My, how time flies. It's Christmas already, we're preparing our midwinter trip, and I have yet to post about the second part of our summer adventures.
After my brothers wedding in Sweden, we left not for home, but for the far shores of mystical Istanbul. We stayed five nights on the European side, at an apartment hotel called T-Loft near Taksim square.
An apartment hotel like this is a great way to visit a city. You have the convenience of a hotel, but you have a small kitchen and fridge, with enough space to cook and eat in if you want to. We didn't cook, but we bought fruit for evening snacks (one watermelon is a lot for two people), and made tea.
The old Constantinople was located on the European western coast, and that part of the city, up towards Taksim, feels old and well-worn. Most famous buildings and sightseeing spots are located there, along with many old (and badly maintained) buildings, narrow alleyways and small shops. And, of course, many, many tourists everywhere. If you've been to Stockholm it's like a hugely enlarged Old Town (Gamla Stan) with souvenir shops, tour groups and loud people with cameras against a backdrop of bemused locals. Istanbul straddles the border between Europe and Middle East, and it shows; visitors are an even mix of people from East and West.
It's not just touristy, but sometimes a bit scammy as well. Unavoidable I guess, but it means you need to be careful about where you spend your money. We were advised to avoid any shopping at the Grand Bazaar, for instance, since the risk of getting ripped off or scammed is so high.
The Asian side feels more modern, prosperous and more like a regular city. Nice, wide streets, outdoor cafes and parks, and not as many tourists. After the outdoor circus in the west, it's refreshing to spend some time in a normal city for a change. The ferries between the two sides are comfortable, frequent and cheap. It's a great way to see the city from a different angle, and well worth a trip even if you have no particular goal in mind.
Turkish food is good — you wouldn't expect anything else. Lots of variations on sliced, grilled meat, whether as a filled sandwich (what I'd call a kebab) or as a sit-down meal with fries, sauce and so on. But of course there's lots of other dishes ranging from rolled cabbage to pizza to mezze.
Turkey has inspired a lot of Swedish and European modern dishes so they carry few surprises. Instead it's the small things that stick in memory for me. Ayran, for instance. It's such a simple thing: you whisk yoghurt, cold water and salt until it starts getting a little foamy. Drink with your meal. It's salty, sour, fresh and absolutely perfect with spicy foods on hot summer days.
Turkish coffee is famous (Sweden got coffee from the turks during some war or another). You make it by briefly boiling up finely ground coffee in a small pot, then you pour the unfiltered brew into a cup. It gives you a head similar to espresso, and a surprisingly delicate flavour. The trick when drinking it is to not disturb the grounds in the bottom. We got a stainless steel pot for two cups, and I'm gradually learning how to brew it at home.
The coffee may be famous, but what Turks drink is tea. We're talking bottomless amounts of the stuff. You get it for breakfast, lunch and dinner and any time in between. People drink it in shops and offices while they work. Road workers and construction crews take constant tea breaks. Tea house employees rush by on the street with trays delivering hot tea to customers.
One tip: At the airport they sell glasses like these for 4000-5000 yen each. If you go to a regular kitchen-goods store you find much the same glasses for around 100-200 yen. We grabbed enough glasses and plates that we don't have to worry if we break a few.
The tea is very good. You simmer the rough black tea for 15-20 minutes, making it dark red and strong. Then you pour it into tulip-shaped glasses and cut it with hot water to taste. Enjoy at work or at home, alone or with friends. We talked with a couple of middle-aged turks at one cafe, and they said they might drink one cup of coffee a day, but twenty glasses or more of tea.
We had planned to find a cooking class while in Istanbul. Cooking schools are fun, and Turkish food is so very good. But to our surprise, schools for tourists are quite rare there, and the ones we found were all fully booked. So no class this time, but we did buy two cookbooks at least. We'll book a class ahead of next time. And there will definitely be a next time — Istanbul was a great experience, and we want to return. You can see all the pictures from Istanbul in this album.