfish, climbing hills and finding ways to escape the crowds.

After disembarking the morning ferry, we hunted for a bike to rent and went straight to the shop with the newest-looking bikes on display. After receiving the payment, the guy took us past the nice bikes, around into a back alley and hauled much older bikes out of the shop’s garage. Shenanigans. We could have (and probably should have) complained, but were keen to avoid stress. Büyükada had already cast its “chill-out” spell on us.

Not even hordes of screaming Turkish high-schoolers could ruin our relaxed vibe. After having visited Burgazada on Easter Sunday, we had sworn to never return to the Princes’ Islands on a weekend… and so, we choose to visit Büyükada on a Monday. Little did we know, however, that this particular Monday was a school holiday. Every teenager in Istanbul was on our ferry, and they were all in exuberant, screechy spirits. Luckily, most of them made a beeline for the first beach and we quickly found peace.

At Yörükali Beach, on the southwestern end of the island, we paid 15 lira apiece and walked down a long path to the sea. The cover charge is apparently a way to keep the kids out, because we were completely alone except for a British couple and a few shirtless Turkish guys working on a new boardwalk. Acceptable. The sea water was cool and refreshing, and I would have stayed in hours but for the jellyfish.

Büyükada Bay

For lunch, we biked to the center of the island, where roads converge in a mad intersection full of bikes, tourists and donkeys. This is the central nexus of the island, where you can grab lunch or choose to climb one of Büyükada’s giant hills… or have a donkey climb them for you. We felt guilty about burdening the poor beasts, so locked our bicycles and walked up. At the top of the southern hill, we found the Greek church of St. George, and a surprisingly affordable restaurant with a view of the Marmara Sea.

After eating, we punished our aching legs even further, and hiked up the other of Büyükada’s big hills to an abandoned Greek orphanage. This massive wooden building was falling apart, and a little creepy, so I wasn’t upset when we weren’t able find a way inside. From here, we returned to the ferry terminal. The great majority of Büyükada’s 7000 residents live on the northern side of the island, and hidden among the impressive mansions is a dilapidated home which hosted Leo Trotsky for four years.

This was a fantastic excursion, perfectly manageable in a day. It might be the busiest of the Princes’ Islands, but Büyükada has a lot more to do than Burgazada, and is the more lovely of the two. We never made it to the other islands (Heybeliada and Kınalıada) so are unable to conclusively judge which is the best, but it’s hard to imagine a more satisfying day out than the one we enjoyed on Büyükada.

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June 30, 2013 at 7:46 pm Comments (9)

Breakfast in Turkey

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During our first Turkish breakfast, I surveyed the table with fear and doubt. Every conceivable inch was occupied by a plate, bowl or cup. It was a ridiculous amount of food! Had the waitress misheard our order? When I said “breakfast for two”, had she understood “A merry feast for my hungry horde of Vikings”? Because this… this couldn’t possibly be right.

Turkish Breakfast

But no, it was a normal Turkish breakfast. Bread, olives, honey, jams, eggs, cheeses (old and new, cow and goat). Fluffy, filled pastries called börek. Omelets, sausage, tea. Everything you could possibly want. Turks really enjoy their kahvalti (literally, “before coffee”), and can sit around the table for hours. Newspapers are read, friends pass by and sit down, politics are discussed, more is ordered, and a lot is eaten.

We had a few wonderful breakfasts during our time in Istanbul. Aşşk Cafe in Nişantaşı, for example, served us a meal we’ll be fondly remembering for years. It was the first time I’d eaten chunks of sweet, chewy honeycomb. And did you know you can mix tahini and grape molasses? Well you can, and it’s delicious.

Another great experience was at Cafe Privato, where a view of the Galata Tower competes with an overflowing table of deliciousness for attention. As opposed to Aşşk Cafe, where we selected a variety from the menu, here were ordered a set breakfast, adding cigar-shaped börek filled with cheese. The jams were homemade, as were the breads and lemonade, and everything was delicious.

We had scored an excellent table near the window, and stayed for at least an hour after we’d finished, ordering cup after cup of tea. I felt a little bad about hogging one of the restaurant’s best views, but lingering seems to be the norm. Above all, Turkish breakfast is about slow, relaxed enjoyment. It’s hard to put a better start on the day.

Locations on our Istanbul Map: Aşşk Cafe | Cafe Privato

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June 29, 2013 at 11:54 am Comments (4)

The Yeni Camii – New Mosque

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The Yeni Camii translates to “New Mosque”, and really demonstrates the problem inherent in naming things “New”. Sure… back in 1665, the Yeni Camii was Istanbul’s great new mosque, and everybody in the Ottoman Empire was freaking out about how brand new it was. But 350 years later? Not so much.

Yeni Camii

Even though it’s one of the city’s grandest mosques and conveniently located right next to the tram stop and ferry terminal, visiting the Yeni Camii was one of those things which we kept putting off. Every time we almost went inside, we were lured away by other, more compelling sights nearby. The Spice Bazaar. The Rüstem Paşa Camii. The streets of Tathakale and the fish stands in Eminönü plaza. But finally, during our last week in the city, we made the trip.

Construction on the Yeni Camii began in 1597, but wasn’t finished for 68 years. The project was subject to a great amount of political jousting and controversy, and progress was delayed time and time again. The mosque was built in the historically Jewish neighborhood of Eminönü, and an old synagogue was demolished to make room. Some believed that the mosque was a pretext for disempowering the city’s Jewish community.

Despite the strife, the Yeni Camii was eventually completed. It enjoys a grand location on the shores of the Golden Horn and, with its 66 domes, cuts an impressive figure when seen from the shores of Galata. The courtyard and surrounding plaza are far less peaceful than other mosques, which isn’t surprising given the mayhem of the adjacent Spice Bazaar. And the interior isn’t as architecturally pleasing as that of the Süleymaniye or the nearby Rüstem Paşa. But the mosque is definitely worth a look, particularly if you’re already in the area. And on almost any visit to Istanbul, you’ll be in the area.

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June 28, 2013 at 2:06 pm Comments (2)

The Imperial Harem of Topkapı Palace

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The Imperial Harem, the private pleasure palace of the Sultans, is the most well-known aspect of Ottoman royal life. But why has the Harem proven so persistent in the mind of popular culture? What is the secret behind its fame? Is it the fabulous tile-work which decorates its walls? Or is it the concept of hundreds of beautiful concubines with the sole mission of providing pleasure to a single man? Hmm… it’s a toss-up.

Topkapi Harem
The tiles are beautiful! And that’s why we need a harem at home, honey!

The Imperial Harem of Topkapı Palace is amazing. Even the very fact of its existence is audacious. Here, in a sumptuously decorated labyrinth of 400 rooms, lived the Sultan’s slaves, concubines and wives, guarded over by a cadre of eunuchs. Only these passionless, de-manned men were considered “safe” enough to protect the Sultan’s bevy of beauties.

It may have been an extravagant place to live, but the majority of women who lived inside were little more than slaves, kidnapped from far-off lands. There’s a reason the Harem was known as the “Golden Cage”. Thanks to their good looks and femininity, Circassian girls were especially prized, but the ladies came from all across Europe and the Middle East. Toward the end of the Ottoman Empire, as the ruling class descended ever more into debauchery, there were up to 800 women imprisoned in the Harem.

800… and the Sultan had his pick of the lot! When he got bored with one, he’d just move on to the next. Should one find herself pregnant, she would immediately gain in status. The “favorites” were allowed into exclusive quarters and enjoyed special privileges. An especially lovely girl could even aspire to become one of the Sultan’s kadıns, or wives, in which case she’d find herself nearly at the top of the Harem hierarchy, with access to slaves of her own.

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The top dog of the Harem, though, was traditionally the Valide Sultan: the mother of the Sultan. She not only reigned over the Harem, but was often the most powerful person in the entire empire, depending upon how much interest her son showed in his job. The ladies of the harem wielded particular influence during a period known as the “Sultanate of Women“.

Today, you can visit the Harem after you’ve entered Topkapı Palace. It costs extra, which is off-putting since the palace is already quite expensive, and you have to wait in yet another ticket line. But the additional time and expense are worth it. The women of the Harem may have been slaves, but they lived in true luxury. The rooms are resplendent, with colorful Iznik tiles decorating many of the walls, and gorgeous furniture on which to while away the days.

You can’t get into nearly all the rooms, but you can see some of the most impressive, including the Sultan’s bedroom, the Courtyard of the Eunuchs and the apartments of the Queen Mother. Leading straight through the Harem is a path called the Golden Road, so named because the Sultan would walk along it on festive days, throwing golden coins on the ground for his concubines to gather up. Sigh… it was good to be Sultan!

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June 28, 2013 at 11:17 am Comments (11)

Topkapı Palace

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The seat of the Ottoman Empire for 400 years, Topkapı Palace is today one of Istanbul’s most popular sights. The massive complex consists of four courtyards and hundreds of rooms, and the treasures on display are among the world’s most valuable. A visit to Topkapı Palace is almost compulsory during a trip to Istanbul… just expect to be exhausted afterward.

Everything about the Topkapı is excessive, and visiting is an exercise in patience and endurance. You’re going to be waiting in a lot of long lines, and there’s just no way around it. Although the courtyards and outdoor areas are spacious, the rooms and pavilions which hold the various treasures aren’t. You spend much of your time in ı waiting to enter them, then shuffling briskly through in single-file queues.

Luckily, the rewards for patience are spectacular. Once you’re through the Gate of Salutations, which separates the publicly-accessible first courtyard from the second, there’s an overwhelming amount to see, and much of it is unforgettable. The sword and mantle of Muhammed. The Spoonmaker’s Diamond, one of the world’s largest. The Topkapi Dagger (which features in a popular 1964 heist movie). The marvelous pavilions where the royal family would rest, such as the Baghdad Kösk, the Terrace Kösk and the Grand Kösk. The arm of John the Baptist. The libraries. The throne room. The Gate of Felicity. The circumcision room. The garden views across the Golden Horn and to Asia. The keys to the Kaaba. The Harem.

Let’s just put it this way… Topkapı Palace has the Staff of Moses. And I knew this, but was so dazzled by the other treasures, I forgot to search it out. Topkapı: awesome enough to reduce the Staff of Moses to an afterthought.

One of the best things about Topkapı is that chances for rest are plentiful. The palace is so large that you can always find a place to sit down and relax in the sun… and after a few hours of filing through rooms, you’ll need to sit. These were the moments I most enjoyed Topkapı. Relaxing on a bench under a tree, reading from a history book about the murderous, amorous or deceitful practices of the sultan and his court. And then looking up! These buildings provided the scene for so much amazing history. Just being inside this palace is an incredible experience.

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June 27, 2013 at 5:26 pm Comments (7)

Modern Istanbul

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Istanbul is most famous for ancient mosques and a starring role in world history, but there’s another side to it. One that most tourists never bother to see. It wasn’t until our last couple weeks in the city that we ventured into modern Istanbul. On the outskirts of the city center, new skyscrapers are springing up like weeds, and the focus is squarely on business.

Bomonti was an interesting neighborhood in which to begin our excursion into Istanbul’s modern side. Here, the human cost of rapid growth is readily apparent. Across the street from a brand new, luxurious development called the Anthill Apartments, there’s a collection of ramshackle dwellings. They might have been here first, but these are not exactly the kind of neighbors which the new, luxurious Bomonti desires, and the poor old homes are being swiftly removed.

It’s all rather depressing, so we were eager to leave Bomonti for the adjacent neighborhood of Sisli, where we sat down at a corner cafe and watched life in modern Istanbul whiz by. With gray concrete, busy shops and sharply-dressed people in a big, important hurry, we could have been on a street corner in any country… except, perhaps, for the giant posters of Atatürk draped across most of the neighborhood’s buildings.

After tea, we made our way to Kanyon, in the business district of Levent. This large mall, opened in 2006, was designed to resemble a canyon and the effect is pretty cool. The mall itself is upscale and pleasant… and though I find it hard to lavish praise on malls, I’ll say that, as far as malls go: not bad. We got a drink on the “canyon’s” floor, and took stock of those around us. Clean-cut businessmen and women typing into MacBooks or tapping on their phones. Not many beards, nor headscarves.

It was educative to see this very different side of Istanbul, but not an experience I would be likely to repeat or recommend. Jürgen enjoyed it for the photo opportunities which contrast so sharply with the city’s more well-known sights, but both of us were equally ready to get back to the ancient Istanbul we’ve come to know and love.

Locations on our Map: Anthill Apartments (Bomonti) | Kanyon

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June 26, 2013 at 4:14 pm Comment (1)

The Sapphire Skyscraper in Levent

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Rocketing 780 feet into the air, the Sapphire building in the modern neighborhood of Levent is Turkey’s tallest building. A cafe on the top floor and an open air viewing platform on the roof offer one of Istanbul’s most breathtaking views.

Sapphire

Other than from an airplane window, I’d figured that it was impossible to see the entire length of the Bosphorus Strait — from the Black Sea in the north to the Sea of Marmara in the south. But from the top of the Sapphire, you can see the whole twenty miles. Going up to the roof costs about $10, but it’s money well-spent.

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June 25, 2013 at 8:00 pm Comment (1)

Jumping into the Bosphorus

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Despite their pleading, we weren’t about to join the group of kids in jumping into the Bosphorus. I don’t care how strong the sun is shining! One by one, these brave young souls ran up to the coast of Emirgan and took flying leaps into the jellyfish-infested water below. They tried to tell us that it was warm, but judging by their incessant shivering after climbing out, I suspect they were lying. Still, it did look like fun…

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June 25, 2013 at 11:56 am Comments (0)

Emirgan Park

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With its trees, chalets, ponds, waterfall and jungle gyms, Emirgan’s park is one of the best in the city. Of course, since it’s also one of the only parks in the city, it doesn’t have much competition. Istanbul may have a lot of things to recommend it, but an abundance of green spaces is not one of them.

Big Istanbul Sigh

But Emirgan Park is excellent by any standard. Perhaps a bit too hilly to get a game of soccer going, but that doesn’t concern the hordes who turn out for a day in the sun. We visited on a Sunday afternoon, along with seemingly every family and every piece of picnicking equipment in Istanbul. Grills, coolers, cutlery, card games, blankets, radios, pillows… when Turkish families go for a picnic, they bring more stuff than we even own.

Emirgan Park is not for the weak of leg. To even arrive at the gate, you have to complete a wearying ascent, and once you’re inside, the hills just continue. But you’re rewarded for the workout with beautiful views of the Bosphorus. And if you become overly exhausted, you can sit under a tree on the grass, or grab a seat in a cafe at one of the park’s three Swiss-style chalets, painted pink, white and yellow.

In picturesque Emirgan Park, the only group found in greater abundance than picnicking families is bridal parties. This is apparently the top spot in Istanbul for wedding portraits, and the sheer number of couples being chased around the park by photographers was absurd. At one point, we found ourselves trapped on a narrow bridge, between two bridal parties posing for pictures at either end. Not willing to risk trampling a dress, we escaped by hopping over a fence, and received a shrill reprimand from a nearby guard. (Whistle-armed guards patrol the grounds ceaselessly, and are comically aggressive in enforcing even the most minor regulations.)

Despite the hills, brides and guards, we loved our visit to Emirgan Park. It’s hard to to think of a better spot in Istanbul to while away a lazy, sunny Sunday.

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June 25, 2013 at 10:54 am Comments (4)

The Sakıp Sabancı Museum

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Housed in a 19th century mansion in the neighborhood of Emirgan, the Sakıp Sabancı Museum features a permanent collection dedicated to calligraphic art, along with outstanding temporary exhibits. This was one of the surprise cultural highlights of our time in Istanbul.

Sakip Sabanci Museum

Sakıp Sabancı was one of Turkey’s most successful businessmen, and among the wealthiest people in the world. The son of a cotton merchant, Sakıp never completed high school, but nothing could stop him from clambering to the top of Turkey’s largest business conglomerate. He was a famous figure throughout the country, a colorful and extroverted staple of Istanbul society, and a grand patron of the arts. The museum which carries his name opened in 2002, just two years before his death.

We only decided to visit the museum after finding ourselves with extra time in Emirgan. “Just a quick stop”, we figured. “In and out in a half-hour!” Yeah right. The Sakıp Sabancı Museum deftly conceals its true size; from the coastal road, we saw only the lovely mansion set atop a hill, and completely overlooked the massive modern annex attached to it. We ended up spending about two hours there.

A path leads from the coast up to the house, through a courtyard studded with sculptures and a variety of trees. The mansion itself contains the museum’s permanent collection. The first floor has rooms dedicated to Mr. Sabancı’s legacy, and others which preserve the mansion’s original furniture and decorations. The second floor is dedicated to the art of calligraphy, with old manuscripts and Korans.

The Korans and calligraphy were nice, but the Sakıp Sabancı Museum has become known for the world-class temporary exhibits displayed in the annex. During our visit, we saw one called “1001 Faces of Orientalism”. The fascinating collection spanned three floors, bringing together painting, film, photography, posters, books, clothing and more, in an effort to understand the West’s 19th-century obsession with the Ottoman Empire and Orient.

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June 24, 2013 at 5:45 pm Comment (1)

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Bykada - The Big Island With a name that literally translates to "Big Island", Büyükada is the largest of Istanbul's nine Princes' Islands. We spent a day biking from one end to the other, enjoying fabulous views of the sea, swimming with jellyfish, climbing hills and finding ways to escape the crowds.
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