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TURKEY | The Travel Empire


Turkey: Bursa’s Iskender Kebab

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Visiting Bursa demands a trip to the local Iskender Kebab eatery, a small, blue, unassuming restaurant in the center of bustling Ataturk Caddesi. In the midst of commercial grandeur (which is what Bursa is known for) lies the quaint restaurant known for serving one of the best meals in Turkey to everyone from traveling tourists, to elite business types, to local clientele, all seeking a taste of unadulterated bliss. To suggest that this restaurant serves one of the best meals in Turkey is a bold claim, especially given Turkey’s rich culinary culture, but ask anyone from Bilecik to Batman about Iskender Kebab in Bursa and you are sure to get a positive, wide-eyed, enthusiastic response.

The dish is a perfect amalgamation of döner kebab, pide bread, tomato sauce, yogurt, and brown butter sauce. Its richness not only satisfies, but also inspires and enlightens. It’s a meal you feel guilty for eating and I briefly found myself looking about the restaurant interior asking, “Why me?” Surely there are more deserving folk out there. Indeed you pay a hefty price tag for the dish (about 25 TL), but understand that it’s worth every kuruş. So if you’re looking for the most delightful blast of calories and a worthy story to share, or if you seeking the Sultan-treatment, put your guilt aside and indulge.

Written by Eli Lovely

Troy, Turkey: Not for the Critics

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I wanted to like Troy (also known as Truva or Troia in Turkish). I was very excited to visit the site– I’d read the Illiad and I thought I was intellectually prepared to step on the land of classical legend. Unfortunately while the ruins of this ancient city are currently billed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, nothing about it merits true awe other than the steep price of admission (20TL). The site, such as it is, is well-maintained and boasts a giant replica Trojan horse that visitors can climb in (as one would likely expect). There is also informative signage in Turkish, German, and English strewn throughout the well-marked and carefully restricted paths. However, none of the newly-installed frills change the unfortunate truth that the site was ravaged by the early would-be archeologists who excavated it, or that the natural topography has become so different over the years that one can hardly see the mighty Aegean from the hills of former Troy. Unless you have an incredibly active imagination the site does not give one any impressions of being the place that Hector and Paris once tried to defend while the beautiful Helen looked on. The sleepy surrounding villages, about an hour outside of the bustling port city of Canakale, feel as thought they are being unnecessarily trodden upon as huge tour buses and overeager classicists trundle their way through the countryside and into the tiny and tourist-financed town of Truva itself. This town boasts a hostel, a cafe, and a gift shop, all meant to service the actual archaeological site which can be completely seen in less than a half-day. One would be better served just lingering in Canakale and admiring the replica Trojan Horse from the movie Troy which is kept by the seaside there.

There are many other beautiful archaeological sites in Turkey which give the imagination a better spark, places where one can almost feel the presence of ancient civilizations still lingering in the rocks. Truva, Troia, or Troy is sadly more of an out-of-the-way tourist trap.

Written by Emily Pelka

Greece: Exploring the Ancient Olympos Valley

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Often it is the quest for magic that draws us transients to the far ends of the earth.  Search no more, weary traveler! Olympos will answer your call for the ethereal, the other worldly.  And how could it not? By nature, a place named for the home of the Greek gods exudes a heavenly richness.  Some may attribute the sensual atmosphere of Olympos to the jasmine and orange groves that line the winding unpaved road of the valley.  But there exists something more, some indescribable feeling that overcomes you the moment you descend into the Olympos Valley.  Although I arrived in the middle of the night with only the headlights of the jeep to illuminate the way, I didn’t need a visual to understand the sheer beauty that awaited me.  Before my first glimpse of the sprawling landscape, before my first waft of the heavy floral aroma, I could feel the weight of the mountains looming over me.  The Olympos Valley is one of those unique places in the world that appeals to senses beyond the standard five.


The Treehouse Pensions are attractions in themselves. The rooftops line the trees with the charm of an Ewok village, and the hosts at the Turkmen Treehouses are just as hospitable as one would imagine a cute and cuddly mythical tree dweller to be.  These pensions offer the most delicious breakfast and dinner you will ever find included in the cost of a bed.  Fresh eggs are cooked to order right in front of your eyes every morning, and the homemade dinners are sumptuous and filling.  Lunch is not included but for those on a budget it is easy to get by on snacks until dinner time.  The communal outdoor dining quarters create a quaint family dinner atmosphere, and as the pensions attract travelers of a certain mindset, most everyone is open to share a table and a story.

Guests can sip tea and smoke nargile in the cozy outdoor common areas decked in traditional Turkish upholstery.  The hot showers are unlimited, and just when it can’t get any better, the front desk offers activity bookings ranging from a midnight Eternal Flame Hike to daytime Pirate Ship cruises and everything in between.  The Pensions are a hub for low-budget travelers and backpackers, and are therefore savvy to your needs.  It is not uncommon to exchange lodging for some hours of work at the pension’s cafe.


Follow the meandering stream down the road from the Pensions, and you will emerge onto a beachy cove reminiscent of Treasure Island or Neverland.  You can bask in the sun mermaid-style all day long, but a warning to those with feet instead of fins-the beach is rocky and water shoes are recommended.  There are also numerous caves along the beach that are worthy of exploration.  The adventurer will find cliff sides suitable for diving platforms, a space most practically used by the local fisherman.  If the fish aren’t biting then a stroll along the water will reveal a haven of sandy outdoor cafes that will satisfy your mid-day tummy grumbles.  What lies beyond the string of  cafes? Explore. I dare you.  Maybe you will even catch sight of the elusive white peacock that only adds to the majestic surrealism of Olympos.


You may not make it to the beach on your first day.  It is easy to get distracted by the endless hiking trails that lead up into the mountains.  Here ancient Greek and Roman ruins are presented in a mise en scène similar to that of Kipling’s The Jungle Book.  Vine-swinging and perilous river-fording are highly encouraged.


Do not by any means miss the midnight Chimera Flames tour.  This can be arranged by your pension host.  The cost is something under 10 Turkish Lira and the experience itself is priceless.  Eternally burning flames at the pinnacle of ancient rock formations? Yes please.


-Book your treehouse pension in advance (especially in the high season-May to September).  The main stays are Turkmen Treehouses and Kabir’s Treehouses.  They both offer comprehensive web pages and are timely in their reservation responses.  I also suggest arranging a transport if arriving from the airport in Antalya.  The cost is a little steep, about 40 lira, but it is the highest cost you will incur while in Olympos, and well worth it, as the destination is more than 2 hours from Antalya and the busses require multiple transfers (this can be difficult without the Turkish language on your side).

-Sheets and Blankets are provided, but bring your own towel.

-There is a convenience store amongst the pension settlement that sells toiletries, alcohol, snacks and other tourist tchotchkes.

-Most pensions have phone and internet access.

Written by Ali Newlon

Turkish Coffee: Your Fortune in a Cup!

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Turkish coffee is the stuff of legends.  If you drink it every day, you might be insane, or have an insane caffeine addiction that will never, ever be cured.  It’s strong enough and thick enough to become it’s own solid mass, crawl out of the cup and slap you in the face every morning.

While you’re drinking Turkish coffee, you have to tread carefully and sip slowly.  If you are too overeager, you will soon be screaming in muffled agony, because the sludgy grounds will taste like the dirt Nick Prior slammed your face into during second grade recess.

In short, Turks take their coffee seriously.  There are special sets of china for it.  There’s a special way to brew it in a special pot.  There’s a special way to pour it that guarantees equal froth for everyone.  And there’s a special way to tell your fortune.

The first step is to flip your cup on the saucer, twirl it once or twice clockwise, and make a wish. You can also put a coin on the top of the overturned cup, which makes it cool faster.  And then you wait for the coffee to cool and drip into pretty pictures. Traditionally, the bottom half of the cup represents the past while the top represents the future.  Read it clockwise, or pretend like you are.

I’ve been told that if the cup is difficult to pry from the saucer, your wish will come true.  Under these circumstances, however, your fortune is not meant to be seen, and shouldn’t be read either.

Which brings me to some advice: your fortune depends on who is reading it.  So make sure you don’t do it with anyone who harbors some deep-seated desire for revenge against you.  The meaning of the symbols is completely open to interpretation.  Some clichés come in handy here.  An ant is hardworking.  A knife is bad.  A flower or a rainbow is probably good.  But if I saw a rat, I would think disease or betrayal, while my friend would see her childhood pet, and read that as “a past experience will soon play a role in your life.”  The saucer can also be read by pouring the small puddle of coffee grounds back into the cup.

When telling a fortune, use your imagination, and be sure to stroke your chin thoughtfully every so often.  You’ll be fine.

Written by Olivia Gutierrez

Scattered Reflections of Istanbul: A Five Day Odyssey

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Day 1: Spend time in Sultanahmet (named after Sultan Ahmet). View Hagia Sophia & the Blue Mosque – among other sites that we weren’t even aware were under our feet (Topkapi Palace, Basilica Cistern) – enjoy first Turkish Breakfast with coffee & tea. Attacked by bees, followed by a short walk around the neighborhood. Houses are stacked, city is very Mediterranean – like Italy…stacks of houses on slopes of mountains cause for what looks like a cascade of homes falling into the shore.

Day is broken up by a 5/day religious call – loudspeakers over the city cause you to be completely shaken out of reality and dropped off in some eerily soul-squeezing religious moment. Even a non-observer can’t help but respond gutturally to this eerie call/response. Many people are taken aback by my 6 foot white frame and stare. Many women are covered, but not all. There are mosques EVERYWHERE and praying happens frequently throughout the day. Snacks (roasted corn, mussels with rice, Turkish bagels, chestnuts, lollipops made on the spot, popcorn and pomegranate juice stands line the city streets.

The metro station uses a small keychain-type of pass called an Akbil. These allow you to use all forms of transportation – metro (mostly above ground), bus (which will come to a slow roll/halt if they see you pursuing them, unlike in the States where you instead wait for the next one), and ferry (which is used to go to the Asian side & back, along with a slew of other destinations as Istanbul has a river that runs right through the center). Traffic in this city is obscenely dangerous. The road infrastructure contains random splits – usually containing metro stations – sharp corners, and not enough cross walks, making it quite risky to attempt to get to the metro station. Drivers are insanely fast, and when traffic is deep, you can sit there for hours.

The odor of the city is a mix of unwashed dirty bodies marinating in sweat and cigarette smoke. Smoking is very popular here, as are European hair styles which are unattractive by any standard yet speaks volumes about the idealization and fascination with Western culture (or more advanced European cultures). Soccer is extremely popular – and apparently one famous player dons a mullet with side swiped Cameron Diaz bangs. A very bizarre look. Designed jeans are very popular – moreso for men. Males link arms, which is not considered homosexual at all, even though the population appears to be very misogynistic and homophobic. It’s odd to see how masculinity is cultivated and expressed. Linking arms with other males = totally acceptable, being gay = totally unacceptable, covered women = totally acceptable, equality among genders = totally unacceptable.

Rituals are strong here. You must take your shoes off before entering a mosque or someone’s home.  Gyms & working out are not very popular here. Smoking, again, is all the rage. Drinking exists in metropolis but as it is not tolerated in Islamic culture, you see a large concentration on Nargile (hookah) here instead as a leisure night time activity.

We return to Besitas (besheetaj) where we stay with an American couple (who have been here for 3 years). Besitas is considered the Williamsburg/hip area of Istanbul and boasts outdoor cafes, lots of rooftop restaurant seating areas (very common). We visit some pubs and indulge in Turkish baklava and delights.

Side note: So unkosher – dairy + meat everywhere, breads in every variety, lokum (sugar cornstarch delight), aryan (cottage cheese drink), cheese & bread as appetizer, doner kebabs, lamb, sahlep, pomegranates, muscles with brown rice, raki, turkish breakfasts, cay (tea), nagile, turkish coffee, waffles cones, loaded potatoes, etc, fried cheese, balkava – all dishes composed with honey, butter, sugar, dairy. Fish sandwiches, bitter pickled turnip drinks

Day 2: Rooftop breakfast – menemen

Cab through Ortakoy (Fancy area) – mosque, waffles, potato, jewelry, ferry ride

Walk to Istanbul Modern Museum

Great pub & return to apt

Day 3: We hit the road and head to Sultahnahmet (get breakfast at nice place by metro)

Walk around the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofia and then past Topkapi Palace, where you read a small bit about the excavations they are doing and how many artifacts are still being collected from the sites, which is crazy.

We are told to visit the Basilica Cistern, which is one of my favorite parts of the entire trip. Medusa’s head is below. Eerie canals – must learn more.

Dinner at some street food place. See my husband, who is with his parents.

Whirling Dervish ceremony. 20 minutes of twirling that is so fluid and uninterrupted by feet movement, that you do feel as if you’re a part of a  total religious experience. More dessert.

Metro to Isticall and who should be on our metro car exactly, my husband, but I have a hysterical breakdown of course because everything is at the height of overwhelming and I can’t pull it together. Isticall (Ali, Eli, Joe, etc) is like every busy center of every city – bustling with nightlife and youth. We have some beers in hidden side streets, dance to American rock music, head to RITIM which is a dance place. Everyone stays until we shut the place down. We are chatting at 4:30am and I finally call time to head back.

Day 4: Late start robs us of breakfast experience, but we have a doner wrap which is better than Turkish breakfast. We head to Uskadar which is the boat that takes you to the Asian side. We have fried dough covered in honey (which is essentially a donut) and experience the bazaar in that country. There is such an abundance of vegetables that it is almost laughable that the only things you are served around the entire country is meat, cheese, sugar and bread. No vegetables.

Another interesting observation: they do not have domesticated pets – they abhor cats, which are regarded in the same vein as we view pigeons.

Dolimici Palace – we take the metro to the Dolimici palace and see how this (one of many) palace has nearly bankrupted the entire country. Extensively decorated and detailed, it seems as if it is miles long. It sits on the water, has pristine lawns with trees that were imported from all around the world, places with many different climates (how do they survive?). The inside of the palace has a total ruby-Ottoman feel, with ornate patterns of hardwood floors, dissected mirrors, crystal-ladended staircases, chandeliers the size of boats made completely of crystal and paintings that rival the most beloved ceiling art in the world. Tons of gold leafs were imported. Elaborate rooms upon rooms upon rooms with different seating styles. The most gorgeous patterns, rubies, gold, crystal, identical rugs…

We purchased tickets to the Besitas soccer game (they were slated to play another team.. teams come from certain neighborhoods) – We went to dinner beforehand and ordered Turkish tapas – fish (we were by the fish market), spicy pepper mash, eggplant, and yogurt with dill – and loads of bread. And raki – with water poured into it which makes it turn white. While eating outdoors, we were part of the spirit of Besitas soccer spirit in the hometown. The entire population of the city was out and about – and sections would break out into cheers – lyrics translated into Kartal Gol Gol Gol (Eagles, goal, goal, goal) – (opposing team name here, suck it suck it suck it) and songs of the like. One section would begin and then entire population would break out into song.

We drink beers on the way to the stadium because it’s totally legal. We begin on the top tier but finagle our way down to the bottom tier. The soccer team relies on the crowd for energy, enthusiasm and support. The game tied – 90 minutes of panic and excitement and being encased in that stadium holds you hostage to the same fervor and intensity.

After the game we head to Isticall and wing up at the Sugarcube cafe and were introduced us to hazelnut vodka, which tasted like amazing fun serum and once again we shut the whole club down. We headed home after the club and ended up consuming 2 wet burgers, which actually were rightly named honey sticky burgers by my traveling companion – it seems like someone stacked burgers and then poured on the top layer butter, oil, and honey and waited until that liquid mess seeped through each layer of burgers until it hit the bottom.

Day 5:

Late lunch/snail episode

Spice Bazaar

Turkish Bathhouse


Many people selling potato peelers and rabbits in a row that tell your fortune

Written by Annie Gaudet