Side Streets of Istanbul

by Selma Sevkli

I live in Cihangir, Istanbul, which is a gentrified area, recently made popular among artists and actors as well as foreigners living in the city. Cihangir is located right behind the famous Istiklal which is an almost 2-kilometer-long pedestrian street full of food, people, cafes, bars, restaurants and theaters. As my work is at the end of Istiklal Street, I walk to work which takes about 30 minutes every day. I am a person who does not enjoy routine and gets bored easily. Luckily, Istiklal (we don’t add street at the end when mentioning it) has many side streets; some are dead ends, some connect with each other around the corner.

I try to take a different path every day and try to entertain myself by discovering a new cafe, going over old postcards at flea markets or simply analyzing street art.

Some of the graffiti on the streets is done by local artists and some are posted by activists.

It is very rare that you find profanity, even though there is often criticism.

Getting lost on the side streets of Istiklal is fun and always surprising. It is guaranteed that you will see a lazy cat at every corner who is fed by generous neighbors.

When you start thinking that you are stuck in the middle of the buildings without any sign of nature, a rare kind of tree could surprise you.

Here’s a suggested route: Go down Istiklal and turn left from Galatasaray High School, which is halfway down the street. Take a left and walk around Cukurcuma. Try some pickles at “Asri Tursucusu” which is a 99-year-old pickle store with more than 50 kinds of pickles. Go to your right and find “Cihangir Kahvesi” where all the journalists, actors and residents have their tea. Cross the street and walk around Cihangir; if you get hungry, try Susam Cafe which has a comprehensive menu and a great chef. If you are into seafood with affordable prices, Rodosto is your best bet.

Then make your way down to Tophane and feel free to wander in the antique/flea market stores. If it is still early, you could visit Istanbul Modern, the first contemporary art museum in Turkey, right by the sea. If it is late, go next door where all the shisha cafes are lined next to one another, open 24 hours. Apple flavor is a classic and my favorite; you may want to give it a try even though other attractive-sounding ones like watermelon or coconut could intrigue you.


Turkish Coffee

by Selma Sevkli

A good turkish coffee by Maria Rosaria Sannino

My favorite break at work on a busy afternoon involves a nice cup of strong Turkish coffee. One of my colleagues asks if we would like some, and it is rare that anybody refuses. We take turns and volunteer to make it for everyone. When it is not in the office but at a friend’s house or a cafe, we take our time and read each other’s fortunes from the coffee cup. This coffee cup reading involves inspiration and creativity, as well as experience. We do not completely believe what is said but we do not completely ignore it either.  As the traditional saying suggests: “Don’t believe the cup but do not ignore it”.  There are some fortune tellers who could be professional readers in a cafe.  Or it could be a friend’s grandma, who is exceptionally successful at it. In any case, they really can tell something about you without knowing you at all, and predict some of the future.

Turkish coffee was introduced to Istanbul in the 15th century during the Ottoman period. The Turks discovered a new method of making the coffee in a special coffee pot called a “cezve”. It was welcomed by the society very quickly and became popular. Soon after, coffee houses opened all over the country where poetry was read, chess and backgammon were played, and discussions about politics and literature were held. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Turkish coffee shaped the social life along with tea since those times.

It is not drunk early in the morning, but after breakfast. Its importance is even reflected in the language: We call breakfast “kahvalti” which means “before coffee”.  So we eat our delicious breakfast simply to avoid drinking the coffee on an empty stomach!

So many aspects of social life are still related to Turkish coffee. It is the most important component of the “kiz isteme” ritual in which a boy’s family visits a girl’s family to get permission for their wedding. Salt is added to groom’s coffee instead of sugar to see his reaction. The groom should not complain or make faces in order to get the father’s permission to marry. Half serious, half joke, this ritual still continues in most parts of Turkey.

As the coffee has an important role in the culture, the way it is brewed and served are critically important. The fanciest way to serve it is in a porcelain coffee cup instilled in a copper holder, with water in a small clear glass and a piece of Turkish delight on a nice tray.

Image byy Tema ( or GFDL (

It is said that Turkish coffee tastes best when cooked in a copper cezve.

Image by Fmucar via Wikipedia creative commons

Making it is pretty simple and practical but requires serious attention to details for the best results.

Here are the proper steps:

1- Put a teaspoon full of Turkish ground coffee in a coffee pot (cezve).
2- Pour one Turkish coffee cup of water in it.
3- Add sugar according to taste. It could be plain, one sugar cube for mild or two cubes for sweet.
4- Put the coffee pot on the lowest flame possible and stir every 30 seconds until it starts rising.
5- Turn off the fire and do not let it boil as that would kill the foam. (You can tell by the thickness of the foam if the coffee is good or not.)
6- Pour the coffee very slowly into the coffee cup to save the foam.
7- Enjoy with a friend’s company and try to read the fortune afterwards.

For fortunetelling from the coffee cup, the cup should be placed upside down on the plate. A ring could be put on to relate the person and to cool it quickly. One should wait until it is completely cold which takes about 10 minutes.

Turkish coffee is the only coffee in the world that you can tell the fortune from as it is the only one served with the grounds at the bottom.

Image by Jeff Kubina via Wikipedia commons

If you want to buy some to take back home, Mehmet Efendi is the best brand around for more than a century that can be found in any store.

Do not forget to specify that you want Turkish coffee when ordering, as even we locals call it Turkish coffee instead of just coffee.

Afiyet Olsun! (Bon appetit)

Selma Sevkli is a cultural orientation trainer for refugees and a freelance writer living in Istanbul.  We met Selma through Couch Surfing and hosted her and a friend in Bali, Indonesia.  Besides writing, she is also inspecting, photographing and recruiting apartments for us.  

Florence’s Bargello Museum: more naked men per capita than the Uffizi

by Alexandra Korey

Much loved in the 19th century, the national museum of sculpture in Florence, better known as the
Bargello, now sees a much smaller flow of tourists than the flashier Uffizi and Accademia. While there
are reproductions of the Uffizi’s colourful paintings and the very famous David on everything from
serious books to less serious men’s underwear, the duller stone and bronze works housed at the
Bargello seem unable to compete.


The reality is that the Bargello houses more naked men per capita than the Uffizi, and does not lack in
famous names either: with its 3 Michelangelos, one ought not to snivel at it. It’s also pretty colourful,
since it’s got a great collection of maiolica (glazed terracotta). I know that many short-visit tourists don’t
go to the Bargello since there are, apparently, more important options. But I was surprised to hear
that many Florentines have never been there. This museum contains sculptures that put Florence
on the map – works by Donatello that essentially began the Renaissance. How strange that my friends
had never been inside.

While the Uffizi is getting new signage, services and spaces, the Bargello lags behind in modern
museology, making it useful to take a qualified tour (I like Context Travel) if you don’t happen to have
an art historian handy. Museums like this require narration to be understood and fully appreciated. You
could print this post and bring it with you, and that’d be like having an art historian in your pocket. To
complete this effect I’m going to walk you through the space chatting as if you were my best friend. I’ve
turned off my scholarly voice.

There is no map available to visitors of the Bargello, so you’re going to have to use your imagination.
After you purchase your ticket, you’ll enter an open courtyard that has an imposing stone staircase on
its right side. The courtyard is decorated with hundreds of coats-of-arms of the podestà, the head of
Florentine government who resided here. The building dates to 1255, with many subsequent additions
and alterations. This history helps explain the rather illogical arrangement of rooms and the steps that
separate them even on the same level. When the Medici had full control of Florence, the role of the
building and of the podestà turned toward law enforcement, and later it became the city jail. Only in
1840, thanks to the discovery of some frescoes, was this use of the building revoked (the jail was moved
to Le Murate, where it stayed until 1985, and that building has now been renovated and turned into a
cultural complex).

The rooms in this museum are not arranged chronologically, in that the first room to the right,
near the stairwell, houses the Michelangelo and Michelangelesque sculptures. If you were to do
things “right,” you might first head upstairs to the Donatello room, complete the second floor with the
Verrocchio room, and then head down to Michelangelo at the end. This order of rooms would present a
traditional “progressive improvement” view of art history that can be helpful for the simple reason that
students keep styles and artists’ names in their head best if taught things in order.

As you’re not a student, feel free to check out Michelangelo’s Bacchus in that ground floor room first.
He’s a youthful work by Mike, and what I think is coolest is the way that marble is made to look like soft
flesh. Drunkenness requires a softness of focus that is not easy to render in hard stone. The other works

in this room are less spectacular, but the Pitti Tondo is a nice way to see Michelangelo’s work in

The largest room in the Bargello is on the first floor: the Donatello room contains, as you might
imagine, sculptures by this man who first used the natural contrapposto pose that characterizes early
Renaissance sculpture. Compare two Davids by Donatello with the more famous David by Michelangelo
at the Accademia! Don’t miss the snarky naked putto (cherub) in bronze, sheathed in mystery (we don’t know
when he was made, nor what he really represents).

This room has two possible exits – a door toward the back of the room, or the door through which
you originally came. Take the latter if you want to get to the loggia in which there are some fun bronze
sculptures of animals. Take the former if you like strange Ottoman bronze objects. In the intermittent
rooms are decorative objects in metal, maiolica, and ivory. There is a large glass case that contains
jewelry and cameos that I find particularly fascinating. There is a ring that has a velvet lining for
comfortable wear, an item that particularly intrigued me when I first came here as a student.

There’s a frescoed chapel with a pretty good scene of tortured souls in Hell and what is claimed to be
a portrait of Dante on the altar wall. In the glass cases at the back of the room don’t miss the small
enamel and silver plaques that are some of the most amazing goldsmith work you’ll ever see.

Many people seem to miss the upper level of this museum which houses a huge coin collection, a room
full of miniature bronze sculptures, another dedicated to seriously gaudy maiolica by the Della Robbia
Family, and finally the Verocchio room. The star of this room is yet another statue that represents
David, so of course you’ll want to compare him to the Donatellos you saw downstairs. On the left
wall just inside the door is a fascinating bas-relief that represents the story of a woman who died in
childbirth and the grief of her husband, who commissioned this work. It’s one of the most touching pieces
in Renaissance art history.

Alexandra Korey no longer teaches art history, preferring blog readers to students, since if you’re still
reading this, you’re really interested in hearing what I have to say. You can read more of her ramblings
about life in Florence with an aesthete’s eye on her blog

First time in Rome – 6 things you might not expect

Last week we had a group of 25 young students arrive in Rome from Briarcliff University.  They had booked 7 apartments all around the city and I had arranged to meet them on their day of arrival to help coordinate the drop-offs and get them all where they needed to go.

photo by Jessica Stewart

Some of these kids were clearly shell-shocked.  Tired and jetlagged too, of course, but apparently, for many of them, this was the first time they had ever been abroad.  I could see it on their faces too – sometimes they would chuckle about something and sometimes they would just get very quiet and say nothing.  I could tell that there was a lot of new stuff they were processing and it reminded me that I too once saw “old Europe” the same way.  I come from a small town — first in Connecticut and then Colorado, and wasn’t particularly city-smart or worldly.  Looking into the faces of these kids, all around 20 years old, I remember that so much of what I consider typical and normal now, is very foreign, and sometimes off-putting, to others.

For those of you who are planning your first trip to Rome – or to Europe in general – here are 6 things that jumped out at me that are just plain different from what you might be used to and that you probably won’t read about in the guide books:

1.  Elevators.  They are small, old, and often rickety.  Most buildings in Rome were built before elevators, so they were added in later, with significant space limitations.  Some are more modern and some are even automatic (or semi), but most have inside doors and an outside gate that must be closed manually or the elevator will be stuck on whatever floor it’s on where the doors are left open.  The first apartment we went to had about 5 girls, each with normal-sized suitcases, looking at the elevator and wondering if it was a joke.  Of course, it’s important to take turns and not try and shove too many people or heavy bags into one of these.  Visitors have been known to get stuck in elevators from doing this and a visit from the fire department is not exactly in most people’s travel plans.

typical elevator in Rome

2.  Keys.  One would think that keys are pretty much a universal tool — but this simply isn’t true.  Not only do the styles and lengths vary greatly, but also which way you turn them, whether you have to push in while turning, etc.  Also, in some cases, if you have a key on one side of the door, you can’t put one in on the other – and if you close the door, forgetting that the second set is in the inside lock, you’ll never get the door open again.  I strongly recommend that when renting an apartment (through us or otherwise), ask the owners to go over the keys with you thoroughly, and try yourself in their presence.  For an owner, it might never register to them that their keys are any different than yours back home.  A little bit of extra attention could save you from being locked out, or locked in, or faced with a bill for a locksmith who had to come on an emergency call (yes, it happens).

3.  Old / dirty buildings.  In many towns in the US that don’t have historic buildings, if a building is old and dirty with paint falling off the walls in the entrance, it’s usually a bad, rundown neighborhood, right?  In Rome, this is not the case.  It’s totally normal to have an ultra-luxurious, expensive apartment in a building that is totally falling to pieces.  The reason is because in Italy, most people own their apartments in a building which is run by a completely useless assembly of the owners who can never agree on the maintenance (nor how to pay for that maintenance) of their building.  In many very old buildings (a few hundred years old, for example), no formal assembly exists.  The result is that you can be in Trastevere, a very sought-after neighborhood, and see a graffiti-covered building that enters into a dark, smelly stairway that you have to pass in order to get to an apartment that is worth 2 million euro with stunning views from a private terrace.  This is normal – you just have to learn not to judge the content by the cover.

Photo by Jessica Stewart

4.  Gas stoves.  I guess electric is the norm elsewhere, because when I was showing how to light the various stoves, the kids in this group exchanged worried glances and looked like I had just showed them how to use the cauldron in a fireplace.

5.  Poo.  Look down when you walk.  Yes, it is not acceptable, but most Romans don’t pick up their dog poo.  Many Parisians don’t either.  You have to always keep one eye down or you’re going to get “lucky” and stick your foot in some nasty poop and track it back with you later.

6.  Toilets / bidets.  Speaking of nr. 2, a friend told us recently that when she first came to Italy at 15, she couldn’t figure out how to flush the toilets so she only used public bathrooms for days because she was afraid to leave a big you-know-what in the toilet and was too embarrassed to ask for help from her host family.  I know it’s silly, but it can take some getting used to.  Toilets come in different varieties:  those that flush by pushing up a little button under the water tank; those that flush by pushing a button (or an entire panel) on the wall; those that flush on the side; some with a chain you pull, etc.

As for the “second toilet” in there (the bidet!) – it’s not exactly a spare.  To be blunt, that’s for washing your backside (works good for dirty feet too).  You can sit forward on it too to wash other areas down yonder.   After you’ve finished your business, you may be accosted with sinks that come with electric sensors, buttons that are pushed on the faucet handle or a foot pump on the floor.  A bit of patience and a sense of humor and you’ll have the makings of a unique coffee table book about all the different types of plumbing you’ll encounter here in Italy.

by Steven Brenner

Interview with Paul Bennett – founder of Context Travel

I was so impressed by two Context Travel walks I did recently (the Oltrano Artisans walk in Florence, and the Haussman and the Making of Modern Paris) that I asked Paul Bennett, the founder and close friend, if he’d answer a few questions that came to mind about his company, his walks, and his views on travel in general.

First, I’ve done a few of your walks and I often find myself using the term “tour” when describing them to others, and not feeling like it’s appropriate in conveying the experience.  Do you think “tour” is the best way to describe what you do, and if not, what sort of vocabulary do you think expresses it better?

To be honest, I’m not a tour person. I hate following someone around in a large group (or, worse, on a bus) listening to bad jokes and Wikipedia-level, soup-to-nuts facts. I lose interest, can’t pay attention, and find it a waste of time. Context was founded on this idea. We’re sort of the “untour” tour company. Small groups, experts, and an interactive give-and-take. So, we coined the term “walking seminar” to describe them, taking inspiration from Oxford or St. John’s College (in Annapolis/Santa Fe). The idea is that the docent is curating an exploration of a topic or a site or a theme. We use “walks” for short.

As a rather large network where people have autonomy over their subject matter, how do you achieve quality control?  What sort of guidelines do you insist all docents follow so you can ensure a similarly high quality across all your tours?

We spend a lot of time on this. Quality is a core value, and we have to get this right or we’re sunk. First, we spend a lot of time recruiting and talking with docents up front. You have to possess a high level of social intelligence in order to lead a Context walk. We have a series of questions to gauge this. We also check references, and usually ask questions around teaching ability and communication. We’re looking for academics who can make a topic come alive. Each docent goes through some training, which includes shadowing another docent for a while and going through a probationary period. We also follow up with clients immediately and share their feedback in a transparent manner. I would estimate that about a quarter of our time is spent just on quality assurance and taking what we hear from clients and using it to improve in some way. It’s a challenge.

To be a bit of a devil’s advocate here: sometimes it’s hard to justify the value of your walks to someone who doesn’t have absolute certainty of what they will get out of the experience — in other words, the value is unknown in advance and hard to know for sure if it’ll be worth it.  What would you say to a friend, for example, in convincing them that it is indeed worth it? 

It’s unlike any tour you’ve ever tried. It’s like going back to college for 3 hours, at a fraction of the cost.

One issue I can imagine is when traveling with children.  Their involvement and interest is paramount to having it be a good experience for the parents, and can ultimately be a huge waste of money if they hate it.  What do you do to try and buffer this possibility?

For a long time we just winged it with families. We had a group of family-friendly docents, and we matched them with families on private walks. About five years ago we realized that we were underserving this group. So, we hired a consultant who’d worked in museum education and created a separate Family Program. The core of this is recruiting and training. We’ve specifically recruited a group of docents with backgrounds in museum education or teachers who have some knowledge of Visual Thinking Strategies (VLS), which is an approach to object-based learning that we employ. We also meet with this group of family docents once a year, or more individually, and do a family training workshop. A lot of this involves training in VLS, but we also share experiences and strategies for dealing with tricky, crowded sites like the Vatican in Rome, with kids. Again, client feedback plays a role. Lastly, working with these clients we’ve developed a set of specific walks designed around kids and their interests, which include a lot of hands-on activities like treasure hunts for young kids or journaling and sketching for older ones.

Give me an idea of some things you personally do when you visit a new city for the first time?

Well, I’m usually in a city for the first time because we’re opening a branch there. As a result, I usually have a long list of people to meet. I try to meet people on site, for example in a museum where they might lead a walk for us, so that we can immerse ourselves in the culture of the place. I’m more of a landscape person than an object person, meaning that I like to walk a city and get a feel for its layout and pulse rather than move incrementally from place to place in order to just see that place. I like the spaces in-between.

Do you think new technologies such as “google goggles”, which can display information about almost anything of interest by pointing your phone at it, will change your business and the need or desire to have docents involved? In other words, like so many other things, will humans become obsolete and if so, how would you adapt to that?

In last year’s professional development meeting with docents one topic that came up multiple times was the instance of clients googling facts during the walk. Docents found this very off-putting, and it is gauche. Especially when it’s done to challenge the docent on some point. But, in some cases, we may have misinterpreted: some people were probably tweeting or checking in on FourSquare. We’ve talked for years about ways of re-packing what we do and selling it through some digital means—an audio guide or an app. Everyone was talking about audio guides four years ago. But, in the end, the market for those proved very small. Ditto with apps, which are limited by connectivity issues. I assume that will be ironed out, and at that point we’ll have to offer something. But it will be some value-added service. In the end, it’s impossible to replace the human who can read your facial expressions and ask you questions that get you thinking about a place in an entirely new way.

Who is your competition and how do you think Context is better?

We have two different types of competitors: global and local. Global competitors include Urban Adventures and Viator, each of which is in many more cities than us. The first is a franchise. The second is really a distributor. Neither own and operate their own tours. So, their ability to control quality or innovate is limited. The local competitors are the mom-and-pop walking tour companies in each of our cities. Most of these are focused on the lower end of the market: large groups led by actors or traditional guides at a low price-point. We’re different than both. We have a unique model that is scalable and has the potential to transform travel.

You have a foundation you started to help the artisans of Florence and you do a program to send inner city kids to Europe.  What else do you do on the social activism and what other things would you like to do in the future to make a difference?

This is big part of our mission. We also just became a certified B Corp, which is a new kind of company that considers social benefit as important as profits—or, a so-called double-bottomline or triple-bottomline business. The work of the Context Foundation for Sustainable Travel is growing. We’ll launch a project in Venice next month, and have several others in other cities on the horizon next year. We’d like to make these projects, which either give back to the local destination or try to improve travel in some way, more and more a part of our walks—integrated so that participants experience them without it feeling onerous. For example, in Venice we’re adopting and restoring a historic boat, and then will use this as part of our walks there. It will be amazing, and it’s good for the city.

Give me an example of experiences you think many people in your cities miss that you think are transformative in some way.

Wow, too many to count. I’ll just give you a recent one. Two weeks ago I went on our Gaudí in Context walk in Barcelona. It includes some big-name Gaudí sites like Casa Mila, that were amazing. But, we also spent half the walk looking at works by other architects practicing at the same time that, thus, provided the “context” for understanding Gaudí. I went into the walk thinking that Gaudí was this atypical genius who really didn’t fit into the story of architecture, but left understanding how he was, in part, a product of his city in the late 19th and early 20th century. It was wonderful.

We’ve talked about how accountability is a huge element of both our services — tell me a horror story and what you ultimately were able to do to help the client, to give me an idea of the Context experience?

Boy, this has been the year of disruptions. In the last few weeks we’ve had fire bombs in Rome, tear gas in Athens, and wildcat strikes in Paris. We’ve had to alter, re-schedule, or cancel walks. In some cases, we’ve had to map out emergency plans with safety in mind. It’s been kind of crazy. The biggest horror story, in this vein, was the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland last year, which stranded Context clients all across the globe. The phone was ringing off the hook with people stuck in Paris on their way to Istanbul, for example. We had to re-schedule or re-organize a lot of walks. We also gave a lot of refunds, kind of throwing our cancellation policy, which has a disclaimer about “acts of god” out the window; although, obviously, this was an act of a malevolent Viking god.

Context Travel is a network of scholars and specialists—in disciplines including archaeology, art history, cuisine, urban planning, history, environmental science, and classics—who, in addition to their normal work as professors and researchers, design and lead in-depth walking seminars for small groups of intellectually curious travelers.

by Steven Brenner