After the U2 concert I was spent. I did not get up until 10:30 a.m. and figured I would just spend the day either taking a couple ferry trips around the Bosphorus or just hanging out in a park and doing nothing. The only thing on my agenda was that I needed to swing by my rug dealer’s shop to have a look at one other carpet I was thinking of buying. I called Metin and told him I would be by later. When he asked about the concert and I relayed what had happened, he told me he would send a car to pick me up. So about an hour later I was in a car headed through the alleys of Istanbul. When I reached the shop Metin had tea prepared for me and insisted that he arrange a nice relaxing afternoon for me.
So another hour later and I was in a car on my way to the Asia side of Istanbul to relax in an area known as Saskinbakkal and in particular the street area known as Bagdat Caddesi. Turned out to be a very nice, upscale neighborhood (no tourists), but not exactly what I had in mind. I asked the driver to instead take me to Kadikoy so I could take a ferry back to the Europe side. We drove through the streets, past Fenerbahce Stadium (home of one of Turkey’s most famous football teams) and to the waterfront. Once on the waterfront I decided to take the ferry going to Eminonu (near the Galata Bridge) so that I could have lunch on the water. Turned out to be a great idea. I found a very nice little place, sat my tired ass down and ordered some mezes (grilled octopus and tomatoes in olive oil), salad and the grilled red snapper. Fantastic. After lunch I decided it was time to head back to the hotel, catch up on some sleep and spend the evening in the Hippodrome watching the breaking of the fast and just hanging out.
Well the plan was a good one, but getting back to my hotel proved to be a bit of a challenge. I really didn’t want to walk because my legs were pretty swollen, but having a cab maneuver through the massive traffic jam along the Galata Bridge and Spice market area would have been impossible. So I dodged the mostly stalled traffic to the other side and began my hike towards the Sultanhmet neighborhood. As I walked, I realized I was near the tram so ended up only walking about a 1/2 mile before I found a tram stop. The next challenge was trying to find a place to buy a token. Rather than have token booths at many of the tram stops, you have to find the shop that is selling tokens. There are no signs. You have to ask the various shop owners until one points out the shop that actually has the tokens. Unfortunately the shop was on the other side of the tracks, which meant crossing over and dodging traffic. Now the secret to crossing traffic in Istanbul is to move with a purpose. Hesitate and you may find yourself on the hood of a car. There are many crossings without pedestrian signals and cars seem to randomly charge through intersections in some places. Unfortunately, this was one of those crossings. Anyway, I had already learned my lesson about Istanbul traffic on the first night in town, so I charged across the street with others when a break in the traffic came. Success. I purchased the token, jumped on the tram and headed back to Sultanhmet.
Ten minutes and one pair of grateful feet and legs later I was headed through the Hippodrome to my hotel when all of a sudden I see a familiar face. Hey I know that guy… it was my one of my Romanian friends! Unbelievable. Soon another appeared. We exchanged European greetings (kiss on each cheek) and then rapid fire conversation about the concert. Then the big question … how did you guys get back to Istanbul? Well it turned out that my Romanian friends were much more fortunate than me. Rather than go to the cab stand area (to the right of the stadium) they turned left and found some shuttle buses that were headed back to the city. I told them what I went through and they just shook their heads. Even with the shuttle, though, they still did not get back until well after 3 a.m. (traffic was horrendous leaving the stadium).
We then discussed evening plans and they were headed to the Asia side to watch a football (soccer) game at Fenerbahce Stadium. Hey. I was just there. It’s in Kadikoy. Wish I could go, but my legs need rest. They then invited me to join them at a historical Islamic exhibition they were headed off to see. I declined (unfortunately). My legs were so swollen I knew I needed to elevate them and just rest. I was extremely sad to leave these folks and wished that I could have joined them. However, health first so I bid them goodbye and headed off to my hotel room marveling at how lucky I was to run into these good folks again.
I rested and headed back out about 9:00 p.m. and who should I run into wandering around but Kerem. Is there really 15 million people in this city because I have only become friends with a handful and I have run into them all today. Kerem asked about the concert and I relayed to him what had happened and he insisted on taking me to a restaurant for some dinner. After weaving through the alleys I found myself, minutes later, seated and ordering something equivalent to pizza (only much better). There was a football (soccer) game on the television and I learned that Turkey was playing Belgium in the Euro 2012 qualifier and what’s that … it’s being played at Fenerbahce Stadium. ACK. Had I known THAT was the game my Romanian friends were attending I would have said to hell with my legs and joined them. However, it turned out to be a lot of fun watching the game in the restaurant though. It was tied at 1-1 after the first half. Turkey then went up 2-1, but Belgium quickly tied it up on a crappy goal much to the consternation of the folks around me. Finally in the end with minutes to go, Turkey scored the winner to the delight of the Turks resulting in much hoopla and yelling. With the game over, I said goodbye to Kerem and got ready for bed.
Next morning I said goodbye to the wonderful folks at the Seven Hill Hotel. What a great place to stay. Beautiful room. Wonderful, warm, friendly staff. Perfect location. Stunning views. Fabulous rooftop restaurant. You could not ask for anything more.
My next stop was Cappadocia, which is an area in central Turkey. Capadoccia is generally considered to be comprised of a triangular area between the towns of Urgup, Avanos and Nevsehir. Within this area are also the small towns of Goreme and Uchisar. The landscape is high desert country famous for its lava rock formations known as ferry chimneys. The area was settled by Christian followers of St. Basil who believed in a monastic life. The harsh nature of the landscape and climate here appealed to these people who favored a barren existence believing hardship brought them closer to God. Gradually these individuals formed communities cutting hundreds of stone churches and homes out of the rock formations. The area is famous for these structures and the beautiful frescoes inside. At one point, these folks also constructed a number of underground cities that were used as a refuge from invaders who wanted to persecute them as Christians. In addition, to the amazing history, the area is rich with great hiking trails and fantastic wineries.
I was staying in the little town of Goreme. I arrived at midday and decided to give my legs a break and rest until later on in the afternoon. So around 4, I decided to walk the 1.5 kilometers to the Goreme Open Air Museum, which is a series of churches, monasteries and cathedrals cut from the rocks in the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries. While Cappadocia is famous for these structures (it is said there are over 600 in Cappadocia), the concentration of these structures in one area is what makes Goreme famous. I paid the entry fee, rented a set of headphones for the guided walking tour and set off. There was the Nunnery, the Apple Church, the Snake Church and on and on. However, the highlight for me was the Dark Church. There was an additional 7 TL fee to see the Dark Church, but it was worth every penny. (Although I really needed that yellow piece of plastic aka raincoat that I paid 7 TL for at the U2 concert, somehow paying 7 TL extra to see the Dark Church left me with a far better feeling.)
Anyway, after wandering around for a couple hours I headed back to my hotel. My legs were still very swollen and now they were red and itchy. (I think I brushed up against a bush or something and had an allergic reaction.) Anyway, I got to my room, wrapped my legs in cold cloths and elevated them. I decided I would go to bed since up had to be up early as I was going hot air ballooning.
So 4:45 a.m. and I am up beating the Call to Prayer by a few minutes. (And there is no way I can miss the Call to Prayer since the minaret is literally a stones throw from my hotel. The muezzin in Goreme love love loves to draw out the words of the Call to Prayer and take dramatic pauses in between verses. He also uses a lot of inflections in his voice…. and in my opinion he even seems a little off key. Quite frankly I think he is trying too hard. You know… small town muezzin trying to compete with the big boys in Istanbul and Ankara. Then when he is finished you can hear the speaker being turned off with this kind of click thump. For whatever reason it cracks me up every time.) Anyway, I got ready to go, grabbed my hoody (it is a little chilly early in the morning in the balloon) and was picked up by Goreme Balloons at 5:10 a.m.
It was still dark when we arrived at the launch site. We drank some tea while we waited for the balloons to be inflated. (Drinking tea is a huge Turkish tradition and you are likely considered a freak if you don’t like tea. Fortunately, I like tea, but that may not stop the Turks from thinking I am a freak….) Anyway, the process of inflating the balloons was actually quite interesting. First the balloons were filled with air and then the air was heated… and when the air is heated it does what children???? That’s right it rises and voila … floating balloon. I had signed up for the hour and a half deluxe balloon ride, and it turned out to be a smart move. Not only would we be in the air for 1 1/2 hours instead of the standard 1 hour, we would only have 8 folks in our balloon basket and we were scheduled to be the first in the air.
So we received some brief instructions from our flight captain (Captain Ersoy) and up we went. As we rose we watched the other balloons being inflated as the sun started to peak from behind the mountains. We could see the highest peak in Cappadocia, Mount Erciyes, in the distance against the early morning light. It was stunning. Captain Ersoy proved to be a fantastic captain. He took us so close to the fairy chimneys we could almost touch them. Then he would take us down almost skimming the ground. We floated over pumpkin patches and vineyards, over the town of Goreme and through Pigeon Valley and over Uchisar. At one point we came so close to a house, the owner came running out yelling at us. Unfortunately, we all couldn’t help but laugh, including Captain Ersoy. (I have posted a video of portion of the trip, but you may want to turn the sound down. In order to keep the balloon inflated the burners are turned on and off throughout the trip and it is a little loud.)
Finally after an hour and a half it was time to land. We all took our landing positions (sort of a half crouch/squat) and one semi large bump and one softer bump later and we were down. We stood up and Captain Ersoy raised the balloon every so slightly so that it could be maneuvered onto the bed of the truck. Then he began the process of deflating the balloon. The top of the balloon was opened and then cold air was forced into the balloon and within minutes the crew had the balloon deflated. We were helped out of the balloon and participated in the traditional champagne toast to a wonderful flight. It was a great way to start the day. (In fact I am trying to figure out a way to commute to work by hot air balloon. I would avoid the 520 traffic jam every morning, and I would not have to pay the toll that is about to go into effect on the bridge.)
I was then back at my hotel by 8:30 a.m. and was planning to hike the Red and Rose Valleys that afternoon. Unfortunately, my legs were not being cooperative so I called the guiding company and explained my situation and asked if I could change the hike to Saturday morning. They advised me that that the only way I could do a morning hike was to book a private guide, and they did not have private guides. OK then, back to Goreme to find a private guide for a Saturday hike in the Red and Rose Valleys. Fortunately, Goreme is full of guiding companies so I went to the first one recommended in my guide book, but they sent me to the company next door. I spoke to a man and explained what I was looking for. He nodded, excused himself and then brought in a fellow who he indicated would be my guide. (A word of warning, this next bit will not be politically correct….) I took one look at this guy and figured the fellow would be lucky if he knew how to spell hike let alone know what a hike was. Wife beater t-shirt, large stomach and smoking a cigarette. He looked like a live version of Homer Simpson. I quickly made up some polite “I changed my mind” excuse and got out of there pronto, biting the inside of my checks to refrain from rolling into fits of laughter.
I found the next recommended company, Goreme Travel, and met the owner Ibrahim Budak. I explained my situation and he assured me he had the perfect guide. Fifteen years experience hiking all over Turkey and specializing in hikes in the Cappadocia region. Perfect. Done deal. Then Ibrahim insisted that he take me to a pharmacist to see if he could help me with my legs. Five minutes later I am on the back of Ibrahim’s motorcycling roaring down the street (sans helmet) to the pharmacist. The pharmacist looked at my red, puffy legs pulled out some ointment and assured me that my legs would be better by the next day if I massaged the ointment on and drank plenty of water. I thanked him and as I was leaving, I was offered a candy. At first I thought this was like going to the dentist when you are a little kid and you receive a toy for not crying. However, I soon learned that the candy was a customary tradition for Eid ul-Fitir (the end of Ramadan). It would be the first of many candies I was offered over the next three days.
So we jumped back on Ibrahim’s motorcycle and minutes later I am back at his office grateful for finding his business. As I walked across the plaza, past the mosque to my hotel, three elderly men motioned me over. In broken English they asked me where I was from. I said I live in Seattle, Washington U.S.A. Ah… “Obama” “Obama” “Obama” they said to me with huge grins. OK then. I was meeting the Goreme Chapter of the Barack Obama fan club. They continued to smile and one of them offered me a tomato out of his basket. “Organic” he said to me. I smiled, dipped my head and said “Teşekkür Ederim” (thank you in Turk) as I accepted the tomato. These people are just wonderful.
I walked up the hill to my hotel, found a shady area on the terrace, rubbed the ointment on my legs, opened a bottle of water and put my feet up. A short while later, one of the staff came by (who did not speak English), took one look at my legs and rattled off a bunch of Turk. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to understand she was expressing concern. I tried to assure her I was fine, but I could tell she was not convinced. A few minutes later she brought me a plate with a freshly picked bunch of grapes. (These are not the monster chemically induced grapes you find in the U.S. These are tiny little drops of heaven that are incredibly sweet and juicy.) I thanked her profusely, but this gal wasn’t done yet. Minutes later she appeared with a tub of cold water and a handful of what I believed were epsom salts. (They were.) She puts the tub down, motions me to put me feet in and she begins to take handfuls of water and pour them on my legs and then rub my legs and feet. I tried to get her to stop, but she would have none of it. (At this point, I am contemplating learning the Turkish language and moving to this country.)
By the end of the day, my legs were much better so I went ahead and attended the Whirling Dervish demonstration that I had booked for the evening. The Whirling Dervish is actually a whirling dance that is the practice of the Mevlevi Order of the Muslim religion and is part of a formal ceremony known as the Sema. The Sema has 6 parts of which the dance is only one part. The rotation of the dance or whirling is intended to put the participant into a trance in an attempt to reach religious ecstasy. The Mevlevi Order only perform the ceremony for religious purposes and as a result, any ceremony performed for the public is usually not performed by the Mevlevi and is for demonstration purposes only. Nevertheless, the ceremony is religious and is treated with the appropriate amount of respect and silence.
During the whirling part or the dervish dance, I found myself mesmerized by the constant rotations directly in front of me and almost fell asleep. It was a rather interesting display. At the end of the ceremony, they performed a small part of the dance again during which we were permitted to take pictures.
When I returned, I headed to Dibek for dinner. The restaurant is famous for its traditional clay pot stews that are popular in the area and I had put in an order earlier in the day. (They require you to give them 5 hours notice.) Dibek is located in a 450 year old building and dinner is served in traditional Ottoman fashion (sitting on cushions on the floor with a short table in front of you.) So I made my way to the restaurant, removed my shoes and was seated. Dinner was quickly brought to me, the top of the clay pot cracked open and out came my delicious chicken stew.
After dinner I was lounging on the cushions and the fellow who served me dinner passed by and said “You are so quiet”. My initial reaction was to say “Dude I just finished an awesome meal, I am lying on a bunch of cushions and there is no one else seated with me and you think I should be noisy….?” Instead I smiled politely and said… “only because I have no one to talk to”. Now I wasn’t fishing for an invitation, but he immediately motioned to me and said “Please come join me and my uncle for wine. We made it ourselves.” I readily accepted and off I went down the hall. I learned that his name was Ahmet (as was his uncle’s) and he was the fifth generation owner of the building and restaurant. I sat and drank wine with Ahmet and his uncle for a couple hours and it turned out to be a wonderful evening. Ahmet the uncle was a very opinionated. liberal thinking Turk and the discussion turned to Turkey’s pending referendum. Evet (yes) or Hiyr (no) on whether the Turkish constitution should be amended to incorporate changes that the conservative Turkish government believes are necessary. They argue that the constitution was created in the 1920s and has only been amended once in the 1980s so it needs to be modernized. The liberal opposition believes this is just an effort by the government to erode the separation of church and state and take Turkey more in line with Arab governments. It was a fascinating discussion. (The referendum passed by the way.) With an invitation to join them the next night, I headed off to bed.
The next morning (Friday) I was up bright and early for a small group tour of the area. Not really my cup of tea (group tours), but it offered a chance to hike the Ilhara Valley so I figured I would take a chance. And, there were only 8 others on the tour so it was not like those massive groups of tourists you see a tourist sites.
Anyway we set off in a small minibus and made our first stop at Derinkuyu, which is the largest underground city in Cappadocia. As I mentioned before, Christians in the area constructed these cities as a safe haven against invaders who wished to persecute them. However, our guide advised us that the structures were originally intended as storage facilities and were converted to underground cities when the persecutions began.
The underground structures consist of a series of very narrow and low tunnels that go many stories deep into the ground and feature, areas for animals on the first level, storage areas for food, living quarters, a seminary and baptismal area, graves and an amazing ventilation system. In order to make your way through the low tunnels and and passageways you often had to do a kind of squat walk to avoid hitting your head (which I managed to do multiple time). The city was fascinating, but if you had breathing problems, were tall or at all claustrophobic this was not for you.
From the underground city we made a stop at Narli Goi Crater Lake, which was a fresh water lake created by a volcanic explosion centuries ago that was so common in the area. The area was really beautiful and accented the high desert landscape.
The next stop was really what I signed up for. A 5 km hike in the Ilhara Valley. To say it is a valley is really a misnomer. The Ilhara is actually a gorge or canyon and is absolutely spectacular. We hiked down to the bottom and walked along the river, through the trees and over the rocks. Magnificent. Along the way we passed a very large corn patch. Our guide advised that although the area is a public park, farmers still use areas of open ground in the canyon to plant crops and in particular corn. The government apparently tolerates the interlopers.
After the hike, we had lunch by the river and then drove on to the Selime Cathedral, which is a huge church carved out of rock high above the valley. We hiked up the very narrow, rocky path to the top and was it ever worth it. Not only were the views spectacular, but the rooms and frescoes were beautiful.
Our final stop of the day was to the Agzikarahan Caravanserai, which is located on the famed “Silk Road”. There were numerous caravanserais built on the Silk Road as well as other parts of Turkey to house the camel caravans that were used by merchants to move their wares from area to area (think the original traveling salesman). The caravanserais contained an area for animals to be housed, an area for the merchants for eating and sleeping and an area of worship open to people of all faiths. The Agzikarahan Caravanserai dated to the 13th century and was in very good shape. We wandered around for a bit and then started the journey back to Goreme.
I arrived back in Goreme and decided to make an early night of it so I stopped at the Donar Kebab shop (Turkish fast food) and placed an order for a chicken kebab. A donar kebab shop features meat rotating vertically on a spit. The meat is cut off the rotating stand and piled on Turkish flatbread, filled with a salad mixture and a few squirts of mayonnaise. Delish! (and far more healthy than our fast food). One more stop at the local patisserie for a couple pieces of baklava and off to my room I went. (GACK… I have such a sweet tooth and these folks are just feeding my habit!)
Next morning I was up at 5:45 a.m. and off down the street to meet my hiking guide for a hike in the Rose and Red Valleys. I walked down the hill and entered the Goreme Travel office and what’s this… Hellllooooo … are you my guide? Affirmative. Uh. Well then…. And rather than describe my guide I have posted his picture. And in addition to everything else… he was a blast. His name was Hasan and after we exchanged some pleasantries we jumped in a car for a drive to the trail head at Kizilcukur in the Rose Valley. We would be hiking about 5 miles through the Rose Valley and Red Valley to a village called Cavusin.
As we started the hike, the early dawn was filled with hot air balloons that were just lifting off from the ground. It was spectacular to watch. There was no one else on the trail. The sky was fading from pink to blue and the birds were chirping. As Hasan and I hiked, he realized I was in pretty good shape and asked if I wanted to do a slightly longer hike climbing up the hills to see some of the churches carved into the rocks along the trails. Uh you betcha. We walked along and started to talk and once we got started, we didn’t stop talking for the entire hike. Hasan was a fascinating, intelligent, extremely well read guy. We covered the world from A to Z. Religion, politics, football (soccer to us with his favorite team being of course… Fenerbahce), the decline of education. the lack of physical activity by children, women in the workforce, marriage, divorce (his), my job, music, retirement, travel and on and on. We were talking so much we missed the turn to begin the climb into the hills and had to retrace our steps adding about 30 minutes to the hike.
Once back on track we began hiking past vineyards and Hasan ambled over and picked a few bunches of the same tiny little grapes I had eaten a couple days before. The grapes were spectacular. As we hiked higher the climb became more difficult, but the views got better and better. We passed a tiny spring and grabbed some cold water to rub on our faces to cool down (it was already quite hot). We climbed the rocks to a series of churches and pigeon houses (farmers used to house pigeons in the area and use the droppings for fertilizer) and still we saw no one one the trail. At one point Hasan bent down and picked up some walnuts that had fallen from a tree and explained to me how walnuts can be used to make henna. Wow. This guy is full of information.
We finally reached the base of the large hillside that Hasan said we should climb because the view was amazing and the church at the top beautiful. After climbing straight up for about 10 minutes we reached a plateau that turned out to be long since abandoned apple orchard. The trees were covered in apples and after two leaps, Hasan had apples for both of us. As he handed it to me he said “It’s organic.” Uh I hope so. (Turks love to talk about their food being “organic”.) And, after eating the apple I can safely say I now know what a real apple is supposed to taste like. I don’t know how I’ll go back. We each finished the apples, gulped down a bottle of water and continued the trek up. When we finally reached the top it was indeed magnificent. You could see for miles and the church at the top was beautiful with frescoes as nice as anything I saw in the Goreme Open Air Museum (other than the Dark Church). It was completely worth the climb.
As we hiked down the path on the other side of the hill we finally ran into a man and a woman. As they approached I couldn’t help but notice that the gal was struggling a bit and was dressed entirely inappropriately for a hike. Makeup, sandals, short shorts and an off the shoulder t-shirt that Olivia Newton John probably wore in Grease. After the couple passed, I made a comment to Hasan about the fact that the woman was not dressed very well for hiking and was even wearing makeup. Hasan said nothing for a few moments and then turned to me and said “Deborah even cheerleaders need to exercise.” LMAO. (We then proceeded to have a lengthy discussion about cheerleaders and the women in sports.)
We finally reached Cavusin and Hasan suggested we hike to the top of old Cavusin. (The town was at one time built into the rocks, but was destroyed by earthquakes.) I was all for it so off we went. Fifteen minutes later we were standing atop old Cavusin looking down on the new village. It was a magnificent view and a great way to end what had turned into an almost 5 hour hike.
The car from Goreme Travel came and picked us up and I was of course invited for tea. As we sat talking about the hike with Ibrahim, Hasan suggested that I stay for a couple more days and he would take me hiking through the entire Ilhara Valley. Mmmmm very tempting. However, I was concerned that with the end of Eid (the three day holiday after Ramadan) it may be hard for me to rebook my flight to the coast and I really wanted to see Ephasus. I unfortunately had to decline. Then Hasan invited me to join him at the Fenerbahce-Kayseri football match that evening in Kayseri. Ack! This guy was killing me. I really wanted to say yes, but ended up also declining for the same reasons. However, I promised Hasan I would be back to hike with him again… And I meant it.