04 July 2013

Turkey & Croatia :: the details (Part I)

When we landed in Frankfurt and were hopping over to Munich before heading to Istanbul (it sounds like a joke, but it's not), we had to go through customs. The German customs officer looked at my passport and itinerary:

"From Japan?" he asked.
"To Munich."
"To Istanbul."
"All today?"

Exactly. But 23 hours later, we arrived in Istanbul and all was instantly right with the world.

After Nepal, I had insisted on a more relaxed vacation -- something with architecture, where I could wear cute clothes, eat good food, drink nice wine, use indoor plumbing. You know, mix it up a little. I got all of this on our trip, with the added bonus of some tear gas and protests. (Which is fair: I said I wanted a relaxing vacation, not a boring one).

This trip was amazing. I think one of our best yet, and there is so much to dig into: Being in a country in protest. Being in a Muslim country. Living in a place being covered by international news and the WTF-ery and worried mothers that come with that. Experiencing cruise ship tourism, and Amos' first time in Europe. It was a big trip.

But first, let's talk about the details. Sometimes things just click with a trip. I even packed well, for heaven's sake. We didn't check baggage on the way there (due to the tight connections and the 3 stopovers), and it somehow worked perfectly. I read the enchanting book Birds Without Wings that managed to fill in some Turkish history for me. I ran out of shampoo on our very last day. Right?! Hashtag fortuitous.

We flew from Nagoya-Frankfurt-Munich-Istanbul (oofta) on the way there, via Lufthansa. Honestly, I think Lufthansa is only okay. I had high expectations after hearing some rave reviews, but they had several schedule changes which soured me a bit. The food quality was okay, but drinks were free and the water plentiful (clutch). Our long haul planes were spanking new and super nice; the inter-Europe jets were older workhorses. Let's just say I'd pick them over United, but I'd choose Korean Air every time when given the option. (God, you live abroad for awhile and all of a sudden you're a plane snob. But when you're on those flying metal hunks for 14+ hours, and paying a bajillion dollars to do so, the size of the TVs and the mirror in the restrooms begin to really matter).

I was worried about the international-domestic-international nature of our initial flight, and Germany impressed. So efficient. We left an hour and a half for customs... and got through in 5 minutes. Amazing. Frankfurt and Munich aren't fancy-pants airports, but I'd totally choose to fly through them again. Also, the domestic area of Lufthansa has a free cappuccino machine. I was classy and had three.

We landed in Istanbul late in the evening and used our hotel's airport shuttle for transport. It seemed like most hotels offered a deal for a free shuttle if you stayed 3 nights. It made it so easy for us when we landed. We hopped on the shuttle short bus and were at the hotel in about 30 minutes. For our first leg in Istanbul, we flew into Atatürk Airport and stayed in the Sultanahmet district (or "Old Town") at the Orient Express Hotel.

Man, did we find a gem with this place. It was a midlevel budget place with a fantastic location. Our rate was 109€ a night, and we got a free airport shuttle and continental breakfast, plus a 10% discount for booking through the website and paying cash. I am always skeptical about free breakfasts in hotel basements, but this thing was killer. A big bowl of oranges to press for fresh juice, thick yogurt, dried figs, fresh fruit, bread, sausage, eggs, a kitchen island sized cart of fresh cheeses, cured meats, peeled cucumbers, oh, and an actual honeycomb. It made me excited to wake up each morning. I'm not even kidding; I flipping loved it. The beds were a little thin, the view was nothing, and the pool, while clean and nice, felt claustrophobic. But I'd stay there again in a heartbeat since we were five minutes away from everything (tram stop, Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, the best baklava shop). The service was really great, it had free and reliable internet, do I need to mention the breakfast again?...  it had everything we needed.

I told Amos on the way to Turkey that I was going to try and limit myself to one dairy item a day, since my body doesn't love it the way I wish it did. Friends, I couldn't limit myself to one dairy thing at breakfast, and I couldn't even feel a little bit bad about it. It was delicious.

Okay! Enough about the hotel breakfast! Our first day, expecting to be tired with the travel and jet-lag, we skipped out of the city and decided to cruise along the Bosphorus Strait. Following the advice of trusty Rick Steves, we used the public ferry for a whopping $13/pp (round-trip). The ferry took us all the way up to Anadolu Kavağı, a cute little fishing village where we could see the Black Sea. The Bosphorus winds down from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara and splits Europe and Asia. Along the side, you can see all of Istanbul's attractions and impressive skyline, but you can also get a feel for how big the city is (15 million people) and how important the city's location would have been for thousands and thousands of years (the Bosphorus is the only way for Russia, &c. to get down to the Mediterranean and have ocean access, and it gets narrow in parts. You control the Bosphorus, you control everything.) On the ferry, it's easy to see how Istanbul was and is a crossroads for so many cultures and people. How could it not be?

Blah, blah history: let's talk about the food on the ferry. My love. We stopped at this little village called Kanlıca for a couple minutes to pick up some passengers... and some yogurt. This little village is known for it's yogurt, and shortly after we left Amos and I were happily eating farm fresh yogurt sweetened only with a little bit of powdered sugar. Add to this some çay (ubiquitous Turkish tea, pronounced chai), a couple fresh cherries, the wind in my hair, and I had to keep telling Amos how happy I was. It was beautiful.

We cruised the Strait and ended at Anadolu Kavağı, where the ferry docked for about three hours. We were able to climb up to Yoros Kalesi (castle) ruins and see the Black Sea to the north, the outline of Istanbul to the south, and the largest Turkish flag imaginable. Don't tell the George W. Bush, but Turkey has bigger flags. By far. We also ate a small picnic of hamsili ekmek, the local bakery's bread made with corn flour, leeks, tomato, peppers, and fresh anchovies. Not surprisingly, I loved it.

That night, after a dinner of kebabs from a little street shop, we walked past the Four Seasons to see the fancy hotel (that we sooooo couldn't afford). It used to be an old prison that had been converted into a luxury hotel, and I had wanted to see what all the fuss was about. We considered getting a drink there, but it seems pretty dead and boring, lovely as the lobby was. Instead, we went across the street, found a little open air bar, and smoked nargile, which is basically a hookah filled with flavored, low-nicotine tabacco. I'm not a big smoker, but it was pretty fun and smelled delicious (like eating, but for your nose). The scene? We were sitting on bean bags over a clear glass floor that allowed us to see down into Istanbul's old underground city ruins. Awesome. The thing was that this place -- in the tourist district, right by a hotel, with the potential to be super gimmicky -- didn't feel fake. There were Turkish people there, there were expats, there were tourists. That seemed to be Istanbul to us. Real, even when it wasn't real.

The next 3 days we spent seeing the city: the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Topkapı Palace & Harem, the Mosque of Süleyman the Magnificant, the Underground Cistern, the Chora Church, the Galata Bridge, the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Market, Rüstem Paşa Mosque, the Galata Tower neighborhood. (I liked all of these places, and have left the so-so sights off this list and outta this blog post. Bam, efficiency). It was fantastic. Some days were long, some short(ish), but all were heavy on walking, sightseeing, eating, and drinking Turkish coffee (or Türk kahvesi) with an order of pistachio baklava.

We used the Rick Steves book with little trouble, though I wish I had downloaded a podcast or two of his (apparently, you can get them free with the book purchase) and made a copy of the maps for when we didn't want to lug the entire book around. It had good information and decent summaries which allowed us to skip some attractions that didn't speak to us -- hello Istanbul Archaeological Museum -- and hit other ones that did, like the nargile. (Sidenote: we downloaded a Rick Steves' pamphlet to our iPad for our Crotia leg, and while a little harder to flip through, it was so much lighter to carry. I don't know what you're supposed to do with that information, but I thought you should know.)

"Can you get one of us with Jesus?"
Medusa's head repurposed to support a column in the Underground Cistern.
Waste not, want not.

The carpet's decoration helps worshippers line up when they pray.
I think this is genius.

Mike and I aren't tour group people, for the most part, so having a guide book, a basic plan, and seeing where we end up is our preferred way to travel. Given the unrest in Istanbul while we were there, the amount of sights to see, and our unfamiliarity of the city, I did plan out our daily activities pretty clearly. (Monday we are seeing A and B, then lunch, then C and a break at the hotel). This was really nice because it made sure we weren't trying to go see something that was closed, it planned out food stops to make sure we would eat before we (me) got hungry (and cry-y). We adjusted on the fly, of course, but it was a great game plan. We did most of our sightseeing early and headed back to the hotel to rest in the afternoons when everything was packed and claustrophobic. There is nothing more satisfying than leaving a museum and seeing a long queue that you avoided hours before. Also, if you get to the Grand Bazaar early, the salesmen are still having their çay and cigarettes and are too preoccupied to hawk at you. Yessssssssssss.

Besides sightseeing for our first days in Istanbul, we ate 5TL ($2.50) fish sandwiches on the Galata Bridge (complete with a sunset and a bottle of rakı), red mullet from the well-known Balıkçi Sabahttin, mezes from the surprising delicious İmbat Restaurant on top of our hotel (what?! At a budget hotel?!). We happened upon the famous baklava shop Hafiz Mustafa 1864, which was epic and where I insisted we go once a day. Amos, resolute in his anti-coffee beliefs, was swayed to try Turkish coffee, and we would have one an afternoon. (He had no sugar in his because if you are going to do something, do. it. all. the. way.) We drank wine while sitting at a table in a crowded alley which also functioned as the restaurant's "patio." We ate in the quiet courtyard of Caferağa Medresesi while listening to calls to prayer from he Mosque of Süleyman. We hit touristy spots, cheap spots, expensive spots... and pretty much scored each time. Even the misses weren't bad. Food seemed really reasonable, especially when compared to Japan, and the service seemed wonderfully attentive but not overbearing. We tipped 10%, on average... except after a bottle of rakı, when I tried to give the waiter all of our money, and Amos got put in charge of tipping. Accidents happen, you guys.

Lunch at the Pudding Shop (and I just think he is so handsome.)

After four days, we skipped out of Istanbul and headed inland to Cappadocia for a couple days. We then flew back into Istanbul, and stayed on the Asian side for two nights before leaving Turkey. If I was to go again (and, man, I certainly hope to!), I'd skip staying at the lovely Orient Express in Sultanahmet and instead just head over to the Kadıköy neighborhood. It's an easy 20 minute ferry (3TL) to the European (and more touristy) side, but the neighborhood pulses with a realness and a vibrancy that is nothing short of fantastic. Thousands of people cross the Bosphorus each day for their commutes, and the ferry terminal in Kadıköy has alleys and streets lined with food stalls and shops to grab a bite to eat or a drink on your way home. You have stalls devoted to just cheese, to just fish, to just figs. The nightlife was incredible, with live fiddles and dancing and dinner being served until 1am. It's liberal and relaxed and a place where I wish I could live for a month. In fact, it's recently become a life goal of mine. (The only thing downside about the Asian side is trying to get back to the Atatürk airport, especially when your flight time changed from 10:40AM to 5:45AM. Hence the lack of Lufthansa love around these parts.) We enjoyed two nights there, and our last meal in Istanbul was actually at the amazing Kadı Nimet Balıkçılık, which -- literally -- buys your fish fresh from the fishmonger when you order it. I don't know how we simply walked in and scored a table (by the open window), but this was a blessed trip. (English website here).

It's amazing that I came home at all. And that I still fit in my pants.

Speaking of pants, there is a higher standard of modesty in Istanbul and Turkey. Nothing crazy;  I would have been technically fine in shorts, but I tended to feel more comfortable in pants or long skirts, shoulders covered, and decent necklines. I didn't feel out of place because I don't wear a headscarf. In fact, it seemed like between 10-25% of women wore them, with the percentage changing depending where you were in the city. The rest left their hair uncovered. I didn't buy special clothes or really think too much about it, but I tried to be respectful of the place I was visiting and the beliefs and customs of those who live there. I will write more about this in another post  -- because I want to address visiting a predominately Muslim country -- but I didn't find it a huge issue while traveling. Also, I do realize Istanbul is more than food. There is amazing and rich history in this city, and we soaked up a lot of it. Don't worry, I'll talk your ear off about that soon.

Okay, this is turning into a novel, and there is only so much editing down I can do. I'm breaking this bad boy up -- stay tuned for Part II: Cappadocia and Croatia. (UPDATE: here is Part II)


  1. 1. I loved your blog for ages, it's brilliant and 2. This post is AMAZING. You get the travel bug stirring again! Looked like a fantastic place!!

  2. Thanks so much! The travel bug -- it lodges deep doesn't it. Hope you get to get outta town soon!


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