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10/14 - Istanbul 3
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Today was our free day to roam Istanbul. Our parents, who were staying near the historic district (Sultanahmet) on the south European side, went to the Grand Bazaar and Egyptian Spice Market. My sister and I, staying near the young, modern business district (Beyoglu) on the north European side, elected to explore modern Istanbul before venturing to the Spice Market. After being directed to the bus station by the concierge, we set off on foot.

Since the W doesn't have free breakfast or a concierge lounge, we decided to scope out a local eatery on our way to the bus. We found a pita shop called Karadeniz. I don't remember the exact location but the address appeared to be 50 and it was on Catlak Cesme Sokak. The staff didn't speak much English but they invited us in anyway. We watched as their baker made Ramazan Pidesi (Ramadan Pitas) at lightning speed, tossed them into the wood fired brick oven for a few minutes then extracted them, boxed them up and gave them to the delivery scooter driver.

We ordered a lahmacun, pita spread with ground lamb and spices before being baked and a tomato cucumber salad, as recommended by the owner/waiter. I also saw a large beverage dispenser filled with a white liquid. I pointed to it and the owner replied "aryran." I was hoping for sahlep, but decided to try it anyway. After looking at the menu, I found ayran with a picture of fruit yogurt on it. Basically it was an unsweetened yogurt drink, much like an Indian plain lassi.

After breakfast, the owner pointed us up a hill toward the bus stop we needed. Along the way we asked an Asian (of Eastern, Oriental descent) for directions. I was a little surprised when he didn't seem to know English but that's a pretty arrogant expectation on my part. He pointed us further up the hill and said "Thirty." We thought he meant 30 meters and were starting to doubt his direction after 100 meters or so. We exited a small park and suddenly found ourselves on a large, busy street where we found a bus stop with the number 30 on it. After asking if we could get to our destination, Istiklal Caddessi (Independence Avenue) a nice lady indicated we were in the right spot.

Five minutes later, bus 30 came along and we followed the lady onto the bus at which point the lady stopped and waved us off the bus. She turned to the bus driver and asked a question, then turned back to us and said, "Istiklal, no." Then the bus closed it's doors and left us. We were a bit confused until we asked another man who also didn't speak English but he indicated a different bus number (sorry, I don't remember what the right number is) and so we sat and waited for a good 20 more minutes before the correct bus came.

After a mere 10 minute ride (we probably could have walked) we arrived at Taksim square on the east end of Istiklal. In the center of the square was the Cumhuriyet Aniti or Republic Monument, commemorating the formation of the Turkish Republic and Mustafa Kemel Ataturk, the father of the Turkish Republic. Between the square and the end of Istiklal is the Taksim reservoir. Taksim means "division" or "distribution" and this reservoir once served as the central gathering and distribution point for northern Istanbul (hence the name Taksim Square).

Istiklal was a busy and bustling place with shops, vendors, cafes and restaurants on both sides. The large road, approximately four lanes across, is for pedestrians only, except for a ground level tram line that runs in the center. Shops range from high end fashion to Western fast food to century old establishments, while lacking some of the tourist traps common in the historical district.

After a stop at Saray Muhallabecisi for baklava, kataifi and other baked goods, we also stopped at Ali Muhaddin Haci Bekir for Turkish Delight and Halva. I also stopped at a random shop for dried mulberries and local chocolate variations. We also walked by Mado which makes sahlep ice cream but we weren't hungry enough to have any. Upon reaching the opposite end of Istiklal, we found the subway station for Tunel, a one stop train to Karakoy where we could transfer to the main tram line that we took before.

Our next stop was the Egyptian Spice Market where we took a little rest room break. For 0.50 YTL (just under 50 cents) you received entrance to the rest room and, if you needed paper, a single small square beverage napkin.

Inside the Spice Market is a dimly lit L-shaped hallway full of shopping tourists. There were shops for spices, pastries, honey, snacks, purses, cheese, caviar, clothing and plenty of other things. We ran into some of the parents who indicated that our parents were searching for caviar. We never managed to find them so we continued on our own. My sister picked up a purse, I picked up some honey.

We also found Gulluoglu, a famous baklavaci (balkava bakery). There they had plain baklava or baklava with walnuts, hazelnuts, pistachios, almonds or pecans. They also had kataifi and other baked desserts. It was hot and crowded in this tiny shop which made ordering a bit of an adventure but we eventually got a box of goodies.

Once we had finished exploring the inside of the Spice Market, we left via the exit at the bottom corner of the "L," and discovered tons more shops with tons more crowds, but I was looking for a specific shop, Namli Pastirmaci. It turned out to be a big store with tons of food products, including their flagship pastrami, many examples of which were hanging from the ceiling and walls as they cured.

Once we finished all of our shopping, we took the tram again to the Cemberlitas stop and walked to our parents' hotel. Unlike the W, their room was quite small and due to a malfunctioning air conditioner, their room was boiling hot, despite it being quite cool outside. We dropped off some stuff that we didn't want to lug back to the W and then we went out for dinner.

We walked towards Sultanahmet looking for restaurants. There was a decent looking seafood restaurant just a block from their hotel but we decided to keep looking for other local cuisines. We ended up walking a good 15 minutes and found ourselves near the tourist traps of Sultanahmet and decided to turn around and check out Ortaklara, a kofte restaurant we had passed. It turned out to be a pretty good choice as the restaurant had good pita bread, lahmacun and meat dishes. The entrees all tasted a bit similar with tangy tomato and yogurt sauces, but they were still good.

After dinner we dropped our parents back at their hotel then took the tram to it's northern point, Kabatas, where we got a taxi the rest of the way to the W. Including a generous tip we paid 15 YTL (just over $10), reasonable for two people. After dropping our stuff off, we decided to walk to a super market to pick up some drinks. The W is located at the edge of a high class shopping area surrounded by fancy hotels so we got to see lots of famous stores, including Jimmy Choo's, although the only reason I know him is because his son Danny Choo is the Dancing Stormtroooper in Tokyo.

At the supermarket we discovered that manti is so popular you can get it in bulk, along with halva and all your standard deli items. After picking up some drinks, we returned to the hotel to get some rest as we prepared to head back home in the morning.

10/14 pictures are here.
Posted 01/23/2009 00:56 AM in Food, Pictures, Restaurants, Reviews, Travel, Turkey
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10/13 - Istanbul Day 2
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I'll try to make this entry a little less verbose. This was our last morning on the cruise ship. We had to be off the ship by 9:00AM but we still managed to have a nice breakfast at the Grand Pacific. I also managed to use 26 of the last 27 minutes of over-priced internet access left on my account before getting shooed off the boat at 10:00 to meet up with the other families for our private bus tour at 11:00.

Since we spent a good amount of time at the Hagia Sophia the previous day, we requested that we focus on the Blue Mosque which was beautiful (see pics).

After that we went to the Topkapi Palace, where the Ottoman Sultans resided before it was converted to a museum in the 20th century. The palace was huge and there was so much to see and so little time. Unfortunately, there was just too much information and we only got the highlights from our tour guide as we had limited time (you could easily spend an entire day there alone). Check out the pics for some of the information that I managed to vaguely recall...

Next was the Basilica Cistern of Constantinople which didn't sound too interesting to most of us. I thought cisterns were just huge ceramic pots dug into the ground to store some water but I decided to tag along with my mom while 2/3 of the group lounged at a cafe instead. I was quite glad I did because the cistern was simply amazing. It wasn't just a ceramic pot, it was a 30 foot tall cavern stretching over 100,000 square feet to store fresh water for the entire ancient city. It was quite impressive and I managed to get some halfway decent pics despite the darkness.

After that we finished up our tour we were dropped off at the Aziyade Hotel with the rest of the group. The rooms were quite small so my sister and I we were quite thankful that we had a nicer hotel reserved for after dinner...

Meanwhile, the Aziyade hotel arranged for us to have dinner at Kalamar Restaurant. The restaurant sent vans to pick us up and drove us into a dark looking alley. We all got a bit worried that they were going to take us to some hole in the wall but we were pleasantly surprised when we turned the corner and found a nice city full of lit up restaurants. Dinner was quite good, though it took them a while to prepare the fish. Some people got a bit restless and felt the mezes were too sour, but I enjoyed it all quite a bit (see pictures).

After dinner, my sister and I hopped in a taxi which whisked us off the beautiful modern W Istanbul. It was quite a treat (paid by my SPG points) and we were quite impressed by the amenities. Pictures of the room are below with more pictures to come on the following day.

10/13 pictures are here.
Posted 01/01/2009 11:52 PM in Food, Restaurants, Reviews, Travel, Turkey
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10/12 - Istanbul 1
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Afternoon
After sleeping in having another typical buffet brunch, my family and several friends joined the Bosphorous cruise. It started with a quick pass of the Blue Mosque, but since we had a more detailed tour of the Blue Mosque the next day, I won't talk about it here.

Our first stop was the Hagia Sophia, a Byzantine style basilica that was destroyed twice and re-built before being converted into a mosque and eventually being declared a historical monument and converted into a museum.

The Hagia Sophia was built primarily out of marble and you can see it throughout the building. The marble used to decorate the walls and columns is beautifully and carved with intricate detail. In addition to all the marble, there are beautiful paintings, stained glass and mosaics on the walls. Unfortunately, due to Islamic rules that forbid images of God (Allah) or people in the mosque, most images were destroyed or painted over.

A few particularly beautiful examples were preserved and simply covered up for historical purposes and have been revealed and restored since Sophia was turned into a museum. A few instances of Christian designs that were painted over have re-appeared through their outer layer.

Hagia Sophia is an extremely beautiful building with a very interesting history and definitely worth seeing with a guide. After that our tour bus took us to Stork's jewelry store for some personal service (Turkey is famous for their Turquoise). The most interesting thing was that the building used to be a prison for women. They didn't give us much more information than that, but from the outside you could see the very small windows.

The other nice thing about Stork's was that they brought us snacks. First they provided all of us with hot apple tea, which is very popular drink in Turkey. It's an apple-flavored tea pre-sweetened from a mix or served with sugar cubes. We also got some Turkish simit which was sliced and served with cheese.

The simit here was very different from the sesame rings in Greece. These were not as dry and had a texture similar to the inside of large pretzels. In addition to the simit were other mini simits, cookies and shortbread, all of which were better and less dry than the ones from the Izmir bakery.

Next was a cruise on the Bosphorous, but while we waited for our boat, we were tempted by a cart cooking up doner kabob. I asked our tour guide if it was safe and she said, "For me it is safe because I live here, although even I might get sick. But if you want, you can try."

Having tossed caution to the wind, my dad and sister had already ordered by the time the tour guide finished talking to me. The meat was tasty but I wish there had been a bit more. The bread, lettuce and tomatoes were pretty standard, but the sandwich definitely hit the spot.

The Bosphorous cruise was a bit windy and cold due to the October weather but it was a nice cruise and we got to see a lot of stuff. Unfortunately, I can't remember all the things we saw. There were several palaces and and mosques as well as a few schools and academies. The Bosphorous was not as calm as I expected. Due to the mixing of currents from the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara and the rocky bottom, the Bosphorous has continuously strong choppy waves and fast moving currents.

When people talk about Istanbul, they often talk about the European and Asian sides, which are separate by the Bosphorous. The Asian side is primarily suburbs while the European side holds the city centre, business district and historical district. The European side is also split in half by the Golden Horn, an inlet off of the Bosphorous. The historical district with all the monuments, Grand Bazaar and Spice market is on the south while the business district, shopping and downtown are on the north side.

Evening
After the boat tour, we returned to the cruise ship. The parents met for dinner but my sister and I decided to explore Istanbul a little. After getting directions from an immigrations officer, we walked 10 minutes to the Findikli tram stop. When we got there, we couldn't figure out where to get tickets. Since the tram operates on street level (like the San Francisco trolleys) we just walked onto the platform around the turnstiles.

Walking to the other end we found a cop but he didn't speak English. He figured out that we didn't have tickets. We offered to pay in British Pounds or American dollars but we had no Turkish Lira. Another passenger came to help translate and eventually the police officer just waved us off so we didn't have to pay.

The tram system is fairly new as it has recently been upgraded to cross the Golden Horn on the Karakoy bridge as part of a public transportation modernization program. Soon a new subway underneath the Bosphorous will connect the Asian side as well. We took the tram across the Karakoy Bridge and got off at Eminonu as there appeared to be lots of restaurants in the area.

Right outside the station were several small shops including a few food stands. One that caught our eye was a place selling Balik Ekmek. Balik means fish and ekmek means bread, so what you get is a fish sandwich. The vendor grilled fish fillets on a huge griddle with salt and pepper then put it on bread with lettuce, tomatoes and onions for a tasty sandwich. My sister and I bought one and sat on milk crates and buckets set up along the bridge. Next to the vendor was a man selling what I assume were stuffed mussels but we decided to keep exploring and passed on them.

After walking on the lower level of the Karakoy bridge, past all the neon lit restaurants, we stopped for some pictures and then headed back to the Eminonu station and walked along the tram line to the next station at Sirkeci, where the national train line also stops (which is the same line that ran the Oriental Express).

At the Sirkeci station we found Sirkeci Simit, a large modern restaurant which had the largest Kumpir display we had seen. Now, Kumpir is a special Turkish baked potato. After buying a ticket at the register we gave it to the Kumpir guy who went to pick up two large baked potatoes out of special tall oven. He cut them both in half, then scooped all the meat out of the second potato and whipped it with butter and cheese inside the first potato.

Following that, we had to choose our toppings. Our choices were: red cabbage cole slaw, carrot slaw, vegetable salad, hot dogs, peas, corn, pickles, cous cous, tzatziki sauce, red cabbage and ketchup. It sounds a big crazy, but in the end, it kind of just tastes like a nice warm potato salad since everything gets mixed together anyway.

After that we decided to try their equally crazy waffles which have a six flower petal design so you can choose six Nutella style spreads (we chose chocolate, hazelnut, butterscotch, strawberry, pistachio and caramel) garnished with maraschino cherries, kiwi, banana and nuts. It was a suitable sweet finish to our giant Kumpir potato and satisfied my sweet tooth pretty well.

After our food, I was super thirsty so I stopped at McDonald's for a Diet Coke and to see if they had any special Turkish items, which they did not. We looked at a few other shops before heading back to the Sirkeci tram stop. At this station we discovered that the ticket booth is located across the street and you pay for tokens that are accepted by the turnstiles. Despite it being dark, we didn't worry about our safety too much and made it back to the ship without a problem.

No gastro-intestinal issues either...

10/12 pictures are here.
Posted 12/15/2008 10:44 PM in Food, Pictures, Snacks, Travel, Turkey
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10/11 - Izmir
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Izmir is located on the west side of Turkey and is very close to ancient Ephesus. My sister went on a tour to Ephesus while I decided to explore Izmir a little and try to find an internet connection. Izmir seemed to be a pretty young and hip city with lots of cafes, restaurants and night life. As I walked east along the shore I was surprised to find a long park with a rubberized running path and lots of grass extending the entire shore, much like Chicago's Lake Shore Park.

I walked about a mile looking at cafes trying to find one with a wireless hotspot sign with little luck until I reached the end. When I turned on my computer I found out why no cafes had signs. They ALL had wireless internet access, I just needed to ask the staff for the WEP key to connect. Alas, the cafe I chose didn't have any English speakers so when I couldn't get it to work, I couldn't really ask for help.

After my battery was drained I went back to the ship and met up with my sister. We got cash at a local ATM and then found the largest road in our area, Kibris Sehitleri, and started walking. We were both quite hungry and found a small shop with only a few tables on the parking lot. The owner presumably lives upstairs and while he cooked on an electric griddle, his son mopped the floor. The place wasn't particularly dirty, but seemed a bit unkempt so we were a little concerned about food safety but threw caution to the wind.

The owner didn't speak English so we just let him make a grilled doner kebab (sausage) sandwich which he insisted was "very good." It was a simple sandwich with butter, lettuce, tomatoes, mayo and the doner sausages. It wasn't amazing, but I'll tell you that it certainly hit the spot.

Continuing down the road we found a small bakery with a very friendly owner who pulled us in. He didn't speak very much English so there was a lot of pointing and going back and forth with his friend to tell us that some items had cheese or tomato or chocolate. We ended up with a small box. Now, pastries in Greece tended to be overly sweet and phyllo based. In this Turkish bakery, we found everything to be dry and bland. Despite all the flavors, we didn't really taste any cheese or tomato or chocolate. Everything just kind of tasted like shortbread and tended to be more savory than sweet. When we finished, we wanted more of the Greek stuff.

Next we stopped at a snack shop which had lots of nuts and sweets. Several items were described as being made from grapes. Presumably, they take pureed grapes, or perhaps just grape juice, and reduce it down until it caramelizes into a fruit roll-up consistency that can then be manipulated. My sister chose two items that were coated with pistachios and coconut or hazelnuts, while I chose a string of walnuts that had been dipped in the stuff. I didn't think any of it was that memorable. The nuts were good but the grape stuff didn't really add much, except it was a good binder that allowed the nuts to sticks.

As we continued on, we arrived at a bustling intersection. Turning down the side street we found a whole street full of pedestrians, cafes, restaurants and stores. We wandered around and considered trying some local specialties like kumpir or lahmacun (more details when I get to Istanbul) but soon found that we had to head back to the ship due to an early departure time.

For dinner we returned to the Grand Pacific and ate pretty lightly. After that we played mahjohng for a few hours before sleeping early to prepare for Istanbul.

10/10 pictures are here.
Posted 11/23/2008 01:12 PM in Food, Pictures, Restaurants, Turkey
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Disembarking in Istanbul
Well, the cruise is over and I'm using my last 30 minutes of internet time. I'm hideously behind on my pictures since I have over 200 of Egypt alone from last week. I'm about to fill up another 4GB SD card too.

Things are a bit hectic trying to pack and organize things between the 17 people in our group so it hasn't quite hit me that there are only a few days left in my vacation. The thought of going back to work next Monday isn't too pleasant either.

Oh well. And in case you're noticing that I haven't had that much local food, don't worry, I've got lots more stuff coming.
Posted 10/13/2008 01:34 AM in Ramblings, Travel, Turkey
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I'm a sad tourist
I've been trying to find some info on eating in Alexandria. I understand that Egypt is not well known for it's culinary delights and that it is generally a poor country, but I'm a little surprised how tough it's been. While there are some traditional restaurant recommendations on-line, there aren't as many as I expected. Just look at this pitiful list of top restaurants to eat at in Alexandria according to tripadvisor.com



I'm saddened that four of the top ten restaurants are American chains and even more saddened that one of them somehow earned the number one spot.
Posted 09/21/2008 06:47 PM in Food, Restaurants, Travel, Turkey
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T minus 11 days
My vacation is coming up in just 11 days. I'm totally looking forward to it and I've been doing a lot of research on what to do in our free time, particularly where to eat at the different docks. It looks like Istanbul is a big culinary destination and I wish I could change my ticket and stay another day, but then I'd miss my reservation at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London. Speaking of London, I still need to reserve a hotel for my first night...
Vacation begins on:

Posted 09/16/2008 10:21 PM in Food, Ramblings, Travel, Turkey, United Kingdom
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