Riley Goes to Turkey (February 2014)

Categories: 2014 and Travel.

You may have noticed the lack of blog posts from me during part of February. That’s because the wife and I went to Turkey. What follows is a summary of what we did.

Why Turkey?

Turkey has always been on my list, but it was quite high up on Monique’s. The real reason we went, and now – in the winter, with the Syrian Civil War supposedly scaring people away – was because we got a deal. We got a groupon for a tour with Gate 1, an American company I had never heard of before. We were a little worried it would be all older people, but I think the groupon rounded up some young ones as there were a few people under 30 on this trip.
This was my first guided tour in over a decade, and I was a little worried about it. Like any guided tour, there were both good things and bad things:

The Good

  • The deal included flights, accommodation (more on that in a minute), breakfasts, all but two dinners, transportation, and guided tours most days;
  • I don’t speak Turkish, so a guide was helpful and necessary;
  • Fuel costs in Turkey are astronomical – some say the worst in the world – and there is no way we could have afforded to do this on are own for a similar cost – especially given the accommodations we had.

The Bad

  • The deal did not include two dinners, or any lunches, or any food traveling to and from Turkey;
  • There were “optional tours” (5, I think) that we had to pay for, which appear to be a way to make money after offering such a low rate – two of the tours were absolute must dos in Turkey and it was really weird they weren’t included – and these were, for the most part, significantly more expensive than what we (would have) paid doing them on our own;
  • The group was huge: 34 people;
  • As a result we had a huge bus, and rarely drove above 90 kmh on roads that had a legal limit of 120 – the bus itself could only manage 130 at the very most – meaning every drive took way longer than it had any right to and we spent a huge amount of time on the bus;
  • As with any guided tour, compromises must be made so we missed certain sites – at least one person seemed quite put out that the guide wouldn’t take us to the Gallipoli memorial, despite it not being included in the itinerary; 
  • Gate 1 has some really absurd rules – the most absurd being a “seat rotation” on the bus – which seem to have arisen as a corporate solution to solve occasional problems best resolved through common decency;
  • We still managed to spend lots of money, despite the initial deal.

But it was an incredible trip and I would do it again in a heartbeat. Here’s what we did:

Tuesday February 11, 2014

We took the TTC to the airport. We had a great flight on a British Airways 777 and I was reminded about how trans-oceanic travel is so much more civilized than flights within North America: your choice of movies, free booze, and so forth.

Wednesday February 12, 2014

We arrived in Heathrow and ate at a vegan-friendly restaurant there. Our flight to Istanbul was significantly less pleasant, but at least we still had a movie.
My first impression of Istanbul was of a city more modern than I ever would have guessed, with truly terrible traffic. But we were in the suburbs and Monique assured me that the traffic is far worse than Cairo. I think we drove by some kind of military base and, until we saw the city’s west walls, it really felt like something very different from what I had imagined. Also, the weather was really nice. 17 or 18C or something, when I was expecting 10C.
We were tired, and I was somehow convinced – due to the landing direction – that we were driving west along the Black Sea coast despite the sun setting behind us. When the pick-up guy told us we were driving along the Sea of Marmara and I almost said something. It took me ages to realize my mistake, which just goes to show you how tired I was.
We got to the hotel late, so we didn’t really have a chance to look around. The hotel, the Legacy Ottoman, shocked us both with its central location and its luxury.

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It’s located right in the heart of the “old town”, minutes from the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar, and everything else. The room was huge and the whole place reeked of something we could never afford on our own.
That night we met our fellow tourists – and were happy to see there were some people our age and even younger – and our guide. And we got introduced to Gate 1’s endless rules.
After that we had a dinner in the restaurant at the top of the hotel, and we were introduced to the first of Monique’s numerous problems trying to find vegan food in Turkey. We had both stupidly assumed that there would be plenty – such as some kind of Turkish equivalent of the falafel – and we were very, very mistaken.
We went to bed early, as we were tired. But not before we discovered the wide variety of English language TV available at this hotel.

Thursday February 13, 2014

It was cool in the morning, but it would soon warm up to the point where it was actually hot. 18 or 19 or even 20 at midday.
First we went to the old hippodrome, which has mostly been covered by new buildings. In it, though, are some interesting pillars, including an obelisk from Egypt, which was probably the oldest thing still standing we saw during the whole trip.

We went to the Blue Mosque next, which both Monique and I found slightly underwhelming, given its reputation. I’m not sure if it was the light or what, but the blueness wasn’t quite as overwhelming as I was expecting. And though the mosaics are impressive, it’s kind of hard to see them up close. It’s a pretty building, but I can’t say I was blown away, like I was blown away with Hagia Sofia.

The Hagia Sofia was built in the 500s and it is far and away the most impressive building of its vintage I have ever seen. It is absolutely ginormous – it’s hard to fathom how it was built – and it is full of incredible frescoes from that vintage. These were covered up by the Muslims when the place became a moss, and the whitewashing actually preserved them, so they are in better shape than most of their age. I really can’t put it into words: this is a must see building.

After the Hagia Sofia, it was time for our first “optional tour” costing, if memory serves, around US$65. It would take us to the underground cistern, built by the Byzantines, Topkapi Palace, the home of the Ottoman Sultans for centuries, and the Grand Bazaar. But we had heard that Topkapi was only 25 TL, i.e. around CAN$12. And then we heard that the cistern was 10 TL.So we went to the cistern.

The cistern is neat, and it’s impressive that it was built so long ago, but at the end of the day it’s just an underground building with a lake in it. Part of the problem, I assume, is that it’s not very well lit. But hey, I was in a 6th century underground reservoir!
After that, we went to lunch. Istanbul has all these fascinating multi-storey restaurants. The host / hustlers always yell at you “Rooftop terrace!” This particular one had barely enough room on each floor for tables. In fact, one floor was just the toilet. We ate on the 4th, I think.

After lunch we went back to the hotel for more (Turkish) money.
Then we continued to Topkapi Palace.

I really can’t say enough about this place either: it is ridiculously big, and full of “theme” buildings, for lack of a better word, which have been constructed over time to commemorate certain events and moments. Each one has different mosaics inside. It’s kind of insane. Also, it’s right on the intersection of the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara. So the view’s good.

We walked through the adjacent park on our way home. Monique was tired but I wanted to keep looking around, but by the time we got back to the hotel, I was done too.
Later, we went looking for a vegan-friendly restaurant that didn’t exist, and Monique ended up eating terrible hummus at some random place.

Friday February 14, 2014

Today was the first of many travel days and we discovered that the trip was going to feature daily early wake-up calls (usually at 6:30 local time). These were necessary to make sure we got everywhere we needed to go. But with jet lag it seemed slightly cruel and unusual.
We left Istanbul and headed for Canakale on the Asian side.

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To get there we had to pass through Gelibolu aka Gallipoli. One of our lot seemed kind of put out we weren’t going to see the memorial. I admit it might have been nice, but it wasn’t in the tour. We had places to see!
We took a ferry across the Dardenelles and drove on to Canakkale.

That’s where our hotel was, but we drove to Troy first.
The ruins of Troy actually contain 9 separate settlements and it’s pretty incredible. They aren’t in good shape, but I was really impressed. I think a lot of people weren’t as impressed as me, but I think that had a lot to do with how confusing the ruins are – how messy they are, everything on top of everything else, and everything covered in dirt.

The hotel was right in town. We tried to go to the bar that was on the top of the hotel, but fortunately it was closed. I say fortunately because it was lit completely red for Valentine’s Day. We got a sunset instead.

Interestingly enough, Canakkale has the Trojan Horse from Wolfgant Petersen’s Troy, and it’s far more impressive than Troy’s own reconstruction.

Saturday February 15, 2014

From Canakkale we drove to Pergamon, which is in modern day Bergama.

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Pergamon was an ancient Greek city built on a hill. We could only see the acropolis from another hill, as tour buses are no longer allowed up (and our party was perhaps a little too old on average for such a trek on foot).

Instead we went to the Aslepion, basically a Roman bath-cum-hospital. The Asclepion is in far better shape than Troy, though most of it has collapsed (or is buried), and is absolutely massive.

Though I enjoyed Troy, I think the Aslepion became my new post-Istanbul highlight of the trip.
Then we drove from Bergama to Kusadasi, a resort town on the Aegean.

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In fact, every part of this day’s drive on the coast was through resort towns, they never stopped.
Kusadasi is a resort town, as I said, and it feels like it. There are massive all-inclusive / half-board resorts dotting the road into town and the downtown itself is full of restaurants and a marina that features a totally unpredictable lit-up ramp with plants, that goes nowhere, a total tourist town feature if I’ve ever seen one. This was probably the first hotel since Istanbul that really made me sit up. It had a massive outdoor pool and all sorts of things to do – even tennis courts. It was a real resort.

We tried to by beer in the downtown and ended up with the same pilsners / pale lagers we found everywhere.

Sunday February 16, 2014

Today we did an “optional tour” for US$70. We went to Ephesus, in the modern town of Selcuk.

House of the Virgin Mary

The first stop was the House of the Virgin Mary.

According to legend, John the Apostle had brought Mary to Ephesus to save her from persecution. She lived on top of a very large hill in a house that has been rebuilt numerous times (so there is no sign of the original). There are ruins of a Byzantine shrine to her, which are perhaps more interesting (sort of joking). The house is visited by pilgrims and has a regular mass. The house itself is not interesting, what is interesting is the wall next to the spring (which contains “blessed” water which people bottle for healing):

If there is anything that shows the true futility of hope alone – as opposed to action – it is something like this wall. Why address my problems or seek help from someone else when I can write down my problems, tie them up and put them on a wall on a hill in southwestern Turkey?
I asked the guide how she got up and down this very large hill. At first he suggested she didn’t. Then he suggested a donkey. Either way, it was a really big hill.

Ephesus (the Hellenistic and Roman City)

I have never been anywhere like this before. The only Roman ruins I have ever seen prior to this trip were in Bath – under a British building – or underground. Pergamon was impressive, but Ephesus is another thing entirely; it is ginormous. I mean just unbelievably huge. And they haven’t uncovered anywhere near all of it yet. There are numerous highlights, but for me the most interesting parts were:
The main street:

The terrace houses:

The toilets:

The facade of the library:

The theatre:

Ephesus (the Archaic, Classical and Byzantine City)

Ephesus has a complicated past: it began as an ancient Greek city on a hill. Eventually, due to various reasons (the harbour silting up, malaria), it moved to the location where the main ruins are, in a valley between two hills.

However, that city was destroyed by the Goths and so, due to a smaller population and for defense reasons, the locals moved back to the original hill.

On that hill they built the second biggest church of its era, St. John’s Basilica, which is unfortunately not in the shape of the Hagia Sofia:

Back at the hotel, I went for a swim in the Aegean Sea, yes it was that warm. (The sea wasn’t, though.)

Monique went for a Turkish Bath, and then we met up in the pool. They had a sauna and a shower with four different spigots, so I spent the next hour going from the sauna to the “shock” shower to the pool and back to the sauna. (With a side-dip in the “hot tub”, where I learned the hilarious fact that Turkish hot tubs are less warm than their pools, at least at 5-star hotels.) I haven’t done that in some time and it was very relaxing – not to mention helpful in cleaning out my sinuses (I was sick for most of the trip).

Monday February 17, 2014

We drove from Kusadasi to Pamukkale, home of both Hieropolis and the famous travertines:


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Hieropolis isn’t quite as impressive a ruin as Ephesus, but it’s still well worth the trip. (As a side note, on our way in to Hieropolis, we drove past yet another ruin of a major city – they are apparently everywhere in Turkey.)
It has a theatre, which is smaller than Ephesus’, but there are parts of major buildings that are still standing.

Also, it has a necropolis that has to be seen to believed; it is literally larger than the ancient city itself. It is a site to behold.

The travertines are also an incredible site. From a distance they look like snow, but they are calcium deposits left by the spring over thousands of years.

They are incredible and, I would assume, relatively unique. The water is now directed so the pools don’t take up as much space as they probably would have, had the water been allowed to flow directly down. (Just a guess).

The hotel we stayed at that night, the Colossae Thermal Hotel, was a gigantic resort that was a maze getting around, and which had a spring-fed set of pools. But they were up-charging whenever they could: we had to buy swimming caps, but that was hardly the worst. All – or at least most – of the games were extra and not just a little bit extra. Everything we wanted to do, outside of the pool was extra or closed, and to give you just one example, the sauna was basically $25 to use (don’t know if that was one or multiple uses). And it had one of the worst selections of English channels. (No English-language TV in Turkey! Outrageous!)
Perhaps the weirdest part of the place was dinner, though, which I imagine was as close to a bad cruise-ship meal as I’ve ever been part of. There was a “DJ” using a keyboard with pre-set music – describing what he was doing as “playing” would remove the meaning from the word – and there were photographers coming around to our tables asking to take our pictures (and presumably later charging for these photos). And there were only tour groups. It was just a surreal experience, which I tried to drink in. I wish I had taken video so you could see it for yourself. Alas.

Tuesday February 18, 2014

Today was a bit of a wash as Monique woke up sick – she may have had some dairy the night before. We had a long trip to Konya, due to the usual issue of the bus not being able to speed, and that just made it worse. But we did get to see some snow-capped mountains (more than on the previous day).

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She felt so bad we ended up skipping the museum we were supposed to go to and went straight to the hotel. The museum was centered on the founder of the whirling dervishes or something like that.
The one really noticeable thing about Konya was the sheer number of headscarves – it’s apparently a very conservative place.

Wednesday February 19, 2014

Monique was feeling much better, so that’s good. We went to Sultanhani next:

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First, we had an incredibly awkward visit to a local school. Maybe it’s because we don’t have kids, but we felt out of place trying to make friends with kids in another language. The only other people who felt this awkward felt even worse than we did, and they were Canadian also, and similar in age. This leads me to wonder whether it was us or them – the rest of the tour group really enjoyed the experience. Is there something about our age group that makes us particularly cynical about a tour group stopping at an elementary school? Is there something in our Canadianess that makes us wary of contacting impressionable youngsters overseas? I don’t know why, but I was uncomfortable – more awkward than truly uncomfortable – and it was, for me, the least enjoyable part of an otherwise great trip, beyond Monique being sick of course.

Caravanserai

Our second stop in Sultanhani was at a Caravanserai, supposedly the biggest one in the area.

This was really neat, given that it’s in pretty much perfect shape and because I’ve seen them on TV. But there’s not much to see once you’ve walked through it. Then we went to Cappadochia:


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Aksaray

We stopped briefly for lunch in Aksaray. I haven’t mentioned lunch stops before because, for the most part, they were not that interesting. But this one was something else: this was my first taste of Turkish ice cream. And now I want more. It’s like gelato in flavour and texture, but that’s only its closest comparison. It really is unique. I want more!

Three Graces

We briefly stopped to look at some of Cappadochia’s unique landscape.

The Carpet Factory

After arriving in Cappadochia – a region, not a specific town – we went to a carpet factory and saw how they are made.

It was pretty interesting and we also got some Cappadochian wine – we were told it was the birth place of wine, though Wikipedia tells me that’s Georgia. Monique got a rug to hang, as everything bigger was too expensive.

Urgup

Then we checked into yet another high-end hotel, and we took a stroll into the town.

Some people went to a whirling dervish performance, but it was a little expensive for our tastes.
The hotel had a happy hour, where we got 700ml beers for approximately $5 each, or a little less.

Thursday February 20, 2014

Today was another day when it was “optional tour” or nothing. There was a balloon trip in the morning, but it was too expensive for us (and Monique didn’t really want to do it). There was no real way to do this on our own, so we paid for it. We stopped many places throughout Cappadochia, and these were the highlights:

A “Castle”

I missed the name of this hill in Nevsehir, that is apparently referred to as a castle. It is full of caves that early Christians – and perhaps people earlier than that – lived in, and some people still live in them now. In fact, some of the caves have even been turned into (very expensive) hotels.

Pigeon Valley

This is a valley full of the “mushrooms” or “fairy chimneys” made of ancient lava which dot the landscape.

Goreme Valley

This valley is the site of many rock churches dug by the early Christians in the 3rd century. Some of the churches’ frescoes have been damaged – and the older ones covered by newer ones – but others are in fantastic shape, and two of the churches are so utterly incredible that any fan of art or early human development should add these rock churches to their list.

Unfortunately – fortunately for posterity – I could not take photos of either from the inside as the frescoes are too delicate.

Lunch

We went to a mock caravanserai for lunch. It was one of the better meals of the trip and far and away the best deal: 15 lira for four courses.

An Underground City

Next we went to one of the many underground cities, made by Hittites perhaps or the early Christians (they don’t know). There are parts of 24 cities that have been discovered, and it is estimated that there are many more.

We went to one of the smaller ones due to its proximity and due, I assume, the age range of the tour group. (We heard that another city which goes down a full 7 stories was about an hour and a half away.)

Pottery

We then went to a potters that had been making pottery in a cave for two hundred years. The master potter was just incredible and I sort of wish I had filmed him.

The pots were all hand-painted, which is sort of incredible.

Friday February 21, 2014

We headed to Ankara, but first we stopped at Aksaray and I got more of that Turkish ice cream.

Ataturk’s Mausoleum

Ataturk’s mausoleum is an impressive building, and the history of Turkey is impressively displayed underneath. But the whole thing reeks more than a little of USSR-style state propaganda – there is music, for example, playing while you read about the history and, whether or not it was the Turkish anthem, it felt really creepy – and, like all state museums, it is insanely one-sided in its version of history. The best part – at least the part that made me feel least like I was getting only the Turkish nationalist side of the story – is probably the book collection, which is massive, to put it mildly.

Museum of Anatolian Civilizations

We also went to this museum, which unfortunately was 90% closed due to renovations. Though the artifacts visible were neat, there was so little to see that it was quite a let down.

That night, I stayed in my first Crowne Plaza ever. It was a whacky room:

And that’s not the weirdest part, as there was a window between the bathroom and the bed. But this is the most “luxurious” hotel I think I have ever stayed in.

Saturday February 22, 2014

We drove back to Istanbul and got stuck in traffic.
There was an optional tour of the Bosphorous for US$60 each (I think) and we declined. We found a boat that took us on a non-guided cruise for 10 lira each.

Unfortunately, it was the worst weather of the trip, so the cruise was cold and kind of wet. But at least we got to see it.

We then went to the Grand Bazaar to pick up a few things. We got lost going back to our hotel and barely made the farewell dinner.

Sunday February 23, 2014

We got up at 4:15 Turkey time for our 9 AM flight yet still managed to get stuck in some traffic. We waited hours just to check in, and then we had a flight with no movies back to Heathrow.
At Heathrow, with our ridiculous layover, we did at least get to see the third period of the Canada-Sweden Gold Medal game – and this trip is why I didn’t write anything about Olympic hockey this year. Of what I did see it looked like Canada was insanely dominant defensively, which was great to see.
Our flight home to Toronto was fairly miserable, as the two people in front of us left their seats down for most of the 7+ hour flight. I believe that airlines should let the tall people get the bulkheads, but then I am a tall person and I enjoy walking correctly.
Then, due to my inability to plan properly, we took transit home. So we didn’t get home until 9:30PM EST at the very earliest, so we were up for about 26 hours coming back. But it was worth it.

To see the rest of my pictures: http://www.flickr.com/photos/91547989@N05/sets/72157641541061124/

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