Back to tour guiding!

I’ve been playing tour guide again, and I love it.

Enter Sally Nankivell, a visitor from Grand Marais (my home town). She’s been reading my weekly missives for years now, and decided it was finally time to trek to Istanbul. Heck, a free room on the Bosphorous and an eager host? It’s a no-brainer! I was tickled when she booked a ticket last summer, and now she’s here.

I met her at the airport Saturday afternoon—along with two lovely young girls who had worked in Grand Marais last summer, Cemile and Gizem. Though they had met Sally only a few times in Minnesota, they were eager to welcome her to their side of the Atlantic. Such warmth and generosity is very Turkish. We four spent Saturday evening together in Arnavutköy and Bebek, strolling along the Bosphorous, then enjoying an outdoor sunset dinner at Bebek’s Midpoint Restaurant. (By the way, bebek is the Turkish word for baby. Hmmm…)

Me, Gizem, Sally, and Cemile at the Midpoint Restaurant in Bebek

Sally slept until eleven Sunday (after a sleepless night), then we headed into Sultanahmet to see the “usual” sites. She had delivered a new camera for me (my old one died a painful death in September), and I was eager to give it a whirl. It’s my third version of the same Olympus, this new model cheaper than the other two. Anyway, instead of the expected 10X optical zoom, this one has a 26X zoom as well as a wide-angle lens. Oh, my! Ask me if I was thrilled.

A fellow crossing the road at the bus stop in Arnavutköy–must have been a rough night.


The famed Blue Mosque in Sultanahmet


A little Turkish maiden cavorting among the devout…

PA250050The Blue Mosque courtyard

So—we spent a fair amount of time snapping photos inside the Blue Mosque, then I lured Sally over to a well-hidden gem that few tourists discover: Yerbatan Sarnıcı, The Basilica Cistern. It was one of my favorite discoveries on my first trip into the city, and I love sharing it with visitors. You’d never find it if you didn’t know where to look, as the entrance is a small stone building just off the tramway. The entrance is the only nondescript thing about it, though. Once through the entry, you descend a wide stone stairway into a subterranean wonderland.

The ceiling of the Cistern from the stairway landing…awesome!

The cistern is a huge underground “lake” of water originally conveyed by aquaducts from the Belgrade Forest, 19 kilometers north of the city. Built in the 6th century by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, the cistern consists of a network of hundreds of vaulted brick domes supported by 30-foot marble columns. The cistern’s 336 columns are believed to be recycled from older buildings in the area because they are of mixed design. Most of the columns have ornate Corinthian capitals, while some are Doric and Ionic. I guess it wasn’t all that easy to find 336 matching columns back in the day.

PA250065Looking down a row of columns to the peacock column in the distance

My favorite is the peacock column, or the “tears column,” decorated with the motif of peacock tail feather eyes. It also has a thumb-sized hole in its side. You place a thumb in the hole, make a wish, then rotate the rest of your hand in a full circle. I guess then the wish comes true. Right.


The Peacock column–note the hand up against the “wishing hole.”

Imagine semi-darkness, medieval background music, dripping water, and wooden walkways through a forest of gently lit columns. Few things in Istanbul transport me back quite like the cistern.

Sally and I meandered back to the mysterious gorgon Medusa heads. Apparently they weren’t discovered until the mid-1980’s when the cistern was renovated to accommodate tourists. Two ancient marble Medusas (one upside down and one sidways) serve as the bases for columns in a far corner of the cistern. Remember Medusa, the goddess with hair of snakes whose glance would turn people to stone? Yup, that’s her—right there in the Basilica Cistern. Go figure!

PA250081The upside-down Medusa

The cistern has another claim to fame, too. It was used for a scene in From Russia With Love in 1963. Although it was located far from the Russian Consulate, few people realized the discrepancy, and it made for a great chase scene on the water between the columns.

The cistern once provided water for Topkapi Palace and its gardens, but it eventually went into disuse. During the final restorations of the mid-1980’s, over 50,000 tons of mud were removed to bring the cistern back to its original state.

Pretty awesome.

After that, Sally and I relaxed with a cup of tea at the Caferağa Medresesi, another favorite spot where the ancient classrooms and sleeping rooms of a medieval Koran school are now used to teach the fine arts of ceramic painting, ebru (paper marbling), miniature painting, ceramic design, jewelry making and many other art forms. It’s a peaceful little spot in one of the busiest parts of the city, humming with the quiet activity of artists.


The tea courtyard at the Caferağa Medresesi, with classrooms in the background.


The fine art of ebru, or paper marbling, is taught here.

PA250096A jewelry class crowded into one of the tiny classrooms.

After that we hopped back on the tram and bus to Ortaköy, where we indulged in a fruit-and-chocolate-filled waffle, a Bosphorous cruise, and a quiet dinner. Sigh…


Our fruit waffle–imagine it all rolled up. YUM!!!

PA250150This dear woman made us gozleme, a meal-in-a-minute. She’s rolling filo-like pastry (yufka), which will be spread with cheese, potatoes, and spinach, then folded into an envelope and fried. There’s one on the cooker behind her.

A good time was had by all.

Not the Istanbul Marathon

I was going to write about the Istanbul Marathon today, but I must sheepishly admit that my friends and I were put off by a bit of rain. Actually, it was pouring this morning, and I didn’t much want to walk in the rain, especially with my still-reticent knees. Missed the annual opportunity to walk from Asia to Europe. Maybe next year…


The Marathon we missed on Sunday

SO—instead, I’ll share my world. First off, the apartment. My apartment is more than sweet, a little train-like affair of three consecutive rooms. My double-bolted door is situated up a dozen marble stairs from the street, an enclosed, roofed stairway. After it rains, scores of tiny tree snails crawl up the walls. It’s unbelievable. I have to sweep the snails down a few times a week.

Once you step in the door, you’ll see a small kitchen on the left with new granite countertops and bright, shining cupboards. I don’t have enough to fill them yet, but you never know. The recycling is piling up, and that takes some space.


My kitchen

To the right of the entryway is a tiny bathroom—adequate for one person. Don’t try to brush your teeth at the same time as me, though; you might fall into the toilet. There’s a small shower with a molded fiberglass seat, good for piling newly-washed sheets and rugs. Laundry is a challenge here, as I have no washing machine, and town doesn’t seem to have a laundromat. I’m washing things by hand and learning why women didn’t used to work outside the home. No time! Have to find a washboard, I think.

OK, back to the apartment. You step through a glass-paned wooden door into the living room, which sports a couch, two easy chairs, and a little half-round table. It’s perfect for me, and I can even entertain a few people. I’ve hung a bright red rug over the couch, and I have my green ushak on the floor.

DSCN0071Libby curled up with my knitting in the living room

The premier feature of this room, though, is the view. I sit at my windowside table and marvel at the glittering Bosphorous as ships both huge and tiny navigate the busy waterway.  The metal grills over the windows hardly bother me; all first floor windows are grilled in Istanbul—safety.


My perch in the living room

Through the next door is a bedroom with a double bed, a dresser, a low cabinet, and yet another breathtaking view. Libby perches on a suitcase wedged next to the window and supervises the neighborhood. Just below her lookout is the 203-step “street” (Eğlence Sokağı) leading “downtown”. There’s plenty of foot traffic on it, both two and four-legged. Libby, of course, finds the latter more intriguing.


Libby’s supervisory seat for the neighborhood

DSCN0079A train-like view through the bedrooms

The last room, through yet another glass-paned door, is my guest room/office. There you’ll find an armoire, a desk, wall shelves, and a single bed. Of course, this room also features the fabulous Bosphorous vista. Lucky me, huh?


a cloudy-day Bosphorous view…

Libby and I go for a walk two or three times a day. She’s particularly fond of the local felines and has developed a complicated ritual of chasing them. If she’s not scrabbling after one under a parked car, she’s chasing another into the nearest tree.

DSCN0266A young calico glowers at Libby from the top of a convertible.

Many of these cats have computed the length of her leash (16 feet, retractable), and they often stop just beyond her reach to thumb their kitten noses at her. Another favorite trick is to come flying back at her. Occasionally a cat will stand its ground, and Libby knows better than to push her luck. She’s been scratched before, and she didn’t much like it.


A stand-off beside a car.

The hardest part of Libby’s world is the stray dogs. They just aren’t that fond of her, particularly Irma. She’s a stray just up the street on the way to school, and one of her ears is missing. Is that what makes her so cranky? Who knows. When she sees Libby her hackles go up and she sneaks in for the attack. If I spot her in time, I scold her, and she lurks off. She often surprises us later though, the little minx. She was adopted by a neighbor (the daughter of the nice retired man who walks Pablo, a big bulldog), and she thinks she’s in charge of the neighborhood. Oh, well. Maybe she is. I tried bringing treats for her, but she’ll only take them if Libby isn’t around, and she’s never come close enough to be petted.


The usual doggie-sniffing routine

It’s not just Irma, though. It’s ALL the stray dogs. They lie in wait for Libby, then as we come down the street they start the barking chain, like in Lady and the Tramp. Every morning we leave the house around 6 AM, and within minutes the entire pack of Arnavutkoy dogs are barking their heads off, warning each other that Libby’s on her walk. “It’s only fair, since you terrorize the cats,” I tell her. Libby rolls her eyes.


Libby’s favorite—the kitty buffet

I have to tell you, though, that both Libby and I are happy here in spite of the problems we face. Heck, when is life all roses? Of course, we both like to THINK it is, even if it rains on our marathon. Sigh…

An Istanbul Faux-pas

I have a confession to make. I have a habit of skimming official e-mails. Consequently, I often miss attachments, addendums, and sometimes very important information. A case in point:

I have been trying for weeks to meet with my editor, Zarife, about marketing my new guidebook, Istanbul’s Bazaar Quarter~Backstreet Walking Tours. Zarife has a new baby and only works from 11 to 3, so our hours don’t mesh. When I learned that we would have the day off on Tuesday, I thought it was perfect. We arranged to meet at 1:00 at the Çitlembik offices, near Taksim Square.

You may have heard that the International Monetary Fund meetings were held in Istanbul this week. So had I. In fact, I received an e-mail from the American Consulate warning us to avoid the Istanbul Congress Center in Harbiye for the duration of the meetings. OK, fine. (I should have read on, but I didn’t. In fact, I wasn’t even sure where Harbiye was.)

So, just before noon on Tuesday I hopped a bus to Taksim. I was pretty surprised when they re-routed us around the Beşiktaş area, but I figured that must have been where the convention was. No problem.

Traffic was backed up, and I checked my watch. Time was getting tight. Much to my consternation, the bus stopped just above the Beşiktaş arena, about 10 blocks below Taksim. Everyone got off the bus and started walking. Hmmmm…

I should have figured all was not well at that point, but I forged on with the rest of the people from the bus.

As we trudged up İnönü Caddesi, police stood at intervals guarding the traffic-free street. Soon I saw broken shop windows, a completely smashed bus stop, an overturned security booth, and a smoldering fire in the middle of the street.


I saw broken shop windows…


…a smashed bus stop near the Technical University…


…and workers trying to clean up the fiery mess left by protesters.

Suddenly a mass of police in riot gear charged up the street. Oh, my goodness! I snapped some photos, trying to look inconspicuous (a difficult task for a tall, white-haired Nordic woman).

DSCN0110Police charging up the street in riot gear

As I approached Taksim Square, things seemed to be settling down. Maybe I could still make it to my meeting. I had ten minutes.

As I came around the corner, a column of police dragged struggling, yelling protesters toward the square from İstiklal (the main walking street below Taksim Square).


Police escorting unruly protestors to waiting police vans


a handcuffed protester

Oops—maybe not so safe, after all. I hoped against hope that the demonstrations were over so I could make my way down İstiklal to Çitlembik. As I turned down the street, people were milling around while shopkeepers stood behind locked doors. Further down I spotted turmoil in the crowded street.

Now what? Maybe I could circumvent the demonstration by going over a few blocks and walking down Şıraselviler Caddesi. I turned right and headed down there, then saw even more police on that street. ARAUGHHH!!! I was caught between a rock and a hard place—demonstrations seemed to be everywhere.


Oops–not that street either! They’re EVERYWHERE!!!!

Tear gas stung my eyes, so I ducked into a building where I ran into a young woman. Nothing like a little anxiety to break the ice. She was a tour guide and was supposed to be at the airport meeting a group of 40 Spanish tourists. “I can’t get there,” she said. “I’ll have to call the bus driver and have him bring them here to me.”

“Not a good idea,” I countered. “This is the LAST place you’d want to bring a group of tourists. See if you can get to Sultanahmet and have him meet you there.”

I called my publishing office to cancel my meeting. I knew I’d never make it through another 20 blocks teeming with demonstrators and riot police. What a DOPE I am!

It turned out that Zarife lives about two blocks from Taksim Square (away from the protests), and when she had headed out for the office, she saw the protesters and went straight back home. (She hadn’t known my new cell phone number.) She gave me directions to her apartment, and I headed off with my new friend. Whew! We had to cross near Taksim Square again, but there were scores of police to protect us—and they did. We were really in no danger. I waved goodbye to the tour guide and headed off to find Zarife’s apartment.

After some calming tea and a good strategy meeting, Zarife directed me to a safe metro stop, where I hopped on a metro away from the fray–to Levent. There I grabbed a cab to my quiet, peaceful village of Arnavutköy, where I picked up a few fresh vegetables at the street market. Ah, tranquility! Thank goodness for small pleasures.


Construction workers tap cobblestones into the streets of Arnavutköy.

DSCN0143Arnavutköy’s peaceful Tuesday bazaar. Ah….

~            ~

By the way, I later learned that there were 10,000 police on Istanbul’s streets to protect the IMF’s 15,000 visitors. The Turkish police are often a presence in Istanbul, and this time their vigilance kept the protests under control, quickly impeding the illegal activities of hundreds of protesters. And just think, if I’d read my whole e-mail, I would have missed the whole thing (which would have been JUST FINE).


I’ve been nearly a month in Istanbul now—and my knees are FURIOUS!!!!

I live at the top of the village of Arnavutköy, an enchanting old settlement on the Bosphorous. It’s an Ottoman version of San Francisco. The streets leading up to my apartment vary from 25-degree to 45-degree inclines. I kid you not. In fact, some feel even steeper.

my hill

This lovely house shows the slant of the Arnavutköy streets.

About half the streets are just stairways. The one leading down in front of my building has 203 stairs, and that still leaves about 4 steep blocks to the waterfront. I’ve been walking Libby down to the Bosphorous twice a day—something we’ll have to give up until my knees rebound.

looking DOWN my hill

This is the switchback road that goes AROUND the 203 steps below my apartment.

On the other hand, every walk through the village means reveling in the picturesque views of wooden Ottoman houses, many of which have been renovated. Renovated, I might say, at great cost. (One has pounded tin siding—very cool!) And that against the backdrop of the glittering Bosphorous.

The Tin house

The amazing tin-sided house.

Unfortunately, many of these old houses are rotting on the vine, so to speak. Apparently they have uncertain ownership or disputed titles. In the States, homes with back taxes go into public auction, while in Turkey they just crumble. Real estate in Arnavutköy is at a premium, though, so more and more are being snapped up and redone. Good thing.

Arnavutkoy Ottoman Houses

A renovated Ottoman house beside a crumbling one.

Back to my cranky knees…

In addition to the steep hills below me, I’m only about halfway up the hill, and I have to walk up to school each day. That trek isn’t TOTALLY uphill, but mostly. I go down a short block, up a STEEP incline, up a long, gradual incline, down a bit, then through a security gate and up about 20 steps to the main school road. From there it’s another 50-yard climb up to the school buildings. 24 more outside steps get me to the main entrance, and then another 70 get me to my attic office. I do between 300 and 450 stairs each day just in the building. No wonder my knees are crabby.

Robert College on a holiday

Robert College’s Gould Hall in it’s full national holiday regalia.

After a week of pretty distressing aches, I called my friend Dr. Mike, who has tended my ailing knees for years. “Well,” he said after asking all the pertinent questions, “First of all, your knees need a rest. Stop climbing stairs and hills for the next few weeks.” Right. I shared this suggestion with a few fellow teachers, and the response was a hearty  guffaw. Rest? Not an option at Robert.

Robert College is old and gorgeous, but it’s located on a very steep hill, and there’s only one elevator—not in my building. That’s just the way it is. So—I went out tonight and bought myself a hot water bottle. Made by Kraft, no less. “This hot water bottle is made of natural rubber,” is printed on its neck. Smells like it, too. The price was actually 6.75 lira, but the druggist didn’t have change, so he gave it to me for five (about $3.50). At least some things are going my way.

Arnavutkoy houses

A lovely renovated house facing the Bosphorous

So—I’m sitting in my lovely Arnavutköy apartment, knees propped up on my new, blue, eau-de-rubber hot water bottle, listening to Debussy and typing my woeful tale.

But guess what? I’m happy as a clam.

As my father always says, “Things work out.”