Heybeliada – Jam-Packed Ferry to a Beautiful Island

Heybeliada is one of the Princes Islands in the Marmara Sea just off the coast from Istanbul. It’s small, pretty, quiet, and once there you can take a horse-led carriage ride. The carriage ride is a great leisurely way to see the island. Which we did when we visited the island this past Sunday.

I was cranky that morning because we were running very late. We needed to catch the 9:30am ferry. We didn’t get out the door of our apartment until a little before 9:00am. We walked to the Metro and waited for a train. Once on the train we’d have to change to the funicular at Taksim and then get on the ferry at Kabatas. I was being pessimistic and grumbling that we wouldn’t make the ferry in time. I hate having to rush. Stephanie didn’t think it would be a big deal if we didn’t make it, reminding me that I could always go by myself during the week.

We did make it, but not without running up the steps and into the terminal and onto the ferry…to find a ferry already well-above capacity. Steph and Meredith snagged a seat while Henry and I sat on some stairs.

I was also a little hungry at that point. I hate the world when I’m hungry. The kids and I all got snacks and something to drink and after a bit I was feeling better.

The ferry stopped at Kadikoy, where few got off but many people got on, including a woman and her little dog. She sat behind us. The dog was cute and quiet.

We arrived at Heybeliada about 50 minutes later. It was a little after 11am and the restaurant we wanted to eat at was not yet serving lunch. So we got the kids some more snacks to tide them over before riding in a horse-drawn carriage. It’s a small island. The only vehicles we saw were fire engines and garbage trucks.

As I said, the carriage is a great way to see the island. The four of us enjoyed it.

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After the carriage ride we went back to the restaurant Heymola where the kids ate french fires (Meredith) and pasta (Henry), and Stephanie and I ate a lot of yummy seafood, from calamari to octopus to sea bass to fish kokorech.

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Fully sated, we decided to walk back up the hill to where there were some trails in a small forest. As we were walking up the hill Stephanie asked, “Are you having a good time?” But she said it in a way that implied, “See! I told you so.”

“Yes, I am.” I said. “I’m in a better mood now.”

“You need to remember that things often do get better.”

“I know.”

“I do these things because they’re fun. Not because you’re fun to be with,” said my wife.

Ouch!

We had a nice walk, though Meredith wanted to be carried and asked to stop and rest at various points. This did make it easier to stop and snap pictures.

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Once we told Meredith we were going to turn around and go back into town to get ice cream, she turned and ran, leading the way back.

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We all ate ice cream by the ferry port. The kids opted for popsicles. Stephanie and I went for the dondurma (Turkish ice cream) from a street vendor. Unfortunately, we should have asked the price beforehand. The total for two ice cream cones was 30 lira ($14), the most expensive ice cream I have ever eaten. It was good, but not worth the price.

We thought (or at least, I thought) leaving the island would be easy. We would just take a different ferry, one we found that went directly to the port at Kabatas. So we went to that port. Ferries would arrive there and no one would tell you where it was going. You had to make your way through the crowd and ask one of the attendants.

The first one went to Bostanci which we only found out after waiting in the jam-packed crowd and pushing our way to the front to ask the attendant. That ferry left and another one arrived. He said it was Kabatas. We used our IstanbulKart to go through the turnstyle.

There’s a sign that says you can’t use your Akbil. I had no idea what that was and I’ve been in this city for 9 months. Turns out, that refers to the IstanbulKart, aka our transit card. The same card I use to ride the Metro, the Bus, and the ferries. But not this ferry for some reason. So we each lost three-and-a-half liras trying to use our transit card.

Then my wife went to the ticket window to buy tickets. And the woman at the ticket window said there were no more tickets. So we couldn’t get on that ferry.

After cursing not-quite-under my breath, I marched down to the ferry terminal from where we had originally arrived and looked at the schedule. The next ferry to take us back would be at 5:15pm. I looked at my phone: 4:15pm. We sat on a bench until an anouncement was made that a ferry was arriving. Then we joined the jumbled mass of people waiting on the pier. We shoved our way onto the over-crowded ferry. The ferry was already over-flowing with people returning form Buyukada (literally “Big Island”). My wife and I stood while the kids sat on the floor. It was hot, too.

Despite my grumbling and frustration, it was worth the trip to that pretty island. In the warmer months people spend the day there or on Buyukada on the beaches swimming in the Marmara Sea. I don’t think we’ll have to time to return there before we leave in three weeks. But if we ever return to Istanbul in the summer months, we’ll definitely spend a day at one of the islands again.

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A Morning Run in Istanbul

At 5am the alarm on my phone goes off. I tap the screen to turn it off. I stretch my feet. From off the floor I pick up the running clothes I’d laid out the night before, and tiptoe quietly on my stiff feet out the bedroom.

After I’ve emptied my bladder, I put on my running clothes, then go into the kitchen where I have a drink of water. I only eat something before I go out on long runs; runs that will last longer than an hour. I tuck my keys and a ten lira note into my pockets then head out and ride the elevator down.

At this time in the morning, it’s still dark in Istanbul. Few people are out on Ergenkon, with the exception of the handful of men at the taxi stand next to our building. They acknowledge me, at this point they’re used to seeing me, the lone runner in the early morning in the neighborhood.

As I walk briskly to warm up toward where I’ll begin my route, I pass the börek place where I will stop on my way back. Yavuz will either be sitting at a small table outside drinking tea with someone or inside cutting up the börek for a customer. We’ll say “good morning” to each other and wave. I asked him once what time he opened and he said 4:30am. He will be there serving up börek with the help of one or two other people until sometime after noon.

At that time of the morning, the streets and sidewalks of Istanbul are clear. There is plenty of light from the lamps overhead. It’s a peaceful time in this city of 15+ million people. That’s why I prefer to run at that time of day. No crowds to push through. No traffic to look out for when crossing streets. It’s almost like having the city to myself. Whether I’m in Nişantaşı, Taksim, Harbiye, Karaköy, or Cihangır running in the early morning is a way to see the city without being pressured to hustle. You don’t feel like you have to keep moving with the crowd, or hurry up to catch the tram or the ferry, or carefully time your walk across the street to avoid the cars, trucks, and scooters.

That might sound odd or contradictory, but when I’m running I don’t feel hurried. I’m enjoying the feel of movement, the view of my surroundings, sometimes the scents (especially now with so many flowers in bloom), and (often) the music I’m listening to on my iPod Nano.

The simple serenity of putting one step in front of the other. Just me and the stray pedestrian here and there, or the worker hosing down the sidewalk in front of their restaurant in preparation to open for the day.

Sometimes, depending on the street, I’ll see a couple of transgender sex workers still out, probably hoping to get one more client before the sun comes up and scares away the People Who Only Do Certain Things at Night. If my route takes me down past Taksim and onto Tarlabaşı I’ll see a handful there, too.

Once, after I’d finished my run, a few transgender sex workers were still there at a bus stop not far from our apartment. One looked my skinny legs up and down and said something in Turkish to me with a big smile. I have no idea if they were flirting with me or mocking me. I just smiled.

In the early morning, the only crowds I have to dodge are those that form in front of the entrances to clubs. While it’s Opening Time for the places that serve börek, it’s Closing Time for the places that serve alcohol to beat-based music. I’ve never been attacked, but something about the volatility of drunk young men coming out of clubs at that hour of the morning always makes me wary.

One time, a young woman wearing clunky high heels and a mini skirt, who was stumbling on one of the many cobblestone walkways here, mocked me for running. She was swinging her arms like a runner and laughing and looking at me and saying a whole bunch of things I couldn’t understand. Her friends were laughing, too. I wanted to say, “So says the drunk-ass bitch who can barely walk.” But I don’t know how to say that in Turkish, yet.

If I’m going around Maçka Park (which is often), the free-roaming dogs are either laying down or sniffing around for something to eat. The park is on the side of a hill leading up from the Bosphorus, passing the construction for the new Besiktas football stadium, and up to the posh Nişantaşi neighborhood with its Gucci, Hermes, and Armani stores. I can see the murky Bosphorus and the lights of the Asian side of the city through the trees in the park.

In the winter months, my runs were completed before the first Call to Prayer. Usually at some point on my cool-down walk the prayer would start. Now that it’s spring, the Call to Prayer comes sometime after I’ve woken up and before I’ve made it out the apartment. It no longer has the jarring effect it once had on me. It’s simply part of the aural landscape of the city, like car horns, the zipping of scooters, and the restaurant proprietors shouting “Buyrun! Hoşgeldiniz!”

Still sweaty, but no longer breathing heavy, I’ll go into the börek place, greet Yavuz, shake hands, and choose some börek to eat for breakfast. Once he’s loaded up a to-go container to the point of overflowing, I’ll place the ten lira note in the tray on the counter. He’ll hand me the börek and put the change on the tray. We’ll say goodbye and I’ll walk the short walk (less than 40 meters) to my apartment.

Inside the apartment, I’ll set the package of börek on the dining room table. I won’t dig into the börek until after I’ve done my stomach crunches and stretching. If I don’t stretch, my muscles will be angry with me later. Once I’ve stretched and drunk some chocolate milk (these days it only comes in containers with a picture of Cinderella on them, which means my daughter won’t touch them because of her distaste for princesses), I’ll sit down to breakfast and coffee, and feel like I’m ready to greet the day.

The Good Stuff: Börek

I have a problem. Two months from now, when I’m back in the States, I do not know what I’m going to eat after my runs.

This is not a small problem.

After a run, you want to eat something tasty and filling that has lots of calories. Oh, sure, plenty of running, health, fitness magazines have all kinds of pseudo-scientific advice about the “5 THINGS YOU MUST EAT AFTER RUNNING” or else you are a poorly trained runner who will never improve or even be a proper runner. Those writers have obviously never eaten börek.

Right now, when I finish my run in the morning, I stop at Cakırca, my neighborhood börek place. There, Yavuz, the man behind the counter, asks me in Turkish how far I’ve run and I reply in Turkish with my distance that morning. Then I select the kinds of börek I want. He chops up a batch, I pay him, and then I’m on my way back to my apartment with a small bag full of the börek.

What is börek? you ask.

A savory hearty pastry that is usually eaten in the morning or at lunch time.

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Börek can be filled with cheese, spinach, potatoes, or meat. Usually, it’s fried. So it’s crispy and oily. My favorite kinds are the cheese and potato. There are many variations of börek in areas formerly under the control of the Ottoman Empire. Wikipedia has a good rundown of the many variations. One of them I see a lot in places like Simit Sarayi and small food kiosks is sigara böreği (cigarette börek). This börek is is shaped like a long round roll (cigar-shaped) and is popular as a form of fast food.

Turks eat börek with tea or ayran. I often eat it with a couple of fried eggs over-easy and some fruit juice and coffee.

For me, börek has become the perfect food to eat after a run. My wife has even asked me, “What are you going to eat after your runs when we go back to Michigan?” I really don’t know. There are no börek places whatsoever. There are recipes, but they are labor-intensive. Somehow I’m going to have to learn to live without the convenience of a place nearby that makes and serves börek…or maybe we can stay here just a little longer.

The Good Stuff: Turkish Coffee

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I love coffee. I start my day with a cup of coffee to go along with my breakfast, whether it’s pancakes, eggs, pastries, cereal, granola, bacon, whatever. The aroma that fills the air while the coffee is brewing is a comfort. Coffee completes my morning.

I love espresso, cappuccino, filter coffee, and French press coffee. Now I can add Turkish coffee to the list of Forms of Coffee That I Love to Drink.

This means I will soon be adding a cezve (jez-vay) to my collection of coffee-making devices back home in Michigan, which include a Moka pot, a Mr. Coffee, and a French press.

If you order Turkish coffee (Turk Kahvesi) in a restaurant it comes with a glass of water (to clean your palate) and a piece of Turkish Delight. The coffee, a thicker brew than espresso, is meant to be sipped and savored.

Unlike other forms of coffee, you don’t drink the whole thing. Nor do you stir in milk or sugar or anything else. Any sugar is added during the brewing process. At the bottom of the cup you are served is a layer of grounds. Any stirring will upset the grounds and you will end up drinking the grounds. And no one wants to drink the grounds. So you sip and savor until you get to the very bottom when you’re left with nothing but the grounds.

It’s not difficult to make yourself. Here’s a good Youtube video that shows how to brew it. Notice that the coffee is a very fine powder much like espresso but even finer.

I should note that I tend to use more coffee per cup than in this video. But I like my coffee, no matter the form, strong.

For me, Turkish coffee isn’t a morning drink. I only drink Turkish coffee in the afternoon to accompany cookies, pastries, chocolate, or Turkish Delight. Turkish coffee goes well with anything sweet. Now that I’ve got the taste for this bold brew, I’m going to bring the habit back home with me.

The Good Stuff: Badem Ezmesi

Badem Ezmesi (Bah-DEM ez-mess-ee), this U-shaped wonder of taste, is one of my family’s favorite pastries. My wife likes it. I like it. Our kids love it.

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On the outside it looks like a normal pastry coated in a light layer of sugar. Inside is the actual badem ezmesi.

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Badem ezmesi means “almond paste,” aka “marzipan.” You can also buy small packets of it for one lira a piece.

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Or platters of it. There is also “fıstık ezmesi” (pistachio paste).

These pastries are oh so tasty and oh so filling. Half the reason I run is so I can indulge in my sweet tooth. This pastry is a huge indulgence. I often only eat half of one and save the other half for later or share it with someone else.

The kids love it when my wife or I buy these for them from the bakery. They have also taken to saying, “bottom is messy,” because the phrase sounds a lot like “badem ezmesi”…And they’ve developed certain hand movements that reference certain body parts to go along with it…And then there is a lot of giggling and then they finally settle down to eat their pastries.

Thankfully, the kids do not engage in that particular bout of silliness in the bakery.

The Good Stuff: Acıbadem kurabiyesi

There are many things I love about Turkey, most of all the food. With this post I hope to kick off a semi-regular series on the foods I love to eat here; the good stuff.

Acıbadem (ah-juh-bah-DEM) is an almond cookie, or almond biscuit, sold at bakeries everywhere throughout Istanbul. I don’t think there’s a bakery that does not sell them.

At my favorite bakery, down the block from our apartment, they cost 4 lira (less than $2). I’m at the bakery so often, that when I went in the other day to buy some pastries the proprietor asked me where I’d been, because it had been over a week since I’d been in there. I answered him that I’d been in Kusadasi the week before. He proceeded to give me a sample of a wonderful pastry with olive paste inside and then I bought a whole bunch of sweet pastries.

Here is what acıbadem looks like.

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Acıbadem are large, with two sides, and a roasted almond embedded in each side. They’re crisp on the outside and soft and chewy on the inside. The taste is sweet and almondy. They go very well, like all Turkish pastries, with coffee or tea.

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You can take them apart, which is what I often do. Usually, I give one half to my wife and then I take the other half.

I look at this perfect piece of pastry and think, in the U.S. we would say, “Yeah, that giant almond cookie is pretty good, but we could make it better by putting a thick layer of chocolate or vanilla frosting in the middle. And calling them Ginormous Almond Cookie Sandwiches (GACS).”

I wouldn’t change a thing about them.

This is not to say that Turks don’t have a sweet tooth. They have one that rivals Americans as you’ll see in future posts.

Food Istiyorum!

The decision on where to go eat lunch was made by my wife Stephanie. I couldn’t make a decision. I was too hungry. I just wanted to eat. I didn’t want to have to think. I can be a real asshole when I’m hungry.

After going with my wife to take the kids to the bus, we came back to our new hotel. She did some work. I changed into running clothes and went out running.

On days that I run, I’m hungry for much of the rest of the day. Though I’d snacked before and after my post-run shower, by noon I was very hungry.

The place where my wife wanted to eat was one she had been led to by our friend Banu the day before. It’s called Antakya Mutfağı and it’s located just off Istiklal Street. But it was closed after being fumigated. So Steph and Banu had had to go back down the long narrow steps and eat somewhere else. Before they’d left, Steph had taken a card so that she could find it again.

This place is not a “tourist” restaurant. It’s where Turks go to eat according to Banu.

Steph found the building and we climbed up the steep, narrow, spiral stairs up to the third floor where we were seated in a restaurant whose windows were all open.

The menu was in Turkish and the app on my phone wasn’t doing a very good job translating any of the words I tapped in.

Did I mention I can’t think straight when I’m really hungry?

So I start to grumble that places like this are easier for natives like Banu and a pain for foreigners. After the week we’ve had (we’re now on our third place of residence for those keeping score at home), I didn’t want to have to do work in order to simply eat.

I just wanted to shout, “Food istiyorum!” and have it appear in front of me.

That’s Englurkish for “I want food!”

Steph asked me if I want to go somewhere else and I told her no, that I know everything will be fine.

Then I told myself, we’ll order something and the food will come. It will be very good. Our friend Banu doesn’t tolerate mediocrity when it comes to food.

Steph managed with broken Turkish and hand gestures to indicate to the waiter that we wanted the meze platter and a dessert of künefe. Banu had informed us that the meze platter was excellent and that if we wanted künefe that it takes 20 minutes because it’s made fresh. Künefe is a cheese pastry that’s soaked in a sugar-syrup. It is a  sugar/carb bomb.

Our friend Arijit, back in Michigan, once made künefe for us and his wife. He was not happy with the results because he could not get the exact cheese required. My wife and I were still impressed.

The mezes came and between the two of us, Steph and I ate well. Here’s what the mezes looked like when we were nearly done.

mezeThere were olives, pureed eggplant with garlic, humus, roasted spiced tomatoes, and a few others whose names and ingredients I can’t remember.

For dessert, the künefe did not disappoint.

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It goes well with tea.

When the last sweet morsels were scooped off our plates and into our mouths, all seemed well with the world.

Later Steph asked, “Are you going to tell people that you were skeptical and that next time you should trust your wife?”

“Yes,” I said.