Monday, September 20, 2010

Turkey: First Impressions

We boarded Turkish Airline on Saturday afternoon at DeGaulle Airport after a rather long and circuitous trip there due to travaux, work being done on the RER (the metro to outlying areas).  What normally would take only 45 minutes, took us 2 hours, so we were glad to have started out early enough to arrive in time for the 2 hours required time before take off to international destinations.   

It made for a long day, but once we boarded the plane, we relaxed and settled into dreaming about the adventures ahead.   The flight was a true pleasure with comfortable seats,  plenty of leg room, good service by the flight attendants and a lovely Turkish family (husband, wife and two daughters, ages 5 and 9) as seatmates.  The wife sat in the third seat next to us and the husband and daughters sat across the aisle. They had been visiting Disneyland in Paris, believe it or not!  The father spoke English and the oldest daughter made a good effort since she is studying English in school. We felt bad that we did not yet speak a word of Turkish.    

We learned he was a doctor and his wife was an architect.  We no sooner jumped into conversation than we were being served a full hot meal, with wine and dessert as well.  It was delicious (a far cry from what we get on US airlines).  All of this for a three hour flight.  Plus we didn’t have to pay for our luggage.  Turkish airlines gets our vote of confidence. 

After finding out we had to buy a Visa for $20 each, and making our way through the customs lines, we were met by our driver two hours past the time of our expected arrival.  He was pleasant and efficient and we were soon whisking our way along a very modern highway towards Istanbul with a few other fellow travelers.   

We’ve learned that the day of transfers from one country to another must just be written off no matter how short the actual flights.  As our Swedish friend says, just call them “travel days” and forget doing anything particularly interesting other than sitting in shuttles, airports and watching people going here and there just like you are.

As we whizzed along the highway past the Bosporus sea,  into Istanbul we began to form “first impressions” of this Mesopotamian Mecca---a place of multiple cultures, ancient civilizations going back to 4000 B.C.E., the crossroads between East and West, North and South and gate to Asia Minor.    

We were headed to the city once known as Constantinople under the Romans, and later as Istanbul, the center of the vast Ottoman Empire spreading west all the way to Spain and North to Russia and the Caucasus.  Looking out of our taxi windows we saw several sea-going vessels on the Bosphorus, many huge freighters from countries around the world, reminding us that this is still a great trade route.  All these ships so close together looked like toy boats bobbing in a child’s bathtub. 

As we pulled into the city, our van driver swerved in and out of noisy streets to work his way into the Sultanhamet area, the old sector of Istanbul.  We bumped along over narrow, cobbled streets in between old stone and wood buildings dating back to the Ottomans. We learned later that the wood for these structures was provided by the forests of Russia and other surrounding countries. The houses reminded us of the wood-planked houses we had seen in the North, in Sweden, with large bays jutting out in front forming enclosed porches and with roofs decorated in ornate wooden “gingerbread,” not at all what we had expected to see here.  Surrounding these are two to three story stone and concrete box-like structures and then of course, one always sees the minarets of the huge domed mosques, of Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque just a few blocks away from where our hotel was located. 

As we settled into our hotel room that night we heard the call to prayer from the nearby mosques, a loud whining sound, electronically amplified and for us, not the most pleasant or musical.  This happens about five times a day and after the first day we were used to it and it helped us mark our days' schedule, knowing we could expect it at 5 AM, then again at 9 AM and again at 1 PM, 5 PM and 8 PM or so. Life moves at a very brisk pace in Istanbul, a city of about 17 million people, not counting the tourist populations that descend upon the city in droves from June through October. 

Walking down the streets of Istanbul is a kind of dance, moving with the crowds from right to left and trying to avoid those coming towards you.  Then there are the shopkeepers standing outside their establishments greeting you with “where are you from?” If you answer your walk has stopped ---they will engage you in conversation and invite you to come in for tea and before you know it, you are being given a presentation on Turkish rugs.  We learned our lesson quickly: don’t make eye contact, just walk on even when they seem so nice.

We spent our two days in Istanbul visiting the key sights such as the Blue Mosque, so named because of the beautiful blue and white tiles that decorate the walls and large dome.  The Hagia Sophia is just a block away and is famous for its size and the magnificent frescoes and mosaics which once decorated its interior when it was a holy Roman church erected in the 6th century by Emperor Justinian.  It was later sacked by the Turks when they conquered Constantinople and converted to a mosque under Sultan Mahmet II.   

Fortunately the frescoes and mosaics glorifying the Christian Saints were left intact; but later, to comply with Islamic standards, they were covered over by plaster.  A few of the mosaics have been uncovered in recent years and the Hagia is now a museum of gigantic proportions. 

We also visited the Topkapi palace, once the home and place of Administration of the Sultans and leaders of the Ottoman Empire. It is a gigantic complex of buildings and gardens and took us four hours to visit.   

Being filled with so much historical information all at one time was exhausting.   

The best part of Istanbul for us was strolling the streets, people-watching, stopping for hot Turkish tea in the afternoon and eating typical Turkish meals such as eggplant and tomatoes, grilled veggies, chicken (we avoided the beef and lamb) kabobs,  hummus, and delicious desserts such as flaky pastry wrapped around delicacies such as fig, pine nuts, apricot conserves, and the honey-rich baklava.  We enjoyed coming back to the terrace of our hotel at night and having Turkish coffees while looking out at the beautiful cityscape with the domes of the mosques, all in lights, and the Bosphorus in the distance.

In planning our Turkish Adventure, we had the help of a Turkish man in Portland who is married to an American school teacher.  He was very helpful in arranging transportation for us from one place in the country to another, guides, and other details.  He told us to be sure and contact Georgio, his colleague in Istanbul, who would make sure all went well for us.  Well, this turned out to be a highlight.   

Georgio took us to many places in this huge city we would never have discovered on our own; such as to a most delightful restaurant where we sat on low cushions around a big table, listened to traditional Turkish music and watched a Whirling Dervish, a male dancer adorned in a  long white full skirt and Turkish shirt and black hat and who twirls in a sort of spiritual trance.   It’s remarkable to watch---one wonders why he never seems to get dizzy.   

On our last day, Georgio met us after we had toured a few other sights in the old area of the city, and took us to the Grand Bazaar, an incredible, huge shopping area, and the old Spice Market where we purchased dried apricots, walnuts, pistachios and figs, all grown organically and from a shop which goes back three generations and is “famous.”

According to Georgio, for the next six hours, we were to see the most “famous” things in Istanbul, including the big walking street in Taksim, the modern section of the city, the funicular, the underground railway, the tram, the more bohemian section of the city known for its musicians and artists, called the “tunel” and the Galata Tower, an ancient fortification and lookout for the city.   

We ate at a “famous” restaurant in Taksim where we learned the traditional drink was Raki, an aperitif something like the French “pastisse” with a slight licorice taste to it but with a much higher alcohol content.  One drinks it with a bit of water added, taking a sip of the Raki, then of water and then eating white goat cheese, and a slice of melon.  It’s really quite good and the waiters got a big kick out of us gulping down their Raki.
Turkey: land of tea, sunshine and ancient history all wrapped up in one rug

Days whiz by here as fast as our mini-vans can get us from one historical spot to another and we have seen many.  From the time we left Istanbul until now, as we sit in our beautiful hotel near the ancient Roman Thermal baths where traders stopped along the trade routes through Asia Minor, called Pamukkale, we have been in a state of constant surprise ---sometimes a bit of frustration, too, not knowing this strange-sounding language with its two i’s, one with a dot and one without.  We now know the most important of expressions for "thank you" (phonetically it is “Tay shay cue lar”) and the one which helps finds one's way at the “latrinas” (ancient Roman word for bathrooms where only the men could go then) bay, man and bayan, woman. Good, so much for learning the language.   

The Turkish are on the whole amazing kind and helpful, many speak a  small amount of English and others a great deal  (especially those who have traveled in the US and are always happy to practice).  Most times, we live in a kind of never- never land not knowing exactly who is picking us up the next day on this semi-custom tour we planned by using our friend, Adam Peck, author of  The Turkey Guide (his mother and I were grade school friends and then college roommates so we go way back---I remember when Adam was born)!  Along with his book, we also had help in organizing our itinerary and setting up transport and guides from Chevvy Noratli, a Turk married to a Portlander we met a few months ago.  We appreciated his sincere efforts and of course paid for those and, with a few exceptions (more about that later), we have been amazed at how smoothly we are flitting across and about this country---keeping a sense of humor always helps and remembering the Turks' ability to enjoy the small things in life, something they call kief.

Now I must backtrack a bit.  Our most favorite place so far was Cappadocia with its magical “moonscape”-- really a landscape of fantastic geological formations called “fairy chimneys” mushrooms, underground cities formed over millions of years of volcanic eruptions, wind, water and erosion.  The only thing that even comes a bit near to it in our country is Arches, in the state of Utah. For those of you who have been there, imagine Arches three times bigger and more dramatic--a maze of labyrinthine earthworks!

We stayed at a lovely, romantic and interesting B&B owned by a Turkish friend of Adam Peck’s, Suha.  Esbelli Evi is a place not to be missed for those coming to Cappadocia.  It is in the little town of Urgup---yes, pronounced as if you are trying to explain a “goop” of something to someone with a bit of hesitation:  ur---goop of paste, will do it! Our accommodations at Esbelli were the height of unpretentious, restful luxury

We had our own quiet garden patio, a spacious room and equally spacious bath with double shower, travertine marble walls; all this in a setting of refurbished ruins dating back to ancient times.  It felt like we were staying in a tranquil monastery to reflect upon the wonders and mysteries of the world.

Walking from our room to the upper terrace for a sumptuous breakfast each day meant traversing through tunnels, old stone stairways and a labyrinth of small pathways, sometimes seeing an ancient pot against a wall, or a niche in the stone wall graced with an antique copper water jar, or vessel used for milk or yogurt. 

It was hard to leave this retreat for our daily tours but alas, we are tourists and want to see as much as possible while we are here.   

The two highlights were first, the 4 km hike we took through the “rose valley,” so named for the coloration of the rock stained with iron oxide.  Along the way we encountered a variety of flora: olive trees, wild apricots, chamomile, bay and grapes (of a very different variety than those found in our vineyards).  The grapevines spread out low to the ground to protect the fruit from the extreme heat and keep the moisture in the soil.    

Cappadocia is known for its wine making from ancient times. We stopped for a tasting down the hill from Esbelli as we walked into the village the first night. Our second highlight was the hot air balloon ride over the amazing landscape.  In spite of having to arise at 4:45 AM to be picked up by a mini-van full of fellow travelers, all sleepy but anxious about the adventure ahead, it was well worth the effort.   

Our huge balloon with its hanging passenger basket filled to the brim with 25-30 people lifted off the ground at 6 AM and we watched the sun cast its rosy glow over the entire landscape below as it arose beyond one of the largest volcanic mountains of the area, Mt. Erciyes, 4000 meters high. You may want to look that up---my notes were sketchy here!

All was quiet except for the off and on sound of the giant propane blow torches which the pilot operated by pressing on multiple levers to keep our balloon aloft, rising over fellow balloons and high earth sculptures in many forms.  Watching our 60 fellow, colorful  balloons up in the air all at once was nearly as exciting as the landscape in the early morning light.  Gary had originally opted out of this high adventure not usually relishing heights but fellow travelers exalted its pleasures so much that he changed his mind and came along; glad he did as we set down safely an hour later.  We were offered champagne and everyone applauded our pilots for a job well done. 

We left Cappadocia three and a half days later and flew to Izmir,  then had  minivan transfer to Kusadasi on the Aegean sea. 

It was late and all we saw from the window of our (least favorite accommodation, a big modern Cancun-like) hotel, was the seaport with its many cruise ships---night lights were pretty but we were soon fast asleep in order to rise early for our transfer to the old Roman gates of Ephesus, the capitol of Asia Minor in Roman times.

We arrived with our English speaking Turkish tour guide and about 14 other tourists from around the world:  Australian, a few fellow Americans, British and South African citizens.  As we followed our guide, Guray who spoke with a thick accent, we were taking the route through the ancient gates into the city of Ephesus formerly known as the seat of Cybil and Artemis, who the Greeks worshiped; we followed the Arcadian Way down a steep hill paved in marble, framed by ancient columns with Ionic, Doric and Corinthian capitols, fountains,  a beautifully preserved relief sculpture of Nike, the goddess of sport, headless life-sized sculptures of the wealthy and influential Ephesians, former Roman baths, a brothel and the Latrinas---took a fun photo of Gary “on the pot.”   

We walked through the two main “agoras,” as the markets were called, past ruins of the old silversmiths who threw St. John the Baptist out of Ephesus (you can look those stories up).   

One could go on and on about the history we were encountering but I will not bore you with that now.  Let it suffice to say, it was a sight to behold and I could almost hear the loud voice of Caesar calling out from the huge amphitheater “Let the sport begin” as gladiators entered the arena.  We were walking in history’s footsteps!

We left Ephesus to take a four hour bumpy bus ride to Pamukkale.  Its name means “cotton castles” and it is here that one sees the results of highly mineralized natural springs which have flowed over the region for millions of years, creating white cotton-looking formations from the mineral deposits and hardening into acres and acres of limestone.  These were the medicinal baths where traders stopped on their long and arduous journeys through the gates to Asia Minor.  The name is Hierapolis, or “holy city.”

We are staying at a very glamorous hotel, called the PAM hotel here in Pamukkale, high on a hill over a small village.  Again not our choice, but chosen for us by our trip organizer, Chevvy.  This is actually a welcome respite from our busy touring days.  We can swim in the large pool at the end of the day, and then dip in the warm thermal water.  We have yet to try the massages and herbal treatments, for all those come at a hefty additional charge.  The other amenities are fine: dancing to beautiful music in the evening and then taking a hot thermal bath under the stars before our two night's stay have made it very pleasurable.

The new moon is almost here and as we glance up from our balcony at it, we think of all our dear children, grandchildren and friends at home and wish you a good night until another day’s adventures  in Turkey.

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