Istanbul Flashback



All over Turkey, one sees these blue eyes - Anatolian talismans, made of glass to ward off evil influences and bring luck.  

Well I had a momentary flashback yesterday.  I came out of a parking garage into the Cambridge Galleria, smack into a kiosk filled with these.  For a minute I thought I was in Twighlight Zone travel warp.  But, when I looked more closely I realized I was in America, where some enterprising soul combined a good luck horse shoe with blue evil eyes.


Silver Scarved Foxes

With my photographer’s eye, I walked the streets of Istanbul, always looking into people’s faces for their genetic story- the high cheek bones from the steppes of Asia, the Roman noses from the Greeks, Hittite and Assyrians, the startling green and blue eyes contrasting with olive skin tones.  

But for all my great observation skills, it took me several days to realize that I appeared to be the only grey haired woman in all of Istanbul.  There were brunettes, black haired beauties, occasional blonds or red heads, and thousands of scarves of every hue.  For all the contentious debate about women’s head covering in France, Turkey and other countries struggling with the role of religion in public life, never have I seen a word about the benefits of never having to publicly acknowledge this inevitable sign of aging.

A Repurposed Dead Book Collection

In 2004 a former warehouse on the shores of the Bosporus was reborn as the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art.Its mission is to promote Turkish creativity in the modern art world.The collection is interesting, but what really grabbed my book-loving, former librarian soul was the use they made of old books.Hundreds of them were suspended from a thirty foot ceiling to create a visual and sound break in what otherwise would have been a cavernous area.It is an absolutely stunning.

I asked the guard for permission to photograph it and was cheerfully and emphatically told it was not allowed.However, some other intrepid stealth photographer, called tresspasskid posted this image on the internet.


Foodie Thoughts From Istanbul

Flying east overnight makes for a very tired first day of vacation, but there is nothing like a warm smiling host to guide you through a marvelous first meal in Istanbul.  Several friendly folks kept us on track until we found the Sultanahmet Fishhouse. 

Our gracious host rearranged tables so the five of us could sit comfortably outside and then guided our dinner selection.  The specialties we selected - an Aegean casserole of fish with fresh chard, tomatoes, olives and cheese and sea bass baked in salt. 

While we enjoying our appetizers accompanied by some fine Cappodocian wine, a small wheeled brown table was positioned not too far from our table.  Curious I thought – not big enough for people to sit at, too small to hold a big tray of plates…  In time I understood that this was the stage for our sea bass. It arrived from the kitchen and was placed on this table.  With a grand flourish it was set aflame and then with great care the inch thick salt covering, was chiseled away to reveal the most tender, sweet and succulent fish I have ever had.  No it was not salty at all   It was melt in your mouth perfection.  Seafood lovers should not miss this place - http://www.sultanahmetfishhouse.com/

Terra Cotta Crock Pots

Cooking in terra cotta pots is a tradition found all over the globe – China, Germany, Ethiopia, Morocco all have their unique designed pots and Turkey is no exception.

photo courtesy of maxie travel blog

There are the single use terra cotta pots that are sealed for cooking and cracked open for serving.  And then there are crockery pots- round and shaped like our standard 4 -6 quart dutch oven styles.  These are unglazed on the inside.  Soaking them in water assures a steady supply of steam for whatever is cooking inside. 


These well used terra cotta pots are sitting on the counter of the outside kitchen at Aravan Evi, a family owned restaurant and hotel in small village outside of Urgüp.  Here, the three generations of the Yazgan family make you feel like you have come home. 

In the corner of the outdoor kitchen is a traditional round, wood fired oven called a tandir.  Fired by grape vine cuttings, this oven makes that the soups, stews, vegetables and breads that guests rave about.  Our lunch here was local, traditional, elegant, and made by hands that love what they do.  This is a place not to be missed.

Magic Carpets

Some people love to shop, but I am not one of them – unless we are talking about beautiful rugs.  However, I have my lifetime quota and then some, so rug shopping in Turkey was not on my agenda, but it was for some of my travel companions.

Turkish Double KnotMarketing by large companies and cooperatives is pretty slick in Turkey.  It involves an educational component, hospitality and a crew of folks to help prospective buyers close the deal.  Our group visited the Golden Yarn Company in Mustafapasa. Turkish Single Knot The first thing we learned was that the double knotting technique of Turkish carpets is what distinguishes them from Persian, Indian and Chinese carpets.  



In addition, quality Turkish carpets are made with vegetable-dyed wool and silk. Indigo, chamomile, walnut and pomegranate are but a few of the sources that provide the harmonious color tones for these carpets that age with grace.  Carpets made with chemical dyes do not have the same staying power.  It is the difference between a carpet that will last 100 years versus 300 hundred years.

Six narrow looms are set up along the walls where six gracious women demonstrated their skill at tying these double knots.  They come to this company for training and then the company sets them up with looms in their homes and pays them a monthly salary.  Completion of a rug can take from a few months to two years, depending on the size; complexity and how many people are working on it.  Sometimes several family members will work on a single rug. 

Becca gets a chance to try carpet making.

 In another room was a silk making demonstration.  One cocoon can yield up to a mile of silk.  There is a culling process and cocoons that don’t have satisfactory fiber are separated out.  Our tour guide made sure to explain how nothing is wasted.  At the end of silk process the chickens get the used cocoons and worms inside.  Then the people eat the chickens… 

This little tour is followed by tea, coffee or local wine and then the rugs come out and we are shown the difference between kilims and rugs, wool on cotton, wool on wool and silk carpets.  There is even a demonstration of the Turkish flying carpet, as a 3 foot round rug is hurled into space and it twirls and lands gracefully on the floor with no wrinkles.

 But I saw my own magic carpet almost flying on a narrow street in Istanbul.  Walking down a steep, very old cobbled street near the university of Fine Arts, I looked up to see the source of the whumppping sound and found two women, one young and one not so young shaking out their own carpets…

From City To Country

Cappadocia is the heart of ancient Anatolia. It is a landscape that is both familiar and fantastical.  Bounded by three long extinct volcanoes rising 12,000 feet, it is a mix of high plain and gentle rolling hills. On first glance it is an arid landscape of mesas familiar to travelers through the American west.  But it is only dry on this June day.  In winter this area is covered in snow, giving it a rich supply of water that supports a world of green.  The soil that appears dry and ashen is really volcanic soil textured with humus fertilized with pigeon and bat guano. Imagine the striated mesa tops of Utah surrounded by lush fields of vegetables, wheat and grapes. And while Cappadocia is not the part of Turkey known for its fruit growing, cherry and apricot trees are everywhere -strategically placed in small family fields and yards.

In the US both large scale agriculture and small family gardens are almost always square and rectangular.  Here, Turkey’s non-linear aesthetic and a graceful accommodation to the landscape are at play. Those uneven mesa tops don’t come in tidy squares, so the fields follow the land, as do the graceful arcs of the plantings.

As we drive from the airport and our eyes adjust from an urban to rural landscape, the gardeners in our group feast on the display of wildflowers.  A few turns down some windy roads and we are in Balsac – a landscape uniquely Cappadocian.  This is the home of the fairy chimneys.  Formations of yellow-white toufa stone topped with dark volcanic basalt.  Wildflowers are growing everywhere in this strange landscape.

 After a two days in Cappodocia, we decide that the royal blue stunners we have been seeing are a form of statice, but I need the help of one you gardening guru’s out there to identify this pea-like flower.


Creative Land Use

In a city of fourteen million, every piece of real estate is valuable, and unlike our strict zoning laws, nothing so petty as food or fire safety laws gets in the way of the Turkish entrepreneurial spirit.  A new subway stop is being built just down the street from our hotel and at the moment it is nothing more than a giant excavation, where clearly something far more attractive once existed.  But not to worry, the restaurant owners across the street, simply took the opportunity to create some more open air dining space by hanging some rugs and lamps to block the construction site view- and voila- seating for 30 more….

An even more impressive land use is the Galata bridge which crosses the The Golden Horn, a deep bay in the Sea of Mamara.  It’s name comes from the color of the water at sunset.  This bridge doesn’t just provide a connection for cars and buses to reach the two sides of the city, it is also a prime fishing spot for the locals, and the entire area under the bridge is filled with restaurants taking advantage of the spectacular view of the city’s seven hills adorned with its palaces and magnificent mosques. 

While seating eating in one of these restaurants we watched a lure from a fisherman above nearly catch more than one passer by on the restaurant deck.  That was amusing, but what was really great was watching “fish and loaves” restaurants next to the pier.  These are three elaborately decorated small wooden ships that are used as outdoor kitchens for a standing room only crowd of dinners. 

The customers sit at picnic tables on the pier and the chefs cook the fish and prepare the salad in the kitchen boats which do some serious rolling from the wakes of the big ferry boats.  We’re not talking about a  little dip, we’re talking about 5 & 6 foot swells, but it seems to have no effect on the grillmasters who just man the barbeques.  Yelling orders and handing finished orders over across the open water - Turkish style fast food goes on without a hitch – giant pieces loaves of bread filled to the brim with lettuce & freshly fried fish from the rolling kitchen.  Smelled wonderful…

Rock the boat


I am standing still- this boats devoted to grilling fresh caught fish from the Bosporus are rolling on the wakes of big ferry boats. Look at Number 2 in the line.


Something You Don't Need


For all their entrepreneurial spirit, there is a lack of visual advertising here in Istanbul that is most refreshing. Even though some folks had told me they found Turkish sales tactics aggressive, I have found it to be easy enough to smile and say no.  

One of the most creative sales pitches I heard was from a friendly gentleman at a shop near our hotel.  As we walked past with laughing eyes he said to us, 
“Please come in ladies and buy something you don’t need.”

Turkish Style

 I found it very interesting that in this vibrant city there was a wide range of styles of dress for women and a much narrower one for men.  That first morning as Sally and I sat drinking turkish coffee watching people getting off the trains and trams, what was striking was the lack of bright tee shirts and baggy pants on men.  Regardless of age, most wore dark pants with a polo or button down style shirt, perhaps a suit, as they headed off to work in the morning bustle.  This held true in the markets, museums, and out in the countryside of Cappodocia.  If you were to do a Boston and Istanbul comparison, the guys in Istanbul would make Bostonians look flashy.

Turkish women on the other hand have a wide spectrum of clothing styles from tight shorts and tank tops to full burkas.  What is striking however is the quiet style - Gucci purses to go with elaborate black beaded Burkas, beautiful head scarves coordinated with pants, shoes, belts and sweaters.  The evening of our farewell dinner we went to a swanky island restaurant floating on the Bosporus.  A wedding party was in progress and the female guests wore dresses and shoes that were stunning, sexy, and stylish- yet not over the top.  It reminded me of how women dressed when I was a child and my mother had a closet full of beautiful clothes for every event.  It is lifestyle that skipped me completely, my daughter embraces and is alive and well in Istanbul.

Modern Day Istanbul

While tourists flock to the historic district of Istanbul to see the palaces, mosques and other historic sites, they often miss the chance to see modern day Istanbul. In a country where half the people are under 35 there is a remarkable energy and endless development. The connection of past and present was very evident as we wondered through narrow cobbled streets around Galata Tower filled with hand made clothing stores. 

The aesthetic of this crossroads of east and west could be seen in the beautifully designed dresses and traditional Turkish pants.  Made from fabrics with subtle vegetable dye colors in draping forms – this apparel was both modest and revealing, and unlike anything we see in our world of mass marketing clothing made in China.

We met designers and salespeople, all telling us that their mothers did some of the work. While this not true in every case, it is clear that the artistry and craftsmanship comes from close at hand.  Beautiful handmade shoes can be found in these shops and no doubt you could find someone to make them for you.

Look at the dress on this beautiful dress -
the silver buttons at the shoulder
crochet work in the torso, subtle colors....mmmmmm