You Can Go Back to Constantinople

It was time to head back to Istanbul, where I have spent the past four days seeing sights at a somewhat more leisurely pace.

On Sunday I went to Dolmabahce Palace (built by sultans to show Europe that its sick man, the Ottoman Empire, was doing fine but in reality costing the empire more than it could afford). It’s a baroque, rather overdone building, with rooms that could be lovely if they had just stopped decorating several elements earlier! (Keep the gorgeous Baccarat crystal chandeliers, carpets, mirrors and upholstered chairs, but don’t add trompe l’oeil ceilings and walls on top of that! Shame on you, French decorator to the sultans! The Baroque period just called from two hundred years earlier and it wants its excess back!) There is, however, a fantastic view of the Bosphorus from the palace.

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On Monday, many museums are closed, so I figured it was a perfect day to go on a Bosphorus cruise. I chose to go on the one run by the normal ferry service, as it’s much cheaper than the touristy ones (ok, yes this is also for tourists) and I had a pretty detailed guidebook that listed what I would see: old palaces, the European or Asian shore, jellyfish in the water at our lunch stop (of three hours), the Black Sea. I have to say I enjoyed the ride back more than the ride out to the mouth of the Black Sea, in large part because on the way out I was sitting next to a couple of grumpy tourists and on the way back I was chatting with a nice French couple. On the way back, I even saw a dolphin!

We set out in a drizzle:

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Dolmabahce from the water:

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Other sites (palaces, the famous suspension bridge, pylons bringing electricity from the Asian to European side):

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Ukrainian cargo ship coming from the Black Sea:

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Picturesque towns:

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The Black Sea:

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The castle I hiked up to before lunch as I tried to spend three hours in the little town at the mouth of the Black Sea (and views from there):

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I chose a restaurant with a couple of Turkish women sitting in it thinking it was a safe bet, and ordered the local fried mussels and an eggplant mezze. When it came time to pay, I noticed that they added 4 lira as “tax”. I was powerless to protest what I knew was cheating, pure and simple (Turkey uses VAT and it should be included in the price), as I don’t speak Turkish and they had rounded up to a total bill of 20 lira – and all I had was a twenty lira bill. It’s the first time in three weeks in Turkey that this has happened to me and it made me furious. I wish I had their card so I could let everyone know where not to go. Oh well, at least it wasn’t a large sum of money, and I soon after got back on the ferry and started chatting with the nice French couple.

A few more pictures from the return trip:

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On Tuesday I decided to go to Chora Church in the morning. This church has magnificent mosaics that are apparently often compared with Ravenna’s. Many guidebooks suggest taking a taxi, but simply taking the tram the very easy if you don’t mind learning the Turkish name for the museum and asking for directions for a few blocks. The tram goes by the old Byzantine city walls.

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There was a great tile store across from the church, so I did a little shopping, dropped my bags off at the hotel, and went to the Taksim Square/Istiklal Street area to shop for a few more things to bring home with me. Heading home at the end of a full day, I took the Tunel funicular, apparently the second oldest subway (in Europe?The world? I’m not sure!).

PS Thanks to RLB for the blog title!

Ankara and Ataturk

Ankara is a very interesting city for a tourist because it isn’t very touristy. I felt like I was seeing an actual Turkish big city, though I’m aware that most of Istanbul is less touristy than the area I have been staying in. (Interesting side note, I felt like I saw fewer women wearing headscarves in Ankara than in Istanbul.)

In the morning, I went to the museum at Ataturk’s Mausoleum. There were so many Turkish tour buses and school groups! It’s necessary to understand what Ataturk is to Turks in order to understand Turkey today, I think. He pretty much single-handedly revolutionized the country, being the prime figure in (literally) fighting for and creating the Republic of Turkey, switching to a Western alphabet, ensuring women’s rights, separating religion and the state (and its application to the legal system by removing religious law), even setting up last names since they didn’t really previously exist in Turkey. As my liberal hotel manager here states quite simply, he loves Ataturk. And really, love him or hate him (as many of the country’s very religious conservatives may), he elicits really strong feelings. I can understand that, although such a strong feeling about one man seems very much like a personality cult to my foreign eyes. It’s like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, FDR, and JFK wrapped up in one person. I’m not sure other countries really have a single person like that.

The mausoleum is huge, with a museum about Turkey’s war for independence, and is situated on top of a hill in a park. I spent much of the morning there, learning some history and even more learning about Turks’ perceptions of their own history.

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After the Ataturk museum, I went to what for me was the prime attraction in Ankara, the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations. Sadly about half of it was closed, rendering the audio guide that I rented rather superfluous, but I did enjoy seeing the Hittite friezes and the beautiful delicate sculptures of a much later Anatolian civilization that I’m not sure I’d ever heard of before (something like Ururtians). Interestingly, the museum had just acquired some Trojan jewelry from the University of Pennsylvania.

Heading to the Capital!

I had planned to explore some of the cave churches outside of the Open Air Museum on my last morning in Goreme, but I was feeling rather under the weather and was leaning towards not walking there in the heat. As I was chatting with the hotel owner, I mentioned this, and he offered to drive me to the church. He kindly chauffeured me around to the church and back to the bus station where I bought my ticket!

The church was another lovely example of cave churches, and had some frescoes left:

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I then bought my ticket to Ankara, trying my fourth Turkish bus company, Suha. (They were quite good.) I needed to kill some time, so I walked around the town, finally sitting in the shade on a bench by the mosque. An older man came by and said “welcome to Goreme”. We got to chatting a little bit, and he told me he had lived in Belgium for a time. So we spoke in a mix of English and French, and then he invited me to take some tea in his shop across the way. I told him that unfortunately I was meeting someone, which I felt bad about because he seemed quite nice and harmless, but I’m still a little wary of nice Turkish men as I never know what unfortunate stereotypes they may have heard about American women and I didn’t want another awkward situation like that in Pamukkale. However, his genuine niceness made a lovely bright spot in my day. I also had a bit of a laugh as a minute or two after a horse and carriage went by, this young ‘un did too:

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I had lunch in the same restaurant my Brazilian friend and I had eaten at the previous night. This time I knew what to order – gozelme, a delicious thin stuffed bread. The restaurant owner gave everyone a little clay pot with attached evil eye bead, and several of us (all tourists of course) started chatting. It was a lovely lunch, which also killed most of the remaining time before my bus. I returned to the hotel to pick up my bags, they gave me a lift to the bus station, and I was on my way to the capital!

I found my hotel with no trouble as it was right across the street from a metro stop. I was grateful for the ease of finding the place, and decided to have a quiet evening writing a blog entry and eating soup in the hotel.

The hotel restaurant was deserted – they actually had to turn on the lights for me! They have an old record player so I got to hear Frank Sinatra, though at the end they turned on a pop music station. (No offense to anyone intended, but the Turkish music videos I saw were hilariously awful!) I tried to get the check but the first two times I asked, they thought I had asked for tea (chai not check!). Eventually I did get my check however, and made my exit to my room.

From Hot Air Balloon to Seven Stories Underground: Day Three in Goreme

I awoke at 4am to have enough time to hop in the shower before our 4:30 pick-up. Shivering, my new friend and I headed to the van. (Cappadocia is like the desert in that it cools off considerably at night.) We were handed little safety cards showing how to get into landing position (think holding a squat for several minutes – I think my thighs still hurt!) and the name of our balloon pilots. It turned out my friend had a different pilot, but we were able to switch with another person flying solo so it all ended happily.

The van took us to Cappadocia Balloons’s offices, where we sat with over a hundred other people drinking tea, eating the best simit I’ve ever had, and waiting. Then it was back in the van with the other dozen or so people who were to be in our balloon. We drove out a considerable way past the other companies, whose multi-colored balloons we could see being gradually inflated and taking off, till we got to ours.

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I was so busy looking around me that I didn’t even realize we had taken off till my friend said something and we were already several yards off the ground! And I have to say that I really was ok during the flight. I never went to the edge of the basket or completely relaxed, but I really enjoyed it and I had a great view even if I did stay in the center. In fact, the smoothness of the ride, the quiet, and the sense of being outside your normal environment reminded me a little of scuba diving.

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We had a beautiful smooth landing in a field. While we waited for the truck to come get us, we took some last pictures.

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And then it turned out the truck couldn’t get us where we were, so we had a bonus minute or two ride to a more accessible place (with another smooth landing).

They kept the balloon inflated and all of us passengers in it to float it up and over a trailer. Once the balloon was tied down, they let loose the rip cord and slowly, slowly the balloon deflated.

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We ended with a Turkish cocktail: Turkish bubbly and sour cherry juice. We had had a camera attached to the balloon basket at a slight angle above us taking pictures every twenty or thirty seconds, so I bought a DVD of the photos.

Then back to the hotel in time for a sustaining breakfast including protein and, even more importantly, coffee! At 9:30 I got picked up for my green tour, which promised to be much more challenging physically than the previous day’s red tour.

We started out gently. Can you guess? It was a stop at a panoramic view!

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Then we had a 30-40 minute ride to the deepest underground city (yet discovered) in Cappadocia, Derinkuyu. We were able to go seven stories – 55 meters I believe – underground, though it extends much further. Both because of lack of stability of parts of the structure, and the possibility of getting lost down there, the Turkish government has purposely blocked access to 90% of the city, even going so far as to build walls to block off parts.

I understood why the city was not recommended for claustrophobics, but it took a couple of minutes to understand the warning for those with high blood pressure, asthma and heart conditions. You walk literally bent in half up and down several stories worth of stairs. I’m of average height and narrower than average shoulders and I had a hard time squeezing through. In fact, though I’m not at all claustrophobic (my fear of heights is quite enough, thank you very much), I had a really hard time down one passage where the middle had no light and I was bent over double.

However, with all that said, I strongly recommend visiting the city if you don’t have one of the above listed conditions (or really bad knees) because it is really unusual and fascinating. I’ve never seen anything like it. These cities were built for hiding from raiding, warring enemies and the uppermost levels date back thousands of years.

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My legs even more sore, I was ready for our 3-4km hike in Ihlara Valley! Actually, it was a super-easy hike through a lovely valley spotted with cave houses and churches, alongside a river (more like a big stream). I had been worried about the descent because of my fear of heights, but the government had recently put in a set of steps (over 300 of them!) so it was quite easy.

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We had the best tour lunch I have had this far, and not just because all that activity was making me hungry. It wasn’t a buffet, which may have helped.

After lunch, we had a long drive to Selime Monastery (a cave monastery high on a hill) and the “Star Wars set” landscape. While Star Wars had scenes shot in Tunisia, not Turkey, it seems that Lucas did pay a visit to this area:

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The path up to Selime isn’t really a path, more a scramble up an extremely steep, sand/scree covered cliff. I made it up to the kitchen level but then my fear of heights kicked in and I was terrified of how to get back down. My lovely tour guide helped me down before the others, and it wasn’t too bad, but I was so upset and embarrassed! In retrospect, having had so little sleep and a physically exhausting morning surely didn’t help moderate my reaction. But at least I did get a better view of the monastery even if I didn’t make it up to those higher levels.

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Our final stop was a panoramic view of Pigeon Valley, so called because it’s full of those honeycomb-looking pigeon niches and, therefore, pigeons. (Apparently their um, excrement makes good fertilizer and the egg whites were useful for frescoes).

The Red Tour: Not a Comment on Politics

At breakfast I met a group of three older Australian couples who had come back from a balloon flight that morning. We chatted for a bit and I found out that they had all really enjoyed going up in a balloon, even the person who was scared of heights. I was definitely leaning towards going once I heard this…

Soon after I was picked up from my hotel for the “Red Tour”. Interestingly, pretty much all the different tour agencies use the same overall itineraries (red and green). My fellows on the tour today were a group of Muslim South Africans who had a cute four year old, an Indian family with a three year old who all lived in Switzerland, a young Indian couple currently living in France, and a young Turkish woman.

Our first stop was a panoramic view – there were a lot of these over my two full days in Cappadocia!

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We then went to the Goreme Open Air Museum, full of cave churches. Some of the churches still had frescoes, though many had been defaced after the area became Muslim since they believe it to be sacrilege to depict humans in places of worship. A few churches still had the frescoes somewhat intact, however, and they range from more primitive looking red painted outlines (which I saw on the outside of some buildings as well) to much more sophisticated Byzantine paintings. The best example was in what is called the Dark Church, so called because, surprise surprise, there is very little natural light. The restored frescoes cover the walls and ceilings, and when you realize that the vaults are carved into the stone, it’s even more impressive.

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What created such a landscape? The area is flanked by two volcanoes (we could see their snow capped peaks as we drove around), and an ancient eruption of ash led to a lot of soft rock called tufa, streaked with basalt (I would guess from the actual eruption). Wind and rain have eroded the rock and the fact that there is so much tufa intermingled with a much harder rock did the rest.

After the museum, we checked out a mosque that was carved into the hillside, part of a dead little town. The stone houses are unstable so the governed forced people to move out of them in the sixties. I have to wonder whether part of it was also the government wanting to continue the westernization of Turkey – I’ve been reading the Turkish Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk’s memoirs and it seems like that period was definitely one of continuing westernization.

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We could also see pigeon houses – little cubbies carved into the rock, some as early as Roman times, meant to be a place for pigeons to nest.

We headed to Avanos to see a pottery demonstration (and the perennial sales room – I mean showroom). The Red River flows through the town and there is a tradition of pottery there that uses the red clay. The Hittites thousands of years ago used red clay in Anatolia for their pottery.

We had a buffet lunch at another place catering to tours – why in a country with such good, relatively simple food does the food on these tours have to be so bad? It wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t great either.

Time for more rock formations! We went to Pasabagi where a saint (St. Simon maybe) holed up in a fairy chimney cave as his hermitage. (OK, if you’re done snickering at that sentence we can continue). I hung out a bit with the Turkish woman despite the lack of a common language. She kindly bought me water. Again, I’ve had such lovely hospitality from most Turks I’ve met!

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Next came the obligatory carpet school/shop stop. Interestingly, the prices were a lot higher than at the one in Selcuk. Like in Selcuk, we got to see how they remove silk from the cocoons and how they hand knot a carpet.

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More rock formations! We went to Devrent Valley aka Imagination Valley where you can see shapes in the rocks. Can you spot the camel, the penguin, and the open hand?

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Finally near Urgup we came to a set of three tufa rocks capped in basalt, with a couple of boulders nearby. Legend had it that the three rocks are a man, his fairy princess wife, and their son, turned into stones by the angry fairy king. However the gods were so angry at the fairy king and his wife that they turned them into the big boulders. It’s a sad and vengeful story all around, but at least the hordes of tourists keep them all ample company.

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And when I headed home, I booked a hot air balloon ride! I was excited and nervous. Luckily for me, I got to chatting with another solo woman traveller staying at the hotel, a Brazilian freelance journalist. She booked a balloon ride with the same company so now I had someone to hold my hand if I got too scared!

Fairy Chimneys: Arrival in Goreme

My first evening in Goreme, I felt like I was on a movie set. The landscape just didn’t seem like it could be real!

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There was an information office in the little square that passes for the bus station in this tiny town, so I was able to have them call the hotel to come pick me up. I had found an incredible deal on booking.com for a cave room at a highly-rated cave hotel/pension, and it turned out to be the nicest place I’ve stayed in apart from my lovely guesthouse in Istanbul.

My cave hotel room and view:

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As I’m getting a little tired from constantly being on the move, and because I figured it would be a good way to meet people, I booked two day tours: the easy “Red Tour” itinerary for my first day and more challenging “Green Tour” itinerary for the second. The owner asked whether I wanted to book a hot air balloon ride and I replied that I needed to think about it. I really wanted to go on one, but I’m also terrified of heights. Decisions decisions.

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The Home of Whirling Dervishes: Konya and Rumi’s Museum

Konya, the city where Rumi is buried, is partway between Pamukkale and Cappadocia, so I decided to break my bus trip there. I wanted to go to the Mevlana Museum and learn more about Rumi.

While I don’t think I learned more about Rumi, I did learn more about dervish life at the museum, which had exhibits about dervish life in their former cells of the complex.

There were so many tour groups there! There were several religious groups there too, not surprisingly. Konya itself is a very religious city. I almost wanted to wear a hijab to cover my hair so I wouldn’t feel so out of place (and trust me, by secular standards I was very modestly dressed already).

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Dervish cells from the other side of the wall:

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After the museum, it was time to grab my bags and head to the bus station to buy a ticket to Cappadocia. I have to say, there have been a lot of things I’ve really enjoyed about traveling by bus. Going overland lets you see the changing landscape, plus buses are the way that Turks travel. On my way to Konya, I tried to ask a young woman when we stopped at a rest stop how long we would be there. She evidently felt bad about not being able to communicate with me, so at the next rest stop she stopped by my seat to make sure I got off to stretch my legs, paid for my tea and the nibbles we shared, and then gave me a book in Turkish! (It looks like a romance novel but when I opened it, it seemed to be short stories of a different genre, though I don’t know which.)

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When I bought my ticket to Goreme (in Cappadocia), the guy at the ticket booth acted like a babushka and asked where my boyfriend was when I purchased just one ticket. He then asked if I had kids and how old I was. I of course replied that a woman in my country doesn’t tell her age after twenty-one!