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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)

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)

The Hans of the Grand Bazaar

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.

Great Resource: Self Guided Walking Tours Through Istanbul’s Hans

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June 10, 2013 at 10:57 am Comments (5)

Simits, Pide and Künefe: Familiar Turkish Favorites

While in Istanbul, our taste buds were exposed to a lot of new sensations. But some of our favorite discoveries were familiar standards, common to every country, given a slight Turkish twist. Simits are Turkish bagels, a pide is a Turkish pizza, and künefe… well, that’s just Turkish heaven.

Istanbul-Simits

Simits are usually purchased from roving street vendors who are either pushing carts or balancing towering stacks on their heads. But we were lucky enough to eat them in the best way possible: early in the morning, straight out of the oven. The Tophane Tarihi Taş Fırın bakery was found conveniently between our apartment and the tram, and their freshly-baked simits quickly and firmly established themselves as our preferred on-the-go breakfast. These sesame-covered bread rings strike the perfect balance between crunchy and chewy.

Mixed-Pide

Some foods, such as liver kebab, require working up a bit of bravery. And then there’s the pide, which requires no courage at all. It’s just a canoe-shaped pizza, packed with familiar things like meat, sausage, cheese and egg, buttered and baked to crispy perfection, then sliced into horizontal strips and served. Delicious. We’ve had excellent pide at &#350imşek Pide near Taksim Square, and especially at Hocapaşa Pidecisi by Sirkeci Station.

Sweets-in-Istanbul

Another immediate favorite was künefe, which we first tried at the Akdeniz Hatay Sofrası, but later sampled in many, many other places. Layers of cheese and flour cooked in a copper dish and then drenched in syrup and covered in pistachio sprinkles. Doesn’t that sound delicious? Yes it does, and although we always feel an acute sense of shame while shoveling syrupy, stringy bites of cheese into our faces, we were never able to resist.

Locations: Tophane Tarihi Taş Fırın | &#350imşek Pide | Hocapaşa Pidecisi

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April 8, 2013 at 11:46 am Comments (9)

A Southern Turkish Feast at the Akdeniz Hatay Sofrası

Serving up traditional food from Hatay, Turkey’s southernmost province, the Akdeniz Hatay Sofrası is a family-owned and operated restaurant which has won a lot of press and gained a loyal following since opening in 2007. We were invited to sample some of their best dishes one early Monday evening… and that’s not the kind of invitation we’re ever going to turn down.

Tuzda-Tavuk

Hatay, squished between the Mediterranean and Syria, has always been an object of contention. Syria argues that Turkey stole the province by rigging the 1939 referendum in which Hatay’s citizens voted to join Turkey. Today, the matter is mostly settled, but Syria has never officially withdrawn its claim to the province. Hatay’s climate is warmer than the rest of Turkey’s, and their cuisine more Middle Eastern.

We met Mehmet at the doors to the Akdeniz Hatay Sofrası, in the neighborhood of Askaray. The son of the restaurant’s founder, Mehmet spent the afternoon with us, introducing us to the food of Hatay and even allowing us into the restaurant’s kitchen to take photos. The Akdeniz is consistently crowded and employs a huge staff, but despite the congestion, the chefs didn’t seem to mind our presence, and it was a lot of fun to watch them work.

The restaurant’s claim to fame is the Tuzda Tavuk — a chicken stuffed with rice, packed in rock salt and then shoved into a huge wood-fired oven to bake for two hours. When ready, it’s wheeled out to the table and set on fire. After the flames are extinguished, the waiter chisels at the rock-hard salt shell until the chicken emerges golden brown and perfectly cooked from its igloo-like prison… and not all that salty. But the highlight is the rice, which is mixed with allspice, currants, crushed almonds and pine nuts. You can also order the same thing with lamb instead of chicken.

We were also able to try the Cerra Kebab, which is a leg of lamb baked inside a clay pot, with garlic, onion and spices. At the table, the pot is smacked open and the steaming contents poured out into a bowl. Just as delicious as the chicken, and more succulent. I could have eaten two pots full.

Meze-Restaurant-Istanbul

Before the main dishes appeared, Mehmet had selected a few of his favorite meze, including humus, muhamarra (a spicy red chili paste with walnuts), tebbuli (white thyme salad), mütebbel (yogurt eggplant sauce) and kısır (a reddish salad of wheat, parsley and tomato paste). I had assumed humus would be a normal part of Turkish cuisine, but it’s actually more Middle Eastern; this was the first time I’d seen it in Istanbul. The mütebbel was possibly my favorite of the bunch, or perhaps the white thyme salad. Or the perfectly spicy muhamarra. It’s hard to say.

We had polished off enough food to sustain a camel for months, and our stomachs were bursting. So when dessert arrived, I suspected that Mehmet was deriving some sadistic joy out of torturing us. But if the torture is being “forced” to eat künefe, you can’t complain too much. You just sit there, endure your punishment, and enjoy every last bite of it. Künefe is Hatay’s most famous dessert: layers of flour and goat cheese, caramelized on top and served with a big glass of milk.

Considering how long the main dishes need to bake, you should call ahead well in advance to both order and reserve a table. But don’t miss out on the best place in Istanbul to try some of Turkey’s most distinctive cuisine.

Akdeniz Hatay Sofrası – Website
Location on our Istanbul Map
Here’s what the New York Times had to say

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March 20, 2013 at 6:05 pm Comments (4)

Yerebatan Sarnıçı – The Sunken Cistern

Hundreds of underground cisterns lurk beneath the surface of Istanbul, the largest of which is the Yerebatan Sarnıçı, or the Sunken Cistern. Built by Constantine the Great in the 4th century to provide water to his palace, it’s survived the ages in remarkable form.

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Descending the stone stairs into the Sunken Cistern, it’s clear that you’re stepping down into a darker, older world. There are modern day touches — raised platforms with handrails, warning signs, audio-guides, hordes of tourists, music playing over loudspeakers, bored attendants cajoling you to dress as a sultan for a picture, and flashing cameras — but they’re easy enough to filter out. After all, one of the ancient world’s most hauntingly beautiful treasures is lit up before your eyes.

There are only a couple feet of water left in the cistern, but that’s enough for giant carp to swim around in, and it nicely reflects both the rounded arches of the roof and the 336 columns arranged in a symmetrical 12×28 grid. These supporting columns, thought to have been pilfered from sites around the Roman empire, are of various styles. Many are completely unadorned while others are capped with Corinthian floral designs. I saw one that was square, and another patterned with teardrop-shaped peacock feathers.

The cavernous cistern with its giant pillars and water dripping from the ceiling would make a great setting for the climactic scene of an old fantasy epic. It’s easy to imagine Perseus slowly advancing through the cistern, aware that danger might be hiding behind any one of the columns. He holds his sword and shield at the ready, while the sound of serpentine hissing echoes through the hall. Behind a few columns, he encounters scowling demons and jumps back, ready to strike. But no. They are only statues; hideous statues of men screaming in pain and confusion. “Where are you, Medusa?”, Perseus screams. “By Zeus’s thunder, where are you?”

Turns out, the Gorgon actually does lurk in the shadows of the Sunken Cistern. Overturned Medusa heads form the base of two columns in the far back corner. One is fully upside-down, while the other has been turned onto its side. They were placed in the cistern for protection — Medusa has often been used as a charm against evil (which we learned while puzzling over Sicily’s flag) — and have been flipped over to counteract the terrible power of her gaze.

We had an incredible time in the Sunken Cistern and, although a comprehensive tour doesn’t need to last any longer than twenty minutes, we stayed for almost an hour to soak in the atmosphere. For the best experience, arrive when the doors open. At 9am, we found the cistern almost entirely empty of other tourists, but it was becoming intolerable by the time we left.

Location of Yerebatan Sarnıçı on our Map

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March 14, 2013 at 2:45 pm Comments (8)

Ciğer &#350iş – Liver Shish Kebab at Canim Ciğerim

At the last second, I nearly lost my nerve and ordered chicken. But I stayed strong and, in a confident voice, ordered the “Ciğer &#350iş”: the Liver Shish Kebab. At least, I think I sounded confident. I might have whimpered a little, but if the waiter caught it, he didn’t let on.

Turkish-Feast

Jürgen and I travel a lot, but that doesn’t exactly make us Anthony Bourdain. We love trying out the cuisine of different cultures, but neither of us have too wild a palate. When backed into a corner, I’ll steel my resolve and do something like schluck down wriggling, raw octopus in Busan, or munch cow tongue in Bolivia. Generally, though, I stick to offal-free dishes made of normal cuts of meat I can identify.

But I’m trying to evolve. Istanbul has an insanely varied and world-renowned cuisine, and I swore not to be a culinary wimp during our three months in the city. So when we chose to have lunch at a restaurant named “My Liver, My Dear” (Canim Ciğerim), I knew I was going to order the liver. I had to. (“No you don’t!” hissed my inner-coward).

Our meat took a while to sizzle on the shish but when it arrived, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I had been expecting three, possibly four skewers of liver. This was one of our first meals in Turkey, and I was unaccustomed to the serving sizes. The waiter plopped onto our plates twenty skewers full of meat. Ten liver shish kebabs for me, ten chicken for Jürgen.

God help me, I ate all of it. After a quick lesson in the art from our waiter, I was ready to attack my liver. You hold a piece of flat bread around a skewer, and pull the meat off into it. Then, you pile whatever you like onto the bread. With the colorful condiments crowding our table (pink radishes, yellow peppers, red sauce, green leaves) this felt a little like painting on canvas. Except that it’s a delicious painting made of food which you immediately roll up and consume.

The liver was rich, chewy and tasted only slightly of iron, and any nervousness I’d been feeling evaporated with the first bite. This tiny restaurant in Beyoğlu was an excellent find, and although I don’t know if liver will make it onto my Favorite Foods list anytime soon… at least it can be removed from the list I’ve labeled “Terror/Puke”.

Location of Canim Ciğerim on Our Map

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March 13, 2013 at 6:00 pm Comments (0)