Each Thanksgiving, Jonathan and I like to travel somewhere new over the holiday. Turkey seemed like a logical place to visit as of course everyone associates Turkey and Thanksgiving. Brilliant! We gathered up a few friends from the Beautiful Life meetup group and made our way to Istanbul to get things rolling.
Our first day of the trip was consumed with just getting to Turkey (via Paris on Air France for maximum miles of course) so we had time only for dinner before we called it a day. I chose Mezze based on its stellar reputation on Trip Advisor and the restaurant did not disappoint. Lovely little small plates was the name of the game for everyone and the lamb was tender and juicy. The establishment has a featured dessert that is unique: Ballý Bademli Cevizli Kaymaklý Muz (Geleneksel veya Acýlý) . Oh sorry, did you want that in English? Bananas Topped with Honey, Almonds, Pistachios and Clotted Cream with Chili Sauce. Read that again out loud and think about it. Cream. Hot Chili. Honey. Bananas. MMMMMM. If you were thinking that sounds fabulous, you were right!
My second day in Turkey started off on a note of terror - not the criminal mastermind variety but the good old fashioned zombie movie style terror. Our hotel was just down the street from the famous Blue Mosque and near 5:30am a slow and terrifying series of moans began to drift into our bedroom. The same sort of moans that emanate from the undead in horror flicks as they shuffle toward you. Creepy and like nothing else I’ve ever heard- this was my thought upon first exposure. (Did you think this was a politically correct blog? Yeah, its not. I report things as I experience them, even if it makes me look naïve or reveals some ignorance about other cultural practices. But that’s the beauty of travel- your veil of ignorance is lifted as you come into contact with different people and cultures.)
After a leisurely breakfast at the hotel I led our little group on a tour of the old town in Istanbul which is on the southern European side of the city. We visited the Blue Mosque (named for the Turkish tile within), the Aya Sofya, and the Basilica Cistern. Of these three, the Aya Sofya is the oldest. It was dedicated in the 4th century as a Christian Basilica under Byzantine rule. For more than eleven hundred years it stood in magnificent glory testifying to the triune nature of God until Constantinople was conquered in the 15th century by the Turks and the church rededicated as a Mosque to Allah. I know that God does not live in a building (he lives within our hearts), but the Aya Sofya feels cold and spiritually empty and I could not get ahold of the peace and presence of God while standing within it.
Aya Sofya – If you look close you can make out the Madonna and Child above what used to be the Christian altar
The Basilica Cistern is an amazing sight to behold. It was built in the 6th century as an underground labyrinth adorned with columns and filled with water for the city’s ordinary use. It was later abandoned and then “rediscovered” by historians and now it has been drained of all but an ankle-deep level of water and opened for tours. Previously visitors had to move through the cistern in boats, but tourism revenues allowed for the building of a raised platform within the cistern for more orderly touring.
I think the Blue Mosque is a beautiful space but the interior architecture is very different from western churches. It’s an open floor plan - very light and airy. There is a separate section in the rear of the mosque for women to pray when men are present.
Blue Mosque (no pictures allowed inside)
We had a nondescript lunch at a nondescript restaurant near our hotel before heading off to the Grand Bazaar for some afternoon shopping. The Bazaar is billed as an amazing indoor shopping experience (and one of the oldest) but in practice it’s a lot like wandering the path between overpriced tourist booths in Mexico. After awhile bargaining gets exhausting but the booths seemingly go on forever into the distance. Power nap needed straightaway!
A bit of rest back at the hotel and we were off to Taksim Square and the Istiklal Caddesi for some sightseeing on our way to dinner. Istiklal Caddesi is a long, meandering, pedestrian way in the northern European section of Istanbul. Flanked by high end department stores and boutiques it’s the Champs Elysees of the city sans traffic. We enjoyed dinner at Antiochia where we ordered small plates again to share. The restaurant was good, but not as good as Mezze the night before.
After dinner Jonathan and I treated ourselves lavishly to the Turkish bath experience in one of the oldest continuously operated bathhouses (Cemberlitas Hamami) in Instanbul.
Why did I not turn over my bathing responsibilities to someone else years ago?
I thought I’d previously found the pinnacle spa experience when I was first introduced to Roman baths a few years ago, but this puts Rome to shame! I was provided a locker and standard issue panties and then (after stripping down and putting on just the panties) escorted into the massage room for a hot oil massage. Next, I was led into a hot round room with a heated marble slab in the middle. I was directed to lay down on the slab where other women were already arranged while a hefty woman with endearing motherly qualities (soothing voice, etc) scrubbed me down with a hot wet loofah and lots of soap. Heavenly! She did one side, then had me turn over for her to do the other. If I told you that you had to get naked in a foreign country with a bunch of people looking on while a stranger rubbed down every part of your body you might hesitate but I’m telling you after the first few minutes the western puritanism angst goes away and you just lie there willing it to go on forever. Once the scrubbing was over, the attendant filled up buckets with hot water and doused me repeatedly (as if I was a circus elephant) until I was squeaky clean. Then she guided me over to a nook in the room to wash my hair for me. I was free to relax back on the slab or use the hot tubs after that. It was a great experience and I would fly back to Turkey on a moment’s notice JUST TO HAVE A TURKISH BATH. Jon’s experience went much the same way (except of course his attendant was male) and he seemed to enjoy himself as well.
Friday was our third day in Instanbul and we spent most of the morning at the Topkapi Palace, which was the Sultan’s residence during the age of the Sultans in Turkey. The sultans made use of a whole wing onto the palace just for their harams! The grounds are very nice with a pretty view of the Bosphorus river on the far end. I was disappointed to find that the palace kitchens were closed to tours for the day and also a bit frustrated at the unruly mobs of elementary school children visiting the palace on school tours. They were loud and troublesome. Oh, that brings me to a very bizarre happening on our trip, which repeated itself daily. One of the friends we traveled with is of African descent and the school kids were mesmerized by her. There was pointing and and excited expressions and running over to us to beg for pictures with her. At one point she was even signing autographs for the children. Even some adults smiled at her and called her chocolate and wanted to take a picture. I don’t understand how in the 21st century a dark skinned woman can be such an exotic experience for anyone, anywhere in the modern world. Are there not *any* other black people in Turkey? Do they not watch international TV? I just don’t get it. Credit must be given to our friend, who took it all in stride and never found offense in the children’s curiosity.
An unexpected twist to our palace tour was that I ran into one of my friends from Flyertalk.com in the Palace Armory. He and his wife and new baby girl live in Austin, TX. I met them (pre-baby) at a Flyertalk party in Andorra a couple years ago. What are the chances we’d run into each other in Turkey of all places? Life is funny sometimes.
Standing at the rear of the palace overlooking the Bosphorus
We dropped in on the Spice Bazaar after our palace tour and I really enjoyed those markets. It is the non-tourist version of the Grand Bazaar and all the local people shop there, which is reflected in the prices – a huge discount compared to the GB. I picked up a Turkish tea set (Turks drink tea in small vessels the size of a shot glass) and a few other items. And Jonathan and I enjoyed sampling Turkish Delight. It’s quite good – I’m not sure I’d trade my soul for it (see The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe for details) – but it was good. Lunch was in a little restaurant above the Spice Bazaar that I refuse to name or recommend (despite that it was tasty) because the waiter’s poor English pronunciation led us all to believe the buffet price was almost TWENTY dollars cheaper than it was in actuality. Gah.
Spice Bazaar – where authoritarian parents and sadomasochists come to shop
The wind blew in and the weather turned cold during our afternoon cruise on the Bosphorus. We opted for one of the cheap 90 minute tours on the ferry and the sights along the river were impressive. We sailed under several beautiful bridges as we passed near the Asian side of Istanbul (Istanbul straddles two continents).
Views from the riverboat
Having had enough wind, cold, and excitement for one day, half of our group wandered back to the hotel for the evening while the rest of us headed back to Istiklal Caddesi for shopping, sightseeing, and dinner at another well recommended restaurant. We stopped at Karakoy Gulluoglu on the way for its world famous Turkish Baklava (dessert for appetizer course always works for me). Highly recommend you stop by should you find yourself in Istanbul. Dinner was at a pub type establishment named Sofyali 9. We fell in right away with the gentlemen at the next table who prodded us to try their hot roasted chilies (yum- very similar to NM green chile). We struck up quite the conversation with them and before the night was over we’d all shared our food (delicious) and liquor and traded business cards. One of the gentleman owns a hotel down the coast of Turkey in one of the little resort towns and they both race sailboats for fun. My kind of friends!
Saturday morning I woke with the morning prayers (which, after hearing them many times a day had ceased to be creepy and started to sound beautiful. I especially like the prayer as heard in this clip). We left Istanbul early and flew to Cappadocia to experience the Turkish countryside and remnants of its (now banished) Greek culture. Come to the rural regions of Turkey and you will hear the bitter stories of what the Turks did to the Greeks and the Armenians in the name of unifying their Turkish countrymen. We spent the afternoon walking among the open air ruins of Goreme – cave dwellings with Eastern Roman religious motifs painted within. Then we traveled to Uchisar to climb the “Castle” ruins here and we watched the sunset from atop it.
Goreme Open Air Museum of ruins
Local transportation for tourists
Views from the castle
We did dinner at a place that was such a hole in the wall that the proprietors are willing to come pick you up for the meal just to ensure they can get customers coming in. Unfortunately the food was dull and entirely forgettable.
I like to squeeze every drop of sightseeing out of my holidays so despite being a bit sleepy we set off late after dinner to see the much lauded Whirling Dervish Ceremony at Sarihan. In summary, a gaggle of men dressed in religious skirts that flare when twirled pray, perform on instruments, sing, and spin themselves round and round in circles till they get so dizzy they achieve union with God. I’m not making that up; that’s the theological drive behind the spinning/whirling-till-you-get-dizzy maneuvers. It was very beautiful to watch and a bit hypnotic. After the performance, the crowd was treated to hot apple tea in the fr-fr-fr-freezing open air courtyard before we were taken back to the hotel.
Sunday morning was our last full day in Turkey and we started it off right: with a hot air balloon ride over Cappadocia. I was pretty nervous because it was my first time in a balloon and I don’t “do” heights well. The idea of floating high above the earth in a wicker basket seemed risky to me. I am really glad I pushed through my fears though because it’s so beautiful and amazing to be drifting in the wind overlooking the landscape. We were in the air for a couple of hours and then our pilots treated us to champagne and took us to the hotel where our next tour guide was waiting for us.
Love Valley- oh those Turks have a sense of humor (look closely)
We had booked the Cappadocia Undiscovered tour through our hotel. The tour is run by the same local group – Heritage travel- that organized our balloon ride. On the CU tour we visited more cave dwellings including an entire monastery built inside caverns; we hiked a scenic mile in the Soganli Valley; we toured the Sobessos Excavation site where a farmer unearthed a Byzantine Empire complex while digging in his field one afternoon; and we wound our way through the passages of the Derinkuyu Underground City where more than thirty thousand Phrygians spent months living underground with their families and livestock across 11 stories of manually dug caverns 80 meters deep during times of war in the 6th century BC. I hit my head no less than seven times on the low ceilings in Derinkuyu and came through the experience with a bump on my head.
Tile detail from Byzantine ruins at Sobessos
We flew back to Istanbul late Sunday evening and Jon and I had our best dining experience yet. We stumbled across a whole row of cafes organized in mini-mall fashion near our hotel and decided to pick one at random for dinner. Each café had the word ‘ciger’ in its name, so we assumed they were the sort of pubs where smoking might be allowed. Err, turns out the word mean liver in Turkish and these café’s are known for their liver kebabs. Hmmm. They’ve also got lamb kebabs on the menu so we went that (we just happy to find out no one was smoking cigars!). So the kebabs at these cafes are not like any other kebabs you’ve ever had. Think of them as Turkish fajitas. They are served on long long skewers with flatbread very similar to tortillas, a tomato relish very similar to salsa, grilled onions and peppers, and some other accompaniments like fresh herbs. They are assembled and eaten much like fajitas as well. SO GOOD. Despite the fact that the window advertised ‘credit cards accepted’, the café’s credit card machine was on the fritz and so the owner informed us our meal would need to be paid in cash. When we asked him to direct us to the nearest ATM (b/c we had no cash left since we were leaving in the morning) he changed course and insisted that our meal was free, “to show how very grateful Turkey is to host you”. We protested but it fell on deaf ears. Not only did he comp our meal but he insisted in sending out tea and dessert before we were allowed to leave. What an amazing man and what a spirit of hospitality!
I started to miss Turkey even before our plane took off at the airport in Instanbul. The sightseeing…the lamb…the hospitality….the having-other-people-bathe-me…….just an amazing trip and I can’t wait to go back. We are thinking next time we will visit Ephesus and Troy and drop in to see one of our new sailboat racing friends at his seaside resort hotel.