turkey blog

Day 1-2, April 18-19 (2011): Istanbul

"Seen from the anchorage or from a mile or so up the Bosporus, it is by far the handsomest city we have seen. Its dense array of houses swells upward from the water's edge, and spreads over the domes of many hills; and the gardens that peep out here and there, the great globes of the mosques, and the countless minarets that meet the eye everywhere, invest the metropolis with the quaint Oriental aspect one dreams of when he reads books of eastern travel. Constantinople makes a noble picture." (Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad)

On our way by taksi from Ataturk Airport along Kennedy Caddesi (a seaside avenue) to the Ottoman Legacy Hotel, we discover we have arrived in Istanbul during the Tulip Festival as the roads are lined with beds of them in an array of colors that glow on a grey day. (Tulips were first introduced to Holland from here in 1554.) Kadir, our guide for the trip, is waiting when we arrive, and we soon find our spacious room in this grand old hotel a few blocks from the Golden Horn, the river/harbor that cuts the city in two. Eager to explore our busy neighborhood, we wander the streets, find a nearby spice market and see the many minarets of various nearby mosques. Some of the women here are wearing head scarves or even the veil, but Turkey has banned hijab in all public buildings, schools and universities since 1997, the only Muslim country besides Syria to do so.

Although admiring the city from afar, Mark Twain has more than a few choice words for the street scene in 1867 Constantinople ("an eternal circus," beggars, "wonderful cripples," rank smells, "no freak in dress too crazy," the infamous dogs), but we experience only a crush of people and none of his negatives in our first glimpse of modern Istanbul.

Day 3, April 20: Istanbul

Mosques are plenty, churches are plenty, graveyards are plenty, but morals and whiskey are scarce. The Koran does not permit Mohammedans to drink. Their natural instincts do not permit them to be moral. They say the Sultan has eight hundred wives. This almost amounts to bigamy. It makes our cheeks burn with shame to see such a thing permitted here in Turkey. We do not mind it so much in Salt Lake, however." (Mark Twain)

Historically, Istanbul's strategic placement with its control over the Bosphorus has given it great power because the strait is the only access to the Mediterranean for countries on the Black Sea like Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, and Russia. In addition, Istanbul finds itself in Europe while the bulk of Turkey across the Bosphorus is in Asia. So Turkey straddles two continents and borders on four seas: the Aegean, the Mediterranean, the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara with a long harbor or inlet called the Golden Horn. The Montreux Convention of 1936 now governs commercial traffic on the Bosphorus as an international waterway, but restricts naval vessels.

Ayasofya is our first stop, appropriate since the famous structure parallels the history of Istanbul: constructed as a church by Justinian (537 A.D.) during the first golden age of Byzantium, converted to a mosque after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, and transformed into a museum by Ataturk in 1935 at which time the beautiful Byzantine mosaics plastered over by the sultans were uncovered. The dome is the fourth largest in the world (after St. Paul's in London, St. Peter's in Rome, and the Duomo in Florence). Most striking to us are the huge dome, the variety of colors and striations in the marble and alabaster, and the Christian mosaics on the second level that remind us of those in Ravenna and St. Marks.

After lunch in a Turkish cafeteria, we climb a cobbled street next to the mosque to the towers and gate of Topkapi Palace, one of two Ottoman residences in Istanbul built over four centuries, and housing as many as 4,000 people including all 25 sultans over their 400 years of rule. Four courtyards separate the Harem ("the forbidden"), the Council Hall, stables, kitchens, the Treasury (scene of the film Topkapi), library and textile and relics museums. The crowds are intense in the Treasury, but we have an interesting moment when we exit the grounds as Kadir introduces us to the mayor of Istanbul who just happens to be there and who obligingly poses with the 14 of us for a photo.

Treated to a cappuccino in the hotel bar overlooking the Golden Horn, Galata Tower and the teeming city, we later have dinner in the refectory of the 16th century Suleymaniye Mosque built by Sinan, Turkey's greatest architect, and only one of his 477 major projects. We dine on four courses at two tables beginning with stuffed grape leaves and ending with three miniature sweets while drinking either plain yogurt or an orange/almond drink that is very sweet. Alcohol is, of course, forbidden, as Twain wryly notes above.

Day 4, April 21: Istanbul

"...the great Bazaar of Stamboul is one of the sights that are worth seeing. It is full of life, and stir, and business, dirt, beggars, asses, yelling peddlers, porters, dervishes, high-born Turkish female shoppers, Greeks, and weird-looking and weirdly dressed Mohammedans from the mountains and the far provinces -- and the only solitary thing one does not smell when he is in the Great Bazaar, is something which smells good." (Mark Twain)

Luckily, we have a beautiful if windy day for a cruise on the Bosphorus and a chance to view the universities, palaces, posh hotels, tall wooden Ottoman houses, a Baroque villa (now the Egyptian consulate), a fortress, and finally the 1973 Bosphorus Bridge that spans two continents. We spend an hour or so in the maze of shops (now pristine compared to Twain's experience) in the Grand Bazaar built by Mehmet II in 1455, but buy nothing.

The exquisite Sultan Ahmet Camii or Blue Mosque near Ayasofya is surely a highlight of our stay in Istanbul. Built in 1609-16, it was modelled on the mosque in Mecca, causing so many objections that a seventh minaret was added to make it different. The luminous prayer hall with its enormous dome and four huge "elephant leg" pillars has 260 stained glass windows and walls covered by blue Iznik tiles suffusing the space in delicate, colored light and patterns. We stare, shoeless and scarved, transfixed.

After lunch at an outdoor cafe, we descend into the Basilica Cistern built to supply Ayasofya with water after the Nika riots in the Roman Hippodrome (532 A.D.). (The bronze horses that used to decorate this nearby Hippodrome now reside in St. Mark's in Venice, booty from the Crusades.) Twain calls the place the Thousand and One Columns because columns of different sorts were collected from all over to support the roof. There are two Medusa heads insultingly placed sideways and upside down under two columns to denigrate the old beliefs. Huge carp swim in the water all around us.

Our day ends with a quick tour of Taksim Square, a short tram ride, a walk through the fish market, and then off with four others to a seafood restaurant under the Galata Bridge with the busy Golden Horn and Bosphorus water traffic below us in the fading light. Our meal concludes with a first taste of raki, the clear ouzo-like spirits diluted with water to make a cloudy mixture known as "lion's milk."

Day 5, April 22: Izmir & Kusadasi

After flying to Izmir, an hour south on the Aegean, we continue by bus to Kiriklar Village where we are welcomed with the omnipresent glasses of Turkish tea, see the local mosque (with clocks showing the times of the calls to prayer) and are served lunch by three friendly farm women who later show us the house interior where we are surprised to see a dishwasher in the modest kitchen. Everything is quite simple as these are farm families growing mostly olives and cherries. Next we see an elementary school performance of ribbon dancing outdoors by a small group of girls. The kids are lively if a bit mischievous, a far cry from the orphan children we visited in Tibet, and they show us their classroom and computer center for the 30 students and 3 teachers working there. We give the head teacher the two books we have brought: one bilingual (English and Spanish) and the other about shore birds.

Heading for the seaside town of Kusadasi, we are delighted to find that our Kismet Hotel has a commanding view of the sea on one side and of the harbor and town on the other. Dinner is buffet-style in a beautiful room overlooking the harbor.

Day 6, April 23: Kusadasi, Ephesus

National Independence and Children's Day.

Ephesus is an ancient site in an exceptional location at the end of the vital Persian trade route called the "royal road" and equidistant from the Hellespont (Dardanelles) and Lycia, legendary home of the Amazons, Persians and Alexander the Great (334 B.C.). The Romans coveted and conquered the city, and Octavian made it a provincial capital in 27 B.C. when the building began in earnest. In 27 A.D. St. Paul arrived and preached to the Ephesians for three years, followed by St. John who wrote his gospel and was buried here.

When first arriving, we amble by the odean, Domitian Square, and along the Curetes Way, admiring the standing columns, Hadrian's Temple (2nd century), and the colorful poppies in bloom everywhere. An extra ticket takes us into the Terrace Houses belonging to the elite of Ephesus with mosaics that rival those in Pompeii and paintings of the muses and various birds. We try (but fail) to get a photo of Sappho because of my interest in her poetry. The well-preserved and beautiful Library of Celsus originally housed the largest collection of its time until Antony gave its 12,000 books to Cleopatra and she removed them to Alexandria. We exit past a large ampitheatre and note that 60% of the site remains unexcavated. The Selcuk Museum in modern Ephesus contains many artifacts from the ancient site, including statues of Artemis, goddess of nature, with what appear to be multiple breasts but are actually testicles representing fertility. Outside the museum, we happen on a parade for the Ataturk holiday celebrations with kids marching in a band and waving flags.

After a lunch of Turkish pancakes filled with cheese and spinach in the quaint hillside village of Sirince (where Jack crowns me with a circlet of daisies like those on the young girls we see), we view the Basilica of St. John built with materials from the Temple of Artemis (3rd century) which was one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world and the largest temple ever built. Only one column still remains while the rest went into constructing the Basilica of Ayasofya. History seems replete with such examples of one religion pillaging the edifices of another.

Dinner at the Kismet Hotel is again buffet, but this time enhanced by a delicious birthday cake, silly hat, and good wishes from our fellow adventurers.

Day 7, April 24: aboard the Sila Star  (in Ekincik Cove)

A carpet school is our first stop today and much like those we have seen in China and Egypt, though this one is in a handsome brick building and the tour is followed by a lunch of grilled meats and veggies at a table under the trees.

Several hours on the bus take us to our gulet where we meet the captain and crew, settle in our rooms, and motor during a beautiful afternoon to a quiet cove where we anchor for the night, have a glass of wine and are served fresh fish (bream) and bountiful vegetables including a surprisingly tasty platter of seaweed. Our cabin is larger than expected with a 3/4 bed and a narrow single plus private bath with shower. The gulet is a beautiful two-masted wooden boat with teak decks and plenty of space for sunning.

Day 8, April 25: aboard the Sila Star  (in Cleopatra's Cove)

Following excellent coffee and breakfast (hard-boiled eggs, bread, nutella, cheeses and jams) on deck at 7 am, we board a large motor boat for the ancient city of Kaunos (10th century B.C.), passing rocky hills, a small island where endangered loggerhead turtles bury their eggs, threading our way through large swathes of bullrushes up the Dalyan River to a dock where we alight and begin walking to the ruins. Various peoples inhabited the city until its port was completely silted and abandoned. We see remains of a fort on a hill and wind our way up to the Lycian ruins of a church. On our return boat trip, we stop to buy cooked blue crabs from a local fisherman.

Determined to swim, I do so alone, (although others do so as well another day) climbing down the ship ladder and plunging into the clear cool water. We all hungrily devour the bountiful lunch of stuffed peppers, eggplant, a favorite yogurt dish, rice and fruit in honey. Sated, we sun on the cushioned rear deck, reading and talking. (We are a chatty group.) Later we watch a film on Ataturk and marvel at what one man can do to modernize a nation.

Mid-afternoon the captain sets sail for Cleopatra's Cove, arriving at tea time. This time there are several other gulets present, but at least they are distant. We are finding the coves so calm that it is hard to tell we are on board at night and we sleep soundly.

Day 9, April 26: aboard the Sila Star (at Gemiler Island)

Jack sets out on a 3-hour hike while Elizabeth remains on the Sila Star to swim in the turquoise waters and sun on the deck. We then sail past Cleopatra's Baths to pick up the hikers and delight in a pod of dolphins who swim over to frolic around us before continuing in the opposite direction.

Settled into another cove for the night, we take the skiff to an island where we climb to the top to see the ruins of St. Nicholas, a 4th century Roman church which became a pilgrimmage site after the saint was buried there. There were three churches on this small mountainous island with an unusual, vaulted passage that allowed the monks to pass from one to another in the shade. The view from the top is spectacular and we enjoy wild poppies and delphinium along the descent.

After dinner, our guide, Kadir, gives an impassioned plea for tolerance and fairness on the Armenian question which the Turks do not believe constituted genocide.

Day 10, April 27: aboard the Sila Star (near the town of Fethiye)

Rain causes us to dither over going to the Greek ghost town near our gulet, but the downpour abates so we hop in the skiff and land at the beach in the Bay of Gemili. A small bus takes us over the mountain to Kayakoy, a thriving tourist town with a decaying ghost town on the hillside abandoned by Greeks in 1923 when they returned to Greece and the Turks in Greece came back to the new Turkey. Although hiking up and down the slick paths in the mist is less than ideal, we manage to see the town plus an 18th century church and stop for a beer in a little rustic cafe. Our bus returns us to the busy port town of Fethiye where the gulet had motored during our hike; the weather clears and we continue to a nearby cove, spending the afternoon sunning on deck and later watching a video on the Hittite civilization in preparation for our time in Cappadocia.

Day 11, April 28: Antalya

Saying goodbye to our captain and crew in Fethiye, we board a small bus and spend the next several hours climbing and twisting around the Taurus mountains along the Mediterranean on our way to Antalya, one of the most prosperous and beautiful cities in Turkey. On the way, we visit Myra, an ancient city in a the small town of Kale where we see our third set of rock-cut Lycian tombs (4th century B.C.) that are much like those along the Dalyan River or above the town of Fethiye. We climb to the top of a Greco-Roman ampitheatre seating 8,000 people that is sited amidst the rock tombs and also see stone masks for tragedy and comedy and large sarcophogi near the ruins. A short drive to Demre takes us to the 6th century Church of St. Nicholas where the saint's remains were transferred from Gemili. Myra was once a great port and St. Nick was apparently patron saint of pirates as well as children and beloved in the city. We view with mixed emotions those giving adulation to the saint's remains, just as we do those at the Mevlana Mausoleum in Konya. Different religions but the same blind faith..

A few more hair-raising hours on the bus in the rugged Taurus mountains along the coast finally land us in Antalya where we walk through narrow streets to the Marina Hotel, a lovely 18th or 19th century Ottoman house converted to a small hotel and situated in old Antalya on the sea. Our room is small but bright with a spectacular view of the little harbor. Dinner is in the hotel dining room and includes stuffed artichokes, fish, dessert, and wine served by waiters who synchronize the removal of the domed lids on the entrees, flourish we have seen in France and Scotland but not elsewhere in Turkey.

Day 12, April 29: Antalya

"When I think how I have been swindled by books of Oriental travel, I want a tourist for breakfast. For years and years I have dreamed of the wonders of the Turkish bath; for years and years I have promised myself that I would yet enjoy one. Many and many a time, in fancy, I have lain in the marble bath, and breathed the slumbrous fragrance of Eastern spices that filled the air; then passed through a weird and complicated system of pulling and hauling and finally, swathed in soft fabrics, been conveyed to a princely saloon. That was the picture, just as I got it from incendiary books of travel. It was a poor, miserable imposture." (Mark Twain)

First thing we walk up the cobbled streets to find a local laundry, a sorely-needed commodity by many of us and the source of much hilarity later as pajama bottoms go missing and men receive women's underwear in their returned packages though everything is eventually sorted out. We spy a leather shop and leave the group in our quest for one of the beautiful lambskin jackets I have admired here in Turkey. Joined by two other couples in the second shop we visit, the concensus is a black hip-length zip-up jacket with a hood. Some serious but good-natured negotiations give us what we feel is a fair price. Further shopping takes us into a beautiful rug store but somehow we all manage to resist the temptation.

Next stop is lunch on a terrace overlooking the mountains and sea and an hour by the lovely outdoor pool at the hotel. There is much talk about the royal wedding in London, and we glimpse Kate and William on our room TV before setting off for a Turkish bath with several others. We four women disrobe and are accompanied by half-naked girls who gesture that we are to stretch out on our cloth wraps on a large, hot stone disk, which we do until the heat turns us completely red. Next we are led to tables where we are doused with water, exfoliated quite brutally, doused with soapsuds and scrubbed and massaged and generally pummeled until we moan, then led into a large room with lounge chairs where we recover by drinking tea. Three Turkish women living in France are already there so I engage in some pleasant conversation with the one who speaks French. Leaving the three behind, we receive a final assault with an oil massage during which my bright-eyed, singing masseuse finds every possible sore spot on my calves and shoulders and kneads them until the knots give way and I am limp from her ministrations.

Day 13, April 30: Akburun Village, Beysehir

Today we leave the beautiful Marina Hotel in Antalya for a rainy day on the bus to cross the Taurus Mountains and spend the night in a farm village in Beysehir. But our first stop is a local farm market and then the award-winning Antalya Museum which contains many statues and mosaics from Perga, some Roman copies of Greek originals, and many handsome Roman works like Aphrodite, the Dancer, and the lovely Three Graces. There is also a display of Russian icons including a colorful small one of St. Nicholas.

After lunch on a mountain lake, we pass a large military camp on Lake Egirdir, stop to watch nomadic shepherds herding goats, and eventually end up in Akburun Village where our host, Arif, and his devout wife in headscarf, serve a home-cooked meal of lentil soup, the usual tomato and cucumber salad, spicy meatballs with fried potatoes, and rice pudding for dessert. Arif is a retired school teacher whose daughters finished high school (but who wishes his granddaughters to attend college) while our other host is a farmer. Our rooms are cold and the beds are pallets on the floor. Four couples share a bathroom, but the sink is rather public so nobody does much washing. We later express doubts about the value of the homestay because the hosts are friendly but speak no English and we no Turkish so communication is slow and not very enlightening. A similar stay on our China trip was more fun as there was a cooking lesson by our hostess and dancing in the village common in the evening so the language barrier was less of a problem. Plus there were only two couples in each house to share a bath. Spoiled, aren't we...

Day 14, May 1: Cappadocia (Goreme)

Awaking at 5 am, we read for a bit, can't wash properly, so dress and have a simple breakfast of fresh flat bread, home-made strawberry jam, yogurt, and Turkish tea at a different house belonging to the farmer cousin of our host. Everyone comes to say goodbye, and while appreciative of the hospitality, we are off again— this time with some relief. In the town we women don headscarves and all of us remove our shoes before entering the splendid timber-framed Esrefoglu Mosque in Beysehir where we are greeted by the imam who patiently answers our questions as translated by Kadir (though the imam clearly understands our English quite well). He explains that the government department regulating religion funds the mosques and also sends the text for the homily each week, the current methods for preventing radical Islam from taking hold in Turkey and assuring separation of church and state. We see a large square depression in the floor which originally contained ice to keep the humidity constant in the summer so the wooden building would not dry out. Before we leave, the imam sings the call to prayer in his melifluous tenor voice. This is the only time the call has seemed truly beautiful and prayerful because the ones broadcast on loudspeakers sound distorted and blaring.

Finally in Konya after more bus time, we visit the Mevlana Mausoleum, a place of pilgrimage, where the great 13th century mystic Sufi poet, jurist and scholar, Rumi, is buried and where we see many gorgeous illuminated Korans. A 15th century poet calls Rumi's work the Qur'an in Persian as many Rumi verses are almost direct translations.

Why should I seek? I am the same as
He. His essence speaks through me.
I have been looking for myself
Listen to the reed and the tale it tells,
How it sings of separation...

At lunch on the lovely terrace of a restaurant overlooking the Mevlana complex, one of our travellers faints, frightening us all. But she is game to continue and is carried down in a chair to street level and the bus. So we continue across the Konya Plain, enduring the endless flat breadbasket of Turkey edged by snow-capped mountains. Three of these mountains were volcanic and thus the source of the tufa that gave rise to Cappadocia's fairy cones as well as the rich soil of the area. Stopping en route to walk through a caravanserei, we imagine the noise and smells of the people and donkeys housed at night, safe from bandits as they transported various goods across Asia. Then at last we come to the town of Goreme and settle in the comfortable Tourist Hotel where our room looks out on a swimming pool and an assemblage of some of the strangest formations ever conjured up in anyone's dreams.

Day 15, May 2: Cappadocia (Goreme)

A much-needed, leisurely day. First we visit Uchisar, one of the 38 underground cities of Cappadocia, each housing up to 60,000 residents in times of attack. There are as many as 8 levels, along with air shafts, room for small animals, churches, kitchens, and sometimes long tunnels connecting cities together. In many places we must stoop almost double to pass through the tunnels. Some of us fear clautrophobia but nobody succumbs. Once outside again, we have a short walk among the amazing tufa cones of the area, checking out some of the rooms carved out for houses or stables, and then finally have a lunch that includes the pervasive flat bread called yufka and the good Efes beer we have been enjoying throughout the trip.

Later, at a pottery factory we see a young man making a Hittite-style wine jug that Jack desperately craves until he discovers the price. So as consolation we buy 6 little handleless cups with shiny red or green or black glaze inside, just like those from which we sip wine during the demonstration.

Come evening, we drive to an old caravanserei to witness the Ritual of Sema, known familiarly as the Whirling Dervishes, those followers of Rumi whose spinning dance reflects their mystical spiritual journey. The dancers nowadays are professionals since the order was disbanded by Ataturk because of their corrupt practices. Pros or not, the ritual is mesmerizing as the five dancers and their leader seem rapt and the two (reed) flutes, psaltery and drums all playing in unison (but with different embellishments) seem to produce a kind of heterophony that is like much Arabic music we have heard, although this accompaniment also includes chanting. Our glimpse into the mystic order concludes with cups of a hot and very sweet cinnamon drink. Someone remarks that there are some 600 genuine dervishes worldwide.

Day 16, May 3: Cappadocia (Goreme)

Jack rises at 5 am for a balloon ride which he finds gentle and enjoyable. Not yet up, I hear a roaring outside the window and open the drapes to find over 25 balloons in various stages of launch from a field of tufa shapes nearby — beautiful, slow-moving giants moving skyward, barely clearing the high ridges with their chase vans following after them. Hastily dressing and hurrying outside to a hilltop, I spot another dozen beginning to land just as the sun rises.

The Open-Air Museum is first on the morning agenda, a masterpiece of both nature and humanity since the eroded cones were carved out into both houses and churches. Together we explore the Apple Church with its red-ochre and blue 11th century frescoes. Other churches include the Church of St. Barbara excavated in the same cone as the Apple Church, the Snake Church with its frescoe of St. George and the Dragon and the more recently uncovered Dark Church (so-called either because of its single small window or the dark lapis lazuli backgrounds of the frescoes) with masterful paintings of the life of Christ, some also defaced by iconoclasts as in the other churches.

Some then climb the high fortress called Uchisar Rock while others of us dicker over beautiful rugs though we can't seem to bring ourselves to the point of purchase. Concluding the day is a longish and rather hot walk back to the hotel among the tufa and then our celebratory final dinner with the usual elaborate buffet and some excellent local wine. Having watched Obama's announcement of the death of bin Laden on BBC World News, we have mixed feelings about the flag-waving and cheering in Time Square and some apprehensions about the safety of the airports for our flight home.

Day 17, May 4-5: Depart from Kayseri, Istanbul, Madrid

Departure day is difficult as we must rise at 3 am to drive to the nearest airport, fly to Istanbul (during which maneuver we manage to lose Tilly's luggage until Kadir finds it has been lodged in the cargo hold), enjoy Beryl's little goodbye gifts of red knitted bells, say farewell to nearly everyone else, and wait out the day before our flight leaves for Madrid in late afternoon. On arrival in the enormous and very confusing Madrid airport, we somehow manage to meet up with a young pianist from Peabody Conservatory going to the same hotel, order the hotel van to pick us up, and crash for the night after a shower in the super modern hotel bath that reminds me of the facilities in our boutique hotel in Malta.

We continue to monitor news broadcasts and pick up any English-language papers we can find, usually the Financial Times which has extensive coverage of the raid of the bin Laden compound in Pakistan.

The next morning, instead of the abundant variety of Turkish hotel breakfasts, Madrid's is continental with juice, superb coffee (to my joy, with a machine producing scalding hot milk!), pain au chocolat, toast, jam, yogurt, and fresh fruit. Since our flight is late morning, we take a walk in the town, which is just an airport town and not Madrid proper, catch the hotel shuttle back to the huge and mystifying airport for our final leg to Boston, spending our few (and expensive) euros along the way. Our limo is waiting for us at Logan and we head home, tired but exhilarated by our latest adventures.