Exploring Ayder Yaylası in Rize

On our way back from our trip to Batumi, we made a stop at Ayder Yaylası in Rize, a city in Turkey’s tea-producing region along the Black Sea coast.

Yaylas, like the one in Rize, are cool retreats for families looking for a respite from the summer heat, as well as an opportunity to take in Turkey’s natural beauty.

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Driving up to Ayder yaylası

While we visited in October, the yayla was still fairly busy, with a number of Turkish families, as well as several tourists from the Middle East, taking advantage of the clear blue skies, a real treat since the Black Sea region where Rize is located is known for heavy rainfall throughout the year; hence, the plateau’s lush forest and greenery.

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The main road lined with small shops, restaurants and pensions

The air is fresh and clean, and yet also filled with the heady smell of burning firewood, a comforting smell that reminds me of my childhood around the campfire.

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The smell of smoke from wood-burning stoves fills the air

At the yayla, many families were relaxing on the slopes, while others picnicked – some had even brought along a small grill. I’ve always been impressed by Turkish picnics which far outdo even the best of the ones I’ve seen stateside.

In Turkey, the extended family gets together, bringing out a full spread, which no doubt took hours to prepare (sarma, börek, anyone?)  accompanied by never-ending kettles of tea, which appear from nowhere. More simply put, Turkish families bring the whole kitchen to the picnic, instead of just a basket with the essentials.

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Here a family sans picnic relaxes along with a special guest

In addition to many families, I was surprised by the number of young couples. Presumably, Ayder yaylası also makes for a nice romantic getaway, or at least that seemed to be a trend.

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Couples’ outing

Throughout the yayla, cows roam freely, meandering through groups of people, munching the grass where they please. The man-made world juxtaposed onto the yayla – the vehicles, shops and main thoroughfare – hardly phased them at all.

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Gurkan checks out the area while a family grills out on the left

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The yayla is home to cows plus other furry friends (see the dog in the background?)

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A peaceful-looking village home

After walking for a bit, we decided to stop in for a bite to eat. As an appetiser, we split mıhlama, a fondue-like dish made of village cheese, homemade butter and corn flour. It’s a regional dish, often hard to find outside the Black Sea region, but for cosmopolitan city-dwellers Istanbul’s Black Sea-inspired restaurant Klemuri offers a decent version.

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Mihlama to start off lunch

This mıhlama was particularly cheesy, as you can see from below, and delicious to boot. A perfect way to fill up on a cool fall day. Afterwards, we stocked up on village butter – or so we thought – when we returned to Istanbul, we were disappointed to find that our “butter” was actually uninspired kaşar cheese.

The homemade butter in the Black Sea region is extremely yellow and nearly impossible to tell from cheese, or at least it was for us (and apparently the sales lady, too). Luckily, we’ve gotten a few wheels of butter from Gurkan’s mom recently to hold us over for awhile.

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This mihlama is the par excellence of cheesiness. Here Mehmet and Gurkan struggle with the melty cheese.

Rize is also famous for its honey, but the price tag is hefty (well over 100 TL a pop!), and I have reason to believe that it’s not all produced locally like the shop owners would like you to think.

When it comes to honey, my instinct tells me to head into Georgia and get delicious honey at a fraction of the price. It might not make you crazy like Turkish mad honey, but if you’re looking for something sweet with breakfast, Georgia has you covered.

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The honey here is pricey and I am skeptical about whether it is the real deal.

Before heading back into town, and then onto Trabzon airport, we chanced upon this lovely, time-worn bridge over the rushing water coming down the mountain, one last chance to take in the scenery, the peace and also the quiet.

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On the way back down

 

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Köfteci Yaşar, Eminönü’s best kept secret

It’s been awhile since I wrote about an Istanbul restaurant so I wanted to come back with one of our favorites – Köfteci Yaşar – which Gürkan discovered. This little gem is tucked away in the Eminönü bazaar district, and every single time we try to find it, we inevitably cannot, and have to ask for directions from several shop owners. The small restaurant is right next to a mosque which may or may not be helpful because there are plenty of mosques in the area. Perhaps more helpful is that it’s located in the corner where the wholesale burlap sellers are located.  My advice – be prepared to get lost and ask for directions once you get close. We’ve found that almost everyone in the bazaar knows Köfteci Yaşar.

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Köfteci Yaşar, one of very favorites in Eminönü

We really like this place, I mean, a lot.  We woke up on Saturday with nothing to do (a huge relief!) so we had a small breakfast in Beşiktaş and made a day of walking from Beşiktaş to Eminönü, just so we could have a meal at Köfteci Yaşar. In fact, Köfteci Yaşar was the only plan for the day while the long walk (we also made it to the colorful neighborhoods of Balat and Fener) was just a treat to spend a wonderful day in the sun.

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The grill master

Köfteci Yaşar is a small operation. I know for sure that they have köfte (meatballs), biftek (steak), and piyaz (a cold white bean salad dressed with olive oil and lemon juice), but there may be a few other meat options as well. Today, we had the piyaz and two plates of the biftek. I actually think the biftek is a tad on the salty side (Turkish food tends to be), BUT I can overlook that, because it’s extremely delicious. It’s perfectly prepared – pink inside and very juicy – and today it  came sprinkled with a generous helping of oregano. I love it for its simplicity.

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The light and refreshing piyaz

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The biftek served with green peppers and tomatoes

There are usually only three men working – one behind the grill, one taking orders and one helper- meaning there is way too much going on for three people to handle so they sometimes forget things. Be prepared to gently remind the server if he initially brings one entree instead of two which is what happened today.

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The cozy inside of Köfteci Yaşar

The restaurant is cash only. For two biftek portions and a large portion of piyaz, we paid 42 TL. Outdoor seating is available which is what I recommend.  Stick to the table under the umbrella. The pigeons perched on the tree above can send down surprises for the unassuming customer. This happened to us the first time we visited in summer.

Rüstem Paşa Mahallesi, Mahkeme Sokak, No 21, Fatih, İstanbul

 

I don’t think this map is spot on, but it’s definitely the general area.

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

A sweltering hot day in Pamukkale

A couple weeks ago during the four day Ramadan holiday, Gürkan and I took a road trip from Istanbul all the way to Antalya in Turkey’s south. After family time in Antalya, we headed to Olympos, explored, camped and swam. By the second day, the heat had gotten the better of us and we decided we had better head north, but not without first stopping at Pamukkale. Translated to Turkish as ‘cotton castles,’ Pamukkale is not cotton-y at all, but actually a build-up of carbonate minerals.

Little did we know that there are not one, but two, entrances to Pamukkale, and when the villager pointed us in the direction of the entrance, it was slightly unsettling to find grass coming up through cracks in the sidewalk and shuttered concession stands. But the ticket booth was open and we preceded to purchase our tickets and pass through the turnstile. We found ourselves at the start of the road which passes through Hierapolis, an ancient city home to various civilizations since the 2nd century BC. The sun bore down on us and silence reigned as we walked between the ruins of countless tombs.

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Ruins of Hierapolis

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Solidified at the pool’s edge

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One of the pools meets the horizon

After a mile we thought it was strange we still hadn’t reached Pamukkale’s travertines and after more than a mile, we knew something was up. The ruins came to an end, and a manicured lawn came into view and was that throngs of people we saw in the distance? We finally reached the travertines only to realize that there was a newer, main entrance where the tour buses were dropping people off. Drenched in sweat and dust, we sighed.

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Pamukkale

And yet, we were finally at the travertines and how strange they were! The sun beat off the glaring white of the solidified minerals, forcing me to squint, and wish I had had enough foresight to put my swimming suit on. We slipped our feet into the milky white water, drudged up the silt from the bottom to take a closer look and meandered from pool to pool. Kids were splashing around and even the aunties had suited up to cool down. A pair of young men slathered the silt on themselves, letting it dry and crack in the sun, while a young woman forced the dredge into plastic water bottles she had brought along with her.

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Gurkan poses in one of the pools

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Milky white water

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A pair of men lather up

The walkways were slippery and with the steep ledges, I felt myself catch my breath a few times, fearful of the drop below. After exploring the pools open to the public, we ventured back up to the main entrance, seeking out a cool place to rest. We found ourselves in the historic swimming pool area which although beautiful wasn’t worth the pretty penny they were charging for a dip. We grabbed several rounds of ice water and lounged in the shade. Over sips of water, we lamented about how we would have to walk back to the car. It was a godsend when we noticed there was a shuttle parked outside the pool area, shuttling visitors to the other entrance. We hopped on, and this time we sped through the ancient city of Hierapolis, jumping off at the forlorn entrance. Brushing off the dust and silt, we retired to the car, rolled down the windows as the car battled the heat, and turned west, toward the village of Şirince.

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The view looking down from Pamukkale’s cotton castles

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The historic swimming pool area

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.

Homemade food with a twist of Tarsus

Not only does Dört Kadıköy serve up good coffee  and hospitality, they also get a thumbs up for their recommendation to visit Sımsıcak Ev Yemekleri, a restaurant just a few storefronts down the street. At first my friends and I were just going to stop in for a tea since we had had our fill of coffee and desserts at Dört, but we certainly couldn’t say no to all the mouth-watering dishes on display. We ordered a huge spread and sat down to eat while at the same time informally interviewing the owner.

Sımsıcak Ev Yemekleri (translation: really hot homemade food) features a set menu of dishes which customers pick from the display up front, and they also rotate in different dishes depending on what’s fresh and in season at the local market. The owner’s family is originally from Tarsus, and thus, he also tries to incorporate goods from the Tarsus area when possible such as olive oil and pomegranate sauce, dried veggies, and spices.

Like Helvetia in Asmalımescit, Sımsıcak has several dishes for the vegetarian crowd, and for everyone worried about whether the veggies we eat in Istanbul restaurants are cleaned well, don’t fret at Sımsıcak. They wash all their vegetables three times, yes that’s right, three times. First in water, then in vinegar, and again, rinsed in water. And for those lamenting the amount of plastic bottles used in restaurants, Sımsıcak has one large water cooler where you can fill up your water glass, enormously cutting down on the amount of wasted plastic.

In addition to an amazing karnıyarıkone of my all-time favorite Turkish dishes – the restaurant’s two standouts were the eggplant puree and çıntar mantar. Eggplant puree is a standard Turkish dish made by roasting eggplant over a gas-burning stove and then pureeing it. Delicious, right? Well, as much as I like eggplant, I often find the finished puree to be too strong on the palette, either because of the burnt flavor or the bitterness of the fruit. Sımsıcak’s eggplant puree, however, was so smooth that for a split second, I doubted that it was even eggplant. When we asked the owner about his magical puree, he told us about a secret ingredient he incorporates into the dish. Where he got the idea for it is baffling since it’s not a common ingredient  used in traditional Turkish cooking, but it’s genius all the same. He did, however, ask us to keep the secret ingredient a secret, so I’m keeping my word.

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Karnıyarık, split eggplant stuffed with minced meat

The other highlight was the çıntar mantar, a mushroom which grows in Tarsus on the cedar tree but can also be found on kızılçam (red pines) in the Kanlıca area of Istanbul. I had never heard of çıntar mantar before, and in fact, I have been struggling to find the correct English translation but another blogger has referred to it as a Saffron Milk Cap. To be honest, I thought it was ciğer (liver) at first  due to its meaty appearance, and when I tasted it, it certainly had a meatier texture (& better taste!) than the standard table mushroom. For this very reason, the çıntar mantar is an ideal meat substitute and may feature in some of Sımsıcak’s dishes traditionally made with meat. Mushroom-stuffed mantı, anyone?

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Chopped çıntar mantar with grated vegetables

Just when you are starting to think that you might be enjoying a homemade meal made by your favorite Turkish abla, teyze, or kaynana, you are kindly reminded by the mustachioed Charlie Chaplin on the wall that you are in Kadıköy after all, and that you’ll step out into the streets to be swept up in the energy of Istanbul. But don’t forget to pay the bill first, and trust me, Sımsıcak Ev Yemekleri is quite the deal!

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Zucchini stew with mint

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Lentil balls (mercimek köfte) with assorted pickles

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Saçaklı köfte (meatballs with shredded potato) on a bed of potatoes, peppers, and eggplant with yogurt