Eating and exploring and eating and shopping and eating in Istanbul!
15.05.2012 - 04.06.2012
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My first visit to wonderful Turkey, provided 3 weeks of unmatched exploring. Travel with Christa is always great. In part because of the compulsive researching we both enjoy doing when we travel, but this trip was made more fantastic by our friend Michelle. Michelle is working for the Canadian Government in Ankara and was an unparalled host, tour guide, driver, travel consultant and friend during our visit!
A few peeps have been complaining that it's been a long time since my last blog ( email@example.com ), which is actually quite nice because you're not sure if anyone actually reads and/or looks at your entries. I must appologize, but life, starting a company, and travelling have put me far behind on the blogs. Time to play catch up!
I travelled to Istanbul, for 3 weeks in Turkey, on my way back from 2 months in India in May 2012. We spend several days at the beginning and end of the trip exploring Istanbul, so I've combined all Istanbul-travels into this first installment. Let's begin...
It was an easy flight to Istanbul and a beautiful sunny day, so the view below was fascinating. As we came in to land, we flew over the gleaming, magical city. It never fails to amaze me when you fly over a place, and it looks just like maps in a book. I know that seems a silly comment, but there you are…. The Sea of Marmora, the Black Sea, the Bosphorus and Golden Horn Harbour all laid out below me. The Sea of Marmora was filled with massive freighters heading to this wonderful place that I’ve read about for so long… Gateway to Asia - Byzantium, Constantinople, Ottoman Empire… so much wondrous history.
I was picked up by a lovely young English student at the airport and whisked through the fantastically clean and orderly streets (especially coming from India), along the Bosphorus to the old city of Sultanahmet where we were staying. Beautiful spring flowers were everywhere and such a bright clear day, which it turns out was not the norm this trip. It was so quiet on this drive that it was hard to believe this is a city of 13 million.
We passed the walls of old Constantinople on the way and my excitement began to rise. We were staying at the modern, but affordable and ideally-located Erboy Hotel. Best thing for me this trip was their willingness to store my huge suitcases (coming from two months in India), while we hit the road, enabling me to dash around the country with my carry-on. Christa had arrived late the previous night from Victoria, so had a quick shower and we were off!
We decided to head to the recommended Chora Church, referred to locally as Kariye Kilisesi. The original Church was built outside the then city walls of Constantinople in 5th century, however most of the existing Byzantine building was built at the end of the 11th century. Chora translates to country, the full name of the church meaning the Church of the Holy Saviour in the Country.
The church was small but beautiful and the mosaic tiles incredible – so intricate and fine the details – and the marble work stunning. To get there, we took the tram to a bus stop by the Grand Bazaar, then hunted around for 10 minutes looking for the spot to buy tickets before hopping onto the bus 90B. We had written down the name of the Church in Turkish to show our bus driver, cleverly thinking he would let us off where we needed to be! Best laid plans… he mumbled something at us, shaking his head in disgust at our lack of understanding, so we just smiled (I might have added a head bobble!) and went to sit down where I whipped out my phone and handy dandy GPS. Really is a godsend this Google Maps! The bus went up hill from the water into increasingly narrow and winding streets, till the bus could literally go no further. At which point, he backed up a side street and told/gestured everyone to get off! Ahhh…. That’s what he was trying to tell us! We hopped off and a pair of lovely local women, kids in tow, seeing our piece of paper, promptly motioned us along and led us the rest of the way. We found this to be the norm in our Turkey travels. You couldn’t look confused for more that few minutes before someone came up to you wanting to help. Lovely people!
Before touring the church, we decided to have lunch at an amazing Ottoman restaurant next-door. Āstāne replicates menus from the Sultans of the past, listing the year the recipe was taken from. We had Gömlek “Fatty Apron” Kebab (1764), which was spiced and minced beef and lamb wrapped in caul fat and baked, it was served with a bulgur pilaf with chestnuts, from 1469; and to finish off, our first Turkish Coffee with Helatiye (1539) a milk pudding served with almonds, pistachios and a jello-like cube-thing in rose water. Hard to describe, but the combination of flavours and spices seemed somehow old. Wonderful and odd at the same time.
After wandering in awe through the museum-church, we walked the Walls of Constantinople, following a walking tour from the wonderful Rick Steve’s travel book. Although previous versions existed, what you can see today were built in 408-450 AD and ran 13 miles around the city, making it virtually impenetrable for over 1,000 years. We walked the remains between the Chora Church and the Golden Horn, meeting fascinating locals going about their day. By this time we were draggin our feet and decided to head back to Sultanahmet for dinner. We were looking for a well-known local fish haunt, Balikçi Sabahattin, purportedly one of the best seafood restaurants in the city, and one of the most difficult to find! At the end, we were wandering down a dilapidated alleyway (leading 4 lost Brits who also wanted to eat there), along the train tracks, when finally the sign appeared! Yay!! Luckily it lived up to its rep and the fish was fantastic. I had turbot – a really ugly fish that was new to me.
Dinner done, it was now 9:30 and we crawled up the last hills for the day to our hotel, lay down and passed out!
The next morning, we were heading to the new city for our Turkish cooking class – Flavours of Turkey with Selene. The class took place in her home, an old apartment house built by her grandfather. There was a couple from New Zealand and another couple from Quebec who joined us making dolmos, tomato salad, flaky pastry “cigars”, artichokes, carrot salad and apricots stuffed with clotted cream (kaymak) and dipped in pistachios and placed on a bed of spun sugar (Pişmaniye), which is made by blending flour and roasted butter into sugar.
After yet another overeating venture, we decided to walk the main drag, İstiklâl Caddesi (avenue), starting from Taksim Square, down to the Galata Bridge. The street is mostly empty of cars, which is really nice for walking, except for the “nostalgic tram” which runs the length. All types of Turks are here, western looking, scarf-wearing and burka-robed people, strolling the streets dotted with restaurants, lokum (Turkish Delight) shops, art nouveau facades and designer-label shops. We stopped into Ali Muhittin Haci Bakir, arguably Istanbul’s favourite lokum and family run since 1777. We of course had to taste the delish varieties, including my fav – double roasted pistachio. And then there was the Halva, also wonderful – a tahini sweet made with crushed sesames, flour and sugar. We also popped into Mado Café – a local favourite for Turkish ice-cream made with goat’s milk and wild orchid pollen. It was really good, but has a gluey texture that kind of stretches as you pull up a spoonful. No shortage of food this trip!
At the bottom of the hill, we took the Tünel, an old subway train in the world’s second oldest subway station, down to Galata and back Sultanahmet for a quick change before our evening dinner cruise on the Bosphorus.
Dinner Cruise on the Bosphorus -- Well… what can I say. We went for this because a friend’s recommendation, though sadly we went with our hotel-discounted company instead of the one recommended by said friend! Will know better next time! Was actually pretty funny in the end, but I’d say, don’t go for the Istanbul Dream cruise run by Senkron Travel Agency! They’re discounted for a reason!! We were nicely picked up at our hotel and brought to the boat. We had opted for the alcohol-included menu, so our waitress came over to offer us “fruit juice or pop”. Uhhhh… by the time we had successfully communicated that we wanted alcohol, we were told, red wine, white wine, vodka, or whisky, but whisky would cost extra. Vodka we exclaimed... with?.... 10 minutes later (OK, probably only 2, but seemed like 10), we had managed to get a list of available mixes out of her and settled on Vişne Suyu (the ubiquitous and yummy sour cherry juice), which was rapidly becoming my favourite drink there, so good it was!
Dinner arrived, which was the worst food we had in Turkey, during the entire trip. We finally managed to signal for our waitress to order the second of our “all you can drink” drink, which was some awful red wine, when the cultural program started… a magician! Huh? Not the first thing I think of when I think of the culture of Turkey. Followed by two men dancing around with their shirts over their heads? Oy! The belly dancer portion was OK. At least the men thought so! She started to get people up to dance with her, and approached a young Indian girl, quite obviously there on her honeymoon. With the urging of her groom she reluctantly got up, and proceeded to outshine the belly dancer with some beautiful bhangra dancing. Not to be outdone, the belly dancer upped her game and began to do all kinds of contortions, to the floor and up, across the room, etc. but, the bhangra princess kept up all the way.
By that point, we decided to head up to the deck above, passing by the bar for warming beverages (it was quite cold). We missed out on the marriage celebration show and the disco that happened next, but that was fine by us because, for all of that, you absolutely should do this (tho not with this company) because the views from the boat, as you pass around the Golden Horn and up the Bosphorus at night are breathtaking. Beautiful modern and old buildings illuminated with golden lights, and wonderful light shows from the many bridges spanning the straight make for really a magical experience. And, this particular cruise provided no shortage of funny memories!
The next day, we got up super early, since we were catching the flight to Izmir later that night we had a lot to pack in. First stop was Topkapi Palace and even though we had arrived for opening, the crowds were incredible. We picked up our audio guides and went straight for the harem. The tile work is quite exquisite, and the audio-guide quite good to this point, but not as exciting as I expected from guidebook recommendations. Maybe because I’ve seen so many spectacular buildings in India lately, not sure, but neither one of us was overwhelmed. I think it would be worthwhile to source out a really good guide, who can make the place come alive, because I’m sure there are many fascinating stories of this place.
The audio guide actually became quite funny as we progressed though. It was almost like they got tired of describing places, as they became increasingly spare and repetitive. Entering a sultan’s private room, it would say “take note of the beautiful blue tiles”. Full stop. Into the circumcision room – this room was used for the Sultan’s son’s circumcision ceremonies and given the titillating name, surely had some stories, but nope… “ you are now in the Circumcision Room, note the beautiful tiles”. Full stop!
The Treasury was my fav part, with fantastic gold and jewels, which were in cases literally in front of your nose, not like in the Tower of London where you are behind a velvet rope, far back from the cases. The work and sparkle were mesmerizing, especially the Spoonmaker's diamond. 86 carats, this diamond was reportedly found by a garbage collector and sold to a spoonmaker for a few spoons. Now that’s an Antiques Roadshow Find!
After Topkapi, we decided to pop into the Basilica Cistern. I’d been to and loved the Portuguese cistern in Morocco, but was unprepared for the magnificence of this one. It was built in 532 and rediscovered in 1545 by a scholar investigating claims from locals that they could get water by lowering a bucket through a hole in their basement floors, and could even catch fish this way.
The Cistern is 65m wide and 143m long, with 336 columns supporting the roof. Many columns were scavenged from other buildings, including two wonderful columns that are supported by massive Medusa heads. Another column had a beautiful teardrop carved design. Couldn’t help wonder what historic sites they once lived in. Shadowy figures of carp slowly swim by in the shadowy water weakly lit by flickering lights, as drops fall from the ceiling with an eerie echo. Wonderful place!
Fast forward to our return to the city at the end of the trip
We were again ensconced in the Erboy, this time Michelle was flying out to join us for our last weekend, but before she arrived, Christa and I went on what was one of our major highlights (of many) on this trip – a culinary tour of the backstreets of Old Istanbul, led by an American expat, Megan, from the company Istanbul Eats. It is one of 4 of their current tours offered, and I have added the other 3 to my ‘bucket list’.
Our adventures started with a meet up in the Egyptian Spice Market, one of Istanbul’s oldest markets situated across from Sultanahmet by the Galata Bridge. Built in the 17th century it is so named because it was built with money from Egyptian import duties. It specialized in spices from the Orient and it still offers an authentic bazaar experience. After meeting with Megan and the rest of our group, she led us to the various stalls. One selling just nuts, varieties of pistachios simply labeled with the name of the region they were from. Olives and cheese similarly labelled. Gorgeous fish and an interesting character of a fish monger. Strange facts, like artichokes and peas are sold by the fish monger! They are always sold shelled and trimmed to the hearts, which is done by the same type of knife used to cut fish, hence this odd happenstance. Imminently practical!
After picking up olives, bread, cheese and of course Simits (wonderful bagel-like bread covered in sesame) we went into the bowels of the market, and set up on a newspaper covered crate, next to the chai and Turk Kahve stall, getting out own coffee and tea. A constant stream of trays of tea and coffee heading out into the market to sell to the various stall vendors. Hard-working bunch! As we tucked into our, first, breakfast of the day, Megan outlined our route, so we could try to pace ourselves for the food. Luckily it would take us through the markets and up into the Fatih neighbourhood, which helped us a bit!
After breakfast, we strolled down to see the Kokoreç Kid! There was always a story surrounding the different places we went and here was no different. Kokoreç is a very popular street food all over Turkey. Lamb or mutton intestines wrapped around offal, usually liver, spleen, lung and sweet breads, then skewered and grilled on a charcoal fire, it was then chopped and mixed with herbs and spices, wrapped in warm bread and presented to us! Now I HATE offal, but I found that this was actually good. Quite a surprise. The young man running the stall has apparently put everyone out of business in the area, he is that good. The story goes, that his parents had asked him if he wanted an apprenticeship, or university and he chose apprenticeship, so they set him up with the best Kokoreç Usta (master) in the city. Then, as luck would have it, the master had to flee because of gambling debts, leaving the student the new master of the area. He’s done so well, he drives a Mercedes and is engaged to the daughter of the richest man in Istanbul. And he kinda looks like Max on Dancing with the Stars!
Next up was a stop for some wonderful lentil soup and then off to meet the Pide Usta. The nearest thing you can relate Pide to in the west would be pizza, but it is so much more than that. To be fully enjoyed, it must be eaten within 15 minutes of leaving the oven, so it isn’t standing up very well to the new influx of Dominoes in Turkey. Here we had the traditional oblong-shaped, open-faced pide and made to order with wonderful seasoned meat, mild cow’s cheese (kaşar) and fresh veggies. Fired in a wood fired oven, drizzled with melted butter and topped with an egg! Heaven!!!
After pide, it was a trip through the Kantarcilar area where sellers have been selling weights and measures since Ottoman times. Rows and rows of wares, pots, coffee pots, trays, weights and measures. And in all of this, Lokum! Turkish delight is made with sugar, water, corn starch and flavouring/nuts. That’s it! I thought for sure it contained some sort of gelatin, but nope. This shop, Altan Şekerleme was mecca for Christa! And no hell for me! A family run, authentic candy store, passed down for four generations, since 1865 and some of the best we had, at ridiculously low prices compared with the more famous cousins in other areas of town.
Laden down with boxes of lokum, we were off next to stop in an old caravanserai for a break and a drink. Caravanserai’s were the Motor Inns of old, and dotted the trade routes of old. This run-down courtyard, with peeling doors of the rooms to rent was lovely. Also lovely, the colourful men sitting around smoking and having chai. Best mustache in Turkey!
Up next, a kebab (kebap) seller that we were all sworn to secrecy over. It’s not even in their guidebooks, or web reviews for fear of it becoming overrun. The Usta does not want to expand, makes only one doner kebab per day, and when it’s done, that is that! They sell that, and fresh squeezed orange juice. And oh-my-god! Best, beyond best I’ve ever had. The meat was incredibly interlaced with peppers and spices, shaved off and piled into pita bread, and then devoured. I GPS marked it on my phone. So must never lose my phone! Megan told us, if in doubt, in Turkey you should look for 3 things to determine a restaurant – a small menu, with limited items; plain, undecorated eating area; and a steady stream of locals. This fit the bill!
Our next experience at Vefa Bozacis was not one I expected to enjoy, but was definitely surprised. Boza is a thick drink made from fermented millet. Kind of like a milkshake and served in a glass, with a spoon, topped with cinnamon and roasted chickpeas (which you had to buy at the chickpea store across the street of course), it was quite wonderful. Another family run place, operating since 1876 and displaying the glass Atatürk drank his boza from when visiting, in a glass case. An ancient drink originating in Mesopotamia 8-0000 years ago, it is extremely healthy with all kinds of purported and wonderful benefits, including lowering blood pressure, stimulating the production of milk in women, and enlarging women's breasts!
After the breast-enhancing boza experience, we stopped at a çig köfta stall for an experience with “raw meatballs.” A potentially dangerous street food I’m thinking, and Megan said if this particular vendor wasn’t there, we would skip it, but, he was! Quite good, combined with bulgar, tomato and pepper pastes, herbs and spices. Not my most fav though.
Finally we reached our final meal destination, only it was also the biggest meal thus far! We were all up for it though, cause what a meal. In the Fatih neighbourhood, also known as Little Kurdistan, was Siirt Seref Büryan Kebap Salonu, a restaurant in the shade of a massive Byzantine aqueduct. Here, they specialized in a lamb, slow-cooked over coals and served up on a bed of flat bread. Also here, was a homemade Aryan drink (yoghurt, water and salt mixture, frothed up and served in copper mugs) and a celebratory pastry dish, Perde Pilavi, which is a peppery pilaf rice mixed with chicken, almonds and currents and wrapped in pastry. And that’s not all! We had some fantastic künefe (kind of cheese cake, topped with a nest of golden shredded filo) and the best baklava I’ve had, baked and delivered daily by a local woman.
And that was all in one day! We skipped dinner!!
The rest of our time in Istanbul was spent exploring the Grand Bazaar, the oldest indoor mall in the world, winding our way down hallways and corridors. Most of which is pretty much a touristic bunch o’ schlock, but, once again, Rick Steve’s came to our rescue and we did his self-guided walking tour of the Grand Bazaar that took us into the very few remaining authentic areas. Met a wonderful, and proud man, in the old Gold Souk. His stock in trade was to gather all the remnants of gold and silver from the various artisans and smelt it down into something useable. He showed us his forge and was in the middle of melting down some silver. Very hot! Had fun in a 5-generation, family-run Turkish towel (pestemal) store too – Eğin Tekstil. These towels are wonderful, absorbent and light. Perfect summer towels and the type used in the Turkish baths, which we experienced in Ankara!
Almost monumented out, we still packed in a visit to the Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya) and the Blue Mosque. Unfortunately my photos from this day were corrupted, so must go back! The Hagia Sofia was the most miraculous building to me. More than 1400 years old, it is an architectural giant in the world. Many of the incredible works of original art were destroyed and covered when it was turned into a mosque in the 15th century, but some Byzantine art, mosaics and paintings have been restored. Considered the greatest church on earth for nearly a millennium, it was the largest domed building in Europe until the Renaissance. When you enter the nave and walk toward the centre under the massive dome, your jaw literally drops. It is so fantastic it’s hard to describe adequately. Some idea… Paris’ Notre-Dame would fit within the great dome. The 17th century Blue Mosque, still a practicing mosque, was very lovely as well. Lots and lots of blue tiles! but we should probably have seen it before the Hagia Sophia.
Our final night in Istanbul, and we had a wonderful dinner (I know, shocking!) overlooking the Bosphorus, with friends and fireworks in the background. Very fitting! Istanbul is more than you can imagine. This city has everything you could want, modernity meets legendary history, fantastic food, warm people, and endless alleyways and neighbourhoods to explore. Good thing it’s a nice convenient route to India! Next week, I’ll post on our adventures on the Aegean coast!