Historical, geological, even biblical (Acts 2:9), the Cappadocia region is endlessly intriguing at ground level.
Just wait until you see it from the sky.
Hot air balloon rides over Cappadocia (Kapadokya in Turkish) have become so popular that the government limits the number of takeoffs per day… to one hundred. After missing our chance to soar in Albuquerque, we were thrilled to finally take flight. Can’t wait to go again!
The Cappadocia region is one of the main reasons Turkey has been on my list for so long. Soaring geologic structures with centuries-old dwellings cut into sheer rock faces- get me there!
We got there, by plane (impoverished 20-year-old backpackers take the bus and lose a day), choosing the city of Göreme as our home base. How convenient: this is where the Open Air Museum is located, showcasing a handful of the volcanic rock formations that eroded over the centuries to create so-called fairy chimneys, which somehow beckoned to the natives, “Hey, carve a house/church/monastery in me!” I couldn’t help but think of Tatooine.
Luke Skywalker’s living room?
Claustrophobic worshippers need not apply
Cave dwellings dot the entire region, but tourists flock to the Open Air Museum because it’s neatly packaged, paved, and signposted
There aren’t many trees in a field full of fairy chimneys, so we were feeling toasty after a couple Open Air hours. Luckily, pomegranate juice is readily-available, and it doesn’t get any fresher.
Think those fairy chimneys look cool? Just wait until you see them from the air… in our next post.
A visitor could spend a week in Istanbul and never leave Sultanahmet (and I’m sure many do). Fearing yet another sales pitch about buying a rug or taking a Bosphorus tour, we ventured beyond the tourist area.
Come for the architecture, stay for the deals: welcome to Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. Daniel Craig’s James Bond careened through these corridors on his motorcycle, and all I got were a couple of cheap (after haggling) t-shirts.
Suleymaniye Mosque stands beside the Grand Bazaar. Circling it on the map, the clerk at our hotel told us, “Forget about the Blue Mosque. This is the most beautiful mosque in Istanbul.”
The open courtyard is a refreshing break from the crowded streets, and the interior ornamentation is understated compared to its showy big brother. I must admit I was more awed by the Blue Mosque- probably due to its prominent place on the Istanbul skyline.
Karen got caught in the gravitational pull of the Spice Market, where she loaded up on dried fruit snacks for later and spices to take home. We never did figure out what the widely-advertised Turkish Viagra is.
As the sun went down, we retired to… where else? A rooftop terrace.
As we prepared to leave Istanbul for other Turkish adventures, we pondered some of the other sights we’ve seen in this crowded, graceful, noisy, enchanting metropolis.
We saw this cool innovation for the first time: the taxi meter built into the rearview mirror (making it easier for us to see)
Selling bread along restaurant row in Sultanahmet
Who is that shadowy figure in the bank museum? (Yes, we visited the museum of Turkey’s central bank.)
That’s some snazzy footwear you get to enjoy while your shoes are being shined
Hang on- I know eastern European countries have embraced McDonald’s, but I didn’t know there was a McDonaldstan
If we had McMotorcycle delivery in the US, even more of us would be obese
And one more shout out to Karen’s cousin, Jamie, for getting us off on the right foot all those weeks- oh wait, we only got here a few days ago. Oh well.
In true Her Majesty’s Secret Service fashion, I’ve given Karen the slip and descended into the shadows… beyond the prying eyes of the masses… into hidden subterranean caverns. Caverns that have a cafe and gift shop.
The Basilica Cistern wasn’t a tourist attraction back when Sean Connery appeared in From Russia with Love, spying on the Russian embassy through the periscope (!) that they didn’t notice poking out of the floor (!!).
Opened to the public in 1987, it’s plenty well-known now. No, it wasn’t Istanbul’s sewer; water was transported from miles away to be stored here. The 336 columns vary in style, randomly topped with Iconic, Corinthian, and Doric capitals. The architects probably didn’t expect hundreds of camera-toting tourists to be inspecting their handiwork.
The creepy-cool serpent column
No one quite knows why there are pilfered Medusa heads at the bases of two columns. And I’m glad- I prefer that a bit of mystery remains down here, beneath the streets of Istanbul.
All right, this feels like cheating. I’m used to slogging miles from site to site while on vacation. Finally arriving at the museum/palace/ruin is like coming upon an oasis in the desert. Helps us burn off that tasty local food we treat ourselves to as well.
Here in Istanbul, however:
So what is that grand structure, visible from Galata Tower…
Fourteen centuries in the making, this is Hagia Sophia (its name when it was a church) or Aya Sofya (its name when it was a mosque) or That Big Museum With All The People Standing In Line Outside (what it is now).
In 1963’s From Russia with Love, Sean Connery’s James Bond ventured inside for a clandestine meeting with a Soviet agent. Apparently, he came on a less crowded day.
We made our way inside and found an interior large enough to swallow hundreds of tourists and still leave us with some elbow room. The Virgin Mary and fragments of archangels share dome space with Ottoman medallions proclaiming the names of Allah and Mohammed.
Even the front door is impressive
Next door lies Sultan Ahmet Mosque, commonly known as the Blue Mosque, which is open to tourists outside of prayer times.
Visitors remove their shoes before entering
Blue Iznik tiles inside give the mosque its nickname
Wherever you wander in Sultanahmet (this whole area is named after him- not just the mosque), these two grand structures are always part of the backdrop.
Istanbul is huge. Sprawling. One of the biggest cities in the world. Looking at a map back in Milwaukee, it was hard to envision the scale of the place.
Which is why I was surprised to discover that our fairly basic hotel had a sweeping view of the Bosphorus and was practically next to Topkapi Palace.
Most hotels include breakfast in the room rate
And most hotels and restaurants have a rooftop balcony
The view from our room ain’t bad either
For centuries, Topkapi was the opulent home to Ottoman sultans. Now it’s home to the Republic of Turkey’s treasures, from sparkling jewels to colorful garments to the Topkapi Dagger, made famous by the oddball 1964 movie Topkapi (watch it if you dare).
Walking the palace complex takes you through archways and courtyards into impressive rooms, many of them beautifully tiled.
It’s almost hard to believe (i.e. I’m not sure I believe) all the religious artifacts presented here: Moses’ staff, Abraham’s pot, Joseph’s turban, and even…
For all its opulence, Topkapi is a grind. We shuffled from room to room, standing in long lines to gaze at tiny artifacts in dimly-lit boxes. There was some live entertainment: in this peaceful sitting room, a woman started yelling and swearing at a guard. In response, he started yelling and swearing back (a sure way to get fired back home). As the altercation drifted outside, they veered from Turkish to English, so we understood her when she screamed, “I’m not your girlfriend or your wife, you can’t talk to me that way!”
Despite the interpersonal pyrotechnics, palace fatigue soon set in. While Karen was all Topkapied out, I pressed on, paying the extra fee and venturing into the harem on my own (who takes his wife into a harem, anyway?).
The rooms are ornate… but decidedly smaller than the Sultan’s
Imagining what life was like within these walls was a bit easier for me, since I’m currently reading The Janissary Tree, a historical novel set in 19th Century Istanbul. In the course of investigating a series of murders and a jewel theft, Investigator Yashim visits Topkapi and the harem, bringing the era to life as a piece of jewelry in a case simply cannot.
Speaking of which: no photos of the Topkapi dagger allowed… but you can buy a replica gift shops all over town. The real thing is, admittedly, spectacular.
The antidote to palace fatigue is a delicious meal with friends, which is what we got by meeting Jamie and his girlfriend Figen for dinner. She gave us a ride to Jamie’s place on our first night and was impressed when I casually said teşekkürler (thanks). Didn’t take long for her to realize that was pretty much my only Turkish word, but since then she’s helped me learn a few more.
From the restaurant’s rooftop terrace (of course), we watched the sun set on the Blue Mosque. Oh yeah, gotta go see that too. Another day.
Sadly, it required an aunt to die. My Aunt Meg was a traveler herself, having worked as a travel agent for many years. She passed away this January, and while attending her funeral I reconnected with cousins I hadn’t seen in twenty years. Talking with Lisa and Jodi, who both live in England, led me to their brother Jamie: “Oh, Jamie lives in Istanbul. I’m sure he’d be happy to host you two.”
That’s how we ended up having this over-the-top Turkish breakfast on our first morning in Istanbul.
Jamie was an excellent host, putting us up at his apartment for a few nights and giving us an introduction to the city.
The view from Jamie’s apartment in the northern area of the city
He took us to places off the tourist path, like Rumeli Fortress, with stunning views of the Bosphorus.
Like many places we’ve traveled, Istanbul has stray dogs wandering the streets. Here, I was happy to discover that dogs are spayed/neutered, vaccinated, and tagged.
Work off the pounds on the streets of Istanbul!
We’d never seen this before: a taxi meter superimposed on the rearview mirror
A winged suit of armor designed to strike fear into the enemy
The faces of people who crossed paths with Mr. Sabanci flicker across a digital canvas
Turkey is a Muslim country, so no alcohol, right? Nah, Istanbul is the least conservative area of the country. Jamie was true to his Wisconsin roots, managing to find the best bars and happy hour deals in Istanbul. Our first stop was the swanky Tarabya Hotel.
Rum & Koka-Kola
We spotted Milwaukee’s own Miller beer on the menu. I don’t drink it at home, and I certainly won’t drink it here for 22 lire (US$ 11)!
Moving on to a bar decorated with Christmas lights and photos of American actors, Jamie introduced me to Istanbul’s local firewater, raki.
It’s an anise-flavored liqueur, similar to ouzo from Greece. Just add water and ice cubes. If you like licorice, raki is pleasant to sip- way better than Efes beer (typical crappy light beer).
Jamie was a very easygoing, gracious host, getting two jet-lagged tourists pointed in the right direction to enjoy Istanbul.
Taking a break from sifting through Turkey photos (yes, I know how far behind I am on that), Karen and I went to watch a bike race: the local stop of the Tour of America’s Dairyland.
As way-too-fit bikers whizzed by at dizzying speeds, Karen and I walked the perimeter of the course. A fellow spectator made eye contact, smiled, and said hi- then shook her head and said, “Oh wait, I don’t know you.”
Before I could figure out what she meant, she explained: “We’ve never met, but I follow your blog.” Somehow, Sarah stumbled upon Next Stop: World waaaaay back at the beginning of our world tour (perhaps it was the newspaper article?). Today, she officially became the first reader to spot us in a crowd. You know, the kind of thing that happens to Tom Cruise, like, every fifteen seconds.
Isn’t it funny how you can feel a sense of familiarity with someone you’ve never met? Especially through a blog, which is way more personal than, say, seeing Tom Cruise in a movie.
Like if I bumped into Benny the Irish Polyglot, I’d have the urge to launch into a conversation as if we’re old friends, though I merely follow his blog about how to become fluent in a language in 3 months. (He’s written a book and is on tour, so I may get my chance.)
Or how about Simon and Erin over at Never Ending Voyage? I was rooting for them as they started their sailing lessons in Malaysia- um, wait, I don’t even know them.
And Karen keeps me up to date on her “pal” Jodi’s exploits over at Legal Nomads, too.
Anyway, it was great fun chatting with Sarah about world travel and domestic non-travel (we’re in the midst of house shopping, which could fill another blog).
I’d better get some of those Turkey pix posted- we don’t want to disappoint our loyal fans. Thanks for saying hi, Sarah!
We’d never flown Turkish Airlines before. A few weeks before the flight, I called their Chicago customer service line to confirm our seats. From the ruckus in the background of the conversation, I swear I was connected to a barn somewhere in rural Turkey. “WHAT? MY CONFIRMATION NUMBER? IT’S R… 5… NO, R… R AS IN ROGER…!”
Boarding our flight, however, we felt any lingering concerns melt away. See for yourself.
The food was luxurious, too, in an airline food sort of way. Chef Karen was intrigued by the onboard chef, or flight attendant in chef’s clothing (he wasn’t cooking anything up there in first class… was he?). At any time during the flight, we could stop by the galley for a beverage or snack.
Thanks to seatback entertainment screens and attentive crew members, the ten-hour flight passed in no time a tolerable amount of time. We basked in the Downton Abbeyesque civility of it all, until we landed in Istanbul. And then this happened.
What’ll it be, Istanbul? The Earl of Grantham or the unruly mob?
We traveled to Belize just after the Winter Olympics in Russia. Do you remember the furor that erupted as journalists arrived in Sochi and found nothing but problems, like hotels that weren’t finished, water that wasn’t drinkable, and manholes that weren’t covered?
Many of those articles said something along the lines of, “But it gets even worse than that,” and then showed this tweet:
That was a real head-scratcher for me. Have any of these people ever traveled to Central America, South America, or Asia? Don’t they watch our toilet videos?!
I mean, really, stray dogs are reportedly being killed off, and you’re shocked to be asked to do something… very simple… that billions of people do every day?
OK, stepping off my soapbox now. Next Stop: World is pleased to present the toilets of Belize.