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Meruschka at the Oriental Plaza

For Meruschka (a.k.a. MzansiGirl)

Dear Meruschka,

Soon after I heard the news last night, I started making a list of all the adventures we’ve had over the years. The list was longer than I realized.

Meruschka at the Oriental Plaza
You at the Oriental Plaza in December 2016.

I can’t remember for sure the first time we traveled together. It might have been Port Elizabeth in 2013, when we jumped into a mountain of wool.

Meruschka, Heather and Rachel in a mountain of wool
That’s me on the left and you in the middle.

On another trip we spent 10 days traveling the length and breadth of South Africa. You had a terrible cold the whole time. But still I could hardly keep up with you. We slept in tents and grungy youth hostels and fancy hotels. We flew over the Magaliesberg in a hot-air balloon and paddled down the Orange River in a two-person canoe. (You were a far better paddler than me.) We ate hot Durban curry and drank lots of wine. We swam from South Africa to Namibia and back again, then walked back to camp without shoes. The soles of your feet were riddled with thorns.

You laughed and winced but never complained. Later we watched the sun set over the Richtersveld.

Heather and Meruschka rafting
Paddling down the river. You taught me how to keep the boat moving straight.
That’s you on the far left and me next to you. We swam to Namibia, yay.
On top of the world in the Richtersveld.

A couple of years later we traveled around Turkey for two weeks. It was the trip of a lifetime for me. I couldn’t have chosen a more perfect travel partner.

The pair of us in Cappadocia.

I spent a couple of hours going through my Turkey photos and found so many beautiful shots of you. Damn girl, you knew how to look good in pictures. You were so fucking beautiful.

On a rainbow stairway in Cihangir, Istanbul.
Meruschka in the Hagia Sophia
In the Hagia Sophia.
Random Istanbul tile wall.
Lounging on top of an ancient castle in Cappadocia.

And then of course there were all of our adventures in Joburg — walking, eating, drinking, and dancing our way through Melville, Soweto, Alex, and the Joburg CBD.

No one loved this city like we did.

Modeling samoosas at the Oriental Plaza.
Meruschka eating a sly vat vat
Eating a sandwich called a “sly vat vat” on a culinary tour of Alexandra Township.
Shopping for cheap CDs on Eloff Street.
Meruschka in abandoned Tarantino's building
You brought me to this seemingly abandoned building near the M2 highway, which turned out to have one of Joburg’s coolest secret coffee shops in it.
Meruschka and Heather #WalkMyCity
We made a good team.

Barely more than a month ago you co-hosted my book launch. I went to visit you the day before and I could see how tired and weak you felt.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” I asked. “You can change your mind any time, even an hour before.”

The next day, you showed up at the bookstore looking more fabulous than I’d ever seen you. You charmed the crowd and kept the discussion on topic. You were poised and articulate and brilliant. You made me look good and I was so glad you were there.

You went out for drinks afterward. I was too tired and went straight home.

Heather and Meruschka at Bridge Books
Two girls and a book. Our last picture together.

“You’re amazing,” I told you that night. “I couldn’t have done this without you.”

How can I keep doing this without you? How can the country keep loving itself without you?

What will Africa do without you?

I honestly don’t know and neither does anyone else. We’re bereft.

Thank you, MzansiGirl, for being the most passionate traveler I’ve ever known.

Meruschka jumping in Cappadocia
Keep jumping, girl.

Meruschka Govender was a travel blogger and social media influencer who went by the name MzansiGirl. (“Mzansi” is slang for “South Africa”.) She died on 15 January 2019, at age 38, after a battle with cancer. (Fuck you, cancer.) Meruschka’s impact on the African travel community was — and is — too big to explain in words.

Read another tribute to Meruschka by my good friend Kate Els. I’m sure there will be more.

Who Even Are You, Cappadocia?

Cappadocia. Seriously. Who even ARE you?*

The fairy chimneys of CappadociaCappadocia.

Cappadocia is too strange and eerie and spectacular to describe in words. More than two weeks after my visit, I’m still almost too overwhelmed to try.

I’ll leave it to Wikipedia and Lonely Planet to provide more detailed descriptions of this otherworldly place. But briefly, Cappadocia is an area in the central Anatolian region of Turkey known for its crazy sandstone rock formations — called fairy chimneys — and its colourful history involving ancient underground cities, cave dwellings, and rock-hewn churches. Meruschka and I went there for three days on the tail end of our weeklong stay in Istanbul. (Cappadocia is about two hours by plane from Istanbul.)

Where I stayed in Cappadocia

We stayed in Göreme, a small town that is one of Cappadocia’s tourist centers, at a boutique hotel called the Cappadocia Cave Suites. (Thanks to Murat and the team at Gezimanya for arranging our stay.) Cappadocia Cave Suites, like most hotels and guesthouses in Cappadocia (and many other businesses and private homes), is built into an actual cave.

My Cappadocia Cave Suite roomMy luxurious cave suite.

Cappadocia Cave SuitesThe Cappadocia Cave Suites from below. 

Cappadocia Cave Suites viewView from the Cappadocia Cave Suites.

Göreme was a great place to stay — quaint, easily walkable, with plenty of restaurants and shops.

What I did in Cappadocia

Hot-air ballooning is the ultimate tourist activity in Cappadocia. You’ve probably seen the photos — dozens of colorful balloons soaring through the sky above Cappadocia’s fairy-chimney-strewn landscape.

Upon arrival in Cappadocia, the first thing we did was arrange a sunrise balloon trip with Voyager Balloons. But alas, hot-air ballooning is dependent upon good weather and the conditions weren’t ideal during our two mornings in Cappadocia. So no soaring balloon pictures for us. No hiking either, as it was too rainy and muddy.

But the good news is that we met Cemal Gurlek, a tour guide who works in the Voyager Balloons offices. Cemal, who works for a company called CVB Travel, took us to see several of his favorite spots in Cappadocia, which we never could have done ourselves without a car. Here are the highlights of our day with Cemal:

1) O Ağacın altı.

Our first stop was an overlook outside Göreme called O Ağacın altı, which means “under that tree”. It was at this point that I became dumbstruck and remained so for the rest of the day.

Cappadocia Goreme viewLooking over Göreme from O Ağacın altı.

Meruschka CappadociaMeruschka, living on the edge at O Ağacın altı. (Don’t try this at home.)

2) Uçhisar Castle

If you’re staying in or around Göreme and have time to see only one place, I recommend Uçhisar Castle. This ancient rocky hill is the highest point in Cappadocia and I was blown away by the view from the top. (Don’t worry: The climb isn’t as bad as it looks.)

UchisarSee the tiny flag flying? That’s the top of the castle.

Cappadocia castleView of the castle from a place called Pigeon Valley, where we went the next day.

Uchisar viewView from the top of Uçhisar Castle. Almost as good as the view from a hot-air balloon.

Heather UchisarDon’t try this at home, either. (Photo: Meruschka Govender)

3) Pasabag

Pasabag, also called Monks Valley, is a part of Cappadocia where monks once lived in seclusion, following a hermetic way of life in the numerous hidden caves.

Cemal PasabagiCemal in his favorite spot in Pasabag.

Meruschka PasabagiBig rocks, tiny person.

4) Devrent Valley

Devrent Valley would have been a great spot for hiking if we’d had more time and better weather. We made a brief stop there to look at an amazing rock shaped like a camel.

Camel rockThat’s the camel on the right, with the fence around it.

Other cool things we saw and did in and around Göreme: The Göreme Open Air Museum (another must-visit), Love Valley, the El Nazar Church (sadly, we only saw the church from the outside because it’s closed in winter), and the mind-blowing Kaymaklı Underground City.

Where I ate

The weather wasn’t ideal during our visit to Cappadocia, but you don’t need good weather to eat. After my failed attempt to eat everything in Istanbul, it was nice to spend some time relaxing indoors, drinking hot tea and Cappadocia’s fantastic local wine, eating mezze and the region’s signature Gözleme (flatbread sandwiches).

1) Ziggy Café

Meruschka and I are eternally grateful to Cemal for taking for dinner at Ziggy Café in Ürgüp, about 15 minutes’ drive from Göreme. This was my favorite meal in Turkey.

Ziggys foodA lovely collection of vegetarian mezze at Ziggy. I can’t tell you what they all are, but I can tell you that they are all delicious. The roasted green peppers with bulgar wheat (second from right) were my favorite. 

Ziggy the dogZiggy’s owners, Nuray and Selim Yüksel, named the restaurant after their beloved terrier who has since passed on. There’s a lovely shrine to Ziggy in the restaurant.

2) Nazar Börek Café

On my first afternoon in Göreme I found myself alone at lunchtime and went to the first restaurant listed in my guidebook: Nazar Börek Café. It’s a friendly, cozy little restaurant with delicious gözleme.

Nazar Borek lunchSausage and cheese gözleme, tasty salad, and Turkish tea at Nazar Börek Café.

Nazar BorekI had a hilarious exchange with this nice man who was working at Nazar Börek when I came in. He’s deaf so we really couldn’t communicate, but laughed a lot while trying to understand each other. 

3) Pumpkin Göreme

Pumpkin has an ever-changing four-course menu for a set price. We had dinner there one night and really enjoyed it.

PumpkinPumpkin’s beautiful interior, lit by lamps carved from gourds.

4) Fat Boys

Don’t let the name fool you — this place is way more than a dive bar. Fat Boys has a lively atmosphere, good service, and great food and wine.

Fat Boys mezzeOur delicious mezze platter from Fat Boys.

On our last, rainy afternoon in Göreme, we were passing the time at Fat Boys and fell into a conversation with the owner, Yilmaz. Yilmaz offered to drive us to the Kaymaklı Underground City, about 30 minutes away, simply because we hadn’t been there yet and he wanted to show us. On the way there, Yilmaz told us all about his life in Cappadocia, about how he had been born in a cave, and about his travels throughout the world. It was such a lovely way to end our time in Turkey.

Meruschka underground cityMeruschka in the underground city.

Fat Boys portraitThis is Yilmaz’s father, hanging out in Fat Boys. I think it’s a good photo to end on.

And that’s the end of my blogging about Turkey. Whew! I’m exhausted. I hope to go back someday but I need a couple of years to rest.

Our stay at Cappadocia Cave Suites was complimentary, as was our dinner at Ziggy and our tour from Cemal. Opinions expressed are mine.

*This post’s headline is adapted from my favorite quote by Andy Carrie.

Five Things I Ate in Istanbul

My biggest regret about my week in Istanbul is that I didn’t eat enough.

Seriously. I spent so much time running around trying to see things in Istanbul that I actually didn’t have time to eat all the Turkish food I wanted to try. This is almost unthinkable for a food-loving person like me. But there you have it.

I didn’t eat İskender kebap, which is my favorite dish at the Turkish restaurant back home in Melville. İskender, along with shawarma, is only served between 12:00 and 3:00 p.m. at most Istanbul restaurants, and we rarely found time for lunch until about 5:00. I never ate the famous Turkish dessert künefe, which my Instagram follower @sarahmariesny describes as “Christmas in your mouth”. I didn’t have Turkish ice cream (too cold), and I never tried those deep-fried sticks that look like churros, which were for sale on every corner. (I’m not sure why I never tried the churros.)

But despite all this complaining, I did eat a lot of wonderful food in Istanbul. Istanbul is like Paris; it’s a city that takes eating seriously and delicious food and drink is everywhere — from fancy restaurants to cafés and street-side carts.

Istanbul kebab restaurantSultanahmet Koftëcisi, one of the most famous köfte restaurants in Istanbul. More on köfte in a minute.

Rather than focus further on my culinary failures in Istanbul, I will tell you about my culinary success.

Five things I ate in Istanbul:

1) Köfte (Kebab)

Kebab is a wide-ranging term that encompasses a variety grilled meats and accompaniments. Every street in Istanbul has at least half a dozen kebab shops.

The most popular type of kebab is köfte, a cylinder-shaped meatball made of minced lamb or beef (or both). I love köfte and had it every time we ordered kebab.

First kebab IstanbulOur first dinner in Istanbul, at a tiny dive (can’t remember the name) near Galata Tower. No one spoke English so we gestured for the chef to give us the house specialty. The köfte were yummy and I loved the sticky rice and chili sauce that came on the side. The green chili pepper was only slightly hot.

Sultanahmet koftecisiKöfte, chicken kebab, fresh yogurt, and bean salad from Sultanahmet Koftëcisi, which is across the street from the Hagia Sophia. This was a great meal.

Hamid kebabKöfte and various side dishes from Hamdi Restaurant in Eminonou. Hamdi has an amazing view of the Golden Horn but I thought the food was a bit overpriced and the service was mediocre. Nonetheless, I enjoyed my food.

2) Pide

Pide is Turkish pizza. It’s similar to Western pizza, but with Mediterranean-style toppings and a boat-shaped crust.

PidePide from Nizam in the Şişli district of Istanbul. This particular pide was tasty, but very similar to an American pepperoni pizza. I think we should have gone for one of the more adventurous pides with a fried egg on top. Next time.

NizamKids photobomb my shot of Nizam while Meruschka (post-pide) looks confused. I love this picture.

3) Turkish breakfast

There are many variations, but every Turkish breakfast seems to include cheese, fresh veggies, and some kind of meat and bread.

One morning we took the advice of Kutlu, our Context Travel guide, and had breakfast at Numli Gurme in Karaköy. This restaurant is huge, with a complicated ordering system, but eventually we figured it out and had the best breakfast of our trip.

Istanbul breakfast1Breakfast platter for two: cheese, veggies, olives, and meat. The cheeses in Turkey, especially the variations of feta, are phenomenal. Not shown here: basket of bread and a small dish of fresh butter with candied figs. It was the best butter I’ve ever eaten.

4) Kumpir

Kumpir are stuffed baked potatoes on steroids. We had Kumpir at a fast-food restaurant called Patsosis off İstiklal Street. The customer goes to the counter, orders kumpir, and the guy behind the counter pulls an insanely huge potato from a piping-hot oven. He cuts open the potato and mixes the inside with several spoonfuls of butter. Then the customer surveys a spread of more than a dozen toppings and tells the guy what to pile onto the potato. Here’s a video demonstration.

KumpirMy kumpir.

The butter pirate was the best part of my Patsosis kumpir experience.

Butter pirateA pirate made of butter (and a bit of cheese and pepper) surrounded by kumpir ingredients. The kumpir man scooped butter from the backside of the pirate into the potatoes.

5) Fish sandwich

Fish sandwiches have a glorious history in Istanbul (read more here), and the best place to get them is on the fishing boats at Eminönü Pier. We visited that pier one evening and watched hundreds of people cram onto permanently docked boats to order cheap, delicious fish sandwiches. We’d just eaten so we weren’t among the throng.

Fortunately I found myself hungry one evening in Kadıköy, as we waited for a ferry back to the European side of town, and spotted a lone fish sandwich vendor outside the terminal. Meruschka and I each ordered one.

Istanbul fish sandwichGrilled fresh fish, lemon juice, lettuce/tomato/onion, and a light sauce.

Istanbul food-9507Here I am, taking a pretend bite of my fish sandwich for the camera. (Photo: Meruschka Govender)

I stuffed the sandwich in my face while we sat on the ferry. It was great. But beware of the raw onions.

Bonus #1: My Favorite Meal in Istanbul

The best meal I had was at Café Vodina in Balat, where I went during our tour with Fest Travel. Our appetizer was dolma, or stuffed grape leaves — a dish I had never been crazy about before this meal. The dolma were served warm, stuffed with a bulgar wheat mixture and smothered in thick yogurt.

Istanbul dolmasHeaven inside a grape leaf.

Our main course was manti, a Turkish ravioli/dumpling stuffed with meat and spices and also topped with yogurt.

Istanbul mantiThis bowl of manti was the single best thing I ate in Istanbul.

Bonus #2: My Favorite Drink in Istanbul

Istanbul has great coffee, tea, fruit juice, beer, and wine. But the best beverage discovery I made in Istanbul was salep, a hot, creamy drink made from the tubers of orchids that is served only in Turkey and a handful of middle eastern countries (and only in winter). Drinking salep is like drinking a warm version of the most delicious ice cream you can imagine.

SalepA cup of salep on our ferry ride down the Bosporus.

Istanbul foods and drinks that I enjoyed but didn’t have space to write about in this post: Turkish coffee and tea, apple tea, pomegranate juice, Turkish delight, baklava (yummmmmmm), other Turkish pastries, lentil soup, and roasted chestnuts…I’m sure there were more but these are the things I remember.

I’ll have more to say about Turkish food when I write about Cappadocia — coming up soon.

Istanbul: A Travel Blogger’s Dream (and Nightmare)

When I was invited to attend the World Tourism Forum in Istanbul, I decided to stay on for an extra week. I bought a guidebook, consulted with friends, and made plans with Meruschka, who was also traveling to Istanbul for the forum. A week should be plenty of time to explore the city, I thought — visit all the best tourist attractions and maybe fit in some locals-only activities. Right?

Flag guyA man sells Turkish flags outside the Spice Bazaar.

Ha! Wrong.

One week in Istanbul is nothing. We didn’t scratch the surface…In fact we didn’t even touch the surface. Meruschka and I spent a lot of time being lost and wandering aimlessly and taking hundreds of photos, which was awesome but we didn’t manage to do half the things we planned.

Suleymaniye mosqueThe Süleymaniye Mosque, largest mosque in Istanbul and reportedly the most beautiful. Alas, we never made it.

Istanbul reminded me of a few important travel lessons:

1) When visiting a huge, frenetic, culturally rich, ancient city like Istanbul, sometimes you have to throw out your guide books and to-do lists. Getting around takes time and it’s easy to get lost and distracted.

2) Getting to know Istanbul, which has tens of millions of people, thousands of historical sites, and a language barrier for those who don’t speak Turkish, is exhausting. Cut yourself some slack and don’t try to do more than a couple of planned activities each day.

3) Calm the f*ck down.

Actually, the only important lesson is #3.

Hence, I don’t feel qualified to create one of those “Top 10 Things to Do in Istanbul” posts that travel bloggers love to write. But I can provide a haphazard list of ten things we did that were really cool.

Cool Things I Did in Istanbul

1) Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia is the most famous historic building in Istanbul, and the one tourist site that Meruschka and I made absolutely sure to visit.

Hagia Sophia outsideThe square in front of the Hagia Sophia.

Hagia Sophia insideThe Hagia Sophia was a cathedral for nearly 1000 years, before becoming a mosque and then a museum. Unfortunately a large part of it was under renovation when we visited (hence the scaffolding).

Hagia Sophia MeruschkaMeruschka in one of the Hagia Sophia’s upstairs halls.

2) The Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque, right across the way from the Hagia Sophia, was the one place I managed to visit during my eight-hour layover in Istanbul last October. Obviously I had to go again so that Meruschka could also see the mosque’s signature blue-tiled ceiling. I had fun people-watching on my second Blue Mosque visit.

Blue mosque guyYou have to be both Muslim and a man to step into the main prayer area that takes up most of the inside of the Blue Mosque. This guy decided to sneak a selfie after he finished praying. 

3) Basilica Cistern

The Basilica Cistern, also right near the Hagia Sophia, is a huge water storage facility built in the 6th century by the Emperor Justinian. The cistern contains 336 stone columns and two enormous Medusa heads. You have to see it to believe it.

Underground cisternsA small part of the Basilica Cistern.

Underground cisterns MedusaGiant Medusa head.

4) The Grand Bazaar

The Grand Bazaar is jaw-dropping for its sheer size; according to Wikipedia it attracts 250,000 to 400,000 visitors a day. (This seems impossible to me, but who knows.) Be prepared for some friendly heckling from the vendors, who can smell a foreigner coming from miles away.

Grand BazaarOne of the main halls in the Grand Bazaar.

5) Neighborhoods of the Golden Horn

We took an amazing (albeit freezing) walking tour of Istanbul’s most historic neighborhoods — Fener, Balat, and Ayvansaray — with a local company called Fest Travel. This section of Istanbul has a huge number of Byzantine-era churches, ancient synagogues, and mosques, most of which would be hard to find without a local expert.

Armenian churchInside a historic Armenian church in Balat.

6) The Trams of İstiklal Street

İstiklal Street, which we first discovered on a walking tour with Context Travel, became my favorite street in Istanbul. The wide street is closed to cars for most of the day, and can only be traveled on foot or via the Nostalgic İstiklal Cadessi Tram.

Istiklal street carThe Taksim-Tünel Tram, chugging up İstiklal Street. We managed to ride the tram on our last night in Istanbul, through the tunnel that runs up Galata Hill. 

 7) Galata Tower

Galata Tower is one of Istanbul’s most recognizable landmarks. We never climbed it, but we looked at it from just about every angle.

Galata towerGalata Tower at nightfall, shot on my first day in Istanbul.

8) Ferry Cruise on the Bosporus

The Bosporus Strait divides the European and Asian sides of Istanbul. Taking a ferry ride up the strait (we caught the ferry from the Eminönü terminal for the equivalent of about $5) helped me get a feel for the geography of the city and put Istanbul’s massive size into perspective.

View from boatOur boat was surrounded by dive-bombing seagulls for the duration of the 1.5-hour ferry ride.

View from boat2The European side of the Bosporus.

View from boat3The Asian side of the Bosporus — I have no idea what this exquisite building is. (UPDATE: Thanks to my rockstar reader Catherine, I now know that this is the Palace of Kyyksu.)

9) Street Markets in Kadıköy

We only made it to the Asian side of Istanbul on one evening, which is a shame because I was dying to do more exploring there. But I was enamoured with our one stroll through the streetside fishmongers, spice stalls, bakeries, and cafés in the Asian neighborhood of Kadıköy.

Kadikoy marketFishmonger in Kadıköy.

10) Chora Church

The Chora Museum, similar to the Hagia Sophia, is a sixth-century Byzantine-church-turned-Ottoman-mosque-turned-museum. Unfortunately it was also under renovation when we visited; the exterior of the church was surrounded by scaffolding and the majority of the interior was closed. (This was a bummer, especially since no one told us that the inside was mostly closed until after we’d paid our full admission fee.) But still, the mosaics and frescoes on the walls and ceilings of the church — even the few we were able to see — were worth the bus fare and admission.

Chora ChurchByzantine fresco in the Chora Church.

Bonus place: Buyuk Valide Han

The Buyuk Valide Han is difficult to find without a local. (We were lucky to go with Sezgi Olgaç, a Turkish Instagrammer who showed us around one afternoon.) It’s an old inn that now houses a warren of craftsmen’s workshops, whose roof happens to possess the best view in town. The han’s roof used to be a well-kept secret, but now the entire student population seems to know and gather there every afternoon for selfies.

Buyuk Valide HanThere was a long line of people waiting to climb on top of this mound on the roof. Each person or group spent at least five minutes getting her/his photo taken in a variety of poses. 

Buyuk Valide Han viewI skipped the line and shot this a few feet down from the crowded mound. Still not a bad view.

Looking back at this list, I take it back. We did a sh*tload of stuff in Istanbul. There are even a few things that I left out — like Topkapi Palace and the Spice Bazaar and all the beautiful graffiti — because this post is too freaking long already. And don’t even get me started on the food — I’m saving Istanbul’s food for a separate post.

A quick note about terrorism in Turkey. Terrorism is on everyone’s mind and there’s no denying that Turkey has had some issues lately. But terrorism is also an issue in France, Kenya, England, Indonesia, the United States, and several other top tourism countries. Isolated terrorist incidents, in my opinion, are no reason to avoid visiting an incredible place like Turkey. I made that decision before I went and it was the right one for me.

Heather stepsThe rainbow steps of Cihangir, home to the city’s cutest cats. (Photo by Meruschka Govender.)

More Turkey posts on the way.

My flight to Istanbul was provided courtesy of Turkish Airlines, the World Tourism Forum, and Blogger Casting. Opinions expressed are mine.

Istanbul sunset

Cats of Istanbul

I’ve just returned from two weeks in Turkey, most of which I spent in Istanbul.

The main reason I went to Istanbul was to attend a travel conference called the World Tourism Forum, where I listened to speeches and panels with leading tourism professionals and met other travel bloggers from around the world. I also wanted to explore Istanbul (I’d been once before, but only for eight hours) and check out at least one other destination in Turkey.

And there is one other big reason why I went to Istanbul: the cats.

Istanbul cats-2This might be the cutest cat in Istanbul. Or it might not be. There are thousands of cats competing for that honor.

Everyone knows I love cats. I photograph them everywhere I go, and my own cat writes frequently on this blog. But my love of cats can’t compare to the cat-love that encompasses the city of Istanbul, and in fact all of Turkey.

Istanbul cats-2-4Cat on a wall in Cihangir, Istanbul.

Istanbul’s Multitude of Cats

There are hundreds of thousands of cats in Istanbul, most of which are strays. By “stray” I mean that the cats live mainly outside and aren’t “owned” by any one person. But the stray cats of Istanbul, as a whole, are exceptionally well cared-for. Most of them look healthy and well fed (bowls of cat food appear everywhere on Istanbul’s streets), and unlike feral cats in other places these cats are usually keen to socialize with humans.

There are various theories and explanations for why cats are so ubiquitous in Turkey, most of which center around the fact that cats hold a special place in Islam. As the popular Muslim saying goes, “If you’ve killed a cat, you need to build a mosque to be forgiven by God.” However, Turkey’s passion for cats seems to go beyond religion. To me it just seems like Turkish people, as a whole, really love cats. And I don’t blame them.

Although I did make time for other activities, I could have spent my entire stay in Istanbul following, petting, and taking photos of cats. I’ve compiled my favorite cat pics for this post.

Istanbul cats-2-3On our first free afternoon in Istanbul, Meruschka and I visited a neighborhood called Cihangir that is home to a charming family of cats. (The cats of Cihangir even have a dedicated Facebook group.) We met the cats on a beautiful rainbow-painted staircase, where we spent at least 45 minutes taking photos.

Istanbul cats-8420Kitten of Cihangir.

Istanbul cats-2-5Mama cat of Cihangir.

Istanbul cats-8468
Feeding time on the Cihangir steps.

Istanbul cats-8500I went a little cat-crazy in Cihangir.
 Istanbul cats-8571Cat on a cobbled street, Galata.

Istanbul cats-9817Golden cat, Galata.

Istanbul cats-8846Cats on a chilly day, Fener.

Istanbul cats-9963Cat in front of a trendy coffee shop, Balat.

Istanbul cats-9491This cat, shown with my Turkish blogging colleague Murat, crashed our Travel Massive networking event at Hush Hostel in Kadıköy. He was the sweetest most affectionate cat ever, until a pizza appeared on the table. Then he became an aggressive, ravenous, lunatic cat who is clearly used to having his way with human food.

Istanbul cats-0271Pretty cat by a pretty door, Eminönü. People leave out boxes and pieces of cardboard for the cats to sit on, since Istanbul’s streets and stone floors are cold in winter.

Istanbul cats-9661Cat and graffiti, Beyoğlu.

Istanbul cats-9624I think this is my favorite picture that I took in Istanbul, shot on İstiklal Street during a walking tour with Context Travel. You can’t tell in this photo, but the regal cat in the man’s lap only has one eye. I wish I could have gotten their story, but he didn’t speak English and I didn’t want to hold up my tour group. I could tell he was a lovely man though, with lovely cats.

I should mention that there are also lots of stray dogs in Istanbul, although not as many as there are stray cats. The dogs also look relatively healthy but not as well cared-for as the cats. I noticed that lots of the dogs, especially in central tourist areas, have tags in their ears, which I assume means they have been spayed/neutered.

Istanbul dog-0098An Istanbul dog in Sultanahmet.

I’ll probably have more to say about Turkey’s cats and dogs in future posts.

Read more about the cats of Istanbul here, here, here, and here.

Five Things I Can’t Wait to Experience When I’m Back in Istanbul

Three months ago, I flew to the United States via Istanbul on Turkish Airlines. It was the best deal I could find and I decided it would be fun to visit Istanbul during my layover, even if it was just for eight hours.

In the blog post I wrote about that eight-hour layover, I finished by saying, “Next time, Istanbul, I’m coming for a week.”

Istanbul 2016 post-1810Istanbul’s Blue Mosque.

I meant what I said; eight hours in Istanbul is certainly not enough and I wanted to come back for a longer stay. But let’s face it: Istanbul is a long way from Joburg. I knew I wanted to go back but had no idea when such an opportunity would arise – months, years, maybe never.

I guess the travel gods heard my prayer. Because a few weeks ago I received an invitation to attend an international conference called the World Tourism Forum, as part of a global delegation of bloggers, during the first week of February. Guess where the World Tourism Forum takes place? That’s right. Istanbul.

Istanbul 2016 post-1898Istanbul!

The conference lasts for three days but I’m going to stay for a week afterward. (See? I meant what I said.) I haven’t made specific plans yet and I’ll probably just wing it to some extent. But I’m sure I’ll have no problem filling the time.

Here are a few of the things I’m looking forward to when I’m back in Istanbul:

1) The photography. Istanbul (and all of Turkey for that matter, from what I’ve seen and heard) is a photographer’s dream. It’s an ancient place with layer upon layer of colors and textures and shapes.

Blue-mosque-ceilingInside the Blue Mosque.

2) The architecture. I only had time to visit the Blue Mosque and walk past the Hagia Sophia last time. But I saw enough to know that Istanbul has some of the most beautiful and historic buildings in the world.

3) The food. Again, my layover only allowed me time for a quick breakfast and some coffee and baklava. But Turkish food is one of my favorite cuisines, as you know if you’ve read my posts about Turkish restaurants in Joburg. I’ll be experiencing the real thing this time, and lots of it.

Turkish-delight-shopTurkish sweets.

4) The people. From what I’ve experienced so far, both here in Joburg and briefly in Istanbul, Turkish people are friendly, kind, funny, and welcoming. I’m looking forward to meeting tons of people and shooting a lot of portraits.

5) The cats. CATS! When I was in Istanbul last year, the very first photo that I shot was of a cat. They’re everywhere, literally. Cat-watching can entertain me for hours, if not days, and I can’t wait to get up close in personal with every one of Istanbul’s millions of cats.

Istanbul 2016 post-1789
A beautiful Istanbul cat. And part of a pants leg.

One interesting plot twist: It’s winter in Turkey, and it will be cold. I haven’t experienced winter in the Northern Hemisphere – like actual winter, with below-freezing temperatures and snow – since I moved to South Africa in 2010. So that will be interesting. But I’m up for the challenge.

I leave tonight. Istanbul, here I come. For a week.

My flight to Istanbul will be provided courtesy of Turkish Airlines, and my stay is courtesy of the World Tourism Forum and Blogger Casting. To get an idea of what the city has to offer, watch this awesome two-minute video about Istanbul.