Thursday, March 20, 2014

Turkish delights

We're now in Bulgaria and I have fallen in love, again, because as I recall my first few days in Turkey, I felt exactly the same way.  We flew into Istanbul very early in the morning from Hanoi and thankfully had the airport to ourselves.  We were the only one in the visa line ($20 for 60 days) and the immigration lines were a breeze.  After taking public transport into the city, we found our hotel in the old city and were given a room key despite the fact that it was hours before check-in.  My folks were flying in later that day, so Nate and I had most of the day to get some sleep and orient ourselves before their arrival.  It's been well over a year now since I had seen them.  I had gone home for Thansgiving in 2012 and stayed about a month on the east coast- seeing my folks (Alexandria, VA), my Aunt Nancy (Ocean Grove, NJ) and my brother's family (Brooklyn at the time).  Although I love our travels and know that I'll likely never get this opportunity again- it feels like ages since I've seen my family and friends.  Needless to day, it was an incredible moment to see my parents walking up the steps of the hotel.  Our 2 1/2 weeks together went too quickly even though we spent several days in each city in an attempt to not seemed rushed.  I'm so thankful though that we had this amazing trip together.  It's rare these days to get long visits in with our parents.  I feel incredibly blessed that in their 70's- they're in good health and have the ability to travel and walk over such distances. 

It would be easy to spend two weeks just in Istanbul itself- but we had four days there before traveling around Turkey along with a couple days at the end of our trip.  Most of the historical sites were in our neighborhood in Sultanahmet- including the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofya, Basilica Cistern, Hippodrome, Topkapi Palace, Great Bazaar, Archaeology Museum, and Gulhane Park.  When we weren't seeing one of these- we were taking long walks around the peninsula to see the old wall near the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus or resting on a city bench appreciating the many cats as well as the change of season.  It seemed as if millions of tulip bulbs were pushing through the beautifully landscaped gardens before our eyes.  It was definitely Spring in Istanbul. 

Even though we were not visiting during high season- there was still a sizable number of tourists!  It's hard to imagine how crowded Istanbul will be in just a few months.  The weather may not have been perfect but traveling on the shoulder season was still ideal with fewer tourists, the ability to make last-minute accommodation reservations and reduced prices.  

Highlights:  amazing Turkish coffee, fresh pomegranate juice stalls around the city, hundreds of stray cats and dogs that seemed to be very well cared for, alleyways full of outdoor seating (each chair with its own blanket incase you're cold), the Muslim calls to prayer, the multiple minarets in the sky line, the close proximity of the historic sites to one another and the beautiful mosques.  Turkey is also incredibly easy to travel through- the bus and train options are both easy to reserve as well as inexpensive (granted we were there during low season so it's possible that costs increase during the heavy tourist season).  Hostel beds were numerous which included breakfast (~$8-10/pp/night if outside of Istanbul & in the low season) and we were generally able to fine a hostel room in a hotel that my parents were interested in.

Lows: Nate got a cold which lasted most of our trip in Turkey.  (I think it was from the pollution in Hanoi but who knows). The cold developed into an inner ear infection and then into pink eye.  If there's a silver lining, it's that Nate had travelled to most of the same places 10 years ago that he was now forced to miss while recovering.  I was also suffering from multiple varieties of parasites that I had picked up (I think I've finally gotten rid of them).  Okay, so those have nothing to do with Turkey itself...  I found very few faults with Turkey.  I will say though that the restaurants and rug salespeople are ever present in Istanbul and it can be tiring fending them off.  Nothing on India though.  Also it was worrisome to see the number of riot police and large equipment (such as tanks with water cannons) placed around Istanbul and Izmir in order to respond to anti-government protests.  I always had the feeling that a mass-scale riot was imminent.  We did get caught in tear gas- but more on that later...

Here are some snapshots of our sightseeing in and around Istanbul.

Dad patiently waiting for me to take a photo before we rip into this yummy bread. 

A few cute pics of my folks in Turkey.

The Blue Mosque.

Aya Sofya.

Topkapi Palace.

The Spice Bazaar.

From Istanbul, we took an overnight bus to Goreme in Cappedocia.  As we drove into the area, hot air balloons were flying overhead.  We didn't partake but it was a beautiful sight to see so many of them.  

The famous Open Air Museum is a half hour walk from Goreme.  We toured churches and dwellings that had been dug into the earth, dating back to the 4th century.  Frescos from the 11th century still remain.  The volcanic landscape is well known for it's many pinnacles, known as "fairy chimneys", many of which are still inhabited today.  Most of the hotels in Goreme are caves, built into these remarkable rocks.

No cameras were allowed in any of the caves with frescos (even if the flash was off) so I only have a few from outside as well as a long dining table with bench that was dug into the ground.

Before we left, Memo from our hotel took me on a short hike between rain showers to the top of a nearby hill to see Goreme and the surrounding valleys from above. 

As we were leaving, another heavy storm was rolling in just as we were boarding our next 11 hour bus to Pamukkale, in southwest Turkey.  The lightening and hail had us on edge as we boarded, but thankfully, we quickly moved beyond it's reach.  We pulled into Pamukkale around 7am, had a bit of rest and a falafel lunch and then were off to hike barefoot (no shoes allowed) through the travertine terrace pools made of carbonate minerals.  We all thought being barefoot on such a cold day would be uncomfortable but the warm thermal waters felt great.  I was worried that my parents might slip on the loose deposits but I believe that I'm the only one who fell...  The travertines are quite large and are easily seen from the nearby towns.  They are a total of 8,860 ft. long, 1,970 ft. wide and 525 ft. high (per Wikipedia).

Travertine thermal pools.

Once we got to the top- we were at Hierapolis ("Holy City"), which was a Greco-Roman and Byzantine city built in the early 2nd century BC surrounding a thermal-pool spa.  


From Pamukkale, we took little 3-car train to Selcuk so that we could visit the ancient city of Ephesus.  Selcuk is a beautiful city with a small downtown filled with cafés.  The weather was rarely nice enough for us to sit outside for a long Turkish meal but I am sure it would be lovely during the warm summer days. We didn't feel like we had missed out though- as we were there in time to see the storks nesting on the old aqueduct! 

Ephasus was founded in the 10th century BC as a Greek city and abandoned in the 15th century AD. Durring the height of the Roman era, the city grew to have a sizable population of up to 50,000.  This site had strong ties with the start of Christianity.  Ephesus was one of the seven churches recorded in the Book of Revelations and there were several Christian Councils that met in Ephasus through out Ephesus' history.  It is thought that the Gospel John was written there.  

While most of Ephesus lays in ruins, the Library of Celsus remains a beautiful relic of the times. 

After a few days in Selcuk. We took a short train ride to Izmir where we had rented a 2-bedroom apartment close to the train station.  The apartment was well placed- walking distance (albeit a bit of a long walk) to the city center, the coast and the train station.  It was nice to have a private place to enjoy drinking tea together in the common room as well as having a dinning room table for us to make/eat our own food.  

While we were there, on 12 March, the city rioted over the recent burial of teenager, Berkin Elvan, a bystander who died 9 months after being hit by crossfire during last summer's protests.  We were downtown searching for the the Archaeology Museum when we were hit with a toxic cloud of chemicals.  Since we didn't know what was going on or where to go- we quickly walked away from the area up into a nearby neighborhood.  It was a good 10 minutes before we were in a place where the air felt clean enough for us to talk to one another.  Our eyes and throats burned and I felt as if I might get sick.  We thought it was a chemical explosion having to do with all the road construction- or perhaps even a terrorist attack.  We went home and researched it but couldn't find any news on what happened.  Soon after, we heard that there had been a protest that had taken place just across the street from where we had been- at the bus terminal.  Due to all the construction in the area, we hadn't seen or heard it.  There had also been large protests in Istanbul's Taksim Square on the same day.

It was a cheap flight back to Istanbul or a very long train or bus ride back so we flew, which gave us an extra day back in Istanbul.  It worked out perfectly because the best weather of the entire trip was on that day.  A good day for a boat tour of the Bosphorus!

One of the ferry stops was on the Asian side of the Bosphorus in the Tasksim region of Istanbul.  We hadn't explored that area yet and with the nice weather, it was a perfect day for an afternoon stroll before calling it a day. 

In typical fashion of a schizophrenic Spring- the following day was dreadfully cold and rainy.  We had left the Chora Church ("Countryside Church" in Byzantine Greek) for last because it was farther outside the main old city without easy transport to get to it. It has the best preserved Byzantine mosaics and frescos from the 14th century.  The journey there was a bit dreadful and upon arriving, we discovered that much of the interior was closed for renovation...  At least the famous frescos and mosaics were visible.  

The following day was beautiful again.  My parents flew out in the morning but Nate and I had all day before our train to Bulgaria departed that evening.  My college friend Megan and her friend Ravi were visiting Istanbul on holiday so we planned to meet at a wine bar near where they were staying in Taksim.  

Nate had read about Linda's Book exchange (on Şehbender Sokak No.18, Asmalı Mescit) that was only open from 5-7 on weekdays.  On our way to meet Megan and Ravi, we found it tucked down several alleys lined with music venues, cafés and bars.  We went back after it opened with our friends and were blown away by both the selection and the kindness of the folks there.  I highly recommend that if you go to Istanbul, you find this place early on in your trip.  Linda (an American who has lived in Istanbul for almost three decades) will loan you books to read as long as you return them before you depart.  There are many books on Istanbul as well as Turkish history for loan.  It's also a great place to exchange books- with hundreds to choose from which was a breath of fresh air compared to the handful of books that we generally find available at our various accommodations.  

After having time to catch up with our friends, we headed to the train station to buy our train tickets to Plovdiv, Bulgaria.  We had gone there several times earlier to buy tickets but the computer used to sell advance tickets was down (or some such story) so we had no idea how much money we needed for tickets.  It's always hard on the last day in a country to bridge the gap between having enough money but not ending up with too much left over.  Well, this time we underestimated.  We literally put every bill we had on the counter followed by dumping out all of our change.  We were still short but apparently close enough because he handed over two tickets!

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