The eyesore seen from Yoros Castle

Controversial construction projects have become one of the defining marks of Erdogan’s reign, and the Third Bosphorus Bridge is perhaps the most conspicuous of them all although the recent presidential palace has certainly garnered its fair share of attention. Critics say the 3rd bridge will irreparably damage the environment and surrounding natural area, not to mention it will cast an iron silhouette over the once pristine view of the waters where the Bosphorus and Black Sea meet. Those wild boars running around Istanbul? You can also chalk that up to the 3rd bridge.

My first view of the infamous bridge was when my friend Heidi  was visiting from the States. Instead of doing the typical tourist activities, we escaped the city and headed out to Anadolu Kavağı to see Yoros Castle. It was a gorgeous May day (the best time of year to visit Istanbul), the sun high and weather breezy. We took a ferry from Sariyer which turned out to be only a short 5 minute jaunt across the Bosphorus and found ourselves in the sleepy fishing village of Anadolu Kavağı. Yoros Castle is located uphill from the main square and instead of hiking our way up, we flagged a taxi and paid a premium price for the 5 minute ride. I recommend doing the same.


The ferry landing at Anadolu Kavağı

Once we arrived at Yoros, I was surprised to find that there was no official museum kiosk; instead, people were haphazardly milling around. One area – the side facing the water – had been gated off, and a man who was neither in uniform nor wearing an official tour guide badge appeared to be the guardian of this gate. Every 15 minutes or so he would let a handful of people pass to the other side, close the gate behind them, and give them just enough time to take in the view and snap a few photos before signaling to them that it was time to wrap up.


The ruins of Yoros Castle

From the side of Yoros which faces the water, one has a clear view of the construction of the 3rd bridge. The picture below was taken in May 2014 and one can see that already a good deal of green space has been cleared and the supports erected. .


The view of the 3rd bridge from Yoros Castle


The view coming down from Yoros Castle

On the way down, we passed a multitude of cafes with great views but shady menus (i.e. the kind with no prices). We snapped some pictures but passed on what I assume were extremely overpriced mezzes and drinks.


Delicious fried mussels at Kafkas Cafe & Restaurant, located right at the main square and ferry landing

Back in the center of Anadolu Kavağı, we had fried mussels and fish sandwiches at Kafkas Cafe & Restaurant. The fried mussels were delicious, light and crispy, and hot from the grill. Whenever I think about the best fried mussels in Istanbul, Kafkas is the first place that comes to mind. Heidi who hails from the land of seafood has vowed to bring fried mussels to the East Coast. I think it’s guaranteed to be a hit.


Heidi finds a little munchkin in AnadoluKavağı

How to get there:

From Beşiktaş, take a minibüs/dolmuş from Barbaros Blvd to the Sariyer iskele and then a ferry from Sariyer to Anadolu Kavağı. The ferry doesn’t run frequently so do check the schedule ahead of time otherwise you may find yourself in Sariyer with hours to spare.


Learning to make Iznik tiles in Bursa’s Yeniceabat village

One of the reasons I love Istanbul is because there is always something new to explore – a new neighborhood or a new restaurant – the possibilities are endless. Bursa, on the other hand, has always been a place of familiarity for me. I’ve memorized the bus and dolmuş routes, I know the downtown area like the back of my hand, and I don’t get the same sense of overwhelmingness that tends to befall me in Istanbul from time to time. In fact, I thought I had explored every nook and cranny of Bursa until I visited Yeniceabat village earlier this summer.

The village is discreetly tucked away behind Bursa’s otogar (bus depot) and despite all the times I took buses to Istanbul and Ordu, I never knew the village existed, and even more surprisingly, neither did Gurkan. We were in Bursa a few weekends ago for a mini-holiday, and we had plans to visit our good friend Cat who is leading this year’s NSLI-Youth program – a program which I led in 2012 and I highly recommend to any American high school students aspiring to learn Turkish or other critical need languages.

Cat was taking her students on a field trip to nearby Iznik (Nicaea), and on the way out of Bursa, they had planned to stop at an Iznik tile workshop in Yeniceabat. After perusing a map, Gurkan and I were surprised to find ourselves only a five minute drive from Yeniceabat – we had been having coffee at Anatolium waiting for Cat’s call. We headed out to the village and despite it’s deserted appearance, we found it was home to not just one, but three different tile workshops. One of the NSLI-Youth drivers met us on the main village road, jumped in the car and directed us to the correct workshop (take a right at the kiraathane located on the main village road).

When we arrived, the workshop was bustling with activity. One group of students was milling around outside chatting, another was hand painting tiles in the workshop, and still another was preparing for a tour of the kiln room. Gurkan and I chatted with one of the artisans and saw how the tiles were glazed and fired. We learned that the workshop uses quartz which is more difficult to work with (it shrinks when fired and needs to be done in small batches) but of higher quality than the material most workshops use.


Glazing tiles in the kiln room


Dipping tiles in the glaze


A close-up of some traditional Iznik designs


A variety of pieces waiting to be glazed and fired

I noticed the workshop had a small showroom off to one side, and Gurkan managed to persuade one of the workers to let us have a look inside. It was a very small space but had pottery stacked in all corners and spread across the floor. On some of the pieces, we were surprised to find Paşabahçe – one of my favorite Turkish home goods store – written underneath. According to the worker, the workshop sells their items to Paşabahçe which in turn sells them in their retail locations at three times the price. Although I would have loved to fill up a whole box to take back with me to Istanbul, I used my discretion and ended up purchasing just a couple pieces for wedding gifts.


Painting pomegranates with Iznik designs


The workshop’s small showroom

Afterwards, Cat and I talked with one of the workers who I assumed was the owner about the possibility of returning in the fall for informal classes for just the two of us. At first, he seemed hesitant – the art of making tiles isn’t just a hobby, something you can learn over a few days he said – but he softened up as the day went on. Maybe Cat and I will get our very own private Iznik tile class after all.


Even the outside of the workshop is stacked high with pottery



Armenian-inspired Jash Istanbul

The place: Jash
The offerings: Huge selection of mezzes, entrees, and drinks
Price range: 12-20 for mezzes, 26-40 for entrees
The pros: Delicious mezzes, great hospitality, live music
The cons: The main entrees paled in comparison to the mezze selection

According to its website, Jash specializes in  traditional Istanbul cuisine. It’s a fair description, but perhaps, not quite correct. Most people know Jash as an Armenian restaurant, or at the very least, an Armenian-inspired restaurant. Sure it serves the standard mezze selections found in any Istanbul meyhane, but its Armenian owner has also added a few Armenian specialities to the menu, including topik which my readers will already be familiar with. A visitor to Turkey may not easily pick up on the Armenian influence, but a resident of Turkey would understand from the decorations (a small Jesus hangs by the front door) or the clientele (we met the owner’s Armenian cousins who were visiting from Montreal).

In many ways, this restaurant feels like you are eating in someone’s home not unlike the familial atmosphere at The Galata House. Like the Galata House, Jash also has an old-time feel to it, but in opinion, it’s done even better. Antique decorations, family photographs, and feel-good hospitality abound. Mari(a), the owner is very hands-on, she gave us recommendations when ordering, asked us what we thought of our selections, and went from table to table to make sure all her guests were happy. The restaurant has a good amount of seating with a downstairs and upstairs as well as an outdoor patio area – but as this place is quite popular, a reservation is a must. You can tell from the picture below that we were the first guests of the evening besides one large group of tourists sitting outside. Shame on us for arriving so early to a meyhane, but someone had some plans that he had to set in motion!


Jash is know for its mezzes and they did not disappoint. I had my heart set on the topik so we ordered that along with cerkez tavugu (literally translated as Circassian chicken this dish is a special chicken salad with walnuts), sarma (stuffed grape leaves), and melon to go with our raki. The topik was among the best I’ve ever had and it was well worth the 20 TL price tag which I had originally found pricey. The sarma, too, were delicious and extremely fresh. I was surprised to find that they were much better than any homemade sarma I’d ever had – the chef at Jash certainly knows what he is doing. The chicken salad was also good but the portion a bit small. I took a look at a few other mezzes as waiters were serving them, and the midya dolma will definitely be on my list of things to order next time. They were HUGE and overflowing with rice stuffing.


From L to R: melon, chicken salad, topik, and sarma

By the time our main entrees came, we both agreed that we were already quite full and it probably wasn’t necessary to order two full entrees (next time, we are sticking to the mezzes). I tried the harisa which is only available on the weekends and similar to traditional Turkish keskek which is made with chicken and wheat. Gurkan tried a kofte dish with meatballs on toasted bread with tomato sauce poured over and yogurt on the side. The concept was similar to Bursa’s pideli kofte, but not quite as tasty in our opinion. In the grand scheme of things, we weren’t overly impressed with the main entrees but it may be because nothing could compare to the delicious selection of mezzes we had just devoured.


Harisa, similar to keskek

Jash has an accordion player that starts to play in the evenings around 8 p.m. On the night we were there, he took up a place outside on the patio to play. The real surprise of the evening was when the accordion player came over to our table and Gurkan PROPOSED. That’s right, he proposed in Jash and I said Yes! Everyone in the restaurant was clapping for us and snapping photos. After everything had calmed down a bit and we had gone back to our table, guests continued to congratulate us from their tables and one couple even beckoned us over to them in order to wish us well in life. I’m telling you this place has the coolest atmosphere. Mari also came over with little gifts including a bookmark and bag holder with the restaurant’s name on them, and we told her we’ll be back every year to celebrate (as long as we are in Turkey). Gurkan proposed on the longest day of the year, so it shouldn’t be too hard for us to remember our annual date at Jash.

How to get there:

Jash is centrally located and easily accessible from Kabatas or Taksim. In typical Istanbul fashion, it rained the evening we visited, so we went by taxi which may also be a good idea for first time visitors since Jash is tucked away in Cihangir.

On the Black Sea at Ağva and Şile

Last weekend was another rainy Istanbul weekend (thank goodness because the newspapers are forecasting a major drought this summer), and our roommates Nazlı and Berk had the luck of having a rental car on hand after attending a wedding the evening before. We woke up early and Nazlı told us we were heading out on a road trip. To where I asked? Ağva and Şile. I didn’t know much about either, but I jumped in the car still half asleep and we were soon on our way to Kurtköy to pick up our friend Başak.


The usual suspects: Nazlı, Berk, Gürkan and Başak

We took a few wrong turns on the way from Kurtköy to Ağva, but eventually ended up in Ağva just in time for breakfast. The rain hadn’t let up, so we found a rustic cafe along the river flowing into the sea. The cafes were set up on the pier, and the space between the cafes and the river was home to a number of furry critters. At first, we had no idea they were there until a few random paws started to reach up over the ledge.


Puppy paws trying to get into the cafe


The whole clan comes out to play

After breakfast, we walked out to the lighthouse which is what everyone visiting Ağva on that rainy morning was doing. It’s surprising how one can live surrounded by water in Istanbul and never have a chance to enjoy it, so it was a real treat to feel and hear the sea in Ağva. We didn’t come prepared to go swimming but we were able to stick our feet in, and it was incredibly refreshing.


Heading out to the lighthouse


The Ağva hangout


The beach at Ağva

Our next stop was the İmrenli Koyu Plajı, a gorgeous beach in a semi-protected cove. We grabbed refreshments from the nearby convenience store and lounged around on the beach enjoying the feel of sand and the first rays of summer.


Nazlı, Berk, and I on the beach at İmrenli Koyu beach

Next was Şile’s Saklıgöl (Hidden Lake) which was aptly named. The lake had several cafes around it as well as a walking path. A perfect place for a peaceful family outing.


Cafes line the lake


A peak at Saklıgöl through the trees

Lastly, we stopped in Şile for fish and fried mussels (I had been craving midya tava all day!). The restaurant we ate it had a lovely view overlooking the Şile harbor, and afterwards, we walked on the pier among the fishing boats. I also learned about the famous Şile bezi or Şile cloth, a light woven gauze-like cloth ideal for the summer heat.


The Şile harbor


Dusk falls on Şile

Where is Şile? Located on the Black Sea, Şile is approximately an hour and a half outside of Istanbul. We headed to Ağva first, followed by İmrenli Koyu Plajı, Saklıgöl, and finally the town of Şile. When the weather is nice, both Ağva and Şile turn into summer resort towns, full to the brim with people. We were lucky to visit before the summer season officially started.

The verdict is in on Bursa’s Mahkeme Hamamı

One of my best friends, Heidi, was in town for the week, and of course, it wouldn’t be a proper Turkey vacation without a visit to Bursa. We went for the day on the new BUDO ferry line direct from Kabataş to Mudayna which cost us 40 TL/person round-trip. For those who live in Beşiktaş, the BUDO ferry is a huge improvement. Previously, we would take the İDO ferry from Yenikapı in the wee hours of the morning. All too often, we missed the bus from our neighborhood, or more than often than not, it never came. The result? We would end up taking a taxi to Yenikapı which canceled out the cheap cost of the İDO ferry tickets.

Overall, we were pleased with the new BUDO ferry and landing in Mudayna (not Güzelyalı) was a nice surprise. We made our way downtown on one of the new, spiffy city buses, felt the earthquake in one of Bursa’s old wooden buildings, and headed to the Mahkeme Hamamı after an ample fill of gözleme. As everyone knows, Bursa is famous for Turkish baths especially those found in the Çekirge district. Last time, my roommate Nazlı and I had gone to the Kervansaray hamam, arguably Bursa’s most famous hamam. We were disappointed to find the the women’s section small and crowded, the service dismal and the massage unimpressive. Gürkan, however, who had gone to the men’s section had come out a new man. He couldn’t stop singing Kervansaray’s praises – a gorgeous hamam and a personal attendant all to himself. Without fail, the men’s sections are always the better of the two (unless it’s one hamam with different visiting hours for men and women) – something which confounds me  since hamam culture seems to be more prevalent among the country’s females.

After that last experience, I knew I would never return to Kervansaray (not to mention it’s also one of the most expensive baths in Bursa). I did however have a pleasant memory of Mahkeme Hamamı (İbrahim Paşa Hamamı) which had been recently restored and reopened by Bursa’s Büyükşehir Belediyesi, the local municipality. While not in Çekirge, Mahkeme Hamamı is centrally located in Heykel on the way to Karabash-i Veli, Bursa’s whirling dervish lodge. The first time I visited was with my NSLI-Youth students in 2012 – the municipality had opened the hamam especially for us during Ramadan and waived the entrance fee for the entire group. Although not a huge fan of the local government, it was certainly a nice gesture and not easily forgotten.

Mahkeme Hamamı

That’s why Heidi and I also opted for a visit to Mahkeme Hamamı instead of one of the more well-known baths in Çekirge. We called ahead for the prices (very reasonable!) and were surprised to find that Mahkeme Hamamı only had a women’s section which meant Gürkan was on his own for the afternoon. We rang the doorbell and we were warmly greeted by a lady who later introduced herself as Ayşe. She showed us to a private dressing room with two lounge chairs and locked cabinets for our valuables. I explained we had come from Istanbul and didn’t have towels, peştemal, or shampoo, and Ayşe appeared with all the items very clearly explaining the prices of each to me. She also explained the bath process which you can read about here. Although I’ve been to several baths over the years, I appreciate it when they take the time to explain the process to you. Every hamam has its own culture and etiquette, and it can be awkward if you make a faux pas.

Entrance to the women’s section

We were given our own pair of wooden hamam slippers to wear and soon ushered into the bath. Imagine my surprise when we opened the door to find only two other women inside the hamam on a Saturday afternoon. Compared to 50+ women in Kervansaray’s one room, we had a huge hamam with multiple smaller rooms all to ourselves.  We were in hamam heaven. Heidi and I spread out in one of the smaller, more private rooms, soaking up the heat and relaxing. After 20 minutes or so, Ayşe recommended that we go to another room – the extra hot room – so that our skin would be ready for the impending kese scrub. Until I entered the hot room that day, I had never understood why people wore slippers in the bath, but the marble floors were so hot that I had no option but to manuever in the clog-like slippers. The benches were similarly hot and sitting down was quite a task. We lasted all about 10 minutes before heading back to the main hamam room.

Turkish bath accessories

It was soon our turn for kese and massage. Mahkeme Hamamı does both on a padded massage table rather than the marble slab. In my opinion, the massage table is definitely the way to go because otherwise – if the massage is good – you feel like you’re being slammed into the hardest piece of rock you’ve ever felt. Here the skin scrub was  done very thoroughly (face scrub optional) and the massage was out-of-this-world amazing. From out of nowhere, Ayşe appeared with a gigantic loofah full of bubbles, and I soon found myself swimming in bubbles on the massage table (she had told me ahead of time that she was going to do a very köpüklü massage for us). The massage was just what I needed. Ayşe took it extremely seriously and the amount of pressure she used was spot on. Covered in bubbles, I admired the sun shining through the hamam’s dome, and took note that this hamam had natural light unlike others I had visited.

After the massages, we were completely wiped out and had only enough energy to shampoo and head back out to the resting area. We bundled up in towels, found our lounge chairs, and Ayse appeared with our gazoz. She slid the curtains closed, we switched the lights out, and finally, we rested. I could have stayed the whole day but there was silk to buy and friends to meet, so our rest was cut prematurely short.

Next time you find yourself in Bursa, skip the Çekirge hamams and try this one! You won’t be disappointed.


Bursa’s Uludağ gazoz

Mahkeme Hamamı prices:

Entrance: 15 TL
Skin scrub (kese): 10 TL
Massage: 10 TL
Peştemal: Free
Towels: 3 TL
Shampoo: 2 TL
Beverages available
Tip – up to you!


A day at the Princes’ Islands

Luckily we just barely made the 7:40 pm ferry to Büyükada – the largest of the Princes’ Islands – one Friday evening after work. Our friends had given us a night at Büyükada’s Butik Ada Hotel as a gift for Gurkan’s birthday. We were both looking forward to the weekend – not only was it a chance to get out of the center of Istanbul but it was also an opportunity spend time on the islands in the off-season. Last time we visited in July only to find the weather  scorching hot and the island crawling with tourists.

After a two hour ferry ride and almost getting off at the wrong island (Gurkan’s fault, not mine), we arrived at Büyükada around 9:30 p.m. The ferry hardly any people on it, and when we landed, we were suprised to find the island similarly quiet. Most of the restaurants and cafes had already closed their doors for the day. We checked into our hotel (a lengthy process as it seemed the guy manning the desk was not familiar with checking in a foreigner; here, they ask for every little detail from your father and mother’s names to your place of birth).

We did a quick once over off the room (meh, definitely needed some redecorating but the location couldn’t have been better) and then headed out to find somewhere to eat. We followed the sound of music and found ourselves in front of Hile Balık. The prices seemed reasonable and a variety of fish were on the display menu; however, after sitting down the waiter informed us they had nothing left except for hamsi (anchovies) and another small type of fish. Even though I don’t care for the small fish, we stayed put and ordered  since it was unlikely we could find another place open at that hour. Unfortunately, the portions were small and the fish not that great. We agreed that it was an unsatisfying meal and if it hadn’t been for the basket of bread I had eaten, surely I would have left hungry. At least the table next to us had already had a few rounds of raki and were starting to dance about the restaurant so the  entertainmnet was far from lacking. We had a nice after-dinner walk in the March stillness and I was happy to find that the island’s street dogs were very friendly and loving.


This guy was so cute I was tempted to take him home


Butik Ada – great location but not so great interior decorating


Horses line up for the day’s taxi rides (there are no cars on the island)

In the morning, we had a quick breakfast at the hotel and rented bikes to go out to Yörük Ali beach, a good couple of miles from the main part of the island. As anyone who knows me knows, I am not one for bike riding. It’s not that I don’t like it, it’s just that I am not good at it especially when it comes to hills and we were on a hilly island. After I got over my initial fear of biking through all the people and horse-drawn carts, we were out of the bustling center and on our way to Yörük Ali.

The beach was the highlight of the day. We didnt have to pay an entrance fee because it was in the off-season and we had the whole place to ourselves. We walked out to the pier, sat down and enjoyed the view (and checked out the jelly fish underneath us). We also got to spend time with the cafe owner’s dog and some wandering horses who weren’t on phaeton duty for the day. After an hour or so, we pushed our bikes up the large hill and headed back to the center where we only ended up paying 10 TL for the two bikes. Best deal of Büyükada hands down! The deal was even sweeter when I noticed that I could get a kağıt helva ice cream sandwich, one of my favorite summer desserts, nearby.


Heading out to the pier at Yoruk Ali beach


The views at Yoruk Ali


A lot of work to be done before the beach is ready for the summer


Paddle boats wait for the summer


An old cart along the path to the beach


Enjoying their day off


yum yum! Ice cream between kagit helva

Our island eating adventures took a downhill turn when we choose a restaurant overlooking the harbor for afternoon refreshments. We ordered mussels which strangely enough never came, and although, we were content with our selections of mezzes, we were appalled to find that the waiter had tacked on an exorbitant service charge and fee for bread on the bill. Charging for bread at a mezze restaurant is unheard of in Turkey, and considering the service was quite poor, we found it pretentious of them to tack on the service charge (I mean, c’mon, they never brought part of the order).


The view overlooking the harbor

After taking once last walk to admire the beautiful old houses on the island, we hopped on the ferry and headed back home to Besiktas.


My dream house


Heading to the ferry terminal for our trip home

Lessons learned: Next time, we’re just renting bikes and packing a picnic to eat at one of the picnic areas overlooking the sea (there is one on the road right before you reach Yörük Ali beach). Unless you’re getting a kağıt helva ice cream sandwich, the restaurants are extremely touristy and overpriced. In fact, next time we’re going to skip Büyükada altogether and head to Burgazada, the former residence of Sait Faik, one of my favorite Turkish writers.

Other things to do: On a trip to Büyükada last summer, we walked up to the Eski Rum Yetimhanesi (Prinkipo Greek Orthodox orphanage) located at the top of the island in a forest. If you ask any of the locals, they can point you in the right direction. In my opinion, it’s definitely worth the hike. Although it’s gated off with no trespassing signs, it’s really a sight to see and I can’t help but imagine the stories the walls hold. If you’re crafty, maybe you can even sneak in – check out these pics.


The 2-hour ride home

The Turkish breakfast of champions

You know you’ve grown accustomed to life in Turkey when you can’t imagine starting your weekend without a large Turkish breakfast. You stock up on all the goods at your local bazaar and invite friends over so it can be enjoyed by all. Custom has it that your guests will reciprocate and host you for breakfast in the future.

One of my Turkish breakfast rules is that it should be enjoyed at home not at a restaurant. I refrain from eating breakfast out because 1) it’s almost never worth the price and 2) the taste and quality just isn’t as good as a breakfast prepared at home especially if you live with friends like I do whose parents are always sending goodies from their hometowns.

There is, however, one exception to the no-breakfast out rule, and that is breakfast under the historical Cinar Tree in Bursa’s Inkaya village. The Cinar Tree (English: Plane Tree) itself is a destination – the tree’s plaque says it’s 600 years old and it’s so large that it requires metal supports to hold up its branches in some places. Busloads of Turkish tourists and schoolchildren are always milling around, taking group pictures, and snacking on gozleme under the tree.

The breakfasts are large and one breakfast is plenty for two people (order one and ask for service for two). Each breakfast comes with a caydanlik of tea, a hardboiled egg, a variety of cheeses, butter, cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, kaymak with honey and walnuts, kahvalti saltca (a spread of tomato paste, walnuts, garlic and olive oil), jam, seasonal fruit, and of course, a basket of bread. With a group of people, I like to order the village-style eggs with sucuk (spicy pork-less sausage) as well. The eggs come runny and the sucuk is high quality.


The breakfast spread at Cinar


Village eggs with sucuk

After breakfast, I always end up in the restaurant’s kitchen where I like to fill up my jars from home with the restaurant’s kahvalti salca. Although it’s easy to find in Istanbul, I haven’t found anything comparable to the kahvalti saltca served at the Cinar Tree. You can also fill up on jam, and the restaurant’s quince jam is especially good.

Don’t forget to snap some pictures in front of the tree and check out the nearby stands selling fresh fruit and souvenirs including reasonably-priced Iznik dishes. If the day is young (and it should be if you are having breakfast!), you can continue up the mountain road for a day at Uludag Mountain. Skiing and sledding in the winter, picnics and hiking in the summer. Otherwise, head back downtown via Tophane and continue your village adventures at the historic Cumalikizik vilage.


The 600 year old Cinar Tree

How to get to Cinar: It is possible to get there by bus from Altiparmak in the city center, but the bus runs infrequently (only once an hour) so you must rush through breakfast or plan on sticking around for a couple of hours. My recommendation is to take a car (we tend to rent a car for our weekends in Bursa). The morning will be much more relaxing and enjoyable and you can stick around for a cup of Turkish coffee.