Thursday, March 31, 2011

Let's Talk Türkiye

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Expectations can be interesting things. If low, an experience can seem better than it might otherwise have been. If high, we often are disappointed even with a very nice experience. My expectations for Turkey were pretty darn high. Within 30 minutes after arriving in Istanbul, I was already in love and planning a return visit.

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We had booked a private tour for the entire week we were in Turkey because we had several widely separated locations to visit, and we were quite anxious about the language barrier, knowing absolutely no Turkish. We knew there was a strong Muslim culture and we wanted to have someone to hold our hand to make sure we didn't make any major faux pas. As it turns out, we were glad to have booked the tour, but for none of the reasons above.

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Istanbul, and the rest of the areas of Turkey we saw, were very clean, very modern, very open culturally, and it was fairly easy to communicate in most places. Many signs were in English as well as Turkish. Many people spoke a little bit of English—enough to express simple ideas. Travel was easy, on well maintained roads where the driving is much more civilized than what we witnessed in the previous 3 or 4 countries we'd been to. Flowers were blooming on roadsides, in parks and in windows. It looked like any other modern European city—with the exception of the numerous of minarets punctuating the sky in any direction you would look.

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On arrival we were met by a slightly chubby, balding, smiling man holding our CTC Tours “FUSCO” sign. This was Sezai, our guide and companion for the next 7 days. We were glad to hear that he'd be with us the whole trip as were were initially told we'd meet a new guide in each location, which is fine, and probably would have been less expensive for the tour company, but ultimately there's a lot to be said for having a good relationship with the guide. And we loved Sezai. He holds degrees in history and German, and while only a guide for the past 4 years, his ability to speak off the cuff on just about any subject related to Turkish history, politics or even the Greeks and Romans was amazing. He was engaging, funny, enjoyed learning from us, and was very flexible to work with—by which I mean he was so very patient with my photo needs.

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We checked in at our hotel, which was nicely located, and while the rooms were simple, the restaurant was nice and the kids were thrilled because of the nice turtle display in the fountain at the main lobby. We quickly had a brief orientation tour of the area around the hotel, which was a mere 5 minutes from the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

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We took a super fast tour of the National Archeological Museum which contained some amazingly well preserved items, particularly some of the sarcophaguses.

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We'd been up for a long time after a very early departure from India connecting through Amman, Jordan, so we said goodnight to Sezai and grabbed a quick Donner Kebab, a Efes beer and returned to the hotel to rest up for a fairly early start the next day.

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Our first full day was a bit of a whirl wind of sight seeing. The Blue Mosque (more appropriately the Sultanamet Mosque) is huge and beautiful. Tamara had thought she and Amarra would be required to wear head scarfs, but even here they didn't have to (it is required for services of course).

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Sezai is a Muslim and was able to explain much of the ritual, history and details about the mosque and Muslim traditions. We saw the area where the Hippodrome used to be—there's nothing left of that at all except for a couple of obelisks, but the history was interesting.

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Hagia Sophia is a very old building built originally by the Christians and added onto many times by many different cultures. In the 1400s the building was taken over by the Muslims and many of the Christian features were plastered over and various Muslim symbols and decorations put up in their place. This was actually a good thing, it turns out, because since the Christian stuff wasn't actually destroyed it ended up being well protected by the plaster and has since been uncovered. The building is now a museum and everyone is welcome.

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We also took in the old underground cisterns, almost like a little city underground where massive amounts of water for the city were stored. They used recovered stone and columns from various ruins to construct the cisterns leaving some very interesting mixes of architecture including columns with swirls and even the head of medusa.

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The day was wrapped up with a visit to the Grand Bazaar, which is a maze of shops in a covered area. At last count there are nearly 4000 shops in this place. Haggling is a must here; they always start prices sky high and get a wounded look when you try to haggle, but ultimately, if you persist, you get your price. We picked up a few knick knacks and had a great time having banter with the sellers.

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From there we hiked across a bridge over the Golden Horn, took a tram up the hill and enjoyed dinner at a little cafe in “New” Istanbul—the area where we'd been is called “Old” Istanbul.

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The next day brought more sight seeing including the Topkapi Palace—a pretty awesome structure complete with a harem.

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We had a quick trip to the spice market where we had to sample all the varieties of Turkish Delight.

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After a nice lunch of some local food we boarded a boat for a cruise around the Bosphorus to see the sites from the point of view of the earliest explorers and conquerors of the area.

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Before leaving all of us 'boys' were in need of a haircut since it had been a good 7 weeks since our last one. So we just popped into the one barber we noticed near our hotel. We had no idea what kind of an experience we were in for! These two brothers have had the family business for 50 years. They give a traditional Turkish hair cut which, it seems, involves a lot of fast moving scissors, clicking of scissor and comb, and apparently even FIRE! At the end of my shave (with the old brush and straight edge technique) the barber dipped a cotton ball on some hemostats into alcohol, lit it, then proceeded to burn the tiny hairs off my ears! Between that and each of us getting 2 hair shampoos and a facial cleaning not to mention the free Turkish chai we got quite the show...and some good hair cuts and a shave to boot.

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From there we were off to the amazing Cappadocia area, famous for its “Fairy Chimneys”. These cool geologic formations are remnants of volcanic sediment and erosion that really present an other worldly image.

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Add to that, that for hundreds and thousands of years locals have dug caves into the soft stone of these formations as well as into the hillsides leaving the area with a true Hobbiton appearance.

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Our hotel was actually a “cave hotel” with rooms designed to feel like these homes built into the rock. We were down in a valley of a very tiny village. It was a truly unique place and experience.

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To get a true sense of the area one must take a hot air balloon ride, said to be one of the best places in the world to do so. We, and about 50 balloons worth of our closest friends, did so one cool early morning. What an adventure this is to add to the list. None of us had ever been in a hot air balloon before and we had a very enjoyable ride as our pilot maneuvered our craft along the terrain, at times close enough to touch the tree tops and other times hundreds of feet in the air. Everyone had a blast.

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But that day was just beginning. We explored an 8-story deep underground city that was several hundred years old and was complete with everything a city would need, including multiple wine making areas!

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We also visited a very old monk's village where the monks would dig into the Fairy Chimneys far above the ground level just to be secluded from people who might interrupt their meditations. We even visited an area that had multiple churches built into the hillsides complete with frescos.

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We wrapped that day up with a visit to a world famous pottery house called Chez Galip. This guy was featured on Martha Stewart's show back home at some point. Each of the kids got to try their hand at making pottery and we got swept up in the experience and ended up buying a nice wine flask with a traditional Hittite design painted on it.

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And one last place to visit—the one I was most looking forward to—Ephesus! We took a flight back to Istanbul and connected to Izmir, then a 1 hour drive to a small village of about 1000 people nestled in a bucolic, olive tree laden hill area called Sirince.

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Our “hotel” was actually a renovated village home left in a very rustic condition, but with just enough amenities to keep it cozy and comfortable for our finicky Western tastes. We had 2 bed rooms, a living room and a bathroom as well as a tiny kitchen and indoor and outdoor fire places. Breakfast consisted of a wicker basket left in our room with bread, jam, and olives—all homemade, fresh eggs, 2 cheeses, fresh fruit, a pepperoni like sausage, tomatoes, cucumbers, and a pepper. We did a cook it yourself and felt a bit like real villagers in our little home on the hill.

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But the highlight was Ephesus. This is the 3rd of 4 renditions of the ancient Greek, then Roman city and is quite well preserved in many areas. We spent 4 ½ hours exploring the site and despite elbowing through tourists and monster size tour groups got to see and photograph a LOT of the site.

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We had a late light lunch in the town of Selcuk (Evan even got invited to sit down to play Okey, a game sort of like gin rummy, with some local men at a men's only chai (tea) bar!)

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We then spent an hour or so in the Ephesus museum—something you must do b/c that's where all the good stuff that they've salvaged from the ruins is kept! It was all right out there on open displays, you could climb on top of the statues if you were so inclined.

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Finally we went to the spartan remnants of one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World, the temple of Artemis. A single column stands, and the parts of that are mismatched and there are other column and foundation bits laying around a large field. But we knew it would be so before we got there and it's still cool to touch a piece of one of the 7 Wonders.

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We enjoyed a wonderful “last supper” with our wonderful guide at a small family owned restaurant near our village home tasting some traditional Turkish village food and wine. We had some good laughs and watched the sun set over the olive orchards.

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The next morning we were back on a plane to Istanbul and are now resting in our hotel in Athens, Greece. But I think all our minds are still very much on Turkey. This is an amazing Muslim country with a secular government that resides mostly in Asia, but with its feet deeply rooted in Europe. It sits as a gorgeous and friendly example of how different cultures and concepts of government can coexist and prosper. We're coming back to Turkey; there's simply no doubt about that. They have struggles ahead of them as they try to become a member of the EU. There are pressures to convert their government to an Islamic one. But I can tell you that all that is markedly separated from the individual Turks who live happy, prosperous lives and just couldn't be more friendly.

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