Turkey – Crossroads of the World

Location. Location. Location. When you sit at the crossroads of the world, history’s most (in?)famous faces seem to always be showing up at your door. The depth and breadth of history those folks have left behind in Turkey is almost incomprehensible. It’s where Europe meets Asia, Christianity met Islam, and today meets yesterday. It’s been fought over by the Pharaohs of Egypt, Constantine The Great and the Romans, the Babylonians, Assyrians, Cyrus of Persia and nearly anyone else who wanted to make a name for himself throughout the millennia. It’s been the global seat of both Christianity and Islam. This from a country just a little bigger than Texas.

Long on our life lists, we set aside over three weeks to explore this wonderland; more than we’d allotted for anywhere else along the way. That time was generously rewarded with wonderful sights, some of the most generous people we’ve met, and more nerd alert material than the biggest history geek could ever want.

Our trip started in the central Turkish region of Cappadocia. Even if the name doesn’t ring a bell, you’ve probably seen pictures that look a little something like this.

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Famous for its fairytale landscape of rock chimneys, Cappadocia has long been a hot spot (pun absolutely intended) for balloon rides over its landscape. For us however, the real draw was what was on the inside of those chimneys. Starting around 70-100 C.E. Christians were escaping persecution across the lands of Judah and Egypt by coming to the land of Saul of Tarsus (A/k/a the Apostle Paul). They carved their homes, churches, shops, horse stalls, and everything else right into the rock. It left an other-worldy civilization spread across hundreds upon hundreds of square miles. To make it even better, while some of the best remains lie inside the Goreme Open Air Museum a vast majority of them are just out in the countryside waiting to be found. So, for the better part of 3 days we just hiked and explored. Peeking into every cave, each one with something new to share with us.

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Taking the carved city thing to a whole other level Turkey is also full of hidden underground cities. Used for much of the last two millennia, cities were carved straight down into the ground. When one of those aforementioned marauders would show up to “free” the community from whatever previous marauder had “freed” them the last time, they would move underground for as long as it took. Livestock occupied level one. Churches, living rooms, schools, community dining and cooking facilities, you name it, all there. We visited Derinkuyu, the most famous (and largest currently open) of the underground cities totaling 8 stories and 85-meters in depth. In the “history in the making” category, archaeologists recently discovered what they believe is a much larger city very near Derinkuyu, more here.

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After all that hard exploring, Cappadocia had one more treat for us. Cave dwelling isn’t just for those living 1,800 years ago. Today, the “Cave Hotel” offers slightly more amenities (you know, like beds and electricity), but still the feel of sleeping inside a rock carved out just for you. We split our time between a great budget option, but because you only live once, we also splurged on “The Cave Suite.”

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Even better, due to a malfunctioning hot water system, we got upgraded to the King Cave Suite. Two stories, a bathroom bigger than our whole apartment in California, and a jacuzzi. For one whole afternoon and night we drank wine, caught up on some TV, and just reveled in our awesome surrounding. All for the price of Motel 6 in California. We can check “sleep in pimped out cave” off the bucket list.

After extending our time in Cappadocia by a day due to bus scheduling issues, we ended up on the overnight bus headed for Pammukale four days into our trip. Now… It’s easy to forget in a country like Turkey that seems fairly modern that many traditional beliefs are still held sacrosanct. One of those is that unrelated male and female passengers shouldn’t sit next to each other on a bus. Simple enough, right? In principle, but not in practice apparently. At about 1 in the morning we awoke at a bus stop some hours down the line to a bit of commotion. Suddenly, the just embarked, demur looking lady sitting next to her husband and beside us barks, “No, we’re married, this is b******t.” All the while a young Turkish lady who had boarded at the same time looked on, clearly not expecting her request (via the attendants) to be met in such a way. What ensued was straight out of Abott & Costello. The two attendants on the bus didn’t speak English. No one on the bus spoke Turkish & English except two very inebriated young ladies fresh off a night of partying. Most of the passengers spoke English, except it was English as a second language because they were Chinese and native Mandarin speakers. About twenty minutes of people not understanding what the other was asking, people changing seats who had absolutely nothing to do with the situation and more than a few leering stares from the bus regulars who just wanted to get on down the road and magically, the problem solved itself by two Turkish speaking passengers agreeing to swap further forward. Sometimes, travel is funny.

A little sleep deprived, but certainly entertained we arrived in the early morning hours to Pammukale in West Central Turkey. We’d been under strict instructions to visit by Kathleen (Grant’s sister) who’d visited during her time in country.

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Nope, not snow. Those are calcium deposits carried up from the earth by mineral springs. About 2000 years ago, the Romans caught wind of this natural wonder and being the bathing lovers they were, established a vacation resort for the empire called Hierapolis in the hills above and created the pools you see today covered in the travertine. We were the first one’s in that morning and were able to swim, explore ruins, and hike around mostly by ourselves. As the heat of the day and bus loads of tourists on day-trips started filling in around 11 we retreated for a nice long nap and returned later for an incredible sunset, again mostly to ourselves.

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The story of the next 9-days can be told mostly through pictures. We headed south to Turkey’s Mediterranean shore in a port city called Marmaris. Now, Marmaris itself is pretty much our idea of vacation hell. It’s laden with all of the hyper touristy shops, sardine can packed beaches, and basically nothing reflective of the local culture. Except for one thing, it’s the home port of “The Blue Cruise.” Something of a Turkish icon, “Blue Cruises” sail all along Turkey’s Southwestern corner in large sailing ships called Gullets. For seven days you eat, swim, eat, swim, eat, explore/swim, sleep, repeat.

After two days in Marmaris awaiting departure, which were saved by some awesome Brits we met at our hotel, we set sail. We visited some of the most beautiful water, coves, and islets you can imagine on a beautiful wooden ship.

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Quick nerd note. On one of the last nights we hiked to a totally undisturbed ruined Roman outpost. It was complete with church (pictured), houses, two cisterns, and tons of rubble to climb around on.  Super cool moment.

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Also, it was a great way to celebrate our 2nd wedding anniversary which we sailed through (full of puns tonight) halfway into our trip.

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But what made the trip wasn’t the meals, the boat, or even the insanely perfect water. It was our fellow ship mates. Unlike a big cruise ship experience, you share this boat, your meals, and pretty much your life with only 14 other passengers for the whole week. We were the token Americans and were joined by two Spaniards….ah…apologies Arnau & Ana, Catalans 🙂 and the rest were Turks. It was perfect. Three younger kids (Berker, Arnau, & Sude) injected a ton of fun and energy into the trip, one little passenger kept us all laughing, and the adults were warm and inclusive. Between the dinners, hikes, swims, and late chats we definitely felt like one big family by the end of the trip. So, to Tugrul, Vedat, and everyone in your wonderful families, thanks so much for making us feel like part of the gang!

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After 7 wonderful days of  curing ourselves in the Mediterranean’s salt and sun we disembarked for the “city” portion of our trip. Heading north we landed in Izmir, a city almost as old as written history itself, but skipped by most travelers in Turkey.

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As an aside, we’ll admit to not loving Turkish food. It wasn’t bad, but on the whole, it didn’t stack up against its global competitors. Everything that is, except for one glorious, perfect, succulent, this list of superlatives could go on for ever…Lamb Kebab wrap. Truly one of the culinary highlights of our trip, all served up by a very talented young host and his family. Look how much Kate is loving this…

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While Izmir’s markets, ruins, and beaches are wonderful, the region’s crown jewel lies 20-miles to the south. Ephesus is widely considered one of best preserved and historically important Roman archaeological sites in the world.

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Above and below, the famous “Library of Celsus”

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Archaeology in action, over 100 years after modern excavations began.

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The ruins are great, the crowd was challenging. This is a drum beat many times within these pages, but you just can’t get lost in the history of a place when its crawling with iPhones, umbrellas, and the latest Jordans (ok, being cruise ship passengers, more like the latest Dr.Scholls).

Now, while Ephesus may have merely “Met Expectations,” its museum was first rate. Their collection isn’t the largest, but it makes up for it with excellent artifacts from Ephesus and solid information on the region. Plus, it tops it off with two world class centerpieces, statues of the goddess Artemis from her temple on the site. Some of the most interesting and original works we’ve seen.

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We wrapped up our stay in Izmir with more of the famed Turkish hospitality. After nearly three days of waiting on us hand and foot, our AirBnB host Nuretin invited some friends over and we indulged in the global tradition of eating, drinking, and laughing well into the night. That man takes his hospitality seriously and we’re very lucky to have been his guests!

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Lastly on our trip we were off to one of the world’s great cities, Istanbul…or Constantinople if you’re a thousand years or so behind the times. Istanbul could get its own post entirely, it’s such a wonderfully interesting place, but for brevity, here’s the short version.

Few cities have played as large a roll in the world as Istanbul. It’s been the seat of two “Greatest Empires on Earth” in their heyday (Byzantine & Ottoman) and has been the seat of the two largest religions in the world with Christianity and Islam both having called the city its center at one point in history. The Last Caliph in Islam ended with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire post WWI & Rome would argue it was always the center of Christianity post JC but the Pope wasn’t THE POPE when Justinian, & crew were ruling Byzantium and defacto, Christianity, so I’m standing by it. That was a long nerdy was of saying, Istanbul is full of old, cool stuff to see. It starts, right out of the gate, with the prettiest skyline we’ve seen yet.

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And that picture only represents 1/20th of the skyline you can see from across the river from the “Golden Horn” where most of the sites are located. Each portion of the skyline is just another soaring church, beautiful waterfront, or park.

With so many sites to see we set a grueling schedule, or so we thought. We cruised the many mosques, churches, museums, and palaces over the course of the next four days.

The ceiling of the Sultan Ahmed mosque.

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Suleiman, outside. It’s the same mosque shown above in the Istanbul skyline picture.
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The former seat of Justinian’s Christian Church, turned Mosque, turned museum, Hagia Sofia still has many of the Byzantine frescoes left. 20150806_120913

The Famed Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed)

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The decoration of the inside of the mosques are, as you can tell, fascinating. But an interesting difference between Christian Churches and Islamic Mosques (and thus, the two religions) is Islam’s strong aversion to portraiture & sculpture in its places of worship. Where Rome’s Churches are filled with masters’ paintings and sculptures, Istanbul’s Mosques are beautiful, but somewhat aesthetically only two dimensional. Once you’ve marveled at the architecture & tile work….that’s all there is to see. All of this is only to say, as a tourist you go through a mosque much much quicker than a church where each individual painting and sculpture can demand as much time as an entire mosque may.

So, a grueling schedule gave way to a more leisurely 4 days in the city. Since we had the time, we indulged a guilty pleasure. We heard word an area Starbucks was regarded as one of the most beautiful in the world, so we paid a visit for our first cup of ‘Bux of the trip. It was, without a doubt, the coolest Starbucks we’ve seen. Four stories tall overlooking the Bosporus River dividing Europe from Asia.

Back to the big sites though… For many the real pilgrimage site in Istanbul is The Grand Bazaar. Now, we’ve seen our fair share of markets, souks, & bazaars already on this trip…but absolutely nothing compares to the grandeur of the, aptly named, Grand Bazaar.

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SO MANY SHINY THINGS!
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None of our pictures do it justice. Everything from the Asian continent is seemingly for sale. From ratty tourist trinkets (I Don’t Need Google, My Wife Knows Everything, T-shirts were rampant) to some of the most incredible hand woven, carved, or created pieces in the world. Kate asked to see a small case in an antique shop she fancied as a business card holder. The owner of the shop said he’d happily take it out for her, but she should be aware his asking price was $2,800, as the case had belonged to a Lady of the House of Czar Nicholas of Russia. She, with great reticence, declined.

Finishing with a walk through the spice market was the perfect cap to our day. The smell still hangs in our memories, a thousand miles away.

We spent our last day cruising the Bosporus and exploring the Asian side of Istanbul before our early flight out the next morning. Many people regard the Asian side as a less desirable location for visiting Istanbul. We’d vigorously disagree. The area was brimming with character and characters. The shops were wonderful, the food cheaper (and better) than most of what we found on the European side, and of course, it felt local. So, if you ever find yourself in Istanbul, don’t be afraid to kick aside the expert’s advice and give the Asian side a shot.

With that, we said goodbye to a country that welcomed us with open arms. For all the hospitality, friendship, and adventure we’ll be forever grateful.

Next up, another county that always seems to be at the crossroads of history… Israel.

Mr & Mrs Trading Paradises

Filed From: Wadi Mussa, Jordan (yes, yes, I got two countries behind again….)

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3 thoughts on “Turkey – Crossroads of the World

    1. Hi Barbara!
      Turkey was absolutely stunning (I feel like our pictures can’t really do it justice) and you should definitely put it on your travel list. Miss you all and hope all is well!
      Kate

      Like

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