Viewing: Turkey

MangoJuiced: Style steals from an Istanbul apartment

I stayed in this Istanbul apartment last October—and I loved it so much, I “stole” something to take home with me. Can you guess what it is?

Go style stealing with me in this week’s post on MangoJuiced. And leave a comment to congratulate me on my newfound sewing skills. Consider that your hint!
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Five faves from… Istanbul

Hoo boy, I’ve been busy busy busy these past two weeks! I had so much about Istanbul that I wanted to blog about, but I figured if I had to wait until I actually had time to write about all of it, it would just never happen. And so much has happened since that trip, that I really need to blog and be done with it.

So I’m wrapping up my Turkey posts with a roundup of my five favorite things about Istanbul. I think the tag “five faves from…” could easily apply to anyplace and anything, so watch out… it might just become a regular feature around here!

1) Sweets at Saray. There are lots of sweet shops selling pasha lokum, more famously known as Turkish delight, along Istiklal Caddesi. But all of them pale in comparison to Saray Muhallebicisi, a restaurant, tea and dessert shop that’s been satisfying Istanbul’s sweet tooth since 1935. Saray’s huge storefront window, filled with a tempting array of Turkish sweets, is completely mesmerizing.

Until Saray, I never knew watching syrup drip could be so hypnotic. You are getting sleeeepy… you will want to eaaaat meeeee

Brisk, efficient staff in old-school uniforms dish out tray after tray of sweets to a packed house and long queues at the takeout counter. Towering stacks of treats disappeared literally in minutes. It was fascinating to watch.

Inside: bedlam. Four completely packed floors of sugar frenzy. Those servers were practically mobbed!

Speaking of sugar frenzy, this was another one of those moments where everything was so yummy I forgot to take pictures. Just take it from me, those sweets in the window are every bit as rich and delicious as they look. Best washed down with a hot Turkish tea or strong Turkish coffee!

2) Aya Sofya. It was a photo of the Aya Sofya (or Hagia Sophia) that first made me want to visit Istanbul. The city’s most ancient, and most famous monument was built by Emperor Justinian in 537 AD, and was many things in its long and tumultuous history: a church, a mosque, then a museum.
Behold the splendor, after the jump!

With a soaring, seemingly unsupported dome (a true architectural feat of its time), what Aya Sofia is today is… magnificent.

From the stunning ceiling that once held 30 million gold mosaic tiles (tesserae) to the chandeliers that hang overhead, Aya Sofya left me in awe and simply thankful to be there.

Some beautiful mosaics still remain on the second floor. Great detail, vivid colors, and lots of gold—which I love! They seem to glow even after more than a thousand years.

3) Sunday market at Ortakoy. A neighborhood on the European shore of the Bosphorus, Ortakoy has lots of interesting little shops, cafes and restaurants lining the riverside. It’s also home to a small open-air market every Sunday.


With winter coming and most of the sellers being middle-aged and elderly women, the market was full of cozy, colorful hand-knit items. Right beside the displays were their proprietors just knitting away the whole afternoon.

When I travel, I’m always on the lookout for a funky accessory or two to take home with me, and markets are great places to look. These chunky rings fit the bill perfectly!

I found Ortakoy to be a really nice, relaxed, and very local place to walk around. People just hang out by the riverside for a chat, a snack or a glass of tea (or all of the above) while enjoying the view of the Bosphorus. That’s Asia on the other side of that bridge, by the way.
 

4) The ultimate baked potato. Most travel guides I read mentioned fresh seafood as the thing to eat at Ortakoy. But looking around the area, it seemed the locals were trying to tell me something else.
It turns out Ortakoy is famous for the many stalls selling kumpir, or stuffed baked potatoes. Or should I say, the ultimate stuffed baked potato.
And when I say stuffed, I mean stuffed—we’re talking 10 or more toppings here. Butter and cheese are just the foundation of this wonderful creation.

Steaming hot and loaded with toppings, it was the perfect lunch on a chilly fall day. It was cheap and filling too!

5) Cross-continental cruise. After shopping at the market and stuffing ourselves with kumpir, Marlon and I hopped on a ferry that took us on a short cruise up and down the Bosphorus. This strait connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmaris, but more importantly, has Europe on one shore, Asia on the other.

Aside literally putting you between Europe and Asia, the Bosphorus cruise is also great for sighting all the ultra-wealthy homes (stately mansions and chic, all-glass apartments) lining both shores, with their jacuzzis and yachts out front.

Like the strange and silly couple we are, Marlon and I had a laugh sticking our noses in the air and showing off our “summer mansions” to an imaginary yacht full of imaginary guests.

To me, it was all very Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. But to Marlon, this photo was all about “I’ll bet my orchids, it’s brewed!” Can anyone remember what commercial that was?

Friday night in Istanbul

Every city has an iconic avenue, a vital artery through which the lifeblood of the city flows. Paris has its Champs Elysees, Barcelona its Las Ramblas, and Singapore its Orchard Road. What Istanbul has, is Istiklal Caddesi. 
That’s precisely where Marlon and I found ourselves on our first evening in Istanbul. We were far too tired to do much more than take an evening stroll, after getting up at 3am to leave Cappadocia and traveling the entire morning. On our way there, dozens of Turkish flags hung up for the Victory Day national holiday waved us on. 
You know things are about to get interesting when you see public art like this, at the south end of Istiklal Caddesi just minutes from our apartment. 
We hit the first bend in the road with a slight downward slope. Looking down at Istiklal Caddesi from that gentle hill, two things immediately came to mind. “Madness!” was the first. What followed next, I had no words for at the time. But now I know what it was: it felt like home. And this shows you why.

Much has been said about how Istanbul is where East meets West, Europe meets Asia. Seeing this for the first time is where it really hit me, with a jolt. Yes, it looks like a European boulevard. Even the idea of an evening stroll is so European. And if you have any doubt that you are still in Europe, you only have to peer into the narrow, sloping side streets that branch off from Istiklal Caddesi.

But the energy, the rush and the madness is all Asia. And instead of wilting at the sight of this crowd, I felt alive. It was the spark of energy I needed after a long day of traveling… and a long time away from home.

I think it mostly has to do with the people. With a population of 13 million, Istanbul definitely feels much more like Manila (pop. 19 million) than Amsterdam (pop. 800,000), and that is especially obvious on Istiklal Caddesi. It seems that half of Istanbul was walking there that Friday night. Another thing about the people… well, they look like me! I can’t count the number of times someone talked to me or Marlon in Turkish during our stay.

Istanbul feels like a city of contradictions. A loophole where 1 + 1 does not always add up to 2. A metropolis bubbling with a kind of craziness I realized that I miss. A place where you can go wild… 

… or go to church. Or both, because this store and the church are right across from each other!

Another thing that reminded me of home? Street food.

Just like Manila, kestane, or roasted chestnuts, appear in the streets when it’s cold. I just had to have some!

Street food vendors are everywhere on Istiklal Caddesi. Some of them, like this guy, were popping open mussels on the sidewalks. At first I thought they were touts promoting seafood restaurants, so I walked away from the first few that I saw.

But then the acid-bright yellow of plump, glistening lemons caught my eye. And you know how I love anything lemony.

These yellow “flags” are how I discovered midye, mussels stuffed with rice and spices.

At €1 a pop, it was easy to just keep stuffing midye after midye into my mouth. The vendors know this, so they will just keep popping mussels open and handing them to you until you tell them you’ve had enough. But with my mouth filled with the taste of spices, sea, rice and lemon, it was far too preoccupied to bother with the word “stop!”

Cat country

Upon our arrival in Istanbul, Marlon and I were both delighted and relieved to find not only a lovely apartment in a fantastic location, but the cutest, most endearing welcoming committee ever. Say hello to Georgie and Bavaria!

Georgie and Bavaria belong to Suzan, our fantastic Airbnb host in Istanbul. My personal theory is that cats are an indicator of a great apartment and a thoughtful host; I was definitely right this time.

Black-and-motley Georgie was the most affectionate cat ever, purring and cozying up to us literally from the moment we walked in the door. (Note: hire her to give Rogue some coaching.) She even climbed into bed for a cuddle on our last morning… just like Rogue would if we were at home! As you can see, she had lots of bonding moments with Marlon. Bavaria was more reticent, but being deaf and very old, that was easy to forgive.

Turkey is cat country. There are big, beautiful, fluffy cats everywhere—the type that would be pet store material in Manila. Being the crazy cat lady that I am, I couldn’t resist snapping pictures of the cats I saw. Coo over the cuteness, after the jump!

In Amsterdam there are shop cats, restaurant cats and even pub cats, but street cats are a rare breed. I didn’t realize how much I missed them until I got to Turkey. They were everywhere—yowling to be fed under the table in Goreme or sleeping outside a jewelry store in Istanbul. And though they were always underfoot, not once in six days did I see a single Turk kick or even shoo away a cat. I even saw a hulking, macho leather-clad biker type bend down to scratch the cat sleeping underneath his bike.

Even the (slightly) posh restaurant we treated ourselves to on our last evening in Istanbul had its own cats, complete with their own bowl of food and water by the door. It’s hard to claim to be really posh with two fat cats like these sprawled across the floor. And I like that.

Dog lovers, I haven’t forgotten you. Say hello to the scruffy scoundrel of central Goreme!

Don’t say I didn’t throw you a bone. Har har har. 

A taste of Turkey

My past experience of Turkish food in the past can be summed up in three words: fast, greasy and cheap. In Cappadocia, I became reacquainted with this cuisine in what was a long-overdue “proper” introduction. It turns out that whatever version of Turkish cuisine has made it out of the country and become ubiquitous around Europe are but pale fast-food shadows of the real thing.
Care for a sampling? Let’s eat!
Top row: At Cafe Safak in the center of Goreme, the owner Ali’s mother makes a competition-winning lentil soup (warm, hearty and cheap!); a refreshing cucumber, tomato and onion side salad; pide, Turkish-style pizza with cheese and sausage. Bottom row: “Pottery” kebap, a meat stew (your choice beef, chicken or lamb) slow-cooked in a terracotta pot that’s broken at the table; chicken kebap fresh from the pot, served with rice; tangy pickled beet slaw; local red wine from Cappadocia.
The Turkish are a people after my own heart. They love their sweets and so do I! Thanks to the Turkish sweet tooth, meals always ended with a variety of delectable pastries. I chose to wash mine down with the omnipresent çay, or Turkish tea, while Marlon opted for very strong (too strong for me!), almost mud-thick Turkish coffee.
Top row: Sweet and chewy borek, a layered and baked (or fried) phyllo pastry that seems to be the Turkish national snack (it’s everywhere!), best with a glass of warm Turkish tea. Bottom row: Marlon enjoying his manly coffee with delicate bites of baklava.

I thought it was going to be easy to stick to my low/no-carb diet while in Turkey. (“They eat a lot of kebabs right? Grilled meat? I should be fine!”) As you can see, I was way off the mark… but quite happy to be wrong!

Panoramas, peaks and pigeon poop

On our last day in Cappadocia, Marlon and I signed up for a day tour through our hotel. The tours are pretty standard (with a standard color-code system) throughout all the various tour agencies in Goreme. We opted for one that would take us to sites that were further from Goreme and would thus require the use of a car.
Our first stop was a nearby lookout point with a beautiful panorama of Goreme. Remember the flat-top mountain in the distance from our hot-air balloon ride?

Then we drove about thirty minutes to the ancient underground city of Derinkuyu. Built in the 8th century B.C. and enlarged in the Byzantine era, Derinkuyu was an underground refuge where entire towns, complete with their livestock and possessions, could weather enemy invasions. Though its series of chambers, tunnels and stairs extend eleven stories into the ground, only 10 percent of it is accessible to the public today.

Confession time: I’m claustrophobic. I braved the first room on the first level, but after attempting to walk further in I knew I couldn’t handle it. So I stepped out and decreed Marlon our official representative and photographer.

We worked up our appetites for lunch with a hike through the truly stunning Ihlara Valley. A 16-km gorge cut deep into the mountainous landscape, we hiked only about a fourth of the way through it (4km, which took about an hour to an hour and a half). Four kilometers was not too bad at all. Remember, I like hiking now!

Hike along with me, after the jump!

We began our hike with a visit to one of the many old churches carved into the walls of the canyon. The pattern junkie in me loved these ancient frescoes on the ceiling and walls.

Then we were off at a rather fast clip. Again, I felt like a character in an adventure novel.

… walking amidst scenery taken right out of an epic fantasy.

I almost expected a pair of unicorns to come galloping down this stream. Very Legend, circa 1985.

This was definitely the most active day tour I’ve ever been on—because more hiking and climbing followed after lunch! This time, it was up the mountain to the stronghold of the Nome King (Return to Oz, 1985)… or the Selime Cathedral in real life.

The Selime Cathedral is steep and requires effort. No handholds or stairs here. I struggled, but a German couple on our tour just hopped all over this thing like a pair of mountain goats. 

It’s worth the climb, though, to access the hauntingly lovely complex of monasteries, churches and refectories carved within these rocky peaks.

The view of Tattooine from the top is a big bonus. The tour guides are very emphatic in correcting the myth that parts of Star Wars were filmed here, but you can see why people would think that.

On the way back to Goreme, we stopped for a view over Pigeon Valley.

It’s called that because all over this valley, the rocky peaks have been turned into pigeon houses. Pigeons were very important in Cappadocia, which is largely an agricultural region, because they provided fertilizer for the crops.

Of course, no agency-organized tour can end without a big selling opportunity. For our last stop, we were taken to a workshop that processes onyx, a mineral mined in this region. Some of the onyx baubles were pretty, but stone is not really my thing.

However, I did win an onyx egg for answering a trivia question. (Marlon couldn’t believe I know who the founder of the Republic of Turkey was. He thinks he’s married to Hermione.) So at least I got my Cappadocia souvenir without having to spend a cent.

See it, do it

I just found a collage that I made at the beginning of spring, when I first started getting back into my creative groove. I was done with it, but not quite.. until I saw these tiny hot air balloons in a magazine ad and decided to toss them into the mix at the very last minute.

Six months later…

Coincidence? Or is it just what happens when you put something out into the universe? You tell me. I’m just glad it worked out this way. As R. Kelly sings: “If I can see it, then I can do it!”

Take a hike

As a leisure activity, hiking has never appealed to me. For one thing, as I’ve said before, I’m not the biggest fan of walking. Also, Southeast Asia (particularly the Philippines) is not the easiest place to go traipsing into the wild. It’s always too hot, humid and sticky, mosquitoes and insects abound, and then there’s things like the NPA (which is the kind of thing parents warn you about on a field trip to Mount Makiling.)
My impression is that hiking is a rather dreary activity. What’s so fun about trudging on and on for hours? Why would anyone want to walk that much? 

After a sunset hike through the stunning scenery of Cappadocia, I now know why.

How Cappadocia converted me, after the jump:

On our way back to town from the Goreme Open-Air Museum, Marlon and I saw the path in the photo above. It simply… beckoned. So we decided to walk off the road and go on our first hike.

And you know what? I really enjoyed it.

I never really thought about the context of hiking: what you see while you’re walking. I’d always thought of it as simply… walking. (Ugh.) 

But you never walk in a vacuum, do you? When you’re walking through scenery like this, you just want to keep going. Its beauty simply compels you to go on. (And the cold actually helps!)

Walking through the Cappadocian landscape is like being a character in one of my favorite fantasy, young adult or adventure novels. In this wide, circular clearing, I felt like Aragon (okay, maybe Frodo) waiting for the attack of the Nazgul in Lord of the Rings

… while these red arrows spray-painted on the rocks (helpfully pointing the way to Rose Valley) reminded me of Labyrinth, where Sarah scrawled red lipstick arrows on the flagstones to mark her path through the maze.

I’d read that Rose Valley with its red rock formations is been a great place to watch the sunset, but with more than 2 km to go, Marlon and I were both worried we wouldn’t make it back to the road before dark. Luckily, we found a perfect place of our own to hole up in.

After taking a few photos from our little cave…

… we watched the sunset together in silence.

Then it was time to walk back to Goreme, which welcomed us back with this lovely lavender sky.

Is this what I was missing all along? If hikes are always this lovely, I can definitely see myself hiking more. Consider me a convert!

Sanctuary

After catching up on sleep post-balloon flight, Marlon and I took a ten-minute walk out of Goreme town proper to see the Goreme Open-Air Museum, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

I’m not the biggest fan of walking, but there is a lot to see along the way, from spiky alien foliage to the cutest little tag-along pups to camel rides (and the quirky signs advertising them).

The open-air museum is a sprawling monastery complex built by early Orthodox Christians between the 8th and 12th centuries.

Exploring the site takes about three hours at a leisurely pace. You can’t exactly speed through it since there is a lot of uphill walking and climbing involved.

Like most everything in Cappadocia, these churches, refectories and monasteries were hewn out of rock, taking advantage of the natural shelter afforded by these caves.

It’s not just the raw beauty of these rock formations that makes this place a treasure…

 … but also how they represent a rare successful collaboration between man and Mother Nature. These caves have served as natural vaults for the paintings and decorations made by the early Christian monks, keeping them safe for centuries. (Given the region’s bloody and tumultuous history, I’d say they did a pretty good job.)

Inside these rock walls is a truly special site: the Dark Church. For an extra 8 TL (which is well worth it), the stunning frescoes within (some damaged, many still vivid) take you back to what it was like to be a Christian in the 12th century. No photos are allowed inside so this is as far as I can take you.

For a Catholic like myself, the experience was like stepping into an alternate universe (or have I been watching too much Fringe?), a could-have-been. Though we share the same central figures and events as the Orthodox Church, I noticed that the frescoes placed heavy emphasis on saints we barely know—St. Basil and St. George are two of the most important ones.

It made me wonder what history would have been like if the two churches had never parted ways. What would I believe today? Would it have been better for all of us? I guess we’ll never really know; the beauty of a place like Goreme is that it helps us imagine, ask, and wonder.

Yabadabadoo!

Walking around the town of Goreme, I noticed that the Flintstones were a pretty common reference. There were Flintstones cafes, Flintstones hostels, even a Flintstones handicraft workshop.
It’s not without good reason. Cappadocia is famous for the cave homes that have been built into its otherworldly landscape. I have a friend who is notorious for having blurted out, while driving along the potholed roads of Kamuning, Quezon City: “Where are we? Are we on the moon or something?” A town like Goreme is the perfect place to ask such a question.
Residents of Goreme, and similar towns in Cappadocia, are real-life Flintstones—they’ve turned caves into homes. And with the tourism boom, many of those homes have been converted into hotels.
A cave hotel is the place to stay in Cappadocia. Unless your life is an adventure novel (hello, Hunger Games), how many times in your life will you ever have the chance to sleep in a cave?
Come into our cozy cave dwelling, after the jump!

I booked a room for Marlon and myself at the Travellers’ Cave Hotel, which has excellent reviews on Booking.com. From these pictures, you can probably get an inkling as to why. 

The hotel is built into a hill overlooking central Goreme. It’s built in such a way that we couldn’t see any of the other rooms from where we were staying, which was nice.
And yes, the rooms really are built into caves. 
This is what our room looked like inside. I would have thought all the stone would make it feel cold, but it was actually quite cozy and homey.

It was such a nice feeling to come home to our cave after being out in temperatures ranging from 7 to -2℃. Having a fireplace helped too, though we only lit it on our last evening in Goreme.

There was a slight smell of wet stone in the bathroom, but nothing highly objectionable. Though from some of the reviews on Booking.com, it seems a few travelers took issue with that. Lighten up, prissy people, it’s a cave. Let’s just be happy it even has a hot shower and a warm bed!