An Appointment in…Tirana

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Both my husband and I have been a bit hermit-like lately, preferring to spend our weekends playing video games in our pajamas over adventures in the city.  This is probably a symptom of our travel-heavy summer and the usual adjustment that comes with a new school year.  Still, we both caught a case of the travel bug this week after a particularly tiring series of after-school events and duties, so we scoured the internet for travel deals and settled on Albania.

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We knew next to nothing about Albania before we landed in Tirana, which, in this case, only enhanced my experience.  I was instantly surprised by the kindness of the locals, the beauty of the city, and the unique blend of Ottoman, Italian, and communist influence.

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We got up first thing in the morning, ready to hit the ground running since we only had two days to experience the city.  Our first stop was Skanderbeg Square, a large plaza in the middle of the city.  The lack of crowds and grey skies made it seem all the more imposing.

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It was a bit chillier in Tirana than we had expected, so we found ourselves making frequent stops for cappuccino, which much to our elation was some of the best we’d ever had.  The cafe culture there alone is worth the visit.

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In addition to great coffee and cool architecture, Tirana is also home to a thriving contemporary art scene.  It seems like you can’t turn the corner without seeing some kind of sculpture, art gallery, or street art.  This piece I am standing on – the cloud – was a personal favorite.

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The vibrant and youthful atmosphere of the city is likely a reaction to Albania’s dark past.   In the 20th century alone, the country went from being a police state at the turn of the century, to a fascist state under the Nazis, to a communist state after WWII.  During the 40-year reign of communist dictator Enver Hoxha, the country suffered from widespread oppression and isolationism.  The monument above, known as the Pyramid of Tirana, was commissioned by the daughter of Enver Hoxha as a monument to his legacy.  Ironically, it still serves that purpose, though his legacy is not one that is remembered fondly.

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View of Tirana from a bunker

Another of the city’s bizarre communist remnants are the preserved bunkers, built by Hoxha to protect the country from potential invasions – which never came to pass.  One of the bunkers has been converted into an art and history museum known as Bunk’Art, which takes visitors through the murky tunnels (both literally and figuratively) of Albania’s communist history.  Among some of the exhibits are the names of people killed in concentration camps, methods of torture used against citizens who opposed the government, and examples of how families were bugged by the police state.  The thing that blows my mind the most is that Albania was only freed from this oppression in 1990, the year before I was born.

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It is perhaps because of its dark past and decades of isolation that Albania is so seldom visited, though tourism is gradually increasing.  At the moment, it is a bit of a hidden gem, but I suspect in the next ten years, it will become a hot spot in Europe, much like Croatia.  I’m grateful to have seen it when I did.

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I was totally blown away by Tirana and Albania in general.  The breathtaking view of the mountains below while I was flying away made leaving even more difficult than it already was.  It is another of many places that I know I must revisit.  I only had time for Tirana on this trip, but next time, I’d love to visit places like Berat or the Albanian Riviera to take in more of the country’s natural beauty.

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**As a side note, the title of this post comes from a song that has been stuck in my head all week.  Coincidentally, the song was recommended to me by a student after assigning the class to read the folk tale to which the song alludes…so there is a bit of a double allusion going on here.  Anyway, I feel like the song perfectly matches the atmosphere of Tirana…haunting and beautiful.**

The Best Coffee in Moda

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The European side of Istanbul is what draws many people  to Turkey, but it’s the Asian side that has my heart.  It’s quiet, it’s charming, and it’s the place to be if you want to feel like a local.  What it lacks in tourist attractions in more than makes up for in character…especially in Moda.

Moda is the hipster oasis of Istanbul, where one goes to find foreign food, quirky goodness, and a decent cup of coffee.  It’s also only about 45 minutes away from our campus on a good traffic day, so we have spent many a weekend there when we need to escape the microcosm.  We are always on the hunt for a new restaurant, good cafe, or fun shop.  After many months of trial and error, we’ve started to settle into our favorite spots in the area.

Our first priority when we step off of the service bus?  COFFEE.  We have tried countless coffee shops in the area, but now that we have been here for over a year, we’ve narrowed it down to a few favorites.

Walter’s Coffee

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This was our first big discovery in the area and still one of our regular hangouts.  I love the Breaking Bad theme (because who doesn’t love Breaking Bad?) and the coffee is amazing too.  This is one of the few places I have been able to order coffee with almond milk, which is usually my milk of choice.

Coffee Manifesto

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Conveniently located by all of the bars, they offer a delicious variety of coffee beans, mostly of Latin American origin.  I love stopping by in the morning for a strong cup of filtered coffee (sade) or for a cortado as an afternoon treat.  They also have pretty good cupcakes.

Cherrybean Coffees

This place opened up recently and has taken off better than most new things do in the area.  I love that they serve their filtered coffee in a good, old-fashioned mug.  Everything about it reminds me of home.  The coffee selection isn’t enormous, but they offer great atmosphere, with comfy chairs and plenty of art on the walls.

Food Project

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This is where coffee lovers can take their friends who don’t like coffee (but seriously…how do such people exist?)  In addition to a cozy atmosphere and good coffee, Food project has an EPIC hot chocolate menu, including flavors like pumpkin spice and lavender (my fave!). They also have a killer breakfast buffet on Saturdays.

If you ask me, no trip to Istanbul is complete without a visit to the Asian side, even if it’s only for a few hours…and while you’re at it, go get some great coffee (especially if you aren’t a fan of Turkish coffee).

The Best Turkish Coffee and Icelandic Jams

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We finally had the chance to get off campus this weekend after a long string of weekend duties.  We were chatting in the teacher’s lounge last week with some of our co-workers (who are from Istanbul) and they gave some great tips on things to do in the city that are off the beaten path.

The whole conversation got started when they noticed my husband and I sipping on Turkish coffees after eating lunch.  They were surprised when we told them we liked it.  They then went on to recommend a cafe that still makes their coffee the old way, over a fire.  It’s a hidden gem in the city, not far from Sultanahmet and certainly not frequented by yabancis such as ourselves.  It’s the kind of place you go if you want a feel for real Istanbul.  We were immediately sold.

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The area is called Çorlulu Ali Paşa, which is named after the mosque next to it, although this place doesn’t seem to be associated with the mosque.  At first, it’s hard to find, but once you find the entrance, it’s as if you’ve stepped through a magic portal.  The ceilings are covered with colorful lamps, the floors are scattered with inviting mosaic tables and cushions, and the tantalizing scent of nargile fills the air.  My kind of place.

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I could tell that these were no ordinary Turkish coffees as soon as they arrived.  The color was slightly lighter and the foam on top was thicker and creamier than any I’d ever seen before.  The first sip offered a sweeter, smoother, and nuttier experience than I was used to.  Hands down the best I’ve ever tasted.  Hopefully next time I won’t have a cold so I can enjoy some nargile (hookah) while I’m at it.

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The sea of people on this street will never cease to amaze me.

We left and wandered down Istiklal for a while to kill some time before catching a late night concert we just happened to hear about at the last minute.  Though the title of this post may be a bit deceiving, ‘jams’ in this case is referring to music, not preserved fruit.

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We were lucky enough to see Sin Fang, a cool indie band from Iceland that my husband has been a huge fan of since high school.  The tickets were unbelievably cheap and the venue was nice and intimate…we were right in front of the stage!  If you’re looking for good indie music in Istanbul, look no further than Salon IKSV.  It’s small, near the Galata Tower, and always has the best music.

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I left the concert with my heart full of love for this city that I’m so fortunate to live right next to, which made the news of the explosion in Beşiktaş all the more disheartening. My heart goes out to all of the victims and their families.

Pumpkins at the Pazar

DSC_0111.JPGYou guys, I’m so happy.  I went to the pazar with some friends today to see if we could find any pumpkins, thinking at best we would find a handful of weird green ones.  Much to our surprise and delight, we were able to get big, beautiful, spooky-shaped orange pumpkins! Perfect for carving.  We’re having a little decoration competition at the school next week and I’m excited to see how they turn out!  We even got to haul them off on a big cart, and if I closed my eyes hard enough, I could pretend it was a hayrack ride.

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Also on my list of great discoveries, a Starbucks 10 minutes away from the school WITH A DRIVE THROUGH.  That’s the first one I’ve seen in all of Europe.  I had a pumpkin spice latte, obviously.

It’s so nice to be feeling the vibes this year!

Istanbul Coffee Festival

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Anyone who knows me well knows of my love for coffee…especially good coffee.  My husband and I were just casually looking around for things to do over the weekend and when the Istanbul Coffee Festival came under our radar, it was a no-brainer.

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The Istanbul Coffee Festival, otherwise known as paradise, is an annual event that brings together all things coffee.  There were TONS of local coffee shop owners, as well as several international coffee brands.  There were also many workshops, snack vendors, and fun activities at the event.  Obviously, the best part was the coffee.  I did my best to visit every stand to taste what they had to offer, determined to find a few favorites to take home with me.

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It can be hard to escape the usual Turkish coffee in Turkey, but Istanbul has a fairly vibrant coffee culture if you’re willing to seek it out.  There were several great vendors who were offering fabulous filtered coffee, from pour-over to drip to cold brew.  You name it, they had it!

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After four hours of non-stop complimentary coffee samples, I don’t even want to talk about how caffeinated I was.  If not for the lingering cold, I doubt I even would have slept. It was totally worth it though, because not only did we get to drink amazing coffee all day, but we also discovered plenty of new coffee hangouts in Istanbul for future weekends.

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We left with some pretty good loot.  We got some delicious new coffee beans, some tasty granola, and a new coffee grinder (so we don’t have to rely on our food processor all the time.)  We also got some cool t-shirts and a tote bag.

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Pretty much all of the coffee we had was good, but my personal favorite was Deal.  Their Burundi beans were fabulous and you can order them online, so if you’re looking for some great filtered coffee in Turkey, check it out!

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I’m feeling much more prepared for the colder days ahead.  I will definitely be back at the festival next year!