Friday, September 28, 2007

part I - Istanbul (the sultans' palaces)

(Are you still there ? Not bored yet ? Today I'll tell you all about the sumptuous palaces we visited, and one of my favorite restaurants in Istanbul)

Our second day in Istanbul started pretty much just like the previous one, and soon we were heading up towards the Topkapi Palace right around the corner. I had read in one of my guides that we should be there early, to avoid the long queues for buying tickets. At the gate, though, we were told by the guards that entrance was only at nine o'clock so we sat by the road and played with the cat until it was time. A group of Japanese tourists soon arrived and all of them insisted in taking photos with one of the guards, who found it all very amusing.
Finally we were allowed in, got our tickets and started our visit. The palace grounds are quite big, and it takes at least 2 or 3 hours to cover everything. We started by the palace kitchens, which now houses the world's third largest collection of blue-and-white Chinese and celadon porcelain (a type of porcelain much valued by the sultans because supposedly it changed color in contact with poisons).

After that, we went to stand in line to buy the tickets for the Harem (separate tickets, yes ... you buy them at a small booth on the left side as you enter. First entrance at 9:30) and decided to go there at once. It was my favorite part, of course, all those beautiful rooms and tiles (it goes without saying I took dozens of pictures here), although I can't imagine how at a given time more than a thousand women actually lived here.

at the Topkapi Palace

at the Topkapi Palace

at the Topkapi Palace

at the Topkapi Palace

The rest of the morning was spent exploring the Treasury (expect to queue a lot here to see all the treasures and relics), Armory, gardens and the remaining pavilions. I particularly liked the library of AhmetI and the Circumcision Room.

at the Topkapi Palace

And another favorite part: the ottoman patchwork covers shown at the Sultan's Clothes exhibition (I couldn't take photos to show you, but my crafter's heart missed a beat when I saw these). A quick stop to check the Konyali restaurant (looked good, but a bit pricey) but we had other plans for lunch.

We made our way down to Eminonu, passing by numerous souvenir shops and the much famed Haci Bekir shop, known for its turkish delights.

We had decided to have lunch at Hamdi (Tahmis Cad. Kalçın Sok. nr. 17, Eminönü), very much recommended here and by everyone at the TA forum. It is located next to the Spice Bazaar, at the top of a building on the right side. The restaurant has 3 floors, but the main attraction is the terrace and its magnificent views.

at Hamdi restaurant

at Hamdi restaurant

It is known for its grilled meats, and indeed the list of kebabs is quite extensive. We chose a tomato and onion special and a yoghurt kebap, along with cacik (yogurt and cucumber dip) and some pilav (which turned out to be a very good spicy rice). The turkish bread (ekmek) was my downfall, once you start eating it there's not way you can stop until it's all gone, so it's a good thing we walked so much or we would've come home a few kilos heavier. The food arrived and it looked good ...

at Hamdi restaurant

... but it tasted even better. Both dishes were quite spicy and a bit hot (which was fine with us) and I can honestly say I never had better kebabs before. The service at Hamdi is also quite good and efficient (actually, the level of service generally in Turkey is pretty good and we never had problems at hotels, restaurants, shops, etc. of any kind) and if I had enough space left in my stomach I would've tried their baklavas. Instead we settled on a nice plate of fruit, some çay and we were done. It was probably one of the best meals we had in Istanbul, if not the entire trip.

Our plan in the afternoon was to visit the Dolmabahçe Palace, located on the other side by the river, and so we decided to take the ferry. Since we didn't have a Bosphorus cruise planned for our Istanbul visit, this was a second best. We took the ferry from Eminonu to Uskudar, and from there to Besiktas. If I had looked at the maps properly though, I would've seen that it would've been better to go to Kabatas, which is closer to the main entrance. As I said, we like to walk, and that day I think we walked for miles (or at least it felt like it).

ferry trip

ferry trip

The Dolmabahçe Palace is relatively recent (finished in 1853) and it was the first European style palace built in the city. It's a pity we can't arrive there by boat, since I think the view from the water is quite spectacular. We finally reached it, and got tickets for the Selamlik tour. You can buy tickets for two different tours - Harem or Selamlik - and since we didn't have time to take both, we chose the last one as recommended in our guide (takes about 1 hour each).

Dolmabahce Palace

Dolmabahce Palace

Dolmabahce Palace

Before entering, you must cover your shoes in some plastic wraps in order to prevent damage to the carpets. Our tour guide was quite knowledgeable, but unfortunately his English was very heavy accented, which means I was only able to understand half of it. Oh well, the rooms were pretty though, similar to others I've visited elsewhere in Europe.

Dolmabahce Palace

Dolmabahce Palace

One of the main attractions is this huge crystal chandelier which hangs in centre of the main hall (a gift from Queen Victoria, and the world's biggest one), and indeed it is quite impressive.

Dolmabahce Palace

We were exhausted by then, so we took the bus back to Eminonu, and went in search of a supermarket to get some provisions for our bus ride later that night. We found a small one in Sultanahmet, got some cookies and refreshments, and headed to Albura (Yeni Akbiyik Caddessi nr 26) for an early dinner.

We weren't exactly hungry (after that lunch, how could we ?) but we had to eat something before leaving for the bus terminal, so we ordered lentil soups, a plate of mezes (turkish appetizers) and another of dolmalar (vine leaves stuffed with rice). The soups were delicious, and the mezes as well (the dolmalar was ok, but didn't compare to the mezes). While we were eating, it started raining quite heavily and soon it was actually pouring down. I have to say that the weather during the whole trip was brilliant - sunny and warm enough, but not too hot (two weeks before we went I saw reports of 40ºC in Antalya, so I was a bit apprehensive about that, especially because of A. who is not too fond of the heat) - and the two times it rained were just before we left Istanbul.

We ran back to the hotel and although we had planned earlier to take the tram and subway to the ottogar (main bus terminal) we decided to take a taxi instead. Traffic in Istanbul, and particularly during a rainy day, can be very chaotic (well, pretty much like Lisbon, I guess) and an otherwise normal 20 minute ride can take almost one hour. We did get there on time, and our driver apologized profusely for the delay.

While researching for the best way to travel from Istanbul down to Cappadocia, I came up with a lot of options. Train to Ankara and picking up a rental car there seemed a good option, or even taking a domestic flight (actually quite cheap) to Nevsehir or Kayseri. But the night bus option was the only one that would get us there by early morning, so in the end that's what we decided on.

metro bus

It is probably the most used public transport inside Turkey, and I must say that it's comfortable and the service quite good (refreshments and snacks are included, and they make frequent stops for passengers to use the restrooms as well). However, I was never able to sleep that well in buses, even if I sneaked to the back (and empty) seats at the back in the middle of the night. Around 6 am and with the sun rising I had the first glimpse of Cappadocia, a place that I now have the fondest memories of, but that's a story for my next post.

More photos:

Topkapi Palace
Dolmabahçe Palace

Note: while researching for this trip, I found the following links to be the most useful, so I'll leave them here for future reference:

Turkey Travel Planner, a very comprehensive guide and inside tips from Tom Brosnahan, author of several travel guides.
The Trip Advisor Forum for Turkey, where so many friendly and helpful people will answer your questions and give you advice with your planning
Frommer's Turkey pages, I printed a lot of these and took them with me, but if you have the chance to get the printed version (which we got later) it is even better.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

part I - Istanbul

I think the fact that shows best how great this vacation was is that I took four books along with me and didn't manage to read a single one (for those who know me well, this is a telling sign. I did read one during the flight back - The house at Riverton, by Kate Morton - and which I very much recommend)

the blue mosque

The first part of the trip started in Istanbul, the city where west meets east, and which totally blew me away. We arrived at Ataturk airport in the afternoon, and after a few problems with our transfer, finally checked in at the Side Hotel & Pension, which had been well recommended by some friends. The location is ideal, right in the center of Sultanahmet, behind the Blue Mosque and close to the Aya Sofia. We didn't have any plans for that night, so just strolled around that area for a bit and looked for a nice place to have dinner. My first glimpse of the Blue Mosque at dusk was certainly a magical moment, and it quickly became one of my favorite places. I had taken with me a few restaurant suggestions collected from here, but after a few unsuccessful tries to find the suggested Turquoise or Albura we settled on the Café Mesale Tea Garden behind the Blue Mosque. The food is not fabulous, although that night we had a mixed kebap which arrived ablaze to our table, and it tasted just fine (later, in comparison we all the great food we'd have during the rest of the trip, we realised it was merely ok). There were a lot of locals playing backgammon, smoking narghile or drinking Ayran (which A. loved), and also some live music with a short whirling dervish show, which made for a really nice atmosphere and even if the food is not outstanding it's a nice place to relax at the end of the day, with great views of the Blue Mosque and the Arasta Bazaar right around the corner for some shopping.

We had our first taste of Turkish tea (çay) that night, which is quite strong and sometimes bitter but we loved it with a bit of sugar and became addicted to it from then on. A quick stroll to check the shops on the Arasta Bazaar (loved the hats at Cocoon) and the streets behind the Tea Garden (we finally realised that the restaurants we were looking for where right behind our hotel) and we called it a day.

Food plays a very important part in this trip, so I'll write a lot about that. Turkish cuisine is delicious, always fresh, full of flavour and sometimes quite spicy, and I particularly loved anything with yoghurt (best I've had anywhere) and aubergines. And although we tend to follow a vegetarian diet at home, while in Turkey we sampled all the kebabs and kofte (turkish meatballs) that came our way.

A note on the call to prayer. It's not made every two hours like I had read somewhere, but about 5 times a day (more during Ramazan) and we pretty soon got used to it. I actually loved to hear it, the sound coming from all the different mosques at the same time, ressonating thorugh the city. During Ramazan they also play some drums in the streets to wake you up, and that I didn't find very funny (it only happened once though, so that wasn't too bad).

The next morning we woke up quite early, had our first Turkish breakfast (includes fresh tomatoes, cucumber, olives, and sometimes various sorts of feta-like cheese) in the hotel terrace with very nice views and set off to the Blue Mosque. We were early, of course, so waited for a while until it opened. You can' wear your shoes inside the mosques, so it's obligatory to take them off and they usually provide plastic bags for you to carry them. Also, they provide scarfs for you to wear (in case you don't bring your own) if you're wearing shorts or mini skirts and bare shoulders. All this done very efficiently and without hassling, I have to say.
The inside of the Blue Mosque is outstanding, it takes a while for your eyes to get used to that light difference but then you start noticing the different tones and the blues really come out.

the blue mosque

And I loved the tiles as much as the carpet

(outside every mosque there is a place like this so people who come to pray can wash their feet before going in)

We were quite lucky that day, I realise now, because we didn't find any big crowds inside the most touristy monuments. It helps that we started early (early being nine o'clock) but usually there can be huge queues to get in. Our next stop, the Aya Sofya, was just as impressive. We read somewhere that the Statue of Liberty could fit inside it. The mosaics on the upper floor are particularly beautiful, and we took our time exploring every corner.

Aya Sofya

In the Sultanahmet area, all the major attractions are pretty much close to each other, so it's very convinient to visit them all during the same day. The Topkap1 palace closes on Tuesdays, though, so we we had to leave that for the following morning. Next up was the Basilica Cistern, just across the street from the Aya Sofya. Some friends said they really liked it, others not really. Well, always better to judge for ourselves, I think. I did like it, it was quiet and cool down there, you get to see the Medusa head statues and the whole infrastructure is quite impressive.

After that, a deserved break for çay at one of the outside cafes in the corner of Divan Yolu street, and we went looking for the Tur-ista travel agency which I used to book our bus tickets for Cappadocia. Found it easily, got our tickets and went to check the Hippodrome across the steet. Not much to see here, except the Obelisk and a few other things, but the food stalls for Ramazan were already in place and you could see it was going to be a fun place during the evenings.

We were quite hungry by then, so checking my list of restaurant suggestions we found Baran (otherwise known as the "yummy in the tummy place") in Divan Yolu street, which is a point and order place (you see a lot of these in Istanbul) so that's exactly what we did. Can't remember what we got, but looking at the photo it seems to have been something with aubergines. It was quite good, the service very fast, and the price reasonable. We didn't have dessert, but passing by Çigdem further down the street we couldn't resist trying a few different baklavas. This rich and super sweet pastry was right down my alley (the best ones sort of melt in your mouth)

To burn these extra calories, we walked Divan Yolu all the way down to the Beyiazit Mosque, where after a few inquiries, learnt that we could take a bus (nr. 36E, 37 or 38) to the Karyie Museum (Church of Holy Savior in Chora). This is one of the few attractions that is a bit far from the centre, but it's very much worth the detour. The frescoes and mosaics are unlike any I'd seen before. The church is small, but you can easily spend an hour or two looking at the walls and ceilings.

the karyie museum

the karyie museum

(Note: the Asitane restaurant is close to this museum and you will see the signs when you get close to the area. We had just had lunch so we missed the opportunity to try this one, but it has wonderful reviews so next time we won't miss it)

It was still early afternoon whe we took the bus back so we explored the area around Beyiazit Mosque for a bit and finally ventured into the Grand Bazaar.
It is called the mother of all tourist traps for some reason, and we got our share of friendly hassling from the vendors but if you decline politely and just say 'no' a couple of times it should be enough. Of course, they'll try to guess where you're from all the time (in my case, they never got it right), and talk to you in your native language (I was actually amazed to see vendors talking in mandarin, brazillian, spanish, japanese, french .., they might be pushy, but they sure know how to make an effort). Whatever your experience, it's a must visit. There are specific areas for certain products (jewellry, leather, carpets, antiques, etc.) and it's a good place to tone your bargaining skills. I'm a lousy bargainer, so I didn't dare buy anything special. Anyway, we made our entrance through the Book Bazaar (no temptations there for me, though) and casually browsed our way through the labyrinth of shops. I asked the price of a few tiles and ceramic items - I fell in love with the Iznik tiles I'd seen at the mosques and although the originals are not made anymore I could settle for a good imitation - but eventually found my way to the fabrics and textiles section. There's a nice variety, but mostly velvet and other non cotton fabrics. Lots of glitter, too. I did find some nice cotton prints at a small shop, and at a very reasonable price (3 YTL per metre, that's about 1.8 EUR) so I asked for a card to come back on our last day. Another hot item to buy are pashminas, you see them everywhere, of all kinds and colors. I eventually bought one (my only purchase that day, as it happens) which I used a lot during the rest of my stay.

At the Astarci Han we found a nice place to rest and drink some çay, before going out torwards the Süleymaniye Mosque.

On our way there we passed through a couple of streets where you can buy notions in bulk (buttons, zippers, trims, buckles, etc.). I particularly noticed the trims with famous designer names ;)

The Süleymaniye is another imponent mosque, and quite beautiful as well.

There was a prayer starting so we didn't stay long and went out in the direction of the Spice Bazaar. Much smaller than the Grand Bazaar, and much nicer, I think. You'll get your senses overloaded with so many smells, noise and colors, but it's another must, even if it feels too touristy. I went looking for the Arifoglu shop at nr 31 - much advertised at the TA forum as well - where you can ask Tseslim or Orhan to mix you your own scent. They were so friendly and patient and definitely know their business. I got one that day, along with a gift of some apple tea, and Tseslim made me a second scent which I promised to go back for on our last day (prices range from 10 to 40 YTL).

On each side of the Spice Bazaar you have the New Mosque (Yeni Camii) and the Rustem Pasa Mosque (my favorite) which we didn't visit that day. Instead we crossed the Golden Horn through the Galata Bridge to the other side (Beyoglu), passing by all the lined up fishermen. The boats by the ferry gate (Eminonu) sell fish sandwiches which looked quite good, but we weren't hungry yet so maybe next time. From the Galata Bridge you have a very nice view of the Sultanahmet skyline (from the Topkapi Palace to the Suleymanyie Mosque) but our goal was to reach the Galata Tower before sunset. It's a bit of a walk, but we got there just in time, and it was quite crowded up there since I guess everyone had the same idea. You do get a 360º view of the city and it's amazing.

Views from the Galata Tower

Views from the Galata Tower

Views from the Galata Tower

The restaurant looked inviting too, but it was still early so we decided to go up to Istiklal Caddesi and check out this lively pedestrian street full of restaurants, cafés, shops and bookstores. It was crowded, but I suppose that's how it always is, reminded me a bit of las Ramblas, but with more locals than tourists (and this window shop caught my attention)

For dinner we went in search of the Haçi Abdullah restaurant, and after a few turns we finally found it. It is known for its ottoman cuisine, so we tried a couple of their recommended dishes. The famous Imam bayildi (or "the Imam fainted", stuffed eggplant with tomatoes, onions and garlic), Zeytinyağlı Lahana Dolma (stuffed cabbage) and Tas Kebap (beef stew with vegetables) which were quite good, but their strong point for me were the desserts: Ayva Tatlısı Kaymaklı (quince with milk cream .. ah, this was one was quite outstanding) and sutlaç (deliciously creamy rice pudding)

After so much food, and although we were quite tired by then, we decided to walk all the way back to the hotel. It was a beautiful night, and it had been a very good day. I knew then that this trip would be an unforgettable one.

views from the Galata Bridge

More photos at Flickr (all Istanbul photos or by category below):

Blue Mosque
Aya Sofya
Basilica Cistern
Karyie Museum
Suleymanyie Mosque
Grand Bazaar
Spice Bazaar
Galata Bridge + Tower
Side Hotel

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Turkey, how I already miss you ...

oh wow, where can I start ? These last two weeks were amazing, we saw so many things and visited so many beautiful places I don't even know where to begin. We did the ballooning over Cappadocia, snorkelling in Gemiler Beach, tandem paragliding in Oludeniz, hiked in the Ihlara Valley, climbed up to see the Chimera in Olympos, among other unforgettable experiences. Turkey is indeed one of the most wonderful places I've been to and I'm certain this was only the first of many visits to follow ... It also helps that the food was delicious, and the people so friendly. We took a zillion photos, of which I'll share a fragment in Flickr and here when I have the time to sort through them. I also want to post a detailed report of this trip, not so much to bore you all (but you're forewarned that this will be more of a travel blog than a crafting blog during the next days), but for us, because I want to be able to remember it all someday and also to share some tips for those who are considering to visit Turkey in the future. Last year I sort of did that with the Croatia trip but somehow never finished it (Dubrovnik and Zagreb were left out) but this time I promise to do better.
Anyway, we're back and the cats were so excited to see us that we didn't get much sleep last night, especially with Maggie purring on our ears (she's grown so big in two weeks !). Thanks for all the comments + e-mails while we were away, I'll try to reply as soon as possible and come back soon with that trip report, but right now I just need to catch up on some sleep ...

Sunday, September 09, 2007

see you soon

finally we're going on vacation, so I won't be updating the blog for the next couple of weeks or so, but will be drinking lots of apple tea and wandering around the streets of Istanbul and other fabulous Turkish places instead. But so you won't feel too lonely, I'll leave you Maggie to keep you a bit of company :)

Japanese tunic

Here's one of those other tops I had started a few weeks ago. I've been wanting to try out this pattern ever since I saw it on Burda 03/07 (it's pattern nr 103 B). It's actually sort of a tunic, and I immediately liked the contrast effect of the bands on the neckline and waist.

The fabric is one of my favorites, it came from Barcelona's Nunoya and I knew I had to make something special I could wear with it.

Adjustments I had to make: added another zipper on the side (or it would be very hard to make it pass through my shoulders) and closed the folds on the front, sewing them together. It came out so well I'll probably make it again ... after all, that's why I must buy more japanese fabrics, right ?

Friday, September 07, 2007

etsy finds

The comment by Tamar on my last post reminded me I had yet to post about these recent etsy finds ...

Beautiful illustrations by Annette, available at her shop Carambatack. Even the envelope is a work of art ...

Dream catcher by Tamar, which is now hanging on the studio.

And I forgot to take photos of these, but I have to mention it anyway. Just couldn't resist the small pendants by LittlePutBooks. I got three different ones, all so pretty.

(photos by LittlePutBooks)