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Allahaısmarladık, Istanbul

It didn’t seem possible. Had our 91 days in Istanbul really come to an end? I couldn’t believe it, so I opened my journal and counted the pages. Although it felt as though we’d just arrived… although we were still in the process of settling into the city’s rhythm… that was it. Our time in Istanbul had reached its conclusion.

Goodbye Istanbul

Having taken a couple months off after an action-packed 91 days in Idaho, we were unusually well-prepared for our time in Istanbul. We’d read books about the city and watched a few movies set on its streets. We had pored over guidebooks, compiled lists of things to do, and even learned some of the language. Istanbul was the largest city we had yet tackled, and we wanted to hit the ground running.

Over the course of three months, we barely rested. Every day was occupied by a visit to another museum, mosque or church. Taking another ferry ride, exploring a different neighborhood, meeting a new acquaintance, trying out a restaurant or bar… usually a combo of at least three such activities. “No time, no time!” soon became our motto, as we shuffled breathlessly from one sight to the next. Mosque, museum, bar. Ferry, mosque, cafe.

I won’t lie: Istanbul wore us out. In our final weeks, we started to strike things from our list (apologies to Belgrade Forest), in favor of a few more leisurely hours in our favorite hangouts. But the quieter memories will be among those which most endure. Sitting across from the Maiden’s Tower, a light rain tapping onto the umbrella above our heads. Discovering a tea garden in Kadiköy and joining backgammon-playing students in hours-long nargile sessions. Relaxing in Gülhane Park with a simit and a view of the Bosphorus. Listening to the calls to prayer while sipping rakı at a rooftop terrace.

Istanbul is an amazing city, completely unlike any other place we’ve been. There’s so much history here, so many stories. And as we were reminded in our final weekend, Istanbul is not all about the past — it’s vibrantly alive. The Gezi Park protests awakened in us a new respect for the city’s citizens; a liberal, secular minority often at odds with the rest of Turkey. Clearly, this is a people determined to defend their city as a haven for tolerance, environmentalism and modernity in an increasingly conservative and capitalist country.

So, we leave exhausted, but with the knowledge that we’ll never forget our time here, nor look back on it with anything other than warmth. These were three of the most entertaining months of our lives. We learned so much, met so many wonderful people, ate such incredible food, and visited sights which rank among the world’s most amazing… Istanbul has enriched our lives in ways we’ll probably never fully understand. And for that, we can only say “Thanks”.

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July 13, 2013 at 7:21 pm Comments (13)

The Cats of Istanbul

It was a common sight in Istanbul. You’d be standing in front of some amazing building like the Hagia Sophia or the Galata Tower, and all the tourists would be completely ignoring it. Their cameras were trained on something cuter than some ancient old structure: a playful pack of mewling kittens.

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Istanbul’s street cats are a phenomenon. They’re everywhere in the city; balancing on windowsills, cowering beneath cars, slinking between gravestones, sunning on benches, even relaxing in churches. And despite yourself, despite having sworn that, today, you would not be taking any more cat photos… that the 50,000 pics you’ve already snapped are quite enough… and that, to be honest, your cat picture obsession is starting to alarm you… you see another! And it’s chasing a butterfly, or making a grumpy face, or wrestling with its equally cute little sister, and you just can’t resist.

The city loves its cats. Almost as frequently as the animals themselves, you’ll find little plastic containers of food that people have set out for them. You’ll run across tiny cat houses built to provide shelter during storms. In many other cities, they’d be considered a pest and “dealt with” in some nefarious way, but Istanbul focuses its efforts on caring for them.

During our three months in the city, we must have photographed hundreds of cats. We got to know our neighborhood crew fairly well… there was Stink Face, Whitey and Scab Licker. In May, kittens started appearing, and we even rescued a baby who’d been abandoned by its mother. We have so many cat pictures, we started a Tumblr photo series called Daily Cat Istanbul.

The cats were an unexpected highlight of our 91 days in Istanbul. If you’re in the city, make sure to play with a few… and if you swing by Çukurcuma, say “hi” to Scab Licker for us. He’ll be the one licking his scabs.

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July 12, 2013 at 11:13 am Comments (18)

Addicted to Döner

Before our arrival in Istanbul, we had no idea how much döner we were about to eat… Ach, who am I kidding? We knew exactly. Scarfing down plate after heaping plate of delicious döner meat was our plan from the very beginning. It’s part of the reason we chose Istanbul in the first place.

Iskender Döner

We had become addicted to döner during the five years we lived in Berlin. Packed into a bun with salad, and slathered with sauce, the German variation of döner makes excellent hangover food. But in Istanbul, it’s served completely differently. Over the course of our 91 days here, we’ve had to open our minds and mouths to unexpected new döner horizons. Oh, how we have grown!

The vertical, spinning cone of meat is found on nearly every corner throughout Istanbul. The apron-wearing cook slicing off thin strips of meat is a beautiful sight, and just might be the quintessential image of Turkey. If you listen attentively, döner falling onto a plate sounds suspiciously like a chorus of angels. Or like the joyful laughter of children.

Usually, the meat on a döner cone is lamb, but you can also find beef and chicken. The standard plate, a porsiyon, is nothing more than slices of meat served with a bit of salad. You can also get it piled on top of rice. My favorite, though, is the İskender variation, which is a specialty of Bursa. This is döner meat served atop heavily-buttered pita bread, and then drenched in yogurt and tomato sauce. With a helping of french-fries mixed in. I just heard your stomach growl! Don’t be ashamed, mine is growling, too.

Çağ Döner

Another interesting variation is the Çağ Döner, where the meat cone has been laid on its side, and is being rotated over a pit of coals. The cook pierces the meat with long skewers, and then cuts the döner slices directly onto them. This is usually served with flatbread and salad.

For a quick bite, we frequently ordered Dürüm Döner, which is like a döner burrito. Just wrapped up meat with salad and tomato, these cost less than the porsiyon, and provide a good fix when you’re in need.

Ah, döner. I love you, but to be honest, it will be good for our relationship if we take a break for a while. It’s not you, it’s me. I can’t control myself when I’m around you, and fall into fits of violent jealousy when I see others eating you. I want you all to myself. And when I look in the mirror, I don’t like the shivering, smear-mouthed mess staring back at me. So for my own good, farewell. But despair not… I doubt it will be long before we meet again.

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July 7, 2013 at 1:07 pm Comments (4)

Smoking Nargile In Istanbul

A hookah pipe is called a nargile in Turkey. It’s a surprisingly popular activity among Istanbullus of all ages, and we partook in quite a few smoking sessions ourselves. You can order tobacco in a variety of flavors, and spend hours lounging around, smoking and drinking tea.

Nargile

The nargile has long been a prominent part of Turkish culture, although the introduction of cigarettes led to a serious decline in its stature. Lately, though, it’s been making a comeback among young people. It’s completely different to smoking a cigarette. You take your time with a nargile, and usually smoke with a group of friends. It’s social, and a lot more tranquil than hurriedly puffing down a cigarette as you rush off down the sidewalk.

Besides which, it tastes great. Apple is the mainstay, but you can try cherry, banana, coffee, orange or melon flavors, in addition to many others. Our personal favorite was a mix of a apple and mint, and we had a few favorite places in which to smoke it: the Perla Kallavi rooftop cafe off Istiklal Caddesi, the cafes at Tophane, Erenler Nargile near the Grand Bazaar, the courtyard of the Re Cafe in Kadiköy, and the Ağa Kapısı near Süleymaniye, which has a view over the Golden Horn. But in just about any corner of the city, we could find a good spot (and invent a good excuse) to sit down for a couple hours with a pipe.

Locations: Perla | Tophane Cafes | Erenler Nargile | Ağa Kapısı | Re Cafe

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July 7, 2013 at 9:24 am Comments (5)

A Bosphorus Cruise to Anadolu Kavağı

One of the most popular excursions in Istanbul is a ferry ride to Anadolu Kavağı, near the entrance to the Black Sea. The Bosphorus Cruise offered by the city-run Şehir Hatları company costs just 15 Turkish Lira, making for a cheap and easy day out on the water.

Anadolu Kavağı

Really, a tour of the Bosphorus Strait should have been among our first adventures in Istanbul, instead of one of the last. The ferry trip lasts for 90 minutes each way and provides a wonderful overview of the city, introducing many of the its best sights. I have no idea why we kept putting it off.

But cruising up the Bosphorus felt appropriate as a “farewell” tour. We passed by neighborhoods which we’d become familiar with — Ortaköy, Arnavutköy, Kanlıca — as well as some of our favorite sights: the Beylerbeyi Palace, Dolmabahçe, Küçüksu, Rumeli Hısarı and the Sakıp Sabancı Museum. It was a great way to reminisce on what have been three of the most entertaining months of our lives.

At Anadolu Kavağı, the boat anchors for a few hours, which is plenty of time to get lunch at one of the many seaside restaurants, or to climb up to the old fort at the top of the hill. The fort itself is not all that impressive, but the hill is worth ascending for the view of the Black Sea and the Bosphorus.

Location of Anadolu Kavağı on our Map

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July 1, 2013 at 6:39 pm Comments (5)

Modern Istanbul

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 Comments (0)

The Sapphire Skyscraper in Levent

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 Comments (0)

Hidden Corners Behind the Grand Bazaar

Istanbul is the kind of place which favors bold exploration, as we learned after a day spent in the maze of streets around the Grand Bazaar. The city is filled with quiet, secret spots… if you can muster up the courage to go down that darkened hall, into that empty courtyard, or up those crumbling stairs.

Secret Hans Istanbul

Of course, I’m not recommending that anyone skip off willy-nilly into Istanbul’s abandoned buildings. We ventured into a couple places that I would never go into were I by myself, or were it after dark. But a cautious exploration of the old hans around the Grand Bazaar can be very rewarding.

Our day began in the Subuncu Han, near Eminönü Plaza. This han itself doesn’t have much to recommend it, just a bunch of jewelry stores surrounding a tiny courtyard, but there was a great locals-only spot for lunch on the second floor. Instead of sitting down in one of Eminönü’s döner shops for an overpriced lunch geared toward tourists, we munched on excellent and very cheap lahmaçun (Turkish pizza) with a few guys who work in the han.

We progressed steadily from Eminönü towards the Grand Bazaar, every once in awhile escaping the crowds to duck into another han. We found gold and silver-smiths at work in the Leblebici Han, and watched a couple men train flocks of trick pigeons in the Büyuk Yeni Han. And in the gray, French-influenced Stamboul Yeni Tcharchi Han, we were the only people at all. A young guy witnessed our hesitation about venturing down an long, dark tunnel-like hallway in the Sair Han, and encouraged us to proceed without fear. At the end, we found a nargile workshop. The most well-hidden nargile workshop in the world!

Inside a couple hans, we were able to get onto the roofs for amazing views of the city. The first was at the northwest corner of the Sair Han; before going inside, you can scale a flight of stairs directly to the roof. But the better view was at the massive Büyük Valide Han. Here, we were approached by a key-wielding man who knew exactly what we wanted. “Go on roof, yes?” A small five lira tip later, we were up on top, looking over the city and the Golden Horn.

It was an incredible day out. If you’re interested in doing something similar, check out a great book called Istanbul’s Bazaar Quarter, by Edda Renker Weissenbacher and Ann Marie Mershon: a comprehensive guide to the Grand Bazaar and the streets which surround it, with four self-guided walking tours.

Locations on our Map: Subuncu Han | Sair Han | Büyük Valide Han

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June 21, 2013 at 2:22 pm Comments (6)

An Introduction to Turkish Marbling

Marbling, or ebru, is one of the most popular forms of Turkish art. We decided to introduce ourselves to the technique, and joined a workshop offered by Les Arts Turcs in Sultanahmet. By the end of the entertaining session, we had managed to create a few minor masterpieces.

Ebru has been a part of the Turkish art scene for centuries, and has long been a specialty of Istanbul’s dervish orders. Contributing to the technique’s popularity is the fact that it’s easy to learn; even an absolute beginner can create an impressive piece of art. Basically, you drip paint on top of water, use needles and brushes to make swirling designs, and then transfer the finished work onto paper. The paints are treated with ox gall to lower their surface tension, allowing them to float, and the water’s properties result in fluid, hypnotic patterns.

Les Arts Turcs is a small gallery and artspace near the Topkapi Palace that both sells and displays original pieces, and offers classes in Turkish techniques such as ebru and calligraphy. And they let you get right to the fun stuff: within a couple minutes of entering the workshop, we were bent over trays of water, applying our first dabs of color. Marbling is something which doesn’t require a lot of prior instruction.

My first painting was going wonderfully. Having chosen a background palette of orange, blue and white, I had used a comb to swirl the colors into a mesmerizing pattern. But then I screwed it all up by adding giant flowers. Somehow (and perhaps my inner artist should have realized this) red and pink flowers on a blue-orange background don’t look good. My inner artist is an idiot.

Luckily, my inner bullshitter is always willing to step up. “Exactly what I was going for!” I announced, proudly displaying my ridiculous pink-on-orange monstrosity to everyone in the room, daring them to call my bluff.

Flowers were the preferred motive during our workshop. We learned to make carnations, tulips, roses, violets and chrysanthemums. And then, just to mix it up, we did some trees. Since Islam isn’t big on the artistic representation of the human form, plants and flowers are popular themes in Turkish art. Anyway, the colorful and geometric flower shapes suit the technique of marbling perfectly.

We had a great morning at Les Arts Turcs; marbling makes for a fun cultural experience, far removed from visiting mosques and museums. For €60 per person, you’re provided instruction, and the chance to make a number of paintings, which you can take home. A more personal souvenir is hard to imagine.

Location on our Istanbul Map
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June 20, 2013 at 10:26 am Comments (10)

Çengelköy and the Beylerbeyi Palace

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)

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