Olaf and I took a stroll today to see the (somewhat) nearby Dolmabahçe Palace. It was constructed rather late in the Ottoman Empire, and it is a gaudy mess of a building. The style borrows heavily from European aesthetic traditions of the time, which is fascinating for what it reveals of this dying empire looking West instead of locally or even to the East, or its much more glorious (and aesthetically consistent and pleasing) past. If you are in Istanbul with limited time, definitely give this tacky horror a miss. It probably didn’t help that it was rather hot out today, and we waited in long lines to be taken through the place, dripping sweat as we went. After our 2.5 hours at Ottoman Disneyland, we headed up the coast towards Ortaköy. I was told the walk there from Beşiktaş was really lovely, and it wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t quite the charming seaside stroll we had imagined. And Ortakoy itself was cute, but a bit overpriced. I got the impression it was the kind of area that wealthy Turks (rather than poor Turks or foreign tourists) would frequent. Still, one of the great things about spending this much time in a place is that I can get to know some of the places that regular, rushed, tourists can’t, and I kind of appreciated walking through these parts of the city.
Olaf and I took a bus (my first in Istanbul, now I have traveled by every possible form of transport here, including metro, tram, boat, taxi, dolmus) from Taksim to the fabulous Chora Museum/Church this morning. This place is pretty cool, the mosaics are beautiful and in amazing shape for their age and tell all kinds of Biblical stories that have a lot of meaning for Christians. One of the odder ones (see image below) depicted the Virgin Mary being audited (well, enrolled for taxation) by the IRS of their day, which for some reason cracked me up. After that we had a pretty nice lunch at a swank restaurant nearby, then took a look at some of the famous land walls nearby that once guarded the city against invasion.
Last night Emre took Olaf and me to an absolutely amazing restaurant called “Meze“. The restaurant takes its name from the selection of small appetizer dishes served before many traditional meals here, and they have a new selection every night. Just before ordering the mains, we were led up to the counter to be shown the night’s meze and ordered the most delicious collection of them I have had yet here in Turkey. We had baba ganoush, a red pepper and tahini dish, stuffed clams, stuffed peppers, lemon seaweed, marinated mackerel, and potato pancakes, among other items. All of them were out of this world. We then moved on to the mains, which were also incredible (I had the pan roasted beef with yoghurt), finishing with dessert (banana, clotted cream, honey and almond thing) and Turkish coffee. My only regret was being so stuffed by the end of the meal, but I could not say no to anything, it was that good. Highly recommended if you should come to Istanbul.
My friend Olaf arrived last night to spend the balance of my trip with me here in Istanbul (and possibly a place or two nearby). We decided to take a leisurely walk through the city, for me to give him a kind of orientation of Istanbul. We began with the grand walk down Istiklal, down the hill into Galata, and over the bridge to the Spice Market and then the Grand Bazaar.
On the way into the Spice Market, we came across this charming combination of chicks and to the right, in case it isn’t clear, straight out of some horror flick: leeches. <<shudder>> Yes LEECHES for sale.
Some five years ago, during my travels, in Malaysia, I met a very nice couple and shared a few laughs. And through the magic of facebook, I found out just before coming to Istanbul that they now live here. This morning I met up with one of them (the lovely Elif) and we had breakfast and walk around an area called Yenıköy (which means “new city”). It was a treat after all these years to reconnect and chat and stroll through the neighborhood. We will all try to meet up again for a dinner next week when her husband Harry will also hopefully be free.
– Maybe it is all the water around, but people seem to absolutely love fishing here. I see them on every bridge and near every body of water.
– There are a lot of older wooden houses here that kinda remind me of the Victorian ones that are scattered around San Francisco.
– The public transit system is surprisingly easy to use here, and all of it seems quite new and updated. And the underground metro part of the system (as opposed to the above ground trams) seems to have been dug by the same engineering guiding principles as the ones in London. That is to say, they are crazy deep in the ground, I swear we are near the magma.
– A very high, statistically unlikely, number of men on gay dating websites here claim to be bisexual.
– And speaking of websites, when I first got here I noticed that a number of them were being blocked by the government. As I have read up on it, it seems that Turkey, while not in the same league as China or Iran, is still up there in the amount of things it chooses to censor. Fortunately, it is very easy to get around most blocked sites by merely changing one’s DNS address, and my friends tell me this is very widely done here.
– Lokum is a greater scourge than opium, if you ask me.
After a somewhat late night Saturday out dancing with friends, I kept a low profile on Sunday, mostly staying in and taking care of a few things. For one, I moved from the 1st floor apartment in the building I am in to the 5th floor one (as planned when I booked the place). Then I did a little bit of work, took a brief walk around the neighborhood, and in the evening I was getting hungry so went in search of something simple. I stumbled upon this restaurant nearby named “Gani Gani”, and although it looked a little too cute inside with its “traditional” style room decor, I was too hungry to go further. I looked at the menu and ordered a kind of Turkish pizza that I had been hearing about (called Lahmacun), along with a yogurt drink (Ayran) and a water. While I was waiting for my meal to arrive, the cheerful waiter passed by with a dessert for another table. He then stopped by my table to show it to me, told me it was “special dessert, like Turkish Viagra.” I smiled a kind of queasy smile at him and nodded, not at all sure what he was implying. He then said I should try it, “maybe with girl you bring”. Was he ever reading me wrong. Anyway, I said thanks, no, perhaps some other time, and he scurried off in the direction of whatever table of undersexed (or oversexed) lovers he was to deliver it to.
A few minutes later some food arrived at my table, but it did not seem like what I had ordered. It was a giant puffed bread and some spicy-hot mincemeat something on the side. I asked the waiter if this is what I ordered and he said,
“This appetizer. Make you hungry. Food coming later.”
And although I was pretty sure he was adding things to my order, I went with it and dug in. It was actually super delicious, and while I was eating it my lahmacun pizza came, and it was also super yummy, I have to say. Here is what they looked like:
Between the two things I was pretty full when done, and so I asked for the check and he said,
“No yet, dessert coming.”
And I just knew I was about to eat Turkish pastry Viagra whether I wanted to or not. He scurried off before I could protest (I am sure he must do this all the time) and came back a couple of minutes later with this:
I thought what the hell, I would try a few bites. It was pretty good, but way too rich for me at that point, made with a tanker’s worth of sugar and melted cheese, I had about a third of it and finally got my check. Although the waiter had indeed added on these things to the bill, the total still only amounted to about thirteen dollars, so I didn’t much care. And everything was really delicious.
Surprisingly, I was not turned into a heaving sexbeast after eating the dessert, I wonder what went wrong?
The other day Arnaud and I took a walk through some of the older parts of the city, and stopped along the way to see a variety of Mosques, the Grand Bazaar, and some cool old infrastructure and city fabric. Click the link below for the photos.
Last night after dinner in the Nişantaşı neighborhood of Istanbul, my friends Emre and Karpat took me to a place for coffee and dessert. I pointed to something on the menu I didn’t recognize and they got all excited to order it for me to try, so we did. It came and looked like a kind of pudding, and as I put the first bite in my mouth I thought it was closest to the texture of Japanese mochi that I have had before. Then they asked me to guess what the main ingredient was.
“Rice”, I said, with some certainty. They told me that no, that was not it, and to guess again.
“Gelatin? Some sort of starchy vegetable?” Wrong again.
When they finally told me the correct answer was “chicken breast”, I was pretty surprised and maybe just a touch queasy. The dish is called “Tavuk göğsü“, and it was pretty yummy once I got over the cognitive dissonance of having chicken for dessert.
Turkey has been great all around at challenging culinary assumptions, in fact. Just last week we had a dessert made from whole (shell included) candied walnuts and baby eggplant, and it was likewise delicious.