Bosphorus cruising and glorious gluttony in Istanbul

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June 13th 2012
Published: June 20th 2012
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We woke at 7am, organised our packs and headed down to breakfast. I grazed on yoghurt and raisins; fresh bread and yoghurt with dill; cay (Turkish tea) and dry biscuits with drizzled honey. What a great start to the day! We showered and walked down to the Bosphorus to purchase tickets for the public ferry. We were heading to the Black Sea. We lined up at 9.30am and then charged onto the ferry with about 400 other passengers at 10am. Queues bring out the best and worst in human nature. People fell on steps and pushed each other in every direction – some almost ended up in the water. It was interesting to watch and even more interesting to participate in. We ended up with a great seat at the front of the ferry thanks to Ren. It had been a battle to capture, but Ren won out. We settled in and waited for the ferry to set sail at 10.30am.

A German couple (who had nearly taken Ren out in the rush) had captured four seats and wouldn’t let anyone else sit down, even though no one was occupying them. Apparently they were saving them for friends. After about 30 minutes into our journey, a Spanish family decided enough was enough, so they stormed in and secured the two seats. After much yelling and grabbing of arms, they sat down and enjoyed their victory. Karma…

We arrived at Anadolu Kavagi and headed up to the ruins of Yoros Castle for a view of the Black Sea. The heat was intense and the climb was steep. We were exhausted by the time we arrived, but the view was fantastic. It was far too hot to stay at the ruins, as shade was minimal, so we headed back and stopped at one of the cafes dotting the hillside for a cold drink. The view back down the Bosphorus to Istanbul was great, as was the shade and breeze. It was a fantastic place to relax and enjoy panoramic views of the Bosphorus.

After an hour we descended into the tiny township, wandered around, chatted to the many dogs and cats and then found a shady spot in the small queue for the ferry. This time, there was less madness, although I was overtaken and sideswiped by an elderly Asian woman who sprinted down the deck in front of me (only to find an open deck – she was looking for an enclosed, air-conditioned cabin). I smiled a Karma smile as she retraced her steps. Ren has captured two great seats on the upper deck which gave us a great view of the other side of the Bosphorus on our 1.5 hour return ferry trip to Istanbul.

We jumped off the ferry and made our way on foot to the hotel. Rather than following the tram tracks, we detoured through the back streets to check out a few restaurants. We eventually chanced upon a kebap place that Ren had read about, so we committed it to memory and decided to return there for dinner. It was only five minutes from our hotel. It was 5pm and tiredness was setting in – we desperately needed a shower. I picked up a few Efes beers and some water and we made our way through the labyrinth of cobblestone streets to the hotel. We showered, washed some clothes and relaxed on the bed watching Turkish TV until we were ready to eat.

We retraced our steps and found our kebap place – Cag Kebap. We ordered two kebap skewers, ezme chilli paste (translated as Crushing Pain), salad and water. It was absolutely sensational. We finished with stuffed dessert (kadayif dolmasi) and cay, which was an incredible end to an incredible meal. After a Turkish coffee we wandered the back streets of old Istanbul until 10.30pm. After a few very long days, we decided to have an early night. It had been another great day in Istanbul.

I woke at 5.30am to finish the report we had been working on since leaving Australia. It was a relief to email it off at 7.15am. After another fantastic breakfast at the Constantine Boutique Hotel, we showered, checked out of the hotel, left our bags in the foyer and headed to the Basilica Cistern. This underground world was an incredible place (and enhanced considerably by subtle atmospheric lighting). We wandered around on the slippery walkways before making our way back up to street level.

We jumped on the next tram and headed over the river to the Istanbul Modern. Arriving at 11am, we browsed the two floors of this fascinating gallery of modern art. While the visiting exhibition on the bottom floor held little interest for me, the permanent exhibition on the top floor had a number of very powerful artworks. We were particularly taken with Kutlug Ataman’s video installation titled 1+1=1.

After wandering through the fascinating gift shop, we made our way out into the early afternoon heat and jumped on a tram back over the Galata Bridge. Feeling a little peckish from a morning of ancient sculpture and modern art, we made a beeline for Kasap Osman’s for lunch. To be honest, we had only gone there for cay, but the food looked too good to resist. We ended up lunching on watercress salad with yoghurt, butcher Osman’s wrapped kebap, ayran (yoghurt drink) and cay. Ren also tried the firin sutlac (rice pudding). It was unbelievably good.

After lunch we picked up our packs from the Constantine Boutique Hotel and made our way to the Best Town Palace, which was to be our hotel for the next two nights. Once we had checked in, I dropped our laundry off and spent some time catching up on our trip notes.

After our Intrepid Travel trip group meeting at 6pm, we headed out to Kucuk Eu Cafe and Restaurant for dinner. We shared a lamb casserole and sultan serif (grilled lamb dish with rice and yoghurt), and while both were tasty, they were not worth writing home about (so I won’t bother trying). We then wandered the streets, picked up our laundry and headed back to the hotel. We eventually crashed at 12.30am.

I woke at 6am to catch up on my trip notes. After breakfast we headed into the heart of Istanbul to revisit some highlights, including the Suleymaniye Mosque, book bazaar, spice market and Eminonu Square. We then caught a tram over the Galata Bridge and walked the cobblestone streets around the Galata Tower browsing the local music shops for ouds. I had no idea there would be so many ouds to choose from. It was overwhelming, so I decided to look further afield during our Turkey travels. If nothing eventuates, I’d seen a great oud, and I’ll hopefully it pick up when we return to Istanbul.

We walked down the cobblestone streets, jumped on a tram and headed back over the Galata Bridge to our hotel. The afternoon heat was stifling, so we needed to freshen up and rest our weary legs. We headed out to dinner at 7pm. It was a local place close to our hotel, and it came with a local recommendation. The food was reasonable but not really worth writing home about. I had two dishes – meatballs and a mousaka type dish with beef. After dinner we dropped into the hotel and then headed to the Hippodrome to watch a local dance troupe at 9pm. It was fantastic, and we soaked up the atmosphere until 10pm. Exhausted from the day, we headed back to the hotel, but not before trying to save four kittens with chocolate biscuits. However, their mother was doing a fantastic job, bringing chicken bones and chunks of meat to them that she had found on the street. They turned their noses at the chocolate, but they loved the chicken. The mother welcomed our gesture by coming over and meowing in approval.

By 10.30pm, it was time to prepare our packs for an early start tomorrow. We were leaving Istanbul, and with a sadness of heart. This is a beautiful city, and we could continue to explore its small streets for some time yet. Still, fantastic new adventures awaited us, so we were excited as to what lay ahead. We needed to leave a few heavy pack items at the hotel – warm jumpers and extra shoes were superfluous in Turkey at this time of year. We were living in thongs (flip flops) and t-shirts.

The first order of the day was to have a long lovely breakfast at the Constantine Boutique Hotel. I have tried most of the offerings at the buffet and figured out that my favourite Turkish breakfast items are sour cherry juice, beef sausage in chilli and tomato sauce, strained yogurt with dill, boiled egg and white sheep cheese with fresh bread. I have also developed a taste for most of the honeyed breakfast pastries which go well with a cup of tea.

After two days of heavily immersing ourselves in Istanbul by walking through it, we decided a slower pace was needed, so we dedicated six hours to a trip on the Bosphorus. We caught a ferry to Anadolu Kavagi, a remote fishing village on the edge of the Black Sea. The views of Istanbul were spectacular from the water and this cruise is recommended by every guide book as the #1 thing to do in Istanbul. The Bosphorus is a strait between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara and runs through the heart of Istanbul, dividing it into two – Rumelia (Europe) and Anatolia (Asia). As cheesy as it may sound, we were straddling two continents as we floated along in the ferry. 😊

The cruise started from Eminonu at 10:30am, and even though the wharf was full of ferry offices, we found the Bosphorus Excursion Public ferry pretty quickly - thanks to scouting it the night before when we came down for the balik ekmek (fish sandwiches). The cruise was good value – 25TRY each (which is about $14AUD for six hours). We were early, so despite the older German men in sandals and socks who pushed everyone out of the way and ran for it when the gates opened (I’m not kidding!), we managed to get good seats on the left of the ferry (European shore side) which I had read would be the best light for photos. The weather was sunny and warm, but not hot – perfect for cruising.

Having spent two days walking along crowded streets and visiting crowded monuments, floating lazily on the Bosphorus was the perfect thing to do on day three. There was no commentary on the ferry, but they gave us a brochure which showed important landmarks on both the European and Asian sides. The first fifteen minutes of the cruise were the most exciting landmark-wise – cruising under the Bosphorus Bridge, and past the over-the-top Dolmabahce Palace, the extremely picturesque Ortakoy Mosque, and the eye-catching 19th century wooden villas (called yalis) on the Asian side. The real estate prices are exorbitant along this stretch – the affluence and style was certainly blatant. We continued floating past quaint fishing villages, wooden houses painted in bright colours, masses of sea gulls lining the shores, tiny waterside restaurants, the odd castle ruins and thriving old and new settlements on both sides. And dolphins swimming along with our boat. 😊

The cay (Turkish tea) man on the ferry was very popular with us. It was so pleasurable sipping tea as we cruised along. The ferry stopped at many towns and villages and ended at Anadolu Kavagi on the edge of the Black Sea. Anadolu Kavagi is a tiny fishing village on the Asian side, but it has reinvented itself as a tourism town and it probably wouldn’t have merited a visit but for the ferry trip ending here.

The boat stopped for two hours, so we walked straight past the very touristy cafes and restaurants near the ferry stop and made the very hot and sweaty 20 minute hike up the steep hill to the 14th century Yoros Genoese Castle. The ruins of the castle were disappointing because they had fenced most of it off, but there were wonderful views of the Black Sea from the viewpoint. We ambled downhill from the castle ruins and settled in at Yoros Cafe with some cold drinks and the most beautiful views of the surrounding hills and the Bosphorus. The first return ferry left Anadolu Kavagi at 3pm, and we piled back on and sat on the Asian side this time. The return journey felt longer and the gently rocking boat forced a nap out of me. In hindsight, a shorter Bosphorus cruise may have been a better use of time, but then we would have seen far less of village life on the Bosphorus. We arrived at the busy Eminonu docks at 5pm.

Our next big decision was where to go for dinner. Turkish food is a true reflection of all those who have walked through Turkey’s past, and it’s now a beautiful amalgam of Middle Eastern, Balkan and Mediterranean food, with heavy Russian and Western Chinese influences. Some of it is still cooked and served as they did in Ottoman times, while other dishes have been modernised by newer influences. We wanted a taste of both. Turkey seems to have a diversity of food more than most countries we’ve travelled to; even the humble kebap has hundreds of regional and seasonal versions.

On a recommendation of one of the owners of Istanbul Eats (a foodie website and tour group), we searched out Hocapasa Sokak – a pedestrian-only street in Sirkeci. It was billed as ‘the best address for authentic, inexpensive dining options in the Old City area, if not Istanbul’. We found it and were surprised that there wasn’t a tourist in sight; they were all two streets away in the cushioned restaurants with strings of international flags and multi lingual menus.

We found the much praised Sehzade Erzurum Cag Kebabi and had the best meal we’ve had in a long time. Cag (a dish from Erzurum in eastern Turkey) is essentially lamb doner kebaps, however the slices of meat are cooked on a horizontal rotisserie rather than a vertical one. The meat is sliced off the rotisserie and skewered. It is served on beautiful lavash bread with sliced onions and parsley. We opted for sides of tomato and cucumber salad and ezme (chilli, tomato and parsley dip). I think I’m getting addicted to ezme! Andrew also had ayran, a salty whipped yogurt drink that is traditionally served with kebaps. I’m not usually a fan of natural yogurt but I have to admit they go really well together. Dessert was kadayif (shredded wheat pastry wrapped around honeyed walnuts, and then deep fried and soaked in sticky sweet syrup). And while we had cay to conclude our meal, we had a bonus dessert from the owner of the shop next to the restaurant; he came over to share his sugared chestnuts with us – very very yummy!

After dinner, we walked through Sultanahmet which is beautifully lit and tourist-less at night. We walked along Sogukcesme Sokak, a charming lane behind the Aya Sofya with restored facades of Ottoman style houses (with boutique hotels). It was here that I befriended the cutest little pup who was sitting on a doormat smiling at passersby; she got lots of cuddles and pats from me, and in turn she gave me lots of grazes and little bites with her sharp little teeth. Unfortunately, we couldn’t capture any photographs of her, as she was a little hyperactive blur of excitement. After about 10 minutes of playing with her, I had to muster many gruff ‘sit’ and ‘stay’ commands to ensure she didn’t try and follow us when we left her street.

We headed to the Yerebatan Sarayi (Basilica Cistern) early the next morning, as we wanted to beat the crowds. Although I had read about the cistern, I was totally unprepared for the experience. We stepped out of the heat and the noise of Istanbul’s busy streets, walked down a flight of steps and found ourselves in a very cool underground water cistern, complete with marble columns and muted lighting. The cistern used to collect town water for Istanbul via an aqueduct from the forests. The sheer size of this cistern was amazing, but even more extraordinary was the hundreds of marble columns jutting out from the water. There are two Medusa heads that form the bases of two columns – one which is inverted and the other oriented sideways. Fable has it that this is to negate the power of medusa’s direct gaze. The air was cold and the place reeked of what I can only call oldness (but not unpleasantly). The water seemed to be heaving with hundreds of large carp-like fish.

It felt like we were on a Film Noir film set with all those marble columns, and with the projected and subdued lighting eerily highlighting the columns and casting ghostly shadows of the fish in the water. It was very atmospheric, and yet they still felt the need to further enhance the mood by playing cheesy music through speakers mounted on the columns! I’m glad we decided to visit early; it is definitely not a space that we would have enjoyed with crowds.

Our destination for the afternoon was the Istanbul Modern Museum which is housed in a converted warehouse right on the Bosphorus (Tophane tram stop). The contemporary art here is said to be the best in Istanbul. The exhibits include works by Turkish and foreign artists, and there is a superb permanent collection on the first floor. The photography section was amazing, spanning from Ottoman times to modern photography. The video installations were disappointing, apart from a stunning piece called 1+1=1 by Kutlug Ataman. The lower gallery had a Burhan Dogancay retrospective exhibition called Fifty Years of Urban Walls. The art is superbly curated and I would highly recommend a visit. After spending many hours at the museum, we spent more time at the museum shop, which has some very cool things.

We headed back out to Hocapasa Sokak for lunch and sought out another recommendation from Istanbul Eats – Kasap Osman (Osman the Butcher), who has a good reputation for his doner kebaps. On the recommendation of the waiter, we had the house speciality – a sarma kebap (wrapped kebap) with a side of yogurtlu semizotu (watercress in yogurt) and dessert of firin sutlac (rice pudding). If we were impressed with last night’s meal, this raised the bar even higher. I hope we can come back here for another meal!

It was time to change hotels again. This was getting tiring – have I already said that our travel agent is totally sacked? We picked up our luggage from the Constantine Boutique Hotel and checked into the Best Town Palace which was a short walk down the road. The rooms were tiny-tiny here with only one lane traffic around the bed, which meant one of us had to sit on the bed while the other passed to the other side of the room. However, it’s bearable because we are only here for two nights.

That evening was the start of our Best of Turkey Intrepid Travel trip, and at the group meeting we met our group leader Suleyman (who was our guide on the walking tour a few days ago) and the 10 other people we will be travelling with for the next 15 days. The group is – Chris and Viv (NZ), Cathy (NZ), Shirley and Greg (Aus), Robyn and Darryl (Aus), Jessica (Aus), Wendy (US) and Anne (Can). After the meeting we all walked to Sultanahmet for our first joint meal. The Kucukar Cafe was nice, but a bit touristy for our taste. However the view of the Blue Mosque from the terrace was totally beautiful. We shared a lamb casserole and a special dish called sultan serif which was a grilled lamb dish with rice and yoghurt. The group was split over two tables, so it was hard to get a good feel for everyone, but most of the group seem really laid back and well-travelled. We walked back to the hotel via the beautifully lit Sultanahmet Square. The night air here is heavy with the appetising smell of either grilling corn, roasting chestnuts, or perfumed with jasmine or magnolia flowers; you just wouldn’t know that you were in the middle of a very big city.

Early the next morning, Suleyman took us on a two hour orientation walk around the city. We had already explored most of the main areas with our walking group, but interestingly it enabled me to take in details that I had missed when taking in the larger perspective the first time. We walked from Sirkeci, along the tram tracks to Sultanahmet and then followed a similar route to the walking tour we did on our first day here. We saw more mosques, more markets and more cats. Stopped for a cay break and continued our march to the Spice Markets and taste more Turkish Delight. And that was that for the group stuff.

That afternoon Andrew and I decided we wanted to do some low key wandering, so we caught the tram to check out the music shops in Karakoy. We walked up the very steep Yuksey Kaldirim Caddesi, and then turned into Galip Dede Caddesi. The climb was such hard work that we had to stop for fresh orange and grapefruit juices along the way. Andrew was in oud shopping heaven (an oud is a lute like Turkish instrument); we walked almost the entire length of the street, went into many shops and got quotes from four. The plan is to look out for one when we travel around Turkey over the next two weeks. We then navigated ourselves by the Galata Kulesi (Galata Tower) at the end of the street and walked back to the tram stop to head back for an afternoon nap. The Galata Tower was part of the original fortification of this part of town.

We met most of the group for dinner, and Suleyman took us to a Lokanta in Hocapasa Sokak. We tried heaps of new dishes, and my favourites where the spinach with whole egg pie and grilled eggplant with beef. We both really love the way they cook rice here, and I would love to learn to make it. It’s moist but not gluggy, and tastes smooth but isn’t buttery. For dessert we shared kadayif and halva. The halva was richer and sweeter than I’ve tasted before, but still rather tasty.

That evening we walked to Sultanahmet Square where a dance company was performing as part of a festival. The dancing was very good, and while we didn’t quite understand the cultural references, it seemed to be depicting the evolution of dance through the social and political changes in Turkey’s history. The crowd seemed to recognise most of the music and danced, sang or clapped along with it. Tonight was the first coolish night we’ve had since been here. It’s been averaging between 28 and 30 degrees with bright blue sunny skies so far, and remained warm until about 11pm.

On our way back to the hotel we bought some biscuits for a mummy cat who we’d seen hunting and gathering non-stop for her four little kittens. Every time we walked past she seemed to be returning with a piece of meat or chicken bone no doubt scrounged from a restaurant bin along the street. There was a ‘street cat feeding station’ set up on this street, but there also seemed to be a tom cat guarding it around the clock. Sadly they weren’t interested in eating our biscuits, but decided to play with them instead. I had wanted to bring them some meat and cheese from the breakfast buffet the next day, but it was a rushed morning of packing and checking out so the kittens missed out. 😞

Despite courting western tourists, Istanbul hasn’t really gone out of its way to change much to accommodate tourism outside of the main tourist area. I’m certainly not complaining – I actually prefer it this way. Apart from the vast number of hotels (and the even greater number of touts), not much has been put in place to attract tourists outside the main tourist drag. Regardless, we had no problem finding our way through the suburbs of Istanbul, as there is excellent street signage. Even the signs in Turkish are not too much of a problem because written Turkish uses the Roman alphabet. Kemal Ataturk banned the traditional Arabic script along with a whole lot of other specifically Islamic things when he formed the secular Turkish Republic.

Walking through the Sultanahmet area is a lesson in how to avoid Turkish sales men who all have something they think you should see, or buy – from proposing to act as illegal guides to the Topkapi Palace, to taking us to the cheapest and best place for food or carpets. The word accosted comes to mind, but it’s not really that bad, they are polite and usually took no for an answer. If they persisted, my first line of defence was ignoring them which worked in the majority of cases, and if that didn’t work I fixed them with my practiced ‘fierce’ eye. That worked every time.

Speaking of eyes, I know many countries have versions of the good luck / anti ‘evil eye’ charm, but I’ve never seen it so profusely used before. Nazar bonjuk is worn as a charm or displayed in shops and cafes to prevent any evil spells being cast. Thousands of these blue ‘glass eyes’ are for sale in every size, shape and form you can imagine. At the very least, they add lovely colour to the streets. 😊

Our five days in Istanbul have come to an end and I have to reiterate that I’m totally in love with Istanbul. I cannot wait to return here in two weeks. I’ve been trying to learn some basic Turkish, and even though I can understand a hand full of words and some often repeated sentences, Arabic-based languages don’t come easily to my tongue, so the most I can say with confidence is merhaba (hello), tesekkur ederim (thank you), and afiyet olsun (bon appetit/enjoy your meal).

I’ve decided that the catchphrase about Istanbul straddling two continents is not just a tourism marketing tag, it genuinely and poignantly seems to reflect the divide between being European and Asian; between having western and eastern values; between Islamic and secular principles; and between modern and traditional ideals. I’m now very interested to see what the rest of Turkey – being 97% Anatolian (Asian) – holds for us.

So here we are, a bit weary but very very happy with our time in Istanbul. Of all the experiences, I would have to say visiting the hamam was my highlight. Even though it’s been three days since my wash and polish, I can still smell a hint of the olive extract scrub that was used on my skin.

Tomorrow we are off to Bursa in Western Anatolia, see you there!


5th July 2012

turkish delights
i am really enjoying reading your blog on turkey. love all the food descriptions ren. andrew hope you find that oud. keep writing guys.
6th July 2012

Re: turkish delights
Hey Mick! So lovely to hear from you. Andrew and I both agree that you would love this trip around Turkey. Hope you and Jenni are well. xx
7th November 2012

Food, cats and dogs
Hi Cucks and Andrew, Istanbul sounds like the place to be. It is obvious that you are having an amazing time. The food looks delicious too! Kirsten wants to see the cats and dogs you have been feeding. Look forward to seeing all your pictures and hearing more about Turkey in eight days xxx
7th November 2012

Re: Food, cats and dogs
Hey Rom! We will definitely be coming back to Istanbul in the next few years! Maybe in winter or spring next time though :)

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