Turkey in 2016. Talk about an eventful holiday. This was my third time visiting this nation, which uniquely sits in both the European and Asian continents. Turkey is rich in history, spanning from its humble beginnings as Anatolia, to the Byzantine period, then the Ottoman empire, and now the independent Republic of Turkey. A lot has happened in this part of the world. Tons.
This trip was certainly the longest I’ve stayed in Turkey. When we booked this holiday, I was longingly looking at the incredible photos of Cappadocia and the fascinating hot springs of Pamukkale. Booked my flights. Booked the tour. And then, just as the enter key was bouncing back from my keyboard, I discovered the current state of affairs in Turkey. ISIS and Kurdish rebels have put Turkey in the news these past few months. My dad advised me not to go. I couldn’t help but feel scared, worried. Leading up to this trip, I had my doubts. But I figured. You now what? As morbid as this sounds, if it’s your time to go, it’s your time. So we went!
Our plan was to proceed with caution. Be smart about the places we went to. Go with the locals as much as possible. Despite the Isitiklal bombing in Istanbul (which happened the same day we arrived!) and my incredibly uncomfortable health issues, we survived and now have a few incredible stories in our back pockets.
(10) Turkish craftsmanship
Carpets, pottery, lamps, tiles, woodwork, leather, textiles… We ooooh’d and ahhhh’d at the colourful and painstakingly detailed handicrafts. The Turks have a long, historic tradition of craftsmanship. We readily gave into our inner (sometimes suppressed) souvenir-cravings. Hey, we’re all up for supporting the local communities! And why not? We thank you with our purchases of overpriced bowls, pretty lamps, cozy blankets, and one-of-a-kind scarves.
The quintessential Ottoman dessert whose origins are frequently debated (Is it Greek? Is it Turkish? Is it Roman?) I’ve had a few baklavas before. Most of them were quite sweet. Our local guide took us to a place where he claims serves the best baklava in the whole world. People from around the world come to Karakoy Gulluoglu, for these bad boys. We sampled a few, and I loved the ones with loads of pistachios and the side of cream. It had just the right sweetness.
(8) Kebabs in all shapes and sizes
Assorted meats, typically skewered then grilled, served with a generous portion of rice or flat bread. Likely served with a grilled tomato, an onion, and a pepper. In Turkey, I discovered a different kind of kebab. One they call a Turkish potted kebab or a testi kebab. We had it twice this trip, and both times it was delivered to our table in a steaming hot clay pot. Both times were tasty. And both times were a spectacle. There was a bit of theatre in how they served it. So the meats, veg, spices are all cooked inside a clay pot. It’s sealed and cooked in high heat. The dramatic presentation was in opening the incredibly hot pot. A professional, with a large knife and lots of caution, begins to break the seal until we hear a whistling, popping sound. He then pours out the delicious, tender, and saucy kebab. Cue watering of mouth. Cue Asian voice inside my head: “This reminds me of stir fry!”
(7) House of the Virgin Mary
According to historic accounts, the gospel writer John, was entrusted by Jesus to look after Mary, the holy mother. He took her to these parts of Turkey and she lived the last years of her life in the quiet parts of Mt. Koressos, just a few kilometres from Ephesus. What’s left is a humble house made of stone. There was something serene and special about this place. The atmosphere is of quiet reverence.
(6) The Grand Bazaar
Indoor souk with lots of decorative tiles and beautiful nooks and crannies. You come here for the goods, the smells, and the atmosphere. I was here for the first time about 7 years ago, and it was kind of daunting for a virgin visitor. Charming-borderline-aggressive merchants luring you in with a cup of Turkish tea, and then Baaaam! You walk away with a carpet in tow! We were fortunate that the market this time was relatively quiet. We got a really good deal with a nice mosaic lamp (very Turkish) and compact mirrors . The market is 700 years old and has sections specifically for leather goods, spices, homewares, and everything else in between. Of course it’s not just all Turkish stuff here. You will see the usual (clothes and shoes) products from China, and some knock-off designer bags. Our tour guides shared, you come to the grand bazaar to look and experience. You buy elsewhere! Well… unless you come on a slow day, or are an expert haggler.
(5) The Ancient City of Ephesus
Lots of historic stuff’s gone down here in Turkey. And I mean centuries, upon centuries worth of history. It’s no surprise that one of the more impressively preserved places of Greco-Roman architecture is the Ancient city of Ephesus. Built in the 10th century BC by the Greeks, Ephesus once saw about 50,000 people walk its streets. The Temple of Hadrian, the stone carving of the goddess Nike, and the Library of Celsus are the main draws of this place (then and now!). Be equipped with sun tan, because if you’re here on a humid, summer day, you will most definitely need it.
(4) Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque
The Sultanahmet district of Istanbul is home to these two amazing landmarks, regulars in most, if not all Istanbul travel books.
The Hagia Sophia, church turned mosque turned museum, is one of my favourite sites in the city. It’s a physical representation of what the country has gone through in the past two millenniums. Hagia Sophia was originally a church, hence the beautiful, Christian Orthodox gothic tiles peaking through white plaster. When the Ottomans came, they didn’t destroy the tiles. Rather they covered it with white plaster. The architectural design of the church is impressive. There aren’t a lot of pillars inside supporting the massive dome. A feat in design never (or rarely) to be seen again in modern architecture.
The blue mosque is just as impressive. Visitors need to be in the proper attire to enter the mosque. The blue mosque is an active place of worship, which gets its name from the blue tiles on the walls.
The mythical images of Pamukkale or the Cotton palace are probably one of the reasons I was keen to visit Turkey for the third time. Just like the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, I was just curious about what these were really like. Live. Pamukkale is all naturale, salt deposits and hot springs carved out of this elevated land mass in Hieropolis. Thousands of years ago, people flocked to Hieropolis for the healing qualities of the hot springs. Cleopatra herself allegedly visited the magical pools. The walk down to Pamukkale is dream-like. Pool after pool of warm, clear (or sometimes cloudy”blue”) water, flowing atop the white solid base of salt. Think hardened white sand.
(2) Göreme Open Air Museum
This lands a sweet spot on my top ten because of its element of surprise. On our second day in Cappadocia, we explored the northern side. The odd rock formations are truly something to see for yourself. This “open air museum” in Göreme used to be where persecuted Christians, two millennia back, sought refuge. Carved out of the rock formations were lots of different functional rooms: Kitchen, dining area, bed room, etc. The most fascinating and awe-inspiring room, I must say, is the chapel (Karanlik (Dark Church)) where original paintings from thousands of years ago are still very well-preserved. My emotions went from “Really? I need to pay extra for this?” to “This entrance looks underwhelming.” to “Oh. This passage way is quite dark.” to finally “Oh my God. These frescos are breathtaking. The colours!”Needless to say, I was beyond pleasantly surprised by the Dark Church. No photos allowed inside, sorry!
(1) Hot air balloon ride over Cappadocia
Without a doubt, and because of a whole of other reasons I can’t completely disclose, THIS was the most unforgettable part of the trip. It was pricey, but we knew we just had to do it. Why go all the way to Cappadocia and not ride a hot air balloon?!
Anyway we started early early morning. The sun was barely out. The excitement was palpable as we approached our 18-pax capacity hot air balloon. Around us,several others were prepping to go. The enormous, listless canvases slowly came to life as their pilots/operators slowly filled them with hot air.
When the balloons were ready, we started boarding. I didn’t realise how deep the baskets were. Then again, I’m not very tall so this could well be waist-level for the average person. Anyway, when everyone was onboard in our respective pockets of space, cozy for 4 people, those left inland untied the ropes and we slowly rose from the ground. Before we knew it, we were going further up and up and up. Until we could see the vast landscape of the rock formations of the Rose Valley. Cue jaw dropping on the basket floor.
Dalah held her phone extra tight, fearful of it accidentally falling hundreds of feet down. Anyway, we glided past the Open air Musuem; oooooooohed and ahhhhhed at the pilgrims’ homes; smiled ourselves silly while looking out for other colourful hot air balloons floating past us; and forming connect the dots across the early morning sky. It was pretty spectacular.