Category Archives: Turkey

Travelogue Turkey 6: Capadoccia – Istanbul – Joburg

20-21 April 2012

After a blissfully easy overnight bus trip, we arrived at the terminus in Capadoccia at 7-ish. We were ushered off the bus, given our luggage, herded around and then loaded back onto the bus. (By ‘we’ I mean me, Mother and our 4 Argentinian friends, who spoke little to no English, were clearly bewildered by the goings on and were nervously chattering and gesturing among themselves at ten to the dozen, which was hopefully cathartic because it wasn’t even vaguely useful). Turns out that we’d arrived at the main terminus when we were supposed to meet our tour a few stops later on.

This sounded plausible as we’d become more than used to having to figure out our own way on our ‘all-in guided tour’, which had us melding and blending with other people at each stop along the way as our paths overlapped, relying on our own itineraries printed at home to get instructions of varying degrees of vagueness in Turglish from conductors, drivers and guides.

Minutes later we were again deposited, this time in a lovely little village in a valley bowl ring-fenced by sandy coloured rock formation cliffs. The bus stop was a parking lot on a side road parallel to the main road, with the town’s tourist office on the left, a short strip mall of tour sales offices on the right and scores of hot air balloons overhead (this area is particularly known for its hot air ballooning because of the spectacular aerial views of the landscape).

It was fortunate that the view and ambience was lovely because we had absolutely no clue where we were or where we were going.

Out (again) with trusty itinerary.

No clues.


We approached the tourist office, asking them to contact our tour company in Istanbul to find out who was supposed to be meeting us, but they couldn’t help because their telephones could only access numbers on the local exchange.

We eventually came right by getting one of the sales guys from the tour offices to call our Tour Operator – after a lengthy negotiation with him trying to sell us a hot air balloon ride for the next morning (they are a ‘mornings only’ thing), which would have been tempting had it not been for the fact that we would be in Istanbul the next morning… which the salesman was not readily accepting. Adnan in Istanbul told salesguy to tell us to stay put and he’d get our guide to come and find him.

Minutes later (just enough time for a ‘lick and a promise’ – as Grammy used to say – and a change of clothes in the public bathrooms) we were fetched by our local tour operator, complete with the area manager, a delightful and enthusiastic fellow called Sam, who insisted on taking us back to their new offices, which were quite something as they were built into the rock, so essentially had a brick face and a cave back.

He was quite excited to find out it was Mother’s birthday (and her milestone 60th, no less!) and scuttled off to forage for breakfast for us, leaving us in the company of our guide for the day, Hamida (whose nickname is Happy Day since it sounds so similar to the pronunciation of her name and matches her sunny disposition).

Sam returned with Burek, pie-like savoury treats that have a variety of fillings folded into layers of feather-light pastry, with a smattering of seeds (sesame, poppy etc) on top to indicate the flavour enveloped inside. Sam has brought cheese, mince and potato. Too big for one of each, but too intriguing to miss out on any flavour, Mother and I shared one of each. Highly recommendable!

Fed and satisfied, we were ushered to the mini-bus to go and collect the rest of the group, which as it turned out were only expecting us at 10am so we were perfectly to time despite all our detouring. Another patchwork of a trio here and a couple there.

We wound around and about through the town (Urgup, as we now knew was where we should have stopped in the first place) as our guide told us bits and bobs of trivia about this place, which has been around almost since time began so there was lots to tell).

Capadoccia (Cup–uh-doh-kia) is more or less in the middle of Turkey, in Eastern Anatolia, easily accessible from the major city Kayseri to the northeast, which has an airport and railway station service to Ankara and Istanbul bringing the scores of tourists that come to see the unique geological, historic and cultural features. The name translates back to the “Land of beautiful horses” since ancient Capadoccia was known for horse breeding.

Even before that, even-more-ancient volcanoes erupted 3 – 9 million years ago, forming the ignimbrite deposits and sedimentary rocks in lakes and streams. A soft ‘tuff’ layer was formed, 150m in thickness, by the issuing lavas in the valley surrounded by mountains. The rivers, floodwater running down the hillsides of valleys and strong winds eroded the geological formations into hundreds of spectacular pillars and minaret-like forms. People of the villages at the heart of the Cappadocia Region carved out houses, churches, and monasteries from the soft rocks of volcanic deposits, the best of which can still be seen at Goreme (which we’ll get to later).

Capaddocia lies on a high plateau, 1000m in altitude, punctuated with volcanic peaks that reach to almost 4000m. Because of the inland location and high altitude, the region has a markedly continental climate with hot dry summers and cold snowy winters, sparse rainfall and semi-arid. And yet still it is a wine region. One of the few areas in the very Muslim country that isn’t required to be tee-total (probably a hangover from the Greek regime since the Turks only settled in the Middle Ages in this area that was Hellenised for millennia before that), which is lucky since it produces some world-renowned award-winning wines.

These temperatures also make for interesting storage and insulation challenges. We passed little peepholes in the rocks that we were told were windows and vents for underground / cave storage, where people for thousands of years have been able to keep fruits and meats stocked ‘at room temperature’ without any machine assistance. The rocks are also used in producing slates and tiles for house-building, since their amazing insulation characteristics somehow manage to keep houses cool enough in searing summer and warm enough in icy winter without the aid of any heaters or fans!

Well primed on the region, we made our first stop at the Fairy Chimneys. Bizarre rock formations eroded over time into mushroom-shaped, pinnacled, capped and conic shapes. We took a short trek through a collection of the formations, each pointing out shapes that we could see in rocks or collections of rocks. Crocodile, lions, Godzilla, ugly old crone etc etc. I saw Dachshunds. Obviously.

In between the rock-spotting we were shown doors and windows high up on the minarets, some with the still-visible footholes that served as ladders for the people of the time to climb to enter their rock cave homes. These caves were intentionally hidden and difficult to access as they were occupied largely by Christians trying to escape persecution. Nowadays they are easier to spot as there has been so much more erosion over time.

We visited another area with these cave homes, but this was more of a village with communal areas and homes built alongside one another on larger rock faces rather that at periodic intervals on rock spires (think of it as a townhouse complex versus stand-alone country houses).

This village had some interesting features, like the bee-keeping caves. These were caves carved into the rock face housing boxes in which the bees would create hives and produce honey. There were enclaves big enough for people to go up into the cave and harvest the honey as and when needed.

After some time to wander around the caves, entering into the ‘apartments’ and seeing how much these people were able to ‘furnish’ by carving things that they needed out of the rocks, it was off to shop at the market… and buy a lovely locally produced stripy pashmina (silk/pashmina blend for a bargain R40).

Every tour is punctuated with the inevitable sales pitch, and this was next on the agenda. We were to stop off at the pottery factory and winery.

We were served wine on arrival. Clearly not the award-winning stuff either. Very… erm… tart. The pottery-making was fun to watch though, but not to buy apparently since the shop had mostly very high-end collectors pieces for thousands of Lira / Rands / Dollars. Hardly surprising since each piece is painstakingly hand-painted by a team of artists (one to do the outlines, another to colour, another to glaze).

Well set for an early lunch, we arrived at Suhan Hotel and Spa for a very fancy buffet feast – perfectly suited for a special occasion such as Mother’s 60th birthday! We ate our fill and drank our toasts and then set off again for more of the wonders of this ancient world.

Next on the tour was the World Heritage Site, Goreme Open Air Museum, which is the most visited of the monastic sites in Capadoccia and one of the most famous sites in Turkey. The complex contains more than 30 churches carved into the rocks, some with some beautifully preserved frescoes inside, dating back from the 9th to the 11th centuries. We were told how to identify this, that and the other from the art techniques, but the churches do become a bit samey-samey after the first few and, being a bit religiously shallow and a lot artistically challenged, I’m not strong on the detail.

More remarkable was the living arrangement in the complex. They had a very community-living orientation, with combined group kitchens and dining rooms and such. The kitchens were large rooms with dug-out areas where the round-bottomed pots would sit on the coals and there were relatively sophisticated ventilation systems allowing the smoke to be extracted from the room without telltale plumes appearing outside the caves (important since these were supposed to be secret settlements for the persecuted in hiding).

The main dining room still has its long table with benches either side, all carved directly from the rock face, easily seating 50 people or more in a single sitting, with alcove shelves carved into the walls to house candles and other dining paraphernalia. There were smaller dining rooms as well, with similar fittings, presumably for more intimate meals. Each dining room has a wine bath moulded into the floor where the grapes could be pressed, with an outflow funnel (also carved into the floor) channelling the juice into a pool from which the diners could serve their wine. Very simple and practical.

They also had literal pigeon holes carved higher up in the rocks. Each consisted of a cave with 1 human sized door and several rows of small pigeon holes by way of access. These pigeons were apparently used for courier messaging, eggs and feathers. So, a post office, grocer and general store in one!

On our way back to the bus we stopped at the ice-cream wagon. There was a man in traditional dress ‘tossing’ the homemade ice-cream! Literally hoisting it out of the refrigerated cylinder on the wagon with a long metal paddle and tossing it into the air, almost like pizza-makers do with their dough. It was fascinating to watch and defied logic that creamy frozen ice-cream could take on the form of a long stringy toffee-like consistency. The method clearly works wonders though and it was undoubtedly one of the best and creamiest ice-creams we have ever tasted.

The next stop was at the base of the mountain that houses one of the ancient watchtowers that the city had on each end. There was no point in making the long trek up the mountain to the fort since it has become too unstable to enter since its soft walls have eroded over time, so we made do with taking some photos (and of course visiting the market, where Mother bought a beautiful table runner virtually for free).

The minibus then took us to a lookout point, with a breathtaking panorama overlooking the fairy chimneys and museums, with a view of the volcanoes on the horizon. We were treated to coffees and teas, with local fruit and nuts snacks… which turned into a surprise birthday party for Mother when the group proceeded to sing Happy Birthday to her in many of the assortment of our travel companions’ native languages. Sam had rejoined us and he and Hamida had even bought Mother a gift – a lovely silk scarf, which they had wrapped and everything! How sweet!

Then, the last surprise of the day. We had managed to arrange a break-away from this group (who were destined to visit – yet another – carpet factory next) to go and visit the Kaymakli Underground City!

Cappadocia contains several underground cities, largely used by early Christiansas hiding places during the times of the persecution. There are 5 levels (uncovered so far) of intricate passageways and complex networks of storage, communal areas and private accommodations (rooms and ‘apartments’ that belonged to families). Besides being a bit cold and dark, it was quite manageable to manoeuvre through the tunnels, which are only very rarely too small or low to have to stoop. The simple but effective ventilation tunnels and chimneys allow enough air to reduce the claustrophobia element, although I can’t imagine it was pleasant when inhabited by its thousands of occupants, with the smoke from their cooking fires and no formal ablutions facilities.

The underground cities have vast defence networks of traps throughout their many levels. These traps are very creative, including such devices as large round stones to block doors and holes in the ceiling through which the defenders may drop spears. These defence systems were mainly used against the Romans. The tunnel system also was made to have thin corridors since the Roman fighting strategy was to move in groups, which was not possible to do in the thin corridors making it easy to pick them off.

Managing to get in one last treasure in an amazing day, we found a stall selling locally mined onyx in the little market lining the road back to our waiting van. A thread of onyx beads each for an absolute bargain and we were on our way to the airport.

An unfortunate hour-long delay and a slow-moving queue with what seemed like hundreds of small Australian children (with Australian parents) made for a welcome relief when we collapsed into our aeroplane seats for the short hop back to Istanbul.

After the delays we were pleased to have pre-arranged our airport to hotel transfers and even more pleased to arrive back at our hotel (the same one as before, The Princess Old City Hotel) to drop our bags and settle in for our last night in Turkey.

We took a wander up and down our street, still a hive of activity with all the shops and restaurants open til late as they are, but soon retired back to the hotel after our long day, finishing off the day perfectly with an elaborate midnight feast picnic of all the remnants of nibblybits that we’d collected along the journey.

The morning was leisurely and we’d predecided that it would be dedicated to a luxurious visit to the Tarihi Vezneciler Hamami traditional Turkish Baths. What an experience! We were ushered into a wooden cubicle with thin beds lining either side of the room and served Turkish tea (a vile Cherry one this time, pity as we’d grown quite fond of the apple one) to sip on while you disrobe and drape in the traditional handmade cotton sarongs provided for the body and the hair. Then we were whisked off to the sauna to sweat, sweat and more sweat for 20 minutes before getting to the bath portion of the experience.

The Baths weren’t what I expected. I expected big indoor heated swimming pools with people wading around and socialising, like the picture painted of the Romans in such literary works as Asterix and Obelix. Not so. The Baths is a marble room with knee-high taps and ground level built-in marble basins about a metre apart along all of the walls. There are big marble blocks in the middle of the room for visitors to lie on, while being washed down by the person attending in between massage activities. The masseuse didn’t seem to hold much pomp and ceremony in the process and simple stripped down to her undies (plastic shoes), poured buckets of water over us and took each of us in turn into the massage room.

The massage is also very unique. The masseuse fills a pillow case with foam and then flicks the neck of the bag open and closed to agitate the foam such that it foams more and starts filtering through the weave of the pillow case. She then floats the foamy bag over your body, occasionally flicking it open and closed so that it lightly touches you and produces more foam. A very dreamy experience.

She then did the usual massage, working with strength on the feet and undersoles to work out tension and being more ginger with the sensitive bits. I think the Thai foot massages were better, but the foamy pillowcase thing is infinitely repeatable!

Once we were properly massaged and treated, we were taken back to the warm cabin and given more of the (dreadful) tea to enjoy while we relaxed and did a leisurely redress. All in all, a visit to a Turkish Bath is a must for travellers!

We got the driver to drop us off at the Grand Bazaar instead of our hotel so that we could get the last few things on our wishlists – and more than a few things that weren’t! I got some beautiful antique silver bracelets with marcasite and onyx detail for a few hundred Rands each – an absolute bargain for such collectors pieces! Mother got even more gifts for even more people at home, with everything so cheap the list of gift recipients easily gets out of control!

Fully laden with shopping, we again thanked our lucky stars that the tram stop is right outside the Grand Bazaar and took us to right outside our hotel.

Back to the room for the the usual panic of upping and outing, packing (and re-packing when all our newly acquired lovely things weren’t cooperating in Operation Suitcase Close), but we managed and checked out of the hotel with an hour to spare, that we decide to use wisely with a visit to our favourite restaurant, Simit Salonu. So pleased to have a last chance to enjoy the incredible Turkish food, we ordered our favourites and tucked into a lovely multi-dish meze style lunch.

Then it was back to the hotel to meet the driver for our long and unremarkable journey home. We’d seen and done so much in a short time and collected many many reasons to support the recommendation for anyone thinking of visiting Turkey to just DO IT!



Travelogue Turkey 5: Pamukkale

19 April 2012

Another day, another sight. Or so we thought when we set out this morning. Pamukkale (“puh moo kah lay”) was just on the itinerary of the tour (that Mother had picked in its entirety solely for its inclusion of a Troy visit), so wasn’t high on either of our Things To Do In Turkey lists – or our expectations.

A natural wonder famous for its terraces, Pamukkale is a(nother) World Heritage Site. Terraces formed on the side of the hill 400m above sea level, its limestone-bearing water originates from a natural spring with temperature of 35 degree C. When the limestone settles, it resembles heaps of cotton, hence earning the name Pamukkale, which translates as “cotton castle”.

The terraces spread over a 4km wide area and visitors are allowed to walk on them. The bad news is that this traffic hampers growth in tourist season and the oils from many feet makes it darkened and yellow. The good news is that the terraces renew themselves between tourist seasons and we – being here in the shoulder season (beginning of Spring) leading into tourist season (Summer) – were treated to brand new, fresh and bright white terraces that look like fresh thick snow on an Alpine peak.

To add to the deal, the ancient city of Hieropolis is on top of the Cotton Castle. Founded by King Eumenes II and named after his wife, Hiera, the ancient site is most famous for the necropolis (big cemetery), well-preserved theatre with perfect marble reliefs and the monumental gate with round towers on either side. Sadly, the area has been severely damaged from recurrent earthquakes and only a few structures remain standing.

Of course, we knew none of this when we climbed on the bus today. We were lucky enough to have a very eloquent and articulate guide (the best so far) who seemed just as fluent in Spanish as he repeated all of his English info for our 3 Argentinean companions.

The site is very tourist-friendly with wide paved paths guiding visitors past the main areas. Being on a hill, the views are spectacular from beginning to end, no matter which direction you choose to look. Up the hill is green grass (a primary green, much brighter green than home) and waves of flowers (a bit like a Yardley print ad sans Labrador and lady in white linen summer frock) dotted with relics and ruins; straight in front is the blue sky and snow-capped mountain ranges in the distance; look down and you can see lower terraces and people dotted on ground level. It’s really really pretty.

We started the walking tour with the guide, who led us through the gates and up to the museum. This was originally a Roman Bath that was then converted into a church in the Byzantine times, and is used as a local museum today. Further up the hill we got to the amphitheatre, a grandiose affair and the third biggest, seating 15,000 people. The high walls around the bottom row of seat show that this was a theatre designed to accommodate both stage performances and gladiator shows (the walls prevent the wild beasts pouncing on the audience).

While there we were treated to an additional (rare, so we’re told) sight. Five Turkish Stars planes flew overhead, jetting across the sky and intertwining with one another so their white plumes of smoke were leaving long plaited trails behind them. Quite a juxtaposition of these planes just above the ruins from a bygone era that, hilltop, appeared to reach to the edge of the skyline that we were approaching on our way to wade in the terraces.

The healing powers of the thermal springs was the reason why thousands of people came to Hieropolis. Those who were cured went home, those who didn’t were buried in the extensive cemetery. We understood immediately why those people might have placed so much expectation that the water is extraordinary.

From the top of Pamukkale you’re treated to a view of the cascading terraces that cup pools of various sizes within a semi-circular range that ensconces a lake and gardens on ground level below. Right side has wide waterfalls coating steeper rockfaces; left side has stepped terraces that you can climb down to enjoy the pools. The overall whiteness looks like snow on a mountain, that abruptly stops at the base.

Removing shoes and socks, we gingerly made our way across the uneven top terrace to the wide pool. The water is warm and so murky from the limestone that you can’t see your feet at the bottom. The floor is alternately slippery on the rocks and stony on the sandy bits. We were lucky that the weather had cleared so we got to wade and enjoy the view in sunshine with relatively low wind.

The paddle in the terrace pools gave me impetus to head to the Aqua Centre to don swimsuit and have a wade in the thermal pools. These pools are notable because there was originally a hotel on the site that had built their swimming pools around the ancient ruins that had fallen into the thermal pools during one of the earthquakes. The Turkish Government ordered the hotel be demolished and removed when the site was awarded World Heritage Site status – so there is nothing remaining from the hotel buildings, but the pools remain and have been converted into the Aqua Centre for tourists visiting Hieropolis.

We had some free time between visiting Hieropolis and our overnight bus to Capadoccia, which we used to explore the town of Pamukkale. The highlight was by far our visit to the lake and gardens at the base of the mountains. Really pretty with ducks and geese gracing the water (and being overfed by tourists) and a new perspective on the magnitude and wonder of the Cotton Castle mountain from its base.

The town isn’t more than a few roads, with the same assortment of shops and restaurants. The local carpet shop did have one of interest that had animals resembling prehistoric sausage dogs, but the novelty was mine alone as the piece of art came at the very unfun sum of 20,000TL.

After a spot of dinner, we meandered back to the hotel that was hosting our lay-over and were ready and waiting when the bus arrived at 8.45 for the next leg of the journey.

Travelogue Turkey 4: Kusadasi

18 April 2012

Kusadasi – pronounced “KOO-SHA-duh-suh” (the first half pronounced and the second half swallowed) and translated as “Bird Island” – is the biggest port in Turkey. The district gets its name from the Guvercin (Dove) Island facing it, home of a Byzantine castle carved into the rock and the 19th century Kucuk Ada Castle which were important defence points against pirate raids during the Ottoman Period.

We found ourselves deposited unceremoniously roadside by the bus as it arrived in Kusadasi on Monday night at 9pm. 2 South Africans, 2 Australians, 4 suitcases, 3 togbags, 1 map (of Istanbul) and a bus steward who speaks Turkish and Japanese, but no English. Challenge.

We showed the hotel name written on our itinerary to the locals milling nearby and were relieved at their lack of hesitation and pointing gestures which seemed to indicate that they knew where we were going and it was (literally) just around the corner.

Around the corner we trooped. And down the hill. And down the hill some more.

We stopped and asked a shopkeeper, again using the itinerary to show hotel name, and again he immediately responded, pointing in the same direction as we’d been headed, adding “50 metre! 50 metre!”. Sounded promising.

Some half a kilometre later (fortunately all downhill and all the while silently applauding the inventor of trolley cases), we saw the big red neon sign than announced our hotel. And very lovely 4* at that. Hallelujah.

Eager for more leg-stretch (sans luggage) after the afternoon in the bus, we headed out to see what Kusadasi had on offer.

The hotel is well situated for entertainment, being just a few blocks up from the waterfront and near the bazaars (closing 11pm). The nightlife was quite active, starting with the hotel’s patio which was teeming with travellers (an Italian tour group).

We soon tired though and headed back to the hotel to retire (with the chocolate mousses we’d salvaged from the hotel’s dinner buffet that was closing as we arrived).

Another boring continental breakfast buffet. This had the same selection of 5 cereals (cornflakes, coco pops, muesli, chocolate flakes and puffed wheat, which also seemed to be the only cereals stocked in supermarkets we’ve been to!), jams, cheese, polony, eggs and bright pink viennas. This buffet did however add 5 different types of olives (excessive much?) and had bowls around the yoghurt (there’s only ever original unflavoured yoghurt that we’ve seen) with halva, syrup, strawberry jam etc which leads one to believe that one can flavour one’s own yoghurt should one choose. One didn’t (and neither did the other one).

The tour bus arrived more or less on time (remarkable) and had a mix of new people. The tour groups here seem to fluidly combine and separate, ostensibly so anyone from anywhere can choose their own custom package while still enjoying group rates. Sometimes this arrangement shows false economies though, for example there was one lady who’d travelled through that morning from Izmir, which we’d passed through at about 7pm the night before. It might have made more sense for us to stop for the night in Izmir, giving us a more reasonable check-in time and better evening options (as well as a chance to see the sights of Izmir since it only gets dark well after 8). We could then all have been collected together the next morning. Similarly, she was moving straight on to Pamukkale after yesterday’s tour, where we stayed in Kusadasi last night and are going to Pamukkale this morning.

We (all) started the day’s sight-seeing at the House of Virgin Mary. This is the actual house that St John (the Baptist) built for Mary when he took her there to flee the persecution in Jerusalem because Christianity was illegal and the Christians were being crucified. As far as I understand he was the only apostle that wasn’t crucified, because he moved to Ephesus, which he chose because there was already a Christian sect underway, hiding in the hillside at the top of a mountain where they could enjoy relative safety.

He did a good job too. A delightful little L-shaped house with entrance hall, spacious living room and another smaller room off to the side at the back, with a back door. Wedged into the trees on the hillside made for very peaceful surroundings with a lovely view. The foundations (up to about waist height) are still the originals, but the rest of the house has been restored (good thing too because it would have been a poor excursion in the pouring rain without a roof!) and pews added outside so that the house can now be used as a church.

Super popular on 15 August, Ascension Day of Virgin Mary. Muslems also pray here because the Qur’an respects prophets, of which they believe Jesus was one. In fact, it (apparently) gives more airtime to Mary than the bible does.

There are taps on-site where you can drink holy water from the Fountain of Wisdom for prosperity and good health. We drank long and deep.

Lastly was placing a note on the Wishing Wall (scribbled on a serviette and scrolled to fit into the little ribbon loops alongside thousands of others) and then it was off to Ephesus (“Eh-feh-sous” sous like couscous).

4 million people a year come to see Ephesus, which is the second most popular ancient site after Pompei. It is a city of great historical and religious relevance with most of ruins belong to Roman era or Hellenistic style and the role of the Ephesians in the Bible, being warned to give up idol-worship in light of End Of Days and whatnot.

The ruins are incredible, showing an astounding sophistication for a civilisation that operated and thrived as much as 5,000 years ago (compared especially with South African history which is in infancy by comparison).

These people built a great big city, with amenities, conveniences and utilities worthy of ticking all the boxes of a modern city, using what little technology they had combined with solid logic and good old fashioned elbow-grease (although am sure that having hoards of slaves helps somewhat). Everything was built with opulent enormity and decadent detail. It’s astounding how sturdy this stuff must have been for so much to have survived so long and in such good nick!

The site is the product of what archeologists have been working on uncovering since 1860 (when they excavated statues of Artemis dating back to 3000BC, the Hittite Period)) and they’ve only yet uncovered a fraction of what remains mystic under layers of earth. As always, money and manpower are the challenges and it appears that it will take far longer to unearth the wonder than it did to build it – and likely not in our lifetime.

The entrance ticket allows almost full access to the site, with very few areas (on the most fragile) restricted using loose-linked stantions. You think you’ve seen it all with the sky-high pillars and looming arches, statues and amphitheatre and pieces of relics and building blocks neatly laid out as constituent parts to bygone construction (that presumably are being restored and rebuilt).

Moving further down the (original) roads, you get a sense of the Roman and Greek influences from the building materials, styles and adornments. Just when it becomes samey-samey, you round the bend and get to what was the main shopping street. Ten metres wide with marble roadways, pavements and reliefs. The road begins an entrance of 2 pillars (a third of the way into the road) that originally held a relief of Nike, Goddess of Victory (removed from its position for sake of preservation, but still on display on site). This ‘doorway’ is an intentional narrowing of the road to prevent carts travelling down it for the sake of pedestrian shopper enjoyment.

The road was lined on the left with shops, each with a wide length of outdoor display area infront of the store and on top of a detailed colourful mosaic that is still largely intact. The inner stores were double storey, although most only have stairs to show this with the upper levels long-since eroding. The shops had no addresses or shop signs, just marble reliefs above their doorway to depict the category of goods sold in the store.

On the right hand side of the street was statues, fountains and monuments, with lots still in place to see (and touch) and the rest on display in the Ephesus Museum for safe-keeping. Some of these areas showed that the ancient civilisation could combine form and function, like the fountain which had a dual plug outflow system that allowed not only the fountain to be drained to be replaced with fresh water, but also flowed the old water out onto the streets to be used for cleaning them.

These chaps also had baths, with an intricate heating system that allowed patrons options for cold, lukewarm or hot water. There were public toilets that, while probably cleaner than most of ours, came with their own drawbacks. Since they were long-drop style, the toilets were open-roofed. The seats were holes carved in an upside down pear shape from slabs of marble which lined the sides of the room and there was no such thing as booths. Apparently, visitors would sit side-by-side talking business while doing their business simultaneously. Rich visitors would send their slaves to sit on the seat before them to warm the marble. Sewage was removed from the city via pipes that ran under the marble streets.

At the end of the street is the public library – the 3rd biggest in ancient world (behind Alexandria and Perganon). The entrance has steps from a courtyard that come up to meet enormous pillars, easily 3 storeys high. The original building was designed to protect the parchment contents (a big deal since the other libraries of the time still used papyrus) and had double walls filled with spices to saturate the humidity and goat skin windows, paper-thin so they were more transparent than the glass of the time.

Across the road was a ‘House Of Love’, which had a tunnel from the library so that adulterous bastards could tell their wives that they were going to the library when they were actually going to the brothel. There are markings on the street from the port side that show a footprint in the direction of the brothel with a heart shape – subtle directional advertising.

Last but not least on the site is the Grand Theatre, which could hold up to 25,000 people at one time (10% of the population). The theatre stage is Roman style with a back wall (for accoustics), while the Greeks preferred open air stages (for the view). Must’ve been quite something in its day. It was used again for concerts (among them Elton John) until quite recently when performances were permanently halted after a rock fell on a spectator, causing injury and ruining it (so to speak) for the rest of us.

On the way out we stopped at the Church of the Virgin Mary, which was presumably the Christian annex to the grandiose city their idolatrous predecessors had established.

The site is well worth seeing – even in intermittent rain and gale winds (that nearly literally blew me off my feet a few times) – whether or not you’re into (relevant) religions. I was lucky enough that one of our tour companions (Linda) is very knowledgeable on the Bible so gave lots more insight into the significance of the area. Hollywood’s done a good job of glamorising the Book of Revelations, but I never really added the 2 and 2 until now that this was where John wrote it and that it was addressed to the Ephesians about their lives of excess and questionable morality. Linda is on a tour of the 7 significant churches and her pilgrimage makes so much sense since it adds such tangibility to some of the contents of the Bible, especially to Christians who might have been to Israel and are looking for the AD instalment of the story (as she puts it).

Lunch was an exciting adventure with a buffet of new things. I ended up a colourful mound of a plate, with some notable inclusions:
– watery chicken and mushroom stew (with enormous whole mushrooms with fat stems and miniature caps) with a bechamel cap, oven-baked. Included veg like carrots, onions and marrows
– a tray of spinach demarcated loosely into individual portions with neat rows of eggs on top. The eggs had clearly been cracked onto the spinach raw and oven-baked to cook as the white had seeped through a bit, but the yellows had hardened on top
– macaroni cheese bake made with thin macaroni in long pieces (like spaghetti, but hollow), bechamel and feta cheese. Very good!
– kofte, which are short sections of cylindrical meatballs
– fritter sort of things that looked like veg hashbrowns
– bite-sized golden syrup-drenched cakes. That were good, but not as good as the koeksister type thing that we had at Canakkale.

A feast fit for a king!

Next up was Ephesus Museum, a local rich collection from the archeologic excavations at Ephesus, the Basilica of St John (the Evangelist, not the Baptist), the Belevi Mausoleum and the ruins in the surrounding area. Some of the artefacts date back to as far as 4,000BC! Not a very big museum (a good thing if you ask me), but very focused in its theme and contents, leading visitors through 4 halls and an atrium of collections displaying contents by era.

On the bus back to the hotel we went to last remaining pillar of the Temple of Artemis (the Goddess of Fertility). The original building held up by its 127 pillars 19m high, with an awe-striking effect that earned its place as one of the wonders of the ancient world. This sentiment didn’t stop the industrious recyclers of back then though and the composite stones were taken away and used to build elsewhere when idolatry lost favour and temples weren’t needed anymore. The entire temple was dismantled bit by bit as needed and all that remains in the original site is part of one of the pillars.

The rain had stopped just long enough to get a few snaps of the pillar and then started again with a vengeance that had us dashing to the minibus for cover!

Back in the bus, we past the Basilica of St John, but didn’t stop as we were told there was nothing much to see.

The route we took back to the hotel was along the coastline and I was delighted to see Samos across the water. This was the little Greek island we’d visited as part of the holiday in 2000 (AD) that celebrated Alex’s 25th and Jamie’s 21st birthdays. Not so ancient history, but seems like a very long time ago now!

Travelogue Turkey 3: Troy

17 April 2012

Breakfast is always the most fascinating meal to peruse on holiday in foreign countries. It’s the start of the day when the slate is clean and as a meal in general doesn’t tend to vary that much between the ‘usual’ versions of either continental or hot food. A few additions here and there, but mostly classified by the breadth of options rather than imaginative additions (that aren’t rehashed leftovers from last night’s dinner).

Kervansaray Hotel breakfast buffet had some interesting inclusions worth mentioning:
– eggs labelled ‘omelettes’ that were wafer-thin squares (maybe 5cm x 5cm) of egg loaded with herbs
– boiled potatoes. Not sauteed, boiled.
– very nice slices of sourdough bread with white cheese melted on top, garnished with cherry tomatoes
– custard cake and cocoa cake, which people were dishing alongside their toast and eggs
– pink rose jam
– apricot jam that was clear gelatine with apricot pieces (but surprisingly tasty)
– cherry juice (again) sour cherries with the fruits

Before long we were hurtling down the street in the city centre to meet our 8.30 tour bus for the short (20 or so minutes) bus trip to Troy.

Troy has been around for thousands of years and is the entry point from the Dardenelles to Marmara. The city was originally a coastal town, but the rerouting of the 2 main river tributaries has led to a changing coastline, making Troy a town that can see the sea, rather than actually being situated on its shores.

The docking taxes at this port (which could be hefty as we’re talking in the days when sailors didn’t know how to sail against the wind) were likely the real and far less romantic reason for all the strife, with Helen merely the catalytic fatal-face fall guy (or girl in this case).

These sorts of skirmishes have been going on since the Bronze Age (with the Greeks wanting to keep trade routes clear to Russia), but obviously the straits are still very important for trade and, while they legally belong to Turkey, there are international agreements in place restricting their closure in times of peace (and the straits have in fact only been closed once, in WW2 when Hitler wanted to use them to invade Russia).

The Historic National Park of Troy (a national heritage site) is undoubtedly the most important ancient site in the Canakkale region – and one of the most important in the whole country. It is situated 5km inland and some 30km south of the Canakkale city centre.

Still, arguably, if Homer had not written the Iliad and Odyssey, Troy today wouldn’t occur to tourists and would largely be a place of interest for archeologists, digging the 9 layers of settlement of this city that was active from 3,000BC until the birth of Jesus.

The infamous horse’s tale begins with the Trojan War, which broke out in 1200BC when the Achaeans invaded because they believed that Spartan King Menelaus’s wife (Helen) had been abducted by Trojan King’s son, Paris (when in fact they had eloped). The Achaeans had in any case been waiting for the opportunity to conquer this trade route for many years, so they set off to Troy with a huge army.

Troy’s walls were too strong, however, so the battle went on fruitlessly for 9 years. The Achaeans realised they needed a new strategy, so they feigned retreat, leaving behind a gigantic wooden horse as a gift. Believing the gift to be an offering to the gods, the Trojans accepted it and took it into the city.

The warriors hidden inside snuck out that night and opened the city gates to let their army in and then captured and put the ‘Troy’ into ‘destroyed’.

Amazing that in those times they could build something so sturdy. Amazing that this location is so sought after that it’s been built on 9 times, over itself, over millennia. Amazing to walk among the relics and the remains; to see the marble (brought from Marmar Island) to build the temple adornments and the ramps that were used to elevate heavy items because the wheel hadn’t been invented yet. Amazing to see walls so strong that they defended against armies and are now – 2 thousand years later – as good as the day they were laid (when I have settling cracks on my house built last year!)

It’s incredible how little some things have changed. There are water pipes that look similar to (and are as solid as) modern concrete ones. They had a fishbone style of building (town)houses side-by-side and back-to-back with strength and economy that Summercon only dreams of. Their city walls would render our most athletic of house-breakers ambitionless.

And we’ve been there. Bucket list? Tick!

(And did the touristy things like had photos in the demo wooden horse in the entrance courtyard, but that seems a bit trivial by comparison to the rest of the site).

We got back to Canakkale with instructions for an urgent evac, to get our stuff and bullet down to the harbour with at best 10 minutes to spare to catch our ferry back. We made haste, added a touch of speed and were back at the docks in record time… Only to find out we needn’t have rushed because ferrying to the other side would only have meant getting on the bus to get on the ferry and come back again!

With an hour to kill, we took a walk in an unexplored direction, found little to our liking and headed back to town to grab lunch in a little eatery on the town square that we’d eyed previously and thought we wouldn’t have time to get to.

What a great idea! We had the best thing I have tasted in time memorial. Beef stew rolled in pasta sheets with bechamel sauce (like a rolled lasagne with stew instead of mince) with melted cheese on top. Genius! Totally stole the thunder of the second course which was a freshly prepared pizza base (mixed and kneaded right in front of us) with a thin layer of mince spread over it, baked in the pizza oven, then removed and sprinkled with lettuce, onions and tomato and rolled up and served like a wrap.

Pity we couldn’t get the names, because everything is selected from the counter display, canteen-style and even our cle-ar-ly e-nun-ci-a-ted questions and spontaneous Charades just confused the server into thinking we wanted take-aways rather than the names of what we’d just eaten.

Now that we’ve left for Kusadasi, I fear we’ll never know. *sigh*

Travelogue Turkey 2: Gallipoli

16 April 2012

We started the day very early, anticipating a 6.30 pick up. The upside was getting the bread fresh as it arrived from the bakery (gorgeous!). The downside was, well, it was 6.30. Buffet breakfast was the same except for the soup, which was a sort of creamy-murky with little bits in it and I thought looked like chicken. On closer inspection (in my bowl) I thought it might be broccoli bits, but hoped for mushroom. On tasting I realised it was none of the above, but inoffensive so I scoffed the lot anyway. Mother joked that perhaps it was just the cleaning water to soak last night’s soup out of the terrine. Best that we never know the truth methinks!

The minibus fetched us last – and an hour late – so we had no choice but to take the single seats against the sliding door. Turned out to be marvellous since I had the legroom of the full length of the sliding door in front of me and the people on the double seats were being blasted with alternating heater and aircon from the radiator on their side.

The trip to Gallipoli is a long one by road, taking around 5 hours. Some of the people on our bus were doing a daytrip from Istanbul, which is madness requiring 10 hours in a bus to explore for only a few hours in between. Moreover, one of the couples was returning to Istanbul only to fly back to Ephesus the next day… Completely missing Troy which is just across the water from Gallipoli town. The best way (in time and money terms) certainly seems to do it as we’re doing it, as a big loop from Istanbul to Gallipoli to Troy to Ephesus.

We arrived in Gallipoli in time for a set-menu lunch at Liman Balik restaurant in Eceabat. A delicious chicken noodle soup to start (for sure this time; looked and tasted like it) and for main course was chicken kebabs with crispy chips, what looked like a springroll but with cheese and herbs inside and a bit of a fritter looking thing that was awful so I abandoned it. Salad on the side consisting of grated carrot, pickled purple cabbage, lettuce and tomato (that all went untouched). An apple (light green, soft and floury) for pudding was a poor show after all the bakeries and exotic sweet things we’ve seen along the way.

Fed and watered, we were on our way to the Gabatepe Museum for a talk on the wartime activity at Gallipoli Peninsula. This area is famous mainly for the skirmishes and great battles that took place in the area between March and December in 1915 between the defending Turks and the attacking Allies. The Gallipoli Peninsula today is filled with cemeteries, war museums and memories of this sanguinary war.

Churchill (then a First Lord of the Admiralty) had devised a grand scheme to strike the Central Powers on a new front in south-eastern Europe, knock Turkey out of the war and open up a much needed relief route to Russia through the Dardenelles.

The campaign began with an attempt to force the Dardenelles by naval power alone, but this failed when 3 Allied battleships were lost to Turkish mines. They then sent in a 70,000 strong expeditionary force made up of soldiers from Britain, Newfoundland, India, a French Colonial division and untried Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC).

Although there were casualties for all forces, the majority were Aussies and Kiwis sent in to fight and “die for King and Country” (as the plaques and headstones remind us). Anzac Cove is named for this failed campaign. The story goes that this was the point where they landed to come and attack, having navigated poorly and missed their intended landing point (Gaba Tepe), not realising that they’d picked a cove with hilly terrain and impossible cliff faces when there were far easier beaches on low foothills on the bays on either side. Having been trained in Egypt, they saw a rugged crag that looked (vaguely at best) like the Sphinx and thought this a good sign. Those poor chaps must’ve had a helluva time lugging themselves and their gear up those steep inclines… to their death. Those that survived the hostile terrain, suffered the extreme heat and unsanitary conditions which would prove almost as deadly as the Turkish fire.

It’s debated that the most successful part of the campaign was its evacuation, where the officers had gone to elaborate lengths to hide the intention to retreat – and had executed the operation near silently under the cover of darkness. Few lives were lost, bringing to an end a campaign which has cost the lives of almost 36,000 Commonwealth, 10,000 French and 86,000 Turks.

Commonwealth forces were only able to revisit the Peninsula after the Armistice, by which time many grave markings were lost or destroyed and the unburied beyond identification. They established 31 cemeteries containing 19,000 graves of which only 6,000 were identified. The names of the remaining 27,000 buried in unknown graves or never found are commemorated on 6 memorials to the missing on Gallipoli. The Canakkale Martyrs Memorial is dedicated to the memory of the Turkish soldiers who died, with smaller memorials and cemeteries on the Peninsula, mostly symbolic and containing few actual graves.

We visited a few of these places of interest winding back on the route from Anzac Bay to Gallipoli town, but were told that there are literally hundreds of cemeteries in the bush with final resting places where the soldiers died.

Lone Pine was a strategically important plateau (so named for the single tree that stood on it) in the south of Anzac was stormed by the Australians on 6 August 1915 and held until evacuation. The cemetery and memorial commemorates the 5,000 soldiers that died here with a graveyard that still has a single pine tree in the middle. Apparently, a young Aussie took a kernel from the tree and planted it in Australia and it flourishes as a mirror memorial (or it could have been the other way around, the guide seemed more sold on the sentiment than the syntax).

Johnston’s Jolly stands on the northern part of the plateau and is named for the Aussie Colonel Johnston who said that if they could bring the enemy to bear on that point he would have a ‘jolly good time’. They didn’t, but it’s worth a visit to see how close the enemy trenches were to one another. There’s one point where the trench entrances are literally across the road from one another!

It was scary to see how young all the soldiers were when they died – most teenagers or early twenties, a handful in their thirties and only one that I saw who was 41. Thousands and thousands of graves. Lunacy.

Sounds like hundreds of thousands of men (from both sides) died there in WW1 and there are still banners and commemorations all around the region that acts as reminders of their ‘recent history’ – almost a century ago. Interestingly, Mustafa Kemal, a commander in the war who became the first president of Turkey (known as Ataturk or ‘father of the Turks’, the name of Istanbul’s international airport) put up a memorial at Anzac Cove in 1934, which includes the words “You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries, wipe away your tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well”. Nice sentiment, but small consolation I’m sure.

The tour was quite maudlin and it’s horrifying that such carnage had made sense in the context of those war games. Although at the outset we hadn’t known too much about the goings-on in Gallipoli, the Aussies on our tour seemed to be quite knowledgeable on the details so at least the significance of the slaughter isn’t entirely lost (or bound to tourist attraction).

Done with the history and education for the day, we transferred back to Egeabat (European side of Turkey) to catch the ferry to Canakkale (Asian side).

Although Turkish uses the same alphabet as ours, the language is completely foreign with no similarities on word association with any of the languages I’m familiar with. There are lots of cedilla and accents, common in the Eastern European languages, so the phonetics and the syllabic emphasis are unpredictable. For example, we’re in Canakkale, which is pronounced ‘chuh-na-calay’, with a down accent on chuh, up on na and down again on calay.

Canakkale is a crucial geographic bottleneck controlling the crossing between Europe and Asia, as well as access to the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea beyond.

The history of the Canakkale Region (Troas) goes back to about 5,000BC, steeped in legend. Mythology would have us believe that King Athamas’s children, Phryxus and Helle, were sent away on a flying ram by their (presumably wicked) stepmother. Whilst flying over the Dardenelle Straits, Princess Helle fell off the ram and into the water… Giving the foundation for the name Hellespont.

The Persians were also in Canakkale in the 5th Century BC, when King Xerxes built his bridge of boats across the narrowest point of the Dardenelles to land 100,000 troops on Thrace, as part of his planned conquest of Europe. A cunning plan… Thwarted by the twin disasters at Thermopylae and Salamis.

Of course this sort of thing doesn’t happen much anymore since people traded in flying rams and ferry tickets.

Landing in Canakkale we were delighted to find a quaint little seaside town with narrow single lane cobbled streets, a delightful little town square with traditional clock tower and marina lined with restaurants and cafes (that serve freshly caught seafood from the surrounding waters).

Our hotel, the Kervansaray, was founded in 1719 and looked like a Western Saloon with bare wooden walls and floor boards, worn red carpet up the winding wooden staircase and very high ceilings. The big flashing ‘Hotel’ sign that hung vertically above the entrance (and between the windows in our room) was just a decor bonus.

With daylight time in short supply, we headed straight out to see the town, which was small enough to circumnavigate on instinct since it was so small – especially handy since the tourist map seemed to be neither to scale nor based in fact.

First up was the Troy wooden horse that was used in the making of the Brad Pitt film and that is displayed on the Northern end of the harbour’s marina. A few snaps later, we retraced our steps and went to the Southern end to see the (apparently) famous castle (Kilitbahir Fortress) and war museum. Had had about enough of warmongery for the day though, so after a quick in-and-out, we headed for more familiar territory – the local Bazaar.

The Mirror Bazaar wasn’t much to write home about. A small hall of trinkets and souvenirs, open for enjoyment with extended shopping hours until 10pm. We should have considered ourselves warned since the receptionist at the hotel had described it to us as “full of unnecessary things that you can buy”, but one man’s trash is another man’s treasure (so I’m told) and we’ve been tickled at several literal translations of turns of phrase, so it certainly warranted a first hand looksee either way.

Sight-seeing and shopping ticked off the day’s list, all that remained was to find more exotic fare to sample for dinner. We found a lovely little Turkish restaurant (although I suspect they just call them restaurants here), which was the first we’ve found with menus with pictures AND English translations of each dish’s name AND English descriptions of what each dish is.

We ended up with a chicken doner wrap and a kofte sandwich (which undersells the half baguette that arrived), with a Kunefe for pudding (deep fried angelhair pasta stuffed with white cheese and covered in a sort of syrup). A great way to end a long day!

Travelogue Turkey 1: Joburg – Istanbul

13-15 April 2012

After a mad panic of a day (and starting packing at 17h25), I arrived at Mother’s house at 18h00, exactly an hour late. Fortunately, our plan had lots of buffer time so there was little harm done and we were soon on our way to the airport to start the adventure.

We arrived at the airport with time to spare, especially seeing as international departures was tumbleweeds and there were no queues. After having our bags plastic-sealed (mandatory and free for all Egypt Air flights we were told) we breezed through check-in and passport control, leaving plenty of time to hit the Slow Lounge.

Or so we thought. Apparently this is only a benefit for FNB Private Bank customers at international departures, so we were unceremoniously turned away and ended up (after unfruitfully checking every single other lounge to see if there was some card, ticket or membership profile we fitted) setting up camp at the boarding gate.

This allowed perfect space and time to set up Mother’s Kindle (The Perfect Birthday Present, clever girl I am) and Amazon Account. We delighted in downloading her first 4 (free) books in mere seconds and were soon being urged to board.

Dinner on the plane took an interesting spin on the usual dichotomy, when the hostess started off with “Fish or beef?”, changed to “We’re out of beef; there’s only fish left” by the row before us and, after checking with another trolley after the impassioned resistance from the man in front of Mother, ended up serving us chicken. Not bad: salad for starters (Mother and I simultaneously picked the feta off and abandoned the rest – this not-apple definitely didn’t fall far from that not-apple tree), chicken fillet with tomato and peppercorn sauce, mash and soggy carrots and broccoli for main and coconut cake thing for pudding (left untouched, no danger).

The Egypt Air entertainment programme – on communal screens – had a few false starts with the scheduled movies cutting out a little after the (always stirring) Fox intro sequence and then settled on screening a movie listed as being for ‘Flights out of Egypt’. Or so I’m told, I was out by then.

(What felt like) A few moments later (but was 4 hours) it was breakfast time already. A disappointing affair with rolls and very unremarkable confitures. A situation easily remedied at the Cairo Airport transit lounge with Burger King (for the body) and free wi-fi (for the soul).

The four hour stop-over passed quickly with eating, bbm’ing, reading and people-watching (largely comatose dreadlocked hippy to the left, German mother and *very* active toddler at 2 o’clock and Sleeping Tiger Drooling Asian to the right of me). All the while I was being ignored by Mother who was spending quality time with her Kindle 😀

Cairo to Istanbul is a mere hop in the international flight stakes, made even easier by having secured the best seats in the house (the emergency exit seats are the only 2-up set of seats on a plane of 3-up both sides of the aisle, with obscene amounts of legroom). The only downside is a steward’s seat facing, made infinitely more awkward by our steward’s combination of permanent-fixture dark glasses and teary demeanour (we amused ourselves with fantasy scenarios to explain the situation).

Our driver was waiting to meet us when we exited the airport from (our feather-light) baggage claim. We were a bit disappointed to see that it was raining, but pleased to have pre-planned transfers so as not to have to brave new ground with the handicaps of luggage and language. After a combination of chaotic highways and suburban twists and turns, we arrived at the very lovely Old Princess City Hotel.

We checked in, did a quick freshen-up and were about ready to hit the town when our tour Operations Manager called and asked for a quick meet-and-greet. We agreed and were face-to-face in the reception some 15 minutes later.

The meeting was opportune as one of the priority items on our agenda was to find something spectacular to do for Mother’s birthday on Friday. We set our sights on adding a daytrip to Capadoccia onto our itinerary over all of the cheesy and over-priced alternatives for dinner cruises and cultural evenings in Istanbul and our operator committed to leaving a message at reception with options for us.

With that, it was up and out and off to the Grand Bazaar, which was the perfect outing for a rainy day and an itinerary-timing necessity since it is closed on Sundays.

The Old City Princess Hotel is conveniently located alongside the city’s tramline system and we found to our delight that our station (Yusufpasa) is 2 stops away from the legendary Grand Bazaar – the biggest and oldest bazaar in the world.

The tram system is super-simple. Figure out which direction you’re wanting to go (easily done from the routing diagrams mounted at each station) and then it’s 2 Turkish Lira (about R8.20) to get on and stay on for as long as you like. Cash is exchanged for a tramline token at one of a bank of terminals just ahead of the entrance turnstiles and are idiot-proof to any literate person with only 3 buttons to worry about: change language (good thinking, Turkey), quantity of tickets and confirm. The trams are not only cheap and easy, but also spotless. Not a sign of graffiti or litter anywhere, seats intact and clean with young people ceding for old people. Surreal.

The Grand Bazaar is located along side the tramline, so it was easy enough to hop off and run for cover under the awnings that line the walkway into the bazaar. We almost made the rookie mistake of shopping in this walkway, lured in by the shopkeepers’ friendly greetings and the gorgeous leather goods, delicacies, confectioneries and other exotic items on display. Little did we know what lay ahead…

The bazaar is a monster extending 30,000 square metres,  including 18 gates, 65 streets, 21 caravanserais, 5 mosques, 6 fountains and 4,000 shops. Once inside, it’s a maze of shops selling everything and anything, but with a distinct concentration of jewellery, leather jackets and bags, carpets, knock-off label clothing and handcrafted wooden items (mostly games and chests) interspersed regularly with tea/coffee booths.
The Turks are hard-sellers and haggling is an interesting exercise. Asking questions seems to some degree obligate a purchase and the shopkeepers get quite verbally hostile when you try to extract yourself from their store. Nothing is marked with prices and any enquiry stimulates a barrage of banter and a physical ushering into the store, which is inevitably big enough for both of you, but small enough that the seller blocks your escape and can reach almost anything from any shelf to ‘show and tell’ until you succumb. Getting out of the store unscathed (well, emotional spend rather than monetary) is best achieved by a 2-pronged approach. 1) fake left, move right and 2) a constant flow of thanks and promises to return to buy later. Don’t get eye-contact, don’t let them speak and definitely don’t stop! It may sound rude or heartless, but once you’ve had your first lecture on what a bad person you are for not buying the wallet/carpet/bag/shoes/souvenir, you’ll appreciate where I’m coming from.

Nonetheless, we had a ball in the Grand Bazaar and emerged several hours later (always the last to leave) with bags of shopping of all descriptions.

What a relief to have the tram right outside so we could get back to the hotel, relinquish the new treasures and head out for dinner.

Sadly, it was still raining (although very lightly) so we opted to keep local for dinner. We walked up the road looking for a place of interest. The roads are largely peppered with eateries (restaurants, local and western fast foods and lots and lots of bakeries and confectionery stores) and clothing stores with the odd supermarket or goods retailer and very rarely a commercial office – really my kind of place!

We window-shopped for food until we found the best of everything – a lovely little wooden chalet-looking cafe with a huge L-shaped glass counter packed with all sorts of savouries and sweets on display, a chef manning a chicken doner kebap (literally translated as “rotating roast”) in the doorway and a pizza oven and coffee station. None of these elements was unusual on our road, but this was the first place that had all of them.

We shared a chicken doner wrap and a mince and cheese pide, which is a pizza sort of thing that looks more like a flattened sub and has a very aerated, light and fluffy pastry. Both were winners. Mother had a very frothy and creamy-looking cappuccino, afraid to tempt fate with the more traditional Turkish brew, which looks fatal in the sleep stakes.

After a long first day, we headed back to our very comfortable hotel to enjoy a horizontal night’s sleep.

Sunday seemed to come all too soon – mostly because we had a City Tour booked that was collecting us at 8.30. Breakfast was a continental buffet affair with fruits, cereals, Turkish bread (scone things, rolls, sesame-seeded baguettes, all fresh and divine), cheeses and a selection of meats (all very processed-looking and nowhere near as good as Seemann’s). The hot food section was thin with hard boiled eggs, very scary bright pink viennas and split pea soup (?!) The juices were also a selection of orange, (and the more unusual) peach and cherry. Despite ourselves (and our family’s notoriously poor timing-keeping), we were ready and waiting at the prescribed hour – although, in a cruel karmic twist, our driver was not since he was having breakfast in our dining room!

We picked up the rest of what we thought was our tour group of 10 people and headed for the sights. When we got there we were split from the rest and assigned our own tour guide. A mixed blessing because while we would have the freedom to move freer and quicker, the other group got the more eloquent guide.

Istanbul (pronounced “e-stan-bul” by the locals), boasts the 3rd largest city wall in the world behind China’s great wall and another city in East Turkey. The city is very clean and well looked after, with cultivated and manicured gardens a frequent fixture on pavements, corners and centre islands. The gardens always have tulips as this is a Turkish cultural icon, often alongside carnations and always with sprays of colour giving a cheerful and well-tended feel throughout.

The Old City is on the European side of Istanbul, but the city continues over the Bospherus Strait into Asia. This strait runs for 32km and is the only route for the Black Sea in the north (with Bulgaria and Russia on its West and Northern shores respectively) to get to warmer seas, namely through the Marmara Sea (the only sea owned by a single country), the Dardanelle Strait (65km) and into the Aegian Sea and subsequently the Mediterranean.

But I digress. We are just arriving at the Hippodrome, which is a central quadrangle where all the entertainment went down in ancient times, namely chariot races and such, which makes sense since it was commissioned by the same chap who did the Circus Maximus in Rome. It must’ve been quite something in its day, 450m long and 130m wide, able to hold 100,000 spectators on 40 steps. The guide reckons that events drew the majority of the population out to view since there were (clearly) less entertainment options than today. Or maybe chariot races are just that good.

The original track is some 5m below the present surface, with the only surviving monuments being the 2 obelisks and the Serpentine column (made of brass and long-since relieved of the entwined serpent heads after which it is named) that once adorned the Spina (middle barrier of the racecourse) and now sit in holes in a landscaped garden.

Conveniently, the other major sites are all in the same complex (which makes sense since olden times didn’t have the luxury of minibuses and trams). So, next up was a few steps to the left and some jumps to the right and we were time warping to the Blue Mosque – queue-jumping up a storm with our slimline tour group of 3.

The mosque is really quite something. The typical high-roofed, multi-domed, big mural windowed, gold-gilded old school place of worship, but with the added novelty of 21,000 ceramic tiles all hand painted with bright primary colour tulips and carnations. Cleverly, they always used to build markets alongside the mosques to fund the build and provide sustainable sources of income to keep adding to it. Although glad to have seen it, am very glad not to have stood in a half hour queue to goose-neck at some tiles and stained-glass windows – and was very relieved to be able to put shoes back on after standing on bare marble in socked feet (I bet a fair number of worshippers have used their time there to pray for carpets and/or underfloor heating!)

The route from the mosque to Hagia Sophia walked past the Turkish Baths, still in full operation today. It was a delight to again skip the queue into the Hagia Sophia (a big reason to opt for organised tours with guides that pre-buy tickets) and head straight into the building. The Hagia Sophia (translated as ‘divine wisdom’) was originally built as a church and has been burnt down twice. Remains and relics from the first two buildings are on display in front of the current one, which has been acting as a museum since 1934.

Within the building, you can clearly see from the decor that it was built as a church, with Christian murals and mosaics adorning the walls, ceilings and domes. Peculiarly, the conversion of the building to a mosque was simply done by adding enormous (8m diameter) black disks with gold Islam symbols and writing on top of the existing artwork along the ceiling cornices. Sort of screws up the original vibe without definitively staking claim to the place.

Still, we enjoyed all the obligatories, walking up the 3 sets of ramp passages to see the church from the emperor’s viewing deck and sticking thumbs in the wishing hole where if you can do a full rotation of your hand without your thumb coming out of the hole then your wish is supposed to come true. If this turns out to be real then I’m in the Pound seats for sure!

While it was a better experience than the average church, it was still good to be outside because it’s colder inside than outside from all the marble in such a cavernous space.

Right next door is the Sultan’s Palace Complex. We didn’t pay to get into the palace (20 Euros each seemed a bit steep for our level of sight-seeing involvement), but did wander around the gardens, where you can see Asia from this European vantage point. The area also contains the only church in Istanbul not converted to mosque and once had a hospital, mint and bakery that serviced just the people that live in the palace complex (over 4,000!) Concluded that part of the tour with a quick sneak through the Gates of Salutation (the pay part) for a photo.
The minibus collected us from the morning of city touring and was all ready to set off to drop us at our hotel when we hatched a wicked plot: “let’s go to Asia for lunch!” (seemed only right seeing as 97% of the country actually is in Asia and we’d been frittering away all this time in Europe). With the guide still hellbent on selling us an over-priced cruise meal rather than realising that we are more than capable of self-navigated explorations, we realised that first step was to ditch him. We got them to drop us off at the ferry and bought our tokens (also 2TL, bless the Turks and their elegant simplicity!) and boarded the ferry for the cross-continental traverse.

Couldn’t have taken more than 20 or 30 minutes for the whole journey and presto, we were disembarking at Kadikoy, the main port on the Asian Istanbul coast.

Different to, but just as cool as, the Old City. The port was busy, bustling and neon branding, with roads satelliting up the hill away from the coast with lots of buzz and activity. Just as much shopping, but bazaars were replaced with rows of little roads and pedestrian avenues with (bargain) shops melding into a sort of flea market with little shops and stalls.

First order of business was lunch and we found a gem of a place with self-service canteen-style set-up which replaced the language barrier and foreign menu with point-and-service idiot-proofing! We hit paydirt first time with a portion of besemel kebaplari (chicken and mushroom “pie” with a light dough cap baked with bechamel sauce on top) and a chicken portion stuffed with savoury rice served with sauteed potatoes. Just gets better and better!

After a lot of walking and a fair amount of shopping (again), we headed back across the Bosphorus Strait to get to the Spice Bazaar.

To be honest, the Spice Bazaar is – as a smallish L-shaped market – a bit disappointing after the magnitude of the Grand Bazaar and most of the shops sell (not surprisingly) spices, tea/coffee and knick-knacks and souvenir items so it can’t compete with the variety of Kadikoy. It does have the inevitable colourful history seeing as it’s been around since 1660 etc etc, but its fate was sealed when the adjacent mosque wailing started, which was just too much to take at sunset after such a long day of pavement-pounding.

We grabbed the tram and headed back to the hotel to drop our shopping off and ended up meeting with our tour operator to confirm our Mother’s Birthday Excursion to Capadoccia. With that all sorted, we headed out for dinner and did a typical for us, trawling up and down the street for somewhere appealing… And ending up at the diner directly across the road from the hotel. Another feast of toasted doner, 1 chicken and one beef, jam-packed and delicious!

What a day! What a city! Istanbul is incredible.