The Road to Istanbul Modern

As Charles Atlas would have it, Istanbul is a place of dynamic tensions.

On the Beyoğlu road

On the Beyoğlu road

For the visitor of course, these contrasts are both exciting and challenging.  We have been intrigued by traditional Istanbul, hugely impressed by ancient Istanbul, and quite confronted by religious and conservative Istanbul.  Not surprisingly, we are most comfortable with modern Istanbul, even though that’s not without its challenges.

After almost two weeks here, some recurring themes are appearing.  Eating and restaurants of course, and the Taksim protests, but an unexpected theme of considerable importance has turned out to be roads.

IMG_1243Before the Taksim protests showed just how differently the government and their supporters were thinking, most would have said that Turkey was roaring down the road to modern Turkey, European Turkey, and certainly modern Istanbul.

Just how on earth Erdogan thinks he can put that genie back in the bottle defies all logic.  While the crushing of the protests, which he has all but achieved, will slow things down a bit, nothing will stop the path that Istanbul is on.

One way - but which way?

One way – but which way?

There is of course a short-term cost, and the European media are suggesting that the violent and duplicitous way that the PM has reacted to the Taksim protests has finally killed off Turkey’s desire to join the European Union.  However, if they manage to get the Olympics in 2020, Istanbul will move even further away from Erdogan’s Turkey.

Our road to modern Istanbul has of course been a little more pedestrian (heh heh).

Being quite literal, the actual roads are crazy, like the small one-way street we are staying in, where cars just ignore the rules and drive straight at each other.  The really steep streets falling away from Beyoğlu and Istiklal Street are also a wonder to behold.

Back in the metaphorical, while we have loved the uber-cheap street cafes and old fashioned shops and markets, we have also really enjoyed the upmarket restaurants and fashionable neighbourhoods that are an equal to any modern city.

On the Bosphorus

On the Bosphorus

We had a superb meal at Lokanta Maya (Kemankeş Cd, Karaköy) run by New York trained Istanbul chef Didem Şenol (though she is off having a baby at the moment).  We breakfasted on the Bosphorus at The House Café at Ortaköy (Salhane Sk), surrounded by wealthy and very modern locals.

But we probably had the most modern fun on our visit to the Istanbul Modern, which turned out to be a very telling metaphor for modern Istanbul.

The road to the Istanbul Modern is in fact an ugly driveway into a carpark, with no dedicated space for pedestrians.  The entrance is at the end of said carpark, and looks like the sign-on shed for crew for the nearby docks.  The museum building itself fares no better, sandwhiched between a machinery storage yard and the docks.  On a good day, the docks provide a spectacular view of the Bosphorus and the Asian side from the museum café; problem is, on most days, there is a huge cruise ship docked there, totally blocking the view.

The view to nowhere

The view to nowhere

Once inside, the Istanbul Modern is the very model of a modern major art museum, and fortunately the current exhibitions included a major retrospective of their collection, Past and Future.  Populist at one level, but a great opportunity for the one-time visitor.

There was also a very strong retrospective of local artist Erol Akyavaş.

But to prove that Art Imitates Life just as often as the other way around, our favourite piece in the Istanbul Modern retrospective was a video piece by two Istanbul artists titled …….

Road to Tate Modern.

[It’s only 6:41 long but you can skip to 4:55 and get the gist]

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Deutsche?

20130624-215738.jpgAs those of you who’ve been to Istanbul know, the tour touts and souvenir sellers who hang round the big tourist sites in Sultanahmet play a game of guessing your nationality to engage you in conversation. It’s probably not a good thing to be assumed mostly to be German.

So it was a happy day today – “French..?”

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First fifty hours, Part 2

… in which we hear more of the adventures of Pasha Phil meeting up with effendi Helen and John in Istanbul.

Library at Topkapi Palace

Library at Topkapi Palace

There are a lot of must-see places in Istanbul, where notwithstanding the lines of buses that arrive from the cruise ships, you have to take your place in the queue or miss out on astonishingly beautiful sights.

So on the next day, we set off to Topkapi Palace, the former palace of the Sultans in Sultanahmet.  Not a European-style palace rather a beautiful garden complex filled with lavish pavilions. More stunning tiles and marble and opulent design. A library to die for, with thick walls against the heat, lounging couches and windows to pick up a breeze coming from any direction. A kitchen that accommodated 1,500 staff.

Divan at Topkapi Palace

Divan at Topkapi Palace

The Divan (yes named after the couches that lined the walls) is the Cabinet Room, where the Sultan could slip in unobserved and listen behind an ornate grill to his advisors arguing about policy and judging disputes. Clever way to keep the court on its toes.

After all that opulence, lunch was in a tiny family café down in the market streets near the Spice Bazaar (Uzunçarşi Cd). One each of a spinach, cheese and potato Gozleme, cooked by the mother, and two plates of deep-fried Hamsi (sardines) cooked by the father, with the son doing the serving.  All brilliant, and with three waters, it cost a whole 40 TL.

Gozleme

Gozleme

The Palace had taken longer than we expected, so our afternoon plan – to ferry up the Golden Horn and walk to the Chora Church Museum – no longer seemed viable.

Plan B, created on the spot, was to hit the water – it was a beautiful day, after all, and a ferry to Üsküdur (Asian side) was approaching.  After a Monty Pythonesque interlude, as the ticket seller dealt with a sudden power failure by scrambling to fire up a generator for the electronic reader of our Istanbulkarts, we were headed home, but via Asia.

John and the hamsi

John and the hamsi

Back at our Kabataş apartment, we shared a glass of one of Turkey’s better red wines, and planned some more adventures – a re-run of our Chora plan for the following day; a visit to the Istanbul Modern; a special breakfast in Besiktaş; an underground tour of the Basillica Cisterns; and making a booking for dinner for Phil’s last night at Lokanta Maya.

Then we headed out again to catch another ferry across the Bosphorus back to Kadiköy, to yet another great restaurant.  And impressively, to three more Standing Man silent protest groups in different locations in Kadiköy, plus at 9.00pm, the enduring pots and pans/knife and glass anti-Erdogan protest from the restaurant patrons.

50 great first hours for a fiftieth, and plenty more great Istanbul hours to go.

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Pasha Phil joins us in Istanbul – Part 1

IMG_1028This is our first real travel diary post about our visit to Istanbul – delayed in part because we’ve been orienting ourselves in this unusual city, and in part because we were a little distracted by the Taksim protests. The arrival of Pasha Phil flicked the switch. The sun came out and we have had an uninterrupted string of perfect days. “Come and use our spare room in Istanbul” was our 50th birthday present to Helen’s brother Phil, and since his arrival on Monday, we have been going hard. So this then is the tale of Phil’s first fifty hours in Istanbul – Part 1.

Phil arrived at our Istanbul apartment via a visit to London, a truly generous birthday gift from Mary, Pat and Claire back home in Brisbane, so fortunately there was no time-zone jet lag for him.  After an Efes beer and a quick catch up, we were all down to the Kabataş ferry terminal at the end of our street, and off to another continent.

Bosphorus sunset

Bosphorus sunset

With a spectacular sunset over the European side behind us, we crossed to Kadiköy in the Asian half of Istanbul.  We walked through the bustling waterfront district, past dozens of restaurants beginning to fill, and through narrow market streets where the fresh-food stalls were only just beginning to close at 8.00pm.  A long day for the fishmongers and fruiterers; even longer for the cake shops and delis. We headed for Ciya Kebap (Guneslibahce Sk), the often-overlooked younger sister to the renowned Ciya Sofrasi opposite (where we have a booking later in the week).  All the street-level tables were full, but they directed us up to the fourth-floor roof terrace, even better. We looked out across the rooftops and minarets and the street scene below.

Rooftop terrace at Çiya Kebap, Kadiköy

Rooftop terrace at Çiya Kebap, Kadiköy

We had  two simple gorgeous salads (one with minced tomato, garlic and parsley, and one with thyme, parsley and onion), plus a complimentary dish of chilli-flavoured soft cheese, and two kinds of flat bread.  Phil chose the Ciya Kebap (a bread-wrapped minced lamb skewer, flavoured with walnuts), Helen had the Sour Kebap (a flat plate of minced lamb, flavoured with pomegranate and on a bed of eggplant) and John opted for the Poppy Seed Kebap (a minced lamb skewer heavily flavoured with white poppy seed). Everything was superb, and the setting was sublime.  Along with three waters and two ayrans (the salty yoghurt drink that traditionally accompanies kebap) the meal cost the princely sum of 90 TL, about AU$20 each.

One tiny concern we had heading across the Bosphorus, was that by going further afield, Phil would miss the nightly “pots and pans” protest in our neighbourhood.  Oh we of little faith. On the dot of nine o’clock, a group of young people began to wend their way through the now-crowded street of restaurants, chanting and clapping.  Immediately, a huge percentage of the restaurant patrons, including us of course, began to tap their knives on their glasses and plates in support – an astoundingly subtle and atmospheric protest.

Young musicians at Kadiköy

Young musicians at Kadiköy

After dinner, as we strolled back through Kadiköy, we encountered a group of musicians and dancers performing boisterous Turkisk folk songs with full audience participation, while nearby a group of young contemporary artists were doing shadow puppets over a backdrop of short computer animations projected onto a nearby wall. Nothing left for us now but to head down to the ferry for a return trip across the Bosphorus, to the sparkling lights and minaret skyline of Beyoğlu and Sultanahmet.

The second day began with a traditional Turkish breakfast of white bread, tomatoes, cheese, pastirma, yoghurt, fruit and tea.  Then it was off to the treasures of the Old Town. The Kabataş (No 1) tram at the bottom of our street goes straight to Sultanahmet, and then it’s a walk through the Hippodrome, where the scale of the horse and chariot racing track from the Roman days are there if you look carefully.

Sultanahmet (Blue Mosque)

Sultanahmet (Blue Mosque)

The Sultanahmet Camii (the Blue Mosque) is unmissable, pretty much unchanged since 1616, if you don’t count electric lights instead of candles, and a PA system on the minarets to assist the Imam’s call to prayer. It is a truly impressive place, with 20,000 mostly blue tiles (from which the mosque’s Western name derives), a high domed ceiling, and the beautiful Arabic script found in all mosques. Even we infidels found this a profoundly moving place –  providing you can overlook the “cover all flesh” and “stay up the back, behind the screens” rules that apply to  women.

Iznik tiles in the Blue Mosque

Iznik tiles in the Blue Mosque

 

Blue Mosque ceiling

Blue Mosque ceiling

Then on to Hagia Sophia, the world’s fifth largest Christian church (in this, it’s third incantation) and built almost 1500 years ago.  It was also a mosque, converted after Mehmet the Conquerer took Constantinople in 1453.  Remarkably, the conversion was quite modest, almost respectful and, as part of the creation of the modern Turkish Republic by Kemal Ataturk in the 1935, it was made a museum, retaining clear evidence of its former roles for two faiths.

Helen & John at Hagia Sophia

Helen & John at Hagia Sophia

Now it was time to plunge into modern Istanbul, and the chaotic, narrow and steep market-streets that surround both the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar, but are far more interesting (and challenging) for visitors than the more formal covered bazaars. Other than undertaking the most intense version of window-shopping imaginable, the main goal for visitors to the market district is to decide which hole-in-the-wall street eatery you are going to choose for lunch, a task we largely handed over to Phil.  We pulled up some tiny stools to a tiny table on the edge of the street and had great mixed kebabs for 32 TL.  Then more market streets till we’d exhausted ourselves, and home for a relax and freshen up.

Ongoing 'Standing Man' protest, Taksim Square

Ongoing ‘Standing Man’ protest, Taksim Square

In the evening we caught the underground funicular on its short run up to Taksim Square, now without the noisy protests, but still full of people.  They stood silently, showing support for the “Standing Man” silent protest that entrances the foreign media, perplexes the police, and frustrates the government with its simplicity. It’s very compelling.

Phil & John on the roof terrace at Mikla

Phil & John on the roof terrace at Mikla

After paying due respect, we headed off down Istiklal Street to the Mamara Pera Hotel and its rooftop Mikla Restaurant.  The stunning views from the rooftop bar included an amazing sunset, and of course an ideal spot for a g & t.  Then it’s down one level to the restaurant, and an equally stunning seven-course tasting menu (225 TL) with matching wines (120 TL). The first course was the unanimous pick of the night – Balik Ekmek (Crispy Sardines, Olive Oil, Bread, Lemon) – two succulent sardine fillets magically attached to wafer-thin toasts, served sail-like on a slotted stone. The night was long and jolly, the food and wine excellent, and the view over Istanbul brilliant all night.  The view got even better when we were moved to the best table in the place, on the corner of the balcony, when those diners finished early.

Mikla's take on a fish sandwich

Mikla’s take on a fish sandwich

Life is good. More to come.

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Erdogan talks tough… and acts tougher!

IMG_1015The ground has shifted enormously re the Taksim/Gezi protests in the last two days, and PM Tayip Erdogan has once again shown that what he says and what he does are two quite different things.

The negotiations in Ankara with representatives of the protesters appeared to have gone reasonably well, with both sides sticking to their positions, but with the PM seeming to give enough room for the protestors to consider ending the occupation of Taksim Square and Gezi Park. The protesters started dismantling some of the barricades.

Then, on Saturday afternoon, Erdogan reverted to his original hard-line position, and demanded that the protestors leave by Sunday evening, or be removed by force. As people poured into the area for what they thought would be a last show of solidarity with those camped in the Park, the police suddenly announced that the crowds had to vacate the area immediately.

Thirty minutes later, with huge force and rubber bullets enhancing the usual tear gas and water cannons, the police attacked en masse, followed closely by bulldozers and workers to remove all traces of the occupation. The street battles went on all night, and apparently there were many injuries.

Ideas market on Istiklal Street

Ideas market on Istiklal Street

We had been in the Square only about an hour before, to begin the Istanbul Passeggiata, a long walk down Istiklal Street. There were swarms of unsuspecting people going the other way, up to the Square, with the only indication of what was to come being the very large numbers of police we saw all around the area.

Accessories market on Istiklal Street

Accessories market on Istiklal Street

By the time we got home, we were unaware that the police had moved in. However the early and more frantic pots and pans soundscape told us something big had happened, and sent us scurrying to Twitter and Al Jazeera (the only English language TV we have) to find out what was happening. It also sent us to the saucepan cupboard so we could join the solidarity sonata.

Pots and pans, 16 June

Pots and pans, 16 June

The protests continued in many parts of Istanbul today, while for its part the government outed an endless array of absurd conspiracy theories (eg, the substantial coverage of the protests by BBC-World and CNN must have been paid for by some hostile foreign interests, proving that the protests were being run by “outsiders”). They also prepared for their own very large rally of Erdogan supporters on the outskirts of the city.

After returning home this afternoon from a great day Kadiköy on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, we heard the unmistakable sound of a demonstration. Right at the end of our street, on the water’s edge, a huge march went past on its way to Dolmabahçe Palace, and the PM’s Istanbul offices.

Protest at Kabataş, Sunday 17 June.

Protest at Kabataş, Sunday 17 June.

The police were there in force, and for quite a while it looked like they would charge, but eventually things calmed down and the protestors dispersed.

As a backdrop to this confrontation, we could see specially decorated ferries on the water carrying Erdogan supporters to his very successful rally.

What seemed most obvious to us was that this political confrontation is far from over.

Democracy this way

Democracy this way

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More chicken feet

Another post from Phil, this time from London:

Today we just had chicken and chips for lunch…

chook pic

Should’ve taken an after-photo as well. The waitress looked at the remains (including gnawed feet), raised an eyebrow and said “impressive”. It was at a place called Tramshed, which sports its very own Damien Hirst artwork suspended from the ceiling.

Tramshed

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Australian treatment of PM an international disgrace

PM picAl jazeera Newshour here in Istanbul has just run an item about the Howard Sattler incident with the Australian Prime Minister (demanding she respond to rumours that her partner is gay because he was a hairdresser). They reported that this was an example of a string of incidents showing sexism and disrespect for the first female Prime Minister of Australia.

[Hangs head in horror and shame.]

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