Cat Stevens has once again been my constant companion these past few weeks, what a babe.
So, I wanted to write a really great blog about my spring break trip to Turkey, especially after my last two half-hearted entries. But, upon my return to Spain, I journeyed to the coast to spend a rainy weekend in Alicante, and then had two jam-packed weeks in Madrid catching up with everything going on here, and now all of a sudden it’s time to head off to San Sebastian for another weekend getaway, which means that somehow it’s been a month since Turkey, and still no blog. How did that happen?
Anyways, here goes: We started our trip in Istanbul, and I was immediately impressed. The city itself is sprawling, dotted with minarets from the ubiquitous presence of mosques, and bisected by the Bosphorus into a sort of old/new town. In April they were celebrating tulip month, so the whole city was filled with these beautiful tulip arrangements in all different colors, making it even more lovely.
We had three full days in Istanbul, in order to give ourselves plenty of time to explore. Of the many mosques, we went inside the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, and the New Mosque. Based on looks, my favorite was the Blue Mosque, I loved the colors and the intricate details, but as far as history goes, the things I learned about the Hagia Sophia from listening in on other people’s tours were really interesting! Up until the 15th century the Hag was a Christian church, and when the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople, they converted it into a mosque. However, they left many of the former mosaics, so you can see Jesus, Mary, and even the Archangel Gabriel amidst the mihrab and giant plaques with Arabic writing.
We spent a solid half day exploring the Topkapi Palace, where Sultans made their home for over 400 years. Now, aside from being a museum, it’s also an important pilgrimage site, containing holy relics like the Prophet Muhammed’s cloak and sword. I thought it was all verrrry gaudy, the ancient equivalent of something Donald Trump might build today. Anything that could be was gilded or bedazzled or encrusted, and at the jewelry exhibition I saw diamonds, emeralds and rubies roughly the size of my head.
We also spent some time walking around the local outdoor market, which we mistakenly assumed was the spice bazaar. We were puzzled when we didn’t see many spices, but rather all different type of fowl for sale, and stands where doctors sat waiting next to their big tubs of medical leeches. When we actually did find the covered bazaar, we wove through the narrow alleys, overwhelmed by the colors and the smells of stands full of Turkish delight, textiles, and of course, spices. On our walk back to the hostel we happened to be passing the ancient underground basilica cistern right in time for a free a modern dance/ light show, so we were able to skip an entrance fee and see some theater, not too shabby.
Another day, we climbed the many stairs of the Galata Tower for a 360 degree view of the city, which we enjoyed despite the crowds and our concerned that we might be blown off by the heavy winds at the top. The tower is near the ultra modern Taksim area, so we decided to make our way over. When we wandered onto Taksim’s big flat boulevard, it suddenly felt like we were no longer in the Istanbul we’d been exploring. Instead, the street looked like one you’d find in any other Western city, absolutely saturated with chain restaurants, bars, and modern department stores, it was very strange and immediate change.
One thing that I had a hard time getting used to in Istanbul, or Turkey in general, was the call to prayer, five times a day. It’s LOUD. I was consistently woken up at 4:30am, even with earplugs, and every morning would grumble to Brady as we made our own personal morning pilgrimages to use the bathroom.
A favorite experience of mine was going into a cafe to drink çay (Turkish tea) and play backgammon. The cafe we chose was intentionally off the well-worn tourist loop, close to a little neighborhood called Ortakoy, and absolutely jam-packed with mustachioed men. When my friend Amy, with her long red hair, and I walked in the place got completely silent, with every single head turned in our direction. After we awkwardly settled at a table, the owner came over to teach us how to play backgammon. All the guys in this place were really good, and he had very little patience with us as beginners. His idea of coaching actually involved Amy and I taking turns rolling the dice, while he played both sides of the board. After one game we decided to switch to cards, but it was pretty funny.
From Istanbul, we took an early morning flight to Selçuk (Sel-jook.). Here we spent a day at the huge Roman ruins of Ephesus, which were extra pretty, because everything was in bloom. I found myself especially enamored with the red poppies dotting nearly every field. In our attempt to go off the beaten path, we encountered an old woman tending her goats in the long grass and, despite the language barrier, managed to make a new friend. At least I think we’re now friends, she gave us one of her goats to hold, which I assumed to be a traditional Turkish bonding ritual.
On that note, aside from Apple and my terrifying hamam madam (we’ll get to that later), I was time and again blown away by how nice the Turkish people are. People were just SO nice to us. Along the way we were consistently offered free Turkish tea and conversation, and it felt like people actually just wanted to chat, not get your money, which was a welcome change from a lot of places I’ve been. Or, for example, one day when it rained we found shelter under an overhang and a woman who spoke no English opened the window and gave us a yogurt drink and some sweet bread. So nice!
The next day we rented bikes and ventured out to the beach. Although it started raining about halfway into our ride, we powered through and successfully made it to the Aegean Sea. On the trip back my bike got a flat tire, but luckily a guard with an excessively large gun strapped across his back came to our aid. Even with the flat tire incident and the rain, we had a great time. After we ditched the bikes, we set out again to see the remains of the Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and St. John’s tomb. The rest of our time here was spent with the incredibly nice (the Turks! so nice!) owners of the ANZ Hostel, brothers Mehmet and Ali Baba. We went to their restaurant for every meal, and aside from delicious food, we received advice, stories and even had our fortunes told based on the leftover grounds from our Turkish coffee.
From there we took a night bus to Konya, with the eventual goal of reaching Göreme, in the Capadoccia region. We had an absolutely horrendous 6pm-4am night ride with the world’s most horrendous bus attendant, Apple, followed by a horrendous half-day in Konya, where the only good part was our breakfast spread containing all different types of baklava. Finally, we arrived in Göreme, and all the pain was worth it. Driving into this little town was kind of like driving into a different planet. They actually tell tourists that Star Wars was filmed here, because of just how other-worldly everything looks. The landscape is full of valleys, strange rock formations, and remnants of former cave dwellings, and because of how weird and cool everything looks, it has become a haven for backpackers.
The next three days were spent trekking around Capadoccia wearing our matching, extremely dorky hats given to us by Mehmet. The town itself is tiny and doesn’t have much in the way of night life, but it provides the perfect launching point for a bunch of different excursions. I found Capadoccia to be like a big playground for adults. There are cave dwellings everywhere that still have carvings outside, and paintings or mosaics inside, and you can explore as many as you like at your leisure, or clamber up giant rocks for stunning views. I was a very happy girl.
One of our days was devoted to exploring the underground city of Kaymakli. Kaymakli used to be a hiding place used by Christians before they were an accepted religion. The city goes a full seven levels underground, and you can see as much of it as you’d like by crouching your way through the various hallways and tunnels connecting the different rooms. The main areas in the first two levels were lit, but we decided again to go off on our own and use the light from my camera flash to explore the pitch black of the lower levels. Now, these people must have been very short, because these tunnels were so small they were almost a joke. As we got lower the tunnels grew narrower, to the point where we were literally army crawling, and eventually decided to give up, because there was still no end in sight. After crouching and pulling ourselves through those tiny tunnels all day, we were exhausted and sore, and more than ready for a beer at Fat Boys, the only bar in town.
On one of our many hikes, we trekked through Rose Valley and Red Valley, stopping often to take pictures and climb anything that caught our eye. Along the way we also saw the mushroom and fairy chimney rock formations. Another day we set out to visit Pigeon Valley, Uchisar Castle, and Love Valley, with its, ahem, phallic rock formations that provide the inspiration behind the name. We successfully made the trek to the first valley, and learned about all the many uses of pigeons. We also had no problems getting to the castle, but it was from here that everything went wrong. Generally we’d had great luck forging our own way, but somehow this time we managed to get entirely and completely lost. For hours. We ended up in farm country, finding our way back with the help of gestures from the nice Turks, who also very graciously gave us raisins to sustain ourselves. After 6 hours of scrambling without a trail through bushes and over ridges in search of giant penis rocks we never actually found, pide and baklava never tasted so good.
Which I guess brings me to the cuisine. I’ve been trying hard not to be a fat kid in this entry and to not post pictures of every single thing I ate, because I definitely could. Where to even begin? So much amazing food. Baklava was hands down my favorite discovery, joining the rankings of croissants in France and pasta in Italy as reason enough in itself to make a return visit. Turkish baklava can’t even be compared to any I’ve eaten elsewhere, this baklava oozes out honey when you bite into it, yet the pastry manages to stay flaky and crisp, and despite having layers of crushed pistachios, every bite somehow still instantly melts in your mouth.
Other delightful discoveries included sandwiches made from freshly grilled fish pulled right out of the Bosphorus, kumpir (think Subway-style baked potato), pide (Turkish pizza, but baked on this really amazing pita bread in a woodfire oven), manti (like beef gnochi, but covered with a spicy tomato sauce, garlic yogurt, lemon and mint), gozleme (like a crepe, or maybe a quesadilla… really light thin bread filled with spinache or potatoes), and probably my favorite dish, iskender. Iskender is really thinly sliced, tender beef, cooked in a tomato sauce, and then mixed with a fluffy chopped up pita bread and covered in tart yogurt. It also melts in your mouth and the combination of flavors somehow just really works. On the street there is no shortage of pistachios, freshly baked bread, or fresh squeezed pomegranate/orange juice, all for only one lira or less. My last favorite thing was the Turkish coffee, it’s amazing. More than a coffee, it’s really dense and rich, to me it tasted like a dark chocolate covered espresso bean, yum.
Anyways, after another long 12 hour night bus, we had one day in Istanbul, and aside from eating, the only thing we managed to accomplish was a visit to the city’s oldest hamam. First, everyone is herded like cattle, naked, into a giant communal room, where you lay on hot tile until you start sweating. Eventually, or at least in my case, an old woman with giant breasts and maybe two teeth walked over, strapped on a bra, and began aggressively scrubbing me down. When it was time to turn over or lift a limb she would pinch or hit me, all the while asking me “you like???” From there you are lead to water basins lining the walls of the room, where you are doused repeatedly in cold water. My lady seemed to favor throwing full buckets directly at my face. Traumatized, afterward everyone sits shell-shocked in the jacuzzi until sufficiently recovered enough to make their way back to the changing room and start repressing all memories of what just happened.
On our flight home we had a layover in Geneva, where in three hours we managed to soak in the beauty of the lake with its Jet d’Eau, eat some of the best chocolate gelato I’ve ever had, people watch/ feel envious of the well-dressed international crowd, and polish off the remains of our baklava while sun-bathing in a grassy park. On the way home, Swiss Air bumped us up to first class, where we received a gourmet meal, wine, and swiss chocolate, while watching the rainbows out the window. No joke, while eating my third or fourth truffle I think I saw at least six perfectly arched rainbows with all the colors, bringing the perfect vacation to a perfect end.