Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Oh, Istanbul

I miss Turkey, guys. I was ready for my home and cats and bed when we left, but now I would give so many lira to be able to pop into a cafe in Istanbul for a bottle of Bomonti and some people watching. Istanbul is exciting and amazing and stunning, and its people watching equals its sights. For those not in the know, i.e. me before we went, the city sits between three bodies of water: the Bosphorus halves it into European and Asian sides (it straddles two continents!), the Golden Horn (a Bosphorous inlet) divides the European side into north and south, and the Sea of Marmara hugs its southern shores. Everywhere you look there is water, there are hills, and there are mosques. A sea of mosques, minarets bristling the skyline. I got used to the minarets, but not the calls to prayer, at least not the pre-dawn ones, and especially not when multiple mosques would have the muezzin version of rap battles.

A quick note: this post is long, and made longer by all the photos. Where possible I made them large, because I think Istanbul deserves to be shown in high res. That said, all photos were taken with my phone - I haven't even begun to tackle the photos on my camera. Anything that I didn't Instagram is higher res, and therefore larger. Think of it as inconsistency for consistency's sake.

Before we left I tried to gauge what it was going to be like traveling with my boyfriend and my parents for 10 days. It turned out to be lovely - there were more than a few times that I looked around the table after a good meal and thought how lucky I was to be on the other side of the world with three of the people I most enjoy talking to. The time passed quickly, too quickly. Like any vacation, it now seems a little like a dream. So, in an attempt to recapture it, I'm going to post a bit on what we did, what we saw, and (way more important to me than it probably should be) what we ate. First up: Istanbul.
The view from our rented apartment by Galata Tower
Our first days in Istanbul, we rented an apartment in the "new" city, new only in contrast to the southern half of the European side, Sultanahmet, which hosts more of the historical tourist sites. Our neighborhood, Beyoglu, is hip and secular, and is known more for its bars than its mosques. The area of Beyoglu that we stayed in, near Galata Tower and the very cool Tunel area, was packed with restaurants, cafes, nightclubs, boutiques, and people. People people people. The primary street that runs through Beyoglu is Istiklal Caddesi, a pedestrian thoroughfare that was shoulder-to-shoulder with bodies whether it was noon or two a.m. It didn't make for the speediest passage, but it was perfect for strolling. The shops on the main street were mostly chain stores, but the small alleys of Istiklal Caddesi were line with meyhanes (taverns), nargile (hookah) cafes, and every kind of bar you can think of. We found a bar blasting heavy metal, which made Mike very happy.

Folks in Istanbul were so, so nice. Helpful, friendly, knowledgeable, and funny, even when communicating mostly via hand gestures. Most people spoke English, but the quality of it varied, and my Turkish never really made it past thank you (tesekkur ederim, which sounded to me like tesh-eh-gooyah ed-er-em, in case you were wondering).

We were told that Istanbul is quite secular, and found that to be true, at least in the areas we were wandering. The call to prayer goes out five times a day (even with earplugs in it would wake me for a few minutes each morning) but people continue to go about their business. Men wore what men everywhere wear - jeans, tshirts, button downs - but women's clothing varied more widely. Wildly might be the word. We saw everything from women entirely covered up, to (much more common) women in headscarves with their face uncovered but wearing these belted shoe-length trenchcoats that were chic and modest at the same time. On the more secular end of the spectrum, women in headscarves wore regular street clothes, or even teensy little skirts and stripper heels (or stripper heels with the trenchcoat dresses, which tickled me), but always with skin colored pantyhose. Even when wearing jeans and flats. I thought it was a pretty clever workaround - giving the impression of showing skin even if you're not.

When we landed on Friday (after being delayed, of course) we convened with my parents and Caitlin at our rented apartment to toast the beginning of our vacation with gin and tonics, courtesy of the duty free, and crackers and cheese, courtesy of the Newark airport United lounge. We strolled to dinner, then got some sweet treats, and then headed to a very hip bar near our apartment that had Brooklyn Lager. It was also Mike's birthday!
Lokum - Turkish Delight
Not a bad way to ring in 35
Our first full day in Istanbul we headed to my prime target: the Aya Sofia (Hagia Sophia). I studied the church/mosque (or church--->mosque) in high school, and I could.not.wait to see the huge dome, the soaring space, the frescoes. But first we stopped under the Galata Bridge for fish sandwiches, recommended by everyone we had talked to. Dad was pleased.
Aya Sofia was, as expected, wonderful. There was scaffolding (I don't think I've ever visited a historic site where there wasn't some restoration work mucking up the picture), but it was looking pretty spiffy for having been last rebuilt in the 600s. It had been burned down a number of times before, once in a riot after a chariot race. So stop complaining when people set bonfires in the Mission after the World Series, folks.
Dad gets a showboaty cone
The Blue Mosque from Aya Sofia
Ma in the Aya Sofia
Detail from a rad calligraphy exhibit
Next up was Topkapi Palace, home of sultans. They knew how to LOUNGE.
Tulips tulips everywhere. They're the national flower, and there were elaborate plantings in all the regions we went to.
Post-Topkapi, we hopped a ferry to the Asia side of the city for dinner.
Galata Tower on the hill, just a few steps from our apartment.
That night Mike and I wandered out for some Istanbul nightlife. The alleys were full of people, but it didn't feel crazy - just buzzy and happy. Maybe I was just buzzed and happy.
Proof we found a metal bar!
Nargile time
Day 3, Sunday, was tourism take 2. First up: the Hippodrome and the Blue Mosque. The Hippodrome was where chariot races were held, and based on the rioting that would happen (cough, Aya Sofia reduced to rubble, cough), it sounds like shit got pretty wild.
A 10th century column. You can see the holes were bronze sheets used to be attached, looted by Christian soldiers during the Crusades. 
The spires of the Blue Mosque in the background, and a gifted Egyptian plinth in the foreground, set on a Byzantine base. ANCIENT MASHUP.
I was definitely getting Sights Fatigue (real ailment), but the Blue Mosque still registered as surpassingly beautiful. Inside, though, I felt a little like this kiddo, collapsed on the carpet.
This is not actually the Blue Mosque, but a different mosque altogether. Lest you think I was trying to put one over on you. Heretical caveat: they do all start to look equally, fatiguingly grand after a while.
That night we had a wonderful dinner at a rooftop restaurant. Please note that Mike and my dad are wearing matching outfits. Isn't that so precious? And they LOVED posing for this photo, as you can see by their not-at-all-forced smiles.
Post dinner the younguns headed to the Galata Bridge for some nargile, and Caitlin made a new friend. "Are you going to school tomorrow? School tomorrow, yes?" "Yes yes," dismissive headshake, open palm outstretched, "Money money!" And then we would give him lira, because we are suckers, and even though you're not supposed to give money because it reinforces the cycle of etc etc etc, he was to sweet and cute for us. Also persistent. Very very persistent.
Also in that restaurant, though not captured on camera, was a large party of people who set off fireworks and sparklers INSIDE. Because we were sitting at tables outside, we were less alarmed than fascinated. When they took their dancing out to us, I joined in. Because, as evidenced by Caitlin and Money Money Boy above, how could you not?
Last trek up the 18 million steps to our apartment
Our goodbye to Istanbul came a week later, when we were back for 24 hours before our flight home. My parents went sightseeing; Mike and I sat at cafes for hours and scoped out the local musical instruments.
One thing that we noticed - constantly - was the Turkish habit of translating many things into English. Wonderful. Except it was always terrible English. Even more wonderful. Aside from grammatical mistranslations, there were some cultural ones as well. For example, what the hell was this ad for? I'm going with sausage, but we'll never know. 
Take a moment to really appreciate the expressions here.
Speaking of sausage: the food, oh man, the food. It was divine. I can now profess a love of Turkish breakfast, a plate of cheeses, meats and vegetables paired with a hardboiled egg, jam and butter and honey, fresh squeezed juice and coffee or tea. Both the coffee and the tea were, on the whole, terrible - Turkish coffee tasted to me like mothballs, and I couldn't get over the grit at the bottom. Tea was super strong and tannic, uncut by milk, since that's not the Turkish style. But after almost every lunch and dinner the restaurant brought out complimentary tea or coffee, and sometimes a sweet, so I smiled, dropped in a few sugar cubes, and gulped it down.

Our first night was Mike's birthday, so I had looked up a nice vegetarian restaurant, Parsifal, that was delicious. Mezzes upon mezzes, dolmas like you've never seen, pillowy piles of grains and yogurt, crispy chewy borek (like cheese-filled pastry cigars), roasted vegetables, and salty cheese crumbled on everything. Saturday, after a long day of sightseeing, we took a ferry to the Asian side, to the highly-recommended Ciya Sofrasi, a delicious madhouse. Once we figured out that we needed to order at a counter and then return to our table, and got up the courage to ask the chef behind the counter what everything in the bubbling pots in front of him was, we tucked into an obscene number of saucy steaming dishes. The highlight was a molded pilaf with a crispy outer shell, studded with chicken and raisins. Mike kindly requested we stop moaning about how good it was since he couldn't eat it. We complied as best we could. But it was sooooo good.

Our crowning dinner was Sunday night, in our neighborhood, at a rooftop restaurant called Leb-i Derya. It had 270 degree views of the city, and we timed our reservation for sundown to catch the city lit up in oranges and pinks. We had a leisurely meal of modernized Turkish food and local wine.
Our second crowning dinner (we can have two crowns, right?) was the following Sunday, the night before flying out, at Mikla on top of the Marmara Pera hotel, where we were staying. It was HIGH END, the kind of place you'd need to save for in the US. There were 360 degree views, flutes of champagne on the terrace, and a conceptually interesting meal that I didn't totally love, though tiny toasts with fried anchovies did hit the spot.
So our first night we binged on lokum studded with pistachios. The second day we stuffed ourselves with baklava drenched in honey. From there on out we were more moderate in the traditional sweets department, instead going for a fantastic flourless chocolate cake (at a government-run restaurant near the Blue Mosque, oddly), espresso pannacotta (at Leb-i Derya, divine), tiny cinnamony borek (at Ziggy in Cappadocia, more on that later), and berry soup at Mikla. We swigged Turkish beer and wine, smoked hookah, and inhaled all manner of mezze. But mostly I soaked up the views, until I got dizzy, which may have also had something to do with all the sugar and the wine. But mostly it was this:
That's more than enough for now, especially when one word would have sufficed. Go! As soon as you can! And tell me all about it.

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