Delights of Turkey

December 2009, by Tom

After a fun-filled Christmas dinner at Paul+Laurens, our winter holiday was finally upon us. On a sleepy, hungover felt Boxing Day, a mini cab took Gini along with Marcus, Jess and myself to Luton airport where our next EasyJet expedition was taking us - to Turkey!

We were lucky with the weather. 3 days before our flight was departing, Luton airport was covered with snow and cancellations were overwhelming. Luckily, the snow mostly melted and the runways were clear for our Boxing day departure.

Our holiday first took us to one of Istanbul's airports. Unfortunately as is usually the case with cheap flights, to the further out airport where the only mode of transport into the city is via expensive taxi or a mini bus. We were herded onto a mini bus which turned out to be the best way to make the inter-city journey and took us straight to the door of the Bahaus Hostel - where we would spend our first night in Turkey.

After dropping our bags we took the hostel managers recommended restaurant out for a spin and weren't disappointed. Gini and I had "kebaps" - Gini's a lamb shish, mine a iskender. Yum. Marcus and Jess decided to go for one of the special dishes. The testi kebap. Out came a pot sizzling over some hot coals. Marcus was then taken aside and instructed to whack the top off the pot with a metal rod. A couple of goes and he did it! Revealing a tasty stew dish and crowning him with the name "Pot Killer" for the rest of the evening. Dinner was followed by tasty sweet deserts (baklava) and Turkish Coffee and Apple Tea.

After dinner we took a wander through the streets and stumbled across the incredible Hagia Sophia. Although at first we thought this was the Blue Mosque, it turned out that the larger of the two Mosques was actually the much older of the two (and a more impressive sight from the outside).

Our first day in Istanbul started with an odd assortment of hostel provided breakfast - three types of olives, two types of cheese, very boiled egg, cucumber, tomato and bread. There was also a help-yourself tap of the strongest, darkest Tea known to man. Apparently it's a concentrate which should be watered down to about 1 part tea, 10 parts water ... At least that was our conclusion.

After breakfast we went to pickup our night train tickets for that night. We had pre-booked our train tickets to Ankora and back again through a travel agent, as we wanted the safety of knowing we had beds on both journeys. What we didn't realise was that the travel agent was closed on Sundays - the day we needed to pickup the tickets! Panic struck, and after ringing around and talking to various trying-to-be-helpful-but-not-really-any-help-at-all people, we took off to the train station and attempted to explain the situation .... We failed and ended up having to purchase the train tickets again. Luckily there was still room on both journeys! Our first mishap on the trip. Easily avoided had we read the email from the travel people more thoroughly that explained they were closed on Sunday's. Never mind.

With the near-catastrophe averted we continued with the days rigorous plans.

First up was a look inside both of the large Mosques. What the Blue Mosque lacked in external size and magnificence, it more than made up for with it's beautiful interior. Beautifully tiled domed ceiling and walls. The incredible tiling was apparent throughout Istanbul and it steered our Turkish souvenir towards this direction as well - a lovely four panel set of tiles.

After our two Mosque tour we ventured underground into the Basilica Cistern. The largest of several ancient cisterns that lie beneath Istanbul. It was very eery, dark and damp. Quite spectacular in size. It was apparently discovered by someone who dug a hole in the floor of their house only to find a "lake" of water beneath with thousands of fish swimming around. What a find!

After the Cistern we grabbed our bags from the hostel and took off on our way towards the train station that would take us to Ankora. A walk, a ferry ride and another walk later (via a snack of course!) we made it to our room for the night - a night train.

(Note: this entry finished there there - only half completed - for nearly two years. It has now been completed (with help from JaM's blog - http://jessandmarcus.blogspot.com/2010/02/turkey-mosques-and-caves.html - thanks guys!))

The train ride to Ankora was great. We settled in for a few beers and a few rakis (which Jess liked and we definitely did not!), before returning to our fancy cabins for a rockity nights sleep. The following morning we woke nice and early, ready to disembark but were able to figure out that the train was delayed - not by long however - but this gave us enough time to have some breakfast and to soak up some advice from a local who now lives in London.

After arriving at Ankora, we made our way to the main bus terminal where people fought over us to take their bus service the final leg of our journey onto Cappadocia. The bus ride was pleasant, but what happened next was not. We were dropped at a bus depot out of town and expected to be picked up shortly after by a mini-bus to take us to Gerome. Unfortunately another company tried to take advantage of us and would not let us leave without booking a tour with them. We asked around and finally found the manager of our bus company who gave the guy pestering us a kick up the backside and finally - we were on our way!

Cappadocia was incredible. We could instantly see why we took the long journey to get to here - it was like we were on another planet. With pointy cave houses dotting the landscape which seemed like a desert. After a tasty meze dinner we relaxed in the hotel to a game of backgammon (where I lost badly to Jess) and took to our cave rooms for a well deserved nights sleep.

The next morning was an early start - but one that we had been anticipating the whole trip - hot air ballooning! We piled into a van with other like minded sleepy souls and proceeded to our hot air balloon departure point. We had a snack and waited while they filled this monstrous balloon in front of us - what a site. We started seeing other balloons dotting the landscape. Spots of colour with the dusty, rocky landscape below.

Finally - it was our turn. We piled into the large basket and within minutes - we were airborne. What a thrill! The views were spectacular but what amazed me the most was the sense of calm - we moved with the wind and so felt nothing and heard nothing - except for the occasional blast of the gas to alter our height. I can see why they used trained pilots to man these things, as it's not all as simple as it seems! You have to raise and lower the balloon to get on the right breeze that's going where you want to end up. Our captain was a master. Towards the end of the flight we could see our transport zooming along the roads trying to anticipate our landing zone. After a couple of mis-calculated stops, they had us bang on.

After the balloon ride (a highlight from any holiday!) we returned to the hotel in time to scoff some of the amazing schmogasboard breakfast before heading off on our second tour of the day.

The second tour we embarked on took us on a walk through a canyon passing through ancient churches and onto a lunch spot - consisting of wood fire oven baked trout. After lunch, the tour continued onto a cave monastery - where we were able to explore at our hearts content. It was an amazing intertwined chain of caves - we could only manage to see a fraction of the monastery during our one hour stop. It was fantastic. It was hard to imagine people living there.

After a snooze on the bus ride home and a few tacky tourist shops, we were back at the hotel. We decided to have a night in after the full on day and have dinner at the hotel. Before dinner, however, we had a turkish massage! They had a small massage room down below the hotel, and the massage was incredible. At one point, they cover your entire body in soapy foam - I remember peering over at Marcus and only seeing a foam pile.

All relaxed and massaged out, it was time for dinner. A tasty dinner in - but I can't quite recall what we had The highlight of the evening, however, was that the sky had clouded over and proceeded to dump the place with a covering of snow! Within minutes, the place had transformed to white and we were acting like kids, throwing snowballs at each other.

We took to our beds again not knowing what the next day would bring .

The next day, the outlook had transformed. Everything was snow covered. What a sight! We navigated the streets to the bus depot and managed to catch one going to the Underground City in Kaymakli. You wouldn't want to be claustrophobic in the underground city! It was an endless stream of rooms built deep underground with very little lighting. It was quite amazing, but we were happy to get back to the surface for fresh air!

Last tourist site before we had to make our way back to Istanbul was to the Open Air Museum. The Open Air Museum was another impressive collection of caves and cave churches. Almost like a mini cave town. It was very good - but by this stage I think we were all caved out, so we made our way back to Gerome and onto the bus - bound for Ankora. No annoyances this time round, and we made our transfer to another night on the comfy express, back to whence we had came - Istanbul.

Eventually after leaving the train, catching a ferry followed by a tram and a bit of a walk - we made it to our room for the night at another hostel. We dumped our bags and were back on the tourist beat - this time a visit to Topkapi Palace. The palace was very grand in parts but was unfortunately spoiled by the massive number of toursits and the large queues to see some of the jewels. It may not have helped that we had a bit of a rocky night sleep the night before and were a bit pooped.

It just so happened that it was New Years eve. It also just so happened that Jo and Dave were in town having flown in from London so after a bit of a revive over a few beers back at the hostel we trooped it accross town to where all the cool kids hang out and headed up a hill to where we found Jo and Daves flash hotel. We stayed for another couple of drinks before trying our luck at a New Years Eve feast at one of the many restaurants offering such a thing. Dinner wasn't particularily fantastic but it didn't dampen our sprits so we ventured off in search of a drinkery to count down the seconds. We ended the year with large beers, shots of raki and a massive cigar.

All in all, it was a good night oug and was great to spend New Years eve in a foreign place with close friends.

The following morning, with only two days left in Istanbul we thought it was high time to hit the markets. Not just any markets but the Grand Bazaar! A mind numbing number of stalls all under cover and stretching as far as the eye could see. It was very easy to get lost so we coupled off and arranged to meet back at the hostel later on. Gini and I wandered around for a bit before the hangover took a turn for the worse and forced us to seek pick-me-up-juice and something greasy. This seemed to do the trick as we were back at it, bargaining a vendor down trying to secure a set of tiles we took what seemed like hours to decide that we needed.

After reconvening at the hostel, we took to the streets again and decided on somewhere special for our last night in Turkey - a Twirling Dirvish show. We found a decent looking place so settled in for wine, three course meal and, of course, a group of Twirling Dirvishes, twirling the night away as we sat and drank and ate. It was an odd experience and we were quite amazed at how long they performed their twirls without falling over or throwing up on each other. We finished the evening with a night cap at a restaurant overlooking Istanbul.

Our last day in Istanbul we ventured to another part of town, past a million lighting shops to climb the Galata tower. The climb was aided by a lift that took us the whole way up .. But the views at the top were still deserved and most impressive.

On our way back from the tower we had one last thing to tick off the list - a fish sammy from the bridge. There were hundreds of men lining the bridge fishing for what seemed like tiny sprat like fishes ... Some of which ended up in the cafes that lined under the bridge. We chose one that had fish sammies on the menu and tucked in. They were suprisingly good!

With the day getting on, and a flight home beckoning, we packed up our gear and ordered a taxi to the airport and said our farewells to Turkey, for now, it has been a fantastic experience.

T
Hagia Sophia mosque from the inside

Hagia Sophia mosque from the inside

Preparing to enter the Blue Mosque

Preparing to enter the Blue Mosque

Not before a few beers and some raki's though!

Not before a few beers and some raki's though!

Goreme and the crazy pointy stone houses.

Goreme and the crazy pointy stone houses.

We have lift off!

We have lift off!

The heavens opened up with a dump of snow!

The heavens opened up with a dump of snow!

An evening out with the Whiling Dervishes

An evening out with the Whiling Dervishes

One final kebab for the road

One final kebab for the road