So we’re back at it, in some form or another at least. We spent the last couple weeks avoiding the sub par Finnish summer so far hanging out in Southern Europe on a bit of a “minimoon”, as some people are calling these things.
First things first, we got married. We had a lovely party near Porvoo not too far from Helsinki, and many of our friends from the US and other overseas locales graced us with their presence, which was amazing and humbling. The food was fantastic, the booze was plentiful, the weather was perfect, and the people celebrating with us pulled it all together into a night to remember indeed. We partied until 3am when our chartered bus came to shuttle the guests back to Helsinki, our rosy memories of the day receding into the peaceful twilight.
Wedding photos by Aarography
Ischia and Naples
We took off towards the south a week later, and found ourselves on an overnight layover in Istanbul at an airport hotel, followed by a mid morning flight to Naples the next day. Upon landing, we immediately made our way to the island of Ischia via a ferry from the port in the center of town. About an hour later and we found ourselves on the lovely shores of Ischia with a serious hunger worked up. We stopped at Bar Gino for an absolutely massive bruschetta and panino to share. The food was fantastic, and it was an absolute steal at about 15€. We found ourselves wondering why on earth we decided to move back to Finland, where food of this quality simply doesn’t exist for anything close to that price.
We rented a scooter and made our way over to Forio on the west side of the island where our lovely little hotel would house us for the following four nights. The main purpose of this trip, in our minds, was to enjoy good food, and my goodness did that happen. We found ourselves following a similar routine every day, easily slipping into the schedule of the Italian island: we awoke at around 10am, had a leisurely breakfast at the hotel, explored the island to our hearts’ content for a few hours, had a similarly leisurely lunch at a cafe somewhere on the island (this usually consisted of bruschetta or a caprese), and made our way back to Forio some time in the afternoon. We’d relax for a bit, maybe have an espresso at a streetside cafe to while away the hours. At around 7pm we would head to another streetside cafe and have some aperitifs, usually some vermouth on the rocks or a glass of local white wine. At 8:30 or 9 we’d make our way to a restaurant somewhere in town for some dinner, which was invariably either pizza or pasta accompanied by a bottle of the house wine, all of which was generally totally amazing. Coupled with the lovely weather of the island, there was really nothing to complain about at all.
Some places worth visiting on the island were the thermal spas and Giardini la Mortella. We visited the Poseidon thermal spa, not far south of Forio, and had a nice time there. There are 20 something pools ranging in size and temperature scattered around the grounds, and we spent our time going from pool to pool. The food was not particularly memorable at the one restaurant we decided to visit (of the three that exist there) and was basically highway robbery at 14€ per person. The botanical gardens at Giardini la Mortella were a very nice place to spend the afternoon, and we found ourselves wandering the verdant pathways for some hours.
We eventually made our way back to Naples for a few days of urban exploration before heading to Istanbul. We had a lovely time in Naples as well, eating more pizza and pasta, and drinking more wine and coffee. We spent much time wandering the narrow alleys of the Spanish Quarter and visiting the shops of Via Chiaia or Toledo. A particularly memorable experience was our visit to the Fontanelle cemetery, home to many thousands of human skulls and various other bones dating back several centuries.
By this point, our trip had transformed into a full-fledged food tourism whirlwind. Our close friend Deniz, originally from Istanbul but who now lives in Helsinki, was back home visiting and invited us to come on down for a bit so he could show us around his home town. Not a single time over our five days in Istanbul did we experience hunger, instead, this feeling was nipped in the bud by nigh continuous eating of amazing and varied food at all hours of the day. We hung out with Deniz and his friends, all of whom acted as exceptional tour guides for basically the whole time we were there. Deniz, in particular, however, was well suited for this role as he shares with us a passion for great food and drink, he himself being a renowned sommelier in Finland.
Deniz and his father were nice enough to fetch us from the airport, and we wasted no time with diving into the culinary wonderland of Istanbul after dropping our bags at our lovely little hotel in Beyoğlu. Our first stop was some shish kebab for an early dinner just off İstiklal street as we had already built up a considerable hunger (the first and last of which we would experience) from the day’s travel. It was a great initial foray into Turkish cuisine, all the while Deniz would be explaining the ins and outs of Turkish culinary history and techniques to us. We went on to share glass after glass of Turkish tea at various different tea houses scattered around the narrow passages of Beyoğlu, and we stocked up on some lokum and baklava from a nearby confectionery. We then enjoyed some draft Efes from a cool little bar in an alleyway. We topped the night off with a streetside snack of midye dolma (mussels stuffed with seasoned rice) and kokoreç (heavily seasoned goat intestines spit roasted over a grill and served in a bread roll, actually much better than it sounds).
The following day we met up at a reasonable hour after our breakfast on the hotel’s top floor terrace. The first task was grabbing a “wet burger” from Kizilkayalar Hamburger just off Taksim Square. The wet burger was something of an appetizer for us, but it was a quite impressive little snack, consisting of a steamed bun with a patty of seasoned ground meat inside, topped off with tomato sauce for the wet effect. Next up was a heaping plate of köfte, or Turkish meatballs, from the well-known Köfteci Hüseyin, also in Taksim. Our day was getting better and better, as we gorged on the decadent balls of ground meat smothered in biber salçası. We left with our appetites totally crushed and sought refuge again in one of the many nearby tea houses, in hopes of soothing our discomfort with a few steaming glasses of strong tea. We then made our way over to the Grand Bazaar, where we ended up buying a nice, handmade tavla/backgammon board from a vendor there. After several hours of wandering the Grand Bazaar and Egyptian Bazaar we had a seat at a very bustling Şehzade Cağ Kebap in Sirkeci and proceeded to have our minds blown by some of the best kebab ever prepared. The affair was simple, with skewers of shaved meat served with thin lavash, a few spicy green peppers, fresh yogurt, raw onion, and tomato, along with some dried chili and oregano for seasoning. We nearly died of gluttony, but made room for some of the most decadent Kadayıf Dolması for dessert, along with glasses of the ever-present black tea. We lounged around the European side of Istanbul for a few more hours before hopping on the ferry to Kadıköy on the Asian side for an evening of enjoyment. By this time, our group had grown to seven, including several of Deniz’s friends and friends of theirs and we ended up having a very Turkish time at a bar up the hill from the Bosphorus. We smoked nargile, drank tea and Efes, and played tavla on into the night. Oona solidified her street cred even further by laying the smack down on a seasoned tavla player to a tune of 5-2, including a set-final gammon followed by, at the advocation of our Turkish compatriots, the ceremonial folding of the tavla board and its placement under the vanquished’s arm. This gesture apparently symbolizes something like “go learn yourself something and come back for another shot when you don’t suck.”
We finally wrapped things up long after the ferries back to Europe had stopped, so we opted for an overland trip via the Bosphorus Bridge. On the way, though, we stopped for some kelle paça çorbası, which is a rather strange soup cooked with the meat from a goat’s head, served with a hefty portion of vinegar and chili. We eventually made it home at around 3am via a lengthy Metrobus plus taxi trip and curled up for some sleep.
The following morning we had mostly to ourselves, and headed to the Basilica Cistern. Unfortunately there were some renovations going on, so it was mostly dry, but it was still a nice respite from the punishing heat outside. Afterwards we headed to the Grand Bazaar again for a bit more souvenir shopping. We ended up buying some nicely hand-painted ceramic plates, which we then lugged around for awhile until we had a chance to drop them off at the hotel. We met up with Deniz and a friend of his for a late lunch/early dinner of İskender kebab and lahmacun at a restaurant called Köşkeroğlu in Karaköy. Both dishes were absolutely amazing, and we had just enough space for a dessert of trileçe (based on tres leches, which somehow made its way to Turkey in the last decade via Albanian chefs learning of the dessert from Brazillian soap operas televised in Albania), künefe, and dry baklava, all of which were also amazing. We then had a bottle of Turkish sparkling wine from a basement wine bar near the Galata Tower when Deniz talked shop with a few of the sommeliers. The fatigue was gaining on us, but the bubbles gave us just the edge we needed to cap off the night with a rather elite group of upper echelon Turkish youth at a rooftop party at a private events space in Beyoğlu. The view was fantastic, the clientele decidedly hip, and the drinks absurdly expensive, but it was a great experience to have in our limited time in Istanbul.
We were totally beat the following morning, but managed to corral ourselves to Topkapı palace, which was packed with tourists. The line for tickets was utterly inhumane as we waited in the scorching heat. Once inside we called it quits after about an hour of attempting to navigate through the crowds. The best part was definitely the view across the Bosphorus.
We met with Deniz in Beşiktaş for a proper döner kebab at Karadeniz. This place is apparently legendary, and it certainly looked the part, but we managed to snag a table on the second floor and absolutely demolished some kebab. After that, we headed back over to Kadıköy for one last hurrah before our early morning departure the next day. We all concluded that Kadıköy was our favorite neighborhood. Deniz is a born and bred Beyoğlu’lu, but he was often lamenting the state of his home district, seeing it again for the first time in some years. A recent influx of Arabs in addition to the constant tourism has apparently changed the culture. We found, however, that Kadıköy has grown as something of a replacement for the old Beyoğlu, with many stylish and reasonably-priced cafes popping up, catering to the local left-wing Turkish population. Our final meal in Istanbul was a tour de force of all things Kadıköy. We arrived at the famed Memleket, one of the several restaurants specializing in meze in Kadıköy, a bit late, and the only free table was inside. We settled on it, as we had seen that literally every other restaurant in town was packed to the gunwales. Fortunately, however, a canceled reservation at an outdoor table allowed us to move outside just after we were seated. Outdoor seating is apparently a staple of the meze culture, so this was great news for us. We ordered a bottle of rakı and Deniz rattled off a list of 8 or so small plates to the waiter who brought them out a short while later. We drank, we ate, we discussed complex and not always pleasant issues, and we lived. The food was fantastic, but as Deniz pointed out, meze is about company; almost like an ad hoc therapy session among close friends, we talked about our pasts, our presents, and our futures. We ended up quite intoxicated, no surprise considering we shared a whole bottle of rakı, but managed to make it on one of the last boats back to Karaköy, but not before a couple more midye dolma from a street vendor.
We said our goodbyes and finally made it back home, organizing a taxi to the airport through our hotel for about five hours later. We packed up our things, showered, and got about four hours of sleep before we headed back downstairs and to the airport, and ultimately back to Helsinki.