Turkey is a reduced rack Euro vacation and a forward-thinking Asian retreat. Istanbul, split by the Bosporus Straight, which pushes one half toward Europe and the larger chunk into Asia, is what I would consider the poster city for Turkey. Istanbul seems like any Western city until you dig a bit deeper to find mounds of Turkish delight, discount clothing prices, and enough nargile smoking to scent the whole city of green apple.
A priceworthy deal which boasts Western amenities and establishments, Turkey is every budget traveler’s go-to destination for chiseled scenery, adventure sports, and happenin’ urban areas. I was quite stunned that much of Turkey’s greatness is still a bit of a secret and I had a lot to learn as I started my Turkish adventure, lugging my overstuffed backpack down the San Francisco Union Square copy cat of Taxim in Istanbul.
Above: Taxim in Istanbul is similar to San Francisco’s Union Square, complete with a cable car running down the center.
Hostel found. Four flights of winding stairs climbed. Bags finally dumped off. New map in hand and old map of Jordan tossed out. Ready to explore. What is the first thing discovered? If you know me well you will guess my first destination: the ice cream stand. Dondurma in Turkey is unbelievably sticky from orchid root which they use to thicken the ice cream, making it a bit chewy. In fact, in the nicer cafes they provide you with a fork and knife to cut the block of dessert instead of the typical spoon for scooping. You will notice in this first video that the vendors love to play tricks and in the second one you will see how the ice cream sticks to the vendor’s serving tool as part of his show. Notice the second one takes a bit longer because Jason was keen to the jokes the sellers play on the tourists so he let another girl be suckered.
After the ever-important ice cream lesson I discovered some amazing facts about the country as a whole. Did you know the meat twirling on a spit that we often credit to Greece (gyros) was invented by a Turkish soldier who cooked a slab of meet on his sword over the fire? Are you aware that the Dutch tulips were a gift from Turkey or that turquoise was first found here and called Turk’s Quartz? It seems the Turkish were not historically given the credit they deserved so I was off to find what other Turkish novelties had been swept under the rug and I was ready to expose them.
Above: Istanbul’s Taxim Square. Notice the tulip statue.
Turkish Novelty 1: Southern Coast Sailing Trip
Above: The Babaveli 4, our sailing ship
The best way to see the beaches between Fethiye and Olympos is by jumping aboard a Turkish gulet, which is a hand-crafted sailing vessel. These trips are complete with accommodation, healthy Turkish meals and plenty of backgammon sets.
This sailing trip did not disappoint any of us, as we chatted, swam and ate our way through four days worth of sunny skies. At night, all 11 of us would sleep on mats on the ship’s deck under the stars and wake up to beautiful sunrises. Hey, when you have nothing but lounging and swimming to do everyday, it is easy to wake up at 5:30 am!
Above: Yasemin, our Turkish girl on board, with our first night’s feast
The sunken city of Kekova, a sleepy fishing village named Kas, Oludeniz or the “Blue Lagoon” and a pirate’s cave near Andriace Harbor were all accents to the lovely scenery of the Mediterranean. During the daylight hours snorkeled in clear waters and dared to jump off a few rock formations to the sounds of other ships egging us on. When the sun went down we played cards and one night we stopped to watch Turkey compete for a final chance at the Euro Cup 2008, but the German tourists at the table in front of us were the only people cheering when the night ended.
Above: Waking up on the deck to the sunrise
As if this rocky coast and blue watered slice of heaven could be made any richer, the people aboard our ship were spectacular. A pair of girls from Boston, sisters from Canada, a couple from England and a couple from Turkey rounded out the group well. We also had an excellent captain and gourmet cooks and of course, the professional Turkish photographer, whose pics I have yet to see.
Above: Chatting on board with Canadians, Turks, English and Americans.
Above: A Turkish lady makes and sells crepes to our ship from her boat.
Turkish Novelty 2: A Hamam
Believe it or not, this scrub down is neck and neck with the one your grandma would give you in her laundry room wash sink.
It all starts with a change into a dish towel-like “robe” with which you must wrap yourself. Next comes a mud mask, painted onto your face by one of the hamam workers, typically a shirtless man with a large pot belly who has his dish towel wrapped around his hips. Then it is off to the sauna to sweat out all toxins before rinsing in a cool shower. At this time, you are free to lay on the heated marble slab until your name is called for your bath.
Above: The dish towel covers we used in the hamam. Maura, me, Rose and Rory in the locker room before our first hamam experience.
The bath is performed (and I say performed for a reason here) by another hamam worker who starts by dumping buckets of warm water over you as you lie on a marble slab massage bed. Then, with his rough glove and a bit of water he exfoliates the skin, which feels like a rough back scratch all over. By the time he gets out the soap to lather you up, you can not believe you could get any cleaner. By blowing into a bag of suds, the hamam worker creates huge bubbles that cover the body. Then he starts scrubbing vigorously and does not stop until he has reached from your toes to your ears. This process lasts about ten minutes and is followed with four or five buckets of clean water to rinse. Like a wet noodle, your body is relaxed and flimsy and is then sent off to the cool pool for the final therapeutic stop.
A cup of tea follows up the bath and the body is rejuvenated, feeling squeaky clean.
Turkish Novelty 3: The Sweets
Above: Many Turkish windows lure patrons with sweets.
(See the Turkish sweets recipes under the Places tab above.)
Coming from a family of Midwestern bakers, I have to say I have a discerning pallet for sweets. Turkey has passed the taste test when it comes to the baked goods they have perfected.
Seen most commonly is baklava, which is layers of phylo dough, soaked in sweet sauces similar to honey and topped with finely ground pistachios and sweet spices. This treat is stacked so high in some shop windows that when they pour the syrupy sauce over the top of the mound in order to tease passers-by, it takes a few minutes for the thick glaze to run down to the last morsel.
The longer I was around Turkish sweet shops the more I realized that we do not have anything in the States to which I could compare these places. We have bakeries or ice cream stands or cafes, but you just have to see the Turkish sweet shops to get the gist of a real dessert success story.
Turkish Novelty 4: Ephesus and Diana Pension
Above: The library of Ephesus
The ruins of Ephesus give a flash back to the time when the Temple of Artemis was its most famous structure and the Gospel of John was being written nearby. Mention is still made of the seven churches of Revelation, since it was addressed to the community in Ephesus. Although the tour of the ancient city’s still standing structures was a sweaty endeavor, it was worth the effort, as seen by the photos.
While visiting these ruins, we disovered some important sites of our own, which also will make our history books. Out of six months of hostel life, we found home: Diana Pension. Its roof top terrace overlooking ancient sites, the shady garden area with a vine roof, and its spotless rooms and private bathrooms were what drew us in for the night. We had planned to stay one night, but the owner Mike and his apprentice Ronoldo are what kept us there for 4 days. Not only did they teach us about Turkish horse races and cuisine, but they treated us as their honored guests, always checking to see if there was anything they could serve us.
Above: Diana Pension’s famous breakfast.
At Diana Pension, the owners will cater to EVERYTHING the traveler needs, from clean laundry and maps to a huge Turkish breakfast and home-made dinner. I would recommend this hostel to anyone who is going to Celçuk or Ephesus.
Above: The roof top lounge at Diana Pension overlooks the city center and is an excellent retreat from the heat.
Above: Any fellow travelers should print this and take it to Celçuk or Ephesus in order to find Diana Pension.
Turkish Novelty 5: Cappadocia
Fairy chimneys and tiny dove holes seen most often from colorful hot air balloons help award Cappadocia with its fairy tale status.
Part of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Cappadocia has millions of hand chiseled homes, churches and buildings where people used their natural surroundings for protection. Erosion and volcanoes can be credited for some of the unique formations in this area. Also impressive were the underground tunnels, where whole villages lived when they were faced with bad weather or enemies. Many early Christians were forced into hiding in Cappadocia from Roman soldiers, who wanted to avoid the spreading of Christianity. As seen in the Goreme Open Air Museum, many caves were used as secret workship centers and gathering spots for groups of Christian people in hiding.
Joining us on this trip were Rose and Olie, our English friends from the sailing trip, and Maura and Rory, the girls from Boston who we also met aboard the boat. The six of us enjoyed a Turkish Dinner Performance with dancers and music on our last night in town and then went to the much needed hamam in the morning before sadly having to part ways after a week of being together.
Other Turkish Classics
I bumped into numerous other surprises in Turkey, from a Kurdish wedding ceremony, important to the guests for scouting out marriage prospects themselves, to the obsession with betting on horse races, which are watched on television at home in mid day. Strictly of Turkish culture are the old men in groups of 40 or more gather during the day in men-only cafes to sip tea out of clear shot glasses while honing their backgammon skills.
Above: A Kurdish wedding celebration.
Other absurd observations by my Western eye were the tubs of plain yogurt and salty yogurt drinks taking up half of the dairy section in any given market and the marinated olives ruling the produce aisle.
Winning a game in the Euro 2008 soccer championship got more tv coverage than any world news.
A lemon scented alcohol wash is poured into all of the hands of bus travelers, who spread it over their faces and necks before rubbing it quickly between their hands for cleanliness.
And the list could go on but I have too many people asking when this Turkey blog will finally be published.
These strictly Turkish customs make a trip through this country an enlightening adventure for the observant traveler and a great budget vacation for anyone who loves nature and exploring cultural differences.