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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)

Eyüp: At the End of the Golden Horn

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Found outside the old city walls at the end of the Golden Horn, the neighborhood of Eyüp is one of the most sacred spots in the Islamic world.

Eyüp Mosque

The best way to get to Eyüp is aboard the Haliç (Golden Horn) ferry which leaves from Eminönu. But as luck would have it, water traffic was closed on the Saturday morning that we had chosen on our visit, after heavy fog had caused a ferry collision. So we were forced to reach Eyüp by bus… providing a lesson that we’ll now impart to you: if you have to take a bus to Eyüp, you might as well walk! The traffic along the southern Golden Horn is ridiculous, especially on weekends, and it took 90 minutes to complete the five kilometer journey.

By the time we finally arrived, we were in miserable spirits. But Eyüp made a valiant effort to cheer us up, with its cute, pedestrianized streets and festival-like atmosphere. This has been an important pilgrimage site for Muslims for centuries. Ayyub al-Ansari, the friend and standard bearer of the Prophet Mohammed, died here during the first attempted Muslim conquest of Constantinople, and was buried in the location that would later bear his name (Ayyub → Eyüp).

Apart from its lovely location on the Golden Horn, Eyüp’s prominent feature is its enormous mosque. We ducked inside during prayer time, but left quickly; the place was so packed we could hardly find an open patch of carpet on which to stand. Right across from the mosque is Ayyub al-Ansari’s türbe, or tomb. Although closed during our visit, it’s supposed to be amazing; completely covered in Iznik tiles.

For centuries, Eyüp has been the most fashionable place in Istanbul to be laid to rest, and it’s surrounded by cemeteries. The largest of these stretches up a steep hill that eventually ends at the Pierre Loti Café, named for the French novelist. This lovely garden cafe boasts a view that takes in the entirety of the Golden Horn, all the way to the Bosphorus Strait. Breathtaking, and it was the perfect way to end a long day.

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June 11, 2013 at 6:11 pm Comments (3)

Whirling Dervishes at the Galata Mevlevihanesi

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With their heads slightly tilted, arms raised in exaltation and spinning in graceful circles, the whirling sufi dervishes are among the most enduring images of Turkey. Istanbul boasts a number of places in which to catch a ceremony, but we chose to attend the twice-monthly performance in the Galata Mevlevihanesi; the city’s oldest tekke.

Dervish Dance

Before the sema ceremony, I wasn’t sure what to expect apart from men in tall hats spinning slowly. And as it turns out… these expectations were spot-on. The performance is uplifting. Very spiritual and strange, and very moving. But it really is just dudes spinning around to strange music, for almost an hour. And I’ll confess that I started getting bored, after spin #235. (Everybody’s got a dervish spin limit. At 235, mine is acceptable. Those who are more mystically inclined might have a higher tolerance. 5000, say. But everyone has a limit.)

Dervishes are adherents to sufism: a mystical interpretation of Islam, which aspires to a perfectly pure state of worship. Each dervish order is based around an exalted teacher or saint, and each has different practices. In general, dervishes ascribe to an ascetic lifestyle of extreme poverty, and are fairly similar to Catholic monks. The Mevlevi Order was based around the teachings of the Persian mystic Rumi, and was among the most prominent dervish sects in the Ottoman Empire. Even sultans would come to watch their ceremonies in Galata.

Established in 1451, the Galata Mevlevihanesi is the oldest surviving tekke (dervish monastery) in Istanbul. It’s now been converted into a museum dedicated to the Mevlevi Order, with exhibits that illuminate their way of life, rituals, music, and beliefs. The brothers of the order didn’t spend all day whirling; they were skilled in calligraphy and art, and masters of specialized professions like watchmaking. The museum does a good job of introducing the dervishes, and their beautiful old tekke.

The sema ceremony is held in the Galata Mevlevihanesi on the second and last Sunday of each month. It’s probably the most authentic possible setting in Istanbul to watch the Dervishes do their thing.

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June 11, 2013 at 11:05 am Comments (2)

The Hans of the Grand Bazaar

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The Grand Bazaar is really a city unto itself. The main thoroughfares are where you’ll find the most popular shops and restaurants, but just like any city, the coolest spots are tucked away in its less-visited corners.

Silver Han

In days past, the hans of Istanbul functioned as inns; places for traveling merchants to rest and do business. Most frequently, the hans consisted of courtyards with a fountain for washing, and a kitchen or tea house. The Grand Bazaar, naturally, was a major hub for merchants, so it’s unsurprising to find so many hans within its walls.

Most hans were dedicated to a particular craft, and many still are. You can find gold-spinning in Astarcı Han, chains in Zincirli Han and silver merchants in Kalcilar Han. Wandering through the courtyards, you can find smiths practicing their craft… melting gold, for example, or hammering out a piece of copper. Happily, they seem to be accustomed to tourists, and don’t mind if you politely enter their shops for a quick photo. It’s great fun watching them at work, performing tasks that have been unchanged over the last few centuries.

Most of the hans are small and run-down, but many are lovely. The Zincirli Han, for example, is particularly photogenic, with all-pink shopfronts, a marble fountain and trees. And our favorite is the airy and comfortable Iç Cebeci Han, where you can dependably find guys sitting around in the sun drinking tea and playing backgammon.

If you stick to the main drags, a trip to the Grand Bazaar can be hectic and stressful. So make sure to duck off into the little pockets of relative tranquility offered by the hans, and check out some of the activities which have kept the Bazaar running for 500 years.

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June 10, 2013 at 10:57 am Comments (10)

Haydarpaşa and the Crimean War Cemetery

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Even more “orient” than the Orient Express, the Baghdad Railway connected the future capital of Iraq to Istanbul. The western terminus was the massive Haydarpaşa Station, which is still one of the busiest train stations in Turkey. We spent a day exploring the magnificent old station and the neighborhood surrounding it.

Haydarpaşa Station

Completed in 1910, Haydarpaşa Station was designed in a neo-classical style by Prussian engineers, at the behest of Kaiser Wilhelm II. The Germans were big sponsors of the struggling Ottoman state, and were pursuing every tactical advantage before the onset of World War I. But the project, which would have given them access to the Persian Gulf, wasn’t done nearly in time… the first train between Baghdad and Istanbul wouldn’t roll out until 1940.

Though damaged during the war, the impressive station was restored and has become one of Asian Istanbul’s most striking landmarks. Aside from the station, though, the neighborhood of Haydarpaşa is a traffic-heavy zone with none of the charm of nearby Kadiköy. Even here, though, we found a couple worthwhile highlights, including the giant central building of the Marmara University and, behind it, the British Crimean War Memorial.

One of history’s first “modern wars”, the Crimean War pitted the Russian Empire against a coalition of French, British and Ottoman over control of the Crimean Peninsula and basically resulted in a stalemate. Over 20,000 British soldiers died in this war, and many of them have been laid to rest here. The cemetery is peaceful in its way, but we felt chills while reading the names and ages of the soldiers, on gravestone after gravestone … 21, 23, 19. A memorial statue in the park, dedicated by Queen Elizabeth, honors the “brave men who gave their lives for their country”. But you’re left to wonder whether this obscure cause in a faraway land was truly worth so many young British lives.

Locations on our Map: Haydarpaşa Station | British Crimean War Memorial Cemetery

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June 9, 2013 at 4:08 pm Comments (0)

Lost in the Grand Bazaar

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With over three thousand stores and 61 streets, Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is unlike any place I’ve ever been. It’s one of the world’s largest covered markets, and a visit is guaranteed to leave you exhilarated, frustrated and, above all, disoriented.

Main Entrance Grand Bazaar

In the Grand Bazaar, it’s not so much “whether” you become lost but “when”. The jam-packed streets curve confusingly and the shops all look the same. There’s no sky or sun to point the way, and the mad jumble of people, whether they’re shoving by or trying to win your business, will spin you around until you’ve lost your bearings. Enter a store, engage in a bit of haggling, spend too long admiring an oil lamp, and it’s already too late. Good luck trying to remember the direction you came from, or where you were going.

Immediately after the Conquest of Constantinople, the victorious Ottomans set about Turkifying their new capital. The Hippodrome was razed, churches became mosques, and the Grand Bazaar was established near the newly established university in Beyazit. Despite recurrent earthquakes and fires, the bazaar grew and thrived, and was soon famous across Europe as the Mecca of shopping.

Today, an estimated 400,000 people visit the market daily. Over 27,000 people are employed within its walls. The bazaar, in almost every meaningful sense of the word, is a city unto itself. There are restaurants, barbers, banks, a police station, even a mosque — everything a decent-sized town of nearly 30,000 might need to sustain itself.

Souvenir Shopping Grand Bazaar

We love the Grand Bazaar, and invent an excuse to dart inside anytime we find ourselves nearby. Of course, in the wrong mood, or on a Saturday when the number of visitors increases dramatically, it can be stressful. And though the great majority of vendors are respectful, a few are unbearably pushy. True bargains are very hard to find, if they exist at all; we found identical nargiles in nearby Tahtakale for less than half the price as in the Grand Bazaar. And if you’re not proficient in the art of haggling, you’ll leave with either empty hands or an empty wallet.

But somehow, none of that subtracts from the experience of visiting. You don’t have to buy anything to have fun, and we almost never entered the gates with the intention of shopping. We’d go to explore the hans, have lunch, watch gold-makers and silver-smiths ply their trades, and lose ourselves in the maze. Photo opportunities are everywhere, and many of the shopkeepers are happy to chat even if you’re clearly not planning on buying. We were once invited to try some çiğ köfte one guy’s wife had made for his lunch. And a carpet seller took us to the top floor of his shop for a view of the roof. Turkish people, in general, are friendly and welcoming to strangers, and this seems to be even more the case within the Grand Bazaar.

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June 9, 2013 at 8:37 am Comments (7)

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)

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.

Location on our Istanbul Map

An other Hamam we visited: The Kılıç Ali Paşa

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Mosque Door
Çınılı Camii Istanbul
Blue Tile Mosque Istanbul
Çınılı Camii Altar
Mosque Bookshelf
Istanbul Glass
Chrystal Istanbul
Kid Trapped
Çınılı Camii Hamam
Hamam Asian Side
Istanbul Pasa
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May 29, 2013 at 1:54 pm Comment (1)

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engelky and the Beylerbeyi Palace There's no shortage of charming neighborhoods lining the shores of the Bosphorus, but lovely little Çengelky 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.
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