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Go to Istanbul. It Rules!

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The week before Christmas we traveled from India to Istanbul, the first stop on the European leg of our trip. But before we left Mumbai, there was some work to be done. We scrubbed off the scent of our last overnight bus, shoved our dingy, Indian traveler clothes in the trash can at the hostel, and went to the Levis store for some skinny jeans so that we didn’t feel like total urchins while dining at flashy restaurants in Istanbul and Spain. I forgot how good it feels to dress up and not be covered in a constant layer of dust!

When we landed in Istanbul, Zach’s cousin Joe welcomed us to his apartment in the center of town, where we indulged in a week of comforts: coffee, a warm bed with fluffy pillows, brunch, bars with atmosphere, street art, high speed wifi, and most of all, cheeseburgers. Visiting Istanbul was the most familiar experience we’ve had in the last 16 months. It was cold, people wore black, no one cared what we were doing, where we were going, and no one was trying to sell us anything. Folks just went about their business and we went about ours.

After so much sightseeing in India, we were a bit torn between Istanbul’s tempting sights or our own, more basic desires like wearing heels and drinking whiskey and going to a drawn out brunch that wastes half the day. The thing is though, you don’t have to choose. Istanbul is a young, modern city steeped in a history that is older than most and is predominantly Islamic, as opposed to most other historically Christian European cities.

In coming to a Muslim country, I was prepared to wear loose fitting, conservative clothes and to be thinking about not offending folks. That may be necessary in rural Turkey, but Istanbul was full of tight jeans and funky leggings. For some, that was jeans with a headscarf. For others, it was lots of layers of long clothing, but in any big city, you will find a variety of fashions influenced by everything from religion to pop culture. There were plenty of indicators, from style of dress to the call to prayer, that we were in a city where Islam is the dominant religion, but that was just one of the many characteristics of the largely secular city. In areas where conservative dress was important, like at a Mosque, there were signs written in English and assistants to help tourists feel comfortable and respect the customs.

We spent a Saturday morning at the organic farmer’s market in Sisli, took the metro home and after dropping our mandarins and olive oil (a half liter bottle for 7 bucks!) off at the apartment, went up the Galata Tower (built in 500 AD) and watched the sun set behind the dozens of minarets that pierce the city’s skyline. We spent a lazy morning Skyping friends, gorged ourselves on a traditional Turkish village breakfast, then had our minds blown by The Basilica Cistern from the 5th century and tasted Turkish wines at one of the city’s newly opened wine bars.

On Christmas Eve morning, I spent the morning at the Kilic Ali Pasa Hamam, enjoying a traditional scrub in a gorgeous, renovated Hamam spa. After the exfoliating scrub, you lay in silence on a heated stone in the center of the room and gaze up at the light that comes streaming through the stars carved in the marble domed roof. Now this is the way to experience Islamic architecture. A trip to the Hamam was once a normal activity for Turks, but now is more of a touristy thing to do. A highly recommended touristy thing to do. At 130 Turkish Lira, or about $65, it is one of the more expensive activities in Istanbul, but it is worth every lira.

We lived like kings in Istanbul, a city that feels a bit like a young kid a with an old soul. There are endless historical sights to see, the nightlife is great, and their restaurant scene is well on it’s way. Even though most folks don’t speak English, the city was easy to navigate and people tried to help when we asked them (or had that lost look on our faces). I can’t recommend a trip to Istanbul highly enough.

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A Long Weekend in Melbourne

We arrived in Melbourne at 7:30 on a Friday night, people staggering in high heels down cobblestone streets and smoking cigarettes in grafittied alleys. With our backpacks still on, Zach and I made a beeline down Little Bourke Street to Chinatown for dumplings. I’d never been in this city before, yet it felt so much like home. We asked a dude eating out of a takeaway box where he got his dumplings, followed his directions, and proceeded to order a tableful of garlic drenched Chinese broccoli, sesame pancakes and dumplings. We didn’t have much to say at dinner, mostly because chowing down was a much better use of one’s mouth.

We didn’t really have a plan for Melbourne. “I just want to go and sit in a coffee shop and spend the day writing,” Zach had said of our four days in the city. So instead of planning, we went armed with a list of cafes and bars, an appointment at Alchemy Tattoo, and no real agenda for much else. We didn’t do any museums or see kangaroos. We went to eat and write, drink coffee and feel the vibe of the city.

Birdman Eating, Fitzroy 

Robyn and Stephen, our beloved roomies from Wanaka, recommended this brunch spot in Fitzroy. A minimal space with excellent espresso and tasty, interesting food combos. The highlight of the meal was lunch dessert of homemade blueberry, rosemary and pistachio nougat and a glass of rose.

The Carlton Club, CBD

Annita, the tattoo artist that did my tattoo, sent us bar hopping in the CBD as a rainy afternoon activity. Did I mention that I like her style? We started at this swanky bar with massive taxidermied animals and a covered outdoor space that felt like a rainforest in the mid afternoon downpour.

Penny Blue, CBD 

At the end of an alley off of Little Bourke, we found this craft beer bar with Gatsby inspired vibe and comfy, vintage couches. They let us in even though they weren’t quite opened yet and being only 5:00, we were the only people there. We popped out the computer and worked on some wedding plans while sampling local beers from Little Creatures and Bridge Road Brewers.

Trippy Taco, Fitzroy

Nothing fancy. Just really good tacos. Chewey corn tortillas, black beans, smoky hot sauce, fresh lime. You don’t need much else. It had been awhile since we’d had good, cheap tacos and Trippy Taco delivered.

A few months ago, one of our friends confided that he felt “lost in travel”. He said, “don’t forget why you travel, don’t just do it for a stamp in the passport.” Why you travel can be a very personal thing, something that can’t be dictated by a guidebook of sights that you just have to see. For us, Melbourne was a familiar, comfortable place to stop and think after a life changing year in New Zealand and before diving into Asia.

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Restaurant Review: MoVida

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Even though we’re traveling on a tight budget, it’s still important to splash out once in a while on something we love to do. For some people maybe that’s a new outfit, a night out dancing, or a tattoo. For us, its eating. On our recent detour to Melbourne that meant eating at MoVida.

A few friends in New Zealand praised Frank Camorra’s restaurant up and down for inventive, delicious food. The days preceding our reservation were filled with building anticipation, like the days approaching Christmas or a birthday when we were kids. These are the moments that make breaking the budget worthwhile.

The food is served tapas style, so we knew we’d have a chance to try a lot of new and interesting dishes. The problem, sometimes, with tapas restaurants, is that the multitude of choices and flavors produce a disconnected and ugly contrast. To avoid this, we left ourselves in the hands of our waiter, with whom we immediately connected.

“What are your favorites?” Christina asked.

“Oh, I love that question. Awesome.” And he ran us through five or six options.

“Great, those sound good.”

“Cool, but…you’ve got three really rich dishes in a row here. I’d maybe swap out one of these for something lighter to break things up a bit. Maybe seafood?”

“Sounds good.” And later on, “can you help us with wine to match our courses?” Christina asked.

And I said something I never thought I’d say: “I’m kind of curious about sherry.”

“Oh, awesome. I was hoping you’d say that,” our server said.

At a friend’s house the week before, we mentioned we’d be going to a well-regarded Spanish tapas restaurant.

“Do they have sherry?” Our friend Steve said. He’s worked in the beverage industry, so he knows his booze.

“I don’t know, and I’m not sure if I care,” I said. Sherry was for old people and came in jugs, or so I thought.

“You should.” Steve fished out a bottle of Manzanilla from his liquor cabinet. “Here, try this.” I tried it and was impressed, but not blown away. The flavor was intense and unusual. The biting tang and sharp acidity were so different from other beverages in the class I didn’t know what to think, but I knew it wasn’t for me…yet.

Last night, everything changed. First, our server recommended the anchovy with smoked tomato sorbet to for our first course, and with it, a sherry (of course). Our trust in Steve and our trust in the server, and maybe a bit of curiosity won out.

It was perfect. The sharp tang of the dry sherry cut through the savory anchovy, while extremely salty fish was tempered by the strong flavor of the liquid. It was as if a key were fitting into a lock on both sets of flavors, opening each other to a new world of tastes. I’ll never look back. I’m a sherry convert.

It’s not often that a beverage and a food jive so well that they transform each other. It’s even rarer that a food and beverage pairing opens your eyes to ingredients you hadn’t enjoyed in the past. Our first course at MoVida in Melbourne on Sunday did both, partly because we left ourselves open to trying new things and our server led us down the right path. Good servers can immediately read customers for certain preferences. And good customers communicate their preferences clearly.

I’ll never look at sherry (or anchovies!) the same way again.

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St. Kilda, Melbourne

When I think about a mid winter’s farmer’s market, onions, potatoes, cabbage,  and jams come to mind. And vendors shivering, possibly clutching a cup of coffee with two gloved hands. I didn’t expect much from the St. Kilda Farmer’s Market. So when we arrived at the colorful, bustling, market boasting roses and daffodils, oranges, pistachios and tomatoes, chai tee, coffee, beer and wine, and cuts of meat from every beast under the sun, I was flabbergasted and wishing I had a kitchen. We sampled meat pies and Mt. Zero olive oil, spinach dip and home made bread and got a recommendation for a brunch spot that serves bloody marys. It has been a year since I’d had a bloody mary. It didn’t disappoint.

On our way from the market to “the diner with the bloody marys”, we passed Veg Out, a massive community garden and oasis for creativity. It was the wonky iron fence and prayer flags that first caught my attention, and the exploding plots of green and chicken noises that drew us in. What is this magical place? Rhinestone adorned statues, mailboxes in the gardens, chickens that look like Tina Turner and food growing everywhere. I want to be here all the time. I felt like I had found my place. Zach marveled at the composting set up while I checked out the community kitchen.   We walked among the plots, checking out the leeks and greens, and planned to bring a place like this to a place that doesn’t have one. That, we decided, would be a good use of our energy.

Veg Out is a shrine to healthy, delicious food. It is a place for people to come together and dig and chat and make soup.

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