Friday, July 4, 2014

Up, Up, and Away, and Round and Round

Thursday, July 3

Our day in the sky was supposed to start with a 4:15 am wake-up call, but the muezzin at the mosque next to our hotel made the first call to prayer at 3:27.  By 4:50 we were in the vans headed to the balloon take-off point.

WOW!  At our site there were at least half a dozen multi-colored balloons in various stages of inflation in the early morning glow.

We were prepared, as this area, somewhat desert-like, gets pretty chilly until the sun comes up. After a few minutes, our whole group (28 in all) climbed into the basket, and with the two pilots, gently lifted off. 

This experience should definitely be on everyone's Top 10 list of Must Do's.  The combination of floating gently with the breeze, the 50+ other balloons simultaneously floating all around and above and below, and the other-worldly landscape at sunrise make this a truly magical experience. 

OK, enough with the words. 


We floated at various altitudes (reaching a maximum of 700 m), and covered several kilometers over about an hour, before we touched down so softly that there was barely a bump. The pictures cannot convey the ethereal feeling. It is very quiet, except for the occasional "whoooosh" of the propane flame heating the air. At times we just hovered in one spot; other times we would come (seemingly) perilously close to a towering hoodoo and then, at the last minute, follow the air current up and over. We had a fabulous pilot.  It was hard to believe the hour went so fast. And they do just one flight a day!  Of course, there was the standard champagne-for-all as we alit from the basket, plus official "you survived" certificates for everyone. 

Then we were back on the vans and headed for an outdoor breakfast in a secluded arbor. We also saw a woman demonstrating the traditional way that she makes pita bread with a cheese filling (it puffs up when put on the hot stone).

So good.  

Then we drove to the Goreme Open Air Museum, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is really a number of fairy chimneys in a specific area, dating from the 10th to 13th centuries, that served as an early Christian monastery and its associated chapels.

What makes this place extra special (there are other similar church complexes) are the exceptionally well-preserved frescoes. Photography is not allowed, so here are some pix from the Internet.

By 9:30 we were back at the hotel! There were no other activities scheduled until 6 pm (except for an optional rug weaving demo; been there, done that), and everyone was pretty tired.  So many folks, including us, took naps.

Fully rested, it was time for lunch.  We walked a short bit into the little village at the foot of the hill and had mezzes at A La Turka restaurant. First, a basket of fabulous bread with olive oil and sesame and spices for dipping.

Then, the mezzes: a beautiful salad, smoked eggplant puree, and beans-potatoes-carrots in sauce.

Finally, the obligatory baklava. This was exceptionally good.

Then Wendy had a face massage (complete with mud!) at the spa.  

At 6 pm we headed to another hotel which is where the Whirling Dervishes can be seen. We don't say "perform", since this is really a religious ceremony. And, as such, no pictures are allowed. First, three musicians began playing. They had a tabor, a recorder-like flute, and a really large zither. Then, two Dervishes came out (it was a pretty small space). There was a black light, so their white robes fairly glowed. They went through a series of ritual bows and other movements, then began to whirl. And whirl. And whirl...all while the music was playing. After about 5 minutes, they stopped, and repeated the whole bow-whirl process two more times! At the end, the lights came up and they did some "practice" whirls so that we could take pix.

Then we went into another room where we were served a traditional Turkish dinner by the hotel staff. It was good, but not exceptional or picture worthy.  

Friday, July 4

Another early morning wake-up call for our flight back to Istanbul (but, once again, it was beaten by the muezzin chanting at 3:29).  We were all set to go by 6:00, but the breakfast dining room did not open until 6:30. So we went outside to take a little walk. WHOA!!! Balloons overhead!!!!!  So we quickly went up the stairs to the rooftop terrace and saw this:       

Amazing!!!!!  A different perspective from yesterday when we were aloft.

A quick breakfast, ride to the airport, and our 1 hour flight back to Istanbul!  It was kind of strange coming back here...on most of our other trips, we see a city and then leave. So returning here (after being away for a week), felt like coming to a place we already knew (and we're back in Europe!). By the time we got in (the flight was a little late) and got the bags loaded and drove into town, it was 11:30, so....lunch!  We went to Hamdi, a well-known and highly rated restaurant right near the Spice Bazaar. This was a food tsunami!!  In quick succession we were given puffy pita bread,

a tomato and cuke salad, something like a falafel filled with meat (tastes better than it looks),

a Turkish mince meat pizza (when we asked what kind of meat it was, the waiter replied "mince meat")...

...a plate of bulgur...

and then 2 pieces each of beef, chicken, ground meat, and vegetable shish kebab (it was coming too fast to get it all in the pictures!)

Then, of course, MORE BAKLAVA!!!! This time it was walnut.
Everyone was now suffering from an extreme case of vacation-food overload!

So we walked it off by going the half block to the Spice Bazaar. This indoor market (though much smaller than the Grand Bazaar) has been operating for centuries. Originally it was called the Egyptian Bazaar, since many of the spices came from Egypt. At one time it exclusively sold spices; now it has stores with spices, nuts, caviar, Turkish Delight, candied fruits, etc., as well as some jewelry, lamps, hookahs, and other merchandise. But they all make for a colorful experience (as the merchants try to hawk their wares) and photo op.

We had an hour to wander around, but even after buying a few gifts, we still had 40 minutes to kill. So we decided to walk around outside and head back to the meeting place at Hamdi. But as we headed to the exit the crowd was thicker and we could see people wet and with umbrellas!!!!  After 20 days of absolutely perfect weather, it was now raining. And this was one of the few days we didn't put our umbrellas in our day bags! D'Oh!  So we quickly made our way to Hamdi, where a number of our group was already waiting.  By the time it was time to go, it was pouring! And our bus could only stop on the main street across the square. So we all dashed and splashed our way over, and everyone was soaked, but all were laughing about it. A fun way to end the tour.

Our hotel for this last night was the Pera Palace. This is a Grande Dame hotel, having first opened in the 1890s (and had major renovations 3 years ago). This was the place to stay for those who traveled on the Orient Express. Indeed, Agatha Christie wrote her famous book re same in this hotel! And Hemingway also stayed here and used the hotel in one of his books. Indeed, we were lucky enough to be put in the Hemingway room! Lots of pictures and press clippings on the walls. Very luxurious.

With that, it's güle güle (goodbye) to Greece and Turkey. We didn't really know what to expect and found this trip to be magical and memorable in all respects. The people, the history, the scenery, the weather, the food, the shopping, and the chance to share it all with you. If these countries (beyond a cruise stop) weren't on your itinerary before, perhaps they will be now. 

So, Chicago here we come. You'll get more posts in in October when Wendy and Emily travel to Israel for a 10 day dual-narrative, interfaith adventure. Until then, happy travels!


wendy and wayne

Thursday, July 3, 2014

On the Road

Tuesday, July 1

Hard to believe that we have just finished our first week of touring with the group. We've done and seen (and eaten!) so much; plus, it's really the beginning of the third week for us.

This post is called "On the Road", because for the next two days we will be moving around via the bus instead of flying.

So we reluctantly said goodbye to the Kempinski Resort in Antalya and headed out at 8 am.  As we drove through the city we could clearly see that almost all of the apartment buildings had solar panels on the top. Adjacent were one or more large barrels, filled with water. The sunlight is used to heat the water which is used in the building. Clearly they are taking advantage of this abundant natural resource.

Heading northeast, we very quickly were driving up and into the Torus Mountains. This is a major range that cuts across Turkey from east to west. It looks like the Rockies or the Alps (tall, sharp peaks), but, amazingly, it is made of sedimentary rock, not granite. That means that it used to be at the bottom of an ocean! This would be Tethys, which was a huge body of water in the Pangea age of Earth's development. So you can actually find evidence of sea creatures at the tops of the mountains. Beautiful scenery as we drove up to an elevation of 6,000 feet. Fir tree covered mounts, bare peaks, rivers, nomad goat-herder camps, and a number of small towns nestled in the valleys, each with at least one mosque (if we had a Turkish Lira for every minaret we've seen, we could pay for this trip!). After a while we stopped at a roadside fruit market.  This is where the people from the surrounding area come to purchase food.  Our guide bought bananas (a big crop here) for the whole bus. 

After about 2 hours we stopped for a "convenience break" at one of those large in-the-middle-of-nowhere tourist places: gas station, restaurant with local food, Turkish delight, honey (and honey combs for sale!), and tons of tourist clothes and souvenirs.

Back on the bus for another 90 minutes and we arrived in Konya (pop. 1 million). This is one of the most conservative cities in the country, although, once again, you could not tell from the way people dressed. Our guide said that a few years ago they were debating having separate public transit for men and women. And alcohol is only served in hotels, not regular restaurants.

Near the middle of the city is the mosque of Rumi. His real name was Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Balkh, and he was a 13th century poet, theologian, and Sufi mystic who created the whirling dervishes. These are actually like monks, and they whirl to remove their egos and purify themselves for the next life. More on them later, but one fun fact: on the holy day of December 17th, they have to whirl exactly 1,286 times!

"Rumi" means "Roman" in Turkish; he was called this because he lived on the Roman side of town. He built (or had built) a beautiful mosque, which is now a museum that contains Korans going back 700 years.

Speaking of years, there is a cemetery right across the street. Many of the plots closest to the mosque have 4 or 5 or more tombstones on them because everyone wants to be close to Rumi (his sarcophagus is in the mosque). The other interesting thing about the cemetery is that you will see gravestones that read, say, "Born 1347 Died 1931". Huh?  This is because the Muslim calendar is about 600 years behind the Gregorian. Another of Ataturk's decrees was that Turkey would switch to the Gregorian, so people who were born before 1922 use the Muslim year and if they died after that, they use the Gregorian!    

Then we had a brief stop at our hotel and went out again to Çatalhöyük, a Neolithic settlement from 7,400 B.C. To get there we had to drive about an hour. Wow! If you think Illinois is flat, you should see this place! Lots of farms, but also lots of flat barren land. Every so often there is a mound (from 15 to 60 feet high). Most of these probably have archaeological significance. Catalhoyuk is the most complete one found to date. It is a city of single room houses made of clay. The people would live in the house for about 100 years, then cut the walls in half horizontally, use that to fill in the floor, and then build their new house right on top!

This is how the mounds were made over a period of 1,000 years or more! So we could see the houses in the top level and the guide said there were 18 levels beneath!  The people also had the custom of burying their dead right in the floor of their house, so as the archaeologists dig down they find many intact skeletons. In fact, he said they found some just 3 days ago.  Another major feature of these ruins is the paintings on the walls. In one house we saw hand prints of a woman from 8,000 years ago.

Here we are in front of a second, nearby area, by a pit that is 8,000 years old.

The guide also told us that they have found no evidence of a class society (e.g., bigger houses, special amenities, no rank), nor anything other than a natural death for the people. In other words no money, no war, no government; just a peaceful community. Sounds pretty nice.........

You'll notice that there were no food pictures or descriptions for today. That's because the food was unmemorable and not blog-worthy. 


Miscellaneous Notes: Per our guide there are no homeless people in Turkey (because of a strong family support system), and, until recently, no begging. That may change due to the huge influx of Syrian refugees (of whom the Turkish government is very welcoming).

Mosques: Though they do use electronic loudspeakers on the minarets nowadays, the call to prayer must be done live; no recordings are allowed. Also, the large majority of mosques have one minaret. If you wanted to build one with two, you must have been related to the Sultan or have his permission. More than two indicates that it was built by and for the Sultan.

The auto industry is huge here both in terms of employment and as an export commodity. The largest Hyundai, Renault, and Porsche plants are all in Turkey. This is somewhat ironic, since the taxes on an auto purchase here can go up to 130%!  So a $30,000 car might actually cost $70,000!!!!  And gas is up to $11 a gallon. Who can afford to drive at these prices?  


Wednesday, July 2 - Part 1

Our quick stay in Konya is over as we hit the road again this morning. After about an hour's drive, we are actually cruising on part of the old Silk Road!  Our first stop was at the 13th century Aksaray - Sultanhanyi Karavansary. This literally means "caravan palace". And, indeed, it is quite impressive. This is like our tollway oases where the weary Silk Road travelers and their camels would rest for a day or two. 

It is built like a fort, and often had to serve as that function if attacked. Inside was a courtyard, and almost always a mosque in the center and rooms along both sides.

The back half was the actual stable and it was amazing! It was built with very high vaulted ceilings - mostly just to impress the merchants who passed through here.

It was those same merchants, going west, who told tales of this architecture, and that later became the Gothic Style that was used in the building of many of Europe's large cathedrals.  

Of course, right across the way was the "Caravan Café and Gift Shop". We actually bought a few things, even though it smelled like Oom Samsa de Winkel on the inside (a gift shop in the wine country of South Africa). Let's just say it was not a pleasant smell.

Another 90 minute drive took us (finally!) into the Cappadokia (Cappadocia - pronounced with a hard "c") region. This is from the Old Persian name is Katpatuka, which means "the land, country of beautiful horses". Nowadays, this area is a tourist spot due to the amazing hoodoos, fairy chimneys, canyons, and caves that stretch for miles.   

We stopped at one of the fairy chimneys. People have been living in the conical cave houses for two thousand years.

Originally they were carved out and used as churches, with storage on the bottom, a common area on level 2, and the church on the top level. Today, only 3 are occupied by families, as all of them are now part of a national park. We were taken into one of these and got to look around and hear about life there (through our guide as interpreter).

                                                                    Eight-year old Thomas (the son)

They actually have all the comforts of our home - dishwasher, stove, electricity, running water, even storage cabinets built right into the rock - except the bathroom is a few steps outside. This house has been in their family for 4 generations. Since it is now government owned, they can pass it on to a family member, but can not sell it.

The carpets on the floor were woven by the wife (pictured here) or her mother; one carpet is 100 years old!  

Since they are living in a hollowed-out rock, the temperature most of the year is about 68 degrees. However, on really cold winter days, they put a stove in the middle of the 2nd-level room and burn coal for heat. It was a fascinating look at a way of life so different from ours.
So different, that is, until we drove over and checked into our hotel, the Anatolian Houses. Not passing up an opportunity to make money, a number of hotels have opened in the last decade which, like ours, are built into the sides of the hills - cave rooms!

This is unlike any hotel we have ever been in. We are fortunate to be on the ground floor, as the steps (no elevators) to the upper one are rough and uneven (carved out of stone). Like the stone house we visited, ours has no air conditioning, but also apparently no ventilation!

Our final tour of the day was to Kaymakli - the underground city. There are several of these cities across the region of  Cappadocia. They were built starting in the 7th C AD through the 11thC AD as ancient "bomb shelters" for the early Christians-- first from the Romans, then from the Arabs. After that time, these " cities" were occupied by Turks until the 1929s.  

The underground city of Kaymakli was discovered in 1964 and housed up to 3,500 people (other nearby underground cities could house up to 135,000!). At points, it went up 75 feet deep. The site was extraordinary and we visited the church, kitchen, winery (lots of wine was required by these folks as they might be hiding out in the underground city for up to two weeks at a time), and family rooms, and we saw the wheel shapes that would be used to close off passageways.  The city is accessed via underground tunnels-- several quite low-- definitely not advised for particularly tall or claustrophobic travelers.
It reminded us a bit of the Chu Chi tunnels in Viet Nam-- though these tunnels (at least the ones we had access to) were more expansive. Another exceptional Turkish archaeological treasure.
Tomorrow is supposed to be the highlight of the tour: the sunrise balloon ride over Cappadocia!!!  And at night, a performance by a Whirling Dervish group.

All that and more in our next post! (Don't you just love teasers!)

xxxxxxx  w&w................