This is my Istanbul

The things that shape how I experience the city

This is my Istanbul: Houseguests September 5, 2010

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Live in a city like Istanbul, and your guestroom will get a lot of use. After very sporadic houseguestage in Ankara, I figured my guestroom in Istanbul would play host to the occasional researcher or travelling friend. Au contraire. My guestroom count is at four this summer and more than I can remember since moving in.
My guests have run the gamut from seasoned Istanbul hands to folks who’ve never been this far east before and from old friends to brand-new acquaintances. I think the visit length record is held by a university friend at somewhere approaching four weeks, although the cats I’ve been catsitting spent a solid six months or so chez moi.
I’ve been quite lucky in that I currently have a dedicated guestroom, although perhaps less lucky in that by working somewhere approaching 50 hours a week for the past year I often don’t have the most time to shepherd my tourist-trail-hopping guests around town.
I’ve worked out a fairly good system, though: I set my houseguests loose upon Sultanahmet and the other sightseeing things that visitors to the city inevitably want to see and I inevitably have already toured five times (Blue Mosque, I’m looking at you; Basilica Cistern gets a pass though because it’s just so cool), and after I get back near the city center from Distant Regions of the City, we meet up for dinner, drinks, nighttime strolling and other things that are right up my alley.
Quite accidentally, I’ve developed an informal list of places that my houseguests usually end up at when we meet up in the evenings. Some will remain Trade Secrets (Want to know my best houseguest haunts? Crash at my place for a few days), but others have definitely been mentioned on this blog before or should be in the future, including Bodrum Manti, Falafel House, Akdeniz Hatay, Dubb (protip – top floor at Dubb has stunning views of the Hagia Sofia, and it’s one of the better Indian food options in the city. Might want to make a reservation so you don’t get relegated to a lower, still-charming-but-sceneryless floor), Çiya (I think every single expat in this city has been to and is expected to highly approve of Çiya. It’s quite good, but not exactly hidden.), a fish place, and usually the Sublime Portal’s Thursday expat meetup. I am apparently a bit of a creature of habit.
Not to sound my own horn, but my houseguests and I often end up having ridiculously awesome experiences. C. came to visit in May this year; on our way back to my flat one evening we stumbled across a soap opera being filmed quite literally directly across the street from my flat. We stopped to ask the owner of the restaurant that was serving as the set which dizi it was (Ömre Bedel, apparently; it’s about a “bitter love”. Aren’t they all.) and half a minute later were ensconced smack dab in the middle of the production, looking over the shoulders of the director and sipping tea. Later, in between filming a scene of a dinner party and a scene where a man storms in to the dinner, we got pumpkin/cream dessert and chatted with the production crew. This is why my restaurateur neighbors are awesome.
When E. came to town in March of this year, we set off to Gebze, in a trip that served as the basis of my Gebze post. E. was back in town last week, and this time around we went to Istanbul Fashion Week, where we loaded up on some good swag and soaked up all the high fashion Istanbul had on offer (also the free iced coffees. It was hot out.). My houseguest S. and I ended up noshing on grilled ostrich on a balcony overlooking the Mediterranean. And when K. came to town, we ended up in Antakya, site of the first church in the world, for Easter services. The moral of this story is clearly that if you are my houseguest in Istanbul, unexpected but amazing things will happen. Because my Istanbul is unexpected and amazing and full of visitors.

 

This is my Istanbul: Ortakoy July 10, 2010

Filed under: Places — Rebecca @ 8:02 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

When I wake up to a gorgeous sunny summer weekend morning, my first instinct is to throw on something with a skirt, grab a pair of oversized sunglasses, and take a stroll down to Ortakoy. With sun, water, beautiful views of Asia and the First Bridge, and a great little waterfront café-and-handicrafts-bazaar area, Ortakoy is ideal for a weekend wander.
Ortakoy is just up the shore road from Besiktas – there are busses that regularly trawl the waterside, passing Ciragan Palace, the Four Seasons, and the Kabatas Erkek Lisesi in agonizingly slow traffic before clearing up a bit right at Ortakoy. It’s easier to just walk from Besiktas; unfortunately the road past Ortakoy has better water views, but the Besiktas-Ortakoy bit has decently wide sidewalks and a billboard installation of early eminent Turkish arts luminaries.
I’m always surprised by how relatively uncrowded Ortakoy is on weekend afternoons. Generally, if a spot in Istanbul is anywhere approaching a decent place to spend a few hours, and outdoors to boot, it is teeming on the weekends. See Sultanahmet, the Islands, Istiklal, the beaches up north, etc. But in Ortakoy there’s enough space to wander, stop, check out a bauble or interesting print, and meander on without coming remotely close to knocking in to anyone.
In addition to its warren of al fresco restaurants and weekend handicrafts market, Ortakoy is known for its waffle and kumpir stands and its secondhand booksellers. I’ve not tried the waffle and kumpir in Ortakoy, as I’m not the biggest kumpir fan, but their secondhand book stalls are treasure troves, and have decent selection of English-language Great Literature. Last week, I picked up a Wodehouse novel there for 7 lira. There’s also a really great print shop tucked away in a back street where I get all my early-20th-century Orientalist poster prints and Constantinople map copies. They have a surprisingly affordable selection.
During Ottoman times, Ortakoy was a fairly mixed neighborhood, and you can see remnants of that today: if you find the right spot, you can see a mosque, synagogue, and an Orthodox church by pivoting around. One of the neighborhood’s highlights is the Ortakoy Mosque, which Wikipedia tells me is actually named the Buyuk Mecidiye Camii. It’s striking because it’s done in a neo-baroque style, very singular in Istanbul, and dates from the 1850s. The mosque juts out over the water, with the First Bridge in the background, creating a pretty iconic image of Ortakoy.
For weekend afternoons or really any lazy free time I have, Ortakoy is one of my favorite places to while away a few hours. If you can stop by on a weekend it’s a great mix of laid-back shopping, leisurely lunching, and beautiful Bosporus views. What more could anyone want?

 

This is my Istanbul: Sublime Portal July 5, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Rebecca @ 1:34 am

The television show Cheers was perhaps a bit before my time, but its iconic theme song has been an earworm of mine many a time. I’m not the most gregarious of folks, so it’s rare that “everybody knows [my] name,” but one place where that lyric holds true in Istanbul is The Sublime Portal.
The Sublime Portal is a web-based forum and wiki for expats and repats across Turkey. I initially joined while living in Ankara, and met some very nice folks there before moving to Istanbul and showing up to one of the Portal’s weekly meetups, not knowing a soul. Now, one year later, when I walk into a weekly meetup I usually know everyone. I’ve met some of my closest friends through the Portal. Last month alone, I went to a pirate-themed boat party, organized a hamam trip (to Cinili of course), and met up for several dinners and several World Cup viewings with folks from the Sublime Portal.
There are other expat forums out there, but I’ve found the closest and most welcoming community on TSP. Because it requires that members be expats or repats, it does a good job of weeding out the magandas that run roughshod over certain other Turkey fora.
Folks on the forum are just plain interesting. There are teachers, journalists, lawyers, executives, and people whose primary pastimes are perhaps less easily defined. Some have just arrived in Istanbul for their first time living abroad, while others have stumbled in to the city after a long string of stints in exotic and occasionally difficult locales. The language of the Portal is English, but there’s a veritable grab bag of native languages (I’ve met a lot of German speakers recently, for example) and, naturally, native countries. As a sometime Turkophile, I’ve found great discussions and debates about modern Turkish society and politics with folks I’ve met via the Portal, as well as gossip about Turkish soaps and local shopping hints.

In addition to being a social hub of sorts, the Sublime Portal is a clearinghouse of information. If something changes procedurally at the Istanbul Emniyet Mudurlugu, someone’ll post the new requirements. If you’re sick of missing out on YouTube videos, the TSP wiki has a nice list of workarounds. If you have any sort of question or problem concerning life in Turkey as an expat, chances are good that several people have experience with the issue and can offer advice (or, barring advice, a place to vent your frustration – also very helpful).

The Sublime Portal is not a resource for tourists, but if you’ve ended up in Turkey for the long haul (or for a middling term), it is invaluable. The site itself, and the fantastic people I’ve met through it, are a central part of my Istanbul

The Sublime Portal

 

This is my Istanbul: Belgrade Forest June 19, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Rebecca @ 12:38 pm

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Sometimes, as you move through a city of 17 million people, all you want is a wide open green space, where you can go and not hear cars/musicians/people and not see concrete block buildings. This can be hard to find in a city so large, but luckily Istanbul still has an entire forest within its borders, somewhat easily accessible: Belgrade Forest.

Belgrade Forest was named, so I’ve been told, after a Serbian village that was forcibly relocated to the forest to manage the city’s water supply system during Ottoman times. Apparently people from that village were known for being good at that sort of thing, and the sultan decided he’d prefer to have no one but the best looking after his aqueducts and dams. The dams in the forest are generally Ottoman, rather than the Byzantine remnants visible in Fatih and stretching all the way to Greece, and were built over a period of 150 years. The water from the Belgrade Forest dams ended up along the European Bosporus shore all the way down to Besiktas before terminating in Taksim Square, where it was then distributed further. This is actually how Taksim got its name – “taksim” is Turkish for “water distribution center.”
Back to the forest: it currently covers over 5000 hectares, and is definitely big enough to lose oneself in, and find a place with nobody else around and no sounds of the city intruding. That’s incredibly rare for Istanbul. But the forest isn’t just for moments of hermitdom; it’s a very popular picnic ground as well, and there’s a 6 kilometer running track around a lake that’s packed with exercisers on the weekends. The Istanbul Hash House Harriers often run there, as does another informal running group, and both arrange carpools from nearby Metro stations.
Further from the central running-and-picnicking area, you can find the ruins of the village of Belgrad, which had a heyday in the late 18th century as a cool forest getaway for Istanbul’s hoi polloi. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the wife of the British ambassador, spent time there and sent back beautiful descriptions of the village (and of Istanbul) in a series of letters. Today, only scattered foundations and the remains of the Anglican church, St. George’s, remain.
I really enjoy Belgrade Forest because it’s relaxing and quiet, relatively easy to get to, full of lakes (as a Minnesotan, I appreciate a good lake), and, along with the Asia-side Marmara coast, is probably one of the best places to jog in Istanbul. It’s hard to imagine that with a Metro ride and a bus ride one can go from Taksim, the heart of a 17-million-strong city, to a forest where it’s easy to lose yourself among the trees. Belgrade Forest is a key part of what makes Istanbul wonderful.

Belgrade Forest
In the Sariyer district; accessible by busses to Bahcekoy (153 from Sariyer, 42, 42M, 42T from 4. Levent/Taksim)
Weekend carpools from 4. Levent with several running groups
Contains Ataturk Aboretum, open weekdays
Also contains ruins of Belgrad village, 18th century summer getaway for the Istanbul expat crowd
Starting point of the late Ottoman water distribution system

 

This is my Istanbul: Hidrellez May 17, 2010

Filed under: Events — Rebecca @ 10:11 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

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During my time in Ankara I’d heard vague stories of a holiday celebrated each spring where girls wrote down their wishes for husbands, houses, etc. on slips of paper and buried them under rosebushes, but never really figured out what it was all about. Thanks to a few fortuitous events, I’ve figured out the holiday and now started celebrating it here in Istanbul. The mystery holiday? Hidrellez.

Hidrellez is a bit hard to pin down accurately, because it’s truly more of a mishmash of coming-of-spring rites melded together from the Caucasians, Central Asians, Anatolians, Balkans, etc. There are both Muslim and Christian elements – in fact, although the holiday is celebrated on May 5/6 in the Gregorian calendar, Wikipedia tells me it’s celebrated on April 23 in the Julian: April 23 is St. George’s Day, and the Greek Orthodox celebrate it with a whole lot of rituals eerily similar to the Hidrellez traditions, down to making wishes on slips of paper.

Hidrellez at its most essential welcomes the coming of spring, or I guess more accurately truly warm weather. In Muslim tradition it’s the day that the prophet Al-Khidr (or Hizir) met the prophet Elijah (or Ilyas) – the name Hidrellez is a portmanteau of Hizir and Ilyas. Hizir is apparently considered a saint and is very important in Sufism (the whirling dervishes, among others). He appears with a long white beard and is said to be immortal. Once a year, if you ask nicely and if he feels like granting, you may petition him with your wishes. He has the power to grant wishes, which he does when he feels the wishmaker is well-meaning and benevolent. While it seems that traditionally the wish-making is done almost solely by women, at Istanbul’s Hidrellez festival I saw both men and women making their yearly wishes. This is accompanied by lots of folk songs, and later at night people jump over fires.

On to Hidrellez in Istanbul: Hidrellez is still very much a traditional village celebration, so I was surprised to literally stumble into Istanbul’s official Hidrellez celebration on my way home from work on May 5. Apparently about a decade ago the celebration started out as a street Hidrellez festival, and grew steadily until the municipality stepped in to manage it and then move it off the streets because it was just so big. Currently, Istanbul’s Hidrellez is held at Ahirkapi Park, on the shore of the Marmara about midway between Sirkeci and Yenikapi.

Istanbul’s Hidrellez is half traditional Hidrellez and half Springfest. Following the crowds of people headed towards the entrance, I saw more beer being sold on the side of the street than I’ve ever seen in my neighborhood, total. The dress code seemed to be boho/gypsy skirts, flowers, ribbons, and scarves in your hair. I saw a fair number of fedoras as well. It was also most decidedly bring-your-own-tambourine. Once in the gates, it was utter mayhem. People everywhere. The municipality’s website said in 2009, over 100,000 people attended, and they were expecting more this year. There were smaller tents and stages set up with musicians and dancing, but the main eye-draw was the giant pole (looked like a May Pole) set up with ribbons fluttering down and liberally covered with scraps of paper and fabric. This was the wish tree. Actually, there were several smaller wish trees surrounding the main pole as well, to hold the sheer volume of wishes. Some people came prepared with their wishes already written out, but the municipality had paper and pins for those of us last-minute wishers.

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In addition to the wishing tree, Istanbul’s Hidrellez had a large open area with commercial booths, large statues and figures of Hizir to take your photo with, and other things that wouldn’t be out of place at a country fair. Past the food booths, though, was the second main attraction: the main stage. Istanbul’s Hidrellez has turned into a bit of an outdoor spring concert, with Balkans music, beers, and in-crowd tambourine-offs. All quite fun, if not at all part of the traditional Hidrellez celebrations.

Hidrellez is a new part of my Istanbul. Now that I know what’s behind the wish-burying and –tying, I can’t wait for next year’s celebration of spring and hopes and kismet, with a little concert thrown in, because burasi Istanbul.

Hidrellez
Evening of May 5; sometimes April 23
Ahirkapi Parki, Eminonu

 

This is my Istanbul: Hamams May 1, 2010

Filed under: Places — Rebecca @ 3:56 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

Local hamam in Fatih

Hamams have an odd perception in the West. Thanks to a series of Orientalist paintings of “hamam scenes” or “Turkish bath scenes,” mention to the average American that you’re heading to a hamam for the afternoon and if they don’t look at you blankly they’re a little perturbed.
I can’t speak for men’s hamams (sorry guys), but women’s hamams are just great. They’re relaxing, a great traditional experience, intercultural exchange, and fantastic for your skin. My introduction to hamams was in Ankara, so I’m much more familiar with the more traditional, neighborhood-style hamams than the touristy ones in Istanbul. I have been to Cemberlitas, though, and it was beautiful.
Going to hamams is a social experience; back in the day you’d go to the hamam with your friends and your kids, bathe the kids, and catch up on gossip with all your neighbors. The conversation was vital – decisions on whose son should marry whose niece were made at the hamams, or at least debated at length there.

Nowadays there’s less marriage-matching, at least among the yabancis going to hamams. But they’re still awesome. I would recommend the touristy ones for people who’ve not had the hamam experience before. In Istanbul, that pretty much means Çemberlitaş or Çağaloğlu hamams (those ğ’s are mostly silent). Çemberlitaş was built by Mimar Sinan in 1584 and is situated right at the Çemberlitaş stop on the tramway. It is beautiful inside. Çağaloğlu was built in 1741 and is on Yerebatan Caddesi, so down the street from the Basilica Cisterns. I’ve never been to Çağaloğlu, but it was featured in Indiana Jones and also was the scene of a Kate Moss photoshoot for W magazine in 2008, so it’s pretty famous and also gorgeous. At both, the staff are very used to foreign visitors who’ve never experienced a hamam before. They also generally speak a bit of English, German, French, etc. Actually, the attendants when I went to Çemberlitaş spoke more English than they spoke Turkish. But I digress. Because so many of the hamamgoers are tourists, there’s very little full nudity, at least when I was at Çemberlitaş. It’s a bit of a conveyor belt of an experience: after everyone in your group (and I do recommend going hamaming as a group, at least 2 or 3 people) gets down to their skivvies, you’re shepherded along to the hot room, where you hang out on the large central marble stone while waiting for your skin to heat up. After awhile, you’re scrubbed down by one of the hamam ladies, then you retreat to the side of the chamber to rinse at a marble basin before getting a massage, if you’ve paid for a massage. It’s fairly efficient, but also relaxing and a fun experience especially if you’ve not been to a hamam before.

The more traditional hamam I’ve checked out in Istanbul is the Cinili (“tiled”) Hamami, in Uskudar. As the name suggests, the hamam is famed for its tiles. I’d comment on them, but the tiles are on the men’s side, so I’ve never seen them. It was built in 1640, commissioned by Kosem Sultan, a powerful valide sultan or mother of the sultan. Even without the tiles, it’s a very pretty hamam. When you walk in, your group gets a changing cabin, towels and hamam sandals; once everyone’s toweled up (the only bathing suits you’ll see at Cinili, and at most local hamams in my experience, are on the hamam attendants; this is one of the main differences between local and tourist hamams and also apparently entirely not true on the men’s side) you head through a large wooden door to the hot room, liberally dousing yourself with water from one of the many marble basins around the room’s perimeter and catching up on gossip. Once your skin is sufficiently warmed up and such, you get the full scrub-down by a hamam lady on the marble slab in the middle of the room, complete with recriminations in Turkish about how much dead skin yabancis have and how we just don’t exfoliate enough. Then, after some rinsing and hair-washing, it’s massage time, then rinsing again, and then a nice sit-down session in the sauna before ambling out to normal temperatures and a restorative glass of tea.

The biggest differences between the touristy and local hamams are the atmosphere and the price: the full works plus buying a kese (scrubby cloth) at Cinili will set you back 33 lira, plus maybe 5 as a tip for your hamam lady. At the tourist hamams, you’re looking at 60 lira without a massage, before tipping. Still, the tourist hamams have beautiful interiors and are much less daunting for the first-time or linguistically challenged hamamgoer. Also, they’re really convenient to Sultanahmet and more reliable – if you just walk into a local hamam you find while exploring, it might be a little sketchy. I love the atmosphere of the local hamams and find the service generally better as well. There’s a pretty fantastic hamam review website if you’re looking for a different hamam or one that’s closer to you.
Hamams are not an everyday, or even an every week thing for me, but they are so very much a part of my Istanbul. It’s a relaxing communal and cultural experience almost impossible to replicate outside Turkey. I think everyone should visit a hamam at least once, and hopefully time and again. I find the process cathartic.

Çemberlitaş Hamami
At the Çemberlitaş tramway stop
TL 60ish, depending on what’s included

Çağaloğlu Hamami
Down the road from the Yerebatan Sarnici
30-50 euros
(Note: I’d recommend checking around online before heading to Çağaloğlu)

Çinili Hamami
Çavuşere Caddesi No. 204, Uskudar
TL 28-33

Hammam Guide: A guide to hamams of Istanbul

 

This is my Istanbul: The Marmara at night April 19, 2010

Filed under: Places — Rebecca @ 11:43 pm
Tags: , , , , ,
Photo credit to Kevin, thanks Kev!

Photo credit to Kevin, thanks Kev!

Living in Istanbul can be frustrating. After a day in cubicle land bookended by particularly rank municipal bus rides with 90 of my bestest Turkish male friends (the combination of a diet heavy on garlic sucuk and an exuberant love of cologne can be literally breathtaking in the summer months), I can get a little run down by the less-easy bits of living in the city. Whenever I do, though, it doesn’t last long because invariably I have what I call a “moment of perspective” – something that makes me stop and go “I cannot believe I get to live in a place this incredible.”

One of my chief moments of perspective comes late at night when I’m in a car heading down Kennedy Caddesi – the shore road on the Euro-side Marmara. Unlike the Bosporus, there’s almost no traffic so the driver can zoom along, curving in and out along the parkland and coastal hotels. Also unlike the Bosporus, there are very few buildings between the road and the water, giving a nearly uninterrupted view of the vast sea and the hundreds of ships moored out in the water, waiting for their turn to go through the Bosporus and on to the Black Sea. At night, they’re all lit up, and the water, the shoreline, and the distant shore beyond are all so dark the contrast is beautiful. It’s like a city on the water. Every time I end up on the shore road at night, I am awestruck by the sight of this floating city, directly between the two halves of Istanbul itself. I take the road more or less weekly, and it never gets blasé.

The Bosporus is a major transit point for global shipping, especially for the oil industry. Throughout history, it was pretty darn strategic, and figured prominently in more than its fair share of wars. I’m having a bit of difficulty finding hard facts on this online, but I’ve heard that ships have to wait at either end for somewhere around 3 weeks, in the queue to pass through the Bosporus (because there are so many ships passing through). The ones on the south end all gather in the Marmara, off towards the Euro side near Yesilkoy. Apparently there’s a thriving commercial aspect to the waiting ships, as they all have crews of a dozen-ish, waiting around with not much to do, so small boats ply the water between the tankers with snacks, DVDs, and other random things the crew might want to help pass the time.

It’s quite nice to look out on the sea full of tankers and cargo ships during the day, but at night the lit boats are just tranquil and magical, and the visual impact reminds me of how lucky I am to live in Istanbul. Burasi Istanbul (“this is Istanbul”), and the Marmara at night is a vital part of my Istanbul.

 

 
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