As my friends back home struggled with yet another snowstorm, I sat in the Istanbul airport reminiscing about our last three (sunny) days in the city. Though I lived here for years and know the city well, each day brought new experiences, new history, new insights.
It was Ramadan, so a good percentage of the population fast from sunrise to sunset. We’d arranged to enjoy an iftar (breaking of the fast) dinner on our first night, so we strolled down to the Matbah restaurant eager to see what lay ahead. Our table for six was set with mouth-watering mezes (appetizers), a traditional fruit juice, and water. We sat salivating over a feast of eggplant salad, humus, tapenade, pickled beets, vegetables, fresh, crusty bread, and other delicacies as we waited for the sunset call to prayer.At the first strains from nearby minarets, we loaded our plates with mezes as waiters swept in with steaming bowls of soup. Food never tasted so good.
We visited the usual Istanbul sites—the Hippodrome (from Roman times), the Blue Mosque (closed for renovation), Topkapi Palace, and the Hagia Sophia, which has gone from a Christian Church (532-1453) to a mosque (1453-1931) to a museum (1931-2020) and now, sadly, back to a mosque.
We also had some surprises. As we strolled along the imposing Byzantine walls that encircle the old city, we encountered men gingerly toting boxes, bags, and cages. What? Our guide Elif explained that many Turkish men are passionate about pigeons, and the Sunday Pigeon Market was up the hill. Well, why not? She paid our admission (about 50¢) to a fenced-in market, a menagerie of pigeons and purchasers.
Though we were the only women among scores of men, they hardly noticed us as they inspected birds, prodding and turning them as they decided whether they were worth the price ($5 to $100). It was fascinating.
A soccer game was in progress between the pigeon market and the imposing city wall. Few paid attention, though. They were all about pigeons.
Our next stop was the newly-restored Tekfur Palace, a Byzantine palace where artists once created colorful ceramic tiles for the Ottomans through the Renaissance and beyond.
Who knew? I’d never even heard of it. From the ramparts we saw the city wall marching down to the Marmara Sea.
Our big treat on the third day was a cooking class at Cooking Alaturka. We were welcomed by a Sicilian chef, Roco, who offered us drinks and conversation before explaining our menu—five mezes (appetizers) and what they called the most lethal of Turkish desserts, künefe. I couldn’t have been happier, as mezes are my favorite part of every Turkish meal.
Roco’s assistant chef Nazlı handed out aprons and had us wash our hands before she led us through the intricacies of making sarma (grape leaves wrapped tightly around a mixture of rice, currants, and spices).
We also prepared grilled eggplant salad (my long-time favorite), spiced lentil “meatballs,” Circassian chicken, and baked hummus. The künefe was a cheesy, creamy, buttery dessert that crunched with every bite. It’s shredded pasta (a little like shredded wheat, only finer and white), a quarter pound of butter, a pound of sugar, a quarter pound of string cheese, lemon and water. Jerry said it was delicious. I had to pass on that because of a milk allergy. They baked stuffed figs for me, so I did get some dessert.
Let me tell you, my greatest challenge was wrapping softened grape leaves around a tiny dab of spiced rice.
The next worst was peeling hot eggplant straight off the grill. Wait—maybe it was peeling a big bowl of cooked chickpeas. Well, whatever was worst, it was well worth the effort. The payoff for all our work was a fabulous meal—with wine. YUM!!!
After a whirlwind tour of Turkey, I was able to sleep in on Thursday morning. My friend Jini and I bumped our heavy suitcases down the spiral staircase of Istanbul’s sweet Kybele Otel, dragged them to the tram stop, and headed to the Eminönü pier to find the station for our one-hour ferry to the Princes Islands—Adalar. “Ada” is Turkish for island, and -lar is the plural form. (Just sayin’.)
My friends Mark and Jolee Zola generously offered their apartment to us for the week, and I’d texted their friend Hamit about our arrival. No response. My fingers were crossed that he’d be there to meet us, since I had only sketchy directions to the apartment—and no key.
We were met on the pier by a gray-haired man with a Cheshire grin. Hamit greeted us warmly and led us to his little red electric cart. There was room either for our luggage or for one of us—an easy decision. He piled our suitcases onto his back seat and drove slowly enough for us to follow him up the steep hill to the Zola apartment, which took our breath away (in more ways than one).
The hike was a steep one, and the place was bright, spacious, and filled with lovely Turkish carpets and pictures. Home for a week, with an airy terrace and garden to boot.
Burgazada is a sleepy little island of about two square miles with a population of about 1200, which swells to ten times that in the summer. The island is like the top of a mountain, covered with trees except for the north side, which faces the big city. It’s odd to stand in silence among the trees and face a view of thousands of concrete buildings across the water (4 miles away).
Burgazada features picturesque Ottoman houses interspersed with 2 to 5-story apartment buildings climbing the hill above the water.
There’s also a Greek Orthodox Church at our end of the town and a mosque at the other end.
There are also cats, which are both fed and hated by the locals. Yesterday one scratched a hole in our terrace screen (the little bastard).
Could this have been the culprit?
No cars are allowed on the islands (except for fire trucks and government vehicles), but the horse carriages of yesteryear have been replaced by a bevy of small electric carts. Horses did all the hauling and transportation on the island the last time I was here (2013), but in past years concerned citizens have protested the misuse of horses, especially with the steep streets on the islands.
Apparently the life expectancy of an island horse is two years after being enlisted to pull a carriage, so the government ruled to end their use. A few horse carriages are still available for tourist use, especially on the weekends. There’s a little “taxi stand” down by the dock; a short ride within the town is 30 lira (about $5), and a full tour of the island is 100 lira.The downtown taxi stand on Burgazada on the weekend. During the week there are only a few carriages at the ready, but on the weekend there are plenty.
Long ago there were as many stray horses as cats on the island, but we’ve only spotted a few as we’ve wandered the island.
Friday morning we walked down to the weekly street market, where we made a killing on FABULOUS vegetables, fruits, and cheese—more than we’ve been able to consume, and for a mere $20. The ailing lira has been to our advantage, though it’s devastated the Turks. When I lived here the lira was about the same as a Canadian dollar, ranging between 70¢ and 80¢. Now a lira is worth a whopping 16¢. Turkey is in a severe recession since the attempted coup in 2016, and the lack of tourists has made it all the worse.
We’ve hiked most of the island as well as Kınalıada, a smaller and sleepier island next door to this one. That, too, has a high peak in the middle, and we hiked over the top and around the side. Though it was only about a three-mile hike, it was grueling (and hot).
We’d brought a picnic lunch, and we stopped to buy some icy water after we reached the peak for the second time (on our way back). When we got back down to the city side, we pulled off our shoes to cool our throbbing feet in the sea, which felt like Lake Superior in the summer. Cold.
Jini dries her feet after their frigid plunge into the Marmara. Pebble beach, like Lake Superior.
Saturday night my friend Julide (Julie Day) came out to the island, suggesting we attend a spring festival on the next island of Heybiliada: the Hıdır Ellez. Jini was coming down with a cold, so Julide and I went alone to enjoy a beer and mezes followed by an evening of music, dancing, singing, and watching other celebrants jump over the bonfire. My goodness! Sadly, the last ferry left at 8:45, which made our night a short one.
I also took Jini to tour Robert College, which impressed her immensely. It’s a stunning park-like campus, and I was tickled to chat with former teaching compatriots Cyrus, Jamison, Jake, Myra, and Alison. Cyrus showed us some major improvements to the campus, which was already gorgeous. When I mention to Turks that I taught at Robert College, eyebrows are raised.
We finished our tour with a mile walk to Ortaköy, where we visited the newly-refurbished Ortaköy Mosque. Because it was the first day of Ramazan, we had to wait until the noon prayer was over then were allowed in. The main part of the mosque is alight from both windows and stunning chandeliers—only for the men. The women’s room is dull and unexciting. What does that say?
We also indulged in kumpir, the local baked potato mashed with butter and cheese, then topped with an array of items like corn, sausage, olives, pickles, mushrooms, tapenade, and other delicious items. I’ve never finished one before, but I cleaned that one right up. My belly felt like after a Thanksgiving dinner, but oh, well. It was delicious.
So ends this sojourn. I have a 4:15 AM flight, and I plan to catch the midnight bus from Sultanahmet to the New Istanbul Airport. Rumor has it that Erdoğan built this airport because he wants to abolish any references to Ataturk, his nemesis. The older (very adequate) airport is called Ataturk. That’s a $12 billion expense to erase an old foe. Hmmm…
Supposedly this will be the largest airport in the world once it’s finished. People are up in arms over the expense, especially after he spent over a billion dollars on his 1000+ room presidential palace. The heck with the unemployed.
Well, I still love this country. Farewell, Turkey…until next time.
One week down and twenty-three to go. Actually, that’s not the way one really looks at time in Istanbul. It’s more like, “Oh, dear! I only have twenty-three weeks left!” Really.
Having been stateside for over a year, returning to Istanbul was like coming back home. Libby and I were met at the airport by Adem, our kindly driver who delivered us to a spacious, bright, and breezy apartment—the best digs I’ve had in my years over here. I’m sub-letting it from a Robert College trustee who lives here in the summer, and she’s been more than kind in sharing her world as well as the name of her precious cleaner.
A neighborhood fixer-upper in Arnavutköy
I arrived in time for the third day of workshop, as I’d stayed behind for my nephew’s wedding in Boulder, Colorado. Since I missed his sister’s wedding a few years before, I enjoyed catching up with both of them and meeting their incredible partners. Ah, new beginnings!
It’s taken me a week to catch up with the time difference (9 hours from Boulder), and I finally feel human as I enjoy the evening breezes wafting through the apartment. I just downed a delicious tomato sandwich, thanks to Arnavutköy’s Tuesday Street Market. The tomatoes were incredible—like the homegrown beefsteak tomatoes I remember from years ago. Each vegetable stand featured tomatoes sliced open to showcase their solid, red interiors, tomatoes you’d never find in a store (even here). I paid 1,5 TL a kilo, which comes out to about 40¢ a pound. Yup. Amazing, huh? And let me tell you, that tomato sandwich was DELICIOUS!
Some incredible tomatoes at an enviable price (40¢ a pound)
Last weekend Libby and I trekked to Burgazada with my friends Sandra and David and Sandra’s friend-of-a-friend from New York. Burgazada is one of the Princes Islands, located in the Sea of Marmara not far from Istanbul’s shore. It’s about an hour-long ferry ride, and we sat on outside benches to enjoy the warm air and stunning views of the city. Cars aren’t allowed on the Prince’s islands, which makes for an idyllic setting. Horse carriages and wagons provide the only transportation, both taxis and delivery vehicles.
We hiked up to Sandra’s apartment and relaxed on her balcony overlooking the sea as we sipped coffee and indulged in a variety of local pastries. My favorite was a sesame paste roll, much like a cinnamon bun. After that we trekked to the height of the island to visit an ancient “KILISE”—church, as well as a very sweet Greek Orthodox graveyard nearby. The big bonus on our hike, though, was a massive fig tree heavy with sweet, ripe figs, ours for the taking. Oh, my!
A rough sign below the church (kilise) on Burgazada’s hilltop.
The interior of the Monastery of the Church of the Transfiguration of Christ.
These ancient (and recent) graves overlook the Princes Islands and Istanbul in the distance.
We hiked back down the island to the pier, where we sat in a shaded seaside cafe to spend two hours feasting on mezes (hors d’oeuvres), salad, and fresh-caught fish. YUM! Libby got only skin, which she didn’t mind a bit.
Doug, Sandra, me and David revel in our fresh fish lunches.
Of course, I’ve been working, too. School started Monday, and I love all three of my classes. Of course, most RC kids are incredible, which is probably why I keep agreeing to come back. They’re respectful, quiet, and diligent. Unfortunately, many are also sensitive. I’ve seen my share of tears, especially from a few who know very little English. This prep year is daunting for them, but they’ll all be on the same page by December. I often wonder how I’d react to being thrown into a classroom where we only spoke Turkish. ARAUGHHH!!!!
Opening Ceremony at Robert College–in their outdoor arena/maze
It’s been a busy week, settling in, learning about our new ThinkPad computers, planning for my classes, and walking Libby a few times a day. I just stopped to get copies of my apartment keys, and I’m proud to say that I was able to communicate clearly with the anhatarçı (key maker) in Turkish.