Saturday, September 28, 2013


I try to stay positive in this blog, find the good parts of everywhere I visit and not dwell on the negative.  Every place has negative aspects (except Tavarua, I think). However, the experience with the dog at Lake Bafa got me focused on the problem of homeless animals in Turkey.  In the Cihangir district of Istanbul (where our hotel is) it seems to have gotten much worse in the 2 years since we rented flat here. There are 11.5 million people in Istanbul and an estimated 150,000 homeless dogs. Probably 10 times as many cats. Turks have a different attitude than that of Americans and Europeans about the animals, which is hard for us to understand and to see when we visit. It's become particularly hard for me, and I feel like I am retreating from a country I used to love to visit - I ranked it in my top 2 countries in the world. But now I don't know if I'll be coming back. I  just can't stand to see indifference to suffering (one reason I won't be going back to India), even if it is the cultural norm.

So farewell Turkey, and farewell Istanbul, with your opulent palaces and dazzling mosques. I hope someday that the European side catches you up.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Food Geeks

As some of you know, today is my birthday and I chose to spend it in Istanbul, like I did 2 years ago. A huge part of the draw here is the eating - just amazing Turkish food.  We signed up for a private food tour with Tuba Satana, a food writer, to get some inside information on Turkish food since we both love to cook it on our own, as well as as eat it in Turkey. 
 First we went to the sweets shop and Tuba explained the traditions surrounding sweets. We tasted some amazing lokum (Turkish Delight), made with fresh pistachios, rose petals and dried pomegranate seeds. We loaded up and then went to the fish market to see the local catch. The red gills are turned out to show how fresh they are (the gills should always be red. If they aren't, the fish is not fresh).

Next up was the offal butcher (think organs, tripe, sheep heads) and then the spice shop, where I loaded up on all kinds of special Turkish spices I use at home, extremely fresh and a fraction of the price they would be in California (if you could even find them).

Next was the pickle shop, where we sampled pickled plums, cranberries, beans and carrots, as well as the usual cucumber. Pickling has a long tradition in Turkey, and people drink the pickle juice as a refreshment on a hot summer day. Really!
Lamacun is a kind of flat bread with a very crispy crust, baked in a wood fired oven. Tuba took us to the best place for lamacun in town, where it has been made for generations for a pre-lunch snack. Delicious!

Finally it was to Ciya for a lunch of Anatolian specialties. There were so many dishes we had never tried before, we went crazy trying everything and were so stuffed, we could barely drink our zahtar (thyme) tea.
Tuba was great and taught us so much about food and culture here. It just made me appreciate it that much more!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Two Sides of Turkey

In one day we went from one extreme in Western Turkey to another. We left the simple dairy farms and fishermen and our simple pension in Lake Bafa and drove south 2 1/2 hours back to Marmaris so we could drop off the car. We hadn't planned well - at Efes we were half way to Istanbul and could have gone on if we hadn't had the car, but the roads are good and the driving easy. From Marmaris we took the bus 1 1/2 hours to the airport at Dalaman and caught our flight to Istanbul. From there we got our stuff on the Metro, then to the tram across Istanbul to the neighborhood of Cihangir. I've got about 25 pounds of carpets plus my regular bag and our hotel was straight up a very steep hill. I am not feeble normally but by that time, pulling 50+ pounds up a steep cobbled hill had me doubled over. 
We were rewarded with a lovely 4th floor suite in the stylish Witt Hotel, with a view back to the old town. The Suleymaniye Mosque (the largest in Istanbul) and the Galata Tower were lit up and provided a stunning night view. This is the modern, luxurious and stylish side of Turkey, a world away from Lake Bafa.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Efes (Ephesus)

This morning (Wednesday), we joined the hordes of tour groups descending on Ephesus (that's the Greek name; the Turks call it Efes, which is the name of the major beer here). The site is significant in that it had been used continuously from the 10th century B.C. (Yes, B.C.!), and today the town of Selcuk continues as part of the overall settlement. It is the largest set of Roman ruins (with some later Byzantine mixed in) in all of Europe, and it takes hours to see all of it with just a cursory review.
 Such an extensive set of ruins is a lot to take in, so I was ready for something different. Helena obliged me, and we set off the beaten track for a village on the eastern shore of Lake Bafa. There are cave paintings in the area from Neolithic times, as well as Roman and Byzantine ruins. We didn't have time to see much, so we opted for a walk along the lakeshore among farms and massive granite boulders. A local dog befriended us and accompanied us on our walk. He listened to us and answered commands (from Helena, on Turkish). We later learned that his owner died and he has no one. It broke my heart but what can I do here as a tourist for a period of 15 hours? We gave him food, but I really wish I could bring him home. 
Above photo: Helena pulls water from an ancient well, still being used. Dog friend waits for a drink.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013


We arrived mid-afternoon in Selcuk, a mid size provincial town in western Turkey, which is the base for exploring Ephesus. For the number of tourists the town sees, it is surprisingly normal, with reasonable prices by Turkish standards, and is quite laid back.  On the way to look for dondurma (Turkish ice cream which is kind of chewy), we were enticed into a carpet shop by the owner's unique Van cat (from the Lake Van area). If you have read my previous posts about traveling in Turkey with my sister, you know she is a cat lover to the extreme, so we had to go in.
We ended up spending most of the afternoon in the peaceful quiet of the carpet shop, chatting with the owner, drinking glasses of tea, and playing with the cat. I ended up with yet another carpet (the photos are from the ones I bought in Cappadocia) - green ones, which are hard to find here in Turkey, surprisingly.
Like other Middle Eastern countries, Turkey has a long carpet making tradition, with different regions making unique designs and patterns, so there are endless possibilities (but little green!).  No trip to Turkey is complete without a trip to the carpet seller... The trick is finding one with nice things and an honest owner (easier outside of Istanbul).

On the Road

Goodbye Sogut! Tuesday morning we caught the 8:30 dolmus to Marmaris (ugh) where we picked up a rent a car for a little road trip, something Helena and I have done on my 3 previous trips to Turkey. The car is cheap - only $30 per day including insurance, but gas is incredibly expensive. It was $100 to fill the tank of our little Fiat! The bus is cheap as an alternative, but you need a lot of time, which we don't have.
As with previous days, the morning was full of wind, putting a good chop on the sea. There was definitely a change of weather with the change of seasons and it was a good time to leave (although Helena will be going back when I go home). 
There is something to be said for village life - fresh baked bread from a brick oven in the court yard of a simple stone house, fresh pine honey from local bees, home made yogurt and fresh milk from the cows out back that graze on wild thyme, oregano and sage...maybe in another lifetime.
For now, it's on to Selcuk and Ephesus, the most significant set of ruins in Turkey, and the largest Roamn ruins in all of Europe.

Wind, Wind and Wind

For several days, the wind blew onshore in our little hamlet, cooling things off significantly, but making a mess of the sea. We ended up walking again - frying ourselves in the midday heat since the ocean was too messy to swim.  At the end of one walk we happened upon a fisherman coming in with a modest catch, and bought one of his fish ($5). Talk about fresh! We took it immediately to Mehmet's, a quayside restaurant and had it cooked for us.  A lovely fish lunch with salad, stuffed squash blossoms and housemade bread for nothing at all.
That was my last day in Sogut. Not as water time as I had hoped due to the unrelenting wind, but a lovely warm time nonetheless.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Back in Time

Today was typical, a swim, a walk... somewhere out of time, the other side of the world. On our walk Helena casually pointed out the cows responsible for the yogurt we have been eating for the last 2 days; a local lady makes it from her own cows' milk and sells it at the market. Talk about farm to table! Turkey has always been farm to table, locavore eating. Fig trees overgrow in every nook and cranny, grape arbors shade every terrace and grow like weeds onto power lines, and wild herbs like thyme, oregano and bay leaf fill the roadside with their scents. Gardens everywhere overflowing with eggplant and peppers this time of year.

We have been eating in, as Helena is an excellent cook, and excels at Turkish cuisine. But at the end of our long walk we were famished and I have bee itching for seafood so we tried the only open place in town for some fresh calamari stuffed with seafood and cheese, and some local marinated hamsi (anchovies). They were something of a cross between the pickled herring of Scandinavia and the raw mackerel we get at sushi. Very good and healthy but something I will not need to eat every day!

Accompanying us on our walk was Moka, a rescued hunting dog who had been abandoned by her owners, and who now lives next door. She has heaps of energy, even in the heat, and even considering that she was up all night carousing on the beach in the full moon light with some local dog friends. She loves to watch the fish in the sea, and the aquarium-like view next to our table kept her busy at lunch.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Akdeniz At Last

Akdeniz is the name in Turkish for the Mediterranean Sea. I can't believe it's been so long since I was here as I feel such a draw to it and the traditional way of life of the people living on its shore. I felt it in Spain too, but not as much of the "ancient-ness" that I feel in Turkey.
The trip from Cappadocia - which is very much in the center of Turkey - to the small town of Sogut on the southwest coast where my sister is living for 2 months took nearly a whole day. An hour to the airport in the morning, a flight to Istanbul changing to a flight to Dalaman, a bus to Marmaris, and an hour and a half of winding road on a dolmus (minibus) to this small seaside town. Helena met me in Marmaris, where there are supermarkets, which was lucky because finding the dolmus and her flat would have been nigh impossible in my still jet lagged exhaustion.
Marmaris is a package tourist town where Europeans come to lay on the beach during the day and party at night, and it lacks the soul of real Turkey. We couldn't get out of there fast enough! There are pensions in Sogut and some tourists, but no bars or discos. It's blessedly quiet. I'm here for a week and we may or may not go anywhere else. Swimming in the sea and reading quietly seem like enough.

Balloons Over Cappadocia

On Tuesday morning I did the popular thing in Cappadocia: a hot air balloon ride at dawn. It's an amazing way to see the geologic formations as we went at eye level to ancient caves through poplar strewn valleys, and then soared high above the plain where we could see the larger effects of the erosion since the ancient volcanic eruptions.  I wasn't as freaked out as I thought I would be (being generally afraid of heights) - so long as I did not look straight down.  Our pilot was an Englishman who has set the standard for ballooning in the area - perhaps that's why I felt okay dangling beneath a balloon 3,000 + feet in the air.
After that it was a visit to the Open Air Museum, a cordoned off series of caves that had been used as Christian churches during the times Christians were facing persecution. Amazingly, 1,000 year old frescoes depicting Jesus' life have remained vividly red, blue and ochre in a number of the caves. Also a very popular thing to do in Cappadocia, I dodged tour groups and crowds and felt lucky when light rain drove people away. I didn't mind being a bit wet if it meant not being crammed in a cave with a bunch of strangers.  After that I took in the local hamam before doing a bit of shopping for local lokum (Turkish Delight) made with honey and/or grape molasses (a natural sweetener special to this area) and no sugar. I also bought a kilo of roasted pumpkin seeds, freshly harvested from local fields this time of year. Apparently they are very high in zinc, but are also a very tasty snack. 
 I took myself to dinner again at Seten Restaurant - the best in town I reckon, where a full meal 3 course meal runs less than $20 (high for Turkey but worth it!) 
 2 days in Cappadocia was enough for me, and I was on to the coast to meet my sister.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Almost Ruined

My initial side trip has taken me to Cappadocia, a large archeological area in Central Turkey known for its cave dwellings and underground cities. The various rock formations were created by ancient eruptions of 3 massive volcanoes covering areas of snow and water. 

The Hittites first came here 4,000 years ago and carved out underground cities from the porous ash-rock. The claustrophobia-inducing caverns and passageways were used only to hide from Arab invaders, and were later used by Christians hiding from Roman persecution.  

The area has been occupied continuously since 2,000 B.C. with the last people leaving the above-ground cave houses in the 1950's. Some of the old cave houses have now been turned into luxe hotels, and I booked myself into a cave room for a night. It's, well a cave, and it's a bit chilly even on warm summer days. Cappadocia is more than 3,000 feet above sea level, so it's decidedly cooler here than Istanbul. Somewhat unexpected!

I'm jet lagged despite my best efforts, and looking forward to a cozy cave sleep tonight under a pile of blankets.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Hello Beautiful!

Is there a city more picturesque than Istanbul? My flight arrived at 5 p.m. and I just had time to get to my hotel and to the rooftop terrace (a common feature here) in time for the standard amazing sunset. The last time I was here was December 2011 and it was too cold for rooftop terraces. September is the best month to visit. As my sister texted me when she came through 2 weeks ago, the weather is Perfect with a capital P.
The only downside is the heaps of tourists, but it's my fault that I chose to stay in Sultanhamet, which is tourist central. I'm here only tonight and I leave at 7 a.m. for Cappadocia, so I thought I would grin and bear it to be close to good food and good hamams (Turkish baths).
We will be back at the end of the month for a few days and I can already see that it won't be enough time. Must come back again. Darn.