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Posts tagged ‘Istanbul’

365 Day 7 Bigs Chefs in Sishane

A great place to eat in a neighbourhood busy transforming itself...

These guys have done their homework. And I’d like to thank them for that.

First, Big Chefs has an excellent, well thought-out and easily navigable website. It’s still kinda rare to encounter a Turkish restaurant site that is easy-to-use and get around, that is visually pleasing and not burdened with an oversupply of graphic, Flash and other unnecessary paraphernalia of the electronic variety. All information is at hand and they understand three mouse clicks should be the maximum required to find what you are looking for.

Secondly, the Sishane neighbourhood has been undergoing a transformation since the metro station opened a couple of years back. The area leading from the dank, damp Pera Palas Hotel is now lined with a bunch of new cafes and restaurants, none of which I have yet managed to visit.

Anyway, the restaurant was chosen by a friend who was clearly impressed with both Big Chefs’ breezy, light spaciousness and a menu that offers a wide choice without suffering from the Istanbul’s endemic kebabism. What I really liked? Fish. Istanbul may have a ton of fish restaurants but most of them always seem to be overpriced and force you to deal with traffic on the Bosphorus. Secondly, the choice of salads was decent, and also, the steak (though I didn’t eat it), was clearly a fine cut of meat.

I love to see a business model in Turkey that has some major thought behind it, especially now that the city, and soon the entire country becomes saturated with House Cafes. This is not a criticism (House Cafe is great, if a little overpriced), but evidently others have worked out that it pays to put a serious amount of workshopping into a business plan before venturing ou into Istanbul’s already numerous restauration game.

The interior is perfect for leaving behind the city’s grey, overcast weather. Lots of wood and brick and cleverly stacked wine that manages to be original without sinking into gastropub territory. I love the spaciousness truly rare in this part of town.

And as I always do… I checked the English menu. Not a single error. Didn’t feel like a translation at all, but perhaps that is owed partly to the fact that the restaurant offers little that is peculiar to Turkish cusine and more caters to a wide tastes. When you don’t have to translate the local dishes you’re off to a better start. Nothing stands out as outlandishly original, but what they do is good.

I’m a sucker for a user-friendly website, and a clear, self-explanatory menu. And yep, my seabass salad was exactly what I wanted. The only thing that irked me was the selection of hamburgers – this place doesn’t need them on the menu. Though the fact Chefs offers more than Efes for those after beer makes up for the inclusion.

Get yourself there.

Big Chefs Cafe & Brasserie

Tunel, Istanbul

+90 212 251 7180

www.bigchefs.com.tr

 

 

365 Day 5 Istanbul’a geldim

I’ve finally made it to Istanbul and am currently staying with a friend, his apartment offering an expansive view across the Bosphorus. It’s good to be back. I’ve slipped once again into life in this magnificent metropolis and am looking forward to the daily grind in a city that never sleeps. I’m hoping my mate will put up with me long enough that I won’t need to search for my own lodgings until the wintry weather passes and the temperature rises again.

Istanbul is how I remember it and so, with a few months of bumbling my way through the language, I should be a fully functioning member of Turkish society. I’ve already started the new job, and despite the filthy wind that bites at my face each morning as I walk to meet the driver, I’m not having too many difficulties rising at 6am to meet the driver who shuttles me to and from the neighbourhood where I teach.

My photography may be rubbish but the view is still spectacular

 

 

 

 

 

I’m happy to be home.

 

The walls of Istanbul

Once, every town-dweller was born and lived and died within city walls. Paris, London, Rome, every historic city of significant importance built and maintained enormous, strong and resilient stone fortifications, which protected its inhabitants and kept the enemy at bay. Soldiers posted at watchtowers perched high above cobbled streets would be on alert for marauding tribes that might be thinking to conquer a richer, more plentiful society. From the fortified towns of Mughal India to the famously impenetrable citadel of Aleppo, the uncertain and ephemeral nature of peace in eras past meant ubiquitous defensive walls and forts, and in particular the main gate, was the first port of call for foreign traders and dignitaries.

To protect his new city of Constantinople from attack by both land and sea, Constantine the Great surrounded the entire prized metropolis with massive defences. Less than a century later construction began again further west, as Emperor Theodosius II needed to enclose to a burgeoning population whose dwellings were already forming hamlets and towns outside Nova Roma, as Constantinople was then known. Once seriously damaged by an earthquake that occurred roughly at the same time Attila the Hun approached with his pillaging armies, the defensive walls were swiftly repaired in a matter of months. Attila tried, but failed to make an impact. The walls stood proud as the last great fortifications of Antiquity, and no army ever broke through.

How the walls and districts enlosed within them have changed

The walls of Constantinople have not guarded the Byzantine Empire for many a century. Last bastion of the Holy Roman Empire, Byzantium gave way to the early Ottomans, who, before finally conquering Istanbul in 1453, were still unable to breach the Theodosian fortifications. Instead, they laid siege to the diminishing Byzantine power, cutting the city off from its supplies, and literally starving the last of its citizens. Still no-one could breach the city’s defence.

However, since the founding of the modern Turkish Republic last century, rapid population growth has forever relegated the walls, towers and gates to an architectural anachronism. And if sections lining the Marmara Sea and the banks of the Golden Horn no longer stand as proud – and indeed have been misused, abused and pulled down in places – they still often serve a function. Where soldiers and Ottoman janissaries replete with ferocious steel armoury may have once hindered your entrance to the city, today you are more likely to encounter an elderly gentleman seated on a small stool, chatting briefly with passers-by and feeding the pigeons. The walls themselves long ago became less a concrete and more an abstract reality, as pragmatic and forward-thinking Ottoman citizens, be it Muslim, Jew, Armenian, Greek or Rom, absorbed the ancient city’s defence system into their own kitchen and bedroom walls.

Today, within the stones that once demarcated the world’s richest and most powerful city between Portugal and China, lay historic Byzantine and Ottoman remnants. For tourists, Aya Sofia, Sultanahmet Camii (aka the Blue Mosque), the Grand Bazaar and the famous Cirağaoğlu Baths are old leftovers and ancient miscellany, along with tombs, Topkapı Palace, and wooden Ottoman houses that range from the dangerously decrepit to those operating as chic, boutique hotels.

Divan Yolu, once a wide, colonnaded thoroughfare dividing public squares and decorated with Greco-Roman statuary, now hosts the light-rail transporting thousands daily in each direction. International visitors pass near-invisible sections of the ancient city walls as they head towards the old Ottoman palace, guidebook in hand. Dowdy women from working class neighbourhoods descend on Eminönü, Istanbul’s largest, most atmospheric and ramshackle market, to purchase Turkish dietary staples, and though they’ve probably lived in the city their entire lives, they remain unaware of the scattered wall fragments protruding here and there.

Discovering little-known neighbourhoods

Within the easternmost portion of the Theodosian walls, probably the most impressive, and certainly among the best-restored portions of their entire length, sprawl two of this city’s most fascinating neighbourhoods: Sulukule and Balat. Unlike Istanbul’s other inner city regions and far removed from the cosmopolitan feel and shopping precincts on the opposite bank of the Golden Horn, these two neighbourhoods make for a stroll quite unlike any other in this town. ‘Belle époque’ facades of the buildings on İstiklal Caddesi, photos taken by almost every tourist, are absent from an area inhabited strictly by traditional Turkish families and one of the world’s oldest Rom communities.

As you pass through an enormous gate in the walls, you leave behind the roaring, unrelenting traffic of the modern city and enter a quieter, calmer way of life. In Sulukule – Water Tower in English – an impromptu assembly of gypsy children will instantly appear, grinning confidently. Everyone is younger than ten. Each girl carries a smaller sibling, each boy a plastic toy gun. Shoddily constructed abodes of vivid, garish colours stretch higgledy -piggledy up and around narrow, twisted lanes that are unsuitable for motorised traffic. Many homes have ingeniously incorporated the old city walls into their structure. Why build anew when the tried-and-tested product sits unused? Sulukule contains an endangered way of life that is disappearing; with plans to rehouse the Rom in generic and unforgiving and unsightly tower blocks already underway, the gentle character of the area is about to change forever.

A little further north and you arrive in Balat, another old world contained completely within the walls. The smell of fresh bread and sickly baklava dominate, and entire streets overflow with children playing football or simply chatting in the middle of the road. In front of the barbershop sits the stereotypical, moustachioed male, idling away the days over tea and simit, the pretzel-like bread ring smothered in sesame seeds. Balat is poor as Sulukule is forgotten, and within these 1500 year-old walls are protected a way of life that will probably not endure.

Whether you favour official government statistics or taxi drivers as your source of information, Istanbul counts among its inhabitants either ten or twenty millions souls. Balat and Sulukule would have once been the outermost district of a prosperous, medieval Byzantium, at a time when it was indeed ‘City of the World’s Desire’. Today, these former outer districts could not be any further inner-city, and the desire of both government and private developers will soon bring in architects of the banal and characterless, as bulldozers reduce the area to a blank slate. The famous walls of Antiquity can no longer protect all within its bounds. However, they will naturally continue to stand, long after the inhabitants of Balat and Sulukule move into their new tower blocks, and are forgotten.