Sunday, December 27, 2009

Day Trip From Istanbul: Iznik

As the deadline for our departure back to Canada loomed, we knew we had to get organised. Too many little things needed to be done, and time was slipping away. Mel and I sat down a drafted a list. Most of the items were mundane like "repair jewelry" and "get quotes on shipping", but number 11 sat in amongst these tasks like a jewel.

11. Go to Iznik.

Iznik had long occupied a place on my "to do" list. Always put off in favor of other trips and excursions, her number was up. Mel and I were determined not to leave Turkey without a visit.

We set a day.

I got the flu and postponed the trip.

We set another day.

The day before we were to leave, we learned there was going to be a public transport strike and all busses and ferries were going to be cancelled for the day. The information was incomplete and unclear, but on Thursday morning bright and early we made our way to Yenikapi ferry terminal and (thankfully) boarded the ferry for Yalova.
We stood on the ferry and watched the sun rise over the Marmara sea and thousands of seagulls swarm the fishing boats as they steamed into the Kumkapi market with their catches destined for the tables of the classy Balik Sokak (Fish Street) restaurants.

The Blue Mosque, along with our little apartment in the background, fade off in the distance. This was in late November, when morning fog is a normal occurrence.
Off the boat in Yalova, we hopped a
local minibus, an hour later we arrived in Iznik.

I was pleasantly surprised by Iznik, and immediately wished I'd made the trip sooner. The small cobbled streets were lined with huge maple trees, displaying bright fall colours. Mosques, museums and ruined Byzantine churches lined the quaint narrow streets, and of course local shops sold Iznik-style ceramics. (Back in the 17th century, Iznik was an important centre producing ceramic tiles for all of the Ottoman mosques and palaces. Although little is produced here these days, the design of tile still holds the name "Iznik".) One man beckoned us to take pictures of his antique hamam.

"That's the men's section!" I feigned shock.
"Haha! No problem! I'll kick the men out!" he joked.

Transportation of choice in this agricultural town in definitely the tractor. Brightly painted and parked outside of houses, these vehicles hauled the towns produce from field to market. I asked one man what he was hauling, it turned out to be olives, on the way to the mill to be pressed for oil. Other tractor's wagons were full of walnuts, sheep, massive cabbages and bright persimmons.

The green Mosque, with it's original
Iznik tile decoration around the minaret.

We wandered the streets with a little map from the information centre, stumbling upon buildings and sites. We visited the city wall and gates and stumbled upon the Green Mosque, among the top sites in Iznik. Mel and I adored this building, its proportion, decoration and design had our cameras busily working away from every angle.

Front door of the Green Mosque.

Iznik is located on the shores of Iznik Lake. We quickly fount that walking from one of end of the town to the other took about 20 minutes at a leisurely pace, within minutes we found ourselves slipping through a little doorway in the city wall and standing on a very nicely kept beach. Here we met Mehmet and his little dog - Raki. (Best name ever for this little white dog with attitude!)
Mehmet and Raki

Glass-like waters of Iznik Lake.

The next day would be Kurban Bayram, or the "Sacrifice Holiday". Traditionally, families sacrifice a sheep or cow and distribute a portion of the meat to poor families. All over Iznik we saw sheep being taken home in preparation for the next day's activities. They were carted around in trucks, on tractors and even walked home on leashes like the family dog. Poor sheep.

Unwilling. Do they know?

We loved Iznik for many obvious reasons - its interesting buildings, friendly locals and small town vibe, but what makes this place stands out from other day trips from Istanbul is its lack of tourism in a place that would be IDEAL for summer vacations. A large lake for swimming and boating, flat terrain for cycling, and gorgeous fresh produce!

We left Iznik for Yalova in the evening, as the sun set on this precious little town, and I finally crossed number 11 of my list.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Mardin! (as promised)

Can we put our finger on what makes us love Mardin so? Is it the gorgeous setting on the side of a mountain with the dramatic scenery of patchwork plains spread out before us? Is it the local arts and crafts that are still practiced with masterful skill in the shops and bazaars everyday? Or is it the exotic honey-coloured stone buildings, intricately carved into flowers and geometric designs?

Mardin bazaar, where you can buy anything from a wedding dress to live chickens!

Obviously we love Mardin. An ancient, multi-ethnic, busy town that makes you feel you’ve stepped back in time. Donkeys click-clack through the streets, mosques with unique little pomegranate tops and people who still welcome visitors with a heartfelt “Hosgeldiniz!”

Ablutions before prayers.

Mardin minaret and plateau of farmland that stretches all the way to Syria.

Olive oil soap in the bazaar carved in the style of local mosques.

Time spent wandering the streets and bazaars of this town is well spent. Wood and metal workers create unique little pieces in tiny little workshops, inviting you in for tea and showing you their wares.
Mosques with ornate Syrian-style minarets and ribbed domes litter the hillside. In the evening when the temperature cools, everyone comes outdoors to socialize and children fly kites high above the town. It’s rumored the Garden of Eden may have been located near here, and we believe it!
Above: View from (and of) our hotel, a 500-year old caravansary!
Below: More ablutions...

Monday, November 9, 2009

Istanbul Eats: Istanbul's Top Ten Restaurants

"spinach parcels" - seriously cute, seriously yummy!

One of my favorite websites on the Turkish dining experience is Istanbul Eats. Istanbul was in dire need of an English-language site that discussed the cuisine of our fair city in an intelligent and honest way. Istanbul Eats filled that void with gusto and is a guest blogger at the World Foodie Guide this week. Here is their excellent and informed list of Istanbul's Top Ten. Afiyet Olsun!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Commercial Break: Talismania!!

The sisters are working on a new project!

Mel and I recently took a trip to the Topkapi Palace and spent a lot of time looking at the talismanic healing shirts made by holy men and worn by the Sultan. Inscribed with Quranic verse, the “healing shirts” were believed to be able to cure disease and protect the wearer from evil and harm. The Ottoman sultans believed their shirts would protect them like armor, and often wore them into battle. Since there wasn't any blood on them, they may have actually worked!

From Topkapi Palace (A must-see in Istanbul!)

Modern day talismanic scarves made with love in Istanbul: maroon 'peace' in five languages,

purple and red Turkish flower scarves designed and printed in our living room.

After leaving the Topkapi palace, we grabbed a coffee and talked about the shirts, our eyes rested on two women at the next table. One was wearing a Turkish evil eye bracelet, the other, a funky scarf that is the height of fashion in Istanbul these days. The inspirational discussion began, and before we knew it, we were embarking on our mission of creating good luck-infused and fashionable (and practical) lucky charms: The talismanic scarf!

Off to a good start!

Combining all of these good luck symbols and the idea of the inscriptions of the healing shirts, we came up with funky talismanic scarves - block-printed in Turkish inspired designs. Some have Rumi quotes, and all have their own evil eye hand sewn into the corner.

The evil eye army. We feel the power radiating off these little jewels, I swear.

The project has just begun, we are up to our elbows in carving block prints, printing scarves with fabric paint and sewing the evil eyes in a prominent place of protection. We'll post more pictures here as we go, but we wanted to share this special project with you before Christmas, as these work-of art-scarves are perfect for sending in the post.

The block Mel carved reversed in the mirror so you can read it:

"When I am with you we stay up all night. When we are apart I cannot sleep. Praise these two insomnias and the difference between them." `Rumi

"We come spinning out of nothingness, scattering stars like dust." ~Rumi

The scarves will be sold in Istanbul in our Sultanahmet living room or at your place of convenience until the end of November,(at 25 lira each) and we'll be in Canada after that, at the Naramata Craft Faire on December 6th, and during a side trip to Vancouver and Victoria just before Christmas. (25 CDN including taxes.)

Contact me or Mel for details!

We really hope you enjoy wearing them as much as we enjoy making them!

Rene and Melanie

Friday, October 16, 2009

Hasankeyf: Are Her Days Numbered?

As our minibus rounds the corner and Hasankeyf comes into view, both sisters become visibly excited. “Let’s go!” and we're off across the bridge for a second glimpse of our first look at this ancient city straddling the Tigris River. A sweeping view of cave houses, ancient minarets, ruins and of course the blue-green of the Tigris as she slips past sheep and cattle grazing along her shores. Below children swim and fish in the river, enjoying their lazy-days-of-summer youth, without a care in the world.

The old minaret in the village.
There are two staircases inside that wrap like a double helix.

But the world cares, and many eyes have turned to this sleepy ancient town in Eastern Turkey. Once the Ilusu Dam is completed 90km down-river, Hasankeyf will be lost forever under rising waters.
Although the town made the list of the World's 100 Most Endangered Sites, locals are in denial.
“Foreign governments are pulling out their support, it will never happen,” a local waiter tells us. He's right; Austria, Germany and Switzerland have all opted out of the project. Another young man, selling carpets made from the hair of his grandfather’s goats plans to move on, “After military service, I’ll settle somewhere else, who can live like this?”

As we explore the old cave area of Hasankeyf, an old woman standing on her cave balcony waves to us and beckons us to come up. We scramble up the side of the cliff as she points out the way, and we are invited into her home, introduced to her grandson and given a cold glass of water from her huge Arcelik-brand fridge, the only appliance in her house. Perched on top is a wild looking skinny little cat, which scurries away when she sees visitors arrive.
There are two rooms here, one looks like storage, and something is scurrying around back there, and I tell myself it’s just the cat.
The main room has a large raised platform, which serves as a bed and sitting area. There are carpets, pillows and sheets everywhere, as well as several plastic containers full of water. Laundry is strung across a line dissecting the room.
I summon up my Turkish and ask her how long she’s been living here.
“Hasankeyf”, she responds. Doubting my Turkish skills, I ask her how many people live here.
“Hasankeyf”, she responds.
“Tu chowani?”, (How are you?) I inquire, (one of the 2 Kurdish phrases I know). Her face lights up and she replies, “Ez bashim!” (I’m good!)
I manage to surmise that five people live in the cave house, and she was born there. The power comes from an extension cord that runs up the mountain and the only appliance it runs is the fridge.

She lets us take a few pictures of her home and points out a few cherished items, a photo here, a trinket there. She shows off a few handkerchiefs and headscarves that she’s tatted around the outside. Mel and I pick a white one with blue beads. The lira we pay for the headscarf is more of a donation, the experience of being able to sit in this woman's home and observe a fading and endangered way of life is priceless.
Later, a café worker would tell us that she is one of only a handful of people still living the cave life in Hasankeyf, the others have moved into houses in the village.
“There used to be a family living in the castle, but they finally moved down to the village, all the water they used had to be transported by donkey up the mountain. It was so hard in winter.”

Heading East

“Two girls traveling alone through south-east Turkey in the dead of summer? Are you mad?”
My sister and I had discussed and dreamed on this trip for years. “Someday”, we’d say, and today “someday” had arrived.
Starting in Sanliurfa, and moving on to Diyarbakir, Mardin and Gaziantep, and taking a few side trips to Harran, Mount Nemrut and the doomed village of Hasankeyf along the way, we braced ourselves for soaring temperatures, pesky children and wandering hands.
Of course we’d been warned. Dangerous, backwards and sizzling hot were just a few of the adjectives we’d heard to describe the area, but none-the-less, we threw some clothes and cash into our backpacks, gathered up our resolve and headed east to see if this area could live up to our curiosity.
This is a tiny slice of what we found.

On the road to Diyarbakir, storm approaching.

The two pictures above were taken from my seat on the public bus. Turks and foreigners alike were horrified to learn that we chose to travel by bus. We loved it. Each city we chose was no longer than two hours from the other, and the system was efficient and quick.

The boy in the top photo is a kind of "bus steward", he's serving up coffee and tea.

Summer Koran lessons in Sanliurfa.

The beehive houses of Harran, outside Saliurfa.

Adorable boy who ran for change in 40 degree heat.
Love that smile!

Prayers in Mardin.

The strangest thing we saw on our trip.
Men hanging out in a barbershop feeding and watching their pigeons.
You know, as you do.

The Han in Diyarbakir.
A lovely place to place to hang out and people watch.

Meet Banu, a lovely woman who found us on the street outside her house in Gaziantep.
She took us in, made us tea, and fed us fruit. Then gave my Turkish skills a real workout!
On the table are her daughter's wedding pictures.
Just one person of many who greeted us with such warmth and hospitality, I was both humbled and touched.

Scenery around Mount Nemrut.
I can't say anything to describe how gorgeous it was, so here's an attempt in photos!

Below, our shadows on Nemrut in the sunrise.
These pictures don't show how cold it was or how strong the wind was!

I have purposely left two places out, Hasenkeyf and Mardin. Stay tuned!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Street Food: Taiwanese Pancakes!

In Taiwan, my friend George and I used to cruise the night markets from time to time. He ate all the questionable foods like "stinky tofu" and "chicken butts", and I kept to the "safe" foods like "papaya milk" and "steamed pork buns". One of my favorite night market foods were the scallion pancakes. Wandering the crowded little alleyways with George munching on a steamy pancake from a plastic bag is one of my favorite memories of Taiwan.

So, one day feeling all nostalgic, I decided to make them here at home in Istanbul. Here's how it worked out.

First, I got a recipe from the Internet. Oh how I love the Internet.
The dough was super straight forward - water, salt and -this is important! - HOT water.

Here I've rolled out the dough and spread a thin layer of sesame oil over it.
Then I sprinkled scallions over it.

Then you roll up the pancake, twist it and roll it - like so.
Let them rest for 30 minutes before flattening them out with a rolling pin.
Once they're flat, you can freeze them between parchment paper, (which I did with some).

Or... you can put them into a super hot pan with a little oil and make them nice and crispy!

I served them with a dipping sauce made of soy sauce, rice vinegar and ginger.
Georgie! You'd be proud!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Jonny and the Sublime Portal

If you look to the right hand side of this blog, you might see something new!

My excellent friend Jonny who is the creative force behind Istanbul's Sublime Portal made this for Melanie and I to promote our show at Java Studio. And he did it all while taking care of his beautiful three-and-a-half-month old son. What can I say? He is THE man!

Check it out!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A Little Photo-blog Dedicated to Food Around Turkey

When Ramadan arrives, Turkey gets even more obsessed with food. Some people are fasting and at sunset the streets and restaurants are filled with people waiting for the signal that they can finally begin eating. In celebration of the local appreciation, (and sometimes obsession) here are some pictures I've taken celebrating Turkish cuisine.

Typical Turkish Breakfast.
Shared amongst four of us and whoever happened to walk by at the time.

Ciya, my fave restaurant on the Asian side. You'll never guess what this dish is, give up? Meatballs and sour cherries. Was it delicious? Absolutely!

A little restaurant in Mardin. I loved the attention to presentation.
This is a regular salad, spicy ezme, and cacik - which is like a yogurt-mint dip.
(I've just noticed now that they drew a little heart on the ezme with pomegranate molasses! It's upside down in my picture.)

At the same Mardin Restaurant, a huge metal cup of ayran.
Ayran is a frothy salty yogurt drink. This one was so smooth, Mel compared it to ice cream.

Murat Cergis Konagi in Mardin.
This meal changed the way I thought about food.
This is an appetizer plate with ten appetizers, some were as simple as goat cheese and walnuts, others completely complex, each one more delicious that the last.
I bought one of these platters the very next day.

House Cafe in Ortakoy gets an 'A' for presentation
with this green apple garnish adorning their lemon juice.

And now for dessert!
Deep fried donuts being sold at the Ramadan Market in Sultanahmet.
You can see them cooking in the background.

Tulumbasi are like Spanish churros, but soaked in teeth-achingly-sweet honey.
The sign above touts them as a famous Ottoman dessert.

And below is the world-famous Gaziantep baklava.
Trust me, Mel and I went to great lengths to ensure we tested a range of baklava while in Gaziantep, so we could say it was the "best" with journalistic integrity.

It's the best.