To The City, Always

The name İstanbul (Turkish pronunciation: [isˈtanbuɫ], colloquially [ɯsˈtambuɫ]) is commonly held to derive from the Medieval Greek phrase “εἰς τὴν Πόλιν” (pronounced [is tim ˈbolin]), which means “to the city” and is how Constantinople was referred to by the local Greeks. This reflected its status as the only major city in the vicinity.
(Source: Wikipedia)

I sat down and counted recently; how many countries have I visited, and how many cities? I’ve never done this before, and I’ve never viewed arbitrary numbers with any importance. But just for curiosity’s sake, I did it. And I surprised myself. Twenty five different countries, and over a hundred cities later, it turns out, I’ve covered a lot of ground.

So when I say that Istanbul, Turkey is my absolute favorite… well, I like to think that has some weight.

Three years ago, I had an intuition that I needed to visit Istanbul. I was teaching English in South Korea, had a few open weeks in the winter, and I was playing around with ideas. The caveat was that it also needed to be a place my mom was willing to go—this was my pre-move-to-Germany mother. After some convincing, slash sending of low crime statistics, beautiful photos, and bringing up the fact that this would be the only time she’d get to see me all year, somehow I got my mom on board for a week in Istanbul and four days in Cyprus, to visit some of her friends. She’d never internationally traveled outside of a group or with my dad to Paris, so it was kind of a big deal.

Best intuitive feeling, ever.

Fast forward three years. My friend Lauren and I were planning a trip to Baku, Azerbaijan and Antalya, Turkey, and she brought up a desire to see Istanbul. I wish I could say I was gung-ho at the very mention of Istanbul, but that would be a lie. We already had plans to fly mid-trip, a thing I usually don’t do, and the thought of another round-trip plane ride in the middle of our ten days in Turkey sounded like a lot, especially to a place I’d already been. But it was a priority for Lauren, and it was cheap, so I agreed.

That’s how we found ourselves in the greatest city in the world, three days after a bombing targeted to a bus full of police, which killed 12 people, and two weeks before the devastating Ataturk Airport bombing (which, I’ll mention, we didn’t fly in or out of during our trip). It was also the very beginning of Ramadan and when the sun went down, the city was full of life and laughter, despite the increased police presence.

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Within minutes of walking through the historic district on the way to the hostel, my adoration for Istanbul hit me full force. Much of what we did, I had done before, but it didn’t bother me to do it again. And this time around, I had a fancy camera. Our weekend visit coincided with three other friends from the States, by chance, so our group of five, plus various international tag-alongs from the hostel, was a very different experience from the time I spent with my mom a few years prior.

I can’t explain, exactly, what it is about Istanbul that makes my heart sing so loudly, but I’ll at least give it a shot. In no particular order, the gems of Istanbul:

  • The call to prayer, ringing out in unison, all over the city. Different mosques have different singers, which cover different areas with distinctly middle eastern music, several times a day. Maybe I’m just a musically attuned person, or maybe I like the regular reminders that I’m not at home, or maybe it’s something subconscious and unable to be explained. Regardless, when the call to prayer begins to cover the city, I smile.
  • The winding streets and old architecture. The homes are old, some are taken care of, and some aren’t. Regardless, the abundance of porches, red roof tiles, colorful (or plain) tiled exteriors, numerous tiny mosques with comparatively tiny minarets, and the endless details on doors, windows, and everything in between make for an interesting walk, no matter where you go. Many parts of the city also wind in strange directions, making it easy to get lost—a good or bad thing, depending on your mindset.

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  • Cats, cats, and more cats. I dedicated an entire photoessay to cats last time I was here. I could easily do it again, but I’ll save you the cat overload and include just one picture.

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  • A bazaar of bazaars all over the place. The Grand Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar, the local bazaar, a bazaar on the Asian side of the city, and I could go on. Shopping in Istanbul is a treat.
  • Can you believe I’ve waited this long to mention the food? Me neither. As a lactose-sensitive person, it was surprisingly easy to eat literally everything, because so much of it was made using goat cheese. Honey, fresh bread, olives, hummus, tomatoes and cucumbers, and Turkish Coffee were all regulars at the breakfast table. Spiced meat, rice, vegetable heavy combinations and baklava all joined the spread, later in the afternoon. Istanbul is also a great place for fish, or fried fish sandwiches if you’re on a budget. I could eat Turkish food until I exploded. Then I’d put myself back together again, and do it again.

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Despite the increased violence this year, the hostel was full, but it was very evident that tourism was suffering. Souvenir shops were mostly empty and the owners were extra aggressive (or insistent, in the more polite cases) in trying to drum up business. As much as I wanted to help, there was simply no way I could singlehandedly prop up the entire tourism economy of Istanbul, and so it was with a twinge of sadness that I passed by numerous under-frequented shops on my way around the city each day. This meant I was also able to haggle down to obscene prices for certain things, though, and when shopping at the Grand Bazaar, I took full advantage and walked out with some serious steals.

I can only imagine what tourist season looks like now, after not only an international airport bombing, but the attempted military coup and the iron fist being clamped down by the president. It’s a city that’s been through a lot in its over 2000 years of existence, including two name changes, four empires, and more than the average city’s share of strife, chaos, and change. I’m optimistic that the recent waves of unrest will be just another notch in a timeless city’s belt. I’d like the chance to return for a long while, maybe a chance to live there for a bit, or at least the chance to visit and walk through the historic areas again, then along the water, then across the bridge with the drifting smell of the sea. But if this marks the beginning of a long stretch of violence, I’m at least grateful to have been there twice. That’s more than I can ask for, when the world is proving to be uncertain and unpredictable, but always bittersweet.

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iPhone Photoessay: (Delicious) Things I Consumed in Istanbul

Today is quite a busy day and I’ve little time for writing, so I thought it would be perfect for a little photoessay blast from the past. I’m not going to claim that I ate all the correct, culture-y foods in Istanbul, because I definitely didn’t. But my pallet still had a field day, rebounding off all of those Korean rice dishes and becoming wowed with interesting flavors and… bread. Oh, bread.

Before we get started, I’d like to apologize to my mother for putting one embarrassing photograph on the internet of her. I tried to make up for it by putting an embarrassing one up of me as well! That evens it out, right? Right?

[Related Post: Snapshots of Istanbul]

Anyways, here we go!

IMG_1199This obviously MUST be the first picture in a photoessay about food from Istanbul. Baklava is delicious, and we did our best to eat as much as possible and then a little extra. And that there is even more than one kind of baklava to try was mind-blowing to me. YUM!

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This photo is awkward, but there are two important aspects to it. One, I was drinking Turkish tea. Second, it’s inside the Grand Bazaar!

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This photograph, as far as photography goes, is a terrible picture and deserves to become corrupted and die. But it is a photo of two of my favorite food/drink things from Istanbul, and the lighting really was red, so I’ll allow it to see the face of the internet. This was out first evening in Istanbul, we were tired from flights but dragged ourselves out for food and, as you can see, dessert.

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The hotel breakfast was incredible, and it wasn’t even that incredible. Cheese, deli meat, bread, cheese, figs?! Apricot? CHEESE? BREAD?!!

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Straight out of the pomegranate, pomegranate juice. No sweeteners, no nothing. Super healthy, kind of (okay, realllllly) bitter, and for integrity’s sake we finished it anyways.

[Unrelated Post: iPhone Photoessay: Cats of Istanbul]

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During our first tour with Salih, he took us to this authentic Southern Turkish cuisine restaurant. We pointed to giant cauldrons and pots filled with food and they dished us out a large portion. The food was so strange, interesting and oddly, kind of healthy.

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The full spread. Look at all those colors! And weird shapes! And… BREAD.

 

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Street bagel/pretzel combos are a big thing in Istanbul, and if you want, they’ll even smear it with cream cheese or nutella.

[Unrelated Post: Featured Snapshot: One More Mosque]

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I’m so sorry, Mom, but this sandwich doner was too important to leave out of the photoessay. It was our first taste of the infamous Turkish food that’s now made its way to Germany (and then morphed a little). Junk food, but delicious junk food and I’m so glad I tried it.

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BREAD! This was on our second tour with Salih, and he took us to this family bakery in a neighborhood outside of the center. The bread was fresh baked and we got to check out the oven, too. Later we shared some bread and I can assure you it was better than the picture. It was also dirt cheap, my eyes bugged out at the (lack of) price.

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This juice was some kind of pickled radish/carrot situation and that face, right there, is exactly how it tasted. (Feeling better now, Mom?)

[Slightly Related Post: An Accidental Visit To The Princes’ Islands]

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We ended up at this restaurant three times in seven days of Istanbul. The servers were beyond kind, the food was quality and delicious, and it was close to our hotel. Sold! (Website for Fuego Cafe)

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Cheese! French fries! Grilled veggies! It wasn’t that spectacular of a lunch, taste-wise or creativity-wise, but it sure did look pretty.

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Toasting off our goodbye with some wine. And by some, I mean the largest glass of wine I’ve ever had delivered to me in a restaurant and tried to hold up in a picture.

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The classic “Starbucks with Mom” picture. Yeah, we went halfway across the world to look at stuff and then buy Starbucks coffee, try and stop us! Muahaha.

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What Istanbul food did I totally miss? What do you wish you were eating or drinking right now? Have you seen enough photographs of my face, now?

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Snapshots of Istanbul

Last January, 2013, my mom and I headed to Istanbul from our respective corners of the globe. We had planned a short, joint vacation of only 11 days. When I came back, I was overwhelmed with all that I’d seen and done and managed to publish very little about our time there. The city was beautiful, fascinating, busy with quiet corners and full of surprises. I didn’t do it justice. This is my attempt to remedy that situation.

Because it’s been more than 10 months since that trip, my memories are a little… unfresh, shall we say? But that’s what pictures are for. Instead of piecing together fragments of memories and filling the holes with untruths, I’ve put together a series of pictures that best captures what the vacation was like for us. Below the photographs, I’ve written little descriptions and context. While it’s not a linear story per say, hopefully these snapshots of our vacation can still paint a picture, sporadic as it may be.

What better way to begin than with the famous Blue Mosque? One of the more spectacular mosques in Istanbul, it’s also on the top of every visitor’s list, day 1, first thing. But it’s only one of many; mosques are everywhere and many of them are unbelievably beautiful, even the buildings meant simply for the neighborhood. The call to prayer rings out several times a day, throughout the city, and became more of a lullaby for me than anything else.

[Related Post: Featured Photograph: One More Mosque]

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Anytime I visit a country, I make it top priority to find an outdoor market, if possible. Markets are busy and loud, so it’s difficult to speak to whoever you’re with and you find yourself in a strange, singular bubble of quiet inside the chaos. The things they sell are endlessly fascinating and are a real snapshot into the soul of the country. Olives are a big deal in Turkey, the climate is ideal for variety and quality. (Yes, I was coerced into tasting an olive, because maybe I just don’t like “bad” olives, but it turns out that I’m just not a fan. Sad day.) Fishing is also a predictable staple, considering the heart of Istanbul are the rivers that surround the three distinct “continents”.

[Thanks to Salih from My Local Guide Istanbul for bringing my mom and me through this particular market.]


The outdoor food markets are wonderful, but the outdoor goods markets, or bazaars are even more wonderful. If I was much of a “shopper”, I would have emptied my wallet right about here. The little avenues with lines of shops are all over the main parts of the city; I’m not sure about more residential areas, time was unfortunately short.

[Related Post: Master Pottery]

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You also can’t talk about Istanbul or bazaars without talking about THE Bazaar, the Grand Bazaar her royal self. ‘Nuff said. Also, my iPhone photos from this particular visit were total crap, apologies.

[Unrelated Post: An Accidental Visit to the Prince’s Islands]

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I love stepping outside of the big city and flashing lights to see what everyday life is all about in a country. (Or “off the beaten path”, SEO BOOST!) Our tour guide, Salih, took us to these winding roads in a neighborhood several miles outside of the city center, Eyüp. It was one of the best parts of the trip, because the neighborhood is especially rife with contrasts, one of my favorite things. Crumbling homes stood directly next to recently remodeled places, painted bright colors and returned to glory. The neighborhood was originally home to wealthy Jewish families who were punished by a population exchange with Greece in the 1920s and had to abandon their homes. Hence, the Greek people who moved in created this all-in-Greek-curriculum school, which holds elementary, middle and high school students in one building. As one would expect, after so many years, enrollment has dwindled.

[Related Post: iPhone Photoessay: The Cats of Istanbul]

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Baklava. Once again, need I say more? No? Great.

I also need to say sorry for never taking a decent picture of the classic Turkish tea. I have a picture of my mom drinking tea, but I’m pretty sure I would be murdered if it made its way onto this blog. Tea is everywhere, delicious, and you can’t eat baklava without it or you are breaking rules and the higher order will punish you in due time.

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Last but not least, here’s a crooked photograph of me giving my mom a noogie in front of a historical monument, the Hippodrome of Constantinople built in AD 203 by the Emperor Septimius Severus.

Teşekkür ederim for the memories, Istanbul.

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iPhone Photoessay: Cats of Istanbul

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Istanbul is huge: it covers three separate land masses and is filled with a seriously diverse bunch of people. Each neighborhood has a distinct feel and you could easily stay for a lifetime and keep it interesting. But there’s one thing that all areas have in common: street cats. A lot of them.

They are well fed by restaurant and store owners that set out food and take care of them. Many are friendly. Most just want to sit near the heat lamps you have set up near your table and eat the scraps that fall off your plate. Some are particularly adorable and many can be found in the most surprising of places. Enjoy the photographs.

Continue reading iPhone Photoessay: Cats of Istanbul

Review: My Local Guide Istanbul Tours

Big city, short vacation: a tour guide was the perfect answer.
Big city, short vacation: a tour guide was the perfect answer.

Istanbul is one of those huge cities with both way too many things to see and longer distances to navigate to get there. Because my mom and I had a short time in Istanbul, only five full days (we traveled to Cyprus as well), I suggested that we look into a tour that covered some of the most famous sites in a shorter amount of time, right at the beginning of our trip. The idea was that we’d see the must-sees and wouldn’t waste any time getting lost on the way there, and in the process get ourselves somewhat oriented to getting around the city. So I did a little blog research and came across My Local Guide Istanbul, also known as Salih.

Continue reading Review: My Local Guide Istanbul Tours

An Accidental Visit to the Princes’ Islands

When life gives you passage on the wrong ferry, look out the window and enjoy the ride.
When life gives you passage on the wrong ferry, look out the window and enjoy the ride.

My mom and I had been talking about visiting the Asian side of Istanbul for the entirety of our trip. We’d seen it shortly, on a guided tour, and we’d taken a bunch of ferries here and there, although not by ourselves. We woke up on a Saturday, a beautiful day, and had our plans in hand, literally, in the form of my Frommer’s day-by-day book: an Üsküdar walking tour.

Continue reading An Accidental Visit to the Princes’ Islands