Monday, 21 April 2008

Turkish street food

One of the things I most enjoyed about Istanbul was the immense variety of fast food and street food. You never need to go to a restaurant in the city - the food will come to you.

In some cases quite literally. If you keep your eyes open in the area around the Grand Bazaar, around lunchtime, you can see waiters dashing across the street, carrying plates loaded with takeaway meals. Almost every courtyard has a little cubbyhole with a chai (tea) maker, and waiters scurry about carrying glasses of tea on little metal trays, or scouting for orders from the market stalls.

"Simit! Simit!" - that cry is almost as typical of Istanbul's noisescape as the call of the muezzin. A sesame seed covered soft bread ring, simit is the commonest of the snacks sold in the streets of the city. Some simit sellers have a sort of spear with the simit stacked on it. Others carry a pile of simit on a tray on their heads. Some have gone for a modern solution - a little barrow on bicycle wheels.

Borek is another of the fast foods. In cafes, you'll see huge wheels of cheese borek, but in the street, you'll find 'cigara borek', little sticks of borek. I actually prefer these - they're crispier and less fatty.

You'll find roasting chestnuts in some places. One guy does a roaring trade near the bus stands at Eminonu. Elsewhere, you can find corn on the cob slowly roasting. Most vendors stick to a single food - but there is one stall near Ayasofya that does both of these.

A sweet tooth is easily satisfied. Fried dough strips soaked in sweet syrup cost a lira (around a dollar). You'll soon learn to suck the syrup as you bite, or risk the syrup running down your chin. Or try gozleme, pancakes with sugar (they come in savoury versions too).

Thirsty? Stop at one of the barrows loaded with oranges, pomegranates, and a stainless steel squeezer, and you can get a glass of juice squeezed while you wait.

Doner kebab and fish sandwiches (balik ekmek, or 'fish bread') are not street food - they're a little higher on the evolutionary ladder. But you can order at a window and take them to eat elsewhere. And like the street food they're cheap; we paid 3 lira on average.

But my best memory of Turkish street food is not from Istanbul - it's from Buyuk Ada, the island we visited on a bright spring day. Right by the ferry pier is an ice cream parlour with an amazingly varied selection of ice cream ('dondurma'). Chestnut icecream, sour cherry ice cream, pistachio, coffee and chocolate chip. Icecream is never cheap in Turkey - we paid more for our icecreams than we did for most meals. But it was well worth it. If you think the Italians know all about ice cream... this parlour certainly is up there together with the one just off the main piazza in Siena,  or the one on the Tiber Island in Rome, as far as I'm concerned.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Hide and seek in the museum

There's a report that the Quai Branly museum is playing games with its visitors.

The museum possesses a 'Mayan' crystal skull. Actually, it's a fake - made in Germany, probably, as the quartz it's made of comes from the Alps, not from South America.

As the new Indiana Jones film, which stars one of these crystal skulls, opens, the curators of Quai Branly have decided to hide the skull. It's only about ten centimetres high, so that should be easy.

If visitors want to see the skull, they'll have to follow a treasure hunt through the museum.

I love the elements of play, game, hide-and-seek. Okay, this is really intended for younger visitors - but why should adults be excluded from the ludic elements of life? I shall definitely follow the treasure hunt!

The skull will be on exhibition from May 20th to September this year, and if you can read French there's an interesting pdf about the skull and the exhibition on the Museum website.

Friday, 11 April 2008

The bells! the bells!

I seem to be finding a lot of good things in the Telegraph these days (which, being a Guardian reader by nature, I find a bit of a worry...)

Today there's a video on Big Ben.

Let's make all pedantic negative point first. The photos of bellfounding that you see are obviously from between, say, 1910 and 1930 - they aren't of the original process. I'd prefer it if either correct archival material was used (but I don't think any Victorian artists or engravers ever visited the bell foundry - I'd love to be corrected) or modern footage.

But the thing I really loved was seeing a bellfounder talking about his bells. How you can not just pitch a bell, but also give it a particular voicing - which partials do you want to come out? I do wish this guy would give a real interview - not a sound bite, but ten whole minutes talking about his trade.

And how articulate he is. Look at the overalls and the dirty hands - you might think this is a tongue-tied builder. Not a bit of it.

Anyway, for what it's worth, a nice little video.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

No sense of adventure

A piece in the Telegraph today points out that the British tourist - and I'm pretty sure this goes for other tourists too - is a lazy devil with no sense of adventure.

"This week a survey found that, while we're flying further than ever before, we're being lazier than ever when we get there. Almost half of us fail to leave the hotel compound for the duration of our holiday, and three quarters of us make no attempt to speak the local language (probably just as well)."

The writer makes the point that there is no 'terra incognita' left. There is nowhere to 'explore'.

What a lie.

Exploration starts when you step out of the door - or out of the hotel compound. Exploration starts when you decide to learn Turkish in a week. 'Bir patlican kebap, lutfen'; 'merhaba'; 'gule gule'.  (One aubergine kebab please; hello; goodbye.) It's rubbish but it gets a smile - you made contact.

Exploration starts when you decide to wander down a street just because there might be something at the bottom of it, or when you look up and smile at someone hanging out of their apartment window. Exploration starts when you decide to walk instead of take a taxi from one sight to another, or when you peer over a wall to see what's the other side.

Exploration starts by being curious. By being willing.

Willing to put in the work. Brain work. Leg work.

Now this guy says you're not a 'traveller' rather than a 'tourist' just because you've got a backpack.  And that's true. I am always amazed by the number of backpackers who aren't experiencing foreign culture, they're just meeting other backpackers of their own age who like the same bands and have the same backpacks.

But you're not automatically a 'tourist' just because you go somewhere that other people have been before.

You're a 'tourist' if you let *yourself* be packaged, rather than your holiday.

I hope he enjoys his next beach holiday. But if I just wanted to eat and drink and relax, I'd do it at home. Why spoil a good time by having to fly to get there?

A sense of adventure is not something that depends on virgin territory. You don't have to be Indiana Jones. But you've either got it, or you haven't.

Ten tips for adventure:

  1. Take a good map and learn how to read it. This liberates you from the need for taxis, tour guides, groups - you can go wandering about to see what's there, and still know how to get back on track.

  2. Talk to people as best you can.  All kinds of ways of learning the language - look at the labels in markets to learn the names of basic food; learn the words for local football teams and the words for 'good' and 'bad', you'll get a laugh that way from local football fans who'll be keen to tell you that their team is a good one. Learn hello, goodbye, thankyou, please. And learn 'toilets' - the one word that can really get you out of trouble!

  3. Listen to your instincts. Sometimes you just get a feeling about someone, that they know what you want to find out, and can help. Often, it's right. Play your luck - in Sofia, I found that an old friend of my father's was a bagpipe fan, and we spent a day searching among the music stores for a good djura gaida. I found it! In Istanbul, we found the one man in the market, purely by chance, who could tell us to go to Unkapani to find the best music shops. If you're looking for them, you'll find these people.

  4. Walk, walk, walk. I'm sure I could see more 'sights' if I took more efficient transport routes, but I'd never find all those back streets, those unexpected views.

  5. Get up early. You can have Hagia Sophia or the Alhambra almost to yourself just for ten minutes if you're up good and early. And then the crowds come. Besides, if you're a photographer, early morning light is the best.

  6. This is difficult for some of us, I know it is for me; but be willing to become a 'tourist sight' yourself, for the locals. You are something from outside their world - they're interested.  This can be extremely annoying - but equally, particularly with younger people, it can be a real chance to meet someone and make contact.

  7. Keep your eyes open. One of the most striking things about Rome, for me, is the number of eighteenth century notices prohibiting littering - beautifully carved on fine marble. You'll miss them, though, unless you're looking.

  8. Adventure can be strenuous. Remember to take a day off from time to time, whether that's to go for a country walk, laze about by the seaside or in a park, or pamper yourself in a classy hotel. When I walked the pilgrim's way to Compostela, I came down to Cahors late at night after a long day - and booked into an extremely posh hotel. Then I had a 'rest' day looking around Cahors. It was well worth it - I'm sure I was walking faster the day after!

  9. Read up on where you're going. Before you go and when you're there. Read every information panel that you see (there are particularly good ones, shaped like oars, in Paris - in both English and French.) Maybe you don't need to know all that stuff, but it gives you a context you might not otherwise have. And sometimes you learn some very interesting things - not just about the sights, but about the local attitude to history or building. For instance, did you know that every single Sultan of the Ottoman Empire was a saint, a poet, and a good man, and most of them were also champion wrestlers? At least, that's true if you read the information panels in their mausoleums - which are I think just a little biased!

  10. Take delight in both the ordinary and the extraordinary, the ancient and the modern, the classic and the spontaneous. Be open to new things. That's exploring.

Friday, 4 April 2008

A trip to Scutari

Most people with a few days to spend in Istanbul probably spend most of it in Sultanahmet, the central area. They visit Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, maybe Suleimaniye, and they take a cruise on the Bosphorus. They may go to Galata or Taksim, the modern side of the city. But I wonder how many go to Uskudar.

Uskudar is the old 'Scutari' - known to anyone who's ever had to study the Crimean War or learned about Florence Nightingale. Nowadays it's a bustling area with a fine fish market, and a real antidote to touristy Sultanahmet. Here you can wander along the street, buy yourself a fish sandwich (balik ekmek) for three lira (a bit more than a quid), and no one will try to sell you a carpet.

There's a fine mosque by Sinan, which I have to admit was my original reason for coming here. There's another lovely mosque by the side of the water, and a fine later baroque one with a lovely queen mother's tomb like a birdcage, open to the weather; and an old hamam by Sinan, now a rather aimless and down at heel shopping mall.

But it was the unassuming bustle of the place that really won me over. The fish market, one of the stalls bedecked with a hundred  economy lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling like a bead curtain gone mad; the narrow, thronged streets, full of spice shops and baklava sellers; the way every ferry from Eminonu spewed out a crowd on to the quay. This was real Turkey, not some show put on for tourists - and it was a lively place.

We didn't get as far as the greatest of the mosques, on the hill over Uskudar. Which is a pity - because apparently it's very good, and there's a great view across to the Golden Horn.

But instead, we took the ferry back, and drank black tea, in the same tulip shaped glasses on the same red-bordered saucers you will get everywhere in Istanbul; I wonder if there's a law that tea vendors must all use exactly the same crockery? A surprisingly comfortable way to travel, on the choppy currents between Europe and Asia.

A trip from Europe to Asia, in twenty minutes, for 1 lira 30. You can't do much better than that for an afternoon's travel.

A museum worth spending a penny in

I couldn't believe there was an International Toilet Museum in India. But it's true. (It has a website, so it must be.)

What's even more lovely than the fact of a toilet museum is its immense seriousness. The founder is in earnest when he says the toilet is the sign of civilisation. He has actually put his ideas into practice by funding public toilets around India which can then be used to generate biogas - a highly environmentally friendly idea compared to just going and shitting in a field somewhere.

There's also a lovely quote from an Urdu poet whose subject matter is farting, shitting, and pissing... I think it loses somewhat in translation :-)

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Understanding the mosque

A trip to Istanbul has made me think about the characteristics of the mosque as an architectural form. It's interesting to follow the way Hagia Sophia influenced the mosques in Istanbul - and the many ways in which its invitations were refused by Islamic architects.

First, obviously, the idea of a huge domed space was influential. But this was already present in Seljuk architecture a long time before the Turks became acquainted with the heritage of Constantinople. None the less, there's some evidence that architects such as Mimar Sinan, looking at Hagia Sophia, learned new engineering techniques - specifically, buttressing using exedrae (semidomes) to counter the thrust, the use of turrets to buttress the dome, and the creation of series of cupolas falling away from the main dome which creates the distinctive Ottoman profile - very different from the simple skyline of earlier mosques.

The idea of the dome as representing heaven is common to both the Greek and the Islamic architecture, too.

But now what differs very substantially is the feeling for space. Hagia Sofia is divided up into different zones, only half visible from each other. There's a narthex, an exonarthex, a gallery, whole areas in the corners which seem hidden in some exclusive penumbra, which have no visibility of the central dome. There's even a huge carved marble screen in the south gallery to divide off the Synod's meeting area - and the fact that it is carved in the shape of two fake doors makes it nature as an instrument of closure unmistakable. This is a building made to exclude, to divide, to separate.

By comparison the mosque is a zone of inclusion, with the single exception of the women's gallery. Even when the sultans began to divide themselves off from the remainder of the worshippers, the main architectural feature was the external ramp leading to the sultan's gallery -  inside the mosque the sultan's loge is often discreet and hardly visible, except in the magnificence of its decoration. Most mosques appear to strive for unbroken space - the arcades that screen off the aisles of Hagia Sophia almost never appear.

There's another interesting thing about the mosque. It pretty much has to be square. (There is one oval one, apparently, out near Yedikule, and it's a very late baroque mosque. Also, a private mosque - not founded by a sultan and so perhaps less exposed to objections from the Ulema.) That of course gives the architects all kinds of problems in sticking a dome on top. But it also means that creating a baroque style is difficult, because you have to have a square, which is an anti-baroque, classical form.

Architects got round this in different ways. At Nurosmaniye mosque near the Grand Bazaar, the architect created a horseshoe shaped courtyard. In other mosques, the galleries are used to create a feeling of dynamism within the square. But the real successes of baroque form aren't the mosques - they're the lovely fountains and 'sebils' (waterhouses from which refreshments are served) often placed on the corner of the mosque precinct. Here, the round form let architects play with concave and convex forms - the grilles of the windows, the overhanging eaves of the roof. One of the nicest shadirvans (ablution fountains) is that in the courtyard of Hagia Sophia - and I bet of the thousands of people who visit every day, barely any of them give it a glance. It's lovely, and the delicate grilles are as good as anything in the church.

And that brings me to the last thing I learned about the Ottoman mosque.  You can't see a mosque as just a mosque, because in almost all cases it's the centre of a complex ecosystem a little like the English cathedral close. Suleimaniye for instance was built within a fine precinct wall, with areas both sides where caravans could spend the night with their camels and tents; there's a graveyard with the mausoleums of Suleiman the Magnificent and Haseki Hurrem, better known as Roxelana, his wife; outside the precinct wall are a row of shops (arasta) designed to pay rent to the mosque, so the development was self funding; there are four separate medrese (schools), a sibyan mekteb or primary school, a hamam (bath), a doctorate school of law, a cistern, a hospital, a kitchen (now a restaurant) and a hospice where travellers were entitled to spend three nights free. Even the houses of the professors at two of the medrese have been included as part of the package.

This is the biggest and best planned unit in Istanbul, but even small mosques like Rustempasha Cami are at the heart of a little community. Here, the mosque is built up above a vaulted basement, with shops in it - you take a little twisting stair up between two shops to arrive suddenly in the light, open portico in front of the mosque. To both sides of the mosque, trading hans were built, and the little shadirvan has been tucked away on one side, below. And of course there's the minaret.

Minarets, by the way, were one of the ways of indicating the status of a mosque. A regular mosque had one; foundations by members of the ruling family were entitled to two; some sultans' mosques have four (like Suleimaniye); and Sultanahmet, daringly, has six.

Clive of India's tortoise

Sometimes the past is distant - looking at old ruins, you have to stretch your imagination to reinvest them with significance and life. Sometimes I've been able to do that - at Burgh Castle for instance, a Roman fort stranded in the middle of the Norfolk Broads - but sometimes, all I can see is a tumble of rocks that might be a lost 1970s rockery attempt or a bit of Victorian wall for all I know, and I just can't get any kind of connection with the past.

And sometimes, the past strikes you with great force.

I found out today that Clive of India's tortoise lived till 2006. I'd always thought of Clive as a far-away figure; interesting (he committed suicide after his return to England, no one quite knows why) but not really present as a character in the way that, say, Henry VIII is to generations of English schoolchildren.

But somehow knowing that his tortoise made it into this millennium - that's connected me to him with a little current of electricity.

I wonder what that tortoise had seen over its 250 years of life? I wonder if Clive, back in London, ever thought fondly of it; or was it just forgotten, like the furniture of his old house, the pots and pans in the Indian kitchen? I wonder if it was a happy tortoise... if the concept of happiness is actually applicable to tortoises?

And I wish... I know it's stupid, but I really wish I had seen that tortoise before he died.