Exploring Batumi

After spending the night in Hopa on the Turkish side of the border, the four us headed to the Sarp border crossing early on Saturday morning. We dropped the rental car off in a parking lot (you can’t take rentals across the border), and got in the passport control line on the Turkish side of the border. Luckily, we had beat the busloads of Turks entering Georgia for the weekend, and the border crossing itself was pretty uneventful.

I showed my passport and Gurkan presented his identity card (Turks only need their IDs to pass) to the Turkish border guard, and then we walked across no man’s land to the Georgian side. At Georgian border control, the border guards were young, beautiful females (one police officer even had a mini skirt on), a striking contrast to the middle-aged male guards on the Turkish side. The guard helping us mumbled something I couldn’t quite understand, and I asked her to repeat herself thinking she was inquiring about my intentions for visiting Georgia. Instead, she told me that she had applied for a Green Card and wanted to go the U.S. (a border guard wishing to leave her country!?) I smiled, wished her good luck, and she waved us through. After our friends Mehmet and Rachel passed through as well, we grabbed a map at the small tourist counter, and stepped foot into Georgia, the land of the most beautiful script.

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Border crossing on the Georgian side. Hey, the Georgians carry their bags the same as the Turks!

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The first sign after crossing the border. Check out that gorgeous script!

Once we got our bearings, we called Rolanda, the taxi driver recommended to us by our hosts in Hopa, and he arrived promptly in an aging boxy black taxi. Gurkan spoke to him in Turkish – many Georgians living near the border speak fairly well, and in fact, Rolanda’s Turkish put my own to shame. He was a jolly driver, taking us to the exchange office to get Georgian lari, asking why our friends (the Airbnb hosts) hadn’t come as well, and even extending an invitation to his house for wine which we politely declined, all before dropping us off near the piazza where our hotel was located. Finding ourselves a bit disoriented once Rolanda left, we stopped a young woman on the street to ask for help, and although she didn’t know our hotel by name, she made sure we found it. While we were walking with her, we realized that she was also an AIESECer (that’s how Gurkan and I met), and the world seemed just a bit smaller.

We dropped our bags off at our hotel which was above The Quiet Woman Pub (!!) and it was then that it was time for the real Batumi adventure to begin. In preparation for the trip, I had read Darra Goldstein’s The Georgian Feast and had asked several friends and bloggers for their recommendations. Armed with more than enough advice for the short time we had, we started with a visit to Kiziki for khinkali, traditional Georgian dumplings, khachapuri, a delectable Georgian cheese bread served with butter and egg, and a fragrant bean stew spiced with – you guessed it – cilantro.

Luckily, Gurkan and I both knew to expect the strong taste of cilantro, a staple in Georgian cooking. Gurkan’s neighbors while growing up in Ordu were Georgian, and I had tasted a few of his mom’s replications of the neighbors’ dishes. Cilantro always factored in heavily, and Gurkan’s mom still uses the name kinzi (not kişniş) for cilantro which may be a Georgian word or a regional term (does anyone know?). Our friend Mehmet wasn’t familiar with the taste, however, and the cilantro definitely took him by surprise. Cilantro is virtually non-existent in Turkish cuisine and it’s even tough to find in Istanbul unless you have a good neighborhood bazaar.

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khinkali, stuffed dumplings with minced meat and mushrooms

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This khatchapuri reminded me of Black Sea pide. The cheese, however, had a very different consistency

After lunch, we strolled through the town’s center, admiring the peaceful parks, a stark contrast to Istanbul’s public spaces where even parks are crowded and noisy. On the seaside, I was surprised to see that people were still laying out even though it was already October. The beach itself was rather rocky but also extremely expansive, stretching as far as the eye could see and framed by mountains in the distance. And there was so much space, space on the beach, space in the parks, space everywhere. Space and lots of quiet. I couldn’t get enough of it.

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Fishing in the center of the city

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Sunbathing in October

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So much space

Continuing along the seaside walkway, we saw some of Batumi’s most iconic landmarks, the alphabetic tower and the Ali & Nino statue depicting the characters from Kurban Said’s book. It had been a few years since I had read the love story about a Georgian Christian girl and an Azeri Muslim boy, but I found the statue rather underwhelming and hardly romantic (although apparently it rotates so that the lovers do face each other). The peculiar shaped alphabetic tower remains a mystery to me, and it appears to be an enigma for others as well, serving no real apparent purpose other than to commemorate the Georgian alphabet, which I must admit, is pretty awesome.

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Ali & Nino

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The alphabetic tower

Heading back to the city center, we took a coffee and cake break at the Literature Cafe, and I got the feeling that it might be the city’s expat hangout, that is, if there is one. The prices seemed steep by Georgian standards (far more expensive than lunch) and I saw one other foreigner there working away on his computer, the only other youngish looking foreigner we would see all weekend.

Next door to the cafe was Khareba winery which was recommended to me by the amazing Robyn of @EatingAsia. After getting acquainted with the wine selection upstairs in the showroom, we ventured downstairs to the cavernous wine cellar. We tasted a few wines, both from the tanks and the tasting counter. Two older men had already claimed the only table in the cellar, chatting and enjoying their wine together, and I couldn’t help but wonder if this was Georgia’s version of Turkey’s kiraathane culture, just wine instead of tea.

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Passing the time Georgian-style

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The wine vats. Gurkan snagged a taste from one of them.

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More wine tasting (check out the Turkish wine glasses on the right!)

Based on Robyn’s advice, I knew to be on the lookout for quevri wines. Quevri wine is an ancient method of wine-making in which the wine is aged in earthenware vessels buried in the ground (quevri is the name of the clay vessels). At the time of our visit to Batumi, I didn’t know what quevri meant, but I knew it was something special so I purchased a quevri wine recommended by the winery. More recently, I’ve watched a number of YouTube videos about the quevri wine process, and it’s incredibly fascinating. This one for example.

With our wine packed up in a box, we headed back to the hotel for a short nap (this time we knew to be on the lookout for The Quiet Woman, ha!), only to reconvene shortly after, pop open a red, and get ready for the next round of delicious Georgian food.

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So much wine, everywhere!

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An overnight in a Hopa mountain home

Before heading to Georgia early one Saturday morning, we spent Friday night in Hopa on the Turkish side of the border. We flew from Istanbul to Trabzon, driving from Trabzon to Hopa, and arriving in Hopa well after midnight. We had booked an  Airbnb ahead of time for the four of us (we were traveling with another couple), and when we arrived, our hosts met us at the entrance to their village, leading the way up to their home by car. As the roads got worse, we jumped out of our rental car and into their pick-up truck to make the last leg of the trip up to their mountain home.

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Luscious blooms in Hopa

Our hosts, Ceren and her husband, had been living in Beşiktaş (our neighborhood in Istanbul) up until a few months ago when they decided to move to Ceren’s family’s mountain home in Hopa. Their village home was the oldest one I had ever seen, and it had several rooms, many of which appeared to have been added to the main structure at later stages. With a cozy village home set against the lush green of the mountains, it wasn’t hard to understand why they had made the move from bustling Beşiktaş to Hopa.

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A back view of the village home where we stayed

In the morning, we were awakened with the smell of crisp, fresh air (not something that we experience often enough in Istanbul), and I rolled over to find that Gürkan was already gone, exploring the outdoors.  In the small wood-stove heated kitchen and sitting room, Ceren offered us coffee and we had a chance to get to know more about their life in Hopa. She shared a story about how their two dogs who typically stay outside had opened the back door while they were away and then proceeded to track mud throughout the entire house. It had happened only a couple days before our visit so in typical village fashion, relatives and neighbors had come over to pitch in with the cleaning. Ceren and her husband also shared some helpful info about Batumi, including the phone number for their Georgian taxi driver whom we would later get to know, even becoming guests of him and his wife in their home in Batumi.

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The mischievous pair

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Puppy dog eyes and muddy paws

After coffee, we ventured outside to meet the mischievous dogs, and took a walk through the couple’s gardens, admiring the kiwi and persimmon trees, and the rolling hills of tea bushes (this is the region where all of Turkey’s tea is grown). We were on a tight time schedule – we wanted to reach the Sarp border crossing before it got too crowded – so we couldn’t spend as much time as we wanted to before heading out. Ceren’s husband picked some apples for us to take on the road, and then we climbed into his truck so he could take us back down to our car.

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A view of the gardens with tea plants in the foreground

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Kiwi, a hugely popular crop in the Black Sea region

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A freshly picked persimmon for the road

At the car, we met some of the villagers who invited us all over for tea. We politely declined, bidding our hosts and the villagers farewell, and heading off the last 20 kilometers to the Sarp border crossing.

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Peace and quiet in the moutains

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.

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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.

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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. .

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The view of the 3rd bridge from Yoros Castle

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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Puppy paws trying to get into the cafe

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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.

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Heading out to the lighthouse

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The Ağva hangout

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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.

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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.

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Cafes line the lake

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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.

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The Şile harbor

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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.