Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Further Turkey Adventures

We are now ın a beautiful little town on the Mediterranean coast, Dalyan.  We are staying at a charming small hotel. Last evening we walked in the moonlight along the canal that stretches from a bıg lake to the sea.  

Dalyan ıs just between lake and sea.  We will now take a small  boat to the beach, past ancient Roman grave site built into the high rocks in the ornate Hellistic style of archıtecture.  

We'll spend a few relaxıng hours exploring and relaxing on the beach and then return to have another excellent fish dınner!  

We wısh we were stayıng here longer but we will have the morning to enjoy, and then at 1:30 we leave for Antalia another small Mediterranean city where the next day we will explore many other places of historical interest and beauty.

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.