Cuttlefish, Anyone? Part II

Well, the long-awaited final leg of my journey has begun.  I arrived in Venice two nights ago, and soon found myself in a state of culinary euphoria.  Venice is the one place on this journey to which I’ve been before, although the last time I was here, my classmates and I spent four sleepless days and nights preparing an installation for the biennale.  Of course, anything that could have gone wrong did, and I remember running around narrow alleys in search of hardware stores that sold turnbuckles, and desperately seeking plexi-glass glue for the model that I had broken while getting on the plane in Boston.  It was an incredibly stressful experience, but one from which I think I learned a few lessons.

Anyway, this trip to the lagoon city is completely different, and rather than feverishly trying to construct an installation, I’ve been enjoying taking it easy here.  When he came to speak at MIT while I was there, Ai Wei Wei famously declared that he hates Venice.  Yes, it’s hip to be a contrarian, cynicism is in, and I usually find myself agreeing with similar sentiments, but I have no shame in saying that I love Venice.  I know that this statement will forever banish me to irrelevance, grouping me into a category of anti-critical fools, but I don’t care.

It’s true, however, that the main touristy parts of Venice are pretty awful.  The main route from the train/bus stations to San Marco and the Rialto Bridge are downright shudder-inducing, populated by a slow moving mob of tourists, stopping to look in the overpriced souvenir shops that line the entire route, or sitting at cafes where they spend exorbitant amounts on mediocre food.  Piazza San Marco is mobbed with people trying to see all the “good sites” in Venice during their three-hour cruise ship stopover, so they quickly try to get the ubiquitous shot of themselves covered in pigeons with the Campanile in the background.  In fact, yesterday, much of the piazza was given over to set-up for a James Taylor concert (which I happily avoided).

But, only a couple of blocks away from these terrors, is a maze of quiet streets and canals, sprinkled with small squares and fantastic restaurants.  It’s possible to walk around here for two hours in the cramped network of streets without seeing another tourist, stopping to share a bench in a small campo with an old gentlemen reading the evening paper.  The food, when it’s done right, is also very different from anything you’d get elsewhere in Italy.  Everything needs to be brought here by boat, so seafood is the staple of the Venetian diet, and they’ve had a lot of practice figuring out how they like it.  While Piazza San Marco gets a lot of press as one of the greatest public squares in the world, there is something absolutely fantastic about winding down a narrow alley, ducking under a low sotoportega, and emerging onto a small square with a couple of tall trees, a few benches, and a small enoteca.  Similarly, I love that I can sometimes see the domes of a church that is my destination from across a canal, but can have no idea how to get there, because all of the paths seemingly move in the opposite direction.

Anyway, don’t take my word for it.  I’ve known a lot of people who’ve been here, and have not enjoyed it.  It’s also a city for which I don’t think the photographs do it much justice.  The experience of total envelopment in a quiet neighborhood is one that cannot be replicated on a computer screen or printed page.  I’ll try my best, though.  Here are a few photos (click to enlarge):

Someone mentioned that I've taken a lot of photos of narrow alleys. This one takes the cake, and is a major access route, too.

My first night in Venice was spent exploring Canereggio, the neighborhood in which my hotel is located. There is one busy street, Strada Nova, that leads from the trains station towards the Rialto Bridge, and San Marco, but just one block off of that street, everything is completely quiet, with little Osterias hidden on back alleys, or small squares of which few people have ever heard.

I found a fantastic Osteria on one such small square, Campo Widmann, which I never knew existed. I treated myself to a great meal here, with only local ingredients (typical in italy, I guess), and fish that was caught that day by Venetian and Burano fishermen. This was Branzino Marinato, which is sort of an italian version of ceviche. The fish was not cooked, but lightly marinated in some balsamic vinegar, and lemon juice. It was fantastic.

My next course was a sardine pasta, which is pretty self-explanatory, and was delicious. I did not go for the full three-course meal because this was actually my fourth meal of the day. I stupidly ate lunch at the airport in Istanbul, and then got on the plane, where they served me another full lunch. Also, the deserts at this place looked other-worldly, but I settled for one of the best espressos that I've ever had. I had a date with a gelateria around the corner.

My long-awaited gelato. Thoughts of this moment got me through some tough times on this trip. It was everything that I had hoped it would be, although my favorite flavor, stracciatella is on the bottom, so it's not visible in the picture. It's covered in tiramisu.

This is just one of the many quiet, off-the-beaten-track squares in the Canneregio.

I had to do the old "cough and snap" routine to get this interior photo from Il Gesuiti, which is only possible when there aren't many people around, and when the sexton is an ancient man who's nodding off in the back pew. I'll have a photo of the exterior when the lighting is a little better.

Of course, San Marco is undergoing some renovation, although the mosaics over the doors are still visible.

The opposite of a small square in Canereggio, San Marco is jammed with people trying to snap photos of themselves covered in pigeons, or posing in front of the basilica.

Do I have any more insight into the patterning on the facade of the Doge's Palace after traveling so far? I think so, and I think that my regular readers will, too. My final stop in Milan will give some high Gothic context, too.

The building remains a singularly eclectic melange of influences.

The requisite view of palazzos across the Grand Canal

Yesterday was laundry day in Dorsuduro.

Views like this, in Dorsuduro, remind me that people still actively inhabit this city. Although, painfully leaning towards Disneyland, Venice still has a very active community, for now.

At the tip of Dorsuduro, which swings around below San Marco, separated by the mouth of the Grand Canal, is Ca' Dario, a great spot to get views across all of Venice, like the one at the top of this page.

The high baroque Chiesa di Santa Maria della Salute was built in around 1630, about the same time as Istanbul's New Mosque. I arrived too late to go inside, but I'm excited to see the 12 Titians located within.

Someone stumbling upon this church might interpret the lighting as some sort of sign, beckoning them inside. I didn't, though.

"Sotoportega" means a passage underneath a building, and sometimes one has no idea what one will find on the other side. Also, these are sometimes the only through routes out of small squares, and can be difficult to find.

One of the last two gondola craftsmen can be found working on a boat towards the center of this picture. He has one rival, who's located on the opposite end of town. Some of his gondolas have ended up in Las Vegas. If you're wondering how I know all of this, I once met the rather unfriendly chap.

Cicchete, the Venetian version of meze, are small snacks that are enjoyed in the evening, while standing up and drinking wine. Tourists pay extra to sit down, but I try to live like the locals. I'm not fooling anyone, though. The snack on the right had some sort of truffle oil on it.

Cicchete are cheap, and the wine is delicious. It's a great way to start off the evening. On a Monday night, the interior of the place was jam-packed with locals.

These suckers paid extra to take their cicchete and wine outside.

Seppie al Nero, one of the dishes to which I was really looking forward. It's cuttlefish, cooked in its own ink, and served over pasta.

Local sole. Whenever I've order a fish like this in the US, the waiter has fileted it at the table. The job was left to me, and I can't say that I did it expertly.

Stracciatella on top. The perfect finale to a great day.

The statues become slightly more animated at night, or maybe that's the gelato talking.

Venetian Update Coming Soon

For those of you who have been patiently awaiting an update, fear not.  I will have a full round-up of my first day and a half in Venice tomorrow.  I’ve been spending my time enjoying the sites, culture, and food.  For now, though, I need to get some sleep before another full day tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

A Final Day in Istanbul

I woke up today unsure about exactly I would accomplish on my last full day in Istanbul.  Some part of me wanted to push on, and see as much as I possibly could, but another part of me wanted to take it easy, and enjoy every last moment that I had here.  In the end, the latter won out.  I took a nice stroll through the bazaar district, and stopped at one of Sinan’s great jewels, the Rustum Pasa Mosque, before heading across the Golden Horn to Istanbul Modern (the other contemporary art museum in town).

I had a great time at the museum, which featured many of the usual suspects of the contemporary arts world.  Some highlights included a typically whacked-out, but amazing Pipilotti Rist installation/video, some Rivane Neuenschwander videos, an Olafur Eliason installation, and a video of a movie being projected onto Nina Katchadourian’s tooth.  After being immersed in history this trip, it was nice to linger around the museum for a while.

In keeping with my plan to thoroughly enjoy my last day here, I changed my mind at the last minute, and decided not to hop on the ferry to Uskudar, on the asian side, to look at some more mosques, and instead decided to treat myself to a terrific meal.  I found a terrific place near the museum that was very highly recommended to me, and sat down for a final Turkish feast before leisurely walking all the way back to my hotel.  All in all, it was a great day.

I’m off to Venice tomorrow afternoon, where I have absolutely no idea what kind of internet access I’ll have (I foresee difficulties), so I’m not sure how frequently I’ll be able to update.

Here are the pictures (click to enlarge):

I climbed up a staircase to nowhere in an alley off the bazaar, and got this view over the district.

Pide, or Turkish pizza, tastes much like regular pizza. This had an egg on top, though.

Pide sit in the window, beckoning hungry shoppers.

The Rustum Pasa Mosque is only accessed by one of two narrow staircases in the bazaar district. Upstairs, is a small forecourt overlooking narrow alleys in the bazaar.

Designed by Sinan for a wealthy merchant, the mosque is small, but striking.

Supposedly, the benefactor was a real jerk, but somehow, he managed to marry one of Suleyman the Magnificent's daughters, proving that magnificence skips a generation.

The blue tilework is as intricate as some of the ornamentation that I saw in Samarkand.

Istanbullus have a wide variety of sweets from which to choose. They're definitely not good for anyone with a nut allergy, though.

They like things sweet here, and they even stuff apricots with more sugar and nuts.

After visiting Istanbul Modern, I took a stroll back to the Galata Bridge, passing one of my favorite decaying mosques.

I went all out for my last dinner in Istanbul. Here, the meze portion of my meal included octopus salad, seaweed, and olives.

I know this looks suspiciously similar to a meal that I had on Tuesday, but the waiter told me that sardines are the best seasonal fish, so I took advantage. Luckily, I've developed a real love for sardines over the past couple of years, and nothing beats fresh-caught sardines.

Fortuitously, the restaurant where I had dinner was just down the street from one of Istanbul's most famous baclava cafes. I indulged in a portion of pistachio baclava, which turned out to be five pieces. I've never been much of a baclava fan, so by my standards, this was great baclava. Also, notice the tea cup. I've been meaning to post a picture of one. The tea is served piping hot in a thin glass with no handle. Turks must have calluses built up on their fingers, because the glasses are incredibly hot to the touch. The tea's ridiculously hot, too, and unlike in asia, it's impolite to slurp.

I watched these folks fishing for a while, but didn't see anyone catch anything.

I am amazed at how much corn on the cob is consumed in this town.

I almost hopped on a ferry for a last trip to the asian side, but decided against it at the last minute.

With doors like these, this bank must do honest business.

There's a fish market on the docks on the Karakoy side of the Golden Horn from which you can pick out a fish, and have it cooked up at a neighboring outdoor restaurant.

At a totally different pier from the last time I showed an image like this, on another continent, with completely different performers, this was the main attraction, again. In the west, people have often been accused of orientalist fetishization, but clearly Turks have a similarly exploitative fascination with North American indigenous cultures.

A would-be fisherman takes some time out to mug for the camera.

This is a popular plaza for hanging out with some fish sandwiches or ice cream.

This doner joint was just picking up for the evening, although I would have thought it more of a lunch thing.

It's never too late for baclava.

This place was blindingly bright in an otherwise dark neighborhood, but there seem to be a lot more waiters than customers.

Backgammon is the great Turkish passtime, especially when played over tea. I once had a professor who claimed that backgammon is the "least intelligent" game. I would have liked to see her say that in Istanbul. I thought about playing a few games with these guys, but I would have felt really bad about taking all of their money.

Ferries, Feet, and Cable Cars

Another day in Istanbul, and another day of long walks, ferry trips, trams, mosques, and ruins.  Today, I also added a ride on a cable car, exploration of a Byzantine cistern, and a trip to a contemporary art museum.

I’m pretty wiped out right now, so don’t have much energy for writing, so I’ll just skip to the photos (click to enlarge).

The Basilica Cistern, pictured here, was built around the same time as Hagia Sophia, around 532. Its columns were reused from a variety of ruins in the area. Carp still occupy the waters.

Supposedly, during the early Ottoman period, this became a good spot to dump a body.

One of the ubiquitous men pulling carts struggles up the hill on the outskirts of the Grand Bazaar.

The bazaar had a few more signs of life today than it did last Sunday.

I thought that I might pick up a few spices in the spice market, but I think I'll have to go back when it's not so crowded.

I found a tiny little kebab place, staffed by a friendly waiter, and a more friendly cook. This was the salad that they gave me. It was a spicy sauce to be put on bread that was more similar to salsa than salad.

This simple meal was one of the best that I've had on this trip. Bulgar, lamb, peppers, onions, fennel, lettuce, and tomato. I put a bit of everything on the pita, added a little of the salad, and rolled it up for my dining enjoyment. It was cheap, too.

The friendly cook, who was laboring over hot coals, insisted on taking my picture enjoying the meal that he prepared.

i hopped off the Golden Horn ferry at the last stop, and walked about a mile and a half to get to SantralIstanbul, one of the city's contemporary art museum. I discovered a great exhibit on 20th Century Turkish art in the simple, but elegant museum, which is housed in a former power plant.

After the museum, I walked back the mile and half to the ferry stop, and then waited 45 minutes to take this gondola up a neighboring cemetery hill. The wait was not worth the trip, especially since at the top, I discovered that there was no wait to go down. I would have happily walked up the puny hill, and taken the gondola down for the experience.

The view was pretty impressive at the top.

On the way down, I descended through the cemetery to the Eyup Sultan Mosque.

The Eyup Sultan Mosque is an important pilgrimage site, and the plaza out front was packed with worshipers.

The area around the mosque is full of mausoleums like this one.

The great city walls, constructed by Theodosius II, still stand in tact, for the most part.

The neighborhood around the walls, Kasim Gosim, is particularly colorful.

A small gate in the wall provides one of the few means to penetrate the barrier.

The palace of Constantine Porphyrogenitus pokes out of the neighborhood.

While the Ottomans saved the Byzantine churches, they let the palaces fall to ruin.

I'm sure that most of the houses around here have panoramic views, but on the ground, it's nice to get a brief glimpse out to the Golden Horn.

Not a bad spot to dock a boat, this was where I awaited my ferry to take me back down towards the center of the city.

Another view from a ferry, this one is from up the Golden Horn, back towards the Fatih Mosque (right), the Suleymaniye (center), and the Hagia Sophia (left).

I nice supper snack, this bread, which was stuffed with potatoes, was tasty, and made for me over an upside-down-wok-type device in the open air.

Mosque, Mosque, Mosque . . . Fish!

I set out on a mission today to see some of the mosques that I still had to cross off my list.  I took a long walk westward from my hotel near Hagia Sophia, and, probably as I should have expected, I ended up spending more time in a few of the mosques than I thought I would.  I’m a little worried that some of my regular readers will accuse me of posting too many similar images of mosques, but believe me, they are all different (the mosques, at least), and I’ve gotten a lot out of seeing all of them.

In the evening, I didn’t really have any good idea what to eat, so I meandered down to the water, thinking that I’d cross the Golden Horn to have a meal on the Beyoglu side, but ended up getting distracted by the delicious fish sandwiches that are sold on the docks before I made it very far.

The photos are below (click to enlarge).  Allez Schleck!

Yes, another day spent looking at mosques. This is the Little Hagia Sophia, which was also built around the same time as its larger cousin. As the name implies, this one is much smaller.

The interior of the Little Hagia Sophia is as intimate as the larger Hagia Sophia's is vast.

This worker is taking advantage of fact that there is always a nice breeze under the arcades around the mosques.

The Book Bazaar is located in the shadow of another enormous mosque, the Beyazit.

Cool shade is also provided by the walls surrounding the mosque courtyards.

The Beyazit Mosque was one of the first grand mosques to be built by the sultans. It is far more ornate on the interior than anything that Sinan produced.

Another Sinan design, the Sehzade Mosque was the architect's first major mosque in the city.

The Sehzade Mosque must have been well used, as the worn marble threshold makes clear.

The fountains in the mosque courtyards are still actively used, and seem to be important meeting places.

The interior of the Sehzade is evocative of Sinan's later grand mosques to come. I was sitting in the back when prayers began, and stayed there inconspicuously throughout the ceremony. It was a powerful experience to see and hear the mosque in action.

Every surface in the mosque resonated with the sounds of the imam's melodious prayers.

The Aqueduct of Valens is an old Roman artifact that now serves as a huge traffic obstruction.

I made a trek to see this mosque, which was built as an ancient church, only to discover that it is closed for renovations.

Istanbul is composed of layers of history built on top, or crammed next to each other.

I made a twenty minute walk out of my way to visit the Fatih Mosque, only to discover, once again, that it is currently being renovated. The tiny glimpses that I got looked impressive, though.

From a distance, it's pretty hard to tell that the Fatih Mosque is being renovated. This does not help those who see it in the distance, and are intrigued enough to make their way to see it (I'm speaking from experience).

Corn on the cob is a popular street snack. The setting's not so bad, either.

These bobbing boats serve what has become my new favorite street food, the local fish sandwiches. Throw in a backdrop of the Suleymaniye on the hill, and I can't resist.

Although I try to sample as much of the food as I can, I've become addicted to these sandwiches, known as "balik ekmek," or "fish and bread." I could not resist getting one for dinner.

Lemon juice and salt are provided on the tiny tables. Nothing else is needed.

I'm not the only one addicted to these sandwiches. The tables were crammed with locals.

I can't imagine that it's easy to cook in these boats, but I guess the guys have had enough practice.

I couldn't resist snapping another photo of the New Mosque, which isn't so new (it was built in the 17th Century).

The New Mosque's arcade has some blue tile work that is vaguely reminiscent of the Timurid tile work that I encountered in Uzbekistan.

The mosque is in an extremely busy district, but the courtyard was surprisingly peaceful.

The Galata Bridge seems to be the most popular fishing spot. It's funny to see these people with enormous fishing poles pulling up sardines.

Istanbul has a huge population of ferrel cats. I sometimes hear them serenading me at night.

This guy sold me a kilo of tasty cherries for $2.

The quay in Eminomu becomes an open air market at night.

 

 

 

Cruising up the Bosphorous

Yesterday, I had planned to take a ferry up the Bosphorous, and explore some of the settlements on the shores.  However, the manager at my hotel convinced me to join a tour cruise that was making the same trip.  While the boat was comfortable, and food was served, I think that I would have preferred making the trip on my own by ferry.  I didn’t really have much time at all to explore.  Our first stop was at a fishing/beach village all the way up by the Black Sea.  Unfortunately, we stopped in the small harbor, which was also part of the beach/swimming area, and could not walk ashore.  Stupidly, I also forgot my swim trunks on my hotel bed, so the 45-minute stop was not all that great for me.  Our next stop only lasted 15 minutes, and I just had enough time to get an ice cream, and walk around a little bit.

All in all, though, I’m glad that I made the trip, although I would have appreciated a little more freedom.  It was nice to get a sense of the city from the water.

Here are the pictures:

We made our all the way up to the mouth of the straight at the Black Sea. This little fishing village was close to the Black Sea, and had an old Byzantine castle overlooking on a point up above.

We stopped at the town pictured in the photo on the top of this post for swimming. Like an idiot, I forgot my swim trunks on my hotel bed. These people were avoiding the crowds at the beach.

I caved in, and got some ice cream at a fishing village on the asian side. This one had vanilla, chocolate, and caramel.

This little village had what seemed like one fish restaurant per inhabitant.

Right around here, on the European side, a house just sold for $120 million.

This is a famous Turkish military academy. Some names with dubious reputations graduated from here. It's a nice setting, though.

Before this bridge was built in the seventies, the only way that Istanbullus could reach the different parts of their city was by boat.

A view towards Uskudar, on the asian side

The Dolmabahce Palace, pictured here, was built in the 19th Century, and soon replaced Topkapi as the sultan's preferred residence. Ataturk ended up moving in when he took power.

The Dolmabahce Mosque became the sultan's home mosque, too.

Dinner: a lamb dish, served in a white-hot terracotta bowl. I'm not sure this was the best choice after a hot day, but it was pretty good, once it stopped boiling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Real Adaptive Reuse

I had grand plans for seeing much of the city yesterday, but I ended up spending the whole day in Hagia Sophia.  Once I got in, I had trouble making myself leave.

I was prepared to be underwhelmed by the interior of the building.  But, to my surprise, it completely exceeded my expectations.  Built as a church in 537, converted to a mosque when the Ottomans took over a thousand years later, and turned into a museum when Ataturk came to power, its central space, is vast, towering, and awe-inspiring.  Judging by the exterior, I didn’t actually expect this space to be so enormous, and was shocked when I entered.  It was a moving experience, one that I wish I could repeat.

In the evening, I met up with a friend of mine from college who is now living in Istanbul.  We went out to dinner on the other side of the Golden Horn, and on top of catching up with an old friend, it was great to go out to dinner with someone.  Meals are social events here, and it’s always difficult for me to show up to a restaurant by myself.

The photos are below.  I’ll have another post later this evening or tomorrow morning.

The entrance to the church/mosque/museum is through these buttresses.

The narthex gives visitors a taste of what's coming. From here, you can glimpse the enormity of the space inside.

I walked around the space before stepping into the middle, trying to get a sense of its dimensions before being assaulted by its grandeur.

Stepping out into the center of the basilica was overpoweringly awe-inspiring. Is that descriptive enough?

Photographs really can't capture this space. Fortunately, however, there are plenty of scale figures around to give a sense of proportion.

I kept stepping back and forth center and the aisles, trying to relive the moment when I first stepped out there.

Fortunately, the Ottomans only painted over the old mosaics. The massive medallions with arabic script were added in the nineteenth century.

The original mosaics were uncovered when Ataturk made the building a museum.

Nothing brings back great travel memories like a video of a mosaic.

I can now understand why every Ottoman architect built mosques vaguely reminiscent of this building.

 

Sinan spent his whole life trying to top this building. I don't think he was ever able to do it, and it must have been incredibly painful for him to live in this city, and see Hagia Sophia every day.

If I had seen nothing else on my trip to Istanbul, this would have made it worth it.

"Look, kids! Another mosaic!" The exit is on the opposite wall of this passage. A mirror was conveniently positioned over the exit door to remind visitors to look back, lest they miss this last mosaic.

Those of you who know me well will know that this is my worst nightmare: a disgruntled clown, smoking a cigarette. I had to close my eyes as I snapped this picture.

My friend and I grabbed a beer at a rooftop restaurant with a view.

Meze: couscous, an eggplant dish, and some local anchovies (not salty).

The next course: these were stuffed with meat, and were covered with a yogurt sauce.

Local calimari

Fresh sardines. These were ridiculously delicious.

The streets in this neighborhood are filled with tables. This was the view from our ours.