2014, Travel

Riley Goes to Turkey (February 2014)

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 our 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 for the tour company 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 of the size of the group 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 – Istanbul

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 in 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, especially, its luxury.

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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 – Konya

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 – Cappadochia

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.


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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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.


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 – Cappadochia

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 (the “optional tour”). 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.


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.)


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 – Ankara

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 wacky 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 – Istanbul

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 – Home

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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