Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Turkey Travelogue from Barbara

BONUS: if you go to Rob's photo website he has at last put up the photos of his African photo safari from last summer which he made with our younger daughter Susan. Susan will be working the conference this weekend with us and has printed up many of her excellent photos to sell to finance her further studies in photography. She also has sent me her photos of our trip to Egypt and Jordan taken last December about which I still plan to write to you.

On to Turkey… departing May 13.

Rob and I took a vow when driving a rental car in Japan a couple of years back that we'd hire a car and driver for countries where we had no language skills at all. We'd also had daunting reports of roads in Turkey. But I can now tell you that driving there is very easy, the bad roads are in the Eastern Turkey area in case you are wanting to see say Van or Erzurum or Mt. Ararat. To drive from Istanbul to Safranbolu, Amasra, Amasya, and via Huttusa down to Cappadocia is in fact easy on excellent roads, peppered not only with excellent service stations for fuel but each of them has wonderful restaurants. One of the best lunches I ever ate was in such a rest center between Safranbolu and Amasya where they actually grilled their own kebap recipe to order in a clever contraption I strolled over to inspect. This allowed me to watch some kind of police or park ranger operation moving down towards the river as men fanned out but I have no clue what they were actually doing. They were armed but friendly, as indeed was everyone. The Turks are among the friendliest hosts we have met.

Rob booked the car service on line. If you are interested he can tell you it's internet address. We were very pleased: the driver had a fancy new Renault, he was a real professional with adequate English but not a tour guide although his skills were especially useful (see below); and given the high cost of internal air flights in Turkey, the week with Taner was hardly more than our return flights from Kayseri (ancient Caesarea) to Istanbul (Taner drove back from Goreme as we stayed on for two days on a tour the hotel organized).

So if you decide on broadening a trip beyond Istanbul and you don't do group travel, we can recommend our experience.

So, Taner met us at Ataturk Airport the morning of our arrival, a Saturday. Turkey has the same weekends we do even if the Muslin holy day is Friday, having been organized in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal, later styled Ataturk (hero of Gallipoli for the Turks, so their George Washington), as a secular state. The just re-elected president and his party veer to Islamic but there is a lot of resistance and in fact the party lost its majority in Parliament.

Taner drove us to the Ciragan Palace Kempinski. It's sited on the Bosporous (or Bosphorous) and has been restored after a disastrous fire. If you stay in the adjacent hotel you can visit the palace and you can dine in its restaurant which is a gorgeous experience by moonlight. If you go, plan not to use the hotel as a tour base but to enjoy all the amenities of the hotel, the whole experience. It has a negative edge pool that makes you feel like you are swimming with the ships. AmEx upgraded us to a suite with a spa credit so I had a pedicure which was amazing: the girl wore a mask and gloves and actually sanded my feet as I dozed on a very comfortable cushioned table. It was a full moon so we enjoyed drinks in a very cool nargileh bar with a view of the beautiful bridge that turns into a light display each evening (see Rob's photos) –and all this for the price of a small car so it was a one time experience but a nice start. I mention the price as a warning for the unwary. Prices otherwise in Istanbul for hotels and restaurants are comparable to most European cities. Except for The Four Seasons housed in the old prison and almost adjacent to the Blue Mosque which is even higher priced than Ciragan.

Taner picked us up Sunday morning and we spent an hour finding our hotel for week two, located over in Sultanahmet or the ancient quarter where the winding roads and dead ends make it a challenge. We dropped off our cruse suitcases and headed out.. He got to practice his (little bit of) English and he turned out to be really useful since he's a mountaineer for fun and he was thus able to spy out routes while climbing into ruins and actually help me climb into the ruins to view the ancient churches in the Ilhara Valley to the southwest of Cappadocia. But that was later.

Our first stop was Safranbolu, a UNESCO world heritage site, an ancient town, once rich and then too poor for urban renovation, and so fascinating to visit. We spent one evening in the hamman, built circa 1650, where I gave the lady who scoured and soaped me a decent tip that put her into tears, a sad comment on other customers. These baths are especially treasured by the Turks from the days of the Silk Roads when Safranbolu was a major stop. Nearby is the restored caravanserai, a combination inn and mini-mall for the camel caravans, which was interesting but nothing as cool as the Hotel Gul Evi (Gul's House, she being the architect/owner's wife) where Rob booked  the top floor of the ancient Ottoman wooden house. To view more, click here http://www.booking.com/hotel/tr/gulevi-safranbolu.en.html

They did breakfast out in the gardens and a very nice retired Turkey Navy captain arrived in a golf cart on day two and bumped us all over town for a long tour. There used to be lots of tanneries down by the river, and rice fields, but now it's a retirement center. You can view many photos of the traditional Ottoman houses with their overhanging floors, their shutters and exterior paintings, the window where the homeowner would look to check out any visitors before opening the door. One photo shows the date for a house in Arabic, from we were told the 17th century or earlier.

The first thing we did on arrival was walk down to the town center, visit the mosque (always travel with a hoodie or scarf, long paints or skirt, and covered shoulders in Turkey or suffer disappointment), and then hit the hammam. It's one of the great experiences, akin to an ancient Roman bath, where you strip down to a plaid wrap they give you (ladies, wear bikini panties, best if nylon), stretch you out on a hot heated marble table, then flood you with cool water, cover you in clouds of suds and loufah you within an inch of your life (like the Romans did with oils and stirgils), flood you again, massage you vigorously, more water, wash your hair. You emerge beyond clean and invigorated. To view the Cinci Hamami (Hamami is plural, meaning usually there is a men's and a women's hammam in one structure), click here. You can't read it but the photos are good http://wowturkey.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=43357

The next day, Taner drove us up to the Black Sea to the fishing port of Amasra where we had the most amazing lunch ever. Rob photographed the salad and the various fish courses. After lunch we hiked out past the fishing fleet to the wall guarding the small harbor for stunning sea views despite the fog. It's a bit like Sausalito when the fog blows in under the Golden Gate into San Francisco Bay.

And we had an exciting ride back when Taner decided to go with the GPS rather than the map. GPS units send you on short routes, not always main routes. So there we were bumping up in to the mountains on tiny back roads, through farm communities and along small rivers. At  one point we met water buffalo lolling in pools. And a farmer standing on a hay rick who gazed down at us in amazement. Eventually from nowhere a bus appeared which turns out was on its ordinary run back to Safranbolu. Hilarious. So we followed it back across the big river to the main road.

On to Amasya, an ancient Ottoman provincial capital which functions as some kind of military center today judging by all the brass in uniforms we encountered (maybe an academy?). Amasya lies in a narrow valley on a river with wonderful tombs up in the rocks, a bit like Petra. The tombs proved disappointing when we climbed up, mostly impressive in their huge cut doors. At night when they are lit up they are spectacular when viewed from the city's river walk which functions like La Rambla in Barcelona, all the world is out partying along it.

It was campaign time, a run up to the June 12 elections. So the place was crawling with vans, like ambulances, but covered in campaign posters and playing Turkish rock and roll to attract attention. Apparently it's the Turkish version of a campaign trail. We discovered also that the mysterious 2023 posted on the posters stands for goals set by the current (and re-elected) president for the country, which is a pretty sneaky way of getting people to vote to keep him in power to meet them, I thought.

And then to Cappadocia which is in a huge volcanic plateau and just as weird and fascinating as billed. It is located between two ancient volcanoes which spewed out enough ash and such to leave a landscape that wind and weather can carve. We drove there over mountains traversing one of Turkey's main ski resort destinations where some meeting was going on that entailed endless security and car caravans, but it was gorgeous. Unfortunately it wiped out our plans to detour over to the ancient Hittite capital which is in ruins but well worth the trouble. When Ramses the Great made a treaty with the Hittite king to settle a sort of Vietnam stalemate sort of war, he sent a giant Egyptian stele or some monument to the city which I wanted to see. So, next time.

Our guide on the first day took us on a 5 KM hike through tiny valleys and water courses, a true challenge, as you will see from the photos, and the second day we climbed into the fairy chimneys and various structures, which in fact like visiting New Mexico and its hoodoos (New Mexico too has a giant caldera west of Santa Fe in the Jemez Mountains but the excellent hoodoos are in the Bisti Badlands should you wish to hike in and view them as we have done). But in Cappadocia, they are better. Inevitably we ended up in a carpet school, and better, a ceramic workshop where Rob as he does on trips bought an amazing piece of local art, a large ceramic (seramik) vase (free shipping....).

And with Taner one day we drove about 100 KM, stopping at an underground city (seriously, and they took the animals in too when under threat; check the photos for the giant circular rock wheel they rolled across the entry to safeguard the community) and climbed down many levels. Then we scaled some serious peaks to ancient churches. And we had lunch on a balcony right on the river where they baked  our choices in clay pots landed them on the table sizzling hot. Excellent beer called Efes (Rob) and a lot of wine (me) everywhere. Our favorite restaurant in the village of Goreme where we stayed is called Local Restaurant. And in one called Alaturka, we had a veal and apricot dish I hope Rob will try to duplicate.

Our hotel was called Anatolian Houses – click here for more http://www.anatolianhouses.com.tr/en/index.html -- and is built right into some of the natural caves and hoodoos, you can see various photos of Goreme, one of the towns where you can stay and which we liked the best after we visited several others. So, recommended.

Turkish Air is very good, a fine flight in a big airbus from Keyseri to Istanbul. And we love the hotel here where we have a huge room overlooking Gulhane Park next to 
Topkapi Palace and turning the other way, all the way to the water so we can see the cruise ships park daily.

The Sirkeci Konak Hotel – click here to view http://www.sirkecikonak.com/en/contact -- is located a block from a main tram stop and thus one stop from the main local train station and two from Eminönü which is the main ferry center, has a killer seafood restaurant hard to resist, plus we were so tired from tramping around we didn't want to go out and we could first swim in the gorgeous pool in the basement and enjoy the sauna and hammam. Butt one night we went to Olive nearby which is on a high roof with a direct view of Aya Sofia (during sunset) and two other nights to Hamdi, a venerable spot for the locals famous for its kebabs, and justly so. It is also on a roof which overlooks Suleiyman Mosque and the Golden Horn. The second night we scored a table on the small balcony outside for spectacular views of the lighted bridge up the Bosporous and also north up the Golden Horn, which it fronts.

The food everywhere is wonderful: real tomatoes, eggplant, lamb, veal, chicken, lots of fish, olives, and breads. I am crazy about simits which are the Turkish version of big pretzels but with sesame seeds. Only once did we give in to baklava: chocolate hazelnut, and the other, apricot almond. But we're doing just two meals a day and walking everywhere where the public transportation doesn't go. So far that means ferries, trams, funiculars, the Tunel which is the first funicular and carries passengers from the terminus on the European side of the Galata Bridge up to fashionable promenade Istiklal Cadessi (at its top is Taksim Square, a huge hub, and a gorgeous Greek Orthodox Cathedral: Aya Sofia is today a museum, not a church nor a mosque), the pneumatic elevator at the Pera Palace Hotel (second oldest in world, the elevator that is, with a special operator in uniform), and the local train out to Yedulke and the old city walls built by Theodosius to guard the city's back. Very cheap and efficient. No taxis for us until Sunday when we have to get us and luggage to the ship.

One full day we rode the ferry a couple of hours to the Princes Islands, now  summer homes and resorts, but once a place of exile to rebellious sons of the Sultan – read about them in Jason Goodwin's latest novel about 19th Century Istanbul and the Sultan's detective Yashim in An Evil Eye (Farrar $25 Signed). We had lunch right harborside at a fish restaurant priced like Ciragan Palace we learned (too late, but the blue fish grilled was spectacular and the bathrooms also, which is a big consideration in a country where many restaurants are ceramic-trays-in the-ground only into which you must run the nearby hose to flush), so….

Our last full day we took the new ferry service all the way up the Golden Horn to Eyup, the most sacred mosque as it the burial place of a close friend (or relative, not sure which) of the Prophet. Note in the photos a couple of tomb sites, one of a Valide Sultan (the Sultan's mom, and ruler of the harem) in Eminönü and one at Eyup). There a professor (or so he claimed) gave us an interesting lecture on Islam observances and two sets of beads (think rosaries) for a tip. The little boys in their dressy white costumes are celebrating their circumcision days, clearly with no actual idea of how that goes. In Rob's photos of Topkapi there is one of the circumcision room in the palace: it isn't clear but you can see the alcove where the water runs for hygiene).
We then took the famous funicular up Pierre Loti Hill where this 19th Century literary figure built a little café which has an extraordinary range of terraces. It's right a the top of the Golden Horn which superb views all the way back down it. Then we hopped the ferry back to the Rahmi M. Koch Museum, a private collection, very cool, featuring a magnificent display of music boxes and lots of stuff like the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. One in fact was a small version of La Fenice, Venice's opera house, complete with stage sets and arias from La Traviata, a ten-minute show. It also has an impressive collections of trains, airplanes, and fabulous cars so we took a folder of photos for Clive Cussler. And yet another superb restaurant right on the water: they brought us wool shawls to wear as it was cool and rainy.

The museum is dedicated to the history of Transport. Visit it by clicking here http://www.rmk-museum.org.tr/english/index.html

The Calligraphy Museum is closed for renovation but parts of it moved to another museum in the old Hippodrome site. Which also had a huge carpet exhibit.  There are a bunch of photos of the gorgeous books, some the Koran, and some of the kilims of Anatolia.

That's about it. Sunday we boarded the ship and then made a visit for lunch at the Istanbul Modern Museum, an excellent restaurant and collection we had enjoyed on our last visit. Last year when I emailed Joe Kanon about his new book he emailed me back from the very outdoor terrace at Istanbul Modern so we exchanged views in real time about it and the city.

Rob has enjoyed all the markets today: fish on the Asian side, Spice Market, and the Grand Bazaar which is like a city. He's been bargaining like a pro for everything. Every day it's a new ATM. You can see some photos of the markets including one on the Asian side, plus the Spice Bazaar.


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