Monday 18 July 2011 - Friday 12 August 2011 35 °C
After almost missing our initial flight out of Egypt (Warren asked our Dahab taxi driver how long it would be until we reached the airport. Turns out he was taking us in the opposite direction… to Israel. A high-speed u-turn and an hour of white-knuckle driving...), we arrived at the Sharm El Sheikh airport in time for our flight, connecting through Cairo and finally landing in Istanbul, Turkey.
We were delighted as we began to explore the narrow, cobbled streets around our hotel in Sultanahmet (the heart of Old Istanbul) as we took in the ambiance and architecture of old world Europe. We have held a great love and appreciation of old European cities for many years, and it had been too long since we had last traveled in Europe. However, we noted in Istanbul something a little different… amid the winding, cobblestone streets and sidewalk cafes were towering mosques and hookah stalls. It was if someone had selected our favourite Western European ingredients and blended them with a traditional Middle Eastern recipe, resulting in a delicious blend of both.
Our first evening in Istanbul coincided with our wedding anniversary, so on a whim, we opted for one of the many rooftop terraces for dinner. We eyeballed that perfect corner table only to be informed it was reserved. Lee-Ann quickly informed them that nothing else would be suitable as it was our anniversary and – poof! – the reservation was gone and we scored the primo table of the night, enjoying a stupendous meal with wine (!!) overlooking the Blue Mosque.
We spent the next couple of days hoofing it around some of Istanbul’s requisite sights. While thoroughly enjoyable and often awe-inspiring, we finally encountered what we had been able to avoid for the previous six months… tourists - hordes and hordes of summer tourists. We dodged and darted and, for the most part, managed to stay out of the throngs. However, we couldn’t avoid the touts – both the restaurant ones (in some of the narrow café-lined lanes, it was like running a gauntlet) and the infamous uber-friendly “hello my friend - where are you from - just want to chat - no I’m not selling anything - would you like to buy a carpet?” touts. We persevered, visiting a number of the key historic sights, but spent much of our time wandering away from the tourist areas. During our meandering strolls we encountered many unexpected sights (such as an outdoor market devoted entirely to tools and construction supplies), met some gracious and friendly Turkish people (such as the café owner who sent over complimentary cookies to accompany our coffee during one of our many refreshment breaks) and enjoyed many glimpses of daily life in Istanbul.
As remarkable as Istanbul was, we found ourselves pining for something a little more authentic, with perhaps a little less tourist frenzy. We didn’t have to look far… just across the water to… Istanbul. We took the 15 minute ferry from Sultanahmet (European Istanbul) across the Bosphorus to Kadıköy (Asian Istanbul) and found exactly what we were looking for. Described as a “typically middle class” neighbourhood, we wandered the market area watching locals barter over fresh fish and octopus, bought cherries from one of the many stalls and, in the evening, hung with the locals eating traditional mezes at a street-side table. Ordering dinner turned into an unexpected adventure. Being a non-tourist area, English was not spoken and certainly not on the menus. When it became apparent we had no idea what any of the food was on the menu, we were lead - with great showmanship - into the kitchen to point out what we wanted while the raki drinking crowd around us watched with good humoured amusement. Choices made, we settled back into our chairs and proceeded to enjoy an exquisitely simple meal and an evening of smiles and laughter amongst the neighbourhood locals. Good thing we were well fueled up – body and soul – as we had a long day ahead. Up early the next morning for our 20 minute walk to the train station, we started on our ten hour train/train/taxi/bus trip, finally arriving under a starlit sky in the town of Göreme in Turkey’s central Cappadocia region.
Göreme looks as though it might have been created by Walt Disney. The town is home to some of the most other worldly, towering rock formations imaginable, made even more unique by many of them being carved out centuries ago to serve as homes and churches, many of which have now been converted to hotels and restaurants. It’s as if some characters from Lord of the Rings (the pleasant ones) had made this place their home in some distant, magical past. Evening brought an even more fairy tale-like quality to the town. Gazing up the hillside from the town square, the interplay of light and shadow among the eclectic mix of buildings and fairy chimneys was surreal. We spent the next couple of days exploring the Cappadocia region, from the Derinkuyu underground city (exploring some 7 levels below ground), to climbing the hand carved caves of the 13th century Selime Monastery (looking every bit, as claimed, like it could have been young Anakin Skywalker’s hometown), to the Göreme Open Air Museum (a complex of medieval painted cave churches and dwellings, which formed a large monastic complex carved in the hillside). However, our favourite time by far was spent hiking through the valleys just outside of Göreme, enjoying the fantasy like landscape that ranged in appearance from soft-serve vanilla ice-cream, to rather impressive phallic-like towers to craggy spires that looked like they were snapped off the top of the Swiss Alps. We explored several of the caves, discovering ancient frescoes, cooking areas and even a spiral-stair case inside an exceptionally moody cluster of crumbling chambers.
We discovered that Turkey has an incredible bus system, very cheap, with buses going constantly to anywhere in the country you might want to go (and even some places where you might not want to go). We also realized what a huge country Turkey is and, through our hours of traveling across its vast countryside, how similar much of its landscape is to parts of Canada… endless flat prairies, soaring mountains and pine forests leading down to the sea. For those who are familiar – think Saskatchewan, Kamloops, Okanagan and Howe Sound.
After a few days of Cappadocia’s stunning scenery and history, we found ourselves back on a bus for another 10 hour ride south-west to Antalya, where we spent two nights in the city’s old town on the edge of the Mediterranean. Although touristy, the town was charming with its mix of beautifully restored buildings next to crumbling Ottoman mansions (many for sale, ready to be turned into another hotel/restaurant/shop/travel agency). However, it wasn’t 100% tourist-driven; we managed to find a couple of local meyhanes (taverns) where we spent our evenings street-side drinking chilled red wine and listening to live music while kids cruised by the tables hawking fresh mussels and old men pushed carts along the cobblestone streets selling whole peeled cucumbers to consume with the ever-present raki (Turkey’s version of Ouzo or Sambuca – anise flavoured liquor that is mixed with water, making it look a bit like skim milk).
Back on yet another bus (this time on a smaller, regional bus or “dolmus” – think mini-van on steroids), we headed west along the mountainous Mediterranean coast and then down into a box canyon to the village of Cirali where we parked ourselves for a few days at the Canada Hotel (yes, you read that right). Run by a Turkish/Canadian couple (she’s from Calgary), the hotel looks like it was transplanted from the Okanagan, complete with families on summer vacation. Any similarities ended a five minute walk down the road where the canyon walls opened up onto a 4km long beach. As has often happened, our planned two day stay stretched to five as we lounged on the beach and swam in the warm Med Sea, explored the beautifully unrestored ruins of Olympos, an ancient port town, and hiked by flashlight one night up through the pines to experience the Chimaera, where for centuries fires have burned from crevasses in the rocks on the slopes of Mount Olympos.
We had been longing to get out on the water and were able to secure a cabin on a gullet (a Turkish wooden sailboat) for a 4 day cruise from Olympos to Fethiye. It’s always a crapshoot when you join a tour or a group of strangers for a few days, especially on a small boat which limits personal space and privacy and requires interaction between everyone aboard … we were very lucky. Our fellow passengers included travellers from Turkey, Italy, France, Holland, Brazil, Australia and Ireland, and the multi-language group blended well to create a fun and friendly voyage. Due to the heat (a balmy 36 degrees), we all slept on deck at night under a blanket of stars, and quickly dove into the crystal clear blue waters as soon as we set the anchor at any of the many bays in which we stopped. The cruise culminated on the final night with a frenzy of Turkish dancing, something the Europeans and Brazilians seemed much more comfortable with than the English speaking Commonwealth folks!
We spent a day in Fethiye, a low key Mediterranean harbour town, exploring the waterfront and marinas and drooling over the beautiful sailboats and gullets, then got back on a bus for the five hour journey to Pammukale to see the famous travertine cliffs. If you could imagine a glacier in the summertime, with meltwater coursing over its surface, then plunk the glacier down on an arid hillside overlooking a lush, green valley, you would have the image of the travertine at Pammukale. Now imagine that the ice is stone, and the water is warm… This incredible landscape was created over centuries when warm mineral water deposited calcium as it flowed over the cliff edge, creating shelves and pools and “icicles” very similar in appearance to glaciers. It was really trippy to walk over the stone in bare feet with the water flowing over it as our brains were telling us it should be cold and slippery, but our senses were telling us it was warm and grippy!! The bonus was, after we climbed over the travertine to the top of the cliff, we discovered we were at the site of Hierapolis – a 2nd century BC Roman city. An amazing amount of the ancient city remains intact, and we explored the ruins and the stunning view over the valley below as evening began to fall.
A short three hour bus ride took us the next morning to Selcuk, where we would spend our final couple of days in Turkey. Selcuk contained just the right balance of historical sights and quiet village vibe for us to enjoy the end of our Turkish adventure at a leisurely pace. We strolled down the well preserved streets of Ephesus, a Mediterranean trading city established 2000 years ago, marvelling at the remains of the “modern” facilities (latrines, baths, condos, library, concert halls, gymnasiums); wandered through the market in the Selcuk’s town centre and watched the tourists barter to buy the same tourist “treasures” we had seen everywhere since we began our travels six months ago; and sipped Efes beer in outdoor cafes at the outskirts of town, enjoying the stunning view of orchard covered hillsides rolling down to the red tiled rooftops of this quiet, Turkish village.
We came to Turkey with no plan, no idea of what we might find, and no idea how long we might stay… three and a half weeks later, we leave with fond memories of unique experiences, new friends and yet more photos to add to our ever-growing collection.
We are now on our way to Greece, where we will spend a month on one of our favourite islands… pausing in our journey, spending some time with our daughter who will be joining us for a couple of weeks, and, eventually, deciding where to head to next to continue our adventures. Enjoy the rest of the summer – you’ll hear from us again in late September when we’re once again on the road…