Sunday, April 29, 2012

Bosphorus Boat Cruise

One time some Turkish school girls interviewed me outside of Aya Sofia for a school project and they asked me what my favorite thing about Istanbul is. Without skipping a beat, I answered the Bosphorus. (This was followed by snickers on their end. I'm still not 100% why, but probably something like you crazy American).

I am mesmerized by the water and every day it looks different. It is almost like it is living with a new looks for every day, season and weather.

One of the best ways to enjoy the Bosphorus is a sunny day on a boat cruise. Tourists can take an easy cruise using the public ferry's Nostalgic Bosphorus Cruise (info can be found here) - there are both short options that take about 2 hrs and go from Eminonu to the second bridge and back OR a 6 hr option that goes almost to the Black Sea with a stop in Asian for lunch.

This weekend, for a friend's last weekend in town, we did our own boat cruise - complete with a stop for taking a dip in the water.

 We took off from Arnavutkoy, one of my favorite neighborhoods in Istanbul.  Reminds me a bit of San Fran with narrow wooden houses and hills with winding roads right on the water.

 Uskudar pier with the ferry boats, boats and more boats

 Paul decided to jump in to the Bosphorus - the verdict? It was freezing.  Duh.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Bond, James Bond

Who is your favorite James Bond? Personally, I always have to say Pierce Brosnan because of his dashing good looks, charm and now the fact that he was also in Mamma Mia.

This is slightly besides the point to this blog post.  Growing up, I probably saw almost every James Bond movie and in the last couple of years, Paul and I did a catch up on them - watching them all in chronological order.

And at some point in all those years, I failed to notice, or remember more recently that "From Russia with Love" was filmed right here in Istanbul.

Sometime soon, the new Daniel Craig Bond flick will be coming to audiences near you. The exciting part of this and reason for this whole post?!  It is being filmed here in Istanbul yet again!

I had heard of this a few months ago and assumed they had already wrapped the filming.  However, Paul took a trip to the Bazaar the other day for an errand and ran smack dab into their set.  Don't get your hopes up, he didn't actually make it on set or the movie as a background extra, but he got to catch everybody on their smoke break and sneak a peek at the set-up.

Apparently there is some motorcycle stunt scenes being filmed here and other places in Istanbul. Read here about an accident

So here's some then and now:

From Russia with Love

 Scaffolding for the cameras and crew at the bazaar (above and below)

 The motorcycles! Definitely a sneak picture from Paul's Blackberry, but maybe we will be able to recognize them in the flick

James Bond Skyfall - coming to theatres November 2012

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

2012 Trip #3 - Budapest, Hungary

We have been making the most of opportunities to travel around Europe lately and with a three day holiday weekend for Children's Day? Perfect chance to getaway. [Sidebar: apparently this is not just a Turkish holiday, although the Turks combine it with sovereignty day or the day the national assembly was established.  According to my online 'research' the US celebrates Children's day as well - am I the only one who missed this growing up?]

We continued our streak as we travelled North through Eastern Europe (Turkey > Bulgaria > Romania > Hungary; guess we need to try Poland next!) to Budapest, Hungary. I will have to say this is probably my favorite city we have visited since moving to Turkey. It is the perfect, quaint European town, despite boasting a population of nearly 2 million people.

The weather was yet again predicted to be rainy, but we ended up having nearly perfect weather with only a light, quick spring shower on Saturday night. I'm starting to wonder about these weathermen. We were leisurely tourists again, wandering aimlessly, enjoying cafes and definitely some good Hungarian food, which came along with jokes about being hungry in Hungary. Yes, that happened quite a bit.

Weirdest thing about Budapest? The currency. The exchange rate is somewhere around 220 HUF to 1 dollar. That means a meal usually cost around 3,000 - 4,000 HUF; 200 HUF is in a coin and we even got a 20,000 HUF bill from the ATM. Needless to say, I had trouble keeping the conversions straight all weekend.

 Chain Bridge - looking across to Pest

Matthias Church - also converted to mosque when the Ottomans came into town.  
Man, those Turks were everywhere

                             View from the top of St Stephen's basilica                                  Inside the Basilica                       

 St. Stephen's basilica at night

 Oh, did I forget to mention we did a segway tour? 
I promise I was much better at it than I look in this picture

Favorite pic of the trip - notice Paul's dancing on the segway

Quick History
- In its long history, it has been controlled by Romans, Magyars, Ottoman Turks and the Communists
- It is actually two distinct cities - Buda and Pest, which are separated by the Danube
- They were under communist rule until 1990 - ya, that's right, the 90's. Luckily, unlike Romania, alot of the historic and beautiful buildings were left intact during this rule

What to see
- Chain Bridge: it gives you a great view of the Danube and is a beautiful bridge
- Matthis Church and Fisherman Bastion: after crossing the Chain Bridge, get a ticket for the funiculer to get great views on your way to the top to see Matthis Church. We didn't go inside, but the roof is something like you have never seen before
- Parliament Building: get a great view from the Buda side of town; take the metro over to the Parliament and night is an especially good time to see it all lit up
- St. Stephens Basilica (and HAND!): take a quick peek around the inside, view St Stephens hand (and he died around 1100 AD) , then head up to the top to see great views of the city. Afterwards, head back down to grab something to eat.  Our favorite restaurant? Tom George's
- City Park and Hero's Square: This is a great place to people watch and enjoy beautiful weather of Budapest
- Jewish District: this is a great neighborhood to wander around, with lots of restaurants and pubs.  We tried Szimpla Budapest - it has a quirky vibe that reminds me of a hole in the wall place you would find somewhere like Austin

Friday, April 20, 2012

Europe v. Asia

This week I was so excited to host some of my co-workers in Istanbul.  I always love showing off a bit of my new hometown.

They were staying on the Asian side, which I will say I have not had much experience visiting before.  Yes, sure we got off on a stop on the Bosphorous scenic cruise, but I wouldn't REALLY call that a jaunt into Asia.

So we decided to be adventurous. We hopped on the ferry to head over to Kadıköy and wandered the cobbled streets a bit before finally landing upon our destination. Because I had no idea where to eat, I had done some research before we left and turned to good old google to find a good recommendation. One restaurant showed up in several of the search results and blogs, so we decided to give it a try.

Everyone was right. It was delicious, authentic Turkish food. Unlike a usual restaurant, they have almost a buffet downstairs where you can see the food for the day and then pick what you want in either regular or large size.  We decided to split all kinds of things among the four of us and once it was set on the table, we realized it was quite the spread: beef and artichoke, turkish meatballs breaded and fried, rice, Brussels sprouts with something else, a garlic and vegetable dish, stuffed eggplant, and more.

Hi! We welcome you to Istanbul with large amounts of food

We maybe needed a bigger table!

Looks delicious, huh? Want to give it a try?

Çiya Sofrası
Guneslibahce Sokak 43
Kadikoy, Istanbul 
+90 (0) 216 330 3190

Monday, April 16, 2012

2012 Trip #2.5 - Romania

I would like to call this trip from last weekend trip 2.5. Yes, only a half trip because only I went, no Paul. So while I won't necessarily count it as number 3 (unless we get all the way to 9 and this trip puts me over the edge), I still wanted to share it with you all.

In case anyone was thinking that I was an adventurous traveler, heading out into the great unknown alone, do not fret, or think me more courageous than I am. My friend from college Katy came and spent a week with me in Istanbul before heading to Prague, so we decided Bucharest was a perfect middle point between the two. Plus it was one of the few places that was cheap and easy to get to and neither of us had visited before.

Week before we leave, we check the weather - rainy forecast. Great.

Day before we leave, Katy researches things to do. Bucharest pops up on Rick Steve's list of worst places in Europe. Even greater.

Needless to say, we went into the whole thing with pretty low expectations.

Perhaps it was these low expectations that made the trip so pleasantly surprising. Or perhaps it was that we acted like Europeans and besides a walking tour and day excursion, we mostly randomly wandered side streets, ate and drank at little cafes and caught up on old times.

Bucharest probably gets a bad wrap because of its architecture.  After being part of a communist nation, you have lots of grey, block concrete buildings to look at.  But, despite that, there are tons of lovely things to see too.  Somewhere I read that Bucharest was a mini-Paris (although maybe that was actually Budapest), and you can see that in some places.  Narrow streets, steeped roofs, little cafes can be found interspersed throughout the not so lovely block buildings.

People's House (Romanian Parliament) - this building is the second largest building by surface area, after the Pentagon. It is so large that some of the people from Top Gear raced in the basement during an episode 

 St. Nicholas Russian Church - we attended a midnight Easter service here. Or rather stood outside. It gets so crowded that everyone lines up outside to have their candles lit just after midnight.  The service can run for several hours.  Seeing that it was raining and in Romanian, we lasted 30 minutes.

While my hands were full with a candle and an umbrella, I missed a photo op. Luckily I found this one on the Bucharest Life blog. And yes, as mostly Orthodox Christians, Romania celebrates Easter a week later later using the Julian calendar.

After exploring Bucharest, we wanted to visit the mysterious Transylvania region of Romania. This is the supposed home of Dracula according to Bram Stoker. The character Dracula is based off the Romanian leader Vlad the Impaler (known as such because of his cruel treatment of the Turks). Common myth however, and tourist trap, because Vlad lived in the Wallachia region which is to the south of Transylvania and includes Bucharest.

Our first stop on the Transylvania tour was Peleș Castle in Sinai, the summer residence of the royals of Romania. This is their version of Dolmabahçe Palace, built between 1873 and 1914 by Carol I, the president from Germany.  It is almost so over the top that you can't believe it was really used.  A sliding ceiling? Vacuum sockets throughout the palace? Or maybe we just had a tour guide who enjoys tall tales.

 Exterior of Peleș Castle

Next stop, Dracula's Castle or more appropriately Bran's Castle. This was a medieval castle that was a stop on the Silk Road and housed traders and government tax collectors. Once Romania became unified, the people of Brad gifted the castle to Queen Marie. It is most famous though for its associations with Dracula.  While it isn't really Dracula's Castle (see above, and yes really even though the guide may deny this and says vampires are real), it could have perhaps been what inspired Stoker's description of Dracula's castle in the books.
 Dracula's Castle - ooooh, creepy!

 View of the castle from the watch tower. 

 View of the town of Bran from the watch tower.

Last stop was the nearby town of Braşov. After a great lunch, including some goulash which show the Hungarian influence in the area, we wandered around the quaint city. It was such a cute little town, but impending storms took us home.


Moral of the story - don't judge a book by it's (communist) cover. 

Monday, April 9, 2012

Istanbul Tulip (Lale) Festival

When I bought my first guide to Turkey and was looking at things to do around the country, one of the things that caught my eye was the Istanbul Tulip Festival.

First, who doesn't love tulips? They come in all shapes and sizes and colors. Maybe not ALL shapes and sizes and colors, but there is quite a large variety of different tulips out there.

Two, unlike most people think, tulips (or lale) did not come from the Netherlands, but actually originated from the Ottoman Empire (or old day Turkey).  Who woulda thunk it?

Turkey celebrates this history and the tulip every April. Tulips pop up in every park in the city and it makes for a beautiful display. We came across some of these in the park near Topkapi this weekend and had to get a photo shoot in honor of Easter.

To sum it up: Texas + Bluebonnets = Tulips + Istanbul

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Dinner Anyone?

One of the questions I get all the time from family and friends about living in Istanbul is 'How's the food?'

While my response may vary based upon my mood (or last meal), I almost always have a positive response. That is, as long as we forget that one time, where I may have said something along the lines of if I have to eat one more doner....

Like I said, almost always. Normally, I'm down for a good durum, kumpir, or especially a waffle! Waffles are my absolute favorite - it's like an ice cream store where you pick out toppings and sauces, but it all goes on a waffle.  Carbs are my friend.
Waffles - our new drinking food. Take that Wendy's Dollar Menu! I like to top my waffle with Nutella, banana, strawberries, kiwis, chocolate chips and pistachios.

We are just getting to the best part of Istanbul food though. You can get almost ANYTHING delivered.  Not just your normal pizza, but doners, McDonalds, Italian, or even beer. The corner store definitely knows us when we call now. Perhaps it is that we always order the same thing, or perhaps our rudimentary Turkish.  I'll go with the same order though and hope that they think we just like to order 19 beers every time we have a party, instead of the fact that we can't count to 20 yet.

Anyways, back on track. This is the best service. As much as I like to cook and have enjoyed having more time to do so over here, there are always those days where you just didn't make it - or want to make it - to the grocery store. And on those days, I am happy to know I don't have to scrounge the fridge to eat well!

Watch out for delivery scooters zipping around the city!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

2012 Trip #2 Ephesus, Turkey

This weekend we took a plane ride that was supposed to be a hop, skip and a jump away, although what with it being Istanbul airport and it raining like the dickens, it was more of a short jog away. Our weekend retreat destination?  Selçuk and Ephesus.

It was the perfect weekend to get away - escaping the rain and bustle of Istanbul for the sun and small town.

A little background - these area was first inhabited by ancient Greeks. Ephesus was founded when a royal from Greece had to escape from his hometown. When he asked a oracle where he should build his new city, she told him where he found fish, fire and a boar.  When the royal party stopped, they were frying a fish which was apparently so fresh it jumped from the pan, got in the coals, caught the woods on fire, when a boar ran out to escape the fire.  Ephesus was built upon the site where the boar was killed.

Ephesus is thought to have been one of the largest cities in the Mediterranean, with more than 250,000 inhabitants. This guess comes from the fact that the arena/town hall area holds 25,000 people (so they multiply this by 10 to get a 'guesstimate' of the towns population - definitely scientific, huh?). Ephesus once boasted the Temple of Artemis, which is one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world.  While the temple itself is still gone, one lone column remains in Selçuk. There are still a lot of other remains still standing in Ephesus and surprisingly, for the end of March, tons of tourists already!

A few of the key attractions:

Ephesus - Temple of Hadrian

Ephesus - Library of Celsus - built by Celsus' son; it once housed 12,000 scrolls

Aquaducts in Selçuk - March - September is apparently stork season, which is fitting since this is home to the Temple of Artemis, god of fertility. Storks make nests on the aquaducts and other ruins during this time.

House of the Virgin Mary - supposedly Mary lived her during some of the last years of her life, although it has never been formally authenticated by the church. The house was discovered after a nun from Germany described it from a vision even though she had never visited the site.