Behind the radio silence

Lots of things have happened since last time I’ve posted, an attempted military coup for one, but most importantly for us, Gürkan was approved for a green card at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara. With that good news in hand, I moved back to the United States in December and he followed shortly after in February (entering right in the midst of that unlawful and disastrous “Muslim Ban”).


Ready to fly. Istanbul’s third bridge in the background.

The only hiccup in our long awaited move is that we ended up in different places — me in Chicago for work and Gürkan in San Francisco. Life is strange, and everyone will believe me when I say that I never once pictured myself living in California, so you can imagine our shock and surprise when Gürkan got transferred to THY’s San Francisco office (though I was silently thanking the gods that it wasn’t Miami, another opening at the time). Because if there is a comparison that people make between Istanbul and a U.S. city, it’s always San Francisco — the great expanse of water, the bridge, the streetcars, the hilly streets.

Given that we are stateside — and that I’m trying to manage living in two cities at once — I’m not sure what this blog will become, or if it will lie dormant, as many a blog do when one returns home (because though repatriation can be an interesting topic, I have no interest in writing about it at length, and honestly, my family and friends are so great that I’ve literally picked up right where I left off). If I had to point to one thing that presented a mild culture shock, it would be that first trip to the grocery store and the mind-boggling array of products, frozen, processed and otherwise. American consumerism at its peak.


Looking out in Garipce, a village at the tip of Istanbul, where the Bosphorus meets the Black Sea

As for the things I miss (other than our dear friends, and you know who you are), it’s the sounds and places of familiarity — the ezan at the break of dawn, our street dog Charlie barking at deliverymen as they cross the threshold onto our street and the neighborhood repairman yelling “tamirci, muslukçu” as we break bread for our weekend breakfast.

And, of course, I miss our neighborhood hangouts: Kılıt, Deal, Pizano, places of comfort, a familiar face, a known entity. And, I daydream about another hearty mid-morning snack at Asım Usta, another late lunch at Köfteci Yaşar, another luxurious dinner at Set Balık, one more carry-out from Cağdaş Urfa.

I do plan to scratch out a few last blog posts of travels that we managed to squeeze in before we left — Sofia, Baku and Tbilisi — as well as a Cappadocia trip from ages ago. I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t share the stark beauty of that place, but also, I miss writing.

After that, we’ll see. Maybe more travels with Team Çapkın. California, here, or elsewhere.

A day trip to Sintra

On our second day in Lisbon, we took a day trip out to the small town of Sintra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Trains leave regularly from Lisbon’s main train station on the hour, with the ride taking about 35 minutes.

Once we arrived in Sintra, we were surprised to find that all the sights were quite far apart, so we bought tickets for a ring road bus. We were reluctant to do so as we always like to “do it ourselves” but this time the bus was a lifesaver, as we found ourselves atop a mountain just 15-20 minutes later, a walk that would have taken us nearly half a day at such a steep incline.


The Moorish Castle as seen from Pena Palace

Our first stop  was the Moorish Castle, which wasn’t part of our original plan, but since it was on the bus route, we decided to hop out. The fortress was built around the 9th or 10th century by the Muslim population, which occupied the Iberian peninsula at that time, and was later surrendered after the Conquest of Lisbon.

The Castle reminded me of none other than Rumelihisari – which sits on the banks of the Bosphorus and served as an Ottoman fortress – but this one was on a much grander scale.


The Portugese flag flies atop the castle keep

Just like our visits to Rumelihisari, I found the fortress rather frightening, with its steep staircases and treacherous heights. I opted to play it safe while Gurkan traipsed to the highest points, and sometimes, even stood atop the fortress walls. At one point, I ducked out of sight, knowing that I couldn’t stand to watch him stand precariously on the edge.


The fortress is perched high above the valley below


A view from the fortress’ Royal Tower

Our next stop was Pena Palace – King Ferdinand’s colourful summer residence, and probably the most well-known of all of Sintra’s attractions. The palace was constructed in the 1850s after the King acquired the land, which was the site of an old monastery built centuries earlier.


Pena Palace seen from the Moorish Castle

Just like at the Moorish Castle, the palace is perched atop the mountains, so be prepared to walk up a steep incline from where the bus drops off in order to get to the castle entrance.

We were hot and sweaty by the time we reached the entrance, so we first set out for the palace terrace, where the air was crisp and fresh with a tinge of the Atlantic Ocean, and the geometric reds and yellows were sharp and vibrant against the bright sky.


The colourful Pena Palace up close

The terrace walk was also one of the quieter moments of the day, as many of the visitors had headed directly inside the palace. It was a nice opportunity to take a moment’s pause from the sightseeing rush of the day.


Along the terrace walk


Looking out

The interior was an even more eclectic mix than the garishly-coloured exterior, with an architectural style which clearly drew on  Eastern influences, which can be seen in the arched gateways and inner courtyard.


Moorish archway


Inner courtyard

The rest of the castle’s interior was less than exciting and much like you would expect: chamber rooms, chandeliers, and other luxurious items, but the last room on the tour – the kitchen – was a dream. With well-appointed copperware and plentiful natural light, it was a kitchen fit for a king (or alternatively, his kitchen staff).


After Pena Palace, we jumped on the bus and headed back into town for a quick lunch before visiting the Quinta da Regaleira residence, which is a short 10 minute walk from the town’s centre. Known for its whimsical gardens featuring underground tunnels, hidden waterfalls, and other labyrinthine structures, the residence seemed otherworldly.


The lush green of summer

The gardens were expansive (in fact, we didn’t even have enough time to make it to the residence) and as it was sweltering hot, we were drawn to the cool tunnels.

At one point, we entered a dark tunnel which dove into the ground, feeling along the damp walls to stay on the path, only to come out minutes later at this small pond. Other times, we found ourselves on winding paths that emptied out into hidden waterfalls with drawbridges and stepping stones laid across the water.


A small cave within the “Labyrinthic Grotto”

The Quinta da Regaleira is perhaps best known for its Initiation Well that plunges 27m into the ground, and which can either be accessed through a tunnel at its base or from a non-descript top entrance. We arrived via the underground tunnel after finding an entrance at the aptly named “Portal of the Guardians.”

After just a few minutes underground, we found ourselves peering up out of the darkness.The well is supposed to make the relationship between heaven and hell “intensely felt” according to the map we were given, and it was indeed an eery feeling to be caught so far beneath ground, peering into the light, a middle ground or a Dante’s inferno of sorts.


Looking up from the base


Looking down after reaching the top

Although there is plenty more to see in Sintra such as Monserrate Palace and Cabo da Roca – continental Europe’s westernmost point – we opted to head back on the train to be able to spend the evening in Lisbon, complete with more custard tarts, a bit of port wine and just by chance, one of the best steaks I’ve had in a really, really long time.


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


Out to Belem for custard tarts

On our third day in Portugal, we headed out to Belem, a Lisbon neighbourhood known as the home of the best Portuguese custard tarts. Although city buses head out to Belem, we opted for the tram which leaves from Lisbon’s main square and takes 20 minutes or so ride to reach Belem’s Jeronimos Monastery tram stop,  which is right by Pasteis de Belem, the holy grail of custard tarts.


Our tram didn’t look this one, but many of them still have an aura of nostalgia about them. We saw this one while waiting for our tram to Belem.

At the famed pastry shop, we debated whether to get the tarts to go or eat-in, and our decision was helped by the fact that the shop is humongous, probably seating upwards of 400.  Unless you’re in a hurry, relax and enjoy your tarts inside.

We were seated in the garden which was lovely, and while the service was slow, the custards were utterly delightful. At this point in the trip, we had already sampled the tarts at various cafes, and I was already a fan of the tarts at Fábrica de Nata in main Lisbon – they have a menu featuring a tart and glass of port, a real treat – but the Belem custard tarts were really, truly something altogether different.


Pasteis de Belem is easy to spot if not for its blue awning, then the gaggles of people standing nearby


The iconic Pasteis de Belem

For starters, the tarts at Pasteis de Belem were fresh out the oven, and still warm to the touch. They had a much flakier crust than elsewhere while the custard taste was also much lighter and less egg-y, making for the perfect combo. Cans of powdered sugar and cinnamon were placed at every table, and many people sprinkle the tarts with a heavy helping of both. We did the same, yet I’d say the tarts are best on their own, without the added flavor.


Fresh tarts before getting sprinkled with powdered sugar & cinnamon


Employees preparing thousands of tarts

Right next to the pastry shop is Jeronimos Monastery, an imposing structure dating back to 1500, and an UNESCO World Heritage site. Although we opted not to go in and pay the entrance fee, it was still impressive to see from the outside. In fact, this picture captures just the entrance, although the structure is much larger and longer, taking up more than several city blocks.


The famous Jeronimos Monastery

Although the monastery is likely the number one sightseeing attraction in Belem, I was most interested in the Monument to the Discoveries, a structure which I had studied in  a college course on Portuguese, Spanish & Italian literature under fascism, and prior to coming to Lisbon, it was about the only thing I associated with the city (the statue, not fascism).

I was more than a little bummed to find it under restoration when we visited, but it was still magnificent, with the early explorers and navigators leaning out to sea.


A straight on view of the monument


The monument’s Eastern profile


It’s not possible to tell from the pictures, but the monument is indeed right on the bank of the Tagus River, which connects to the Atlantic Ocean


For Americans, the most familiar name would likely be Vasco de Gama, third from right.

Walking a bit further along the embankment, we came to the Belem Tower, a structure Wikipedia tells me was built in the early 16th century to be both a defence system at the river’s entrance, as well as a ceremonial gate to Lisbon. Like the monastery, it too is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Like any spontaneous traveler, however, I had failed to read up on the sites ahead of our trip, so didn’t know any of these details at the time, but what I did know was that it was an absolutely lovely structure, with intricate architectural details, and like the Monument to the Discoveries, faced out to sea, something of an ode to Portugal’s maritime past.


Approaching the tower along the river embankment


A regal tower against a clear blue sky


A look at the tower from the opposite side


The sailboats give a sense of the scale of the tower


Gurkan, husband and travel partner, looks toward the ocean

We spent not more than a couple hours in Belem, but were able to take in the main sites – the Monument to the Discoveries and the Tower of Belem – as well as try the famed custard tarts. In addition to the Jeronimos Monastery, Belem is also home to several museums, so one could easily spend much, much longer in this Lisbon district.

Day 1 & 2 in Lisbon coming soon…

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.

More Batumi: A night of chacha and khinkali

This post is a continuation of my first one on Georgia, Exploring Batumi.

Rested up with a little bit of Georgian wine in our tummies, we headed out for dinner at the House of Batumi, a little restaurant that had excellent online reviews. Everyone had written that you MUST get the eggplant appetizer, so we did, and it was absolutely delicious.

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The famous eggplant appetizer at House of Batumi

This followed by the most delicious soup I have ever had. I think it was a version of kharcho which I’d like to try my own hand at. After the kharcho, we had several fragrant stews with chicken, walnuts, and fragrant herbs, all extremely delicious. (Go here if you visit Batumi, just ignore the kitschy decor!).

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A flavorful stew at House of Batumi

Afterwards, we headed out to check out the Batumi nightlife which centered around shiny-looking casinos, seedy so-called Turkish bars, and everything else. We enjoyed the everything else part which included strange statues, a fountain show set to classic rock, and a little boutique chacha bar.

Here is one of the delightfully strange statues of Batumi we found that night. From afar, it could be mistaken for a typical classical-inspired statue, but look closer.

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The water comes out of the strangest places:

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Amidst the glowing casinos, I believe I saw another strange figure, a pig head.
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The fountain show was pretty fantastic, but it seemed to be a big production for the handful of people who were out that evening. Nearby, a group of Turks had brought a stereo and were dancing the halay, that is, until they were asked to leave by the police. I guess exuberant dancing in public places is really only acceptable in Turkey. Besides the halay, the Batumi night was very quiet, almost eerily so.

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A fountain show set to classic rock


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A very extravagant show

After stepping into a souvenir shop for khinkali and khachapuri-shaped magnets (essentials, right?), we found ourselves back at Chacha Time. We had seen the bar earlier in the day, and we had pegged it as a fun place to pass the evening. I thought  maybe the owners liked to do the cha cha or something, and that’s where it got its name, but the truth was much, much better. Chacha is a type of Georgian grape brandy or vodka, and at Chacha  Time all the drinks were mixed with this lovely Georgian specialty. 

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Welcome to Chacha Time

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That’s us! Enjoying a tarragon chacha drink

The four of us started out with the lighter cucumber chacha drink which was recommended by Konstantine, our amazing bartender, who thought we should take it easy since we were not seasoned chacha drinkers. From there, I tried the chacha with tarragon, a type of herb often used to flavor soda in Georgia. It was too green for me and a bit strange, but altogether, a new taste, and therefore, a good experience. The guys, opted for the chachita, and when we asked Konstantine what was in it, he slyly said it was made with the ‘soul of the bartender.’ That thing definitely packed a punch, and I guess that’s what the real chacha drinkers enjoy.

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Our traveling buddies, Mehmet and Rachel

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Interior of Chacha Time

We sat at the bar that evening and asked Konstantine and server Pavlos who was Greek but had come to Georgia for work all sorts of questions. They were extremely engaging, willing to share about their experiences living in Georgia, and I think we all left with a bit more insight. Konstantine also sent us on our way to Shemoikhede, his favorite dumpling place in Batumi.

And that is how we found ourselves in a very local eating establishment having our second helping of khinkali that day. When the servers saw us walk in, they sent over a Russian speaker to help us, but that did us little good, and we struggled a bit to place our order for khinkali and another plate of khachapuri for good measure. More cheese, dough, and butter!

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Trying a different style of khachapuri

This time we knew how to eat these little balls of magic. Eat the dumpling with your fingers, letting the juice run into your mouth, and leave the topknot.

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Three kinds of khinkali – potato, mushroom & minced meat

Waking up on our last day of Batumi was bittersweet. I wanted to stay much longer, traveling throughout the countryside, and heading to Tbilisi for endlessly delicious food, wine and culture. We were, however, weighed down with our wine purchase, and our obligation to make our Sunday evening flight out of Trabzon. So, we decided it was time to give Rolanda a call to ferry us back to the border crossing.

Rolanda showed up in his boxy black taxi. We loaded in and carried on in Turkish about our weekend. Just before reaching the border, he swerved into oncoming traffic and pulled over to the other site, which voila, was where his house was located. He invited us in, and we couldn’t decline. Inside his wife had already set the table with persimmons, apples, biscuits and small candies. She served coffee in demitasse cups, which he followed by bringing in a pitcher of homemade wine, pouring one very large glass for each of us. We declined a second glass, and then he brought out some homemade vodka, insisting that we try that, too. Georgian hospitality, like Turkish hospitality, knows no bounds.

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Rachel, Mehmet and myself with Rolanda, our taxi driver, and his wife at their home in Batumi

With some persuasion, Rolanda allowed us to be on our way. Back at the border, we made a smooth border crossing except for a moment’s hesitation when my passport failed to scan, and throngs of black-clad Georgian women behind me started to get impatient. The guard finally got it to work, and we found ourselves back in the land of the Turks.

For Georgian recipes, read Darra Goldsten’s The Georgian Feast.


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!


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!

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

Relaxing in Şirince

I dream about Şirince, a village I first visited in 2010. Gürkan and I were staying with a friend in İzmir and while walking through the university campus, we saw a student tour to Efes, Şirince and Kuşadası. It was dirt cheap, so of course, we took the opportunity to sign up. The tour guide and his organizational skills couldn’t have been worse, but the sights were all amazing, especially Şirince.

From time to time, I google Şirince and imagine visiting for the weekend, and staying there forever (kidding, mom!). Gürkan and I had planned to stay in Antalya and Olympos for the Ramadan holiday, but it was hot, too hot. He had the brilliant idea of heading back in the direction of Istanbul a day early, breaking up the long day of driving and spending the night in charming Şirince.

Şirince was originally home to a Greek Christian population and remains famous as a wine producing village. Şirince wines are most often fruit wines (think: quince, kiwi, blueberry, blackberry, and strawberry), as well as some wines made from Turkish wine producing grapes (Boğazkere, Narince). I find many of the fruit wines to be too sweet although the quince is madly refreshing on a hot summer’s day.

Life moves a bit slower in the village. Roosters crow, dogs laze about on the narrow cobblestone roads, women sell spices and homemade goods, and forgotten churches lay tucked away, hidden from the main road. Legend has that the Greeks named the village  Çirkince, or ugly, in order to deter others from following them there, but in 1926, the governor of İzmir changed it to Şirince, or pleasant, clearly a more aptly fitting  name.


Life moves slower in Sirince

We arrived at Şirince in the late afternoon after a long, sweaty (but beautiful) trip to Pamukkale. We checked into our guest house – an old Greek house – complete with fireplace, decorative wooden ceilings, and antiques.


Our pension was an old Greek home complete with fireplace and antique decorations

We had less than a full 24 hours to enjoy the village so we made the most of it. In the evening, we did a  wine tasting at Kaplankaya wines, purchased a couple bottles to take home, and then spent the evening sipping wine on the  shop’s small patio. In the morning, we enjoyed an amazingly fresh breakfast in our hotel’s garden; in fact, the olives at breakfast were so good that we asked the owner where he had gotten them from. He pointed to the tree we were sitting under, saying he had picked them from there, and had processed them himself.

wine tastin

Wine tasting at Kaplankaya

Gurkan under the olive tree

Gurkan under the olive tree

After breakfast, we took a morning stroll through the market area. We stocked up on olive oil soaps, cold-pressed olive oil, village olives, and hand-knitted winter socks.


It’s all in the details


Although we left around noontime, the long trek back to Istanbul was not completely uneventful. We stocked up on pears, melons, and homemade pomegranate molasses from roadside stands, beat the Istanbul traffic to the Yalova-Gebze ferry even though the TV stations had already staked out spots to document the holiday traffic, and found ourselves in an eerily quiet Istanbul. Luckily, when the landlord and his family wished us happy bayram, we had more than enough fresh fruit to share as our own bayram offering.


Melon stand on the highway outside of Akhisar

Weary travelers head back to istanbul

Weary travelers head back to Istanbul on the ferry

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.


Ruins of Hierapolis


Solidified at the pool’s edge


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.



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.


Gurkan poses in one of the pools


Milky white water


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.


The view looking down from Pamukkale’s cotton castles


The historic swimming pool area