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: 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: Kurukahveci Mehmet April 7, 2010

Filed under: Places — Rebecca @ 10:04 pm
Tags: , , ,

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
Tags: , ,

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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.

 

This is my Istanbul: Yerebatan Sarnici March 21, 2010

The cisterns are pretty dark. As is this photo.

Once you live in a city for awhile, the things that typically draw the tourists become a  little less of a personal draw. Yes, the Blue Mosque is a must-see, but it’s not a five-time or 10-time must-see. It’s not even the best of the big Mimar Sinan mosques (I’m sure that will be a later post).

My personal exception to the diminishing utility of major Sultanahmet sites is the Yerebatan Sarnici, or Basilica Cisterns. I drag all my visitors through, even though it is not covered by my hard-won MuzeKart.

The cisterns were built somewhere around 500AD, or somewhere around 200 years after the Hagia Sophia. During the Byzantine period, they supplied water for the palace that was brought down from the Belgrade Forest via a pretty impressive network of aqueducts.

After the conquest, the Ottomans used the cisterns as well, although apparently for a while they were completely forgotten: According to lore, people in the neighborhood found out that they had neato magic basements, with small holes that one could drop a fishing line down and actually catch fish from. Eventually a visitor to the area climbed down one of those small holes and realized that actually the houses were on top of a giant subterranean water storage chamber.

The cisterns today are just gorgeous – they were restored in the 1960s and the 1980s, and have been lit with dim, colored lights with ethereal classical music piped in. There are still shoals of fish busying themselves in the water. The columns used to build the cisterns were repurposed from other projects around 6th century Constantinople, so as a result there’s quite a variety. My favorite is one with little spirals all over it; it’s a greeny-blue color.

One of the big draws of the Basilica Cisterns is the Medusa heads. At the foot of two pillars in a back corner of the cistern are large marble Medusa heads. One is sideways, while the other is upside down. It’s pretty incredible that they’ve survived so long, and in such decent condition. No one really knows how they ended up shoring up columns in a cistern, but as this is Turkey there are dozens of theories to choose from.

I enjoy the mood of the Basilica Cisterns. In the summer, it’s a cool, welcome respite from the utter havoc that is Sultanahmet. It tends to be quieter than the other big tourist sites nearby (Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque), with fewer touts to boot. It’s a great place to chill mid-sightseeing, or to just stop by just because. The Yerebatan Sarnici is my Istanbul.

Yerebatan Sarnici

Yerebatan Caddesi 13

Sultanahmet

Admission TL 10 / TL 3 for Turkish students or those who speak enough Turkish to convince the ticket sellers that they’re Turkish students

Official website (English, Turkish, etc)