On our Way to Turkey - October 10-11

So we ran off to Turkey for two weeks on a Rick Steves tour - Turkey In 13 Days. This was my third Rick Steves tour, having done Rome In 7 Days in 2002 and Barcelona In 7 Days in 2004 with my Mom. This was Sally's first Rick Steves tour. And it was the first time either of us had been to Turkey.

I've been planning, to one degree or another, a trip to Turkey since I met Edna on the Barcelona tour. Edna, then 70, did the Barcelona tour on her own, taking notes in pencil on her spiral steno pad and snapping photos with her chunky Minolta (I snapped pics on my chunky Nikon). And she told dozens of stories of her lifetime of traveling with her husband. She and her family did the Turkey tour and I was intrigued from the get-go.

In the the most recent issue of my newsletter, bodanzarama, I asked readers if any of the following are familiar?

"The Byzantine, Roman, and Ottoman Empires, Constantinople, Mount Ararat, Antioch, the Hittites, Ephesus, the Fertile Crescent, First Council of Nicaea, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Dardanelles, Thrace, the Balkan Peninsula, and how about Troy? All took place in, flourished and fell in, still stand and still flow in, etc. - Turkey. 

The historical and cultural significance of this crossroads between East and West is immeasurable."

Indeed. Turkey holds such an incredible history that I cannot even scratch the surface in the following pages. But I hope to give you a glimpse of the people we met and the places we visited. I encourage you to go to Turkey. Follow the Rick Steves route and you won't go wrong.

Enjoy the following pages. Take your time, hang out, visit some today, some tomorrow, whenever you like. Come back often.

Let's begin with a map of our route (picture from the Rick Steves web site). The tour began in Istanbul where we stayed two nights. Sally and I arrived early the previous morning. Our tour time in Istanbul included, but was not limited to the Blue Mosque, Roman Hippodrome and cistern, the Byzantine Hagia Sophia Church, mosaic-covered Chora Church, the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum, the Grand Bazaar, Ottoman Topkapı Palace and Harem, Egyptian Spice Market, and a scenic cruise up the Bosphorus Strait.

At the end of the second night we boarded a sleeper train for Ankara, Turkey's capital. In Ankara we toured the Anatolian Civilizations Museum and Atatürk's Mausoleum. We also had our first taste of pide, an elongated pizza-like bread topped in any number of ways.

Next we headed to the Cappadocia region where home base was the village of Müstafapaşa. While in this area we took a hot air balloon ride, saw the Byzantine frescoes painted in the cave churches of the Göreme Valley, danced to live music, ate gözleme, had lunch in the home of a local villager, and visited a local farmers market.

We also saw a carpet-weaving demonstration and a pottery demonstration before we visited the underground city of Kaymaklı. Next it was on to Güzelyurt where we stayed in a Greek Orthodox monastery. While in Güzelyurt we met with the local mosque's Imam for a revealing Q & A session I wish all Americans could have heard.

Next it was on to Konya where we toured the museum dedicated to Mevlana Rumi, spiritual father of the Whirling Dervishes. We had a bit of a misfortune at this museum - Sally slipped on the marble floor of the entrance way and the result was a hairline fracture in her distal radius. Surrounded by medical professionals (three retired MD's and three nurses, including Sally), she was in good hands - no pun intended. She was a trooper and endured a good deal of pain and mechanical awkwardness for the remainder of the trip.

We carried on to the coastal city of Antalya where we had our own private boat to cruise the Mediterranean.On Day 10 we toured Pamukkale, once the ancient city of Hierapolis. In addition to the fascinating necropolis, Pamukkale boasts hot springs and travertine terraces of carbonate minerals. Over the course of the next two days we visited the ancient sites of Aphrodisias and Ephesus, outside the seaside resort town of Kuşadası. Once the tour was a wrap, we hopped a quick flight from Izmir to Istanbul for one last night before beginning our day of travel back to Seattle.

Whew! That's the trip in a really tiny nutshell. If you are still interested, keep reading. Loads of pictures and plenty of information.

All journeys begin with that first step. Our first step was making sure we were awake and alert enough to catch our 3:45 am shuttle. The shuttle picked us up in front of our house and whisked us to the airport to catch leg one to JFK Airport. On the Delta flight we each watched our personal TV screen stuck into the back of the seat in front of us. Sally lost herself in America's Next Top Model and I channel surfed from The Food Network, The Discovery Channel, and the in-flight, real-time map.
And we're off! Just a few hours later we flew over my home turf, Cleveland. See the city of Euclid? I was born in Euclid General Hospital (which now goes by the much more specific name of Euclid Hospital).This is what you look like when you have been up too long.
It doesn't look big in this shot, but this is The Big Apple.
We jump to the first colors of dawn, somewhere over Europe.
This is your brain on travel.
Finally, a day later, we cruise over the Black Sea into Istanbul.
First thing you do after you get your bags, get some cash. Not sure why the machine swapped my middle and first names. I don't care what you call me, just give me the cash.
In Turkey one spends the Turkish Lira. One lira, minted only in a coin, is comprised of 100 kuruş (koo-ROOSH). Kuruş coins come in denominations of 5, 10, 25, and 50. I believe there is a 1 kuruş coin but I never saw it. While we were in Turkey, the exchange rate was about 1.5, like in Canada, so it was easy to figure out on the fly what we paid for stuff.
This is the nazar, the symbol to ward off the evil eye. It's everywhere in the form of images, glasswear, paitings, jewelry, and little beads and amulets - nazar boncuğu (nah-zar BON-jouk). Most often it's hanging above the doorway to a house or shop or even in the airport. It hangs off the mirrors in taxis, it dangles off bracelets worn by tourists, and might even grace the tail wing of an airplane. Turks are serious about the nazar boncuğu. Just about every culture has an evil eye tradition and Turkey's is alive and well and living everywhere.

There is a great Turkish series I've watched on YouTube called Ellerin Türküsü (this is not a link - there is a web site with the address www.EllerinTürküsü.com but Google warns that "This site may harm your computer." So why chance it?) The show covers traditional artisan hand crafts. No, I don't speak Turkish but I like watching the show for the footage of the traditional ways of life.

Ellerin Türküsü has an episode all about the nazar boncuğu. The glass beads are still made in a centuries old traditional way. The artists sit around a small oven, manipulating long medal rods to shape a tiny piece of molten glass into a bead. Again, it's in Turkish but watch some of it just to see these guys work. You don't need to know what anyone is saying to appreciate the craftsmanship and skill that goes into making these glass beads.
A driver from Hotel Sultan Hill was to pick us up and he did. I love when things are easy when you are on the other side of the world. As soon as you leave the baggage area you are confronted with a wall of drivers, each holding a sign bearing the name of his customer. We hit the ATM first and then wandered back over to the line-up. I noticed a sign with Sultan Hill on it, glanced at the dude's clip board and saw my name. That was easy. We waited about 15 minutes before we actually hit the road. The driver was really friendly and taught us some basic Turkish on the ride to the hotel.
We checked in at Hotel Sultan Hill, which is very small but complete with all the normal hotel comforts. It's located on a wnding brick road behind the Blue Mosque. The young guy behind the desk told us we could still grab breakfast. Cool, considering we hadn't stayed overnight yet. So we got two breakfasts for a one night stay. A typical Turkish breakfast in a hotel consists of several cheeses, fresh and packaged like Laughing Cow triangles; a selection of olives; a selection of jams, which the Turks love and make homemade; hard-boiled eggs; Çokokrem, the Turkish version of Nutella (we'd find another brand of this but I can't recall the name); bread and lots of it; some sliced lunchmeats; and Nescafé. Yes, Nescafé. It's everywhere except at Starbucks. But we didn't drink any Starbucks coffee so we can't say for sure Starbucks isn't topping Nescafé with foam and touting it as a latte. However, in the morning you appreciate that Nescafé is warm, toasty, and slightly nutty. It had its advantages.

The hippies brought Nescafé through these parts during the 60's and it stayed. For a fabulous book about the "Hippie Trail" running from Europe to India (and beyond) read Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India by Rory MacLean. It's much more than a tale about hippies. It's full of the history, politics and philosophy of Turkey and the Middle East and how a whole generation embraced it, explored it, and changed it forever. I read this during the trip and didn't realize how perfect a fit it would be.

The other book I read while on the trip is Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time by
Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. From the Three Cups of Tea web site:

"Greg Mortenson, and journalist David Oliver Relin, recount the journey that led Mortenson from a failed 1993 attempt to climb Pakistan’s K2, the world’s second highest mountain, to successfully establish schools in some of the most remote regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan. By replacing guns with pencils, rhetoric with reading, Mortenson combines his unique background with his intimate knowledge of the third-world to promote peace with books, not bombs, and successfully bring education and hope to remote communities in central Asia."

An unforgettable book. An inspiring story. Again, pertinent to where we were traveling in the sense that two very different cultures came together to reach a better understanding of one another. Greg Mortenson, an American, brought/brings education to girls in places where it might not be tolerated. And we, American women, learned a lot about a very different culture and left with a much better understanding of Turkey, Islam, priorities we didn't set and which were not set with us in mind, divisions of labor, and on and on.

Mark Twain traveled a great deal and wrote about his travels with wit and humility and perhaps the keenest eye for observing the lot of us. He hit the nail on the head when he said, "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness." Amen! When you travel you learn and education is key to understanding something outside your comfort zone. You do not gain that level of knowledge or understanding from books or magazines, from the Internet and certainly not from television.
Breakfast in the Hotel Sultan Hill courtyard.
Our view of the Blue Mosque from the roof of the hotel. The Blue Mosque is the common name for the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii). There are blue tiles on the inside but you can't really see them because they are pretty high up. No matter the name, it's an impressive structure. Because of our proximity to the speakers on the minarets, the call to prayer, heard five times a day, was loud. The first time we heard it we were in the hotel room, kinda vegetating after the full day of travel, wondering if we would get a second wind and go explore. Suddenly this voice, this announcement, this amplification of obligation was right in the room. We just stared at each other then smiled. We were not in Kansas anymore.The call to prayer, or adhān, is recited five times a day by the muezzin.
The Egyptian Obelisk, brought to what was then Constantinople by Emperor Theodosius I in AD 390, stands in the Hippodrome of Constantinople, now the Sultanahmet Meydam (Sultan Ahmet Square). This monument was originally erected in 1490 BC at the Temple of Karnak in Luxor during the reign of Tuthmosis III. Apparently,Theodosius had the obelisk cut into three pieces in order to transport the thing to Turkey but all we have now is the "top" 65 feet. Click on any photo to enlarge.
This pedestal dates from the time of the obelisk's re-erection in Constantinople. Above we see Theodosius and his court. Below we see the transport of the obelisk. That damage you see is like a big core sample drilled out of the stone. It runs up into the panel depicting another scene of the Emperor and his court on the other side.
The Kaiser Wilhelm Fountain was built to mark the Kaiser's visit to Istanbul in 1898. The fountain was built by the German government in 1900.

Street vendors are all over the city hawking roasted corn and chestnuts, ice cream, and simit, a baked ring of dough, like a soft pretzel or bagel, which is covered in sesame seeds.
Cats are all over Istanbul, all over the parts of Turkey where we traveled. Dogs, too, but not as many. All are feral. For the most part, all are fed by the residents of the city or village. We saw a few dogs as "pets" in the villages but they were working pets, outside pets. Our guide, Mine (MEE-nay), explained that Turks don't want the animals in their houses but they have soft hearts when it comes to feeding them. However, this guy is clearly a pet owner and a dog lover. This is not a working animal.The first of many glasses of tea, called çai (pronounced chai, like the Indian tea most of us are familiar with), we drank in Turkey.
We stopped at small restaurant a couple blocks from the hotel and sat at the sidewalk tables for our first dinner in Istanbul. Yummy. We have a bean salad in the foreground and a veggie salad in the background.
We've got a large piece of lavas (la-VASH) and a meat and eggplant kebap to share. Very tasty.
The sun cast a golden light on the Blue Mosque as we walked back to the Hotel from dinner.
The sun sets on our first night in Istanbul. Back atop the Sultan Hill rooftop, we watched the boats on the Sea of Marmara wait their turn to head through the Bosphorous Strait.
Keep moving on to The Tour Officially Begins: Day 1 - Istanbul.

The Tour Officially Begins - Day 1 in Istanbul - October 12

The following morning we drank our fill of Nescafé and ate all the cheese and olives we could stand then headed out and explored another small portion of the Sultanahmet, the name of the neighborhood we called home for three nights. We headed back towards the restaurant from the previous night but took a left instead of a right and discovered a row of shops, like an artist's walk, which ran behind the Blue mosque.

The brilliant blue of these ceramic pieces caught my eye.

Sally is contemplating making her first purchase of the trip, a beautiful scarf. She decided yes. Scarves and pashminas are everywhere and the prices are very reasonable. I picked up a few for 15 TL each. They make beautiful gifts and are easy to pack for the trip home.

Sally eyed these pages from vintage books but no shop keeper was to be found. That is just plain rare. Anywhere we went in Turkey we were greeted by just about every shop keeper. Makes sense, they want our business. Sally would have given them the business, as it were, had anyone bothered to be present for it. We walked out but returned on the return stroll - still no merchant. No merchant - no sale.
The main point of our exploration was to locate the hotel we'd move to as members of the tour, the Obelisk Hotel. Every building in this photo is a hotel. Lots of hotels in the Sultanahmet. It's a great area. Lots to do, all the classic sites, restaurants everywhere, shopping ops at every turn.

At night all of these buildings were lit with different colored lights. It's really pretty. And the streets are lively at night, people are out walking, dining, getting to and fro.

Here is the view from the hotel terrace. We would eat breakfast up here but inside because of the chilly morning air.

Here is a view looking to the Bosphorous Strait and the Ahirkapi Lighthouse.
By 3 pm we had met up with the tour for our introductions and an orientation. Our guide was Mine (MEE-nay) and she was really great. Knew everything about anything.

Afterwards, we headed straight for the Blue Mosque. On the way Mine gives us some basic orientation. That green house in the background is where we would eat dinner later.

The Blue Mosque is a working mosque, not a museum, so we respected the customs - no shoes and women must cover their heads and shoulders. No bare legs for either sex but Mine said pants, at least as long as capri pants, are allowed.

It was pretty crowded. Tourists from all over the world were there. I heard several languages coming at me from all directions. And just as many Muslim visitors as any other group.

What struck me upon entering was the height of the dome, the prominent feature. But an instant after my mouth fell open because of the dome, I was more awestruck by the details. No human or animal images are allowed or any image of Allah in the Islamic faith. But the calligraphy is elaborate, ornate, stylized to the nth degree. I can't read Arabic but I can clearly understand the level of artistic skill that went into the calligraphy. Turks, by the way, speak Turkish, which sounds pretty much nothing like Arab languages.
Click on any photo to enlarge.

Yes, here I am in the mosque. Some observations I made while wearing a head scarf:

  • I chose too heavy a material but who knew the weather would be unseasonably warm?
  • I didn't like even the slight impairment to my peripheral vision.
  • I didn't like the slight impairment to my hearing.
OK, let's keep in mind that I was not wearing the style of scarf a Muslim women who wears a scarf would wear. I'm also not wearing it in the manner a Muslim woman would wear it. So my observations come from someone wearing the wrong scarf in the wrong way. In regard to women covering their heads and modes of dress, these customs ran the gamut. Istanbul is a huge metropolis, like New York. I saw women who looked like they were auditioning for MTV (is there still MTV?) and a few women in the full deal - covered from forehead to toe in black, with only the face exposed (I assumed these women were visiting Istanbul because this is not at all the norm in any of the places we visited) - and everything in between. Business professional, business casual, totally casual shorts and tanks, in between modest slacks and long-sleeve blouses, with a scarf, without a scarf, and different kinds of scarves tied in different ways.

Some women cover their heads, some do not. There are any number of ways to cover the head with any number of styles of scarf. Some women cover the head and the shoulders. Some cover their heads but wear very Western clothes while some cover their heads and wear very modest long-sleeved coats and slacks, in spite of the temperatures in the 80's.

The women in the villages are all together different yet the same. Modest but practical. The vast majority cover their heads with very light scarves wrapped loosely. After all, they are doing their share of manual labor. Again, long-sleeved shirts. And almost all of them wear the big baggy pants with the MC Hammer-like legs, called şalvar (shahl-vahr). Şalvar are probably worn because they are modest, comfortable, loose enough to work in the field and around the house, and don't reveal the shape of the body (not appropriate in Islam for either sex).
Some places were more conservative than others, which was illustrated in one way by how the women dressed. In more conservative places I saw more women with head coverings and the long coats. And a few more women dressed in the full gear. I don't know nearly enough about Islamic dress codes and regional customs to declare this that or the other. These are observations only. I wish I had a light set like this in our house. The lights cast such a soft glow. There was an oddly soft brightness inside the mosque, if that makes sense. Bright but not bright. Illuminated, I should say, but subtle. This photo of this man praying was blurry and dim. So I took advantage of those "errors" and ramped up a few simple elements in iPhoto and I'm pleased with the results. I was trying to convey his solitude. What you can't see is that he is surrounded by people. But he found a spot to make his own while he prayed. The photo doesn't have to be sharp, bright or perfect. And the man didn't need the perfect place to pray, he just needed his place. Perhaps wherever he can pray is the perfect place for him.The carpet was really soft and smooth. Mine told us that they replace it every five years. One of the things I noticed after entering the mosque was the slight foot smell. Don't misunderstand, I realize that the place is full of people not wearing shoes. And I do have a sensitive sniffer. It's just an observation.Our first look at the famous Iznik tiles which grace so much of Istanbul. The Turks love tiles. Anyone would love these tiles. Iznik was formerly Nicaea, as in First Council of Nicaea. More on that later. For now, just know that the tradition of tile making in Iznik goes back to the 12th century. The heyday for Iznik tiles came after the Ottoman's conquered Constantinople (which they named Istanbul). Here is a shot from the courtyard. Pretty difficult to get too much of the place in a shot because I was standing in the middle of it. Spotted this detail on one of the huge doors to the courtyard. A word about the cobblestone - be careful! You know, nothing in Turkey is even. You have to actually watch where you step. And once in a while, one of these big cobble stones is missing or is sitting up out of its space. OK, while looking for a place to eat the night before, we spotted three Mini Coopers (real ones from back in the day, not ones with CD players and airbags) tooling down the street. On each was painted this map. The cars are on a road trip from Switzerland to Thailand. On our way to dinner this night we spotted two of the three. I've checked online for info about this road trip but came up with zilch. If anyone knows anything about it, please share? I'm really curious about it. Our first dinner as a group was at The Green House (Yeşil Ev). A really pretty dining room and very good food. We had cheese filled "pastry" for a starter. I neglected to get the name of the cheese but it was delicious, with a slight tang. We then had dolmas cooked in a small crock. I regret not getting some of these crocks. They were lightweight and inexpensive. We ate several dishes cooked in crocks, all of them delicious. Dessert was two styles of baklava, a candied fig, a candied apricot and a zippy creamy cheese. Like a thick whipped cream but more of a cheese flavor. Whatever is was it was the star of the plate as far as I was concerned. Return to Main Page or go straight to Day 2 - Istanbul.