Riding a train from the O’Hare International Airport to downtown Chicago on Thursday, I was tired. I’d been awake and traveling for nearly 48 hours, and had just emerged from a surprise detainment by Customs making sure I wasn’t hiding Bashar al-Assad in my carry-on. In between dozing off and counting train stops, the thought occurred to me that I should really write some glowing reviews of the residences and restaurants that made our trip as memorable as it was. So I did. Here are my rough drafts:
Happy Inn Lodge in Interlaken, Switzerland – My first European hostel experience, and arguably the best. The rooms were just rough and creaky enough to give the place a rustic sense, but not so much that we questioned their quality. Our favorite waitress from the restaurant downstairs’ name was either Kristy or Tristy, and she entertained us with Swiss anecdotes in her pointed German English. Many fond memories of long evenings spent munching on fresh bread and cheese while plotting the next days excursions in this clean, sleepy, mountain-bounded town.
EuroStudent Home in Florence, Italy – This hostel, likely the cheapest option anywhere in northern Italy, is run by a group of young, social, roughly college-age guys and their friends. I think that’s the best way to describe it. Almost every moment we spent there was filled with mandatory dance parties, pasta parties, sangria parties, and our hosts’ constant requests that we let them show us all the best clubs across the city. They also evacuated the hostel from 10-5 every day, for reasons we didn’t question but did keep our valuables locked up in preparation for. Oh well. They kept us on our toes.
Generator in Venice, Italy – The Generator was everything the EuroStudent Home wants to be. It’s a comfortable, inexpensive, fun place for travelers to meet and mingle, but with a larger budget and functioning locks. Being in Venice, we were busy exploring for most of the trip, but during the small amount of time we spent there we managed to make six new friends from six different countries and on two occasions bought out the hostel’s entire stock of deserts. We didn’t make any more friends after that. I’m told there are other Generators in Europe; after this experience, I’d like to find the rest.
Chopsticks Chinese Restaurant in Rome – When several of our groupmates came back one night and said they’d discovered a bottomless Chinese meat buffet, it was only a matter of time before…we… ate the place down. American cuisine had been proving elusive, so we took the chance to eat like Americans instead, in true buffet fashion. For those of you actually interested in the quality of the place, I will say this: The food highly exceeds what you would expect from a buffet, but this is because Chopsticks is meant to be a nice restaurant with an all-you-can-eat option that well-balanced customers will occasionally choose and eat from in a restrained, well-balanced fashion. I’m not proud of the things we did there.
Bursa Izgara Restaurant on Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul – One of my first meals in Istanbul was at Bursa Izgara, and it kept me and others coming back until the end. Their Iskender, a dish of pita bread soaked in melted butter and topped with a tangy tomato sauce, Turkish meatballs, cheese, and plain yogurt, immediately made the top of my list of ‘Things to learn to make as soon as possible.’ It’s a long list. I might have some hoarder tendencies.
Anteplioglu Ornek Tatli & Baklava in Istanbul – We never learned the name of our favorite octogenarian pastrymaker, nor did we communicate with him much at all, except to negotiate prices and try to guess the appropriate Turkish greeting based on the time of day. Nevertheless he’d smile and wave whenever we walked past, and free samples were a constant. We suspect he also held a high position in the Turkish Mafia, as it is not uncommon for store owners to have second part-time jobs.
Pilawchi Usta Cafe in Istanbul – Another group favorite, Pilawchi was our second source of Turkish comfort food after Bursa Izagara. It’s specialty was chicken and rice, and also lentil soup (also on my ‘to make’ list). The employees quickly learned our faces and linguistic inadequacies, to the point of joining Baklava Man in the ranks of people we waved to every morning.
Giycek Old Time Photo Studio in Istanbul – The women running this cliche tourist attraction are saints. After walking past it every day for two months, we finally indulged ourselves on one of our last days in the city. After helping us accessorize our Ottoman garb, the photographers humored us for an hour of shooting, then helped us select the final images and stayed late to edit them in time for our departure. The price was a bit steep, but the fun and great service more than made up for it.
Yusuf Yigitoglu Konagi Cave Hotel in Urgup, Turkey – My hotel room was a cave. A cave. Cool, quiet, comfortable, and with roughly carved walls to once again remind you that you’re in a cave. The hotel certainly fit Cappadocia’s larger cliff dwelling theme, with a beautifully erratic series of rooms and terraces cut from the hillside. The restaurant was equally authentic and satisfying, with a traditional breakfast buffet every morning making sure we all met our olive and cheese consumption quota. My favorite part of the hotel was that to understand the entire complex you had to actually wander around and explore every nook and cranny, because the hotel is too unpredictable and sporadic to grasp any other way. It was beautiful.
360 Istanbul Restaurant – One of my last destinations before shipping out, 360 Istanbul delivers exactly what is advertised: a 360 degree view of central Istanbul, though from a perch not more than a story or two higher than its neighboring buildings. I’ve always loved these less towering views, since they offer a more personal, involved view rather than a map-like bird’s eye view. I didn’t buy any food, so I’m afraid I can only say that what I saw looked pretty yummy. I was more interested in picking out the various places we had visited over the last ten weeks–bridges, towers, islands, the monolithic Gothic Church accentuating the European district–and trying to recite the string of mosques spanning the Old City. We had been planning on visiting the rooftop restaurant almost since arriving in Istanbul, but in retrospect I’m glad we were delayed.
Until next time, Turkey!