Meandering Istanbul

April 23, 2009

Meandering through an Istanbul weekend

My semester sojourn in Istanbul is half over—hard to believe. It’s gone quickly (in spite of the rain), and it’s been wonderful. Last weekend was uncommitted, so I took advantage of the usual weekend service buses into the city. Friday night we went to the Palladium Mall, where my friend Dee and I watched The Reader. I seldom get to movies at home, as the nearest theater is 90 miles away in Thunder Bay, so I appreciate the opportunity here every weekend. I hosted Dana, a teaching compatriot from the Canterbury School in Florida (our school has a cultural exchange with them). She was a delight.

Saturday I took the service bus into the city with plans to get a haircut. I cut my own hair a few weeks ago, and it was growing out rather poorly, pooching out in several directions at once. Time for a fix—which I got! The kuafor remembered me and squeezed me into his “coloring” schedule. Of course he served me tea, and the ladies who were sojourning over the lunch hour were treated to lunch on his terrace, delivered by a local restaurant. What service!

Flower vendors in Kadiköy

After my haircut I just wandered. The sun was shining, and I was aimlessly listening to a book on my ipod (Duane’s Depressed by Larry McMurtry—interesting). I trekked along the Marmara, which features a scenic park and walkway on reclaimed soil along the seaside. I stopped at an seaside restaurant at the end of a long breakwater pier in Moda, where I enjoyed a mid-day omelette and watched sailboats skim across the harbor. Nice.

The Moda restaurant sits out on the end of a pier.

My lunch-table view, sailboats and the Princes Islands in the distance.

The next thing I spotted on my meanderings was a young dude in cowboy hat and cowboy boots toting two huge bags of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Not too Turkish, I thought to myself as I pulled out my camera.

Cowboy delivery dude…

Lo and behold, he was delivering lunch to his photo crew, who were busy shooting a pretty redhead as she cavorted around a pink ’57 Chevy convertible, swinging her hair madly as she twirled. Amazing. I don’t think it was a fashion shoot, though, because the model wasn’t wearing much. Hmmm…

…and the photo shoot. NAME THAT PRODUCT!!!

Later I found a big flat rock on the breakwater and stretched out to bask in the mid-day sun. Sigh… What joy! It made me just a little sad to think of my friends in Grand Marais struggling through yet another snowstorm. Not too sad, though. I actually felt a bit smug sitting in the sun. For lack of a better thing to do, I watched a man blow up balloons for his seaside target-practice concession. (BB guns, I hope.)

I had decided to waste a few hours working on my computer at Starbuck’s when I walked by a ferry with a sign for a 7 lira Bosphorus cruise. Let’s see…a smoky Starbuck’s or a two-hour ferry ride? Tough decision. It was lovely, of course, and I enjoyed chatting with some university students eager to practice their English. The Turks love to engage in conversation, and it’s great fun to chat with them in whatever limited language we can manage. Ah, the ever-friendly Turks.

One of the scores of ferries touring the Bosphorous

I hopped on another ferry to Karaköy, where I met an artist friend for dinner—we didn’t have much time, but it was nice to catch up over jumbo shrimp and a salad at the Odessa Restaurant. We sat in a second-story open window overlooking the Golden Horn and the Marmara, out of the chill wind but still in the sun. They served us a complimentary dessert of sicak helva, a sweet made from sesame seeds, which is served grilled or roasted over grated carrots—tastes a bit like melted homemade caramel. YUM! It was hard to tear myself away, but I had to ferry across the water to catch the service bus home. Sigh…

Sunday there was another service bus to the tulip festival at Emirgan Park. It took nearly two hours to get there (Sunday traffic), but the displays and people watching were well worth the trip. The city spends a small fortune planting millions of tulips each spring, and their efforts are well appreciated.

The Entrance sign and map pf the park—a la tulips!

A kangaroo welcome to Emirgan Park—???

The Turks are understandably proud of being the first to cultivate tulips over 1000 years ago, and this annual festival celebrates it elaborately, with plantings, music, and art all over the city. The tulips in Emirgan Park are probably the most impressive anywhere. To me, at least.

Tulips, tulips everywhere!

Emirgan is a fairly traditional community, so most of the women in the park were scarved, and we spotted a group of men at prayer among the tulips, kneeling on their rugs beside a mescit, a small mosque.

The devout answer their call to prayer among the flowers of Emirgan Park.

It’s quite rare to see women completely covered in Istanbul, we saw quite a few robed in black. My favorites were two young women batting a volleyball between them, robes flying.

It reminds me that we’re all very much the same—the differences may appear overwhelming, but at heart we’re more alike than different. We love to play, we enjoy the sun, and we all revel in springtime.

And we shared those joys at Emirgan.

Datça~the REST of the story

After our three days at the Villa Aşina, Jenny, Janet and I headed west out the peninsula to the Chateau Triopia in the tiny village of Yakiköy. On our way we made two stops. First we visited the Olive Garden, an olive factory with an impressive new guesthouse. In addition to learning about the process of pressing olives, we were impressed that they use the discarded olive pulp to fuel their entire system.

Olive pressing machinery at the Olive Farm, Datça

Next we stopped near Kızlan to see picturesque stone windmills that have been grinding grain for hundreds of years. Our guide explained that that area has only 8 hours a year without wind, so it’s little surprise that 36 spanking new wind turbines line the mountain ridge above the old windmills. These will soon supply the southeastern corner of Turkey with power. The initial costs were funded by the government, but a private business is picking up the maintenance and electricity delivery.

Datça’s still-operating-after-all-these-years windmill

The windmill’s inner workings…refurbished, yet much the same as in years past

After basking in the sun with a delicious snack of cheese and spinach gözleme (a little like a mega-quesadilla), we were off to the end of the Datça Peninsula.

The sun was still bright when we arrived at the Chateau Triopia, but the day was waning. We settled into our antique-furnished mountaintop apartments, then headed off to check out Knidos, a ruin at the tip of the peninsula. We just had time to scope it out for the next day, but we stepped into the restaurant (“open years along”) for a warming cup of tea beside the wood stove.

It’s one of those translation things—Open all year, I’m sure.

The view from our balcony at the Chateau Triopia

We returned to our hotel just in time to clean up for dinner, a gourmet four-course meal prepared by our host, Suavi Hasarı. Soup, bread, salad, fresh grilled fish with garlic sauce, and chocolate pudding cost us a mere 19 lira (about $12). The wine was extra. It would have been a bargain at five times the price, let me tell you! We enjoyed two fabulous meals at the hotel, and it was a good thing, too, because there were no other restaurants in Yakiköy. Just a mosque.

kahvaltı—breakfast at the Chateau Triopia

Wednesday after breakfast (Janet poured) we headed off once again for Knidos, eager to explore its treasures. Sunny, windy, and fascinating. We rambled the ruins for over three hours, marveling at every temple, column, and cow we encountered. Those cows kind of scare me, I have to admit. Once when I was walking alone, a bull gave me a glare and started toward me. I was up behind a tree before he knew it. He just ambled off, disinterested, as my heart pounded into my throat. SHEEESH!!!

Knidos columns against the Mediterranean Coastline

The same Knidos columns with the Aegean Sea behind them

Yup, I was there, too!

Knidos was established before the 6th century BC, and by the 4th century it had become a thriving metropolis of over 70,000. The whole peninsula doesn’t have anything NEAR that many people now—maybe 15,000? They apparently sent their wealth to Delphi, Greece, where they built a treasury. I’ve seen Delphi, and I noted many similarities between the two ancient cities. Knidos once extended 7 kilometers into the peninsula, and we saw evidence of ancient structures for quite some distance along the VERY narrow, twisty one-lane road.

Big action on the dock in Knidos’ South Harbor

On our way home we decided to  explore a side-road to the beach. It was a bit like the back-country hunting roads near Grand Marais—SLOW going. Our destination was a pebble beach, where we contentedly collapsed.

My beach-stack record: 16 stones and a shell

Suavi Bey created yet another delicious dinner for us, a satuteed chicken dish this time. YUM!!!! Baklava for dessert. Yup. Pretty nice.

It was hard to wave goobye to our new friends at the Triopia, but the memories still warm my heart (and stomach).Off to new adventures of the twisty-road variety. It was a 4-hour drive to Dalyan, our final destination before our flight home. Sigh…

Dalyan is a little tourist city on a river, not far from the Dalaman airport. It’s most famous for its protected sea-turtle beach, its Lycian tombs, and the Kaunos ruins. Lots to see. Scores of blue-canopied boats lined the shore, each eager to take us out for a day. We talked to a few boat owners and selected a full-day boat trip complete with lunch for 35 lira each (about $22). The price was right, and it took care of our concern about getting lunch. Food always seems to be a priority for us. Getting bigger every day…

Our boat stopped first at Kaunos, and it was well worth the kilometer hike from the river. We shared the ruin with a few other tourists, goats, sheep, and cows. (Apparently the animals keep the grass cropped during the early wet season.) A cool breeze follwed us as we strolled through the remains of a huge roman bath, a domed church, a massive arena, temples, and a seaside fountain. This city, like Knidos, dates back to the 6th century BC. It’s clear that there was commerce between all the communities along the south coast of Asia Minor (now Turkey).

Lycian Tombs above the river at Dalyan

The domed church at Kaunos-see the sheep through the door?

Jenny climbs the seats in the Kaunos arena

After a few hours at Kaunos, we boated to a waterside restaurant, the Caretta Caretta (turtle turtle). The mezes (hors d’oeuvres) were delicious, the main course OK, and the dessert—fresh local oranges—was scrumptious. Well sated, we took our huge barge-like-boat-for-three down the river to the beach, a two-mile stretch of sand which is the main nesting ground for Turkey’s loggerhead turtles. They’ve been nesting there for about 95 million years. Unbelievable.

Janet and Jenny strolling back up the beach where loggerheads nest

What a LOVELY vacation—good food, good company, and new vistas explored. A few times during the week I caught myself saying, “It doesn’t get better than this.”

I was right.

Exploring the Datça Peninsula

Windmills, mountains, and the confluence of two seas. That’s Datça. The Aegean Sea skirts Turkey to the west, and the Mediterranean to the south—the Datça Peninsula extends 70 kilometers between them. Remote but spectacularly beautiful, it’s a wiggly finger of mountains pointing toward Greece. In fact, four Greek islands sit just miles offshore. The peninsula’s narrowest point is called Balıkaşira, which means “the place where fish can jump across” or something like that. Just 800 yards separate the Aegean from the Mediterranean. Amazing.

Our first view of the Mediterranean near Marmaris

I’m touring with two of my colleagues from Koç, Jenny Barnard and Janet Karantay; both have lived in Turkey for years. Janet is married to a Turk, and her fluent Turkish has been a great asset on this trip. We flew to Dalaman Saturday morning, rented a car and drove the 180 K to Datça, stopping occasionally to revel at the mountainous terrain jutting from the sea.

The Çağlayan Cafe

We stopped for lunch at the Çağlayan (CHA-la-yan), a delightful garden restaurant with palms, pools, and waterfalls, famous for its kavahltı (breakfast). So—we had breakfast for lunch. Our mantra has been, “We’re on vacation; we can do whatever we like!” And we do. It was a traditional Turkish breakfast, but the bread was crustier, the tomatoes tastier, the cheese creamier, etc. etc… This is a MUST for our return trek.

Oh, my—I hear the morning call to prayer. It always touches me.

Our first hotel, just outside Datça, was the Villa Aşina. Merely a year old, it was featured on the Small Hotels in Turkey web site, which sponsors small, charming hotels across Turkey. I’ve used it often with great success, and this hotel was no exception. “Bright,” “artistic,” and “welcoming” all come to mind.

The Aşina Mosaic Serpent along its outside wall

We were first met by a braying burrow that grazed beside the hotel, then by our young hostess, Arzu Gerçekaslan, who met us at the front steps. We were the season’s first guests—the only ones in the hotel—and we were treated like royalty. Arzu advised us on our explorations of the area. The early spring sun blazed as we settled into our rooms, marveling at our spacious balconies overlooking the Mediterranean, the Greek island of Simi in the distance.

My balcony view of the Mediterranean and the Greek island of Simi

Janet rested while Jenny and I walked down to the rugged beachside near the hotel. Stunning. I was glad we’d chosen a hotel outside this bustling city of 16,000. We met some four-legged neighbors along the way.

Not only were there burrows in the neighborhood,

but goats, sheep, and cows as well.

Later we sat on the hotel’s terrace to sip a beer as we contemplated the stunning scenery. We were served fuzzy green fruit-like pods—badem (raw almonds). We sampled them, three bites of something much like a crisp, tart plum, a local specialty. Not bad, but not great either. One was enough.

“An almond in the hand is worth two on the bush? Actually, tree…”

That evening we drove into town, wandered by too many not-yet-open-for-the-season restaurants, and found a little family-owned locanta where we enjoyed a bowl of mercimek soup, bread, and salad. Perfect.

Datça’s harbor, with boats awaiting summer crowds

The patter of rain on my balcony thwarted my plans for an early morning walk. Sigh… We’ve had SO much rain in Turkey! Oh, well. Whatever…

Breakfast was at 8:30, and I emerged with a bag of Starbuck’s and my French press. I can’t abide Nescafe, the Turkish proxy for coffee. What we learned, though, after a delicious breakfast, is that the Aşina makes a kick-butt cup of tea (with a hint of cloves). YUM!!!!

The Aşina pre-season breakfast nook

In spite of the rain, we headed off in our silver Fiat to explore the area, also known as the Reşadiye Peninsula. I’m glad I forgot my driver’s license, because the road was harrowing, at best. Of course, the vistas were mind-boggling. Gorgeous.

The Datça Peninsula’s mountains are dotted with olive and almond trees.

As we neared Knidos, our hoped-for destination, the rain became a deluge. We stopped at a little hotel that Janet had found on the Small Hotels site, the Chateau Triopia.

Chateau Triopia, Culinarium, Hotellerie, Vinotheque..~ Hmmm…

We dashed through their stone gate, up the stairs, and around to the hotel restaurant. “Cay, var mi?” I asked, hoping for a few dry moments in their charming restaurant. (Little did I know that they would refuse payment—Turkish hospitality.) We enjoyed a chat with manager Suavi Bey, as well as his Turkish staff. As the sun emerged (momentarily), we toured their mountain-top inn, and we were entranced. It features stone construction, replete with mosaic art as well as lovely, antique-furnished apartments. What a spot! (We went back to stay later in the week.)

My travel buddies, Janet and Jenny on a Triopia balcony

The Chateau Triopia—a lovely mountaintop inn.

After our visit, we drove down the mountain to the sea road (Sahilyolu) and enjoyed a delectable lunch at the Dostlar (friends) Restaurant on the seaside at Palamut Bükü. The rain had abated, so we walked the beach, drove the shore road, and took another walk in a tiny village called Hayit Bükü. Charming, all!

The Datça Peninsula’s rainy-day coastline

Harbor at Hayit Bükü

Our rainy day was a success, and we headed back to the Villa Aşina for a welcome glass of wine beside a crackling fire they’d prepared in their carved marble fireplace.

The Villa Aşina’s marble fireplace

On Monday (after French toast and Turkish breakfast), we explored Eski Datça, the old city up on the hill above Datça. Entrancing. Ancient stone buildings and cobbled streets are a standard; apparently building there requires a special permit from the government, archeological excavation, and construction that matches the rest of the city. Hence, a well-preserved city.

A typical Eski Datça street

A tempting Eski Datça Entryway

Inside view of a silversmith’s shop in Eski Datça

A curious Eski Datça rooster…

…and a less-than-curious rooftop kitten

That evening we chatted with some Turkish musicians who recommended a restaurant on Datça’s harbor, the Kirmizihan Şarap Evi (red inn wine house). When we arrived, we learned that one of them had stopped in to let the owners know they should treat us well and not overcharge us, as we were schoolteachers from Istanbul. Works for me! We had a scrumptious meal of mezes (appetizers) and balik çorba (fish soup). Yum. Double yum.

Well, we’ve left Datça and are settled into the Chateau Triopia, where we’re happy as clams. The sun is out, and memories of yesterday’s rain are behind us. Does it get better than this? I don’t think so.

A Trek to Eyup

It never ceases to amaze me. Istanbul. This city that straddles two centuries—sometimes three—as well as spanning two continents. Talk about diversity!

Last weekend my friend Dee and I trekked from Sultanahmet up to Eyup, through the most traditional sections of the city. We started our mini-pilgrimage at Eminönü, the ferrystop along the Golden Horn just below Sultanahmet. Once we crossed the Galata bridge, our world shifted. It was like stepping back in time. All of a sudden the tourists were gone and we were among Turks, and more traditional Turks at that. The first things we spotted were three boats moored by the quay, one with triple copper onion-shaped domes. Hmmm…

Fish restaurant boats along the Golden Horn at Eminönü

As we drew closer, we realized they were fish restaurants, with fish-flipping chefs resplendent in traditional Turkish embroidered vests. They filled crusty poor-boy sized loaves with piping hot fish fillets, which they handed off to waiters waiting on the pier.

The fish hand-off

Low tables and stools filled the quay, some under tent roofs, but all with happy Turks enjoying their fresh fish sandwiches. YUM!!!!

The fish restaurant with the boat in the background

Beside these open-air restaurants, vendors worked from quaint food stands selling—what? Something red and lumpy in a clear red juice. Whatever could it be? It looked like a pink parfait of some kind, but on closer scrutiny we realized it was TURŞU—PICKLES!!!! I’m still not sure about the red juice (cherry?), but people were buying and thoroughly enjoying pickled cucumbers, carrots, peppers, and cabbage in something red. Hmmm…


Sorry that we’d already eaten, Dee and I trekked on to find the bus for Edirnekapı, our first stop. A friendly driver left his bus and walked us to where he thought ours might be, checking with that driver to be sure. Typical Turkish helpfulness. (I love it.) Though we had to stand, we were happy to be on our way. We rode about 15 minutes to Edirnekapı, where we hopped off and waited for a mini-bus to Eyup. Within moments we’d paid our fare (collected in a tray beside the driver) and were on our way. Once again I was standing, but a sweet man took his 11-year-old grandson onto his lap to make room for me. The boy, I think, was bigger than his grandfather. I knew better than to refuse, and took the kindly proffered place. I shared that I’m an English teacher, then asked the very shy boy a few questions, like “Are you happy there is no school Monday?” That brought a smile! (We were given the day off because of Sunday’s elections, which were to be held in the schools. Apparently they needed Monday to count ballots and put things back in order.)

Election banners for the Sunday election hang all over the city.

Before long we were in Eyup. We’d stepped from modern Istanbul into a world of capped and bearded men with women in scarves and veils. So different for us…

Traditionally-garbed Turks enjoy a Saturday promenade by the Eyup fountain.

We snapped photos of the mosque and fountain, then found our way to Eyup’s famous tomb, from which it takes its name. Eyyub al Ensari was a close friend of the prophet Mohammed, and he supposedly lost his life there during the Muslim siege of Istanbul in the 7th century. Wow. His tomb, now known as “Eyup Sultan Türbesi,” is located in the main mosque complex near the Golden Horn.

Traditional Iznik ceramic tiles with the very rare green shades as well as red and blue

Dee and I donned our scarves (you never tour Turkey without one, as it’s required garb in mosques), took off our shoes, and followed the devout into the tomb. Instead of standing with hands together as Christians do, the Muslims pray with cupped hands, palms up, at about chest level. Everyone paid their respects to Eyup, many reading from the Koran along the perimeter of the ornately decorated room, then they backed out of the room, always facing the tomb. All very silent and respectful. And there we were—tourists. Ah,well. Tourists among the pilgrims.

Worshippers at the Eyup Sultan Tomb

A koran vendor on the streets and one of the many lanterns outside the tomb.

Our next stop was the top of the hill above the famed Eyup Cemetery. Thousands of ancient tombs climb the hill to a high point at the end of the Golden Horn.

The men’s tombs often have a fez or turban atop to show their status.

Ancient, tired, leaning tombstones on Eyup’s hillside cemetery.

The famous Pierre Loti café sits atop it all. Tables and tables of tea drinkers relax to enjoy the incredible view of the city from one of its highest points. On a clear day you can see all the way to the Blue Mosque and the Haghia Sophia. It wasn’t that clear on Saturday, but it was gorgeous nonetheless. In case you didn’t know, Pierre Loti was a French writer who fell in love with Istanbul and often wrote sitting at an outdoor café on this very spot.

The Pierre Loti cafe kitchen

The Golden Horn view from our table

Oh, dear—I’m writing too much again. Sigh… It’s hard to stop, you know. Well, welcome to the traditional side of Istanbul, high above the Golden Horn at Eyup’s Pierre Loti Café.

Lovely. Incredible Istanbul.

The Bulgarian Iron Church—a Christian steeple along the Golden Horn