Buondì, and still from Istanbul.
I’m up early this morning to write this, as we’re planning a day trip to the ‘adalar’ (islands).
According to Google, they’re “a cluster of 9 islands southeast of Istanbul in the Sea of Marmara”, meaning it’s a ferry ride there and back. More about that on Wednesday, then.
So, since Friday when you last heard from me?
First, thanks to the various Turkish club members who emailed or commented telling me how to get around the Wikipedia ban. It’s something that everyone here knows, apparently.
Particular thanks go to Feyza who wrote a long email in excellent English which, besides reflections on the political situation, included ideas on what we should do during our trip.
Use public transport, she advised, not taxis!
Well, we’d already figured that out. One glance at the taxi clogged roads was enough to make learning how to take a metro train or tram our priority number one.
So even before I’d heard from Feyza, we’d followed my Turkish teacher’s advice and bought ourselves an ‘Istanbul Card‘. Get one from the machines at metro stations and vapur (ferry) terminals. Current cost, about a euro, which is nothing.
You then charge your ‘Istanbulkart’ by feeding bank notes into the machine. You can also check how much credit you have, too. The machines are quite distinctive once you know what to look for, though the buttons are all labeled in Turkish. I was scratching my head and I’m supposed to know the language, at least a bit. That said, there are only three buttons, so trial and error works well.
Careful though, the machines don’t give change. When you’ve narrowed down which of the three buttons you need, start feeding in modest-sized notes, at least until you get the hang of the public transport system and have appreciated that you’ll be using it often. It really IS handy to have lots of credit – that way you don’t have to think – just go!
One thing that’s different here from, say, London is that you only need one card per group. I’d been told, but didn’t quite believe it. But yes! So, whoever in your group is tasked with holding onto the card needs to stand by the metro turnstile and touch the card to the reader to let the other person or people through. There’s a beep and a green light, followed by the clunk of the turnstile. You then touch the card to the reader a final time, another green light and a different beep, and push on through the turnstile yourself. It’s simple, when you get the hang of it.
Pay close attention to the turnstile card reader and it will even tell you how much this section of your journey will cost, which is otherwise mysterious. It’s not a lot, but you pay at each change of train, tram, funicular, ferry or bus (the card is only NOT valid on ‘dolmuş’ – sort of private minibuses, about which, more later). Apparently, the system will figure out that the second or third payment should be a continuation of the same journey and so charge you correspondingly less. No need, then, to plan your trip so as to use the fewest number of changes. No matter, anyway – the system is cheap and so useful compared to the clogged streets, you wouldn’t begrudge the cost.
What Google Maps doesn’t tell you about Istanbul (or at least, not unless you’re good at identifying contours from street layouts) is that the city, like Rome but worse, is built on a series of hills. Very steep hills! Our apartment is located mid-way up one of them, between the Bosphorus, down there at the bottom, and Taksim Square (Istanbul’s Times Square or Trafalgar Square) up there at the top of the hill.
Each day therefore starts with a decision – walk UP or walk DOWN, neither being pain-free options. Which we choose will depend on whether we need to take the tram, which runs in parallel with the shore, at sea-level, or the metro, which is buried deep inside the hill/ridge but is accessible only from the summit. Think of climbing to the top of a mountain in order to descend down though it until you’re back where you started. That’s more or less how it seems to work.
In part our choice depends on the state of our legs from the previous day. In part it’s a question of where we’re heading. The public transport system LOOKS integrated on the map, a fine job indeed, but in practice some of the connections are rather impractical elements such as ‘tourist trams’. For example, the single tram car running from one end of the long, pedestrian-packed Istiklal Caddesi to the other, and slowly back again. Including this as a link between tram and tube lines is optimistic to say the least…
Yesterday evening we watched the tram as it proceeded at walking pace, ringing its bell, through a sea of tourists from Turkey and the middle-east. The patient-looking driver didn’t seem fazed at all, but standing behind him in the tram were two or three tourists, their smartphones held up to video the scene. I assume they were hoping that someone would go under the wheels. Perhaps there’s a video on Youtube. Oh yes, there is. See the kids hanging off the back? They still have their legs. And that looks like it was a quiet day.
So Friday we exited our apartment building and chose downhill rather than uphill. From the tramstop at the bottom, by the sea, we bought our Istanbulkart, charged it up and got on a tram (the dark blue T1 line, if you’re following on the map).
The tram, which was air-conditioned and modern, took us across the famous ‘Haliç’ (the ‘Golden Horn’ a large inlet from the Bosphorus, which separates the part of Istanbul with most of the historical sites from the more commercial side where we are staying) via the Galata Bridge, then up yet another hill to Sultanahmet, primary destination for any tourist.
The tram is THE way to get there: you heard it here. But whether you should go at all, I leave up to you. I’d been before, so wasn’t that bothered, but it was hot and packed with tourists.
Basically, you’ve got a long ridge with the Topkapi Palace (Sultans, harems, crown jewels) at one end, facing the sea, then the famous Hagia Sophia (now open on Mondays!) and the Blue Mosque (Wikipedia is banned in Turkey so I can’t check that link…). A couple of tram stops along, there’s the Kapali Carsi, known in English as the Grand Bazaar.
Hagia Sopia is interesting, primarily because it’s extremely old and very large, but you’ll pay to enter and likely have to queue. The Mosque is interesting too, but the queue to get in is absurd. Istanbul has ninety-nine million other mosques, most of which are deserted except at prayer-times, so I’d suggest you look in one of those instead.
By the way, mosques often have/had associated public services. Often the layout would have included auxiliary buildings such as soup kitchens and TOILETS, which is useful to know… And inside a typical mosque? Well, it’s basically just an empty, carpeted space where lots of people can kneel down together and pray.
And another by the way, in case you were curious about the call to prayer that’s blasted out many times daily from minarets all over the city, and probably from a mosque near wherever you are. What IS the guy actually saying? Well, there’s a nice article with the Arabic words and an English translation here. As-salatu Khayrun Minan-nawm.
Where was I?
So, we whizzed around the church, skipped the mosque due to the queue of faithful from all over the Muslim world, and headed for the covered bazaar, which is 1.) big 2.) packed with people 3.) architecturally-interesting but 4.) not a place to tary, in my opinion.
We headed downhill and, once in daylight again, found ourselves in a ‘normal’ market, also crowded, also huge. But this time, there were no shops selling carpets or gold jewellery. Instead there were vendors of just about everything, from carpet slippers to olives, via gaudy wedding dresses and plumbing supplies. My wife discovered an entire arcade full of wool shops (I suspect that was the day’s actual destination). She was disappointed to find that the locals like their fibres to contain plenty of acrylic (‘Best quality acrylic’, I read), which isn’t good, apparently. “Perhaps Turks like acrylic?” she wondered. “Perhaps they’re not as well-off as you and your knitting friends” I replied.
Finally out of the market, we found ourselves back at the Golden Horn. In the piazza by the sea there was a political meeting going on – the opposition party in the Istanbul mayoral election, now being re-run after their victory was anulled the first time. Their slogan “Her Şey Çok Güzel Olacak” (“Everything is going to be very beautiful”) is everywhere. (There’s a campaign ad here, if you’re interested.) Music was playing, people were holding hands in a long line and dancing. Further along the piazza, the other party, in power at national level and previously in Istanbul too, was holding its event: there was no dancing and there were long faces all round.
Back on the tram the air-conditioning was a relief, though at rush hour (avoid rush hour) it was packed. Getting off near home, we walked the wrong way, had to double back, and then wearily climb the mountain to reach base camp and a welcome cold beer.
Good grief, I’ve written a lot! And this was only Friday. But I must mention eating… Thursday we acted on a tip from my Turkish teacher and had mezes (starters) with rakı (check this link for a guide to drinking Turkey’s national alcoholic drink!) at Zubeyir Ocakbasi. Think a huge pit full of blazing charcoal, tended to by a sweating cook, meat and vegetables being grilled on long metal spikes, with me and the wife sitting at this guy’s right-hand side, like the Sultan’s trusted advisors, facing the fiery pit and swilling down iced-aniseed liquor to keep cool.
The following evening (Friday, after death by tourism) was a repeat: meze and rakı, but without the flames this time. Musterek Meyhane is hard to find, being on the first floor, without its own entrance from the street. You need to look UP to see it, then enter through the cafè on the ground floor – they didn’t seem to mind.
Oh, and it’s all locals as far as I could see. Be aware, I think this was the only place I’ve been to where they didn’t try to speak English with me. And the Tripadvisor reviews are correct, by the way – reservations ARE necessary (we were just lucky). And yes, people do smoke inside the restaurant. It was like being back in the early ’90s. Quite quaint, really.
Bene, Saturday, fed up with crowds, we followed Feyza’s advice and took the ferry from the bottom of our peak across the Bosphorus to Üsküdar, which is directly opposite where we are. Istanbulkarts are good on ferries too, which is cool. And it was great to be out on the water.
On the Asian side, things were quieter. Lots of nice homes with sea views, and way fewer people! We headed for Fethipaşa park, which turned out to be another mountain to climb, albeit a peaceful, green one. From the park, as we ascended, there were views of the European side of the city. Once we reached the top, we descended a little way down the other side to Fıstıkağacı metro station, and from there, down to the famous Kadıköy, probably the most obvious destination on the Asian side of the city.
So Kadıköy is basically shops and restaurants. I’d hazard it’s where Turks go for an evening out. Choose rakı and fish or rakı and mezes. Or for ‘proper’ muslims, thanks be to Allah, kebaps and ayran, which is a lightly-salted yoghurt drink. Try it, it’s good, and cheap! Note that some restaurants sell alcohol and some don’t – this is deliberate. If you’re unsure which you’d prefer, check what existing customers are doing and do the same.
After two evenings eating meze and drinking rakı, we were OK with something simpler at Çiya Kebap (alcohol NOT available!) Lentil soup for the wife, İçli Köfte for me, then a lahmacun each (look that up – it’s Turkey’s best kept secret!) Washed down with ayran, of course.
Did I mention that eating and drinking is very affordable in Istanbul? if you can get your head around the currency, you realise that the hundred Turkish lira you just shelled out for a meal for two people was only something like twenty dollars.
I seem to have skipped ahead. Once we arrived in Kadıköy we jumped onto the second, and thankfully the last, of Istanbul’s tourist trams and rode it up yet another hill. When we were as hot as we could bear, we got off, breathed some, and started to wander down through the streets looking for somewhere to lunch. Perhaps it was the heat, but all we could agree on was cold beer, salad and french fries in a bar called Rock’n Rolla, where the stray cats ate crumbs of feta cheese from our fingers. The beer was cold and inexpensive, which restored my mood.
Refreshed, and back at the bottom of the hill with a couple of hours to kill until dinner, we decided to take a Bosphorus tour, choosing the short one, an hour and a half of breezy ferry ride for less than five dollars each.
The Bosphorus, I should mention for anyone who doesn’t know, is that very narrow strip of sea that connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara. The Black Sea? North of Asian Turkey, south of Russia. From six o’clock going anti-clockwise, the Black Sea features: the Asian part of Turkey, Georgia, Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, Bulgaria, then back to the European nub of Turkey.
So all the ships from the northern part of Turkey and the southern part of Russia go though this narrow channel, called the Bosphorus, which means ‘throat’ in Turkish (it looks like one on the map). There are fast-flowing currents, huge ships and lots of smaller ferries, including ours. You have the European side of Istanbul on one side and the Asian side on the other. The Bosphorus is crossed by three impressive suspension bridges, and there’s a metro/train tunnel going under it.
From the tour ferry we could see the palaces, luxurious hotels and private dwellings lining the waterfront, plus the various communities (marinas and sea-front restaurants) that studded the shore on each side. We passed the ferry terminal we’d left from in the morning, down the mountain from our apartment, and the one we’d arrived at on the other side, with the lovely park. Then on up towards the Black Sea, under suspension bridge one, on to suspension bridge two, and all the way back again.
So that was the tour. Sit outside if you have something wind-proof with you. Watch the other tourists as well as the passing scenery: you’ll see courting or newly-married couples, families with children and/or elderly relatives, and groups of young guys out with their mates. Having started our tour from the Asian side, far away from the obvious destinations for foreigners, our fellow travellers were all Turkish. Drinking tea is de rigeur, though we didn’t at that point, as I hadn’t yet managed to convince my wife to try it.
To get home I had a cunning plan. Instead of recrossing the Bosphorus by ferry and walking up that bloody hill, I figured we could take the Marmaray metro line, the one that goes through the tunnel. This metro line is named after the Marmara sea, which is at the other end of the Bosphorus from the Black Sea.
We rode quickly and comfortably back to Europe and Yenikapı Station, where we switched to the green metro line and continued in air-conditioned luxury through the tunnels to Taksim Square, at the top of our local mountain. From there we could walk downhill instead of uphill and collapse, exhausted onto the couch.
Newly-confident about my ability to navigate Istanbul’s public transport system, and with a travel card chock full of money, Sunday I suggested we take the metro and seek out a place to ‘breakfast on the Bosphorus’, something that EVERYONE insisted we do.
A few metro stops north, we got off at Etiler and headed on foot down another steep hill to Bebek, which means ‘baby’ and is the name of a chic little cove. Once there, you can park your Porsche or Ferrari and stroll along the Bosphorus with your fashionable wife and perfect children, displaying your wealth via branded clothes, shoes and sunglasses (not fakes like the rest of the city…). And eat, of course.
The breakfast was good: a boiled egg, tomatoes, cucumber, black and green olives, a simit, white cheese, yellow cheese, matured white cheese, butter, honey – I may have missed something, but there was definitely no bacon – washed down with glasses of tea.
Stefi had the menemen, and swore it was good, despite the fact that she’d never eaten anything similar for breakfast in her life and couldn’t digest the green peppers. And finally she tried the tea! “Can I put sugar in it?” That’s allowed, I reassured her.
Breakfast came to about twelve euros, which I barely had enough cash to cover so decided to pay by card. The waiter took my card without comment but seconds later regretted that it had been refused by the system. I offered another, but sadly, that one didn’t work either. So I pulled out my cash and counted out the correct amount of Turkish lira, plus the 10% tip (you don’t need to tip in Italy, but in Turkey it’s the done thing).
Big smile from the waiter! Tip successfully secured!
OK, NOW I’ve got what the problem with the cards was…. Apparently, when you pay for a meal by card here, they only put in the total, there’s no option to specify an additional amount for service, like you do in the USA. Hence, the waiter, spotting a foreigner with a card, assumes that there will be no extra cash tip if the card payment is successful and finds reason for the transaction to fail.
Call me cynical but – cash all spent on the breakfast – we went around the corner to the ATM and took out some more. This time Visa seemed to have no objections.
After breakfast I sat in the park and listened to a Turkish rock band that was performing at what seemed to be a music festival, while my wife looked at the chic market stalls selling expensive tat to the Porsche drivers.
And then it was time to leave Bebek, via a new form of public transport so as to avoid having to walk back up the steep hill: the bus!
Beeping the card twice was no problem, but the bus, which moved slowly along the waterfront road through chaotic traffic, was hot and crowded. Old people get priority when it comes to sitting down, so we stood and sweated, and watched the little blue dot on Google maps show us the slow progress we were making north along the Bosphorus coast.
In the end, we got fed up with the bus and got off at another chic resort, found the public toilet at the back of the mosque (“It’s just a hole in the ground!” my wife shrieked) and then looked for another bus to take us up the hill to the nearest metro station.
Of course, the bus didn’t come. We stood there in the early-afternoon sun, getting hotter and hotter. People joined the queue, got fed up and left. But then, miracle of miracles, a ‘dolmuş’ arrived to rescue us.
A ‘dolmuş’ is a private minibus, and the Istanbulkart is definitely not accepted. You pay cash, just a couple of coins, maybe fifty euro cents or less, directly to the driver. No worries if he’s actually driving at the time, you’ll get your change.
But it got us back to the metro station, which was the one at the end of the M2 line. Our torturous bus journey had taken us to the very edge of the city: Hacıosman metro station. Don’t bother checking it out: there’s a bus terminal, the metro, a tea salon, and an unfinished residential tower in the background. Other than that, just trees.
We descended gratefully into the air-conditioned depths (much better than the London Underground, which is hot and stuffy) and got on a train. Home, or somewhere else, we wondered? It was still only mid-afternoon so we decided to get off at one of the stops on the way back to Taksim and explore, just to see what a random part of the rest of Istanbul looked like.
Sanayi metro station, as always, seemed to be at the very top of a hill, on a busy main road with commercial and office buildings. There was a view of what I assume is the business district. Up the street a way, we turned right into a busy shopping street – think 50% shops selling stuff you would NEVER buy, 50% kebap stalls and tea salons, virtually every woman wearing a headscarf. This was clearly a very different part of the city from the morning’s chic Bebek.
On the way back to the metro, we took a wrong turn and walked down a residential street past a woman and some children who were drying wool on their appartment block railings and on blankets spread out on the sidewalk.
“Just cut off the sheep!” my wife exclaimed. Being obsessed with all things wool-related, she was entranced.
So Sunday was two new forms of public transport, and two very different views of Istanbul! In the evening, having ascended the damn hill once more, we headed for a restaurant that sold mantı, one of Turkey’s national dishes, a sort of ravioli.
The Babel Cafe Restaurant, selected from Tripadvisor by my beloved, turned out to be half-way down the OTHER side of our hill, but in a high-tourist-density zone, which meant elevated prices and so-so food, though that could be just me as other customers have left good reviews.
Mantı is a special food, though. It’s the sort of thing your granny might make, and of course, only hers is good enough! Back in the day, when I was married to a Turkish woman and lived in Ankara, we ate it with enthusiasm on special occasions.
It was always served in broth, like ‘tortellini in brodo’ but garnished with chilli flakes, herbs, tomato puree, melted butter and yogurt. Istanbul-style mantı seems to be broth-less, though at least moist.
I learned to cook this dish from my first wife, prepared it for my second wife, who liked it, and can therefore assert that my version was better. But I bet that any Turkish club members would say the same about their, or their granny’s recipes! Don’t email. Leave a comment so everyone can read it.
After dinner, we walked home via Istiklal Caddesi again, hopping out of the way as the tourist tram went past, ringing its bell merrily.
Nota bene – this famous street is lined with shops and eating places, but to really appreciate it you have to venture into the arcades (look out for the word ‘passaj’), which contain shops, stalls, cinemas, teashops, restaurants and so on. Think of an iceberg, only a small part of which is visible above the waterline. Shopping in Istanbul is the same.
Also, don’t hesitate to dive down one of Istiklal Caddesi’s busy side streets and explore the busy bars and restaurants. Ignore the places with waiters begging you to come in and look out for the ones that already seem full of happy eaters. As we’ve now exhausted our list of suggested restaurants, that’s what we’ll be doing for the final nights of our stay – just taking pot luck in the area that seems busiest.
OK, so I’m supposed to be heading to the islands, remember? I’d better get on. More from Istanbul on Wednesday, the day we head back to Bologna.