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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)

Kız Kulesi – The Maiden’s Tower

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A stone’s throw off the coast of Üsküdar, the Maiden’s Tower is one of Istanbul’s most instantly recognizable landmarks. It’s been a place of intrigue, legend and strategic importance since the city’s earliest days.

Historical accounts mention the Kiz Kulesi as a toll station used by the Greeks as far back as the 5th century BC. The Byzantines used it to chain off the Bosphorus, and thus extract a levy on ships entering and leaving the Black Sea. And the Ottomans used it as a watchtower.

All of which is very interesting, but not nearly as compelling as the legends which surround the tower. In the most famous, a sultan had received a prophecy that his daughter would be killed by a snake bite on her 18th birthday. So he tried to trick fate by placing her off shore, in the Maiden’s Tower. As dusk approached and the terrible prophecy remained unfulfilled, the sultan ferried across to celebrate, with a basket of fruit.

But alas! A venomous asp had smuggled itself into the basket. The princess was bit, and died in her tearful father’s arms.

Another legend tells the story of a girl named Hero who lived in the tower, and the young man Leandros who loved her. Every night, Leandros would swim to the tower, guided by a lamp lit in the tower by his fair maiden. One stormy night, though, Hero’s lamp was extinguished and Leandros, unable to find his way, drowned in the choppy water. When she saw his lifeless corpse wash up onto the rocks, Hero threw herself from her window and landed THUD next to her departed lover.

Today, the Maiden’s Tower serves little purpose other than touristic. For 15 Turkish Lira, you can ferry across for a visit. The bottom floor converts into a restaurant at night and, at the top, there’s a nice (and very expensive) cafe, as well as a platform which offers a unique view of the Bosphorus.

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June 15, 2013 at 5:27 pm Comments (4)

Çengelköy and the Beylerbeyi Palace

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There’s no shortage of charming neighborhoods lining the shores of the Bosphorus, but lovely little Çengelköy is among the very best of them. We had breakfast here on a Sunday morning, before walking along the coast to the incredible Beylerbeyi Palace.

Beylerbeyi Palace

Çengelköy literally means “Hook Village”, and was so named because it occupies a section of shoreline that hooks around a bend in the Bosphorus. The layout provides a perfect view of the strait, south to the Bophorus Bridge and into the Sea of Marmara beyond it. On the Sunday we visited, there was a market selling custom-made clothing and jewelry, and a pleasant, unhurried atmosphere in the cafes and restaurants.

After eating, we made a leisurely stroll to Beylerbeyi: another neighborhood about fifteen minutes down the Bosphorus. (You might be noticing an overuse of terms like “leisurely”, “unhurried”, and “relaxed”. But this it’s simply the frame of mind which the area inspires! Everything about it is peaceful and calming. The sound of lapping water, the fishermen focused quietly on their lines, the shade-giving plane trees, the old men drinking tea and playing okey (a Rummikub-like game). It’s a welcome change of pace from the normal mayhem of the city.)

Beylerbeyi is almost as cute as Çengelköy, and known for its amazing palace. Built in 1832 as a summer residence for Sultan Abdulaziz II, the Beylerbeyi Palace sits almost directly underneath the Bosphorus Bridge. Having arrived a little late (our stroll was leisurely, after all), we were compelled to join a Turkish-language tour of the palace. The English tours were done for the day. So, I spent the tour inventing imaginary translations of what our guide might be saying. Such as:

“This vase alone is worth more than your puny lives put together! Bow before it, you filthy swine!”

“Look at this golden mirror. It once reflected the image of a Sultan, but now it shows only an unwashed peasant! That’s you I’m referring to, by the way.”

The palace, of course, was astounding. It was similar to the Dolmabahçe Palace, which we had visited just a few days before. But the fact that this was just meant to be a “summer residence” really hammered home how wealthy the sultans of the late Ottoman Empire truly were. In the reception hall, for example, there’s a fountain and pool — inside the palace! Visiting a place like this can really make a guy feel inferior.

Locations on our Istanbul Map: Çengelköy | Beylerbeyi Palace

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June 15, 2013 at 10:11 am Comments (0)

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)

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!

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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)

Ortaköy: The Middle Village

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Midway up the European side of the Bosphorus, Ortaköy literally translates into “Middle Village”. Not the most enthralling of names, but this neighborhood does boast one of Istanbul’s most eclectic populations. Turk, Greek, Jew… hipster, playboy, fisherman. Everybody has a place in Ortaköy.

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The weather was foul on the afternoon of our visit; grey, rainy and cold. Disembarking the bus (#25E from Kabataş), we popped open our umbrellas and trudged into the jumble of cafes and shops which make up the neighborhood’s heart. Here, we were met with another disappointment: the gorgeous Ortaköy Mosque was completely covered up for renovation. Just underneath the Bosphorus Bridge, this is normally one of the city’s most picturesque mosques. Hmph… the weather was too poor for pictures, anyhow, but this was not a good omen for our day in Ortaköy.

The bad luck continued at the neighborhood’s popular Sunday market. We’d heard a lot about this market, with its original art works, unique gifts, and cool bohemian vibe… so, when it turned out to be chiefly chincy trinkets, cheap sunglasses and bead jewelry of the sort you can find anywhere, we were severely disappointed. There was a row of second-hand book dealers, and a couple stands with some interesting artistic creations, but overall this market wasn’t anything special.

Despite the rain, the construction on the mosque and the boring market, Ortaköy managed to charm us. Since Ottoman times, this has been one of Istanbul’s most cosmopolitan areas, with a healthy mixture of religions and ethnicities living in harmony. That diversity is still in evidence today, with a couple Armenian churches, a synagogue and a Greek Orthodox church joining the neighborhood mosques. And there’s a nice mixture of bars and cafes, catering to everyone from hungry locals on a budget to more upscale joints with views over the Bosphorus.

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May 25, 2013 at 3:19 pm Comment (1)

Up the Coast to Kanlıca

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After visiting the neo-baroque Küçüksu Pavilion, we walked north along the Asian shore of the Bosphorus to the pleasant town of Kanlıca, where we treated ourselves to yogurt by the seaside, and then lunch at an amazing hilltop restaurant overlooking the strait.

Anadolu Hisarı

It took almost no time to walk from the Küçüksu Pavilion to the Anadolu Hisarı: a fortress built by the invading Ottoman forces in 1397. By connecting a chain from this fortress to the Rumeli Hisarı across the Bosphorus, the Ottomans were able to blockade Constantinople from the north. Today, Anadolu Hisarı is almost entirely in ruins; it looks cool, but there’s nothing to visit, unless you count the comfortable waterfront cafes which have sprung up in the fortress’s shadow.

We continued walking north, passing underneath the Fatih Bridge which, at nearly a mile in length, is one of the world’s longest suspension bridges. We would have loved to walk across it, but the bridge is unfortunately closed to pedestrians in order to discourage suicides. But no preventative measure can thwart the determined self-killer! The day after our visit, there was another attempt. Luckily, the guy survived the fall and was fished out by policemen waiting in a boat.

Our walk along the Bosphorus wasn’t the most pleasant stroll we’ve ever embarked on. The traffic was heavy, and the sidewalks difficult to negotiate. Even worse, the views of the Bosphorus were consistently obstructed by fences protecting new townhouses and upscale restaurants. So we were relieved to arrive in Kanlıca: a cute neighborhood centered around a small port. Kanlıca is famous around Istanbul for its yogurt, which we sampled at the restaurant Asırlık; mine came topped with ice cream, and Jürgen’s with honey. It was the best yogurt we had in Istanbul, and provided exactly the energy boost we’d need for the final stage of our journey: a hike up to the Hıdıv Kasrı.

Set atop a hill just behind Kanlıca, the Hıdıv Kasrı (or Khedive Palace) was built in 1907 for Abbas II: the final Ottoman governor of Egypt and the Sudan. Today, the palace is owned by the state and used solely as a restaurant. Its location is magnificent, in the middle of a garden decorated by tulips of every conceivable color. We assumed that a restaurant set in a former palace might be out of our usual price range, but needn’t have worried. This was an affordable place to eat, perhaps because it’s run by the state. The food wasn’t memorable but worth the price, and the views over the Bosphorus were unbeatable.

Locations on our Map: Analodu Hisarı | Kanlıca | Hıdıv Kasrı

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April 28, 2013 at 8:32 am Comments (3)
The Sak?p Sabanc? Museum 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.
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