Monday, September 26, 2011

At The Palace

Me on the ferry leaving Meis/Kastellerizo

We left serene Meis by ferry yesterday, picked up our car in Kas, and drove back to Fethiye, again staying at Jake and Lucia's. Then it was up early to drive to the airport and fly back to Istanbul - nearly a full day's journey with the traffic of this great city.
Meis/Kastellorizo harbor

I will attempt to describe the verdant valleys through which we passed on our drive: the red dirt and pine studded mountain range to the north (I am not sure how high it is but it gets snow in the winter), the red tiled roof houses set amid fields of corn, vineyards of grapes, olive and avocado trees, women in flowery loose pants and colorful headscarves everywhere working in this undeniably fertile landscape.  Last evening we were still driving as the sun went down and a thick, warm dusk filled the valleys  and warm air rushed through the car windows.

This morning we stopped for breakfast at a restaurant on the road and were reminded of the Turkish hospitality we felt so keenly on our last trip.  Our breakfast consisted of 17 different items, from bread to eggs, 2 kinds of olives, 6 kinds of cheese, crepes, butter, honey, cherry preserves... unfortunately we didn't take a photo.  After we were done and washed up, we were met at the exit by a waiter bearing the trademark Turkish lemon cologne freshener - a farewell gesture that is just so civilized! The whole experience was so unexpected in this roadside restaurant in the middle of nowhere.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Sea Creatures and the Blue Grotto

I don't know why I seem to attract all the biting and stinging insects and animals out there...mosquitoes love me, but fortunately we have only had a few of them on this trip (I had to play the great white mosquito hunter the night we spent by the Bodrum airport as they were biting both of us).  But the minute we got in the water at Fethiye, I was stung on the legs by unseen jellyfish. Unwisely I ignored the stings and in the morning they were the itchiest welts ever. Over the next few days I attracted more jellyfish and more stings but am now armed with vinegar to neutralize the nematocysts.  They can't keep me out of the swimming pool-like water!

Someone told me a long time ago that the Med is a "dead" sea - that all the coral is dead and that there is not much life. While the coral may be long gone, I have seen a surprising number of colorful tropical fish and we even saw an enormous sea turtle in the harbor at Meis/Kastellorizo.

On the second day on Meis, we took a water taxi to see the Blue Cave. The ride in itself was nice and it was surprising to see that the island is quite large, as the only current habitation is on the east side around the harbor.  Ancient monasteries still dot the rocky hilltops but it is quite a hike to see them.

Through a tiny opening in rocky coastline we slipped into the Blue Cave - a luminescent cavern that has been aptly named as the water glows blue, which is reflected and forms a blue ceiling. It looks like there are electric lights illuminating it from below!  There is a small beach inside the cave and we were told that seals make their home there to pup - a very sheltered area in an otherwise very rocky and unforgiving coastline.

Friday, September 23, 2011

East to West

Friday dawned clear, calm and warm. Another gorgeous day on the Mediterranean coast. We spent the night in Kas, a very touristy town we had visited on our last trip.  We had a less than favorable reaction to the swarms of tourists and were happy to board the ferry for Meis, a tiny Greek island just 20 minutes off the coast of Turkey.

Tiny islet off Meis
Known as Kastellorizo in Greek, the island promised to be a quiet haven to swim, read and work on our tans.  It proved to be very - almost eerily - quiet during the day, but starting at about 9 p.m., the restaurant outside our hotel started live music and dancing that went on until after midnight, and loud revelers walked the streets later than that. So another night of the interrupted, fitful sleep that has plagued our trip.

The tranquil natural harbor of Kastellorizo
Jumping from the "eastern" country of Turkey to the "western" country of Greece - even though technically we moved south - there is such a big difference! From the lack of squat toilets to the preponderance of churches (just one mosque left from the Ottoman era), lack of tea drinking, and of course the Greek alphabet instead of the Roman on all signs, menus, etc. It's an interesting change but I am completely unprepared with no book on Greece to reference.  We'll survive though - there are lots and lots of English expats and we are here for only 3 days before heading back to Turkey.

Greek Church

Thursday, September 22, 2011

North to South

Since I last posted to the blog Helena and I traversed the country north to south, traveling from the Black Sea in the north to the Mediterranean Sea in the south. We descended by mini-bus, then mega-bus, through deciduous forests starting to show their autumnal colors, to the desert scrub in the middle of the country - Ankara.  It was another plush bus experience, with a steward serving drinks and a mid-point tea stop.  

In Ankara (the capitol of Turkey) we boarded a plane for Bodrum-Milas, on the Aegean Coast. But that wasn't our final destination. We were bound for Fethiye, further south on the Med coast. So we rented a car and drove, very reminiscent of our 2000 road journey when we drove Antalya to Bodrum and back on the same roads. 

The roads were fantastic and uncrowded and we made good time to Fethiye. Helena was driving and I was back backup to keep her on the right side of the road (since she hasn't driven in 6 months, and before that it was only NZ!)

In Fethiye we met up with Lucia and Jake, friends of Helena's from Budapest, and their son Eldar, and they were nice enough to invite into their home for the night. And a what a night it was!  Crashing thunder, bolts of lightening and torrential rain - either a late summer storm of early winter, but it was back to sunny and mid-80's the next day, so who knows.  In any event, no one could sleep much that night.

Fethiye didn't have much draw for us other than seeing Helena's friends. It is a large harbor for yachties and expats, pretty charmless and overrun with English and German retirees.  We did get in a brief swim before the storm hit at a small cove far outside the town frequented only by the Turkish. The first dip in the swimming pool temp of the Med was heavenly!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Sesamos by the Sea

From Safranbolu, it is only about 80 kilometers due north to the sunny little Black Sea port of Amasra, but  by minibus it took nearly 3 hours. The roads are good - surprisingly good, but the bus stopped everywhere!

We arrived to find the town engulfed in blustery cold winds out of the north, making a white-capped mess of the Black Sea. The ports are fairly sheltered, and many Turks were out splashing around off their muddy beaches, but we were too cold to partake.  Instead we walked around the rocky promontory jutting north into the sea which once held a Roman fort (est. 70 B.C.) before the fall of the empire.

The area's history actually dates to the 15th century B.C., with the Phoenicians establishing a trading colony in the 12th century B.C. - they named the city Sesamos. The name was later changed by Alexander the Great to "Amastris" in honor of a Persian princess.

I had my first fish meal in Turkey - a super fresh bonito out of the Black Sea, served with salad of local fresh and pickled vegetables (mmmm, pickled cabbage!)  Our waiter was the Turkish version of Ernie from Cheers, and although he only spoke 2 words of English, we had a successful dining experience.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Relaxing Ottoman Style

Our second day in Safranbolu broke bright, clear and crisp. The temperature dipped into the 50's at night, but heated up again to the low 80's during the day - even hotter in the sun.  We happened to be in town during the 12th Annual International Documentary Film Festival (we didn't attend), an "antiques" bazaar a.k.a. junk on tables (but interesting junk), and a folk dance demonstration.  So we drank cay (Turkish tea, pronounced "chai"), wandered about, and ate more lokum (saffron-flavored!)

 Our pension was run by a nice Turkish Muslim couple who spoke English fairly well, and Helena took the opportunity to quiz them about all the different spices and fruits she saw in the market (Turkish cranberries, jujubes, Hawthorne apples, etc.). They also made us a lovely vegetarian lunch - the best food we had in town (we are both over the whole meat thing).  The only downside to the pension was the proximity to the loudspeaker on the mosque which blasted a call to prayer at 5:30 a.m. every morning.  While we have heard this every morning in Turkey (you can hear the calls across the city in Istanbul), this one was particularly loud.  There is no way anyone could sleep through it!

We have been drinking cay like the locals - several times a day, although Helena tells me that normally she drinks much more tea at home.  Which led her to query - which country consumes more tea per capita, Britain or New Zealand? Well, as it turns out, it is nearly a tie between Britain and ..... Turkey!  Since most people in Turkey don't drink alcohol, it is the tea shop that replaces the pub for a place to gather with friends (backgammon is the game of choice in this country).  The photo shows the typical Turkish tea glass, saucer and spoon, and you have to hold the glass at the rim as the tea is piping hot.  I usually don't put sugar in my tea, but the intense brewing of Turkish tea leaves it begging for a couple cubes.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Hamam Oh Man

From guest blogger, Helena:

The twin domes of the hamam are a landmark
We had been to one hamam in Istanbul and I have been to others previously but this one in Safranbolu was by far the most authentic experience for both of us. We had the whole place to ourselves which was luck but felt like absolute luxury. If you have never been, imagine a huge old stone church with a marble altar in the middle and smaller alcoves radiating off it at right angles. There are big marble basins at regular intervals along the walls where you can scoop up bowls of water to douse yourself. There are tiny star shaped holes in the domes that let in light, lots of hot steam, constant sound of running water and all sounds reverberate like mad. I thought of many of my friends that can sing well and how nice it would be if they were there to liven it up. It was quite hot and while I waited on the hot slab marinating till my turn, listening to the staccato slaps of Elizabeth's massage ringing through the high stone cupola like gun shots. I was forced to get up and cool off in a stream of cold water a few times. Our "telallin" or washer took every last bit of skin off, first using a rough black mitt and lots of pressure, then a scratchy pad with soap on it, my skin literally squeaked. We had been peeled and came out all bright and shiny. It was exhausting but we both felt gratifyingly clean.

Inspite of this we still managed to do a fair bit of exploring,  discovering the small town and making friends with many of the resident cats and their 'owners'. Some ownerless cats followed us on a long walk, just wanting cuddles and probably out of boredom. We went to visit a huge old house that has been turned into a museum complete with mannequins in exhibits, beautiful old kilim rugs and original features like bathtubs in cupboards and revolving cupboards for women to be able to serve food and not be seen by strange men. it was a fascinating look at Ottoman architecture and lifestyle back before the fall of that empire.

We named these two Stripey and Fluffy


About 300 kilometers east of Istanbul is the small UNESCO World Heritage listed town of Safranbolu, so named because it is one of the few places in the world that produces saffron.  The town was built mainly during the height of the Ottoman empire and reflects the classic Ottoman architecture of half-timbered stucco houses.  Set in a narrow valley, the old town is a microcosm - a step back in time, with mainly tourist shops aimed at the mainly Turkish tourists. Think rough cobblestone streets, vine covered alleyways, tea shops and bakeries....and lokum shops (Turkish delight).
This from Helena on our 7 hour bus ride (!!!) getting here:

Turkish buses don't have onboard toilets. This is good and bad. If you are used to keeping yourself hydrated during the day you need to prepare when faced with a 7 hour+ journey that has unclear stopping times/frequency. As it turned out we were able to pop out several times during the journey "just in case" as the potential discomfort was daunting. It really dawned on us how big the city is seeing as it took us 2 hours to reach the city limit. A bit less than half-way we stopped at a rest station just as you know them in the west. I was astonished to note many differences along the road and this modern rest-stop was so different from the rustic stations of 15 years ago when I was last on a Turkish bus. Here you have the same kinds of tacky souvenirs and overpriced food as the west, but all Turkish. We stocked up on nuts and dates and water. There was some pretty interesting landscape and mountain ranges visible during our journey. Toward the end of our journey we came over a huge high plateau where the air was fresh, cold in the dusk, and dry before heading down toward the coast and our little valley of Safranbolu. We put up in a 300 year old Ottoman house (as they all are here) and our room was typical with a carved wood ceiling and a closet toilet/shower combo which as bright and clean but I can't say that Elizabeth was particularly enamored of our "squatty" toilet. We decided to deal with it and that was fine for a couple nights. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Leaving Istanbul

Tonight is our last in Istanbul. Tomorrow we move on to Safranbolu, to the east.  We are just taking care of a few things, packing up (we had sprawled out in our large flat), and preparing ourselves for the 7 hour bus trip on the morrow.

Yesterday I tried unsuccessfully to visit the Aya Sophia, the famous Byzantine church from the mid 6th century. Four cruise ships are in town, and there was a long line all day, which I just couldn't face in the sun and heat of the day. So I took a stroll through the park below Topkapi Palace, a lovely and rare spot of green in this city.  It's there that I spotted the statue of Ataturk (see photo).

Ataturk (Mustafa Kemal) is a national hero - THE founding father of modern Turkey.  Not only did he lead the Turkish forces at Gallipoli during World War I, he organized the last vestiges of the Ottoman empire into a unified Turkey, and fought back invading Greeks who had made a major push east after the end of the war (parts of western Turkey historically were part of ancient Greece).   As the leader of the new state, he set about modernizing Turkey and making it closer to Europe than the Middle East.  Throughout the 1920's and 1930's Turkey adopted the Gregorian calendar (bringing it in line with the West), reformed its alphabet (adopting the Roman script), standardized the Turkish language,  outlawed the fez, instituted universal suffrage, and required that Turks adopt surnames, something they had previously gone without. Reading up on Turkey's history, one can understand why there are photos of him everywhere!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Catstanbul... formerly Catstantinople... A guest blog from Helena TCOCL* in the making.

Ada cafe cat - a rascally thing that loves cuddles
During my last trip to Turkey back one freezing week in November 2008, I discovered two things of note: 1) this fabulous neighborhood of Cihangir in a corner of Beyoglu perched above the Bosphorus and 2) the myriad cats that lounge, decorate, entertain and pervade this corner of the magic ancient city. The chic low-key but super hip neighborhood coupled with the cats and the piles of cat biscuits that cat-loving istanbullus serve up in doorways, street corners and convenient nooks for their feline friends made a huge impression on me then. Now I am back enjoying it in the glory of late summer breezes, amazing food, the civilized blend of a east-west amenities and general yummy exoticness.
{Some may know that the past 6 months has seen me riding out the interminable, unbearable noise, heat, smells and chaos of Delhi - so Cihangir and its cats provide healing balm to my battered senses.}

If you are a cat hater then read no further.
Greeter of tourists
Chora church museum resident will jump on you given half the opportunity - cuddly!

Not only are there many cats but it turns out that they all want to know me, I am assailed by purred greetings, miaos, raised tails in salute when they see me coming REGARDLESS if I am holding anything edible. This is a source of extreme gratification to a TCOCL*.This especially after months of enduring streets full of battered wild dogs and cats that are unloved, run-over, kicked and generally badly treated in India. 
Cats enhance the tourist experience

I am daily surprised by seeing the most unlikely men stoop down to pat a cat, invite one onto his lap at a cafe or call out to one in the street. I'm not talking about sensitive intellectual types but all kinds from the crusty old fisherman to the mustachioed tough-guy.

Cat lodging on Buyuk Ada Island
Island cat
Island cat
Island cat

Chora Church resident
Young member of the Chora church cat community

Metro cat at Aksaray

Cats are everywhere - except the mosque. Cats in the museums, cafes, shops, restaurants, parks, hanging around the waterfront,  

and of course in the bazaar.
Luxurious lingerie store cat

Not only are cats everywhere but also the cat theme is prevalent in shops and art around the city.

Cat art

The Red Cat bookstore

While I am not quite sure that the cat theme is exactly top-of-mind in the Istanbullus psyche, it nevertheless warms my heart to experience a city and its people so obviously loving towards these animals.

* TCOCL: That Crazy Old Cat Lady
yes.. I know... why fight it?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Lazy Days

Today we had a day at the bazaar, wandering around, seeing what we might be interested in getting when we come back at the end of the month, and getting harassed (as everyone does) by shop owners trying to entice passers by to stop at their shop. Some will even yell "You dropped your money!" to get you to stop so they can get up in your face with a hard sell. Very cheeky.

And again, lots of walking, so not very lazy after all. The photo was taken on our crossing from the Galata Bridge, and shows one of the seven hills on which Istanbul is built.  Our place is at the top of that hill. Luckily there are trams that take us up as it gets quite steep in places. Not a walk for every day.

We have 2 more days in Istanbul, but are not too fussed that we didn't see everything.  Must save something for next time!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Tiny Tiles

On Sunday we awoke to another stunning day of Turkish sunshine. Warm and breezy, it was a perfect day for exploring one of the Western districts of the city which holds the Chora Church Museum.  We took a long, complicated, tram, metro and walking combo to get close and when I said to Helena, "Well, this is an adventure...", she said "Don't say that! You remember the last time you said that!" Oh yeah, after my adventure proclamation in Arugam Bay, Sri Lanka, a scorpion promptly bit her.

The Chora Church was built in the 11th century by King Theodosious II, but the remaining decoration dates from the 14th century.  It was originally a Christian church, but was later converted to a mosque under the Ottomans before being turned into a museum in the 20th century. The draw now is the stunning mosaics inside, which more than make up for the (now) humble exterior.

After the museum we stopped for lunch at a somewhat fancy Ottoman restaurant next door, which boasted recipes dating to the 16th century.  Vine leaves stuffed with rice, walnuts and currants, almond soup, and grilled cheese with oyster mushrooms were just some of the specialties we sampled.

We then made the courageous decision to walk back to our flat, when it had taken us nearly 2 hours using public transportation to get there. Walking was more direct and it only took us an hour or so, but it was rough going and by the end we were beat.  Helena took photos during our trek, so maybe she'll guest blog and share those.

We thought we'd perk up with a little Turkish Delight (called lokum in Turkish). We hit the sweet shop then hightailed it home for some tea and relaxation. For those of you who don't know, Turkish delight is a kind of gummy/jel/nougat confection that comes in various flavours, some with nuts.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Istiklal

Yesterday Helena and I took a break from sight seeing and just did some grocery shopping and explored the area around our flat. We are close to The Istiklal - the main pedestrian boulevard in Istanbul, considered by many to the be the "heart" of Istanbul. It is the in the Beyoglu district, across the Galata Bridge from the old town and main historic sights, so it's mostly Turks, not tourists.

But thankfully we are not too close, as it is very noisy.  Every Friday and Saturday evening half the city turns out to "promenade" and eat ice cream from the hundred ice cream shops that line the street.  The winding back alleys of The Istiklal contain countless little restaurants and bars, vegetable and antique shops, fish merchants, pastry shops, and "kuafors" - the Turkish interpretation of the French "coiffure" for  hair salon. We both got our hair cut in a busy little salon that served us glass after glass of strong Turkish tea.


I find myself at a loss for words in writing about Turkey. The last 3 posts have been a struggle and I still feel like I haven't conveyed what we are experiencing here in the near-east. Yesterday we went to Topkapi, palace of the Ottoman sultans for over 5 1/2 centuries, which is remarkably well-preserved. It contains many treasures of the empire, including an 86 carat diamond - 5th largest in the world. Constructed of marble and decorated with Iznik (blue patterned) tiles, the palace has retained its serenity through the centuries and makes a pleasant place to while away the hours. (see photos)
After the palace, we went to a 300 year old hamam - a Turkish bath - for my first Turkish bath experience. Constructed entirely of marble, the bath has separate entrances and facilities for men and women. Inside, we were issued a towel and a relaxation cubicle to prepare for or steam and rub-down. After stripping down, we made our way slowly (in wooden platform slippers to avoid the slippery floor) to a large, dome crowned marble steam room with faucets and marble sinks all around, and smaller steam rooms to the sides. On an octagonal platform in the middle, women were getting scrubbed and pummeled by black leotard-clad older Turkish women. Lots of water flowing across marble floors to carved troughs and drains, very steamy and no-nonsense. Apparently, there are other hamams in the city operating since the 15th century!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Princes' Islands

Another beautiful day in Istanbul. Today we hopped a ferry to the largest of 5 islands just outside Istanbul in the Sea of Marmara (which is to the west, while the Black Sea is to the east, up the Bosphorous Strait).
The islands were first used to house expelled princes from the Ottoman Empire, and later wealthy Istanbullus constructed summer houses there. The crumbling Victorian-meets-the-East mansions are in various states of repair, but all have the blue glass "eye" that is ubiquitous in Turkey posted above the doorway. This symbol is believed to ward off evil and it is somewhat of a national symbol - you see it everywhere from key chains to bracelets to walls of office buildings.
One nice thing about the islands is that cars are not allowed, so the streets are remarkably traffic free. There is a steady business for the bicycle rental and horse buggy places, and after see the hundred meter long line for the horse buggies, we opted for some rusty, creaking bikes to carry through the leafy hills and to a rocky beach where we would relax a little. Helena, so deprived of air in Delhi, overdid it and got a sunburn. The water was a bit chilly and the beach a bit rocky for me to be enticed in - I am waiting for our time on the Mediterranean next week.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Mosques and Markets

Today Helena and I set off to see a few sights, including the "Blue" Mosque - so named because it is beautifully decorated with blue-patterned tiles all over the interior. Eighty percent of the Turkish population is Muslim but is very low-key outside of the mosques which dot the city. We see a range of women's coverings from just head scarf (with western clothes) to the full burkha, but probably 50% of Turkish women just dress in regular European fashion. Helena and I tend to blend in with our dark hair and light eyes, and this is a relief after being standouts in Sri Lanka (and for Helena, her last 6 months in India).

In addition to the Blue Mosque, we took in the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art, and a small portion of the famous grand bazaar, walking for nearly 7 hours in total. It was a relief to be back at flat, where we could have a cup of tea. Having eaten a late lunch at a grill restaurant in the bazaar, Helena just whipped up a lovely salad of our finds from the vegetable market, topped with exquisite Turkish extra virgin olive oil.