Monday, April 30, 2012

Rome is both beautiful and busy.

I'm awed by the architecture and colorfully-painted buildings. Every neighborhood in Rome has a quaint-looking church comparable to the plethora of mosques in Istanbul.

But I'm also overwhelmed by all the people, mainly tourists, and it's not even peak tourism season yet.

Rome, since it's our first visit, is a bit overpowering too. I'm lured by the desire to photograph every building, church, shuttered window and ancient ruin in sight. However, I want to savor our vacation together and simply experience the moment too.

Today, we toured the Vatican, which is a massive site, but too overcrowded to fully enjoy. Pictured is St. Peter's Basilica that's part of Vatican City.

I'm glad we did it; and afterwards, I was even happier to sit down far away from the maddening crowds, eat my spicy Italian salami panini and drink a cold beer in a quiet piazza. (Can you tell that I'm on another pork-eating binge?)

I'll be blogging from Italy for the rest of the week. Ciao!

Friday, April 27, 2012

As we were wandering through the cobblestone streets in Safranbolu, threatening rain clouds covered the sky. Rain seemed imminent.

Since it was late afternoon on Saturday, we decided it was time to find a good place for a drink. However, we were surprised to learn that few places, mainly hotels, serve alcohol in this quaint town.
The streets of Safranbolu, Turkey.
As luck would have it, we just stumbled into the Havuzlu Asmazlar Konağı Hotel, located about 1.5 kilometers from the city center. This hotel was actually on my itinerary thanks to Turkish travel writer Pat Yale's website, Turkey from the Inside.

This 300-year-old restored mansion is well-worth a detour just to glimpse the Ottoman pool inside that gives the hotel its name. Apparently, some of Safranbolu's largest houses had indoors pools like this one.
The pools weren't used for swimming; rather they were used to help cool the rooms with running water when the summer days got too hot. I'm sure people also enjoyed the peaceful sound of the gurgling water.

However, I liked to imagine ladies from the Sultan's harem traveling through Turkey and lounging by the pool. A girl can dream, right?

Candles reflecting off the pool water gave the room a soft glow and romantic atmosphere.

Well, we enjoyed our five-o'clock glasses of Efes beer relaxing by the pool and wondering what life was like back in this Ottoman town.

Don't you wish your salon had a pool like this?

·         Havuzlu Asmazlar Konağı Hotel - The 11 guest rooms are beautifully furnished with brass beds and kilims, and the restaurant serves a decent selection of traditional Turkish food.
Beybagi, Celik Gülersoy Cad. No. 18
Safranbolu, Turkey
Check out this cool fountain head at the pool at
Havuzlu Asmazlar Konağı Hotel in Safranbolu.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Safranbolu - How could you resist these sweet, fluffy, bite-size pillows that you just pop in your mouth?
Saffron-flavored lokum in Safronbolu, Turkey
During our recent trip, I sampled several kinds of lokum (Turkish delights) throughout the cobblestone streets of Safranbolu for the sake of my blog. I mean, the sample tray, was so inviting at every shop we passed so I tried them all. I even went back for seconds.

Yes, I was on a delightful sugar high.
In Safranbolu, there are two main varieties of lokum sold - safran (saffron) and kaymaklı (Turkish clotted cream). The town's name is derived from saffron which used to be grown and traded throughout the district. The saffron threads are still used in Turkish desserts like the lokum, tea and as a dye for carpets here.

Turkish saffron is actually from safflower petals - at least the saffron I've seen. At the Mısır Çarşısı (Spice Bazaar) in Istanbul, Turkish saffron is sold in large open bins next to the dried teas and other spices.

In contrast, the true deep-red saffron is imported from Iran and sold in tiny glass jars. One gram costs about 25 TL. Trust me, that small amount will go a long way in flavouring any rice dishes or stews. (You can find my saffron risotto recipe here.)

Apparently, the real saffron, harvested from crocus flowers, is still grown in fields near the village of Davutobası, about 22 kilometres outside of Safranbolu.

Now, back to the lokum.

We found the best lokum in Safranbolu at Özer Lokumları in the Eski Çarşı. The kaymaklı lokum tastes nearly identical to an American marshmallow, but 10 times better. The safran lokum with pistachios also has a nice flavor. We bought two karışık (mixed) boxes on our first day.
From what I understood, the lokum sets for one day before it is cut into strips and small pieces. The  fresh lokum is then rolled in dried coconut.
On Monday morning, we stopped back by Özer Lokumları and bought four more boxes. Yes, the lokum was that good!

Now, I just need to learn how to make my own lokum!

Where to buy the lokum:
Özer Lokumları, located in the Eski Çarşı of Safranbolu
Yukarı Çarşı No. 3

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

We apparently have a knack of celebrating Turkish holidays nearly everywhere but in Istanbul.

Guess that's because hubby has the time off from work so we decide to get out of the city.

In 2011, we celebrated the Çocuk Bayramı (by accident) in 
Edirne, Turkey. This year, we were about four hours east of Istanbul in this Ottoman-rich town called Safranbolu. This is one of many Turkish cities that's been high on my travel list and luckily is within a sort-of easy drive away from Istanbul. 

Yesterday, April 23, marked an important holiday in the Turkish calendar called International Children's Day, a day that honors all children as the country’s future generation. This date also marks the anniversary of the inauguration of Turkey’s National Assembly, which took place on April 23, 1920, under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Turkey officially celebrated Grand National Assembly Day on April 23 and held a children’s week starting on that day, from 1923 to 1934. The Turkish government then combined the two events into National Sovereignty and Children’s Day, known as Ulusal Egemenlik ve Çocuk Bayramı, in 1935.
In the main square in Safranbolu, people displayed many Turkish flags outside.
As you can see whenever there is a Turkish holiday, the Turks proudly display the Turkish flag in storefronts, on their homes and on large office buildings. Here are a few shots I took yesterday in Safranbolu before we headed back to Istanbul.

More posts on Safranbolu coming soon!
A local barbershop in Safranbolu.
Many hotels like the Gökçüoğlu Konağı in the Bağlar neighborhood of Safranbolu also displayed flags.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Behind the Cinci Han (pictured left foreground), you can see some of the white Ottoman houses in Safranbolu, Turkey. 

Merhaba from Safranbolu, Turkey!

This quaint town, about 4 hours east of Istanbul, has really impressed me. It's full of 17th-century Ottoman wooden houses with dark-brown stained shutters and other historic buildings.

For me, I've been eagerly snapping away 100s of photos during the 2 days we've been here. I am in love with this Turkish town! We are spending the bayram (holiday) weekend here with another couple and taking full advantage of exploring as much as we can.

It's dinner time here so I should run, but please stay tuned. I'll post more photos soon!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

To truly appreciate the tumultuous history of Constantinople, one must visit the Yedikule Hisarı in Istanbul.

Yedikule, as it's commonly called in Turkish (Seven Towers Fortress), dates back to the 4th century during the Byzantine period. Located near the seashore, it appears to guard the southern edge of the Fatih district in Istanbul.

To me, the fortress' history is as impressive as its size.
April 2012: I just took this photo last weekend at  Yedikule Hisarı. The tulip display was beautiful.
Four of the fortress’ seven towers were built as part of Theodosius II’s land walls around Constantinople. The other three towers, built inside the walls, were added by Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror in 1457 - four years after the conquest of Istanbul.

The towers' construction is quite similar to its sister fortress, Rumeli Hisarı, built in 1452, which we visited last summer. This is the main fortress most tourists see in Istanbul as part of a Bosphorus boat tour.
Tulips in front of the Yedikule Hisarı.
Looking up inside one of the seven towers at Yedikule.
You can even see part of the Sea of Marmara from on top of the fortress.
According to the history, when the massive land walls were built, Theodosius incorporated the nearby Golden Gate, also known as Porta Aurea, into the structure. Under the Byzantines, the great arch was used for triumphal state processions into and out of the city. At one time, the gates were supposedly plated with gold. The doorway was sealed in the late Byzantine period.
If you walk through a cemetery here, you could get a closer look at the Golden  Gate by  Yedikule.
In Ottoman times, Yedikule was used for defense, as a repository for the Imperial Treasury, as a prison and as a place of execution. Foreign ambassadors to the Sublime Porte often ended up incarcerated in Yedikule. Also, this is where 17-year-old Sultan Osman II was executed in 1622 during a revolt of the janissary corps. The kaftan he was wearing when he was murdered is now on display at Topkapı Palace.

A comprehensive restoration of Yedikule was completed between 1958 and 1970.

Though off the normal tourist route in Istanbul, Yedikule is one of the city's oldest open-air museums and is well worth a visit. My husband and I know only a handful of Turkish friends and other expats that have actually seen this fortress.
You can easily get to Yedikule by taking the suburban train from the Sirkeci Railroad station in Istanbul.
The lack of handrails or barriers and the steep stone staircases make visiting the fortress that much more adventurous to me. This is quite common among all the ruins we've visited on our Turkey trips.
I love the thrill of walking along these open walls at places such as the Yedikule. 
Once you're at Yedikule, you can also walk along the historic land walls all the way to the Golden Horn. But that's another post!

Admission: 5 TL

Address: Kule Meydanı No. 4, Fatih. The easiest way to get here is to transfer from the tramway to the suburban train at the Sirkeci Railroad station in Istanbul. The fortress is about a 5-minute walk from the Yedikule stop.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Lale (tulip) season lasts for about one whole month in the spring here in Istanbul.

That's why, with great anticipation, I wait for spring to come the other 11 months of the year.

Sure, I enjoy summer and fall in Istanbul. And I tolerate winter. But spring makes me want to do a happy dance all the way down Istiklal Caddesi.

This week, I planned to go to Emirgan Park to see the granddaddy of all lale displays. I had both camera lenses packed in my bag, a water bottle and my cell phone. The camera battery was charged.

I was set. I was organized, or so I thought.

But have you ever gotten so excited that all normalcy flies out the window?

Generally, I am quite organized. I print out maps and itineraries before I travel. I have all the contact information for the hotels and our flights.

But last year, I was so excited about a trip with my in laws that I forgot my passport at our apartment. At least, I remembered before we arrived at the airport and we had enough time to return home and still make our flight.

This week, I forgot something important for my photo trek in Emirgan.

I eagerly started snapping photos of the bright blossoms. I checked my camera settings. That's when I saw the error message. No memory card!

All was not lost because I at least had my cell phone.

Lesson learned.

Hopefully, I can return to Emirgan next week and still get some nice macro shots of the tulips. (For related photos, please last year's post on Lollygagging in the Lale in Istanbul.)

Has something like these moments ever happened to you?

Monday, April 16, 2012

Near our apartment here in central Istanbul, I can hear baby birds chirping.

Everywhere, in this bustling city that I love, are signs of new beginnings.

This weekend, I saw several kittens and two roly-poly little puppies. I couldn't resist playing with these fluff-ball puppies for several minutes.

But what I can't get enough of are the tulips, primroses, pansies and daisies planted throughout Istanbul. You'll see flowers next to trees, in window boxes, in the middle of congested highway medians and near metro stations and offices. Anywhere there's a patch of dirt, you'll likely find some bright blossoms.
Daisies are one of my favorite flowers!
I really must commend the city on the multitude of flowers planted everywhere.
I recently took a stroll through Sultanahmet and snapped some photos in Gülhane Park. This historical park, located near the Topkapı Palace, used to be part of the palace's outer garden. Some of the trees still date back to the 1800s. It really is lovely right now!
A soft carpet of pastel primroses in  Gülhane Park.
As you're sauntering around Sultanahmet, take a few extra minutes to stroll through Gülhane Park.
Here are a couple photos from my outing. Enjoy!
One of the entrances to Gülhane Park, which is near the Gülhane tramway stop.
Street dog resting in the flowers.
Man also resting near (not in) the flowers.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Finally, spring has settled into the city landscape of bustling Istanbul.

Colorful tulips are blooming just about everywhere in Istanbul. You'll find them planted in the median of busy roadways, next to sidewalks, in planters and just about anyplace that has a patch of dirt. 11.5 million bulbs were planted in the city, according to the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality. 

It was a long winter here in Turkey so I think people are doubly happy to see spring arrive.

This weekend on the 15th, the7th International Lale Festival officially kicks off in Emirgan Park at the Beyaz Köşk. I probably will trek out to the park next week to avoid the heavy weekend traffic.
In the meantime, hubby and I took advantage of the warm weather on Sunday and strolled through the Ihlamur Kasrı (Pavilion of the Linden Tree), dating back to the early 1700s, in Beşiktaş. I wanted to photograph the tulip trees in the park before the rain destroyed these pretty pink blossoms this week.
It's hard to believe the Ihlamur Kasrı was completely covered in snow in January. Now, the park is full of Turkish families and young couples enjoying the springtime weather and taking photos, like myself, of the flowers.
The park in  Beşiktaş looks so different when it's not covered in snow!
There are several blooming forsynthia trees as well in the park.
A different perspective of a single red tulip in the park.
This lovely park may be small, but I think it's worth exploring if you happen to be in Beşiktaş, and especially if you stop by the Saturday pazar near the Migros around the corner.

Also worth noting is the park serves a hot Turkish breakfast buffet on Saturdays and Sundays, starting at 9:30 a.m. The cost is 20 TL, if I understood the lady correctly when I asked in Turkish.

I'm happy to enjoy a bit of green space close to home in Istanbul.
For more details on the Tulip Festival, please click here to see what's happening in Istanbul this weekend.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

For whatever reason, I have avoided cooking with eggplant for the most part lately.

But then, I discovered a new reason to enjoy eggplant. I was perusing my own cookbook library when I found a recipe for Patlıcanlı Iç Pilav (Turkish Aubergine Rice) that sounded interesting.

In "Secrets of the Turkish Kitchen" by Angie Mitchell, she describes this as one of 40 special eggplant dishes from the Ottoman palace kitchens. Apparently, the sultans couldn't get enough of this vegetable originating from southeast Asia.

With the Turks fondness for patlıcan, I thought there would be at least 100 different recipes. And maybe there are because every dish is up to the cook's own interpretation as well.

Well, this aromatic rice pilaf won us both over!

The cinnamon, allspice, dried currants and fresh herbs make for a flavorful and interesting dish. There's a pinch of sugar that makes the dish slightly sweet too. I paired the pilaf with a batch of traditional Turkish köfte thanks to Claudia's recipe at A Seasonal Cook in Turkey.

If you're bored with plain white rice for dinner, then you must try this Ottoman-style pilaf.

What's your favorite way to cook with aubergine, eggplant or patlıcan?

Afiyet olsun!
A delicious side dish of Turkish Aubergine Rice (Patlıcanlı Iç Pilav). 
Turkish Aubergine Rice/Patlıcanlı Iç Pilav
(Adapted from "Secrets of the Turkish Kitchen" by Angie Mitchell)

1          c.         (190 g.)            long-grain rice (Baldo pilav)
1          T.                                 dried currants (kuş üzümü)
3-4       small                            long aubergines or eggplant
4          T.                                 olive oil
2          T.                                 pine nuts (çamfıstığı)
1          ea.                                medium onion, finely chopped
1          tsp.                              salt
1/2       tsp.                              sugar
1/2       tsp.                              ground cinnamon
1/2       tsp.                              ground allspice
1          ea.                                large tomato, seeds removed and chopped
2          c.         (475 ml.)          hot water
1/2       c.                                 fresh parsley, mint and dill, combined together and roughly chopped
To taste                                   salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a medium-sized bowl, soak the rice and currants in hot salted water for 30 minutes. Then, rinse under cold water, drain and set aside.

Meanwhile, peel the eggplant in alternate vertical stripes from the stem to the base. Cut off the stalk. Submerge and soak the eggplant in salted water for 30 minutes, drain and squeeze dry. (This step helps to remove the bitterness from the eggplant). Cut into small cubes about 1/2-inch wide.

Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a heavy saucepan over medium-high heat. Sauté the eggplant, with a pinch of salt and sugar, until they are softened. Remove the eggplant with a slotted spoon, and set aside on a paper towel to absorb any extra oil.
In the same pan, sauté the pine nuts and the onion with the remaining olive oil, until the pine nuts are golden and the onion has softened. Add the drained rice and currants, stirring to ensure the grains are evenly coated. Add the salt, sugar, spices, tomato and 2 cups of hot water.

Bring the rice to a boil, stirring once and cover with a lid. Cook on medium heat about 10 minutes or until the water is absorbed. Do not stir! Turn down the heat to lowest setting and cook for 3-5 more minutes.

Remove the saucepan from the heat. Add the eggplant and cover the top of the pan with a kitchen towel or paper towels and replace the lid. The rice will continue cooking in the steam and the towels will help absorb any extra moisture.

Let stand, covered, for 20 minutes before serving. Then, season the pilaf with salt and pepper; add the chopped herbs and stir to incorporate all the ingredients. Fluff the rice with a fork.

Serve immediately.