Turkey Trip Report

Amcan Travel visits western Turkey, March 2006.

Turkey is about the size of Texas, with 3% of its land mass on the European continent and 97% officially in Asia. Istanbul sits squarely on the dividing line. The Bosphorus Straight divides the city itself between the two continents. Surely Istanbul is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, with extensive waterways around, a rich mixture of cultures, a long and rich history. Richard of course wanders everywhere humming the old Four Lads novelty tune, Istanbul (not Constantinople).

Day 1 (Thu) - Istanbul

We arrived in Istanbul a little before noon on an early spring day, the air still chilly but pleasant. We had come to tour with a travel agency "familiarity" group, including six Amcan friends and clients. We flew in a day before the fam tour's official start, giving ourselves a chance to explore this fascinating city on our own a little. We found Istanbul public transportation very convenient for travelers. The metro runs frequently from the airport, and a change to the tram line in city center got us within a block of our hotel near the Grand Bazaar. The metro and tram became our favorite means of transportation, since they both have routes independent from the big city traffic jams. We checked into our hotel and rested briefly after a long flight. We found our room at the Nezih small but clean, warm with nice thick towels.

Stepping out to explore, our first stop was Beyazit Camii, a beautiful 500-year-old mosque still in daily use. We covered ourselves and removed shoes to go in along with the worshipers, staying in the rear to observe. Then we walked to Suleymaniye Camii, passing along the campus of Istanbul University. Suleymaniye is the grandest of Istanbul's many mosques, having been built by the most powerful and richest sultan in early 16th century. The building's design is very simple yet overwhelming (photo, Suleymaniye Camii). The surrounding garden and its mausoleum are peaceful and elaborate.

We walked down the hill to the spice market (photo, Spice Market), where we found it was quite a mistake to come on an empty stomach. The walk and the hour had made us pretty hungry. Vendors entice the unwary, by offering lots of samples. We fell in love with the varieties of nuts, dried fruits and Turkish delights. With 4 bags of goodies in hand, we still had appetite to stop in at a kebab shop at the edge of the market for dinner. Invigorated by the snack and strong Turkish tea, we decided to take a ferry ride across the Bosphorus to enjoy a view of the Istanbul skyline at night. The boat was crowded with rush hour commuters and on deck it was windy. The scenery was nevertheless impressive, especially the views of Galata Tower (photo, night view across the Golden Horn), Valide Sultan Camii and Dolmbache Palace. By the time we got back to our room, we were ready to just crash.

Day 2 (Fri) - Istanbul

After enjoying a light breakfast at the hotel, we set out to visit Istanbul's Archaeological Museum, which offers great collections of classical art, tools and jewels from Turkey dated 5000 years and older, and artifacts from neighboring areas such as Egypt, Greece, Syria, Palestine and even south Italy. The Byzantine and Ottoman empires both were vast and powerful, and each lasted several centuries. This museum felt somewhat like a "British Museum" of the Middle East. We thought the sculpture collections were particularly impressive. We saw Greek gods smiling, furious kings conquering, swordsmen fighting, athletes running, and war widows weeping (photo, sarcophagus with mourners). There is a lovely pavilion on the museum grounds diplaying beautiful tileworks going back 600 years and more.

Around noon, we walked over to a music shop around the corner from the museum, where we were to meet a friend of some Seattle friends, an Istanbul musician, master of kanun and santour. Barbara got dropped off at the most famous Turkish bath -- Cemberlitas Hamam, while two gentlemen went out for lunch and shopping. Friday afternoon at the Hamam was not very crowded, so Barbara ordered the whole package deal. Under a beautiful domed ceiling there is a 30-foot-diameter marble platform, about three feet tall and heated from within. Barbara washed herself scooping hot water out of the marble pools under running water, then placed her body on the platform like a piece of fish ready to fry. Then came water massage and a scrub by an older Turkish lady. The masseuse speaks no English and of course Barbara has no Turkish, but everything can be communicated by pointing and pushing. Barbara enjoyed being kneaded like a piece of dough on a baking board. Following the water massage was an oil massage by a younger lady. Barbara felt every joint of her body being kneaded, pressed and pulled. Finally, a red clay facial mask and face massage. After almost three hours she came out totally fresh, to find Richard waiting happily. We went from there to join the fam tour officially at the Hotel Akgun. We met our hosts and fellow agents, heard a little talk about Turkey and had a nice taste of the Turkish national drink, Raki. Yum. The tour group comprised some 44 travel agents and their companions, traveling in two big passenger buses. Each person can take up at least a whole double seat during the coming twelve days of driving around the western half of the country. Our guide Yeshim was a 16 year veteran with extensive knowledge, excellent English and great personality. We considered ourselves lucky to be under her wing.

Day 3 (Sat) - Istanbul

We got up in the early morning to take a walk on the old city wall which is just next to our hotel. It was romantic to see the sunrise even in the overcast morning. After breakfast we boarded the bus for a full-day tour of Istanbul. First stop was the Hippodrome, where chariot races were held and competitive athletic events took place during the Roman period. Now it looks like a grand open space with carefully planned garden. We walked to the Sultanahmet Camii, or Blue Mosque (photo, Sultanahmet Camii), famous for its magnificent blue tiled interior and its six minarets. We continued over to the great Byzantine Basilica Underground Cistern, a grand water reservoir built 1500 year ago (photo, Cistern). It has capacity for 80,000 cubic meters of water, pumped in and delivered through about 15 miles of aqueducts from outside the city. The roof is supported by 336 columns arranged in 12 rows. The cistern is not used for water supply anymore, but still has clean water and a catwalk around. They pipe in lovely Turkish ney music, so it's quite a tranquil place, probably heavenly in the hot summer. After a lunch break at the Pudding Shop, we spent a chunk of the time at Aya Sophia, the church of the divine wisdom. It was built during the Byzantine empire, and was admired as the greatest Chritian church for a thousand years. When the Muslim Ottomans took over Istanbul in 15th century, Aya Sophia was converted to a Mosque. In 1935, with the advent of the modern secularist Turkish state, Ataturk declared the building a museum. It seems a little strange to see the ceiling decorated in mosaic with the wonderful Madonna and Child, while directly beneath are the two giant Muslim calligraphic tokens for Allah and Muhammad (photo, Aya Sofia interior). The place is airy and peaceful with two religions represented together under the one roof. We walked over to the Topkapi Palace, residence of Ottoman sultans. The palace houses riches from 700 years of Ottoman rule, in graceful buildings surrounding four different courtyards. We goggled at the rare items in the treasury, an 86-carat diamond, relics of St John the Baptist including pieces of his skull and arm. We were totally sated with the overwhelming sights. By the time we made a last quick stop of the day at the Grand Bazaar, we could hardly move or be coherent.

Day 4 (Sun) - Istanbul / Canakkale

After breakfast, our buses left for Canakkale. We stopped just once during the five hour drive along the north shore of the Sea of Marmara, in the little town of Tekirdag, where they say the best authentic raki is distilled and bottled. At Gelibolu Peninsula, in the seaside ferry town of Kilitbahir, our bus got on the ferry and crossed to Canakkale. We enjoyed a fabulous lunch of pide (Turkish pizza) and ayran (a salty yogurt drink). It was another long drive to the archeological dig at ancient Troy (photo, not the "real" Trojan Horse). Our guide spent much of the drive time recapitulating Homer's epic stories and explaining about Schliemann who first uncovered the site. We were all well prepared for what we saw there. We walked through the site while our guide pointed out some highlights, and had a half hour or so to ourselves. The old story of the war between the Trojans and the Achaeans evokes a lot of romance, but the archeological site actually has nine layers showing mostly continuous habitation for a period of nearly 3000 years. We checked into a hotel in the late afternoon and enjoyed a great five course sit-down dinner in a dark-wood paneled dining room looking out the sea.

Day 5 (Mon) - Canakkale / Dikili

Before breakfast, four of us took a walk along the beach in front of the hotel. It's quiet and sweet in this resort town during the off season. We departed for Pergamon which is another ancient area with loads of ruins. Our guide gave us a lesson of contemporary Turkish history on the bus. Following lunch, we visited the Pergamon Acropolis (photo, temple ruins), where we saw the temple of Athena, the altar of Zeus, a temple of Dionysus, the ancient library and agora, theater and Roman baths. An aqueduct supplied the water from below very cleverly. We continued on to Asclepium, an ancient medical center built in first century in the name of Asclepios, god of medicine. It's probably the oldest mental hospital in the world. Patients were diagnosed by dream analysis and treatments included massage, mud baths, sacred water herbs and ointments. We saw an underground corridor used to give a "healing voices" treatment. Most hotels in the area are closed during the low season, so the tour company had arranged for a hotel in Dikili to open one night for the two bus loads of us.

Day 6 (Tue) - Dikili / Pamukkale

After an early breakfast, we were back on the bus to drive to Pamukkale. On the way, we visited the House of Virgin Mary (photo, Mary's cottage), where it's thought that Mary stayed during the last days of her life. It was a very moving experience for the Catholics among our group. We spent a good deal of time at Ephesus, home of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. We saw the marble-paved main road, the reknowned library of Celcius (photo, tour group with library), a temple of Hadrian and the giant odeon. After lunch we visited the Museum of Selcuk, a tiny museum with only 4 rooms but with pretty good displays of some really beautiful classical sculpture. Then we were off toward Pamukkale, where cotton castles of spectacular white limestone cascades are formed by hot mineral springs. We stopped at a leather factory recommended by guide, thus starting our first round of major shopping. We bought too much stuff and by the time we were out of there, it was too late to make it to the cotton castle before dark. We stayed at the Hierapolis Hotel. Thermal baths are a theme here, and we were amused to see large parties of Japanese tourists who seemed to come equipped with their own hot bath gear.

Day 7 (Wed) - Pamukkale / Antalya

We had an early morning departure, trying to make up some of the time we lost the day before through our shopping spree. We saw the archaeological site of Hierapolis in lovely dawn light (photo, Hierapolis baths/basilica). But the road to the travertine terraces from which Pamukkale takes its name were closed for repair. So we only got a five-minute break to take pictures of these amazing rocks from a distance. This gave us at least one reason to return here some day. We then drove to Antalya, and continued south to visit the well preserved theater at Aspendos (photo, Roman theater). A theater was built here 2900 years ago during the Hittite Empire, but the place had its most glorious years during Roman times in first and second centuries. The 12,000-seat theatre is maintained and used today for presentations by world-famous artists, dancers and musicians. After lunch, we went to Perge, an ancient city thought to have been built just after the Trojan War. At its peak, the population of Perge was over 200,000. The excavated ruins are vast with a wide boulevard, water fountains, shops and houses on both side of the road (photo, Perge). It's very impressive, especially when one considers the excavated part is less than 10% of the original city. We spent quite some time at the Antalya Archeological Museum, which houses a collection of Greco-Roman and near eastern antiques. We enjoyed the Sarcophagus of Hercules that features twelve sculptures showing the hero maturing from a fresh faced youth to an older bearded king with furrowed brow. We stayed at a beach resort hotel out of the city center, busy with bus loads of German and French tourists in addition to us. The dinner buffet was followed by a cheesy variety show performed by amateurish Russian performers in skimpy costumes, quite a disappointment.

Day 8 (Thu) - Antalya / Konya / Cappadocia

The drive from Antalya to Konya is a long one, so we had another early morning departure. The drive through the lovely and majestic Taurus Mountains was accompanied by a tape of some Ottoman classical music. Our guide told us about Konya. It's quite conservative and most women we saw in old town area indeed covered their hair pretty thoroughly. While the group visited the Mausoleum of Mevlana, we took the time to try to find another friend, who operates a Dervish crafts center near the Mevlana shrine. Alas, his shop was closed for a lunch break so we missed them. We visited the Karatay Theological School where numerous beautiful ancient tiles are on display. Then we continued driving toward Cappadocia. On the way we stopped at Sultanhani Caravanserai (photo, Caravanserai). It was an an important stop on the route of the Silk Road during medieval times and the inn is very well preserved today. In Cappadocia we found our hotel is partly carved from rock, chiseled in the hill and a unique volcanic rock formation. Our room has high vaulted ceiling, to feel like an airy and comfortable cave. After a special prepared dinner including some Cappadocian specialties, we went out to see a presentation of a sema or whirling dervish, held in a restored Caravanserai. The place is incredibly atmospheric, echo-y yet well heated and lighted. The ceremony was performed by four musicians, five turners and their master. The music was beautiful and the whirling ceremony fantastic to watch. The whole experience is mystical and moving.

Day 9 (Fri) - Cappadocia

Cappadocia's earliest inhabitants carved houses and other building out of soft volcanic rock, to create dwellings that eventually grew into entire underground cities. In the morning we visited the open air museum at Goreme, where rock-carved chapels are decorated with frescoes depicting various scenes from the Bible. Natural rock towers with mushroom-like heads called fairy chimneys are everywhere around us (photo, fairy chimneys). We climbed three levels down into the eight-level underground city of Kaymakli (photo, deep tunnels). This truly fascinating place is where early Christians hid from Arabian persecution. We lunched in a giant carpet outlet, courtesy of the shop owner. Of course, the group spent a long time there buying thousands of dollars worth of Cappadocian carpets (photo, silk carpet). We must admit there are some really lovely rugs. In the afternoon, we took a driving tour around the area, stopping to view the great rock castle, Monk's Valley and the valley of Zelve. We two opted to skip an offered belly dance performance in the evening and went to bed early so we would be plenty rested for the hot air balloon ride in the morning.

Day 10 (Sat) - Cappadocia / Ankara

We rose well before 5:00am to drive to the ballooning site. The weather was crisp and mostly clear, just a little bit windy. We stood chatting in groups, for a long time in the open field drinking hot tea and eating sweet bread, waiting for the final word from the baloon operators. Eventually they decided against going up due to wind in the wrong direction. So, back to our hotel for breakfast and board the buses to Ankara. In the capital we paid our respects to Ataturk - the founder of modern Turkey. His mausoleum is simple but gracious, built on the top of a hill which can be seen from almost every corner of the city (photo, Ataturk's memorial). At night it is a beautiful sight, lit up and shining out like a beacon. We visited the wonderful Museum of Anatolian Civilizations. Among the collection, we saw three-million-year-old rock tools from the Paleolithic period and a 10,000-year-old mother goddess figurine from the Neolithic era (photo, Mother Goddess from Catal Hoyuk). Mere 2000-year-old objects seem to be the young babies of this museum which is converted from a 15th century Bedesten (covered market) with the central market covered by a 10 dome roof. Richard bugged out of the museum a little early and used some of the museum-visiting time to climb the hill behind the museum up to the Citadel. In Ankara, our hotel is the very fancy Ankara Radisson. Several group members went out to the modern mall, where we found a Chinese restaurant, our guide's favorite. We had dinner with Yeshim and her friends who live and work in Ankara. The evening became perfect with the delicious ice cream we found in the mall.

Day 11 (Sun) - Ankara / Bursa

We departed for Bursa at a reasonable hour, our guide told us about her nine-year-old niece, who is excited to see her aunt and us American tourists. On the way, we stopped at the ancient city of Gordion with the tomb of King Midas, buried about 2700 years ago. The tomb is actually a juniper log cabin without doors buried in a tumulus 200 feet high and 1000 feet in diameter. The grave is the oldest wooden structure in Turkey, probably in the world. We arrived in Bursa around noon and we went to a tiny cafe recommended by the guide book for lunch. Afternoon sightseeing included visits to the Ottoman Complex and the Green Mosque (photo, Green Mosque), all are in use while we were there. Outside the Green Mosque, we were surrounded by a student group, about 30 pre-teen boys and girls. Their teachers explained to us that since the two of us look "so interesting," the kids want to practice their English. After a lot of "Hello. How are you," we told them where we are from and how much we enjoy their country. Finally they got brave and comfortable and starting snapping pictures of each other with the amazing foreigners. Then we were off to the great Ulu Mosque with 20 domes on its roof, immense portals and a forest of supporting columns (photo, in the Great Mosque). We checked into a hotel to learn that the young niece had baked all night to present the tourists with her cookies and sweet cake. Dinner at the restaurant was good, and the kitchen had prepared a grand birthday cake for one of our group members. What a perfect birthday party!

Day 12 (Mon) - Bursa / Istanbul

We got an early start to avoid the Bursa morning rush hour traffic, though we still caught some slow movement even before we hit the bridge over the Bosphorus. We arrived back to our Istanbul hotel by late morning. After a quick check in, our bus took us to Taksim Square across the Golden Horn, where we had the free afternoon on our own. Richard took Barbara to the same tiny basement restaurant in Galata where he had eaten the week before. The food was indeed inexpensive and delicious, every other table full of local diners. We wandered downhill to the Galata tower and rode the elevator to take in a panoramic view of the city. The magnificence of two continents was at our feet, a grand feeling (photo, view across the Golden Horn). In the mid-afternoon, we met up with our friend again, and he took us to Mevlevi Monastery. We saw the galleries, then sat for a while in their garden eating the sweetest apples in our life. We then took a bus to our friend's apartment in suburban Istanbul, a very nice 3 bedroom unit he shares with his wife and their youngest daughter. We shared a very nice traditional Turkish Kofte dinner. After dinner, we all went to an Ottoman classical chorus rehearsal. There were a dozen instrumentalists accompanying the choir, including two ney players. What a fine evening! We enjoyed the whole experience immensely, and didn't get back to the hotel til nearly midnight.

Day 13 (Tue) - Istanbul / Konya

The official fam tour over, two of us plus Barbara's old friend and schoolmate started our own Solar Eclipse tour out to Konya, which is right in the middle of the total eclipse area.

The flight from Istanbul to Konya took less than an hour. Europe Car is the only rental agency at the airport and their staff had posted our name on their sign to ensure we would find them. Richard made a fuss about getting a street map from the agency but finally tumbled that the concept of a map is alien to the Turkish notion of hospitality. As we had learned in Bursa and elsewhere, the local people are all too happy to show you where a place is and usually insist on taking you there. So, mapless and clueless, we managed our own driving tour of the area south of Konya, the idea being to scout out a good site for eclipse viewing. We first made our way got to Gokyurt, a tiny farming village hugging the side of a dramatic cliff above emerald farmlands. Some of the rock walls had dwellings cut into them, like the rock faces of Cappadocia. There are even similarly constructed churches, though they lack painted frescoes of saints like we had seen in Goreme. We drove down through Cumra to the archeological site at Catal Hoyuk. Buried here there is a 10,000-year-old village where the mother goddess we had seen in Ankara's Museum of Anatolian Civilizations was found. The excavation (photo, Catal Hoyuk Dig) is still in progress every summer. The place reminded us of the Terra Cotta Warrior site in Xi'an. We were happy to see the sign on the wall of the visitors' center showing the Boeing Company among major sponsor of the excavation for the last ten years. We followed the major road back to town, and navigating by the turquoise tower above Rumi's tomb, we found our friend's shop, the Dervish Brothers' center. They have beautiful kilims from the Taurus nomad tribes and some cool jewelry. So we got back in a shopping mood right after checking into the guest house across the street from the shop. We ate some local specialty mutton with flat bread and salad, topped with apple tea. The center was full of friends and visitors, singers, whirlers and musicians including a well respected ney master, who showed Richard some techniques and scales on the reed flute.

Day 14 (Wed) - Konya / Back Home

Richard was so excited about the eclipse, he couldn't sleep in the morning. He didn't want to wake people in the guest house, so he went out for an early walk around the Mevlana shrine (photo, morning light on the Mevlana shrine) and the nearby cemetery. He got back to the house in time to wake up Barbara and enjoy a big breakfast with a few other visitors. One young fellow from California gave us some solar glasses to help view the eclipse. We visited the Mevlana Museum where Jellaladin Rumi's life and work has been celebrated for 800 years. The museum was the former lodge of the whirling dervishes. In its grand garden we saw people starting to gather for a big eclipse party. Media vans with their sattelite hookups and cables, reporters and journalists were everywhere. It's clear there will be a big party in the garden during the eclipse.

We decided that we would escape the city during the eclipse, so we drove back to Gokyurt and climbed a little ways up to a hill to have the best view (photo, the spot we picked). During the drive we observed that we were very lucky that the sky is cloudless. By the time we got to the hillside, we could see through our eclipse glasses that the first touch of the moon and sun had started. Barbara laid down flat on the grass and watched through her glasses the whole time, as the moon slowly but steadily moved across the sun's disk. The light became dim, the temperature dropped, animals became quiet. A flock of birds flew swiftly south across the field and disappeared. We looked around and saw sunset all around, not just on the west side but on all sides. Suddenly, the sky went black, and we could stare right at the sun with our naked eyes (photo, totality). It looked like a giant black disk with a thin shining circle around. For almost four minutes, the sky remained totally dark as evening. The feeling was so strange that Barbara recalled the old Chinese saying about things going extreme - the mountains and rivers change color, sun and moon lose their shine. So, it is not just a metaphor: it can be the absolute truth. Even the shadows were strange, as Barbara saw when she put her hand out beneath the sun's light to see the shadow of a half moon between her own fingers (photo, funny shadows). We wished all our loved ones and our friends could be there to experience this unique event. This was certainly the bright highlight of our Turkey trip, what a perfect ending to our Turkish delight!