(Turkey – 12 March 2014) We loved Turkey! As a travel destination, Turkey definitely has something for everyone- rich history, beautiful art, delicious food, eye-popping scenery, and cats. Yes, cats- the whole country is over-run with good-looking and (generally) friendly “house” cats. If all that was not enough to sell you on Turkey, here’s one more, Turkey is totally easy on the wallet.
It’s tempting to say, I’m surprised more people don’t go to Turkey. But the truth is that tons of people are going. Perhaps the number of tourists from the US is not high, but I can assure you that everyone else in the world is going. Hear me now and believe me later, book a trip to Turkey as soon as you can swing it. If Turkey joins the European Union, it could get a lot more expensive. Go NOW!
We had 18 days set aside for Turkey and few ideas about where to spend them. In the end, here is how it broke down: Eight days in Istanbul were followed by another five along the country’s southern coast at a beach town called Olüdeniz. Three more were spent in the interior town of Pamukkale, and another three in Kusadasi on the western coast. Our last night in Turkey was back down to the south in another coastal town called Marmaris.
Istanbul (Not Constantinople)
Our introduction to Turkey started in the largest city in all of Europe – Istanbul -so expansive that it straddles the Bosporus Strait and occupies portions of both Europe and Asia simultaneously. Conveying to you the true appeal of Istanbul will be a challenge. There are many interesting and impressive historical sites to visit while in Istanbul, but that’s only a small part of the attraction. It’s the vibe, man. There is an energy and excitement to Istanbul. Perhaps the large quantity of vacationing tourists everywhere brings up the happiness level, but I also got a sense that the residents of Istanbul know they live in a special time and place. Americans typically grow up believing that the US is at the center of the World. After spending just a little time in Istanbul, Turkey, I’m feeling grossly mislead.
Istanbul is not always an attractive city- pollution is a problem and many of the buildings look old and rundown. Yet, in some strange way, pollution in the air becomes the expected exhalation of a thriving, life-filled city, and old and rundown turns into quaint and charming.
So big and varied is Istanbul that we did not limit ourselves to staying put in just one location. Instead, we moved three times and therefore experienced three distinct areas of the city. Our first three days were spent in Old Town. Our hotel was tucked literally in the shadow of the great Blue Mosque, a stunningly beautiful structure that probably draws more artists and photographers to it than worshippers. A mesmerizing sight, especially at night.
Next to the Blue Mosque is the historically rich Hagia Sophia.
Now a museum, the Hagia Sophia is about 15 centuries old and thus has many interesting stories to tell. The immense building began its life as the largest Christian Church/Cathedral in the world, back when Istanbul was called Constantinople. (You know the song, right?) In later centuries the Ottomans took over and the building was converted into a mosque (after a little creative remodeling). In yet another era, it functioned as a Sultan’s palace.
Speaking of mosques, Istanbul has no shortage of them. From any angle, the city’s skyline is punctuated with the distinctive dome roofs common to mosques, and always they are surrounded by those missile-shaped minarets. Prior to the advent of the loudspeaker, minarets served as the calling platform when it was time for prayer. Today, the minarets only practical function is to be massive support posts for blaring gray loudspeakers. Imans sing their call to prayer 5 times daily for all to hear.
In the video below, I look terrible munching on a cob of corn, but the reason I took the video was purely for the sound. I was sitting on a park bench in between two different mosques, each doing their own call to prayer. The result is plain crazy.
Pics from inside an ancient underground cistern (water storage tank)- the real-life place Dan Brown wrote about in one of the scenes from his most recent book, Inferno. The spooky upside down Medusa head provides support for one of the columns. Freaky!
Taksim Square and the Men in Black
After leaving Old Town we relocated to a lively area of Istanbul near Taksim Square. I am sure all of you have been following the International news so you know that Turkey has seen quite a number of political protests of late. The citizenry is none too happy with the current leadership and Taksim Square has become the primary public forum for voicing their concerns. We saw no large scale protests while we were in Istanbul, though we did witness several small marches.
There is a pedestrian-only street (trolley notwithstanding) called Istiklal that leads from Taksim Square down to the water’s edge. Istiklal was a busy street by day and even more so by night. Both name-brand and mom ‘n pop shops bracket the street while tourists, food vendors, and musicians occupy its paved middle. Interesting side-streets branched from Istiklal in either direction. Restaurants, bars and clubs were sprinkled throughout the area, too. I believe that happy, energetic Istanbul vibe emanates first from Istiklal. It’s a street with a heartbeat.
People-watching was a full-time sport on Istiklal. Among our observations, Turks love to wear black. It was chilly on the days we were there so most people wore coats, 99% of which were black. Underneath the coats you might find a black shirt, too. Or, maybe gray if you were lucky.
One joyful trait about the Turkish people is how enthusiastically friendly they are towards one another. Greetings between friends were always hearty, and good-byes were sealed with a double cheek-to-cheek tap, first to the left, then the right. It was very common to see two women walking down the sidewalks arm-in-arm, often you could tell they were family, but equally as often, not. We observed this simple gesture of warmth and closeness among men, too. Men of all ages (even teenagers), friends, buddies, walking down the sidewalk, one with his arm around the other or hooked into the other’s bent arm, not a big deal.
I always thought the Hispanic culture demonstrated an enviable amount of friendliness and warmth…who knew the Turks would demonstrate so much of these qualities, too? News to us and so very nice to see.
A trolley ride down Istiklal Street.
End of a Back-Breaking Era
Jessica had been giving thought lately to ditching her backpack and switching to a roller bag. For her size and strength, carrying nearly 30 lbs of weight was never easy. Over short distances, it was manageable, though still somewhat a struggle. The camel’s back finally broke when we had trouble finding our Taksim Square hostel located down one of Istiklal’s side-streets. Even if we’d gone the most direct route, it was still a 20 minute walk. Getting it a little wrong like we did nearly doubled that amount of time.
As mentioned, Istiklal Street is full of shops…including plenty of shops that sell roller bags. She ended up with a cute little hard-sided blue beauty. It wasn’t expensive so let’s hope it lasts at least the five months left on our trip.
Already I have mentioned that Istanbul straddles both the eastern part of Europe and the western part of Asia (on a land mass sometimes referred to as, Asia Minor). Our stays in Old Town and near Taksim Square were both on the Europe side. Not wanting to leave Istanbul and miss experiencing life on the Asian side, we booked our last two Istanbul nights in Kadiköy. Meh! Once we got over there it quickly became clear that there were few notable differences from one side to the other. Istanbul is impossibly huge, yet remarkably united.
We saw even more of Istanbul by taking a boat tour up and down the Bosporus Strait. Narration of the tour came via a rented audio guide that used GPS coordinates to prompt the next description. We needed only to sit back, listen, and enjoy the sights. Taking that tour introduced us to additional points of interest and intriguing stories from Istanbul’s rich history. Did you know the military hospital where nurse Florence Nightingale earned her fame is located in Istanbul?
One last fun tid-bit. Soon after arriving at the Istanbul airport we made our way down to the Metro. Buying the right Metro ticket is always a challenge, so we gladly accepted help from a couple of nice American students that were standing nearby. I think one of the pair saw Jessica’s UT jacket and initiated a conversation. Meg and Chloe were super helpful and even traveled with us for much of our journey towards the hotel. We told them our story and they shared theirs with us. All good.
One week later is when we were making our transfer over to our hotel on the Asia side. While walking down the sidewalk we heard someone dash up to us and say, “Hey guys!” It’s so weird to be in such a far-away place and have people know you. It was Meg, our old friend from day 1. Her and Chloe were eating at street-side restaurant when we passed by. Meg gave chase and Chloe caught up moments later. The truth was that we barely knew them, but it still felt like seeing old friends again.
Onward to Olüdeniz
Our travel schedule had been whirring in high gear ever since we entered China about a month prior. Slowing down the pace was something we were both craving. With that in mind, we reserved 5 straight nights at a little beach-side village called Olüdeniz, located along where Turkey’s southern edge meets the true-blue waters of the Aegean Sea. Getting from Istanbul to this beach-side gem was trouble like you wouldn’t believe.
Hearing about people’s travel problems is almost always supremely B-O-R-I-N-G! And still, I must give it three sentences. We went to the wrong Istanbul airport in the morning, had to change our flights, and figure out how to get over to the right airport. Once finally airborne, stormy weather at our destination forced our pilot to abort three landing attempts (those are scary) before re-routing the plane to an alternative airport 35 minutes back to the north. We refueled and then took to the air again; this time able to land safely since the harshest part of the storm had passed by then.
Where Is Everyone?
One thing we learned quickly is that, for beach towns, there is a really big difference between high-season and low-season. In Olüdeniz, it’s the difference between weather that is hot vs. cold, businesses that are open vs. closed, and an atmosphere that is happening vs. ghost-town-ish. Our first indication of which season we’d arrived in was the swimming pool. Nope, that doesn’t look like the picture from the Internet.
Truly, we were not complaining. Olüdeniz is a beautiful place any time of year and we were mostly interested in taking it easy for a few days, anyway. I’m just saying that it was both amazing and amusing that so few people were there…other than construction workers. Nearly every business in Olüdeniz was undergoing renovations. Technically, we were there during low-season, but a better description for it would have been, construction season.
Refresher? Nah, I Got This
Our hotel window faced the sea. (We were even close enough to hear the waves!) In the skies above the beach, we could see a half-dozen paragliders coming in for their landings. About 18 months ago, Jessica and I both took some paragliding lessons (in Salt Lake City, Utah). Perhaps I could rent a wing in Olüdeniz and return to the air.
I told Joseph, the amiable character that coordinates the paragliding business that I had my beginners certification for pilot. Would it be possible for me to fly solo on a borrowed/rented wing? Liability concerns don’t seem to be a thing in this part of the world, at least not as big as making some money and showing good customer service. With a broad smile, Joseph said, Sure, no problem. While I was arranging my solo flight, Jessica signed up for a tandem ride.
Once we strided over to where all the pilots gather, I was asked to show my certification. I did. I also explained that I had only flown about 10 times within the context of my training. They looked a little hesitant, but ultimately shrugged their shoulders and said, okay. I wasn’t feeling hesitant….though, in retrospect, I most definitely should have. My training was over 18 months ago. At the very least, I should have asked for (and been given) a 30 minute refresher. This realization only became clear after my near disastrous first flight.
Jessica, me, and about six other
tourists doing tandem rides crammed ourselves into the back of the transport truck that would take us and the pilots up the mountain to the launching site, some 3,000 feet above sea level. Once at the launch site, I needed help with everything from laying out my wing (which I initially had upside down) to getting myself correctly hooked into the harness. The pace at the launch site was rush-rush since the company has to stay on a tight schedule. The pilot that helped me (and flew with Jessica) was really calm and collected.
I should have been scared, but the excitement of paragliding at this stunning location on this beautiful day overwhelmed all fear. Once the pilot gave me the all clear for launching, I surged forward, pulled up the wing, and ran off the side of the mountain. Half-way into my launch I heard the pilot shouting for me to “Stop! Stop!” but I was in the air so quickly there was no turning back. Unbeknownst to me, I had a tangle in my lines on the left side of the wing. Look closely in the pics for the “pinch” caused by the tangle.
My pre-launch instructions were to tack to the right immediately after take off. I pulled on the right brake (that’s how you turn to the right), but kept drifting left anyway. I pulled harder, and then harder again, until finally the wing responded. The stress on the left side of my wing was causing me to pull to the left like a car badly in need of an alignment. Again, I didn’t know this at the time. I was simply doing what I had to do to fly.
Aside from the relentless leftward drift, my flight was a breathtaking thrill. I cruised over the lower ridges, did a few turns- always to the left- since that was what my wing wanted to do even without my input on the controls -and then headed to the town where I was to land on the beach.
Ahead of me was one of the tandem flyers. I watched how it flew over the little town of Olüdeniz and then turned towards the beach for its final landing approach. I reasoned that following the other pilot’s example was the way to go. Big mistake. Those pilots have been flying for years and know exactly what they’re doing. It was my first time and, although it was really cool, I never should have flown over the town. My lack of experience led to poor judgment of my own rate of descent and how far forward I could fly before meeting the ground…or a rooftop. I was drifting downward too fast. I saw trees, rooftops, green half-filled swimming pools, and power lines, all getting closer beneath me. I wasn’t going to make it to the beach.
My wayward flying had taken me somewhat near the main road into town so I tried to fly myself towards it. This required pulling hard on the right control to steer myself to it. Some scary power lines passed close beneath me, and then I spotted another wire crossing the road not too far up ahead. Thankfully, I dropped before reaching that one and landed awkwardly on the sidewalk. I put out my right leg to defend myself against the low sign I was careening into before flopping left onto the concrete. The wing above me deflated to my right and forward getting half-tangled in a small tree. It all happened so freakin’ fast.
Almost no one saw me land since, as I mentioned earlier, it’s low-season and the whole place is practically empty. The one guy that saw me was Joseph, the character that arranged for my flight. He was nearer to the beach, about a block away from where I came down. With a smiling shout he asked if I was okay. Though unsure if I was or wasn’t at that moment, I still said I was fine.
Jessica, who had been worried about me the whole flight, didn’t see me land… and I’m so glad she didn’t. When I turned the corner (from my street landing to where I should have landed), she ran towards me with such a great look of relief on her face.
Back into the Air
Back at the starting point, I was feeling a little shaky. Jay, the pilot that had been the most helpful to me, recommended I get right back on the horse and fly again. (I guess implying that if I didn’t, I’d forever be too scared?) It seemed like such a cliché, but I didn’t want to take the chance it was true. “Alright. Let’s go!”
My second flight was much better. Having no tangles this time, the wing operated like its supposed to. Catching a good bit of lift was easy as the light winds flowed up the mountain slopes. If I were a more experienced flyer, I could have stayed aloft for hours. (As it was I still flew for about 30 minutes.)
Once it was time to fly towards a beach landing, I happily steered away from the rooftops and instead favored an approach that swung out over the luscious blue sea before making my final turn. I flared my wing a bit too early and wobbled the landing, but otherwise this flight was a great success.
On our last day in Olüdeniz, we both flew one final time. This time I had a bit of trouble taking off, but the rest of the flight was fun and flawless. Jessica flew tandem again and shot enough video for me to put together this little recap.
From the beach we travel inland to a special place called Pamukkale (Pa-MOO-ka-le), literally meaning cotton castles. Such a strange and surreal place it is.
Several years ago Jessica and I viewed a series of photos of this place on the Internet. We remember thinking, Is this place for real? And then years later there we are… physically walking among the steaming pools of the very same place. Trip of a lifetime, folks. It’s not lost on us.
Emphasis on Ephesus
Of all the ancient Roman cities, Ephesus stands out for its Biblical importance. News flash, I’m no Biblical scholar, but I learned that the city of Ephesus is mentioned many times in a section of the Bible known as Acts of the Apostles, (or simply, Acts). In fact, when we did our tour of Ephesus our guide pointed to a small stone structure atop a hill and said it is believed that the Apostle Paul wrote Corinthians from a jail cell in that very building. Trippy stuff!
Aside from Ephesus’ close association to the bible, it is a fascinating place all its own and truly came to life with the help of our excellent tour guide. Not all guides are created equal- sometimes they are drab and useless, and sometimes they rock. Our genuine rock star guide (named “Toro”) was supremely well-informed, had great English, and was funny. Such a shame that Jessica and I were the only ones that got his jokes. The others on the tour with us were either Japanese or Chinese and understood far less English.
It’s still Turkey and there were hundreds of good-looking, healthy and friendly cats meandering all throughout the ruins. Of course, I had to stop and pet each one. “They’re so fluffy!”
Medium-strong evidence suggests that Mary (as in, the mother-of-Jesus, Mary), lived out her days in a small home near Ephesus. Our tour visited the very site many believe was her actual home. Whatever structure once stood on that spot of ground in her time is now gone. Today, what sits atop what is believed to be her old foundation is a tiny chapel.
Last Stop, Marmaris
The Turkey leg of our trip (no, I won’t apologize for that) was supposed to end in Kusadasi, the port city nearest to Ephesus. Our original plan was to hop a ferry from Kusadasi, Turkey to the island of Samos, Greece. The water that separates Turkey and Greece at this point is swim-able. They say you can hear Greek roosters crowing in the morning from the shores of Turkey.
So close and yet so far; despite the assurances of some that the ferries were up and running, once we attempted to buy tickets we learned it was not so. It was mid March and the ferry service didn’t begin until April 1st. This news left us scrambling to rearrange our plans- canceling hostels, booking new buses, and finding a new ferry.
Our hasty research found a daily ferry running between the Turkish city of Marmaris and the Greek Island of Rhodes. So, to Marmaris we went (by bus) and damn if it wasn’t a helluva nice place. We ended up with only half a day’s time to spend in Marmaris, but we really liked what we saw. It was a port city, but not of the industrial variety- think yachts and sail boats, instead of cargo ships. We were back at the Aegean Sea, so the waters were that rich beautiful blue again. Note to self, next time we come to Turkey, we’ll come back for a second helping of Marmaris.
During our 18 or so days in Turkey, we covered a lot of good ground and truly loved it. We leave satisfied but still wanting more, for now we know just how much more there is left to see and do. We would especially love to return to those splendid Turkish beaches in the summertime. It was wonderfully peaceful to walk the deserted sands of Olüdeniz in March, but we desire a return to see the beaches in full swing. And there is a place called Cappadocia that was too far out of our way to see, but everyone says it is a must to visit.
There is almost always a tinge of sadness when we depart from a country we’ve just barely begun to know. It is the nature of the beast. Leaving one place is the only way to create space for new experiences. Onward to Greece we travel.