Monthly Archives: February 2017

Istanbul: Leaving


So, finally, we reached our last day in Istanbul. Checking out of the second AirBnb, we headed towards our last place, a small boutique hotel near the Bosphorus.

What a view!

I’ve stayed in a great many AirBnBs, and this was certainly my favorite. Great view, cheap, huge, and with a good location.

Street near our AirBnB

A short walk away, we visited the Museum of Innocence. I’d purposely remained in the dark about this museum. All I knew was that it got good reviews, was close by, and had been put together by the Nobel prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk. Alex and I had read some of Pamuk’s works before arriving in Turkey. There are a lot of them, and they mostly seem to feature nostalgic memories of Istanbul and Turkey in the 60s and 70s – which actually was and remains a pretty exotic place to Americans.

Inside the Museum of Innocence

I loved the museum, which took the form of a renovated 4- or 5-story brownstone completely filled with dioramas. The atmosphere was great; very evocative. I really felt as though I were in an Istanbul gripped by modernization, like a fun-house mirror American Graffiti. Thinking back, I don’t think I’d seen an artistic diorama in a museum (just little historic dioramas in museums of natural history).

One diorama

When we arrived at the museum (no fancy entrance, just a little cut-away hole in the wall, a drive-by museum), we weren’t sure whether we wanted the audio guide. Well, thank God we got it. Each diorama had a number associated with a track, and the dioramas told a story of unrequited Istanbul love. Maybe the story would have been more coherent, had I read the book. But I liked it as it was: it was out of the question to listen to the narration for every diorama, and they weren’t sequential anyway. Instead, it felt like seeing someone’s memories, in the same fragmented way he might recall them.

Cats nearby

We also explored the neighborhood outside the museum, which had its own distinct feel: residential, old, filled with antiques. It slid down a steep hill towards the water, with a view of the sultan’s palace we’d visited the day before.

At the water itself, we considered visiting the modern art museum (but it was closed; we were also museumed out). Instead we visited the Kilic Ali Pasa Mosque, which I think was actually my favorite mosque in the city: large enough to be grand, but still in regular use and somehow intimate feeling. We visited during a time of regular prayer, in late afternoon, with people coming in, praying for 5 or 10 minutes, and then hurrying home to their family. Meanwhile, we just waited quietly.

Inside the mosque

That night, we went around the corner of our hotel. The hotel was on a cute (noisy) side-street filled with cafes, restaurants, and people hanging out. It was a beautiful street, just not great for sleeping.

Nargile (hookah) cafe with huge second-floor area

After a forgettable dinner, we spent several hours smoking hookah and drinking endless cups of tea (near here). Early the next morning we took a cab back to the airport, to fly through Ukraine to the US. But for a little while, we snuggled up warm, cozy, and content on the roof of a nargile cafe on the shores of the Bosphorus.

Istanbul: The Sultan’s Palace


On our second-to-last day, we wanted to do the second-biggest tourist site in the city (after the Hagia Sophia): Topkapı Palace (home of the Ottoman Sultan). Nothing is more symbolic of the exotic Near East than the term “sultan”… the mere idea evokes images of Tin Tin or Indiana Jones adventuring in a foreign land.

The palace is adjacent to the archaeology museums we’d seen earlier, and directly behind the Hagia Sophia. By the entrance, as part of your admission, you get to see the Hagia Irene, or “Little Hagia Sophia,” sort of a dry-run for the Hagia Sophia itself. It’s a beautiful building, stark and mostly bare stone standing opposed to the ornate mosques and the Hagia Sophia itself.

Meanwhile, the palace is a huge complex of rooms, museums, mosques, harems, and so on. In the summer I can imagine it as serene and beautiful; but on an overcast February day, the unheated buildings were chilly, and the atmosphere gloomy and damp. I’ll be honest, it was a little bit of a disappointment.

The palace harem

I’ll make an analogy: when I was a kid, I got to spend a night on a World War II battleship as part of a Boy Scout trip. It was a wonderful experience, playing hide-and-seek and running around , immersed in the small of machine oil and steel. I think half or two third of the battleship was available to see, and it was like spending the night in a floating city: a three-dimensional maze of rooms and nooks and crannies, many of them recreating the. Since then, the only WWII ships I’ve visited only permit the visitor to see a straight path of glassed-off rooms and nothing more.

Well, the palace was similar. You get a sense of a big sprawling complex, but most of it is closed off. There’s an audioguide you can listen to, which is fine, and some signs on the walls. Most of the furnishings are gone (only 2-3 rooms were furnished), and they were doing repairs while we were there. In total, it feels like a sort of empty shell (and like I said, the weather didn’t improve things). So, was I disappointed in the experience? Yes. It was worth it, but it really could have been so much more rewarding.

Still, there’s an awful lot to see. In addition to the harem, many rooms, many mosques and so on, you can also see some small museums. I guess we’d seen quite a few museums, but I think the one here was my favorite: the Privy Chamber, which houses a great many Islamic relics. Half of these are fairly plausible: Muhammad’s tooth, a hair of his beard, swords, and so on. Could be legit.

Photo I got of David’s sword, before I realized photos weren’t allowed

The other half are completely implausible: the staff of Moses, the tea-kettle of Abraham, the turban of Joseph, the sword of David (of David & Goliath fame). Alex thought they were a joke, and it was interesting to see the people around us, a broad swath of Muslims from different countries. Honestly, they didn’t seem very impressed.

See a panorama of the area:

Outside, shivering in the cold, we could look north into Karakoy (in fact, we could nearly see our AirBnb). Here we stood in a marbled courtyard, next to the sultan’s summer rooms: lighter, airier patios and porticoes that proved even colder than inside.

Sultan Mehmet with re-enactor

Leaving in early afternoon, we found an incredibly cheap little statue of Sultan Mehmet the Conquerer – the guy who finally ended the Roman empire in 1453. We got some great pictures with it – and it proved a wonderful gift for my father when we returned.

After some shopping in the various bazaars, but before heading back to Galata, Alex wanted to try the balık-ekmek, a fried fish sandwich (served from huge boats bobbing in the water with a spray of lemon juice). Cheap, and incredible fresh, the fish caught the same day. Mehmet had a bite as well (I abstained).

Trying rakı

That night, we also got our first taste of rakı, the traditional Turkish anise liquor – a sort of white licorice-flavored vodka. I thought it was pretty reasonable, at least as far as liquor goes, and we munched on bar nuts and pet cats in a warm little place right next to the Galata tower.

The guitarist was excellent

Finally, to close out the evening, we stopped across the street at Nardis to listen to some great jazz guitar.

Istanbul: Stepping into Asia


The Asian side of Istanbul may be the least ‘Asian’ part of Asian, but Alex and I still counted it as our third continent together. We spent most of the day there, and really had a good time. I think if I were to live in Istanbul it would likely be in the Asian side: it was quiet, local, and ironically felt more ‘European’ than the European side of the city!

We didn’t have any big plans: mostly we wanted to wander. After all, this was an area without large landmarks, the appeal was instead in the neighborhoods.

Winding our way up from the ferry terminal, we wound our way through a fish market; the roofs of the buildings nearly touching above us, and the lanes two people across, filled with seafood from the Bosphorus and Black Seas. Beyond, we broke out into a more open area, with a young vibe. Stepping down one a shop basement, Alex found, of all things, a Frida Kahlo purse; it is possibly still her favorite purse. I think it was $7 or $10.

Sharing a çiğ köfte wrap

Around the corner we stopped (here) by for what was my favorite street food: çiğ köfte. Mediterranean street food is limited for vegetarians, and this is a sort of soft seitan burrito (actually bulger germ), served with onions and lettuce. The sharp spice is perfectly balanced by a sweet tamarind-like chutney, and the whole wrap costs $1 or $2.

Kadıköy street cat

I really liked this area. It was less frantic and less touristic than the European side of the city, while still retaining its own unique feel. Kadıköy itself is a large hill surrounded with water on three sides, and as we hiked downhill, we reached the Sea of Marmara. There was a pretty park here, windswept and grey in February, and after taking in the sights, we started a broad loop back to the ferry terminal.

Random unique building

Maybe it sounds like we hadn’t done much, but I don’t think that’s fair. Both Alex and I love wandering. You can see more of what makes a country or city unique that way, staying away from the monuments. In particular, Istanbul was a huge culture shock for both of us, so there was a lot to take in. But, it’s impossible to narrate all those little thing. Huge street murals; the same 5 or 10 graffiti artists tagging buildings around the city. The ubiquitous cats lazing in nooks and crevices, or a huge fat dog devouring garbage on the street?

As we wound our way back towards the ferry, we stepped into a cafe along a local sort of acute-angle square for a few cups of tea. I loved these cafes, they were definitely among my favorite parts of the city. Sit down, and for fifty cents or a buck, and sip a nice, very sweet cup of tea, relaxing under the awning and watching the world pass by, or chatting with a friend. There’s no such opportunity in American cities, which rarely even have public squares. And while it’s always a temptation in European cities – in Germany, the Netherlands or Italy, squares and outdoor restaurants are common. But there the cost ($5 or more of food and drinks to claim the table) dissuades me. Here, on this odd little street corner, there were three cafes right next to each other, each filled with students just let out of school.

Now we were back into the market district; not the fish market but the antique markets. Wizened older folks leaning out of shop doors and younger men passing by swinging trays of tea; the shops with unnamed forgotten heirlooms layered with Ottoman dust.

In Istanbul, every block is new district and from antiques we moved into the consumer zone; basically a series of stall-sized shops that comprise a Turkish department store. Here, I finally found one of my few souvenirs from the trip: a backgammon board. I wasn’t looking for anything special; but I like gaming and backgammon is one of the oldest games in the world. It’s very popular in Turkey so it was a nice, cheap momento.

Alex found one of her souvenirs as well: a remaindered English-language sweater that said “Chillin Snoopy” (the peanuts character). We weren’t sure what it meant, but it’s an amazing sweater. And just like that, we left Asia, on the ferry, speeding across the dark Bosphorus waters towards the illuminated mosques of Europe.