Turkish delights with Elaine from Dust & Dreams
We are never surprised to hear of yet another South African who has fallen under the spell of magical, ancient Turkey. But there are few accounts as arresting as that of Elaine Louwrens from Dust and Dreams Photography. Together with husband Steph, these talented creatives are known for their romantic, organic approach to editorials and wedding photography which has seen them regularly travel the globe, from Russia to Morocco.
Enjoy the duo’s evocative photo essay and wonderful tips on enjoying the rich, unforgettable experience of a visit to Turkey.
What sparked your lifelong love affair with Turkey?
6939 rotations around the sun since I first felt my feet gently tread on Turkish soil, since my very first encounter with Istanbul. A city where my heart still comes to rest, a place that always nudges me to be a little braver. I was 19 when I first wandered the winding alleyways of Istanbul’s old city. It was also during that trip that I irrevocably lost my soul (not even just my heart!) to Cappadocia. The intricate, natural sandstone formations are truly a marvel and if you travel during the off-season, Gorëme is quiet and rather surreal.
Turkey is our heart place and Istanbul a city that had changed me profoundly when I was young(er)… so yes, whenever we can go back, we do.
Tell me about the dogs in your photos.
During our last visit to Istanbul we photographed a dreamy dress from Silver Swallow Design. To be able to photograph unobtrusively we would usually wake up when the first call to prayer would reverberate through the city from the minarets. Going out early always held the promise of quiet streets, sunrise light and also emptiness.
The pack of street dogs we actually met the previous day while going for our morning run in Gülhane park. While Steph did what felt like a hundred laps, I lost interest after about four and spent the rest of my ‘workout” playing with our new friends on the lawn.
The next morning, as we started photographing around the Sultanahmet area of the old city, they appeared again and boisterously followed along while we worked. They were particularly helpful especially with the long strings hanging from the dress and carrying my scarf. One large cream-coloured dog took a particular interest in Steph and would sit with him while he photographed.
Initially I felt my heart cracking open little every time we saw street creatures in Istanbul. That had changed into something that is no longer a sad ‘cracking open’ but rather a sense of freedom! Not only do they roam the city – playing in the fountains and living with wild abandon – but they are fed on every street corner and many cafes have drinking bowls out and even cushions for the cats. They ARE freedom!
If you had to single out a few highlights of Turkey, what would they be?
If you are an explorer, a rebel visionary and someone who likes to emerge yourself in your journey and truly soak up cultures, then Mardin is a must. Nestled at the very spot where Turkey hugs sides with Syria, this town is a place of wonder. Especially the oldest parts. Expect to be lured in by the smell of coffee roasting in a cement mixer, being slowly turned by human hands over a roasting fire. To be served with pinches of cardamom in tiny, steaming cups.
Mardin is a labyrinth of winding alleyways with carpets drying on the sandstone parapets and hidden restaurants serving freshly made pide (a sort of Turkish pizze pie) and glasses of icy ayran (a cold, savoury yogurt-based drink). It is a city of unruly goats chewing on our gear while literally bouncing around the Mesopotamian plains. It is a city of a thousand curiously interesting doors, of ‘garbage-removal’ donkeys and merchants still selling silver jewellery by weight.
You were planning a trip last year (that was sadly cancelled). What was on your agenda?
Not only have we not been to Turkey for two years but we have been missing Istanbul’s shores. Listening to the minarets calling at dawn. This trip would also have been a scouting trip for photographing in Istanbul and visiting the island of Bozcaada – which has been on our wish list for many years!
We have been looking forward to exploring the wineries, sampling unique Turkish cuisine while driving all the way from Istanbul to the island and back. Other than that, we are running out of our favourite Turkish kitchen staples like Pul Biber, pismaniye, pomegranate syrup and some other curious treats.
We of course had to put this trip on hold – a trip to Turkey is never cancelled! – and are looking forward to visiting again when the time is right.
What is your absolute favourite place to stay in Turkey?
This is completely debatable as we like to mix things up and usually prefer to do a combination of Airbnb’s, guesthouses and even small hotels. In the old city of Istanbul, we have found that there are some great, smaller hotels which are right in the thick of things and at good value. This combined with a few days in Karaköy, Beşiktaş or Galata to enjoy frequent strolls to the coffee houses in Istiklal Kadessi.
When staying in Istanbul, we might move every three days as it’s the hidden gems we find along the way and by keeping ourselves just slightly out of our comfort zones that truly piques our interest. ‘Feeling’ several parts of the city is the perfect mix for us. With every visit we also stay in one part of the city that we haven’t stayed in before. We also add different areas of Turkey to every itinerary.
And your favourite foods?
Again, a very hard one as I have a slight addiction to pismaniye, baklava and halva. But both Steph and I are huge fans of most Turkish street foods and have a couple of favourite stalls we visit which sell spicy dolmades, simit (sesame crusted dough) and toasted chestnuts in winter.
All of these are always accompanied by endless cups of Turkish Coffee for Steph and tea for me. While we are in Turkey (and pretty much whenever we travel – regardless of the destination), we are always snacking and will literally spend our days constantly trying small bites from street vendors and sharing plates at restaurants. We love the feeling of a ‘Together Table’ which is so abundant in Turkish culture and which brings such a sense of belonging and sharing love through food.
In Gorëme, Steph would devour their traditional ‘Testi Kebab’ daily, which is lamb and spices cooked and served in a clay pot.
For a newbie, what are some favourite places to visit in Istanbul?
The Sultanahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque) always brings a sense of calm like no other and even if we don’t go inside, we usually spend a few hours sitting in the courtyards. It has an indescribable serenity. If you do choose to base yourself around the old town of Istanbul, it is definitely worth the ferry trip to visit Kadıköy as well. Not only is it a vibrant neighbourhood, but the fresh food market is a sensory explosion. Getting lost in your own senses feels like second nature when wandering those streets.
We spend a bit of time in Gülhane park on most days, even if it is just to picnic on the lawn and snack though our collection of ‘street food finds’.
Where do you snap the most magical photos?
Sultanahmet Mosque is right up there (we suggest you visit just after sunrise) as well as the view you get from Süleymaniye Mosque. We also love the vibrancy in and around the old spice bazaar and Eminönü. We are guided by our feet, our eyes and often our noses to some intriguing spots…which we tend to never find again!
Share some delightful off-the-beaten-track gems you’ve discovered.
This has to be the little ‘hole-in-the-wall’ shop in the old town of Istanbul where we would stop to buy baklava. Belonging to an old gentleman, he sells whatever his wife baked that day and we have never visited Istanbul without numerous trips to his window. He is rather easy to find: stroll past the Sultanahmet Mosque, down the hill, past the sidewalk spice trader (who has the most deliciously spicy dolmades by the way!) and just across from the lamp shop on the corner you will notice the window. A few steps down and you are inside the tiny store and if you get lucky, a tray of freshly made baklava will be waiting. Just ready to be weighed and sold!
Why do we love travelling so much? We’re often asked this and we often ask ourselves! The answer is actually pretty simple. We just HAVE to, it feels like a part of us... like breathing and talking and walking barefoot. When we travel, we love knowing that we get to slowly submerge ourselves in different, delicious cultures, ways of living and see different shores. It helps us to see the same things with fresh eyes each time. It keeps us humble and curious, mischievous and adventurous!