Turkey in Asia

tripe soupTripe Soup

My husband and I were wondering through the Beyoğlu district of Istanbul, a few streets from the now infamous Taksim Sqaure. The multi-colored flags strung diagonally across the intersections and alleys waved calmly with the Bosphurous breeze. We came to this part of town on a tip from a friend. We were hunting for street food.
We started with Simit, a bagel-like round of crispy bread topped with sesame. I had mine plain, while my husband had his stuffed with sheep cheese and tomato. These can be sold two ways, soft or chewy to a crisp. I prefer the softer round. The bitter dough and the crunch of the sesame seeds that always get caught in my teeth are truly addictive.

Rows and rows of lemons caught my eye next. There were stacks of perfectly oval muscle shells nestled inside of the lemon rows. Midye dolma, street food style muscles, are served steamed and stuffed with spiced rice and lemon. We stood at the high top table near the cart and kept nodding at the man preparing the muscles in a “keep em’ coming” kind of way. The muscles were sweet and had a fresh thickness to them. The rice had been browned with spices, something like red pepper, thyme, and paprika. We ate about a dozen and ambled onto out next stop.

My sweet tooth kicked in right as the coffee was being poured. A long stretch of thick black brew, no sugar because it was for my husband. However, the tempting frosty square served on the plate with the coffee was all mine. Türk lokumu, or Turkish delight, are soft gelled squares flavored with fruits, flowers and nuts. This one was particularly indulgent with rose water and pistachio. I grabbed a few pieces to go, wrapped in pastry paper, and headed on with the sweetest morsel of candy still lingering in my mouth.

The next food adventure was the most triumphant and trying snack of the trip. “This place is famous! Many people will come here when the bars close” was the advice. What is it famous for? Tripe soup, işkembe çorbası, is a famed Turkish hang-over cure. We took a sharp left down a side street into the small opening of the café. There were four tables, an odd number of chairs, and a few TV’s playing live soccer. Two men sat, hovering over their bowls, in the corner by the window. Before we could sit down, a man with a stained white coat waved us to the back of the shop. His smile seemed to say that he was truly enjoying himself. We hesitated but followed his waving arms.

As our eyes rounded the corner, I realized that he wanted to show us the “behind the scenes” of his small restaurant. There was one large cutting board with minced pieces of grey and pink meat and a large vat built into the counter. The smell was overwhelming; at first it was pungent, like a cheese shop. But, as I stood there longer, it turned more sour and acidic. He grabbed a giant pair of tongs and dipped and swirled the soup in the vat, searching, stirring, searching. All of a sudden, the tongs pulled up the whole, giant, simmering stomach. My eyes widened into saucers, I was nervous.

Two bowls sat in front of us. We were face to face, trembling, having a showdown with the thickening yellow soup. A bowl full of bowels, if you will. Turkish food had not failed me yet, I was up for the adventure. How many times would I be sitting here? How many times do you get such a warm welcome from the cook yourself? How many times do you get to truly eat what the locals eat? We dug in. The texture was lovely, silky, reminiscent of lentil soup. But the smell was ripened, I couldn’t get past the achingly sour aftertaste. We tried and tried to add garlic and hot sauce, to finish a bowl, to be humble travelers. Even though our bowls were not empty, the risk was worth the reward of such a vivid memory.

After we politely put our spoons down and handed over the cash, I was ready for a cab back to our room. In the back of the cab, my stomach was still churning. My husband was laughing at my colorless cheeks. I didn’t want our snack-filled night to end like this. Until I smiled and remembered the handful of türk lokumu still safely tucked away in my pocket.

About the Author: Natalie Cowart earned her BA in Creative Writing from the Florida State University. She currently writes and teaches in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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BalloonCappadociaMaybe you never should have trusted a hot air balloon company whose name translates as Balloon Balloons. Maybe you should have backed out when the sunrise tour became the brunch tour. “Everybody in the basket,” the mustached Turk claps his hands. You and your best friend beeline for the balloon, trying to get a “window” seat. You congratulate yourselves on a successful mission and then wind punches the balloon in the gut and the basket starts to tip towards Earth. All available Turkish men grab on, trying to right the ship, but there’s no stopping it. “Everybody out” claps the mustache again, “Out, out, get out!”

You jump out of harms way as the balloon collapses on the sand, knocks over the basket and spreads primary colors across the pink landscape. The Turks work tirelessly, igniting the enormous rocket flame, begging the balloon to inflate. Men walk inside, pushing nylon canvas up to help it catch hot air. Others walk the perimeter, spreading out kinks and keeping the nylon from snagging on the wild terrain.

Lonely Planet tells you ancient volcanic eruptions created Cappadocia: layers of ash mud and lava formed soft rocks and centuries of rain and wind erosion carved those rocks into isolated pillars with hard tops and soft bottoms. These formations, called “fairy chimneys,” are pinnacle-shaped geologic wonders (on UNESCO’s World Heritage List) that brought you to Göreme National Park in the first place. You confirm this with an attractive Australian whose face helps pass time and ease nervousness as other companies enjoy successful lift-offs, balloon after balloon. Finally, hot air fills enough of your balloon to right the basket and the mustache claps his hands, “Everybody in.”

Only two people fill the corner pocket while four are expected to fill the central ones. So you sprint for the corner and win. Another successful mission! And you’re next to the Australian – double win! You peer into the balloon, watch the flame blast upward, feel the heat on your scalp. You inspect the carabineers and question Middle Eastern safety regulations. But before you ask, another gust of wind repositions the basket and everyone lets out a little scream. “Is this safe?” you ask the mustache. More wind and the balloon dives towards the Earth. The mustache screams “Everybody out” again and you jump to safety, again.

The Turks choose a new launch and third time’s a charm so what the heck, you’re already here. You eat an energy bar and continue flirting with the Australian while they drag the basket down the hill. You are on vacation, why are you worried about whether you signed a waiver or whether death and dismemberment is part of your lousy health insurance? You decide death won’t be so bad in this implausible landscape next to a dashing hunk and your best friend. Plus, the new launch is working and the balloon is righting itself, the only soft curve against a horizon of jagged edges.

You don’t wait for the hand-clapping Turk. You claim the corner pocket and once the basket’s full you feel magical. This is it. You can feel it. The basket lifts off and you decide that no, this probably isn’t safe. However, it’s far smoother than expected. As the balloon swiftly rises above the absurdly phenomenal landscape, the pilot says, “Don’t worry, I’ve been doing this for fifteen years.”

And you certainly hope that’s true because the wind is strong and you’re leaving the valley in a hurry. You snap pictures of other hot air balloons soaring over hoodoos, rising from the red and white canyon like quills on a sun burnt porcupine. You capture what you can but soon you’re over farmland. It doesn’t matter though, because you’re floating in a big wicker basket under a giant rainbow balloon and that is awesome. You also haven’t died yet, which is pretty awesome too. The pilot radios your location to the ground crew and you spot a pickup truck with a trailer racing across the green palate.

The balloon descends with ease but after some back-and-forth radio traffic you realize the pilot and crew are up to something. Indeed, you are correct. The pilot plans to land on the trailer attached to the moving pickup truck. You appreciate Turkish efficiency but start to worry you have jinxed yourself about not having died yet and there is so much left to explore. But that’s a silly way to spend your last moments. So, you pull out your camera and document the impressive feat because, no matter the outcome, you hope someone else can witness this moment: these few seconds, when you’re both floating in a balloon and riding in a trailer, when your basket hovers while the truck scoots under, when you feel like you are between worlds.

 

About the Author: Whitney Mackman runs, writes, and adventures in New Orleans. Her work has been published online and in print. In a past life, she was a very awkward giraffe or a three-legged labrador. She dreams of living in a tree house and mountain biking all over the world.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter our next Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

kars_kalesi2If someone asks you where one person can find mysticism, a secret place of peace in a land of snow, where you can find modern and old blend together just say her or him to go to Kars.

The city of snow. The city of meadows as far as the eye can see.
Kars is where my mother and father were born. It is a border city. It is the forgotten pearl of the east. I was four years old when I first go to Kars. I don’t remember much. But I remember a feel ing of happiness and freedom when I ran at the meadows, I remember an old but awesome castle, lots of gaggles.

After years when I took my first step at Kars the first sign of being in another land was the air. An exquisite smell of grass and heaven when there is not snow, the smell of snow. If you go to Kars first smell the air and take a deep breath. You will know the difference, believe me.

You must first explore the city center. You will see lots of local shops. They sell famous local cheese, honey, butter and other local products like sunflower seed, herbs, spices. You must eat goose. Believe me it is nothing like the meats you eat before. And of course you must eat kete (pastry).

There are historical places all over the Kars. The stone made houses and wide neat streets welcomes you in Kars. There are mosques, old education places named külliye, old government buildings. And there is huge castle on a high hill. Going to castle is a little hard if you don’t like to walk on the upright roads. But the result is wonderful when you reached the castle. You can see almost the whole city. Not just the city the mountains around the city, the meadows, the fields. It is a view everyone must see.

I suggest you to go Ani on the second day if you go to Kars. It takes half of the day. Ani is a remainder of an old city. You can see houses, religious places, libraries and the most awesome thing is you can see the old commercial road, The Silk Road. You can walk on that road, you can dream that city full of people. Some of them just shopping, some carrying some product with carriages. You can draw a city full of life, full of activity. You must see Ani, you must see the Aras river there.

Then you must go to Cildir Lake. It is a beautiful lake. There is not much buildings or cafes or hotels around. But here there are a few restaurants. You can eat yellow fish. It is Cildir Lake’s special fish.

With the skiing facilities and its beautiful nature Sarikamis is another beauty of Kars. You must go there and see the skiing center. Breathe the air.

I can tell Kars with pages but it doesn’t describe the being there. I can tell the gaggles but you must see the local people stopping their cars on the empty roads for gaggles to pass, you must talk to people, you must see how hospitable they are.

Go and see the pearl of the East. The city of snow… You can live a fairytale like holiday.

About the Author: Safak Suekinci from Turkey

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter our next Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

 

Istanbul is probably not on the forefront of many peoples mind when it comes to a Christmas vacation destination, but give this post a read and I might just convince you otherwise.

 

 

Despite not celebrating the Christmas holiday  itself, Istanbul is still more than alive for the festive period. There’ll be decorations, Christmas trees and lights aplenty all along the streets – the city looks incredible lit up and you’ll really be able to feel the atmosphere all around you. While the locals may be fixed on New Years, there’ll be plenty of organised Christmas activities by the active ex-pat community.

Of course, Christmas isn’t Christmas without the religious celebration and the largest Catholic Church in Istanbul, San Antuan is the place to be for Christmas mass.

For the inevitable last minute gift shopping, look no further than the Grand Bazaar. Don’t forget to brush up on your bargaining skills beforehand – practically everything is for negotiation. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the 60 odd streets and throngs of people, so make a plan ahead of arriving to avoid a stressful experience. The top buys here are the carpets, scarves and jewelry.

 

Grand Bazaar
By Marc Tarlock , via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Years eve is a big Western celebration or rather a good excuse for a wild party and Istanbul is a unique place to experience the ringing of the New Year. Clubs & bars in Beyoğlu will be in full swing and you won’t have to look hard to find a great place to join in with a rendition of Auld Lang Syne. Don’t miss out the super street party in the Nişantası district!

What better way to recover those delicate post New Year heads, than a trip to the Hamam, or Turkish bath. The absolute best way to experience the Hamam, is to ask for the traditional style bath where you’ll be treated like a king. For an authentic experience, visit the Kasimpasa district where the Grand Hammam is located – built in 1533, it’s like stepping back through time!

 

 

Speaking of stepping back in time, the history of Istanbul, Constantinople, Byzantium stretches far far back in time and just by simply walking around you’ll spot ancient architecture, ruins and museums aplenty. A great way to see a lot in a short time for cheap – go on a walking tour of the city. Check out your hotel lobby, Trip Advisor or notice boards at tourist destinations and you’ll most certainly find a walking tour brochure. It’s also a good chance to meet up with fellow tourists and travelers.

A 7km walk along the ancient city walls is to appreciate how resilient and how formidable this great city was through the ages. Download the online English guide so you know what’s what on the walk.

 

If you’re looking to take a break from walking around, a leisurely afternoon cruise on the Bosphorous river is a must. While floating along the waterway that divides Europe and Asia, you’ll pass by the old Palaces which remain as magnificent as they once were. You won’t have to look very hard for them due to their imposing position on the banks of the Bosphorous, but do take in the Dolmahache Palace, and the exquisite Ciragan Palace – which is now a world famous luxurious hotel. I can see why!

 

Ciragan Palace

 

One of the truly unique experiences of a holiday to Istanbul is a daytrip to the Princes Islands. This group of 9 islands have banned motorised transport so they are very tranquil in contrast to the bustling city. The favoured way to get around is on horse drawn carriages and it’s a relaxing tour around the amazing Victorian architecture.

Visiting Turkey is a wonderful opportunity to partake in some authentic hookah smoking. Take a visit to Yeniçeriler Caddesi and look around for the plumes of smoke rising from the cafes. While you’re at it, you can try the Turkish tea, the national drink and served everywhere. It’s the simple pleasures in life!

 

Nargile
By Travel-Turkey , via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For food, you are really spoiled for choice. Obviously you’ve got the famous Turkish Delight, which you can buy fresh almost anywhere. I recommend trying out the different flavours, especially Pistachio. Walking around, you’ll see little Doner places dotted everywhere. It’s a cheap and filling snack but there’s so much more.

 

By TheMightyQuill, via Wikimedia Commons

 

If you’re into fish – try the local favourite Balik-Ekmek, which is a fried fish sandwich. It’s much much better than it sounds! Kumpir is one my personal favourites, it’s simply baked potato with a variety of fillings, but so so good.

For desert, you won’t miss the many Turkish ice cream vendors along the streets. They’re often up to tricks and showing off their ice cream magic to curious crowds. Far from home at Christmas, you might be surprised to find that roast chestnuts are a common and welcome winter treat at a lot of street corners in Istanbul. For a few lira, you’ll have delicious hand warmers.

 

Turkish Ice-Cream Vendors
Shoestring , via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So there you have it, a million different reasons to visit Istanbul this winter vacation. If you’re reading travel websites, it’s likely you didn’t need much of a push anyway!

Have you been to Turkey recently? What was your experience, have you got any tips or must-sees not on our list? Let us know in the comments below!

 

Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling FestivalTurkey is a very popular tourist destination and flights are easy to arrange from almost any airport in the UK. Although much of the accommodation is all-inclusive and booked as a package it is perfectly simple to make your own arrangements, booking flights and accommodation separately. You can make some substantial savings this way and you can also choose which airport to travel from, something not always possible if you are part of a package deal.

By choosing an airport handy to where you live you can include the convenience of leaving your car so it is ready for you when you get back – no one likes facing a long cramped coach journey after a relaxing holiday, so having a service such as meet and greet from Gatwick airport parking or Heathrow parking waiting for you is a great bonus.

If you are heading to a holiday location near Edirne (which is on the European side of the Sea of Marmara just a few miles from the border with Greece) you should try and catch the Kirkpinar oil-wrestling tournament, which is definitely something you are unlikely to have encountered before. According to the Guinness Book of Records, it is the longest running sports competition in the world, having been going since 1346! Dates vary so you should make sure when it is to take place before you book, but it is generally held in late June.

In the West, Edirne was once called by the Greek name of Adrianople and the style of wrestling is known as Graeco-Roman. It might be less spectacular than some modern styles – fans of WWE and Smackdown! might find it a little tame, for example – but its antiquity is impressive and the skills displayed are all the more extraordinary because the contestants are covered in oil. It’s like wrestling with a bar of soap!

Contestants wear leather trousers which reach the knee and their bodies are totally smothered in oil. Bouts take place in a field, a reminder of the origin of the sport – it is, after all, a fight and the arena is a battlefield, no matter how stylised the moves have become today. The idea is to pin your opponent to the ground, so that his shoulders are flat or to lift him in the air; either move results in victory.

Oil wrestling can be dated back to as early as 2650 BC in ancient Egypt, Assyria and Babylon. A bronze statuette excavated at a temple at Chafadji clearly shows two wrestlers with olive oil vessels in their hands. It is likely that there was also once a religious element to this ritual. The Egyptian example comes from the tomb of Ptahhoteb of the fifth dynasty, near Saqqara, the possible burial site of Alexander the great. Since Kirkpinar has been going since 1346, it is very likely that someone who watched it in the 1440s was Vlad Dracula, later called the Impaler, who was a political prisoner of the Turks at Edirne during that decade.

It is not often that a holiday event can take you back into the stream of history as much as the oil-wrestling at Edirne can. It is undoubtedly huge fun to watch but the more imaginative viewer will hear the voices of antiquity shouting from the crowd and you will really feel the age of the continent beneath your feet as you enjoy the spectacle.

 About the Author Nicole Bailey, traveller by nature who, when not chained to her desk, can be found exploring new places, learning different cultures and escaping the humdrum of the  9 to 5.

 

When I arrived in Goreme, for the first time, it was high summer.

Nestled in the Anatolian heartland, Goreme was a traditional farming community like any other in Turkey except for its spectacular landscape. The arid countryside, already aged and yellowed over thousands of years, glared harshly under the heat of the day. My head spun with the swirls of red, orange and ochre reflected off the surreal cone shaped peribaca. These spiky pinnacles looked like carefully thought out sculptures but were actually the result of volcanic activity and time. The cooled molten lava had eroded under the weight of fierce winter snows and wind. What was left was softer stone called tufa, which has been painstakingly carved away by the villagers for centuries. They used the peribaca as homes, stables, churches and depots right up until the last quarter of the 20th century. Now thousands of visitors are drawn to the region of Cappadocia every year, fascinated by the seeming impossibility of this imposing and solid geological reality, whimsically known in English as ‘fairy chimneys’.

That first time, I lived in a small pension, helping out in exchange for room and board. It was the season of the Gulf War, and while tourists were scarce I was rarely alone. I spent my mornings visiting with the women and my afternoons visiting with the men. The rest of the time I stayed in the courtyard and learnt Turkish from the pension owner’s daughter.

When I visited with the women I sat inside their homes and knitted. I was a good village girl, learning the arts of the hearth. Sitting cross-legged on the floor I listened to my elders and helped out with the children who often solemnly circled us while chanting a simple Turkish song. The women didn’t judge me on my clothes or my job, but on how well I listened and how well I shared. We only had a mutual vocabulary of about thirty words, but with mime and hand gestures we managed to convey enough to decide we were friends. They liked to dress me up to look like them, in baggy legged şalvar pants, a saggy homemade cardigan and hand edged scarf over my hair. In turn I put their hair up in high ponytails and we often laughed until we fell over when we saw the results. Then everyone would pick up a spoon and eat from the same plate until we were full.

When I visited with the men we went riding. On horseback I was fierce and wild, galloping along narrow winding paths beside tilled fields and cantering back up through the twisting valleys to hunt for young apples and green walnuts. The mottled canopy of shade provided by the trees was a cool relief from the unremitting dry heat of the day, and I felt exhilarated. We’d always stop in a particular gorge, dismount and race to a wall of sheer white rock at the narrowest point. Then it was a battle to collect as many stones as possible and throw them at the walnuts hiding in the branches above. When I learnt to open the walnuts by cracking two of them in my hand I felt invincible. I was city born and bred, and it was such a joy to throw, stoop and slowly eat my fill. The men were more impatient and someone, usually one the youngest, would always jump up into the branches of the tree and sing and dance along their lengths to shake free more of the tasty harvest.

Back then I was a fairly solitary person, often shy and confused about who I was, so at times the constant company could be wearing. If I wasn’t with the men or with the women, and could shake free from the pension owner’ daughter, my favourite place to go was a ridge up behind the main street of the village. At certain times there was an absolute silence and a stillness to the landscape that stretched above the village paths and floated out to the horizon and beyond. This echoed inside me and I felt calm and safe.

Far away I could just make out a local woman, her donkey loaded with kindling, following a track down to her home. Behind her, in the glittering rolling hills and smudges of purple in the valleys I could see that autumn had come. The leaves shimmered barely red, barely silver. For me though, it was like spring because at that moment I realised I had a peace of mind and happiness I had never experienced before. I was free of self doubt and questioning and was just enjoying the moment. It was Göreme,Turkey,  with its unique land and people that let me understand I could be that good girl and that risk taker and still be at one with myself. I had found freedom.

About the Author: Lisa Morrow: I was born in Sydney, Australia, and grew up on the leafy lower North Shore. I hitchhiked through the UK, travelled in Europe and arrived in Turkey just as the Gulf War was starting. In Turkey I worked as an English teacher at universities in Istanbul and in central Anatolia. I have written about my experiences as a blue-eyed foreigner living in a largely non-Western Turkish town.

Lisa Morrow first came to Turkey in 1990, and over the course of more than 20 years has come to know the culture and its people well. She has visited and travelled throughout the country many times, and also lived in various cities and towns. She now resides permanently in Istanbul. A sociologist and writer, she loves the mix of old and new in Istanbul and has captured this in her collection of essays called Inside Out In Istanbul
In particular she is fascinated with the way traditional culture, such as kına gecesi and hamam rituals, mix and re-form in this modern metropolis, creating a new form of culture that is as wonderful as it is at times strange to the foreign eye. She writes with the desire to introduce the genuine and dynamic nature of Turkish culture and people to the world, well beyond tourist stereotypes. It is a timely addition to writing about Istanbul a well known city with hidden depths.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Excerpt from Kına Gecesi‘, one of the stories in

Inside Out In Istanbul

“We began dancing in a group and if the group thought one person was a good dancer they circled around her, ululating and clapping encouragement, while she performed for them. At other times the women would pair off and dance together, mimicking each others’ shoulder rolls, hip drops and shimmies, each time challenging the other to more and more difficult moves. At times they wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Western video clip. After struggling at the village kına gecesi, I had taken belly dance lessons when I went back to Australia. This time I didn’t need to stop and rest all the time and when I found myself in the centre of a circle of women, all clapping me and urging me to dance I didn’t stop. I had a lot of fun.

However, the main part of the night came later, when it was time to acknowledge the bride. Hale was wearing a beautiful strapless satin gown, teetering around on incredibly high shoes that she kept showing off to all her friends. She was led to the centre of the biggest room and sat on a chair. The lights were dimmed but we could see that her face was completely covered by a red veil, hand stitched with sequins. A woman held a basket containing little sachets of henna above Hale’s head, moving it in a slow circle. A group of women came into the room, carrying small, lit candles and began to walk slowly around her, singing a traditional song heard in villages, towns and cities throughout Turkey. I couldn’t catch all the words, but the chorus implores the bride not to cry, she is getting married and leaving her mother and father forever, and she will never live in her village again. “Don’t cry my bride, don’t cry!” The whole purpose of the exercise, though, is for the bride to cry, to show everyone how much she will miss her parents. It was strange seeing such a modern young woman participating in this, and quite emotional when the veil was lifted to show her tears.

The next stage was to show the sacrifice. A ball of henna was placed in the palm of each of Hale’s hands, then covered with white cloth and tied with a length of red ribbon. Finally, a red fabric flower was attached to each piece of ribbon. In villages intricate patterns are made with the henna, and the bride’s hands completely bound, which means her mother has to help her with everything (and I do mean everything), but in the cities they are far more practical. Finally, the basket of henna was offered around the room. Everyone took a sachet and some women put henna on their own hands. That done, the lights came back on and the dancing resumed. By ten o’clock I was ready to drop and luckily everyone had to work the next day. We all piled back in to the car and the bank manager kindly dropped me home.”

Boys-on ferry-writing-contest

This is an entry in the We Said Go Travel Writing Contest written by Lisa Morrow from Australia who lives now in Istanbul. Thanks for your entry Lisa!

Riding an Istanbul ferry as it slowly crosses the Bosphorus is like being suspended in time. While the journey is short, I am instantly taken back to my childhood, to endless days, freedom and adventure. I feel sadly nostalgic for the past but excited too because I feel I am travelling with early explorers to an unknown land. My journey begins from the safety of the European side of Istanbul but we are heading for Asia and the unknown lands beyond. Sitting on a narrow wooden bench seat running along the outside of the boat I hear foreign voices all around me. The faces are unfamiliar too, but now and then someone turns to me with a look that seems to say ‘It’s alright. You’re with us now’. I am slowly lulled into comfort by the sway of the ferry but before I can slip into a daydream a man appears, loudly calling out strange words. One by one the people to my left pull their legs back from where they have been resting on the side of the boat and I do the same. My heart beats faster as the man approaches but calms when I see he is only selling tea, coffee and orange juice. I buy nothing but others do, managing to drink two teas and smoke the same number of cigarettes in the ten minutes left of the journey.

Even now, living permanently in Istanbul, my heart still lifts when I see the minarets of the Haghia Sophia and the Blue Mosque come into view. They stand guard over Saray Burnu, the home of Topkapi Palace and innumerable sultans, scandals and sorrows. Although winter has come to the city, with creeping cold and grey skies, the outside benches are packed with Istanbul residents. They can’t smoke any more so they munch on simit, sour dough rings covered in sesame seeds much beloved by Turks young and old. It is a popular sport to throw stray crumbs into the air, and a signal for the local seagulls, huge ugly white birds with scowling red eyes, to swoop down from the sky and follow in line with the vessel. Teenage boys compete to see who has the better aim while the seagulls fly as close to us as possible to fight for a prize.

 

Boys-on ferry-writing-contest

 

These same birds roost in the tree behind my apartment and wake me every morning. Their cries and squawks of discontent are in response to the first call to prayer around five or six o’clock in the morning. I’m too lazy to get out of bed and look, but I like to imagine them moving in unison, a solemn, feathered version of A Chorus Line taking place just outside my window.

There are mosques everywhere in Istanbul, waking up the seagulls. My favourite was designed by Mimar Sinan in 1580 at the request of Şemsi Paşa, a vizier to three Ottoman sultans. The unofficial name of the mosque is Kuşkanmaz Camii, meaning the mosque on which birds do not land. Legend has it they don’t stand or build nests on the mosque out of respect, and I prefer this to the more mundane reason that the wind off the Bosphorus prevents them from landing. There is quite a history to this little place, and the gazi, the former soldier who shows us around tells me most of it. He demonstrates how the marble columns set on either side of the mihrab, or prayer niche, are used to test whether the building has been damaged after an earthquake. If they can’t be turned the foundations have moved. He confirms that the piece of cloth in a picture frame set high on the wall is from the Kaaba inMecca. Its cloth cover is changed every year and pieces of the old one distributed as much revered gifts. He tells me much more about the mosque, but in the end I learn his history. Along with other young Turkish men he fought inKorea during the Cold War. I hadn’t knownTurkey had taken part and I listen to his stories of horror and death with sadness in my heart. Yet he is happy to tell me, and regularly nudges me with an order to “Anlat!”, to translate what he is saying, so my friends can understand too.

 

Mosque-writing-contest

 

At last I farewell him and watch fondly as he joins his friends sitting in the courtyard. Like many old men in Turkey they spend all day passing judgment over the passing crowds and exchanging memories. Old as they are, when they all smile and wave me on my way, I can see the carefree boys they once were, and imagine them eating simit and feeding the seagulls flying over the Bosphorus, dreaming of their next big adventure.

 About the Author: Elizabeth (Lisa) Morrow: I am a sociologist, English teacher and writer. After many years travelling back and forth from Australia to Turkey, I decided to make Istanbul my permanent home three years ago. I now write stories about Istanbul so that others can better understand this place I love. http://www.facebook.com/Goreme1990

 

The-Blue-Mosque-writing-contest

This is an entry in the We Said Go Travel Writing Contest written by Jack Scott from England. Thanks for your entry Jack!

No trip to Turkey is complete without tasting the wonders of Istanbul, entertainment, media, cultural and economic capital of Turkey with a population of 13.5 million (and counting). The political capital, Ankara, seems dull and provincial by comparison (think Canberra versus Sydney or Ottawa versus Montreal). Greek Byzantium, Roman and Ottoman Constantinople and Republican Istanbul, the city that straddles two continents is dirty, busy, loud, infuriating, sophisticated, exciting, chic and sublime. At its ancient core is the old city, Sultanahmet, where the majestic Hagia Sofia proclaims her seniority to the grand upstarts around her. Her 1600 year old dome seems to float effortlessly above the ancient marble floor like a weather-beaten UFO coming into land. Cathedral, mosque and now museum, Emperor Justinian’s greatest legacy is a part of the seductive silhouette of mosques and minarets that defines the world-famous skyline. Continue your pilgrimage to Old Soph’s baby sister, the curvaceous Blue Mosque, built 1,000 years later. Better outside than in, rest in the well-tended gardens, admire her sexy lines and listen to the call to the Faithful in thunderous surround sound. On the corner of the Blue Mosque is the Hippodrome, once the focal point of the Byzantine capital. This ancient arena was used for chariot racing, imperial ceremonies, coronations and parades. Sadly, you will need a lot of imagination to picture a Ben Hur-style scene in your mind’s eye.

 

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Just spitting distance from Hagia Sofia is the Basilica Cistern. Like Hagia Sophia, it was constructed in the reign of Justinian and is the largest of several ancient reservoirs that lie beneath the old city. The enormous vaulted ceiling is held aloft by more than 300 recycled pillars. Two of the bases are carved with visages of Medusa, all bulging eyes and wriggling snake tresses. Don’t worry, you won’t turn to stone if you gaze at their ugly faces. The cistern was used as a location for the 1963 film, ‘From Russia with Love’ which saw James Bond rowing through the waters. If you’re lucky, you may be serenaded by a string quartet as you saunter round.  A short stroll from the cistern is the Grand Bazaar, a must-see on anyone’s itinerary. This 500 year old structure is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world with 3,000 shops. These days, you can sip on a latte while taking in the biblical vibe dissonantly blended with the Chinese-made tat.

Set aside at least half a day to take in the splendid Topkapı Palace, epicentre of the imperial Ottoman court for 400 years. The enormous complex is laid out in four piazzas stuffed with a mishmash of stunning pavilions and mini-palaces built over its long history. Highlights include the Disneyesque Gate of Salutation, the pavilion containing the Relics of the Prophet (yes, the Prophet) and, everyone’s favourite, the salacious Harem. If it’s baubles and glitter you’re after, roam around the Imperial Treasury and when you’re all hot and bothered, wander through to the fourth court to take tea and admire the spectacular views across the Bosphorus. From here, you can see Asia. If ancient history and old coffins are your thing, the outer precincts of the palace complex are home to the impressive Archaeological Museum with its rich collection of Hittite, Hellenistic, Roman and Turkish artefacts, including the Kadesh Peace Treaty (1258 BC), signed between Rameses II of Egypt and Hattusili III of the Hittites. It is the oldest known peace treaty in the world.

After all that history, have a little fun in Beyoğlu, the increasingly hip shopping and entertainment district that looks proudly down on the old city from across the Golden Horn, Istanbul’s ancient harbour. Beyoğlu is where Instanbulers come to meet, drink, party and spend (and occasionally to demonstrate). From Sultanahmet, take the walk to the frenetic and noisy Galata Bridge and cross the harbour to the foot of the plateau on which Beyoğlu sits. The incredible panorama will more than compensate for the ugliness of the bridge itself. As you cross it will seem that all of Istanbul is crossing with you. Once on the far side, the fit and the adventurous can hike up the steep incline to the top through narrow streets, taking in the famous conical-topped 14th century Galata Tower on the way. The less mobile can ride the Tünel, the funicular railway (and the third oldest underground railway in the world after London and New York). The short ride takes you right up to Tünel Square where you can hop on the charming antique tram that trundles up and down Beyoğlu’s main thoroughfare, Istiklal Caddesi (Republic Street). This broad boulevard runs like a spine through the area and ends at Taksim Square, the beating heart of modern Istanbul. Apart from the tram, the street is largely pedestrianised making an easy if crowded stroll. Beyoğlu is the place to sip and shop ‘til you drop. Take the plastic. You’ll need it.

If you have time to spare, take afternoon tea and cake in the imposing Pera Palace Hotel, around the corner from Tünel Square. It’s a treat of old-fashioned English gentility. The hotel was once the opulent end of the line for the Orient Express (and where Agatha Christie is reputed to have written part of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’). Until recently, the hotel had fallen on hard times and the welfare line. However, following a multi-million lira facelift, this regal piece of Istanbul’s family silver has received a good buffing, restoring it to its former late Victorian grandeur.

A little further afield are the impressive and largely intact Byzantine city walls, gates and ramparts. Originally built in the 5th Century, the massive fortifications withstood a millennium of invasion and siege until finally succumbing to the overwhelming force of the Ottoman Turks in 1453, led by the 21 year old Mehmet the Conqueror. The event changed the course of world history; the final fall of Rome and the start of the Ottoman centuries. Finally, if you get the chance, take the ferry across the Bosphorus and step into Asia. Not many people can say that they’ve crossed continents on a European city break.

About the Author: Jack Scott is the accidental author of the critically acclaimed ‘Perking the Pansies, Jack and Liam move to Turkey’ –  a bitter-sweet, tragi-comedy recalling the first year of a gay couple in a Muslim land. Jack has also recently published ‘Turkey, the Raw Guide’ and ‘Turkey, Surviving the Expats,’ a two part e-book mini-series which includes the best bits from his popular blog and practical advice for visitors to the extra-ordinary country that Jack called home for four years.www.jackscott.info

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This is an entry in the We Said Go Travel Writing Contest written by Shodiyakhon Toshkhujaeva from Uzbekistan. Thanks for your entry Shodiyakhon!

I was a bit frightened when the plane took off: I shut my eyes. Plane was shaking bringing warm excitement and at the same time, fear of unexpected and unknown surprises to my little heart.  However, all these feelings vanished, when astonishment covered my mind: looking through the window of the plane I saw one view that has forever fixed on my mind. The air was divided into two parts with slight noticeable line. The one half of it was dusty,while other one was crystal clean. My grandmother, seeing my and my elder sister’s eyes full of questions, explained that seas absorb dust from the air that is above their territories and also added that we were flying above one of them: Caspian Sea.

Being lost in these feelings, I did not even notice how we got to our destination. Turkey…  Beautiful and fascinating country, for which my heart will always strive. Though I was 10 years old in that time, my reminiscence about it is still fresh on my mind…

We stayed at the hotel which was located in the seaside resort town called Kemer, Antalya. Our hotel was surrounded with mountains, forest and with some part of the Mediterranean Sea. I loved to spend most of my time looking at the sea, which seemed borderless and bottomless; enjoy different colors that it turned depending on the part of the day and feel the strokes of the waves on my body while swimming or just walking on the coast. In addition, every morning I woke up breathing fresh and clean air of that place. With each breathe I was feeling how strength and zeal were filling my whole body.

 

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Although my own country, Uzbekistan, also has very charming nature, I have never seen that bright, solid and inexplicable kind of green color on the plants that I saw in Turkey. Once when we had a long walk in the vicinity, we saw small tangerines on the trees. It was awesome! I had never imagined tangerines growing on trees.Not believing to my eyes, I went and picked one from the tree and ate; its juicy taste has remained in my mouth and has not been substituted by that of other tangerine yet. I was amazed by the sight of the tree which had two bright green and orange colors combining in harmony…I had never thought that once just colors would have this kind of effect on me! Yes, Kemer has forever charmed me with its natural beauty.

Warm hospitality of Turkish people made our days there pleasant to remember. Whenever we entered any shop, we, as well as other visitors, were treated with their traditional barack tea. It is worth going to Turkey and trying their national cousine which includes small breads, sweets saturated with honey because these meals would never have that peculiar taste even if found in other place and cooked by other people. In addition, in Kemer almost everywhere national Turkish artifacts, fabrics and jewelries were available to purchase. These items not only made all tourists familiar with beautiful traditions of Turkey, but also let them take one piece of this marvelous part of the world to their own home countries, along with warm and unforgettable reminiscence… Having visited Antalya myself and still possessing attraction toward it in my heart, I get assured that Antalya is considered an existing paradise on Earth not in vain…

About the Author: Shodiyakhon Toshkhujaeva: I was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. I am 16 years old. I am finishing high school this year.