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Addicted to Döner

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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)

The Galata Bridge

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No visit to Istanbul is complete without walking along, ferrying under, taking the tram across, or enjoying a drink on the Galata Bridge. The bridge spans the Golden Horn to connect the city’s two European sides, and is one of Istanbul’s most iconic landmarks.

Galata Bridge

Walking across the Galata Bridge, it’s very likely you’ll find yourself hooked. And I don’t mean “addicted”, but very literally hooked. In the face, with a hook. The bridge’s most enduring image is its shoulder-to-shoulder fisherman casting off into the water below. The almost unbroken line of bobbing rods is a romantic sight, but not all the fishermen pay careful attention to where they’re swinging.

The Galata Bridge is on its fifth iteration, with the current version dating from 1994. The first design for a bridge at this location was drawn by none other than Leonardo da Vinci in 1502. Sadly, his plans never came to fruition, and Istanbul had to wait until 1845 before Galata was connected to the old town.

The bridge is quite low to sea level, meaning that only small ships can pass under. And those, just barely. Its height also makes it an unlikely spot for suicides: in fact, it’s not uncommon to see local kids jumping off for fun.

One of the nicest ways to end a day in Istanbul is to grab a drink at one of the many restaurants found underneath the bridge. Even if you’re not thirsty, just walking past these places is a memorable event. Competition is fierce, and the doormen will try every conceivable trick to make you choose their establishment over the others. It can be comical; after we said “no” to three in rapid succession, another guy approached us rubbing his hands, and said “Now is my turn! You can not resist me!” Having been brought to laughter, and (more importantly) offered half-off beer, we succumbed to his charms.

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May 27, 2013 at 2:35 pm Comments (4)

The Aqueduct of Valens

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Despite the tumult of centuries, the ravages of war, fire and earthquake, and the construction of a megalopolis around, along and even through it, the Aqueduct of Valens is standing tall. Built by the Roman Emperor Valens in 378 AD, the aqueduct is among Istanbul’s most amazing ancient relics.


The Greek settlement of Byzantium was never able to truly flourish, despite its strategic position, for one important reason: a lack of drinking water. It’s surrounded on all sides by salt water, but no river flows into the city. After the arrival of the technologically-advanced Romans, a network of canals and aqueducts was built to pipe water in from the outlying hills, and deposit it into hundreds of underground cisterns, such as the Yerebatan Sarnıçı.

The water was still flowing when the Ottomans took possession of Istanbul, and the city’s new Turkish rulers did an excellent job conserving the aqueduct and making necessary repairs. Let this be a lesson to all you other crumbling, ancient wonders — as long as you stay useful, people will take care of you! Today, of course, the aqueduct serves no purpose other than aesthetic, but what a sight it is. For many visitors, ourselves included, it’s the first awe-inspiring scene presented by Istanbul; the shuttle bus from the airport to Taksim Square passes directly underneath.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the aqueduct is how it’s been woven into the fabric of modern Istanbul. In other cities, such a historic wonder would be cordoned off and observable from afar, but Istanbul has neither the time nor the patience for such niceties. Istanbul must get on with things. And so, Atatürk Boulevard, one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares, is built right through the middle of the aqueduct.

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April 25, 2013 at 1:30 pm Comments (3)

Laleli: Istanbul’s Little Moscow

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Despite being in the center of the city, the neighborhood of Laleli just doesn’t feel like the rest of Istanbul. Maybe it’s the curious absence of döner joints. It could be the shops with names like “XXL ??????? ??????” and “???????? ???????”, or the giant blonde women shouldering past with icy attitudes more befitting the tundra than Turkey. When you’re in Laleli, there’s no mistaking that you’ve arrived in Istanbul’s Russia Town.


Laleli isn’t going to win any awards for its striking historic beauty. It’s almost all shopping here. Large, forgettable buildings crammed with equally forgettable stores that sell clothes, cheap shoes and fake Yves Saint Laurent handbags. Still, Laleli is an interesting place to see if just for the oddity of its Russian atmosphere. And it has a couple mosques that are worth the trouble of seeking out.

It took some effort to find the Bodrum Mesipaşa Camii, hidden like a jewel behind ugly modern buildings. Built as a burial church in 922 by the Byzantine emperor Romanos Lekapenos, this small brick structure was converted into a mosque following the Ottoman conquest. Given its diminutive size, we planned to spend about ten minutes inside, but hadn’t counted on meeting Mustafa Alpoy, the mosque’s amicable Imam. We were in Mustafa Bey’s office for a long time, looking at pictures of the mosque’s restoration, helping decipher some German scribbled in his guestbook, and listening to the stories of previous illustrious visitors.

Bodrum-Mesipasa-Camii-ImamUs and Imam Mustafa Alpoy

Not far away is the much larger Laleli Mosque, or the Mosque of the Lily, built in 1780 when the Baroque style was fashionable in the Ottoman Empire. Colorful marble, instead of tiling, is the dominant element in this mosque, which features a huge central dome and stained-glass windows.

Laleli Camii

Outside the mosque are burial halls of two important Ottoman rulers, Mustafa III and his son Selim III. Selim III is a particularly interesting figure. Well-educated, multi-lingual and accomplished in poetry, calligraphy and music, he was an exceptionally modern ruler. During his regency, Selim hoped to modernize the languishing Ottoman Empire, starting with its army. Of course, reform will always find an enemy, and in this case, it was the powerful Janissary Corps — the bloated and powerful elite branch of the army. Rather than see itself obsoleted, the Janissaries revolted. They deposed the Sultan and had him executed, stabbed to death in the harem by the Chief Black Eunuch.

(I’m considering pitching “Clue: Ottoman Edition” to Parker Brothers. Chief Black Eunuch in the Harem with the Knife is incalculably more thrilling than Mrs. Peacock in the Kitchen with the Candlestick.)

We ventured into the vault beneath the mosque, and were returned immediately to the shopping spirit which truly defines Laleli. This beautiful basement centers around an old fountain and the heavy pillars which support the structure above, and is occupied by clothes sellers. The dark vault beneath a huge mosque complex might seem an odd place to shop for, say, a denim jacket with fur frills. But somehow, here in Laleli, it makes sense.

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April 20, 2013 at 7:51 am Comments (2)
Addicted to Dner 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.
For 91 Days