Sunday, October 19, 2014

Istanbul, Here We Come!


It was another early morning rise today. We left Cappadocia bright and early at 6am to catch our 8am flight from Kayseri to Istanbul. I can't believe our time in Cappadocia is over :-(

Yesterday, we had purchased our tickets for a ride on a shuttle van from Göreme to the airport. Bro and I were at the hotel's front entrance a few minutes before 6am. No one was in the office - too early for Erdoğan. So, I left the room key in the room and pulled the door closed. I left hoping that was the okay thing to do.


As Bro and I waited for our van to appear, I was anxious. I always wonder if they show up.  It was still dark outside and it was chilly.  A young Asian girl soon appeared. She was waiting for pickup for her balloon ride. I think she thought we were doing the same and looked a wee bit disappointed when we told her we were waiting for our ride to the airport.

Promptly at 6am, our ride did indeed show up but not at the entrance. Just so happened that Bro looked down the street and saw it waiting for us.  We got ourselves and luggage on board and settled back for the ride.  We couldn't have traveled for more than a minute before the driver stopped the van.  I watched the driver shuffle through some papers.  I figured he was picking up another customer.  A few more minutes passed and then he just fired up the engine and we headed out of town.

Kayseri Airport is just about a hour or so drive from Göreme and we made two more stops along the way.  One stop was to pick up a customer.  It was a bit of an odd stop.  Granted it was still dark and we couldn't see very well but it looked like the driver stopped in the middle of nowhere and from the dark of the middle of nowhere, a man emerged.  After he got on board, we continued our journey.  The sun soon appeared over the horizon.  Our last stop was for the driver to pick up his breakfast.  I had to chuckle.  No way something like this would happen in the US.

Of course, the driver knew exactly how long it would take to get us to the airport and even with the stops, we arrived early.   Admittedly, he did drive like a bat out of hell at times.

Our flight left on time and arrived in to Sabiha Gökçen Airport on time.  In the past, I've always flown into Ataturk Airport but I booked us on a cheap flight and this one arrived at Sabiha Gökçen which is located on the Asian side.  I've never landed here before so I had no idea how to get us from the airport to our apartment in Cihangir.  Thankfully, our Airbnb hostess, Pelin, recommended that we simply take the Havataş bus which would take us from the airport to Taksim. From there, it would be an easy walk to the apartment.

So, after we landed and picked up our luggage, our first task was to find the Havataş bus stand which turned out to be really easy as it's located just outside the airport's main entrance.

Our timing was absolutely perfect.  We were on board the bus for less than 10 minutes before it left.  As we rode along, I got more and more excited.  This is my third trip back to what is one of my most favorite cities!  I am thrilled that I get to show Bro around!


By most accounts, the ride would take anywhere from an hour to an hour and half depending on the traffic.  I was hoping that since it was a Sunday morning, it would be the latter.

We passed a sign pointing to Anadolou Hisarı. I took that as the opportunity to give Bro a short history lesson on how the Ottomans built Anadolou Hisarı on the Asian side of the Bosphorus and Rumeli Hisarı on exactly the opposite side of the shoreline as means to control Byzantine ships from reaching what was then Constantinople. I'm not sure Bro really got it.

Then, we reached Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge. I knew we were crossing over to the European side. I pointed out to Bro we were crossing the Bosphorus and that he got! :-)


We made one stop in the neighborhood of Levent before arriving into Taksim.  The bus dropped us off exactly where Pelin said it would.  After retrieving our luggage, we set out to find the apartment.  I texted Pelin to let her know we had arrived.  Pelin had given me directions to the apartment.  Seemed easy enough.


 We struggled to get our bearings.  Guess we've been in the *countryside* and in a car for too long.  Answers to our questions to point us to Taksim Square just had us going nowhere so I fired up Ms. Google and she immediately set us straight.  I love Ms. Google!

It took us less than 10 minutes to walk to Taksim Square and the moment we arrived, I knew where we were and where we had to go.  I am so happy to be back on familar territory!

It was a short walk later before we arrived at AKBANK.  Pelin was already there waiting for us!  The apartment wasn't quite ready for us; Pelin's partner was inside doing the final bits of cleanup.  So, we stood outside and briefly chatted with Pelin.  As with most Turks I encounter, she is most friendly.

The entrance to our apartment building is on the left.  We're right next door to the store that sells everything you need!

A few short minutes later, Pelin's partner appeared with the thumbs up that the apartment was ready for us.  We followed Pelin.  The apartment is on the third floor and there is no elevator.  Pelin insisted on carrying my suitcase for me.  She's no bigger than I am and I know my suitcase was not light. Poor thing.  She did make though.

Inside, she walked us through all the important points, including how to use the clothes washer.  We are in serious need to do some laundry :-(

After Pelin left, we took a few minutes to settle in.  Bro started a load of laundry.  We've grown accustomed to how long it takes for European machines to do a load!

Then, it was time to explore our 'hood.  My first impressions of Cihangir were a positive one.  It seems like a very nice neighborhood - full of apartment buildings, restaurants and shops.  My initial game plan was for us to go to the ticket window at the Galata Mawlawi House, the most famous mevlevi hall in Istanbul, to buy tickets for the 5pm performance of the whirling dervishes.  There is only one performance each week and it's on Sundays at 5pm.  It was perfect timing for us but when I asked Bro if he was interested in going to the performance, his reaction was lukewarm at best.  So, I decided to can it.  Instead, we'll just stroll through the streets - it will be a good opportunity for him to get acquainted with Istanbul.

So, we set out in search of a supermarket as we had to stock up on some supplies for breakfast mainly.  Pelin had told us there were several nearby.

View from the front stoop of our apartment building.
We didn't far.  Two blocks to be exact.  Then I saw the man cutting up börek. Hello? Savory good stuff inside puff pasty? How can you go wrong? I know Bro loves anything puff pastry so it was a no brainer to lure him in. Besides, we hadn't had lunch yet. So, we bought a couple of pastries to try out.  Oh...and the name of the place is Çağdaş Börek.


We spotted a few small supermarkets on our walk and checked them out.  Bro was eyeing the fruit.  I was focused on getting the breakfast items.  Since the places were so close by to our apartment, we decided we would get the food later....no point lugging it around with us.

Then, he spotted it.  The fruit vendor.  Yes, Bro saw one down a side street.  He made a beeline for it.  He bought some grapes.  It is grape season now so good time to be eating them.


Then, he spotted, a melon....tucked away in a box that was sitting on the ground, slightly out of view.  Remember, this is a man who can't spot me waving at him from across the street but he can spot the tip of a slightly hidden melon.  We left with grapes and melon in hand....oh, and some persimmons too!


Since we had the fruit, we decided we might as well hit up the markets so we picked up some items for breakfast.  Then, it was a quick stop back at the apartment to drop everything off.

Back out the door, we decided to walk in the opposite direction which took us down a VERY steep hill.  I dreaded the thought of having to walk back up.

At the bottom, we found the tram line stop, Tophane, that we'll be taking to go over to the Sultanahmet to see the major cultural landmarks in Istanbul.  We continued to walk towards the Bospohrus.  I think Bro really wanted to get a closer look at the water.

We passed Kılıç Ali Paşa Mosque. 


We didn't go inside the mosque but I told Bro that we would have to visit.  I peeked over the fence to look at the cemetery.


The sweet smell of tobacco filled the air.  The mosque complex was located across the street from a place called Ali Baba Nargile , that serves up food and that ubiquitous Turkish smoker's delight - nargile.  Having smoked nargile before, I knew that sweet scent well.  I just found it odd that this place is located right across the street from the mosque.  Surprisingly though, several nearby restaurants also advertised that they served nargile.  I'm guessing that Ali Baba Nargile does a romping good business that other places want a piece of.


Our walk took us towards Istanbul Modern, aka Istanbul Museum of Modern Art.  I have never been so I told Bro we had to add that to our itinerary as well, if we have time.

We veered off the main street and found ourselves strolling through a lovely alley filled with restaurants.  The place was bustling with activity. 


The restaurant stretch of the alleyway was only about a block or two long.  Then, it was back to the not so nice part of this area of Istanbul.  We're in the Karaköy which is located right on the waterfront.  You would think that the real estate here is so prime that it would be fully developed and commercialized but when I came here in 2008, it was NOT the place to come unless you wanted to check out a shipyard.  It looked and felt like a working dock surrounded by dilapidated buildings.  Apparently, that has all changed. This part of Karaköy is now considered a hip neighborhood.  Gentrification has arrived.  Art galleries have arrived.  Restaurants for those who want and need to be seen have arrived.  Stores selling everything that you need to have to be seen as *cool* have arrived.  We were not in the mood to be hip so we left....passing by all the dilapidated buildings that still exist.


Our walk took us back up the hill towards Taksim.  First though, we had a juice break.  I'm not a food snob but the only orange juice I will drink is the freshly squeezed kind.  Nothing out of a container, please.


Welcome to Taksim!  It's a Sunday afternoon.  All of Istanbul is out shopping.  We submerged ourselves in to the crowd.  I knew Bro would not be interested in the shops and neither was I.


But, there are a few things I love about Taksim.  As you can expect, they're all food related :-)

One is you can grab some really good Turkish fast food.  That would be döner kebap and all its delicious cousins.  I've always wanted to try an islak burger aka Turkish wet burger which is basically a tasty meat patty squashed between two halves of a very soft bun.  Maybe on this trip.  Sıraselviler Caddesi, right off Taksim Square is lined with places where you can grab a quick bite.  We passed them all by as Bro was not interested in food at the moment.  Maybe later?

The next is that you can get a really good meal here.  I favor the lokantası, a cafeteria style place that serve up homestyle meals.

Even Bro had to admit they looked good when I pulled him over to look at the serving dishes behind one lokantası's storefront window.  The third is the small establishments that sell Turkish style chocolate.  You can get plain chocolate but unless you have a nut allergy, go for the nut filled bars.  Unlike the European or American chocolate bars which are only filled with a few bits of nuts, the Turkish bars are crammed filled with nuts.  My favorite is the dark chocolate with hazelnuts and I didn't leave without getting a bar!


If you have patience, then a visit to Meshur Beyoglu Cikolatacis at Istiklal Avenue, No:69 is a must.  The packaging is not fancy - just plain aluminum foil but the prices are low and the chocolate is divine!  The entire *shop* if you can call it that is barely larger than most closets in a US house!  But, every inch of space is filled with bars of chocolate!  They do sell candy as well, mainly Jordan almonds, but I wouldn't waste my time with any of that stuff.  Just hit up the chocolate!


Lastly, at this time of year, Istanbul is filled with vendors selling freshly roasted chestnuts.  You can't miss the distinctive red carts and the sweet, smoky scent of the chestnuts being roasted over the small grill.  We came across a vendor and Bro was tempted but I told him there would be plenty around and so to wait.  Actually, I think they smell better than they taste, especially if you get a batch of the chestnuts that have been sitting out for a while.  Cold, roasted chestnut = not so delicious.

Photo taken by me in November 2008.

On our way back to our apartment, we passed by Balkan Lokantası.  There was a line waiting to get inside. We decided to check out their offerings.  Peering from the other side of the window, we were already deciding what we wanted to eat.  It all looked so mouth watering good!  Seriously, we were virtually drooling!


We decided to join the line.  It moved quickly.  Thankfully.  Bro and I picked out three dishes to share, along with some plain white rice.  I was so greedy and ready to dive into the food that I forgot to take a photo.  It was delectable food though!

The tables are shared so we took our two seats.  A short while after we sat down, a man joined us, with his meal. What he was having looked delicious so I gently interrupted him between bites to ask him what he was having.  He replied that it was stuffed eggplant and that it was his favorite.  He then offered me a piece to taste!  I ask you.  Where in the world would someone offer you a taste of their meal simply because you were curious about what they were having? I love Turkey!  I graciously accepted his offer and I have to say, it was indeed tasty.  We made a mental note to order the same thing next time.  Yes, if we are in the neighborhood come meal time, we will eat here.


By the time we finished dinner, it was getting dark.  We decided it was time to head back to the apartment. Along the way, we stopped into a couple more small markets to add to our food supply for the fridge.  Back in the apartment, Bro hung up our laundry to dry.  We'll be doing another load tomorrow but at least for now, we have some clean clothes to wear.

For me, it was time to unwind from our long day and prepare for tomorrow.  It will be our first full day in Istanbul and I can't wait!


Goodnight from Istanbul!