Archive for ‘Turkey’

October 29, 2011

Turkish Delight

by Johnny

To be honest, Anna and I had some initial reservations about traveling to Turkey.  As our guide at Ephesus nicely put it, “Turkey is in an interesting neighborhood.”  Now that our time in Turkey has ended, we can’t say enough good things about the country.  We’re so, so glad we decided to travel there.  It definitely “wowed” me more than any other country on our trip so far.  In just a little over a week we saw ancient history in Ephesus, a one-of-a-kind landscape in Cappadocia and a world-class city in Istanbul…and we barely scratched the surface of all Turkey has to offer.  And don’t even get me started on the food.  But what we will remember most about our time in Turkey is the people and the millions of laughs we shared.  Our guidebook says, “All the peoples of Turkey tend to be family-focused, easy going, hospitable, gregarious and welcoming of visitors.”  This, times a million.  I’ve never met a group of friendlier, more helpful people in my life.  Whenever we were lost looking at our map, somebody would ask us if we needed help finding someplace (and usually walk us halfway there).  I can’t tell you how many times we were stopped on the street with, “Hi.  Where are you from?  How are you liking Turkey so far?  Can I offer you some tea?”  And no, it’s not just merchants trying to give you the runaround.  When I was finding an ATM alone one early morning in Selçuk, and old man approached me and told me I should wear some extra layers because it was going to get cold that day.  These are just some small examples of things that would happen everyday.

It’s funny, we wanted to visit Turkey on this trip because it was one of the countries we weren’t sure if we would make a return trip to later in our lives.  However, since we’ve been gone, we keep saying, “Let’s do this next time we go to Turkey.  Let’s stay here next time we go to Turkey.”  Most definitely a special place.

October 28, 2011

Two Continents; One Great City

by Johnny

Have you recovered yet from that atom bomb of knowledge Anna dropped on your dome in the last post?  Good.  We arrived to Istanbul on an overnight bus from Göreme, and with only four nights left before the Europe leg of our travels came to an end, we decided to spoil ourselves a little bit.  We upgraded our room at our B&B to one with a terrace view of the Blue Mosque and the Sea of Marmara, we saw nearly every site we wanted, we bought a couple souvenirs, and we ate baklava after every meal (breakfast, lunch and dinner).

We based ourselves in the area of Istanbul known as Sultanahmet, which is within easy walking distance of the city’s “big three” tourist sights:  Aya Sofya, Topkapi Palace and the Blue Mosque.  I could write pages on the amazing history of these buildings, but I’ll just tell you a couple things we liked about each of them.  In the Aya Sofya, we loved the enormous domed ceiling and beautiful mosaics.  We liked nearly everything about Topkapi Palace (except the crowds), but we were especially amazed by the Harem, where the sultan and the rest of the imperial family lived.  It was a maze of decadently decorated rooms and tiled courtyards.  Topkapi Palace also had some of the best views in Istanbul looking out towards the Bosphorus strait, which separates the European and Asian continents.  The Blue Mosque is beautiful in its simplicity…and you get to take your shoes off when you go inside.

View of the Blue Mosque from our terrace
Sunset on our terrace Enjoying a couple Efes on our terrace
Our B&B, Ahmet Efendi Evi, at night
Aya Sofya
Inside Aya Sofya
Domed ceiling of Aya Sofya Baby Jesus being presented with Aya Sofia and Istanbul
Inside the Harem at Topkapi Palace Fireplace in the Harem
Mother of Pearl furniture in the Harem Thumbs down on the circumcision room
Courtyard of Topkapi Palace View of the Bosphorus from Topkapi Palace
The Blue Mosque
Inside the Blue Mosque
Gotta go barefoot in the Blue Mosque Washing off those feet outside the Blue Mosque
A little post-Blue Mosque çay

One of the highlights of our time in Istanbul was a night out with some local lads.  Our friend (and future Thailand travel companion) Hillary introduced us via email to her good friend Fer, who is back in his home city of Istanbul after living in Los Angeles for seven years (four of them at USC).  We met Fer for lunch and made plans to meet at “The Studio” later that night.  Uh-oh.  Was this Istanbul’s hottest nightclub?  Anna and I were a little worried because we left our clubbing outfits at home…in 2002.  We showered up, motivated ourselves and headed back out to meet Fer.  He met us at a street corner, walked us down a dark alley and…wow…awesome!  “The Studio” was an actual music recording studio.  It turns out that Fer is a ripping drummer and plays in the band for a singer that just won a best new artist award in Turkey.  For the next few hours, Anna and I and a few others watched Fer and his buddies have an all out jam session.  We even got to see the world premier of their new music video that’s scheduled to air on MTV in Turkey soon.  Afterwards we all headed out to a group of bars that were overflowing with young Turks and good music.  Anna and I were pretty proud of ourselves that we made it until 3:30am before having to call it quits.  It was a great night…all of Fer’s friends, like all Turkish people, were super friendly and welcoming, and it was a side of Istanbul we would not have seen otherwise.  We made plans to meet up for a traditional Turkish Sunday brunch the next day, but unfortunately I left my Zack Morris-sized travel phone in our room and we couldn’t connect.  Next time.  Thanks for everything, Fer!

Can Bonomo on the ukelele Johnny and Fer

I had to mentally prepare myself for a visit to the Grand Bazaar.  I was picturing being shouted at and grabbed by millions of merchants trying to sell me fake carpets and knock-off watches.  I thought, “Let’s get in, take some pictures and get out.”  Turns out, the Grand Bazaar was actually pretty awesome.  It’s a labyrinth of unique walkways with over 2,000 tiny boutiques and workshops selling everything you can think of, but it wasn’t as chaotic as I thought.  In addition to the shops, there are tea houses, cafes and even a mosque, all covered in a beautiful building.  Anna loved it and could have gone back every day.  However, one thing’s for sure, I am terrible at the art of bargaining.  Anna bought some bracelets and got the guy down from TL40 to TL25.  Nice!  I saw a cool shirt I liked that was priced at TL25, so I asked the guy if he could do it for TL20.  I ended up giving him TL50 and my pants, and Anna and I now have to name our first son Mehmet.  We also visited the Spice Bazaar, a marketplace that sells all sorts of spices, dried fruits, nuts, Turkish Delight and other goodies.  Sensory overload.

Lanterns in the Grand Bazaar Jewelry in the Grand Bazaar
Trinkets in the Grand Bazaar Carpets in the Grand Bazaar
Spice Bazaar Spice Bazaar
Spice Bazaar Outside the Spice Bazaar

With visits to the main tourist sights and markets checked off our list, we explored as many of Istanbul’s different neighborhoods as we could, by both land and sea.  One day we took the public ferry to Kadiköy, which is on the Asian side of Istanbul.  It had a happening food market, and we sampled some awesome mezes at Ciya Sofrasi, one of Istanbul’s best rated restaurants.  We also explored the Beyoglu neighborhood a couple different times, and each time it was absolutely packed.  The main street, Istiklal Caddesi, was a sea of people every time we saw it.  Come to think of it, nearly every area of the city we went was packed with locals…Istanbul is crazy!  Anyways, Beyoglu was the seedy part of town back in the ‘90s but is now home to hip new boutique stores, galleries and restaurants.  Another day we took a cruise of the Bosphorus and got to see all the different sights and neighborhoods that dot the coast.  The Istanbul skyline from the water, especially when Aya Sofia, Topkapi Palace and the Blue Mosque are all visible at the same time, is pretty amazing.  Istanbul is such a big, historic, vibrant place with tons to see and do, and we could have easily spent a few more days there.

The Basilica Cistern stored water for the palace Upside down Medusa head at Basilica Cistern
View of Topkapi Palace from the ferry
Kiz Kulesi island and tower from our cruise Scenes from the Bosphorus cruise
Cruising the Bosphorus Istanbul’s skyline from the Bosphorus
Bustling street in Kadiköy Traditional Turkish coffee in Kadiköy
Sea of people on Istiklal Caddesi
View of the Galata Tower at night We had wine near the Galata Tower at sunset
Walking across the Galata Bridge at night

Oh yea, and we (meaning me) ate a ton.  I couldn’t get enough of the food in Turkey.  Anna already mentioned our recent addiction to çay, and I loved me some Turkish coffee as well (Warning: When tasting Turkish coffee for the first time, you may want to wear a diaper). The spices, the veggies (eggplant!), the mezes, the bread…we loved it all.  Check out some pics, including an epic fried dough ball sequence, below.

“Spoon salad” with walnuts, tomatoes and pomegranate All kebab all the time
Fish sandwiches grilled up right on the boat Fish sandwiches are an Istanbul institution
Fried dough ball in honey… …made by happy dudes…
…look and taste delicious… …and make Johnny a happy dude, too
Döner kebab Best. Baklava. Ever.
October 25, 2011

Drip Castles and Fairy Chimneys

by Anna

Cappadocia, “Land of the Beautiful Horses,” is unlike any place I’ve ever seen. Johnny and I were constantly in jaw-drop positions as we explored this other-wordly landscape, rich and unique both in its history and geology. Cappadocia’s terrain resulted from volcanic eruptions millions of years ago. Over time, the lava was eroded by weather, exposing the soft tuff left beneath the harder rocks above, thus leaving behind the phallic looking formations, dubbed “fairy chimneys” that stud the area. Also left behind were the amazing valleys and drip castle-esque rock formations that served as cave dwellings for prehistoric settlers, Byzantines, Christians, and so on as one civilization built upon the work of its predecessor through the ages.

We based ourselves in the cool little village of Göreme, which is a scenic delight in itself with cave houses dotting the rocks and lively shops and restaurants nestled along a tree-lined canal. Göreme also topped the charts with the friendliest, warmest people ever. We were already impressed by how nice and helpful Osman and his nephew were in Selçuk, and our amazing host, Mustafa, at the Arch Palace Hotel picked up right where they left off. He went out of his way to make sure we had dinner plans, rides to and from wherever we needed to go, maps of the valleys, etc. During breakfast each morning as we admired the view from the rooftop, Mustafa would move from table to table talking with all his guests and making sure everyone was happy. Every other person in Göreme was the exact same way, always making us feel welcome. By the time we left, we felt like we had friends all over the village, many of whom thought Johnny looked either like Jesus or Jake Gyllenhaal. It was a toss up.

Cave houses just off the main road in Göreme
A delicious Börek meat filled pastry at Nazar Börek Cafe Nazar Börek Cafe in Göreme
Along the canal in Göreme

As soon as we arrived in Göreme, we bundled up since it was pretty frigid, and walked a small distance out of town to the Open Air Museum. This was our first opportunity to explore the cave dwellings and churches that date back to the Byzantine period and to take in the amazing landscape around us. We particularly enjoyed visiting the Karanlik Kilise, or “Dark Church,” which had the most beautifully preserved frescoes due to the lack of light over the centuries.

The view from our walk to the Göreme Open Air Museum, a Unesco World Heritage Site
Just passing a camel along the way…no big deal Rocks speckled with cave houses
Doorway to a cave house Cave paintings
Karanlik Kilise Beautifully preserved cave frescoes
Inside the Open Air Museum

That night after enjoying the sunset from the roof terrace of our hotel, we sampled our first Testi kebap. Testi kebap, you say? At first glance this might sound like a dish involving the unmentionables of some animal, but quite to the contrary. It is actually a delicious mix of meat and vegetables cooked in a sealed clay pot over an open fire. The best part, besides being crock-pot style, melt-in-your-mouth delicious, is that you get to break open your clay pot with a hammer at the table (pretty sure I ate a few pieces of clay, but it was worth it!).

Up on the roof…
Easy does it Bam! steaming goodness is revealed

The next day we again put on our warmest layers and took a short bus ride to another Open Air Museum in Zelve. The three valleys which make up the museum blew us away with their colorfully streaked rock walls, crazy rock formations and multitude of cave dwellings and pigeon houses dating back to the 9th century and lived in up until 1952 when they were deemed too dangerous for villagers. Unlike the Göreme Open Air Museum, we were two of only a handful of people there, so it felt like we had these amazing canyons to ourselves.

From Zelve we veered along dirt paths past grapevines and sheep till we found Paşabağı, well known for its stunning array of fairy chimneys, some of which contained former monk cave dwellings and chapels. Our walk then took us to a small village called Çavuşin. We stopped at “Ayse & Mustafa’s Place” in the old part of the village for some çay (by this point I was developing a mild addiction to Turkish tea) and lunch. Çavuşin had an incredible, massive rock face filled with abandoned cave houses, and we got amazing views after scaling up the side of it.

It was just us and the sheep Autumn colors in the valley
The fairy chimneys also kind of look like mushrooms
More fairy chimneys
Cay in traditional tulip glasses Refueling at Ayse & Mustafa’s Place
Çavuşin cave houses
Climbing the rock face in Çavuşin…”Where’s Johnny?”

Next we headed to what would be the highlight of the day; the Red and Rose Valleys. We had heard that you sort of just “find your way” through these valleys, as they are not really marked, and the trails veer off in all directions. The lack of detailed maps or trail markers and the lack of people definitely made for a surreal adventure exploring these pink and rusty-hued valleys. Every twist and turn took us to an even more spectacular view than the last with shapes and colors that we had never seen before. And just when we felt like we were the only people walking through what felt like another planet, we’d stumble upon cave houses carved high in the rocks, a random tea shack or old man gathering pomegranates and pumpkins. Pomegranate trees, by the way, were everywhere, and on our way out of the Red Valley, we stopped at a small tea stand and had a fresh squeezed cup of pomegranate juice. When we finally cut through the hills on our way back to Göreme, in awe of the natural wonders we had seen that day, the call to prayer echoed across the valley from the spires of the mosques, reminding us how very far away from home we were.

That night we perused the small colorful shops in Göreme (and really started thinking about buying one of those magical Turkish carpets!) and unwound/dethawed at the cozy Red Red Wine Bar.

Carpets for days in Göreme
Bright hand-painted ceramics More carpets
Red Red Wine Bar Red Red Wine Bar
Nighttime in Göreme

The next morning we awoke to sunshine and hot air balloons floating through the blue skies. We decided for our last day to join a small tour, called the “Green Tour” in order to see more of the region. After checking out a panoramic point of Göreme, our first stop took us to the Derinkuyu Underground City. The deepest of 36 underground cities discovered in Cappadocia, it was first built by the Phrygians in the 8th to 7th centuries BC and was expanded upon and served as a hideout for Christians in the 6th and 7th centuries. We were able to visit 8 of the 16 floors deep beneath the earth. When we arrived down the extremely narrow and low passageway to the 8th floor, we were 85 meters below the surface (approximately an entire football field length beneath the ground!). I think Johnny turned a little green at a couple points when we had to literally bend over and almost crawl to get through the narrow tunnels, but it was well worth it. The intricacy of the city with stables, homes, churches, wells, baptism pools, air shafts and classrooms was amazing, and it was crazy to imagine 10,000 people living for months at a time in this way in order to evade enemies.

Hot air balloon rides are a hot ticket in Cappadocia
The passageways got even more narrow and low than this…not a happy place for claustrophobics!
Johnny’s so excited to be eight levels below the earth Deep and narrow stairwells
One tunnel went a distance of 15km, connecting to yet another underground city

Glad to have avoided any cave-ins, we emerged back into daylight and headed for Ihlara Valley, the 2nd largest canyon after the Grand Canyon (fun fact). We took a 4km walk through the valley in the Melendiz river canyon which was full of fall colors, more cave dwellings and churches, and some of the most enormous ducks I’ve ever seen – I think they might have been duck-geese hybrids.

Ihlara Valley Agacalti (under the tree) church in Ihlara
The colors were beautiful in the Melendiz river canyon
Cappadocia was also the land of cute puppies Cave dwellings along the walls of the canyon

After lunch in Belisirma, we drove to Yaprakhisar, an area which is well known for its landscape looking like the backdrop of Star Wars. We climbed around and explored the largest monastery (Selime) in the area which was really impressive both in size and intricate details within the rock caves.

Inside the church at Selime Inside the church at Selime
Star Wars landscape Yaprakhisar

After one final panoramic look out point of Pigeon Valley, we got back to Göreme around 5:30pm, grabbed our luggage and headed to the very cool Safak Cafe that we had found the day before for some last minute wine and meze before boarding our overnight bus to Istanbul!

Erciyes Dagi volcano
Pigeon Valley (pigeons were considered sacred, and their droppings were used as manure)
We were sad to say goodbye to our main man Mustafa We loved the Arch Palace Hotel
October 23, 2011

Time For A Kebab

by Johnny

Do you know how hard it is for a meat-eating male to travel in Europe for nearly five months without eating a kebab?  It’s extremely hard.  They’re on nearly every street corner, tempting you with cheap awesomeness.  Did I give into this temptation?  No way.  I ignored these delicious hunks of meat on a stick with unrivaled willpower, determined to experience my first kebab in the world’s kebab mecca, Istanbul.

On one of our travel days a little while ago, Anna and I were watching the Istanbul episode of “Anthony Bordain: No Reservations.”  He raved about this hole in the wall kebab place that made both of us drool on our computer, and I thought, “Yes…this is where I will have my kebab!”  With some flimsy directions, we headed down a couple side streets, up a couple alleys, and finally made it to Durumzade.  Let me just say, it was worth the wait.  We ordered a spicy lamb durum (Turkish kebab wrap), which is the specialty of the house, and watched the grill master work his magic.  The best part was that he would periodically smother the cooking meat with the bread, soaking up all the juice and spices.  He wrapped the meat up burrito style with some tomatoes, onions and more spices and delivered it to our table.  I tore into this thing like a five year-old into his first present on Christmas morning.  It, like nearly every single thing we’ve eaten in Turkey, did not disappoint.

How can a place with smiley faces for U’s be bad? Choice of meats on skewers in the window
Cooking up our lamb on the grill All the fixin’s
One happy camper…who looks a little pooped from staying out ’til 4:00am the night before
October 19, 2011


by Johnny

After over a month traveling throughout the amazing country of Italy, it was time for the Sherwood World Tour to move on. Next stop…Turkey! Our jolly B&B owner Osman picked us up at the Izmir airport in the freezing cold and drove us to the town of Selçuk, our base for exploring the ruins of Ephesus and surrounding sites. On the way to his comfy, family-run B&B, Nazar Hotel, Osman mentioned that his friend ran daily tours of Ephesus if we were interested. We haven’t been on many “tours,” but with only one full day to see the region (and because we didn’t want to get lost in the freezing cold), we figured it would be the best way to see everything. We’re definitely glad we did the tour as it provided us with a ton of insight not found in our guidebooks.

The view from breakfast at Nazar Hotel
View from our room We ate a delicious dinner in the freezing cold at Hotel Nazar
My new Turkish friends Osman and his nephew

Our first stop was Meryemana (Mary’s House), where, as the story goes, the Virgin Mary lived her final years after she came to Ephesus with Saint John in the year 37 AD. Over 1,800 years later, a German nun named Catherine Emmerich had visions of Mary’s face in a grilled cheese sandwich she was eating. No, not really. But she did claim to have visions of Mary living in Ephesus, even though she had never visited the place or even left Germany. Using the descriptions of her visions as a guide, clergy from nearby Izmir discovered the foundations of an old house on a hillside near Ephesus. Whoa! Though the ruins have been dated to the 6th century AD, they are said to “contain some earlier elements, possibly from the 1st century.” Well, that was good enough for Pope Paul VI to unofficially claim its authenticity on a visit in 1967, making it a place of pilgrimage. Whether you believe the Virgin Mary lived there or not, it’s definitely an interesting place to check out.

Virgin Mary’s pad…allegedly
People lighting candles at Mary’s house Prayers written on tissues at Mary’s house

The next stop on our tour was Ephesus, said to be the best-preserved ruins in the Mediterranean, if not all of Europe. According to the legend, Androclus from Ionia, under constant attack from invaders, sought the advice of the oracle of Delphi for a new place to settle his people. The oracle told him to look for three things: the fish, the fire and the boar. When Androclus and his people arrived on the shores of present-day Turkey from Greece in the 10th century BC, they cooked some freshly caught fish, which started a large fire and scared a wild boar out of the bushes. Androclus hunted down the boar and founded Ephesus in the exact place he killed it.

In the centuries that followed, Ephesus grew to become Rome’s capital in Asia Minor with a population near 250,000. Today, only 18% of the former city has been excavated, but it’s still enough to get your imagination running wild about how impressive a city it must have been back in the day. The city even had full running water (hot and cold) and sewage systems, and some statues clearly depict a round earth indicating that the Romans knew the world was round before that belief was lost during the Dark Ages. It was at Ephesus that we were definitely glad we had a guide. She told us the history of and meaning behind each set of ruins, which would have otherwise looked like a bunch of old stones to Anna and me. Some highlights were the Varius Baths (where visitors were required to clean themselves upon entry) the Trajan Fountain, the Temple of Hadrian, the men’s latrines (where many wealthy men had membership), the Curetus Way (the Fifth Avenue of Ephesus), and the Great Theater. Of course, the head honcho of all the Ephesus ruins is the Library of Celsus. In its day, it held 12,000 scrolls, making it the third largest library in the ancient world.

Curetes Way…the Fifth Avenue of Ephesus
Ancient pharmacy snake symbol at Ephesus Lots of happy cats at Ephesus
Corinthian and Ionic columns Pomegranates in bloom next to the ruins
The men’s latrines were the place to be
Trajan Fountain Temple of Hadrian
Mosaic floors of the terraced houses Where the old shops lined Curetes Way
Library of Celsus
Library of Celsus
Library of Celsus Library of Celsus
Library of Celsus
Johnny and Anna…oh, and Library of Celsus
Harbour Street The Great Theatre
Shredding leg guitar solo at the Great Theatre

After our tour of Ephesus it was time for some grub. We sampled some Turkish delights, çay (tea), dried fruits and nuts from the region before heading to an all-you-can-eat restaurant featuring local fare. After filling our bellies we visited the Ephesus Museum, which contains some artifacts (coins, jewelry, scales) uncovered during excavation. Then we made our way to the Temple of Artemis, one of the original Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. When settling at Ephesus, Androclus and his people peacefully integrated with the Leleggian tribes already there, even incorporating some of the Leleggian beliefs into their own (take notes, Christopher Columbus). At the center of these beliefs and religious practices were goddesses of fertility, which evolved into the Artemis of Ephesus. Her devotees built her the largest temple in the world…larger than the Parthenon in Athens. Sadly, only one of the original 127 columns from the temple is still standing, and it’s topped by a silly looking stork’s nest, but we still got a good idea of what it could have looked like in its heyday.

A plethora of Turkish goodies
All that’s left of the Temple of Artemis…one of the original Seven Wonders of the Ancient World

We wrapped up our tour with a visit to a local hand-made Turkish carpet shop, where we learned all about the carpet making process.  It’s intense!  We saw how they extract silk from silkworm cocoons using traditional methods.  Then we learned about the various knots that are used to weave carpets, and how the Turkish double knot makes Turkish carpets unique.  Watching the girls weave intricate patterns into these carpets one knot at a time was something to see.  The girls can only work for two hours a day because the process is so physically exhausting, and sometimes it takes up to two years for them to complete a single rug.

Removing the silk cocoons from the hot water Silk cocoons
Carpet weaving This girl was recreating the Last Supper in a carpet
I still don’t know how they make patterns this cool
Carpets to the ceiling Genuine fake watches!

Although we’ve only been in Turkey for a couple of days, one thing’s for sure…we’re not in Western Europe anymore. The food, the language, the people, the landscape, the buildings, the music…it’s so different from anything we’ve seen on this trip so far. While I’ve absolutely loved every place we’ve been, this is the first time on our trip it feels like we are in a faraway, exotic land. It’s almost like our vacation has ended and our adventure has begun, and we can’t wait to see what else Turkey (and soon South Africa and Southeast Asia!) has to offer.