Sunday, December 30, 2012

Istanbul Diary, Day 6

The day began with cats shopping for hand tools, and then only got more interesting from there.

By the way, you can click to enlarge any of these photos. Blogspot has auto-resized them for easy page loading, but the originals are much larger.

This was the day that we had been looking forward to hungrily - the day we would embark on the famous food tour created by the discerning website editors at Istanbul Eats. Bryan and I took the tram across the Golden Horn to the Karaköy ferry station to await the arrival of our guide.

The ferry pulled up, and we were greeted by the young Turkish gentleman we were expecting, our gustatory guru, Gokcen. Here he is eating ice cream, in a photo previously emailed by our tour operators.

As soon as all 7 guests were assembled, our guide led us off through the dock-side bustle of fisherman and maritime engine repair facilities to this caravanserai, a onetime motel/camel stable where old timey travelers on a budget would stay while on a journey to the big city.

After wandering around the courtyard and appreciating the tumble-down charm of the place, we settled in for some tea. Here, they serve tea in narrow glasses sitting on round saucers. You put your sugar cubes in and mix with the spoon provided. Even the cheapest tea in the most informal places seem to come with these accouterments. It's a must-have for a brisk December morning when sitting in a 500 year old building surrounded by fan belts.

As many Americans observe when traveling, some parts of the world are more awash with the detritus of human civilizations than others. If you found this marble column capital in Maryland, it would probably be in either a museum or an expensive antique store. Here, it serves as a convenient base for mounting some sort of improvised water pump. It's surrounded by empty cardboard boxes and used paper towels. Sic transit gloria mundi. 

As we wandered around the upper level of the building taking more photos, this kitty jumped out of the shadows and into my range of focus. He didn't seem to mind me standing over him at all.

Next up on the tour was a neighborhood lunch spot which, thanks to Gokcen's personal intervention, had agreed to open up for us early and provide us with some traditional Turkish breakfast items.

We started with fresh bread and buffalo milk cream cheese type spread. Also, honey and various jellies. My favorite was the one made with rose petals. For those not mainlining sugar with their breakfast, there was also slabs of feta cheese and salty olives.

Having finished breakfast and thanked the proprietors, we made our way back through the fish market toward the ferries.

Here we are on the ferry between Karaköy and Kadıköy, which, as it turns out, are two entirely different places. You can see the Port of Haydarpaşa, one of Istanbul's major shipping facilities and rail yards, on the opposite shore.

Our first stop on what everyone refers to as The Asian Side was a lively lunch spot that featured toasted bread with spicy tomato paste and grilled meat bits. Everyone else at the table took a small tasting portion as Gokcen described the menu and neighborhood, then stopped eating. As there was plenty of food left, I kept going, continuing even when Gokcen mentioned that he was keeping track of how much each of us what eating. I wasn't sure if that was a joke or some kind of warning about food tour etiquette, but I disregarded it in an case.

Continuing down the street we came to Sekerci Cafer Erol, a famous candy shop that has operated in the city for several decades. In addition to the obligatory Turkish Delight, they had an amazingly meticulous selection of marzipan fruits and vegetables. My favorite was the purple eggplants on the bottom row.

Continuing on a candy kick, we entered the deceptively simple interior of the Bilgeoğlu baklava shop. Unlike the  Greek variety, the baklava here is often dusted with pistachio, which is a key ingredient in sweets over here.

Time to cut through all of that sugar syrup with something sour. Heels up for the pickle shop! We tasted some little cornichons and pickled baby plums, which were...interesting. I also had a few ounces of pickle juice, which Gokcen claimed was wonderful for hangovers. The shop had a squint-inducing spectrum of pickled delights, all prepared with lemon juice rather than vinegar.

Not pausing for a moment, we continued on to a spice shop, which had examples of their wares dried and hanging from the ceiling.

Then it was on to a meat market/deli location where we tasted several different mezes, which are the traditional accompaniment to drinking raki, or, as it's known around here, "Kadıköy lightning." Raki is an anise-flavored spirit popular in Turkey that's often distilled at strengths around 120 proof, so some food is a good idea if you've got a long night ahead of you. 

We didn't actually stop at this seafood shop, but I'm including this photo of blue crabs as a shout out my adopted state of Maryland. Doesn't the crab in the middle look like he wants to give you a big kiss?

And now we relax with a cup of traditional Turkish coffee. You know it's Turkish coffee because it has half an inch of unfiltered sludge at the bottom of the cup. This blackish ooze might look rich in roasty flavor, but you should not under any circumstances be tempted to drink any of it. You'll be sweating coffee grounds for days.

After we finished our coffee, Gokcen tried to show us how to read our fortunes in our cups, in the same way that scary old women in stories read tea leaves. This attempt at divination yielded mixed results, with the most common prediction being that most of us could expect to be traveling soon. As we had all come from various locations between Chicago and Singapore to be on this tour in the first place, this seemed to be a safe prediction.

Little did we know, however, that our amateur coffeemancy would be quickly followed up with rabbit-based  clairvoyance just down the block. The guy holding the board with the colored tabs of paper in the photo below was offering the services of the black and white bunny to tell the future. Gokcen paid for his fortune to be read, which was accomplished by the rabbit being presented with the board and, guided by a supernatural hand, pulling one of the the papers out with its teeth. Upon being presented with the result, Gokcen agreed that it fittingly commented upon his search for an engagement ring for his girlfriend.

The smaller, all-white bunny played no role in this process, other than to look adorable and attract customers. He was, however, for sale.

After all of this excitement, it was time for another glass of tea. We were assured that Turks routinely average 4 cups a day. Given that everyone we saw who was not engaged in manual labor with both hands seemed to be drinking tea at all times, this seemed an extremely conservative estimate. 

Under the glass tabletop we noticed dozens (possibly hundred) of handwritten notes left by previous patrons.  So many so, in fact, that the glass was no longer lying flat on the table, but was raised about a quarter of an inch off of the wood of the table itself. They all seemed to be in Turkish, but Gokcen suggested that many were saucy notes involving young love and its unpredictable discontents.

As we were drinking our tea, a mobile simit vendor walked down the street, yelling out a string of sounds that apparently made only slightly more sense to Turkish speaking listeners than they did to me. Gokcen of course recognized this gibberish-spouting bread seller as a beloved neighborhood character, engaging him in conversation (as far as that was possible) and buying some of his supply. This comic interaction was captured on iPad video by the Singaporean lady sitting next to me. It is still unclear to what extent this particular simit guy was being amusingly eccentric versus full on coo coo crazy pants.

Here's the spot where we stopped, a place that served spicy ground-beef roll-ups. This was described as a great place for eating at the end of a long night of drinking. I don't want to draw too many assumptions about our host's evening activities, but I'm pretty sure he's no stranger to the bottom of a raki bottle.

Apparently tatuni is a recently popular food trend imported from the provinces. Ours was served with a frothy copper mug full of salty watered-down yogurt. The pause that refreshes!

As we were winding up our tour, we stopped at another sidewalk attraction, this one with an open rotisserie oven. I didn't hear exactly what it was we were having (it was near a busy intersection full of traffic and holiday shoppers), but I did notice Gokcen say, twice, "...but you don't have to eat it if you don't want to." Considering we were all pretending to be seasoned international travelers with sophisticated palates, this should have been an alarming allowance, but I let it fly right past me.

And it's a good thing I did. The item in question turned out to be lamb sweetbreads wrapped in intestines and cooked over charcoal. Chopped up with some spices and tomatoes and dropped into a fresh roll, it was actually quite good.

We also stopped at yet a couple more places, including an ice cream shop (although not the one pictured at the top). By that time, however, my camera and my memory-forming capabilities had ceased to function. I was stuffed to the gills, as my father likes to say, and fully satisfied as a tour customer. 

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Istanbul Diary, Day 5

This was definitely going to be the day we took a tour of the Hagia Sophia Mosque. After all, it was right next to our hotel. Below is a photo of the building on a cloudy day, stolen from

Here's a look up at the southeastern wall, taken by me.

We were definitely going to go in. There was a high-energy crowd of tourists just waiting for us to join them.

Then we saw the line that was also waiting for us. Smiling people with expensive-looking cameras and poor time management skills were queued up as far as we could see. The only longer line in town was the one to petition the Sultan. So we moved on, and decided to reschedule this architectural and historical gem for another day.

Luckily there was another cultural treasure (literally) across the street. The dimly-lit vaults of the Basilica Cistern were open for business, and featured almost no line at all: success! 

This place used to be used for fresh water storage for the city. They've since drained it and built a platform inside which visitors can walk through to look around, mainly the hundreds of marble pillars that are holding up the roof. They've kept a foot or two of water in the bottom, though, to remind you of its original use and to increase the eerie beauty by reflecting the lights. There are also thousands of big, fat catfish swimming around. I assume they're there to cut down on algae-scrubbing bills. I have also hypothesized that they eat at least half of the many coins that visitors toss over the side of the viewing platform, wishing well style.

The most popular part of the Basilica Cistern are two monumental carved heads representing Medusa. Several signs point to the Medusa heads, and everyone takes several pictures of them each (including me). They look like they were originally meant to serve as column capitals, but they are both on the ground level, and one is sitting sideways while the other is upside down. Why? It is mystery, silly tourist! 

Unfortunately the light is very dim in the Cistern, and cell phone photos tend to come out either very dark or overexposed. Oh well.

Suffice it to say that they are large and charismatic objects, and not at all some sort of House of Versace advertising stunt.

And thus, having avoided the long line at Hagia Sophia in favor of the ethereal gloom of the Cistern, we made the fateful decisions to dive into the opposite end of the spectrum by subjecting ourselves to the sensory assault that is The Mother of All Tourist Traps, Istanbul's Grand Bazaar.

This lantern shop is a good example of the quiet, restrained atmosphere that reigns amid the endless offerings of the Grand Bazaar. And remember, this isn't even the inside of the shop - this is just what you see walking by.

Fortunately, it is possible to find an oasis of relative quiet, even amid the frantic bustle of commerce. This little courtyard is part of the Grand Bazaar complex, but maintains a leafy charm all its own. Min-Min the Travel Panda approves.

Much more our speed, however, is the nearby Book Bazaar. Here, no one is hustling you in broken English to come in and buy a commemorative coffee table book about famous Ottoman palaces (although they have many such volumes for sale).

It is also a place in which the free market in ideas is a vibrant reality. I found one stall-keeper who seems to be the organizer of the local Objectivist/atheist club... 

You can also get the whole set...

Or takes side in the Tesla vs. Edison war...

Or read the latest Turkish guide on how to dress well and tie a necktie elegantly (I assume)...

Istanbul is a city of historic and cultural riches, roughly half of which seem to be under construction or renovation. This site, in Sultanahmet near the Blue Mosque, also marks the exact location on which a kindly older gentleman engaged us in conversation about ongoing archaeological efforts, only to quickly turn the conversation to...rug purchases. 

I told Bryan as we were walking away that I was going to preempt such a conversation by asking the next person who walked up to us on the street if they wanted to buy a rug, and then following them down the block with offers of guided tours of the Bosphorus when they refused. For you, my friend, special price! Wait, Effendi, where are you going?

Finally, it was time for dinner, and what better place to round out the day then one of Istanbul's only Chinese restaurants? Chang Cheng is a tribute to the enduring friendship between the Turkish and Chinese people, a bond apparently based almost entirely on the color red. 

The flags of both nations, of course, are dominated by the scarlet hue, and Chang Cheng takes this interior decor cue and runs with it. No cartoon abattoir was splashed with more layers of red, red, red!

Are strings of chili peppers a traditionally Chinese decoration? It doesn't matter, as long as they're red. As we were leaving, one of the valet parking attendants noticed me taking a photo with my phone and called one "one picture - 10 lira!" As I was feeling generous, however, I decided not to collect the 10 Turkish lira he was offering me, and simply walked back to the hotel.

The food, by the way, was perfectly cromulent Chinese food of the variety that can be widely found in the United States and with which no actual Chinese person has had any contact whatsoever.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Istanbul Diary, Day 4

Having learned what delicious lessons brunch in the hotel had to teach, we returned for more fruit and other breakfasty delights, including the figs at the top of the plate. I had to hurry myself along, however, as we had a date to observe the liturgical tradition of Christmas at a local church here in Istanbul. That and because apparently gluttony is a sin.

When we arrived at the Crimea Memorial Church, also known as Christ Church, we were first greeted by a pair of waddling, quacking ducks. They didn't seem to be part of any living crèche display; I think they were just local residents taking a walk around their yard.

The area around the church is sufficiently built up that it is difficult to get a good vantage point of what the exterior actually looks like. It's further obscured by a Violet Venable-style garden that might profit from a pruning jubilee. Here's an artist's conception.

The interior of the church, decorated for the festive holiday season, featured a set of red paper hangings that suggested a cross between Chinese lanterns and piñatas. The rest of the interior was quite traditional and beautiful. The service itself, while brief, was also a lovely event. Afterwards, the priest thanked everyone for coming and for being sober. Apparently the celebrants that showed up for midnight mass the evening before had been consuming the blood of the Lord long before communion was ready to be offered. 

Having discharged our religious duties for the day, we set about wandering through the Beyoglu/Taksim district. We briefly considered having our photos taken like old timey Turkish gentlemen, but decided that, while fezzes can be fetching, borrowing extravagant mustaches just for picture purposes wasn't quite our speed.

We also passed this basement window which, according to Ottoman legend, would once happily eat any misbehaving children in the neighborhood. It seems to have slowed down these days, but locals insist it is only one tantrum away from succumbing to its historical hunger.

We also passed by this poster, which is advertising an elegant restaurant. The implication is that, after a romantic dinner for two, both spooning and forking are possible outcomes.

Eventually we found our way into an underground arcade which was filled both with inexpensive consumer electronics and an extraordinarily large selection of garden supplies. Bryan and I were both suitably impressed to see that one of the merchants was selling the same brand of bird repeller used by the U.S. Secret Service.

After briefly considering the purchase of a well maintained rototiller, we continued to the Galata Bridge, which spans the channel of water known as the Golden Horn (not the Bosphorus itself, as I was reminded). At the Northern end, there is a ferry dock and fish market, home to dozens of shouting fishmongers and yet more of Istanbul's endless population of stray cats.

Here we look down from the bridge level to the dock. A ferry is arriving, and you can see the southern half of European side of the city is the distance. Below you can see Bryan, looking very chic and sophisticated in his Ray Bans.

The Galata Bridge is lined with dozens of fishermen, casting off the side into the water below. When I asked a local what kind of fish they were going after, he just shrugged and said they were fishing "just for fun." If standing on the side of a bridge with four lanes of traffic at your back and squinting into the sun for hours on end is your kind of fun, consider yourself at home.

Among the many shops we saw, I can especially recommend "Hero Select," a store to quicken the pulse of any sci-fi or fantasy fan from around the world. They've got a breathtakingly geeky selection of figurines and collectibles from your favorite fandoms, including Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones, and the various superhero universes. Many of these items are finely wrought licensed merchandise, so you can rest easy knowing that the media companies who own the copyright to your favorites characters are getting their full kickback from the artists who actually created the pieces.

They even had one item that I myself received from Santa only recently, the Han Solo encased-in-carbonite ice tray.

Naturally, however, the highlight of the season and of the store was this merry old elf/Jedi master. I didn't see any resin-molded Lando Calrissian figures celebrating Kwanzaa, but I suspect they were just sold out.