- Siesta in Sulthanamhet
- Turkey´s political situation and the AKP
- The best Balik Ekmek of Istanbul
- A proper Ramazan feast
- Indulging in delicious Turkish sweets
- Exploring Istanbul´s less-known areas
- Goodbye Asia, hello Europe
we are now in Thessaloniki, Greece, and this is the last News I will send out from this trip. While we are still backpacking, the next two weeks will be much more about relaxing than exploring. Last time I wrote, we had just left the crazy and unreal rock formations of Cappadocia and arrived to the magical capital of Turkey, Istanbul, which ended up being the place where we stayed longest on this trip, 5 days, just because we liked it so much and our host Samet encouraged us to stay with him a bit longer. Also, I promised food stories for this mail, and there will be plenty.
Siesta in Sulthanamhet
We arrived in Istanbul early in the morning, but Samet has to work during the day so we had to find something to do before heading to his. We deposited our luggage at a hostel in the center and went to Sulthanamhet, the old town, where most tourists sites are. Istanbul is just full of them, having been the capital of a Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empire, with many more cultures and peoples settling down in this city with its strategic location between two seas and two continents.
It is the most touristy place in Turkey, however, because it is so big they spread out a lot and most people focus on the old city with the Topkapi Palace (palace of the sultan), the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sofia mosque and the Grand Bazar. I had been here before and done all of this, so personally I was more keen on exploring all the less touristy parts of town. Celia was quite flexible, and while she wanted to see the famous bits, we were very open minded in our approach. After having walked around for a few hours, we first needed to find a place to nap. We had hardly slept on the overnight bus, and both needed our well-deserved siesta. But where to go in a city like Istanbul? We quickly understood that the only place where it was socially acceptable to lie down and sleep where the parks in front of the mosques. So we joined a few other people who were already napping in front of the massive and impressive Suleymani mosque and slept until the lunchtime call to prayers made it impossible to sleep. In the afternoon we kept walking around, visiting the Grand Bazar, which is the biggest covered market in the world. It was interesting and we were harassed way less than expected, but we found it lacked the character of the Moroccan counterparts, the Souks of Fez or Marrakech we had been to and everything seemed too organized. A bazar has to be a place where you have to fight your way through eagerly negotiating people. Here it is more shop, next shop, next shop. Still colourful, but not the same.
Turkey´s political situation and the AKP
In the evening, with the help of one of my legendary hand drawn maps, we made our way to our host, Samet, who lives around 2km northeast of Taksim Square. This place has gone through the news one year ago, when an initially small group of people demonstrated against the development of a religious monument on the square. They were quite brutally removed from the police which sparked much larger protests against the use of force and the government in general. Construction stopped and image of the government took a hit. Nevertheless, Erdogan´s AKP remains at an all-time high, having ruled for already three consecutive terms and set in to win the next. Despite corruption charges at the highest level, restriction of freedom of press and large-scale projects with huge environmental costs, this government is backed by a majority of the population for the levels of economic development it has brought to Turkey in the past 15 years. At the end of the day, who cares about journalists in prison if the tourists keep coming, at least that is the impression we got at times. Admittedly, they have done a miraculous job in Istanbul. When I visited around 7 years ago, there were just one or two metro lines. Now the city has dozens, plus funiculars, cabin cars, high speed trams and an extensive ferry network. Istanbul is set on various hills, split by waterways and is full of subterranean ruins. I am thus very impressed by how they managed to create efficient infrastructure and other places like Rome should look no further to understand how things can get done. I also heard from people that the opinion is that all politicians are corrupt and always will be and that with Erdogan, at least things get done while the politicians enrich themselves. They say that others would to the same without yielding positive development to the country.
The best Balik Ekmek of Istanbul
Coming back to our host, with whom we had long discussions on this. He is from the West of Istanbul and has been living here for most of his life. During the day he has to work, and in the evenings he always took time to show us around his favourite areas and bring us to some insider spots. Having lived here for such a long time, he really knows his way round and when he said whether we would be ok travelling with bus and metro for more than one hour to get a fish sandwich, I knew that it would great! We had had one of the many Balik Ekmek, fish sandwiches, sold in the city centre. It wasn´t that great and we were keen to taste the real thing. After a long journey, we arrived at this simple “restaurant” in the very north of Istanbul on the shores of the Bosporus. They had some stools and small tables lined up next to the water and the adjacent shack made only three things: deep fried calamari rings. Mussels stuffed with a meaty rice and then baked. And mackerel fish sandwiches, where they fry a mackerel filet, add onions, lettuce and a spice mix, some lemon juice and put it in a sandwich. Beautiful. With it, I saw local people drinking this red, vicious looking thing. Samet tried to persuade me not to take it, but I wanted to get the real experience. Well, should have listened to Samet. I do eat and drink everything, but that stuff was just disgusting, imagine a beetroot juice, with bubbles and left open to ferment for a week.
At some point during our dinner I realized that the waves were getting slightly bigger and, sitting right next to the water, observed the situation. The first wave was fine, the second already spilled some water on the peer, and when I saw the third Samet and I just started running away. Celia, in her heroic attempt to save the backpack, was left behind and got splashed by the wave, along with most people eating at this place. I guess this is how they make sure that they have a constant exchange of customers.
A proper Ramazan feast
On Friday evening, the holy day in Islam, Samet brought us to another wonderful place. This was in the rather conservative part just east of the old city and right next to the massive Roman aqueduct. I told Samet that I needed to have a proper kebab before leaving Turkey. So we went to a famous kebab place which was dishing up its Ramadan Special: a massive plate with a pile of fragrant rice topped with three different meat kebabs (lamb, chicken and Adana) as well as lots of different salads to go with it and a bowl of Ayran each, of course. We arrived there at 8.30 and in Istanbul Iftir, the sunset call to prayers which also indicates the end of Ramadan, was at 8.45. Along with a few hundred people who were all staring at that beautiful food in front of them we waited until finally the long awaited “Allah o Akbar” broke the silence. The feast had begun! From silence and hunger to feasting and socializing. Not only was the food delicious, but the whole experience was so unique. Although I do not understand how people who haven´t eaten anything all day and whose stomach has been shrinking can even attempt to eat up that pile of food. I am not doing Ramadan and had to try my hardest to tackle that beast. I did quite well on the main and you would think that after such a filling meal they would bring a light dessert. Some fruit, or maybe just a light cake. WRONG. A massive plate of sweet semolina filled with vanilla ice-cream each. I tried, I failed. It took me nearly 24 hours to digest all of this.
Indulging in delicious Turkish sweets
Anyway, when Samet wasn´t with us, he still told us where to go. We would sit over the map that I got from the tourist office and make big circles around areas we should visit the next day along with at least 10 tea houses that we “had to see” and a few food options. One of these was Güllüoglu, the place that supposedly makes the best tatle, or sweet things, in Istanbul. We went there and bought a selection of desserts that in Europe would all be called baklava. Here they differentiate and baklava is only one type. They differ in their texture, nuts that they put in there and syrups that they dip them into. We have had some quite good tatle before in Turkey, but nothing could even try to match up to this thing of beauty: the bottom was formed by a quite dense, syrup soaked layer. Similar to a cheesecake layer but soggy. Then a layer of crushed pistachios. And then dozens of layers of waver thin, crunchy pastry that just melts in your mouth. The different textures and tastes you get when you bite into it are just amazing. We bought way too much, so every morning I would get up at Samet´s, head to the living room where the Güllüoglu box was waiting for me on the table, and then take out a tatle. Delicious. Very often you get some that are just too sweet, or completely soaked up in syrup. Also, they need to have a considerable layer of nuts, which are expensive and therefore often scarce.
I would generally say that the strong point of Turkish food is not on the savoury side. Yes, their kebabs are amazing. And yes, a freshly baked lahmacun or pide is just beautiful. But the variety seems more limited than in other places and they are not using everything that I think is at their disposal. When it comes to sweets, however, this is definitely not true, they are going all in! In every street you find a shop that sells tatle. And often you also find shops that do elaborate cakes and desserts sold by the portion. The choice is endless and we tried only a few: layers of pastry made with rice flour, soaked in milk, with layers of crushed walnuts and topped with pomegranate. Or the classic, sütlac, a baked rice pudding with vanilla and cinnamon. If you like sweet indulgences, Turkey is the place to be!
Exploring Istanbul´s less-known areas
Another great experience we had with Samet was exploring, or at least getting a hint, of Istanbul´s night life. Admittedly, we had been walking around for 10 hours and were destroyed by the time we headed out, hence around 2am I just had to go to bed. Nevertheless, we managed to see some amazing places that Samet hits every weekend. It is unique in Istanbul, because you can (and we did) take the metro from a very conservative area where people abide to the Ramadan and women cover themselves and alcohol is frowned upon to a place where shot bars are lined one next to the other, people drink cocktails on the street and dance on rooftop bars overlooking the city. While incredibly high taxes on alcohol make this a costly activity, we can now see why Istanbul is famous for its parties, as some of the locations are just incredible, overlooking all of the city and the Bosporus.
This contrast is probably the main impression we had in those five days. We moved from the European to the Asian side. From a conservative district where you seem to be in Eastern Turkey to a liberal part of town where hot-pants are the norm and people kiss in public. From the poor Balat area where houses are run down and many inhabited by refugees from Syria to the posh Prince´s Islands where rich people from Istanbul have luxury weekend houses. Istanbul is such an exciting city because it seems to bring together all these different ways of life in one place and most importantly, peacefully. Even after 5 days of walking 15km every day you feel that you haven´t really seen anything and it makes you want to come back. Istanbul is a mysterious, exciting and addictive city and I am certain that I will come back, especially now that I know Samet, to discover more of those hidden places that render this city unique.
Goodbye Asia, hello Europe
The trip is now slowly coming to an end. For the last 9 nights we actually booked a small self-catered apartment in the very north-east of Tinos, an island of the Cyclades. Celia wants to relax on the beach while I will be scouting the coast line for some deep water soloing spots. And in the evenings I want to have seafood and fish, every day! We have travelled around 3000km and now it is time to get some rest. It has been amazing, a very different experience to my other travels. I think the best discovery of this trip was couchsurfing. I can only recommend it to anyone. The fact that you don´t have to pay for accommodation is a positive side-effect. Most of all it has enabled us to get to know Turkey through the eyes of a local, in a way that would never have been possible by ourselves or with a guide book. Moreover, we have made new friends and I dearly hope we will see each other again, preferably in Europe, so we can return the favour and show them our countries in the same hospitable and open-minded way.
I hope everyone enjoyed the news. I have no idea when the next ones will be sent, but I reckon from any of the following countries: Burma, Ghana, Sierra Leona, Iran.