Thursday, August 27, 2009

Istanbul -- Some of My Fave Spots

The Blue Mosque and the Topkapi Palace seem to get all the tourist attention, certainly for good reason. But on my latest trip to Istanbul, I searched out less popular venues or at least venues that are not tourist meccas.

• Sure, the Grand Bazaar attracts the masses that are searching for the best deals on carpets, souvenirs and knock-off brand-name goods. Instead I browsed the quieter Bookseller's Bazaar and the Old Bedesten section of the Grand Bazaar where I found a 10th century Koran, antique firearms and 18th century urns. And the Spice Market had a very authentic feel. Here, the city's top chefs browse tall pyramids of spices. I even found shops dispensing herbs the way pharmacies fill drug prescriptions. Here you could get potions to treat all manner of ailments, from high cholesterol to asthma.

• While the Blue Mosque is jammed with visitors, Suleymaniye, a 16th century mosque, is as peaceful as can be, at least when I visited one morning. Here, you'll find ornate tile work in the interior and exterior. I spent quite some time sitting in the placid central prayer room that's lighted by a couple of hundred windows.

• The Istanbul Modern Museum sits along the Bosphorus making it a perfect location for fabulous views from their restaurant. They're noted for their pizzas and pastas, including the spicy tagliatelle with shrimp and clams (that's what I ate for lunch). I love modern art and found that I could've spent a couple of hours browsing the extensive collection of contemporary Turkish paintings, sculpture, photography and video installation. I particularly liked the works of Nazmi Ziya, an impressionist painter, and the sufist images of Ergin Inan.

• Two additional museums that I wished I had more time to explore include the Santral Museum, considered one of Istanbul's best art galleries, and the Sakip Sabanci Museum, housed in a mansion that's set on lovely sloping landscaped grounds. The latter is renowned for its calligraphy collection.

• Don't just spend your time on the European side of Istanbul. The Asian side is a must-visit, including Kadikoy where the ferry docks. There I lunched at Ciya, a restaurant serving southern Turkish cuisine. The stew with red cherries was unusually flavorful as was the dried eggplant stuffed with meat and rice. From here I walked to the quieter Moda neighborhood with its narrow lanes, atmospheric cafes and historic buildings.

• I was surprised by Istanbul's array of coffee shops, cafes and bars that provide a quiet respite from the hustle and bustle in this city crammed with more than 12 million people. Interestingly, some cafes are in courtyards so lush that I almost thought I was transported to the country. Others are high above the chaotic traffic. For example, the White Mill Cafe has a shady courtyard on the second floor where I found plenty of people working on their laptops. The upper level of Kahre-6 has a top floor garden with a tiny fountain. My favorite was Limonlu, a cafe with a tree-draped patio where birds twitter. Interestingly, this cafe is accessed via a nondescript building and a dark set of stairs that look like they're leading to a shadowy basement.

• My favorite views were found at 360, a restaurant and bar that's appropriately named for the panoramic views. They may have the best views in the city. And another restaurant-bar with fab views is Leb-i Derya with its floor-to-ceiling windows and skylights. Both venues are very fun night spots.

• Sofyali is a restaurant that's also a popular raki spot. Raki is a grappa-like beverage that's usually served on ice. But it's not all about drinking here. This is the place for mezes, the Turkish appetizers. Here I found wonderful haddock with red pepper, potato puree with green onion, and purslane mixed with garlic and yogurt.

It's hardly all about meat in Istanbul. I found some amazing vegetarian restaurants, such as Zencefil and Sebze Lokantasi where I dined on quiche with artichokes and a cold yogurt soup, and the most amazing slice of pumpkin pie.

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Saturday, August 22, 2009

Secret Packing Tips - Why I Never Check Luggage

This summer I've been attending a lot of networking events, classes and seminars and I've found many people shocked that I could possibly travel for 4+ weeks, as I often do, without ever checking luggage. Interestingly, many express particular surprise because they claim all the women they know travel with a multitude of shoes and changes of clothes, so much so that it requires checking at least one, and sometimes two bags. I've got packing down to an art. One of the secrets: I only travel with two pairs of shoes -- and I get on the plane with one of those pairs. One of the other secrets: almost every item of clothing doubles as something else or is made of a special fabric that can easily be washed and dries in a jiffy. I've guest blogged about my packing tips several months ago. And I think, given the number of discussions I've had this summer on this topic, I should bring it to your attention. Check out the 10 reasons why I never check luggage, including carrying a smallish Mountainsmith Backpack that stores most everything I need for months of walking, biking, hiking, kayaking, urban traveling and even evenings out at restaurants, bars and clubs, as well as a Mountainsmith fannypack that doubles as my purse/day pack and carries all my necessities: wallet, passport, camera, tape recorder, notebooks, aspirin, extra pair of glasses, and so forth.
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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Quiet Coves on Turkey's Bozcaada Island

In the Aegean Sea a short distance off the western coast of Turkey, Bozcaada Island seems to inspire disparate opinions. You can imagine my surprise when I met a couple at breakfast on my first morning and they told me they planned to spend four days and were leaving early because there was nothing to do. Then a few hours later, I met another couple who thought the island was a perfect locale for a summer house. Certainly odd but it all depends on your expectations.
I fall into the "wished I had more time" category of visitor. The best way to get around is by bicycle. Here's what I found while cycling:

1. First, I rented a good mountain bike along the waterfront at Haluk and was surprised when the owner said he'd offer me a complementary glass of wine once I returned the bicycle. (It turned out to be a good glass of wine and, returning the back in the early evening was perfect to sit along the waterfront with the setting sun playing off the waters.)

2. Pedaling west, I found a narrow unsigned lane. This led to a super steep uphill to the top of Goztepe, a 630-foot-high hill with sweeping views of the island and the turquoise waters. I cycled up the first half and then walked the bike the rest of the way up. All along, I was treated to the panoramic views of the patchwork of green landscape, steep sided limestone cliffs and Greek island of Lemnos. (Those who thrive on hair-raising downhills will love the return trip.)

3. Back on the road which saw little traffic, I passed old stone farmhouses with scarecrows standing in the fields.

4. I made a brief detour along a narrow side road that sliced through vineyards. (Bozcaada is noted for its wines. There are six wineries on the island.) This atmospheric path wandered to Cayir, a desolate stretch of sandy beach on the north shore where I could've hung out for hours.

5. The highlight of biking on Bozcaada for me was pedaling through a thick pine forest that seemed to spring out of the blue and then opened up to a long row of wind turbines on the western edge of the island. These produce a whopping 30 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year. Unbelievable, but expected especially when you visit the island and feel first-hand that the strong winds never seem to stop blowing.

6. Everyone on the island flocks to Ayazmar Beach but I found two lovely slivers of sand, Sulubahce and Hubbele. Both of these beaches have no facilities but I brought a picnic lunch and enjoyed the low-key vibe with just a couple of other sun bathers in the vicinity at both of these. (Ayazmar, on the other hand, is lined with cafes across the road while the sands couldn't be more overcrowded with lounge chairs, beach blankets and beach umbrellas.)

7. Wherever I biked, I found an abundance of nature, whether limestone cliffs and hills covered in fragrant macchia shrubs, quiet coves or tall

8. My favorite accommodation was Hotel Kaikias where the white-on-white breakfast room offering a sumptuous buffet had the decor of a wedding reception. (There were wild flowers adorning the tables, floor-to-ceiling windows looking out to the sea and an antique chandelier.) Every morning, I'd sample the more than a dozen items -- including five kinds of candied fruits, sesame and lemon cakes, olives, apricots, cherries and plenty more -- and then I'd bring my plates to the outdoor patio and chat with the other guests.

9. Whenever I wanted to know about anything about Bozcaada or if I had a craving for a piece of homemade chocolate cake, I knew where to go: the Cafe at Lisa's. Lisa cooks everything on the menu except the mayonnaise (as she said to me). Whether it's local wines, tasty sandwiches, authentic stir fry, superb coffee frappe, delicious desserts as well as an interesting array of local artwork, this cafe has something for everyone. During the day, I sat under an umbrella outside while at night I settled into a chair in the homey interior with its open kitchen. Lisa, an Australian transplant, is a journalist who write the local newspaper so you can imagine that if you are desperate to know something about Bozcaada, she may be able to help out.
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Sunday, August 9, 2009

Istanbul: A Historic Walking Tour

When I'm visiting a city for the first time, I love prowling around narrow alleyways and roaming in and out of groceries and other shops sometimes with no agenda in mind. But, I'm also very keen on signing up for a small, specialized guided tour that will provide some interesting insights that I might otherwise either not be aware of or that would require toting along books on history, archeology and religion in order to truly feel like I have a handle on the local culture.

In the case of Istanbul, an expansive city bustling with more than 12 million people, an expert tour guide is even more important. Not someone who will take you along to see the usual tourist haunts, telling you what you'd find in any guidebook. No. I wanted someone who is specialized and will point out sights that are flying under the radar. And, I wanted a walking tour because that's the only way you will truly see the life of the city.

That's why I took a walking tour with Context Travel, a company with well-educated docents. My guide, Claire, was a historian specializing in medieval history who'd been living in Istanbul for quite some time. Our ultra-small group roamed Istanbul's Balat neighborhood -- and the adjacent Fener neighborhood -- which is very much working class and more on the conservative side, where we saw many women dressed traditionally in long skirts and wearing head scarfs.

Our first stop: the Kariye Museum, a church-cum-mosque-turned museum. Though Kariye sees many tour groups, most race around shooting photos of the 14th century mosaics and frescoes. Too bad, because almost every surface of the ceilings and walls are covered with the ornate works that tell the story of Mary and Jesus. Instead, we spent more than an hour with Claire explaining the personalities in many of the images, what miracles were depicted in the frescoes and the reason for some curious works -- like why Jesus is shown as having been born in a cave, something that's common in the Greek Orthodox religion.

Then we climbed atop the remains of the old fifth century city walls that afforded us with panoramic views of the city. Interestingly, Claire told us that at that time, Istanbul was referred to simply as "the city" -- kinda like Manhattan -- or the "red apple" because of its beauty. We inspect a cylindrical guard town and the remains of where Constantine lived atop the walls because it was the safest place in the city. (He died fighting.) Interestingly, it wasn't until the 15th century that a canon was invented that was able to penetrate these travertine stone and brick walls.

As we wandered along the streets, we passed a woman sitting on a rug outside her house with a mass of sheep's wool beside her. Claire explained the woman is restuffing her mattress with polyester fill and wool that she recently washed, a very common practice. Nearby, a man selling fresh fish, pulled a wagon piled high with tubs of ice and various fish species and a large scale.

We were in luck when we found the tiny Church of the Dagger open -- it's only open when the woman caretaker is available. She unlocked the doors and we found out how its curious name came to be. Claire told us that long ago someone stabbed an icon of Mary and blood poured out. This may be a small church but it's quite ornate with the silverwork image of Mary and baby Jesus -- a dagger protrudes from her robes. And plenty of other silver laden images.

As we strolled the streets, Claire pointed out a series of three-story wood frame houses that date to the 19th century. These are the last remaining ones of this type that were the norm in this part of the city.

Though so many of our wandering were along windy streets, now we found ourselves in a more regimented grid system. This is the old Jewish quarter where we stopped at Ahrida, the oldest synagogue in the city. Claire told us that inside sits the reading platform in the shape of a ship's prow. One interpretation is that it represents how the Jews once traveled here. However, we could only admire the synagogue from the outside -- it requires special permission to enter.

Our final stop is considered the holiest spot in the Greek Orthodox Church. That because the 19th century Church of St. George is the worldwide headquarters of the Orthodox Patriarchate. A lunette depicting St. George can be found inside as well as a gilded altar and a fifth century throne. On our way out, we passed a black-garbed abbot with a cylindrical black hat. Claire whispered to us that it's most likely an abbot and not the Patriarch because his hat would've been much taller.

Yes, you never know what you'll learn on a walking tour.

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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Fun Learning About Marine Creatures

Who wouldn't want to learn about all the oddly shaped, bizarrely colored and uniquely behaved creatures in the world's seas? But sitting in a classroom listening to a marine biologist drone on about facts and figures or pouring over a dense tome may not be the most fun way of going about it. I just posted a feature on the best ways to learn about sea life in the best places in the world. Sure, we all have a favorite place to snorkel, sea kayak or dive. But what if you could find the healthiest marine environs where there are such a diverse array of organisms, you wouldn't want to leave? This is the list of those 12 best places. And not only the best waters but also the best tour operators or accommodations at each site that will assist you in the fun learning experience in as eco-friendly a manner as possible. Check out where these 12 places are located and all the interesting organisms that call these waters home.
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Saturday, August 1, 2009

Walking Turkey's Enchanting Lycian Way

So many people visit Kas, a lovely but well-visited seaside town on Turkey's Mediterranean coast, for the handful of pebbly beaches. But I came for more active outdoor adventures, including checking out a mini section of the Lycian Way. This is a long-distance, 300-some mile path that follows old mule tracks and foot trails that meander through a land once ruled by the Lycians, an ancient civilization that was eventually conquered by the Romans.

The Lycian Way passes through Kas, making it perfect for a half-day trek including lunch on the waterfront at the end. The path is well marked (white/red rectangle on trees, branches, rocks) and I could've easily done the trail on my own. But it's so much better to have a guide who points out interesting archeological or historical features along the way. Dragoman is a reputable adventure tour company in Kas that offers an array of activities, including sea kayaking, diving, cycling and hiking.
My guide, Kevsar, provided walking sticks, a hat and plenty of snacks to nibble on the way. She mentioned that the trail can be done as a loop: one way follows a path that's narrow at times along a cliff ledge where catacombs are visible in the rock face. The other way is more interior. Curiously, as soon as we hit the trail, a shaggy little terrier decides to become our mascot, literally following us the entire way. The dirt path quickly became littered with rocks and boulders as we progress along the trail that provides plenty of ocean views -- the colors of blue and green seeming to change by the minute. We spot Hidayet Bay, a great diving site with shipwrecks to explore. Dense maquis, often fragrant shrubbery and short trees, lined our path and was so thick at times that, without my guide I would've never have spotted the ruins of an ancient town. She pointed out an old stone well, a one person tomb, even an area used for grinding olives and then storing the olive oil.
In the morning heat, we rested under the shade of an olive tree eating some of the cherries from her garden that she packed. Then it was back to the land of boulder hopping as the trail barreled straight down to the sea. After so much silence on the trail -- the only sounds was that of a falcon -- I knew we were close to our destination (Liman Agzi Bay) when we could hear children frolicking in the water.

Unlike Kas' other beaches, this one felt like a well-kept secret. There were few people perched on the pebbly swath. Two small fishing boats were anchored offshore. And a low-key cafe/restaurant, backed by olive trees, sat right along the waterfront. They offered fresh grilled sea bass in an unspoiled setting with the occasional small yacht couldn't be beat.

I had walked briskly to this beach which took just over an hour from Kas so I had plenty of energy to spare. Before ordering lunch, we made our way along another trail to the Don Quijote beach where I found a cozy bar with comfy couches set on stilts right on the beach -- and all shaded by palm leaves. Another place I could've hung out for a few hours. But we continued on to Hidirellez Cave where a precarious set of steps led deeply down into the darkness where my guide said plenty of bats abound.

Back at the cafe, we spent plenty of time sampling their fresh salads and bread along with the fish and then strong Turkish coffee. My guide told me this is her favorite beach in the area. No wonder. It's hard to pull yourself away from so placid a setting. But we did. And, rather than doing the loop -- since I had plenty more things to do in town -- we hopped a petite fishing boat taking us back to Kas. For quite awhile I stared at the sheer rock faces where a couple of catacombs were once carved. Traces of the ancient people who walked these lands.
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