A breath of fresh air in Antakya & İskenderun

There is no other city quite like Istanbul, but despite its aching beauty, a city of 15 million can be incredibly overwhelming. Every so often, all Istanbul residents – myself included – get an urge to escape the city to catch one’s breath and rejuvenate the soul. For me, I usually head straight to Bursa, but I was happy to change it up for a weekend in Antakya, İskenderun and Adana with friends, Nazlı and Berk. A brief stay on the Mediterranean Sea, and I returned to Istanbul feeling refreshed and relaxed with a large bag of citrus to bring some joy to the Istanbul winter.

We landed in Adana early on Saturday morning and started off the weekend with breakfast at Can Cafe en route to Antakya. After an impossibly long wait, our grumbling tummies were rewarded with a spread of magnificent proportions including all the standard Turkish breakfast items, plus many more: various spiced and dried cheeses drizzled in olive oil, spicy ezme-like breakfast salads, breakfast-style eggplant dishes, and finally, tahini for the sweet tooth. We were surprised when the waitress asked whether we wanted normal tea or kaçak çay, tea smuggled from across the border. We opted for the kaçak çay which we found richer and deeper in color.

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Breakfast spread minus the potatoes and eggs

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The view from the breakfast cafe

After we had our fill, we headed straight for Antakya where we explored the city’s covered bazaar, a testament to Antakya’s reputation as a food lover’s mecca. Not only did we stock up on spices and the dried cheeses from breakfast, I witnessed the making of künefe, one of my all-time favorite Turkish desserts, and tasted lahmacun piping hot from the oven.

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Preparing strands of kadayıf to be used in künefe

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Finished kadayıf ready to be assembled

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A künefe workshop with baked künefe in the foreground

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A portion of cheesy künefe soaked in syrup at Petek Pastanesi in İskenderun

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Fresh bread and lahmacun from the oven in Antakya’s bazaar

In the evening, we dined at Şirinyer Balık Restoranı in İskenderun, a city once known as Alexandretta, or “Little Alexandria” as Nazlı, a Greek aficionado, patiently informed us. The selection of mezes at Şirinyer was huge and very much Middle Eastern-inspired; we opted for hummus topped with olive oil (hummus with butter was also an option), muhammara (red pepper & walnut dip), and Ali Nazik (fried eggplant in garlic yogurt, topped with minced meat). We followed the mezes with fried calamari and one large lagos fish which the waiter recommended we order fried, not grilled.

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A vast meze selection at Şirinyer. Muhammara is front and center.

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Fried calamari

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Lagos

The Ali Nazik was a hit; I had only previously had it served kebap-style, but the meze version was delightful. The heat of the muhammara was deceptive, light on walnuts but packed with the red pepper the region is so famous for, the heat crept up on you when you were least expecting it. The lagos turned out to be an extremely meaty fish with plenty to go around for the three of us. The waiter did, however, look disappointed when we left the head; I momentarily felt ashamed that none of us were willing to tackle it, but as soon as a plate of fresh fruit was set in front of us, we quickly forgot.

On Sunday morning in İskenderun, we had breakfast at the open buffet in one of the city’s three Petek Patisseries. We were served toasted bread topped with rosemary and drizzled with olive oil, and helped ourselves to an abundance of fresh herbs, mücver stuffed with greens, za’atar in olive oil, menemen deep red with ripe peppers, and yogurt thick as cheese. We were in food heaven, and over a glass of fresh mango juice for Nazlı and several cups of tea for me, we hatched a plan for a book together.

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One table from Petek Patisserie’s open buffet breakfast with fresh herbs, thick yogurt, regional cheeses, olives, and jams. A separate table offered baked goods and hot dishes.

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The İskenderun beach near Şirinyer

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Nazlı and Berk picking lemons

I found İskenderun to be a positively charming city nestled on the Mediterranean coast at the foot of the Nur (Amanos) mountains. Even in December, the gardens were lush with lemons and oranges, and despite the howling wind at night, the weather was perfect for a morning walk along the seaside. Christmas trees made of macaroons seemed to be on every street corner and the spirit of a Mediterranean Christmas hung in the air. The region’s diverse mix of religions and its rich history of French and Syrian influence have surely left its mark.

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Mountains and sea in İskenderun’s city center

Back in Istanbul, I returned to the hustle and bustle of the city, heaving my bag of  lemons and oranges along with me, just as all Istanbulites do after a weekend in the countryside.

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