Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Temple ruins in Bergama, Turkey
At first, we hadn't even planned on stopping at the town of Bergama, located about 100 miles north of Izmir, Turkey.

But Jason noticed the ancient city of Pergamum was located here. Hooray - more ancient ruins to see! So we took a short detour off on our planned route along the Aegean Coast to explore.

The pictured Temple of Athena, located at the top of a 984-foot-tall hill, dates to the time of Eumenes II (197-159 B.C.). Although only the main foundation and restored marble columns remain, the temple was probably constructed, using the Acropolis of Athens as a model in the earliest days of the Pergamene kingdom. More of the temple remains can be found in the Berlin Museum, unfortunately.

The whole site is well worth a look if you are in the area. But I think we are getting a bit spoiled by the ancient ruins we've seen in Turkey as the ones in Aphrodisias still remain my favorite!

Iyi bayramlar!

Monday, August 29, 2011

(Today, we heading out on a road trip for the bayram. My husband, Jason, decided he wanted to write a guest post as a prelude to this adventure. Iyi bayramlar!)

Hello to all Joy’s followers and readers!

If you’ve been a long-time follower of the blog, you probably know more about what I eat and where I travel than I do. I have been thinking about adding to the blog content for a while, but I have to admit…it is harder than I thought. If you don’t blog, it is far more time consuming than I would have guessed; and for those who do, you can probably appreciate the effort Joy puts into her work.

With that intro, I thought I’d try and tackle a subject Joy has limited experience in Turkey. In fact, until July, she had zero experience in this subject, but managed to tick the box when she was in Cappadocia. The subject I am referring to is Turkish driving.  

Yes, I drive in Turkey. Believe that.

Every day, I commute from Europe to Asia and back again. I realize that is a technicality, but if you get stuck in traffic for an hour or two, you would look for ways to justify it too.  

The other impetus for the blog is that we are about to head off on our most substantial Turkish road-trip to date. We’ll be driving from Istanbul to Ayvalık, a small, seaside town on the northwestern Aegean coast, to Ephesus and back in just 3 ½ days.

Generally, Joy is quite good at providing pictures for her blog. Unfortunately, I nearly caused three accidents and almost lost my iPhone attempting such coverage, so you’ll have to rely on text for this blog post. 
Facing the Dolmabache Palace: the best example of rush hour traffic along the shore road
I could find in my photo stash.
Drive on the Right Side
I guess I should start with the basics. In Turkey, people drive on the right-hand side of the road (i.e. how I learned in the U.S.). At the risk of demonstrating my ignorance, this is surprising to me given the British influence in the Middle East, following the fall of the Ottoman Empire. I thought I would be driving on the left side. That said, maybe the French helped me out here. If anyone out there knows the background, please e-mail Joy.

So, if you’re thinking about tackling driving in Turkey, at least you know which side of the street you’ll be on.

Now the rules of the road…they do exist, I’m just not certain anyone follows them.

It never ceases to amaze my Turkish friends and co-workers that I brave the mean streets of Istanbul. While the drivers are crazy, it is a kind of organized bedlam. Yes, you should stop at red lights, you should yield to oncoming traffic and you should be cognizant of other drivers.

Be Aware!
To be fair the only rule you really need to observe is to watch the other guy.  Basically you need to keep your head on swivel to make sure you are watching in front of you, behind you and to both sides.

Expect traffic to come from all sides at all times!

Be Aggressive!
Let me first address my term of organized bedlam. When you drive in Turkey, you should expect a certain level of aggressiveness. Will the mini-bus to your left try and cut you off? You best believe it.

Will there be at least three cars behind the ambulance to take advantage of the sirens? Of course!

Will the taxi driver attempt a “K-turn” in rush hour traffic, or drive down a one-way street in the wrong direction? Why not?

That said, if you try any of the same maneuvers, ones that may even get you shot at in the U.S., many Turkish drivers will understand and accommodate you. Occasionally, they will even give you a nod of respect if you pull if off with pizzazz.

4 Types of Honking in Turkey
Leading from that nod of respect is the second point - road etiquette. The first thing that comes to mind is the use of the horn. This can be both offensive as well as defensive, and you should be prepared to use it both ways. (In Turkey, there appears to be four types of honking.)

  • Angry Honk: For those readers from the US, do not be surprised if you hear the usual “angry honk.” You know what I am talking about. This is the one for the guy who just cut you off without looking or did some other equally inconsiderate action. Typically, this is a longer honk possibly accompanied by a string of profanities that only you can hear, but oddly justify your vigorous honk.
  • Polite Acknowledger: There is also the “polite aknowledger” which is when you honk to let someone know that you approve of the other illegal move they’re about to engage in is sanctioned.  Typically, this is mid-level honk accompanied by eye contact if possible.

  • Inquisitive Taxi: There is also the “inquisitive taxi” which is pretty much as you’d expect. As a pedestrian, you can be guaranteed that any taxi going in the same direction as you will give the slightest tap to the horn to see if you need a ride. This seems innocuous enough until the 15th cabbie honks at you when don’t see them, causing you to jump out of your skin.

  • I’m here!: While there are many horn voices, you also should be aware of the “I’m here!” horn. This is reserved for when a bus or truck attempts to occupy the same location on the highway where you currently are. I typically engage in a manic stomping of the horn while attempting evasive maneuvers. This also happens in the U.S. and U.K., but typically the larger vehicle attempts a gentle transition. Not so in Turkey…expect quick decisive maneuvers.
One of the major roads in 4Levent that often gets crowded during rush hour in Istanbul.
Shifting Gears
Quick and decisive driving leads me to the final point I’ll make on Turkish driving. Almost every male Turk I’ve driven with seems to channel their secret Indy One driver. So if you approach the Turkish roads as a race-track, it will make imminent sense.

One example is even how some Turkish drivers shift gears. I first noticed this last year when I had car service to and from home to work (those were the days).

I will do my best to describe it, but imagine you’re up-shifting from 2nd to 3rd or 4th to 5th. For most cars this means that the shifter ends up in the direction of the dash. Now imagine that as you up-shift, you develop an aura of superiority, you aggressively shift up into 3rd or 5th finishing by slowly lift your hand from the stick once it is in gear. This feeling and aura should last until your hand reaches the same level as the top of the steering wheel. At that point, your hand hovers for just a second as if you’re saying “yeah, that’s right, I up-shifted…” and should be accompanied by the prerequisite smirk.

So…should you brave driving in Turkey? Of course!! If you have the option and gumption, do not wuss out. Just give driving a shot!

(Disclaimer: Please note, driving qualifications are subject to the legal regulations of your respective country).   

Sunday, August 28, 2011

It’s been interesting to watch the special celebrations that occur along with Ramazan in Istanbul.

Luckily, this month, we participated in two iftar dinners with friends and visitors in Istanbul. Iftar means “breaking the fast” which occurs each evening during Ramazan, often with a large meal with family and friends. In most Muslim countries, it is quite common to have feasts that last all night and run from iftar to suhur “the morning meal” before dawn.

As one of our traditional Muslim friends here explained, he breaks his fast by having dates and a glass of water before proceeding with a large meal for dinner, sleeps for a few hours, wakes up around 3 a.m. to eat again, and then goes back to sleep for a few more hours before he has to get up for work during the weekdays. He said the first week is the hardest, but then the fast gets easier. I will just have to believe him!

Last week, I met some friends through the Professional American Women of Istanbul (PAWI), my husband and two of his co-workers at Liman Lokantasi in Karaköy. The restaurant was offering a special set menu for Ramazan.

We each started with an individual plate of iftariyelikler, which included zeytin (olives), pastırma, sucuk, domates (tomatoes), salatalık (cucumbers), peynir (cheese) as well as various toppings for the pide.
The second course was a delicious bowl of yayla çorbası (meadow soup) - a traditional hot, yogurt soup with rice and mint.
We also were served unlimited Turkish tea, of course.
For our entrees, we chose between a plate of  izgara köfte (grilled meatballs) or piliç eskalop (a chicken breast with a mushroom sauce). The entrees were decent, but nothing special. We also received a few meze dishes in between and by now, I was quite full!

What Liman Lokantasi really has going for it is its impressive view overlooking the Bosphorus! I think we may have found a new place to take our visitors to in Istanbul.
An impressive view of the Topkapi Palace to the left with the Ayasofa to the right
in Sultanahmet.
After much chatting with the other guests and admiring the view, we finished with a plate of güllaç - a traditional Turkish dessert made with milk, rose water and a special kind of pastry which is similar to yufka. This dessert is consumed only during Ramazan.
The rose flavor wasn't too intense compared to others I've tried so far.
Last year, I missed most of Ramazan because I returned to the U.S. to tie up a few things from our move and attend a friend’s wedding. This year, I’m happy to be in Istanbul to see what this season means to the Turks and learn more about the country’s customs. Although I have to admit, I will not miss the late afternoon, angry (read hungry, tired and pissed off) taxi and dolmuş drivers during this time of the year.
To the left, Jason and I celebrated Iftar with a group of friends.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Istanbul’s Sultanahmet area is like a treasure box full of antiquities.

I’ve explored the main sights many times now, particularly with our summer guests. Recently, I finally explored the little-visited Great Palace Mosaic Museum (Büyük Saray Mozaik Müzesi), which is located in the middle of the Arasta Bazaar. Ask any of the shopkeepers and they will tell you where to go once you pay a visit to their store too.

The museum is the best and perhaps only large-scale example of the once grandoise, but destroyed Great Palace. The outside structure doesn’t look like much, but inside it houses 1500-year-old mosaics full of lively, yet faded, images of hunting scenes, mythical creatures and artful objects. These mosaics once graced the floors of a large courtyard called the Peristyle Courtyard of Constantinople’s Great Palace.
Man leads camel through the streets.
In 1933, archaeologists discovered some of the mosaic pavement below the baazar, which date to the 6th century. Now, they are protected under roof-covered buildings. Much of the palace was destroyed in the Nika riots in 532, and then rebuilt by Emperor Justinian (527-565).

Even though the mosaics have faded and deteriorated over time, they are still impressive! In total, there are 90 scenes to view.

The Stag and the Snake
The Stag and the Snake - “The stag was considered an adversary of the snake ever since early Hellenistic times. With its breath, it draws the reptile from its pit, and it is immune to its poison....The stag bows its head so as to get a better grip on the snake.”

According to Byzantine sources, the Great Palace was surrounded with the Hippodrome and Zeuksippos Bath in the northwest, St. Sophia in the northeast and to the east and south out to sea. The site covered approximately an area of 100,000 square meters. The palace served as the residence for the Byzantine emperors between the 4-11th centuries and continuously expanded with new construction until the 10th century.

Following the 11th century, the palace was used only for meetings and as an official residence. During the Roman occupation, 1204-1261, the building was sacked like all other buildings in the city. Later the palace was completely abandoned and neglected. Many of the buildings collapsed or had been dismantled so the materials could be used in the construction of new buildings.
The Tigress Griffin
The Tigress Griffin - “Another rarity, this griffin again bears witness to the imagination of the artists working on the Palace Mosaics, Its head, legs and tail are those of a tiger, its teats indicate the tigress...The blood sprouting from the body of the dark-green lizard about to be devoured by the griffin bespeaks its deadly bite.”

The Lion Griffin
The Lion Griffin - “fabulous creatures are a favorite subject of the Palace Mosaics, depicted with the same seeming accuracy as the real animals. The muscles of the grey-brown lion griffin are made to stand out from its body by dark shadows. One of the ambling animal’s feathered wings is still visible.”
I was surprised to see elephants depicted in a few of the mosaics.
The Eagle and the Snake - “The motif, symbolizing the victory of light over darkness, is widespread in all of antiquity....Defeat is inevitable for the snake that has wound itself around the raptor’s body.”
The Eagle and the Snake

Until September 21, you also can learn more about the Great Palace by visiting a special exhibit called Byzantine Palaces in Istanbul at the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. The exhibit displays some of the artifacts such as pottery remnants discovered and explains more about the history of the palace. This is another exhibit that I recommend seeing while you can.
This model, currently on display at the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, depicts the
Hippodrome and the area surrounding the Great Palace.
Whether you are visiting and have a few extra days to explore Istanbul's lesser known sights or if you call the city home, the Mosaic Museum is worth a few hours of your time.

Admission: 8 TL
Closed Mondays
Hours: 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Growing up in the Midwest, my introduction to Asian cuisine was limited to bright yellow egg drop soup, sickening reddish-pink sweet and sour pork and fried crab rangoon.

After college when I moved near Kansas City, I fared a bit better with the dumplings and lettuce wraps at P.F. Chang’s.

It wasn’t until I moved to the East Coast that I got a true taste of Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and Korean cuisines. The use of foreign ingredients and the complexity of flavors and spices intrigue me. For some reason, I still crave and miss those flavors, second to pork, of course.

Even in Istanbul, I’m still on the hunt for really good Asian food. Last night, we stopped at Quick China in Nişantaşı for dinner. This restaurant serves respectable sushi, Japanese and Ramen noodle dishes as well as Chinese and Thai cuisine. We ordered a mix of edamame, a rainbow sushi roll, wonton soup, pad thai and chicken ramen noodles.
Quick China's chicken ramen noodles filled with cilantro, red chili peppers, scallions,
bean sprouts and bamboo shoots.
Our meal got me thinking about some of the best sushi and ramen I’ve ever had during our travels this past year. Surprisingly, that place was Kisaku, a Japanese Restaurant, located on the top of floor of the Al Khaleej Palace Hotel in Dubai’s Deira neighborhood. (I never did write about that meal, so why not share it now?) Granted, I haven't traveled anywhere in Asia yet, but it's on my list of must travel-to places in my lifetime - particularly Southeast Asia.
Maybe this isn't a very sexy food photo, but trust me, the ramen was very good!
A spicy broth with ramen noodles for the slurping!
I never would have expected to have such sublime sushi and even a mammoth-sized bowl of ramen noodles - filled with sliced pork - of all things in Dubai. Our Pakistani friend we were visiting was more than happy to let us venture off on our own for this meal.
Sushi rolls
Tuna and salmon
Being located near the sushi bar was an added bonus. 
Watching the sushi chefs in action in Dubai.
Of course, I asked if I could take pictures of the chefs in action, thinly slicing the fresh fish and placing on rectangular plates for sashimi or laying it on a bed of sticky rice to make sushi rolls.

I remember Jason and I ordered way too much food and couldn’t eat everything. Total cost of our meal: 345 Dhs or about $94 USD. That meal was worth every cent because it left a lasting impression of what sushi should be.

Afiyet Olsun!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

(I apologize for the blog absence this past week. We had friends visiting from the U.S. so I was busy playing tour guide. There never seems to be enough time to sort through all the photos.)

I relish those rare moments when we have nothing planned so we can actually stroll around Istanbul and not feel rushed to get to the next destination.

Before our guests arrived, we spent one Sunday afternoon meandering through nearby Ortaköy, which means “middle village.” It’s hard to believe this bustling neighborhood on the European Bosphorus shore used to lie in the middle of the city’s boundaries.

Now, Ortaköy is full of trendy boutiques, open-air bars and cafes, kumpir and waffle stands and vendors selling jewelry and handmade trinkets. I bought a darling set of glass nar-topped çay kaşığı (tea spoons). It’s a good place to spend an afternoon and relax like we did.

First, we walked by one of  Ortaköy’s most famous landmarks - the Büyük Mecidiye Camii (Grand Imperial Mosque of Sultan Abdülmecid), which generally is referred to as the Ortaköy Mosque. The eclectic-Baroque mosque, built in 1854, is the work of architect Nikogos Balyan, whom also designed the Dolmabahçe Palace. As you can see from the photo, the mosque currently is undergoing extensive renovations to its exterior.

The Ortaköy Mosque is depicted here with the Bosphorus bridge in the background.
Second, we found an open table at one of the many rooftop cafes along the Bosphorus shore and each ordered a half-litre of Efes beer. This also would be a great area to enjoy a weekend brunch.

After our beers, we decided to check out Banyan Restaurant, an Asian-Fusion restaurant I had heard about from a friend. The restaurant is on the more expensive end of the spectrum, but the view was so fantastic we decided to stay and ordered a late afternoon cocktail here.
A view of the Bosphorus with Sultanahmet in the background.
Often, we are disappointed by expensive cocktails because they are poorly made. It’s easier and cheaper to drink at home thanks to my bartender husband and our steady supply of duty-free alcohol.

But this time, Banyan pleasantly surprised us. My pomegranate martini was perfect with just a hint of lime while my husband’s cucumber gin martini was refreshing. 30 TL each.

Martinis at Banyan in Istanbul
We decided to have a snack to accompany the drinks - mini chicken satays with a sweet chili dipping sauce. 17 TL. Because we dined before 5 p.m., our check later showed a discount of 15 percent, which also surprised us.

A complimentary order of herbed bread and pickled vegetables in olive oil  

We were happy and mildly full, so we grabbed a taxi to head home.

When you are in Istanbul, I highly recommend taking the time to while away a few hours in Ortaköy.