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.

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This is my Istanbul: Ortakoy July 10, 2010

Filed under: Places — Rebecca @ 8:02 pm
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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: Hidrellez May 17, 2010

Filed under: Events — Rebecca @ 10:11 pm
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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
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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
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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.

 

This is my Istanbul: Kurukahveci Mehmet April 7, 2010

Filed under: Places — Rebecca @ 10:04 pm
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I’ll cheerfully admit it: I have an inordinate love of coffee. Get me a freshly roasted strong black filtered coffee and I’m pretty much in Nirvana. Get me a well-made cappuccino or latte and I’m fairly content with life. One of the hardest parts of living in Istanbul has been the relative dearth of coffee shops, especially independent ones, as well as the scarcity of coffee on menus or in grocery stores. Nescafe doesn’t count. It smells like soy sauce.
I know Turkey has a bit of a reputation in the West for Turkish coffee, but honestly it’s not drunk all that much here. Turks have pretty firmly turned to tea for their hot caffeine fix. Still, certain restaurants do have Turkish coffee, and they seem to get their grounds from the same place everybody in Istanbul gets their grounds from: Kurukahveci Mehmet. After trying their coffee grounds in my French press, my taste buds cry when I switch back to Starbucks grounds.
Kurukahveci Mehmet’s shop is located directly next to the Spice Bazaar, on the corner of what I know as “the street with the great baking stuff and dried hibiscus.” I have never not seen a line stretching at least a dozen people back up the street, waiting for freshly ground coffee. They roast and grind the coffee on-site, all day. It smells wonderful.
Customers don’t actually enter the shop. There’s a to-go window opening to the street, where you buy your coffee, cocoa (they also do fantastic cocoa powder), or coffee gift sets. Prices are quite reasonable for such delicious coffee – half a kilo is TL 10. It’s a very fine grind, if you’re used to Western coffeemakers and coarser ground coffee, this is almost the consistency of flour. I wouldn’t personally use it in a filter coffeemaker, but it’s very good as espresso, because it’s just a bit finer ground than an espresso grind. I personally brew it in my assortment of French presses and enjoy American levels of caffeination with my oh-so-very-Istanbul coffee from Kurukahveci Mehmet.
The name “Kurukahveci Mehmet” literally means “Mehmet the Coffee-grounds-guy.” They have a surprisingly excellent website that I highly recommend spending an hour or so perusing. It wanders from the history of coffee, to coffee culture, to an illustrated description of how coffee is made, and even has a section on how to read coffee grounds. It is really interesting, and fairly in-depth.

Kurukahveci Mehmet
Tahmis Sokak 66
Eminonu
(1 block in on the street directly to the right of the Spice Bazaar’s entrance by the Yeni Cami)
TL 10 per half kilo

 

This is my Istanbul: Koc Museum March 30, 2010

Filed under: Places — Rebecca @ 10:56 pm
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It is a truth universally acknowledged that an industrial scion in Turkey in possession of a good fortune must open a museum. That’s probably what Austen would have written had she lived in early 21st century Istanbul, rather than early 19th century Britain. It seems like almost every billionaire in town (there are 34, according to Forbes) establishes a university and a museum. Most of these are not (yet) part of my Istanbul, mostly because I’ve not been to them. But there’s one billionaire-founded museum I could go back to time and again: the Rahmi M. Koc Museum.
While many of those museums tend to be art museums, which can be pretty cool, the Koc Museum is unabashedly not: it’s dedicated to “the history of Transport, Industry, and Communications.” Basically, Rahmi M. Koc was born into the family behind Koc Holding. He absolutely loved cars and anything mechanical as a child, and was able to pick up quite a few mechanical wonders. Later in life, realizing that he had all this cool stuff and was sitting fairly pretty given that Koc Holding was the largest conglomerate in the country, he decided to establish a museum to display the odds and ends he’d collected over the years. It opened in 1994.
When you walk in the front gates of the museum, the first thing you notice is everything in the parking lot. I’m not talking tour busses – I’m talking airplanes and military vehicles, with an old London double-decker bus in the middle. They’re all kind of scattered about, and you can walk up to/in several of them, including a very old passenger airplane and the London bus. Off to the side is some giant ship equipment and a hangar filled with various experimental cars and the remains of a US B-24 bomber that was lost at sea off Antalya after a bombing run in World War II. It was found in the 1990s, and partially salvaged.
The museum itself is full of So. Much. Stuff. It starts with a sort of ode to technology, including a chronological exhibit of personal computers and a display of how ordinary household electronics work before moving on past another plane, a scale model of an oil drilling platform, and a row of cars to a replica olive oil factory, which lights up to show the olive oil pressing process. There’s some vintage Turkish safety signs nearby that are pretty cool, as well as row after row of bicycles, motorcycles, horse carriages, and prams. That’s less than half of one of the museum’s two buildings. Outside between the two buildings are a collection of giant anchors and ships’ bells, several ships, and a military submarine, which is open for tours. Yeah, a submarine. Side note, for those of you following the Ergenekon intrigue, apparently a large cache of TNT was found in the Koc museum submarine last May. This was either forgotten when it was decommissioned from the Turkish military or meant to be blown up in some horrifying scheme. As far as I know, the TNT’s been removed now.
The second building houses smaller boats, including a pretty sweet old car that could be driven into the water and turn into a boat. There’s also a bunch of motors, other mechanical things, and probably the most random exhibit of all: the yacht trip.
In addition to loving all things mechanical and being a scion of industry, Rahmi Koc is a bit of a yachting enthusiast. So, as one does when one has a lot of free time, a yacht, and a museum, he and his wife took a two-year, round-the-world trip in their yacht. Along the way they stopped by Africa, the South Pacific, the Caribbean, and pretty much anywhere that looked nifty. They took photos, bought a lot of souvenirs and knickknacks, and added to Koc’s t-shirt collection. When they got back, they put all those souvenirs and t-shirts in the museum. Imagine creating a museum exhibit out of your most epic trip. That’s basically what Koc did. It’s a little bizarre, but very fun.
I have no space to go through everything at the Koc Museum, and you’d get terribly bored if I did, so I’ll link the museum’s website below, but the one last thing: it has a small private train, which does short trips down and back the Golden Horn. Also, it has a Golden Horn-side bar.
The Koc Museum is an off-kilter, hands-on, and incredibly fun place to explore. With the sheer amount and variety of things on display, there’s guaranteedly something for everyone. And fun photo ops abound, because there’s so much you can clamber on/in/around. Once you’ve seen the sights of Sultanahmet, I highly recommend the Koc Museum.

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I couldn’t decide which pic to use, so you get two, no extra charge.

The Rahmi M. Koc Museum
Haskoy Cad. 5
Haskoy
TL 10, students TL 5, submarine admission TL 5, planetarium admission TL 5

To get there: The Golden Horn IDO ferry from Eminonu zig-zags to Haskoy, the museum’s directly next to the Haskoy ferry dock. If you’ve missed the ferry, take bus 47 from Eminonu or 54HT from Taksim.