Istanbul: the magical city where Bunny was born
Istanbul is my favorite city in the world and given my travel history this is saying something. The magic of the Bosphorus alone is like nowhere else. Venice is beautiful with the canals, the Danube in Budapest, every city with water in it is lovely and Istanbul is the Empress. From the very first moment I saw her, I was enchanted.
Nearly 20 years have gone by since I first set foot in Istanbul and my heart still races when I arrive there. My Dad (Popper) is actually what brought me there. On a visit to Vladivostok he met friends Mike & Halle Brady who were teachers at the International school, and the origin of the entire concept of Bunny. The next year we went to visit them in Kazakhstan where they were then living. Halle being an extraordinary cook, they rarely went out to dinner, however Turkish food was the exception as it was particularly good in the capital city of Almaty. To thank them for their hospitality we took them out for a Turkish meal, and we were ourselves super impressed. Later during our stay, we lunched on Turkish food and Popper made the mistake of drinking his coffee to the last drop. Anyone who has drunk a Turkish (or Arabic, or Greek) coffee knows this leads to a mouth full of powdery grounds. We howled with laughter and vowed to visit the place where the coffee came from. True to our word, when I left my job in Moscow, Popper and I met in Istanbul for a tour of Turkey, we were both enchanted, and I stayed for seven years.
Why it's taken me so long to post about this beautiful city can only be explained by the fact that I miss it so much. The color, the noise, the people, the chaos, the beauty, she is a sacred city for me. Since I first started Food Mood one year ago in Jan 2018, I have been ruminating on including Istanbul in the Bunny Chronicles, as the title indicates this is after all the city of Bunny’s birth.
For seven years I lived between Turkey and Russia and every time I landed at Istanbul Atatürk airport my heart swelled with joy and my eyes filled with tears of gratitude. My love affair with Istanbul is long standing and I am aware that no post will do her justice, maybe this inhibited me. Now, with the first edition of the Bunny Chronicles illustrated children’s book –
available for purchase on Food Mood in February 2019 –
I felt a growing urgency to write about this city of dreams and still I was stalled.
Ironically it was Netflix which brought feelings of nostalgia to my heart and compelled me to finally put my mind to sharing my Istanbul. With a lot of time on my own over the Christmas holiday I took some moments to pause, write, meditate, walk in the crisp sunshine, and I admit, watch Netflix.
In particular Istanbul Kirimizisi which happens to star my favorite actor from and the series Magnificent Century, Suleiman himself Halit Ergenç and the Protector, which can be watched in English or Turkish on Netflix.
Cover of the first book in the Bunny Chronicles series.
Pick up countless guide books and travel sites and you will need to wade through the enormous historical and cultural details and travel tips about this great city. What I offer are some personal stories and images highlighting what make this city magical for me, followed by guest blogger Megan Levine’s impressions on her first visit to the city in 2018, and ending with a few of my personal picks for places to visit (and eat).
Transport in, to and, around the vast city of Istanbul is with an endless variety of busses, minibuses (dolmus), taxis, private cars and boats. When coming from the south of Turkey, my favorite way to get to Istanbul is by bus. The first time we went to Istanbul together with Claudio, he and Begum indulged me, and we came to Istanbul by bus from the southern village of Dalyan where Begum and I had lived for many years. The reason I love this 14-hour ride, is the crossing of the Marmara in the wee hours of the morning on a car/bus ferry. The bus boards the ferry and we cross the vast expanse of the Marmara with dozens of other sleepy (sleeping) travelers making the journey. True to Turkish hospitality, there is a café on board and fresh hot Simit (crispy round breads with a pillow soft inside covered in sesames, a breakfast standard), tea, coffee, and various other treats are available. Passengers huddle together drinking something hot and if we are lucky watching the sunrise on this 20 minute crossing. This way you arrive to Istanbul like a Phoenix over the sea. On this particular occasion the sky was overcast and both Claudio and Begum stayed asleep in the bus while I alone enjoyed this spectacle, the nostalgia brought tears of joy and gratitude to my eyes – how lucky was I to have this experience so very many times.
Left the overcast sky at 5 am as we crossed the Marmara in the bus ferry; middle Claudio upon our arrival at the central bus terminal; right the reward of his favorite menemen for breakfast at a café on the Bosphorus when we finally arrived home.
My father was a police officer for 30 years and so when I am lost or in trouble, my natural instinct is to ask the police for help. When my Dad was still alive, I would take photos with police around the world and send them to him. When Claudio and I found ourselves turned in circles on a rather steep incline on a steamy day in the city, without hesitation I flagged down the police car coming in our direction and equally without a hesitation they took us in the car to the exact place where we needed to go – in Istanbul traffic! So stopped up were the roads, we even had time for the photos featured here.
Left Claudio poses with the handsome young police officers who gave us a lift and right they pose proudly in their official vehicle. We sent them these photos by text message that same day!
The lead photo of this post is an actual illustration from the Bunny Chronicles, showing Begüm & Bunny at the Ortaköy mosque. Ortaköy is one of my favorite areas of Istanbul, full of life, food, fun, and plenty of places to enjoy all of them. In 2014 our friend Diana was looking for a temporary home and Istanbul welcomed her with open arms with many thanks to our Istanbul’lu friend Cigdem. Soon after we visited her and shared an entire day basking in the sunshine of Ortaköy on the Bosphorus.
Right center Bunny, Bearli, and I with Ortakoy mosque; top left Diana and Bunny with a nargile; middle left Diana, Cigdem and I with a coffee; bottom left Claudio and Diana in one of their best moments smiling in her flat in Cihanger (see below for tourist details).
Once we were nearly the entire month of September in Turkey and our friend Sasha (from Barcelona and Paris posts) joined us for the Istanbul portion, where we both celebrated our birthdays. Each day was some small celebration and three days in particular stand out.
Breakfast at Sariyer to start our long day Sasha and I luxuriate in the abundance; bottom left the glories of Topkapi palace; middle Claudio a real Pasha with his Russian on one side and American on the other; bottom before we were caught in a flash deluge; next Claudio is served lamb Ottoman style; and finally Bunny & Bearli share a lobster tail later that night for dinner.
Begüm's Ece Abla is a notable opera singer in Turkey and she gave us a private concert one lovely fall evening just after we visited the Topkapi palace. Ever hospitable and gracious, Ece Abla had prepared songs in Russian, Italian, and English for us. She played the piano and sang, a private concert there in her lusciously comfortable home, complete with Turkish white wine, freshly picked figs, and walnuts from the tree in a nearby garden.
Center Ece Abla between songs; top left Claudio and Ece Abla toast her talent; bottom left Claudio, Begum, and I delight in candles, figs, and Ece Abla’s velvety voice; and bottom right Ece Abla and Claudio.
Nargile. An Istanbul pleasure I enjoy with relish, a waterpipe whose smoky flavor makes me feel myself part of another epoch, another world. Alone or sharing this ancient tradition with loved ones, I enter an internal state of peace and joy difficult to match, and there is a relationship to location. In 2010 when we were in Syria, I enjoyed one every evening with a cup of tea and usually together with Diana, and when we got home, I did not think about it again. Whenever I am in Istanbul the smoke calls me, preferably on the shores of the Bosphorus. On my actual birthday my call was met in Sariyer with the Bosphorus at our feet, and lemon mint flavor in our pipe. Sasha casually asked me how I felt, and I responded, “So happy my heart might explode into a million loving pieces.” In a rare moment of romanticism Claudio commented, “The world would be a better place.” For that moment, my world was perfect.
Top birthday nargile with Begüm, Sasha, Claudio, Bunny, Bearli, and I huddled against the wind on the Bosphorus; bottom left Sasha and Begüm earlier that morning with breakfast on the Bosphorus; middle Begüm and I pose with the nargile; right Begüm, Sasha, and Claudio on the ferry crossing the Bosphorus later that day for a visit to Kadiköy.
Turkey for Thanksgiving, right? In 2015 I made a Thanksgiving pilgrimage to Istanbul and Chiara a dear friend from Lugano (via Bologna, France, & Como) joined me. We arrived to brilliant sunshine and cold winds. Begum welcomed us at Sariyer and we settled in for a lovely long weekend filled with intimate friendship, fabulous food, and gentle adventures. Chiara was the perfect friend to share my treasured city with, she ‘got’ it without even visiting a single tourist sight. We walked along the Bosphorus in Sariyer, visited local places in Taksim and Beyoglu, and shared easy, comfortable time in total connection with our hearts.