Istanbul II


To continue on from yesterday's post, some more notes from Istanbul:

  • The Grand Bazaar, with over 4000 shops, is the epicenter of the city in many ways. You can buy anything here - from clothes to jewellery to spices to power tools - and rub elbows with locals and tourists. (Very little deodorant on sale - this would make the metro rides a little more bearable).
  • Topkapi Palace is a sprawling collection of buildings that are now mostly a museum. Some incredible items here, including an 86-carat diamond, various sultans' clothing from 1000+ years ago, and other surprises, including a sudden and spectacular view of the sea that comes out of nowhere.
  • Aya Sofia, the Blue Mosque, and Sultanahmet are also impressive. Depending on the conquering forces at the time, Aya Sofia, from its origins in 360(!) has been a cathedral, a mosque, and a museum (as it is today). The sense of history and of just imagining the people and events that have occurred over 1600 years is pretty awe-inspiring.
  • The Princes Islands are a decent day trip, with ferry rides to any number of them leaving all parts of the city. Just be prepared for masses of people, particularly at day's end (not for you claustrophobics). They are hilly, and without cars, so getting around by foot, bike or horse-drawn cart (and get ready to jump out of the way!) are the only way to navigate.
Overall, there's not a lot of witty or insightful stuff to say about Istanbul. Glad (and fortunate) to have seen it? Absolutely. Will I hurry back? Not likely. While it's a place that easily fills up the memory card on the camera, it doesn't do the same for the heart.

Typical plates of mezes, appetizers

The ferry towards the Princes Islands

One of the bars lining the Galata Bridge

The view from Topkapi Palace

Heybeliada, one of the Princes Islands

A walk in the woods on Heybeliada

The main mode of transport on Heybeliada

One of the other Princes Islands

Well-fed young Turk

Brisk business, selling balik ekmek

Balik ekmek

Fishing off the Galata Bridge




Istanbul. The name conjures up images of a warm, mysterious, alluring place with small hidden alleys and bustling harbors crowded with small boats holding spices, fish, and exotic fabrics.

It turned out to be something else, something like a padded bra - full of promise from afar, but closer inspection reveals a fairly different reality. Not necessarily disappointing, just different than expected and advertised.

It has its charms - the history and architecture, the quality of the fake brands, the seafood, the Galata Bridge (bars and restaurants on the lower deck of a bridge = a great concept), the sea views from almost everywhere, Istikal Caddesi, and the many rooftop terraces - but they are drowned out by the near-constant hustle, rip-off restaurant charges, unending masses of people crammed onto the metro, and pretty much only men, mostly idle, on the streets and in the stores.

It is a city of contrasts, which you might expect as East meets West here:
  • From the many minarets around the city, you hear the Call to Prayer. It may as well be a Call to Prada, as every few steps you are asked to buy knock-off designer shoes or bags. It was annoying and repetitive - although one wiseguy did offer the best line of the week: "Excuse me, would you like to come in and buy something you don't need?"
  • The friendliness of the people is apparent, but underneath it in many commercial aspects is a real sense of being ripped off, whether it's a waiter, a taxi driver, or a corner store owner. Not all, by any stretch, are scam artists - but enough that it makes you leery at all times.
  • Women in tank tops and shorts walk alongside those almost completely covered.
  • The scenery is jaw-dropping at times, as is the litter in the parks and water.
More tomorrow in a new post. For now, some photos...

Sunset on the Bosphorus, as enjoyed from the Galata Bridge

This stuff was on sale everywhere. Stiff competition, I suppose.

Eerste Dag


June 14th, Netherlands vs Denmark - the first day of the Amsterdam World Cup experience. And as far as initiations go, it was a pretty good one.

I headed - via trusty two-wheeler of course - to the bustling neighbourhood of De Pijp. Specifically, to Marie Heinkenplein, a not especially touristy residential and commercial square (more of a semi-circle actually) about 10 minutes from the center of the city. More specifically yet, to Barca, a mildly upscale tapas bar.

I figured if it was full, I had a choice of several other spots right there - an Irish pub called O'Donnell's, and a few classic Dutch spots in De Beiaard and Cafe Kale de Derde.

In the end, Barca was all I needed and then some. Inside it was packed to the rafters with at least 4 large projection screens and a mix of trendy-but-hipster-free guys and girls. Outside were benches and tables and another 4 screens at least. This is scrubbed and clean Amsterdam, not the grittier one (there are at least 2 games left for that).

Average age: 28

Percentage expats and tourists: 10% - ideal for creating a more authentic Dutch atmosphere.

Average height: Preposterous
*Note - if you are going to come late to a pub anywhere in the world to watch football and hope to see the screen, choose a country where your typical male or female is not a giant.

Price of Heineken on tap: 2.50 Euros - quite reasonable

Food: Non-existent.
I was informed by the server that they don't serve food during games. This was a bit of an eyebrow-raiser, but it made sense when you saw the mass of people they had to navigate through.

Vibe: Happy, patriotic, chill, hot, and by about the 30th minute, pretty loaded.

Nestled into one of the few remaining spots outside, I soon got to experience the easygoing openness of the Dutch and chatted with everyone around me. I couldn't see the much of the screen because of the reflection. I'll assume the planners hadn't counted on the sun appearing in the city. But given my more immediate scenery (photos below), I wasn't complaining.

My immediate neighbours were three very friendly med students, one armed with a Hello Kitty cellphone, and another who felt instantly bad for the Danish defender who scored the own goal to put the Dutch up 1-0. Behind me, somehow the bottom of a wine glass broke off. (Did I mention this wasn't a hardcore football crowd?).

Fine fellow fans Claudia, Marielle, and Mirte

Onto the action on the pitch... The Dutch squad came out pretty strong, giving the crowd 4 or 5 "Oooohhh" moments within the first twenty minutes.

The football songs were booming throughout the bar as of the 10-minute mark. These were incomprehensible to me, unfortunately, aside from "Hup Holland Hup, laat de leeuw niet in zijn hempje staan". This means "Hup Holland Hup, don't let the lion stand in his undershirt", as far as I can tell.

After a more worthy strike was scored at the 85-minute mark (by Dirk Kuyt - be very careful how you pronounce his surname here), the Danes were dismissed as expected and the revellers turned the streets to orange, setting their sights on the Japanese on June 19th. I'll be heading to a more raucous area to file the next report - wish me veel succes.

(P.S. Biking home through a sunny Vondelpark to shake off a 3-beer, no-food late afternoon buzz? Highly recommended)

A moment for reflection

Nervy times with only a one-goal lead, until...

...goooaaaallll! Kuyt tallies after Elia's solid effort

Thievery Corporation

Walking into an Urban Outfitters store in Santa Monica, California in the year 2000, I knew I was in a cool place when a live DJ was spinning tunes in between the first and second floor.

Even cooler was the sound coming from the speakers - the chillout/reggae/ambient/Indian/
banghra/who knows what else sounds of Thievery Corporation.

Returning home a few days later, I quickly, er, "bought" a bunch of their songs online (this was before my conscience kicked in a few years later - I now only buy music on iTunes, honest).

Fast forward 10 years and they've become a top-3 favourite in my books. And in yet another nod to Amsterdam's ever-present entertainment options, I was able to see them live for the first time here at the venerable Melkweg. The room was perfect, with packed balconies and a full floor.

It was an unreal show, with a hugely positive vibe in a crowd of 20- and 30-somethings. Each song brought out a different lead vocalist, from Brazil, the US, Argentina and Jamaica by way of Washington D.C. The live band accompanying the DJs featured top-level musicians playing the trumpet, saxophone, bongos, sitar, bass, and drums. The show kicked off with the sexiest, happiest big mama ever, Sister Pat (photo from the 'Net).

It can be tricky to describe the music since I don't know any comparable groups, so I'll leave it to one of the group's founders at the end of this post to at least describe their philosophy. A search for similar artists lists a number of others that are way more obscure.

Basically, it was a cultural and musical experience that dipped me in a vat of coolness from which I have yet to emerge (although friends might suggest otherwise). I HIGHLY recommend picking up some of their songs. Le Monde, Revolution Solution, Le Femme Parallel and Air Batucada should give you a good start, but virtually any song from any album is good. Ditto with a recommendation to see them live wherever you can.

Happy to hear your comments as well...

From Rob Garza:

"We definitely want to contribute to the opening of ears, eyes, and minds. With our live shows it’s a poignant example of music and culture mixing together in an explosive vibrant way. To see a Persian singer singing in Farsi, as America debates on a war with Iran, next to other band members from all corners of the earth singing in Spanish, Portuguese, French and so on, it makes people wonder... and if you can get people to question the things around them, just a little, then that’s not such a bad thing."