Belgrad Forest (Belgrad Ormanı)

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After two weeks of being stuck on campus for various work obligations, I was desperate to get out for the weekend!  We decided to venture out to Belgrad Forest with our friend for a last dose of autumn before winter rolls around and to get some fresh air.

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It’s strange that such a sprawling city has this amazing slice of nature right beside it.  I absolutely love the city, but having been raised in a small town in the country, it was so refreshing to escape the crowds and to take in the smell of damp leaves as opposed to the usual combination of smoke and garbage.  We were also blessed with a beautiful day on this outing – no rain and just the slightest cool breeze.

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When we first walked in, we felt a little out of place (it seemed that this was a place mostly reserved for couples to make out or to take pictures together); however, once we got past the entrance and off onto some of the smaller trails, we were able to explore without accidentally elbowing any young lovers.

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We were very excited to find some pretty red oak trees that had been imported from the States.  Look at those leaves!  Also, my friend and I accidentally color coordinated with said leaves.

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I love him.

Besides frolicking through the forest, our main weekend activity was to eat like kings!  I had a third trimester food baby by the end.  We had Chicago style hot dogs at Shake Shack and a massive Lebanese brunch at Tahin.  We thought we were doing pretty good on Sunday when we opted for a vegan lunch, but we pretty much ended up pigging out there as well.  It was all just so good!

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The highlight of the weekend gluttony was a FABULOUS little Italian joint on the Asian side called Semolina’s.  They had delicious bruschetta and all kinds of fettuccine, all of which tasted like the real deal.  I got the fettuccine puttanesca, which was amazing and also reminded me of The Bad Beginning, which in turn reminded me of the Netflix series that is coming out soon!  Ahhh!

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I’ll have to make up for a lot of slacking this week, but I think it was worth it.  In just one more week, we’ll have finished up our first term of the year, which seems insane.  Bring on the Fall Break!

Istanbul Coffee Festival

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Anyone who knows me well knows of my love for coffee…especially good coffee.  My husband and I were just casually looking around for things to do over the weekend and when the Istanbul Coffee Festival came under our radar, it was a no-brainer.

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The Istanbul Coffee Festival, otherwise known as paradise, is an annual event that brings together all things coffee.  There were TONS of local coffee shop owners, as well as several international coffee brands.  There were also many workshops, snack vendors, and fun activities at the event.  Obviously, the best part was the coffee.  I did my best to visit every stand to taste what they had to offer, determined to find a few favorites to take home with me.

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It can be hard to escape the usual Turkish coffee in Turkey, but Istanbul has a fairly vibrant coffee culture if you’re willing to seek it out.  There were several great vendors who were offering fabulous filtered coffee, from pour-over to drip to cold brew.  You name it, they had it!

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After four hours of non-stop complimentary coffee samples, I don’t even want to talk about how caffeinated I was.  If not for the lingering cold, I doubt I even would have slept. It was totally worth it though, because not only did we get to drink amazing coffee all day, but we also discovered plenty of new coffee hangouts in Istanbul for future weekends.

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We left with some pretty good loot.  We got some delicious new coffee beans, some tasty granola, and a new coffee grinder (so we don’t have to rely on our food processor all the time.)  We also got some cool t-shirts and a tote bag.

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Pretty much all of the coffee we had was good, but my personal favorite was Deal.  Their Burundi beans were fabulous and you can order them online, so if you’re looking for some great filtered coffee in Turkey, check it out!

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I’m feeling much more prepared for the colder days ahead.  I will definitely be back at the festival next year!

Back in the ‘bul

DSC_0166Let me just start this post by saying I sooooooo missed Istanbul.  As much as I love the sleepy comforts of Kansas and Alabama, as well as my peaceful lojman at work, I was desperately needing a dose of hustle and bustle in my life.  It was so comforting to hear the buzz of traffic and see the familiar skyline full of minarets and seagulls.

DSC_0161I will be honest:  I was a little nervous.  With everything that’s been going on in Turkey (and especially with all of the crazy press this summer), I wasn’t really sure what to expect.  I was definitely concerned about the possibility of anti-American or even plain old anti-foreign sentiment.  I am so pleased to say that it has been nothing but a warm welcome back!  All of our favorite locals were happy to see us and even in Istanbul, nobody thought twice about having American visitors.  It just goes to show that you have to take the media with a few grains of salt sometimes.

DSC_0109I’m a little ashamed to say that for as many times as we’ve been in Istanbul, there’s a whole lot we still haven’t seen.  In fact, prior to this weekend, we had only ever visited Sultanahmet once, which is literally insane.  I just love the Asian side so much and end up spending most of my time there because it’s less touristy and has great restaurants (it’s all about the food, right?).

DSC_0115Our very first weekend here, we made a beeline for Hagia Sophia and The Blue Mosque because that’s really all we knew about when we first came.  This year, we want to make it a point to see a lot more of what this fabulous city has to offer…because seriously, a year?  We’ve been here a year!

DSC_0125Fun fact:  if you are a legal resident of Turkey, you can get a museum card that gets you into pretty much every major museum and attraction in Turkey for free for only 50 lira (which is less than $20)!  It costs that much just to see Hagia Sophia alone!  Totally worth it!  It also comes with a list of every place you can visit, so we’re determined to check off as many things on that list as we possibly can.

DSC_0126After brunch with friends on Saturday morning (yay menemen!), we decided to kick things off with a visit to Topkapı Palace, a massive and beautiful example of Ottoman style and architecture.  We had heard our students and co-workers rave about it forever, so it was long overdue.  Also, it was an absolutely gorgeous day, which was perfect for slowly wandering through all the courtyards.   I loved all of the colorful tiles and touches of gold on everything.  My personal favorite was the armory, although we weren’t allowed to take pictures in there.

DSC_0131Trying to see everything was a bit ambitious   The treasure section was closed for renovation and we weren’t able to make it to the harem (because I guess it requires a separate ticket), so we already have plans to go back to see the things we missed on this trip.

DSC_0139After spending the night in Fatih, we got up the next morning to see another one of Istanbul’s treasures:  Basilica Cistern.  For me, this was the highlight of the weekend.  I don’t know how one place could manage to be so cool, creepy, magical, and romantic all at once, but it was.  The dimmed lighting, big fish swimming, and narrow walkways gave it an odd sort of charm that’s difficult to explain.  There was even a wishing pond!  I just happened to have a genuine American wishing penny in my purse left over from summer, so I happily tossed it in.

DSC_0172My favorite part of the cistern was definitely the Medusa columns.  Apparently, they were excavated from another site and just added into the cistern when it was built.  There are rumors that the two heads were placed at different angles to avoid the Gorgon’s gaze, but it seems more likely that it was just easier to make the columns even with that positioning.  Still, it’s fun to speculate.  I was a huge Greek mythology nerd when I was younger, so I couldn’t help but be excited while we were there.

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DSC_0176Last but not least, we finished off our weekend with a little necessary shopping and some good food.  Even though we just got back from the States, I can’t go to Akasya and not get Shake Shack, so American food it was.  I mean, you can get (beef) bacon and root beer floats.  I’m also pretty stoked that Macro Center seems to be getting more of a selection in their stores.  I found Hershey’s cocoa powder, sweet potatoes, blueberries, refried beans, and even a small selection of pork products!  All things I couldn’t ever find last year.

DSC_0177  Turkey is feeling more like home than ever!  I’m so glad to be back.

A Weekend in Istanbul

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Now that we are getting more settled into a routine with our jobs, we’ve been trying to plan more trips and activities.  When we realized that we both had three weekend duties in a row coming up, we knew we had to do something besides our weekly trip to the grocery store in Gebze. Since the school offers a free shuttle to Kadikoy every weekend and we hadn’t seen anything outside of the airports, we figured it was high time to give Istanbul a proper visit.

We booked a cheap hostel outside of Taksim (a popular area full of shops and bars) and hopped on the bus along with several of our students after finishing up lessons on Friday.  We were starving by the time we got to our hostel, so we headed straight into Taksim for something to eat.  One place in particular stood out due to the large crowd standing in front of it, so we had to see what all the hype was.  It turned out to be Kizilkayalar, a place that is famous for their Turkish “wet burgers”, a soggy, spicy concoction that is typically eaten with booze.  It was kind of like a meatball sub, a sloppy joe, and a hamburger all had a baby and then got Turkified.  It was some seriously delicious stuff.

After eating and feeling more human, we went down Istiklal Avenue and explored the shops.  I bought some much-needed fall wardrobe items and since it was starting to get cold, we decided to stop for a cup of coffee.  While we had originally planned on getting the usual Turk Kahvesi, we couldn’t resist when we found a Starbucks advertising their Pumpkin Spice lattes.  Afterward, we turned in early to prepare for a day of touring Sultanahmet.

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The inside of Hagia Sophia.

We ended up sleeping in way later than usual, which felt amazing, and then took the tram over to Sultanahmet to see Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.  After a quick bite to eat, we secured our spot in the crazy long line to the Hagia Sophia.  Luckily it went by pretty quickly and we entered the bizarrely beautiful basilica.  Hagia Sophia is a pretty good representation of Turkey in general:  it is a lovely, yet confusing clash of Eastern and Western culture.  First an Orthodox church of the Roman Empire, then an Ottoman mosque, and now a museum, each phase of history and culture is evident in its architecture.  Arabic script and minarets are contrasted against Byzantine domes and painted depictions of biblical scenes.  It’s the kind of thing that’s hard to explain, but amazing to witness.

The amazing tiled ceilings of the Blue Mosque.

The amazing tiled ceilings of the Blue Mosque.

Afterward, we walked across the square to the Sultanahmet Cami, better known in English as the Blue Mosque.  The massive mosque is just as beautifully constructed as the Hagia Sophia, albeit a bit more complicated to visit.  Unlike Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque is still an active mosque, which means that it is closed to tourists during prayer times and that you must follow Muslim customs when entering the mosque.  Both men and women must be covered from their shoulders to their ankles and women must cover their heads.  You also can’t wear shoes.  On your way in, you can pick up a scarf or skirt to borrow for free and a plastic bag for your shoes.  Although it is a little labor-intensive, it’s definitely worth a visit to get a look at the amazing blue tiled ceilings.  They also have informational presentations about the mosque and about Islam for those who are interested.

Selfie in Sultanahmet! We look quite rough, thanks to forgetting to pack shower essentials and the onset of colds.

Selfie in Sultanahmet! We look quite rough, thanks to forgetting to pack shower essentials and the onset of colds.

We had originally planned to go to a concert and then party the evening away in Taksim, but it was cancelled due to the tragic bombing in Ankara and subsequent protests.  Instead, we ended up walking around the Galata Tower area and finding a FANTASTIC vegan restaurant, which was a welcome sight after weeks of heavy, greasy Turkish food (this is not an easy place to be health-conscious).  We had vegetable-stuffed falafel, salads, hummus, and some amazing peanut milk lattes.

We tried to get back to our hotel at a reasonable hour to avoid any hostile activity that might be going on since we were so close to Istiklal Avenue.  I was also starting to feel a bit under the weather, so an evening in with a decent WiFi connection and outtakes of The Office sounded just fine.

On Sunday, we spent most of the morning trying to find coffee shops with good views to stay out of the chilly drizzle.  We took the ferry from Eminonu to Kadikoy and sat on the top deck, which was quite honestly one of the biggest highlights of the trip for me and cost all of 2 TL.  The view and breeze were spectacular.

We grabbed some lunch in Kadikoy and walked around some of the shops before hopping back on the school shuttle to start another crazy week of teaching.

View of the Blue Mosque from Hagia Sophia.

View of the Blue Mosque from Hagia Sophia.

This trip wasn’t what we were expecting since a lot of our plans fell through, but it was great nonetheless.  I still have to pinch myself every time I realize that we can go into an amazing city like Istanbul every single weekend if we want to.  We haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of the surface of all there is to do and see there.  There are guaranteed to be more adventures there to come.