13 May 2011

Turkey Part II: Istanbul

Istanbul. Once Constantinople. Not exactly beautiful, but elegant, vibrant. Ancient and eclectic. The skyline is a cross between Hong Kong and San Francisco. The great Bosphorous, the river that spans the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, is the gateway not only for ships large and small, but the dividing line between Europe and Asia. The only city in the world that spans two continents, and that’s only the first distinction of this fascinating place.

Turkey is bordered by six countries and four great bodies of water, central to almost every major historical culture, is it no wonder that it has been the target of conquerors forever. Now, 97% Muslim, moderate and modern, Istanbul, while not the official capital [that's Ankora] is the heart of the country.

I am awakened at dawn first by the call to prayer and then by seagulls and foghorns. At night, one hardly realizes that the lights sparkling on the hillside beyond rise above the Golden Horn, the harbor, the right arm of the Bosphorous that marks the European side of the city. Above the streets, the noise dims, but the traffic flow Friday night around the city is like nothing I’ve seen before. Despite its 8500 year lifespan, the city is not at all ready for modernity. But it is trying.

Muslim women are hardly in evidence, not here, nor anywhere we travel. They are invisible or hidden under scarves and heavy garb. It is tradition here. Men on the other hand seem to own the streets, the shops, the very essence of Turkish life. They are the waiters, the shopkeepers, the hoteliers, the hawkers in the incredible spice market and Grand Bazaar. They gather at sidewalk cafes for tiny cups of strong Turkish coffee, they hold meetings on street corners, and some, what they call the commission agents, hound tourists and single women to nudge them into their pottery or carpet shops. They are not threatening, but tenacious. They think I’m French [must be the scarf] and speak to me in that language. I have been advised not to engage so I don’t, although I so much want to chat with the locals. At last, at a late lunch in a small café, I chat with a waiter who is a former Russian skier who learned English while training in Colorado. Small world. Limping and seemingly unflappable, he brings me lentil soup with a wedge of lemon [delicious] a diet Pepsi [rare in the world of Coca Cola] and then offers me apple tea, on the house he says, which I discover is quite often the case here and a lovely gesture. He kisses my hand when I leave, as if I am royalty. Nice touch.

Throngs of tourists here, largely European, surprising number of Russians, lots of Germans, and the rest. Everywhere there is tile, tile and more tile, especially in the remarkable Hagia Sofia church and the Blue Mosque, but also the tiny mosaic museum tucked off a winding cobblestone street in old Sultanahmet, near an elegant bazaar and a pudding shop, and off the side streets where the old Ottoman wooden houses are badly in need of repair. Stores filled with many forms of “Turkish Delight” [colorful squares that look like marshmallow] which is too gushy for me, as well as Baklava and Halvah. The tea is so dark they provide urns of hot water to dilute. No lemon or milk allowed, but always cubes of sugar, thankfully. I am reminded how much I love cubes of sugar, which Splenda has yet to recreate.

An ancient cistern that provided water to the basilica, now darkly lit and graceful, holds evening concerts on a small stage resting on the water. Along the perimeter of mosques are basins for washing – one must wash both hands and feet before prayer – which, among the observant, is five times a day. Every hotel room has both spare pillow and prayer rug. The call to prayer is always the same, except the first, which adds something to the effect that it is more meaningful to pray than to sleep. The Friday mid-day prayer is the most holy.

I confess, I find this prayer cycle, which follows the cycle of the sun, to be inspiring. Just to think that Muslims all over the world are stopping at similar times in their day to pay homage and to consider their blessings. These moderate Muslims in Turkey are reverent people. They show respect for one another and for their traditions. They do not condone violence. They respect all Abrahamic religions and have special reverence for Jesus, a prophet, like Mohammed. He is mentioned 100 times in the Qur’an. Beyond the spirituality of the prayer ritual is the beauty of the music of the Imam calling from minarets everywhere. Like steeples ringing their bells.

We take the tram to a funicular, up a steep hill to Taksim Square, sort of Times Square without the theaters, considered the center of modern Istanbul, and wander down the main drag – Istiklai Caddesi – to the Galata Tower and then down to the harbor. Sunday afternoon. Istanbullas and their families walk, eat and shop – sound familiar? On this side of the harbor is also the amazing Dolmabache Palace, their own Versailles, built in homage to the monarchy but ending with the founder of the Republic, Ataturk, living and dying there, not very long ago. A gift from Queen Victoria – a 4 ton cut glass chandelier, is amazingly beautiful. Two polar bear rugs were gifts from the Czar Nicholas. Stunning large carpets[double knotted in the Turkish tradition.] For me, massive carved painted ceilings are the highlight, just gorgeous. The “Harem” meaning the private quarters, separate from the work center, have many bedrooms for royal wives and many guestrooms. A short walk from the palace takes you back to the Galata Bridge, ont he way to the spice market. Lower level of the bridge are fish restaurants and coffee houses. Along the quay, fishermen sell not only fish from their boats, but freshly grilled fish sandwiches, wrapped in flat breads with tomatoes, peppers, olives.

The spice market is just that and more - nuts, spices, seeds of every variety, and the smells are simply amazing.

The Topkapi Palace is so besieged by tourists that I don’t go in, but instead, wander the lovely park surrounding the palace and discover the archeological museum, filled to the brim with artifacts and sarcophagi. Great find.

The old mansions along the river are largely used as summer homes, many boarded up. Orhan Pamuk wrote so beautifully of these in “Istanbul” which I’m so glad I read before traveling. They seem a reminder, perhaps an admonishment, of the European tradition.

I also visit the Istanbul Modern Museum, housed in an old warehouse on the river, a lovely display of Turkish art spanning all the same movements as other European countries, just a bit later. Turkish impressionists, Turkish realists, etc. Great open space, very hip, framed by river views. The café is filled with Europeans, with drinks and prices to match. And the obligatory techno music! In the distance, ferries and cruise ships. Minarets and curved mosques watch over the proceedings with pride.

On the Asian side, which we see only as the overnight train passes through on the way to Ankora, the homes are larger and more modern, suburban. There is real affluence here.

On the last day of my visit, an extended day I took to have more time in Istanbul, which I’m so glad I did, I have dinner with my lovely new friends from Victoria, British Columbia, at a small neighborhood fish restaurant [Sultanahmet Fish House] run by a family, the best meal of the trip for me, with fine Turkish white wine. A perfect end.

There is much more to see in Istanbul and I can imagine returning some day, but not until many other places have been seen. Where next is the only question. And when?

This was another great trip organized by Gap Adventures: www.gapadventures.com

09 May 2011

Turkey Part I: Overview

16 days from big city to villages, mountains to sea, ancient to modern.

Captivating country. Diverse and visually arresting. Ancient and holy. Bounded by four major seas and six countries. A crossroads of cultures, races and religions over centuries, now a secular Republic, 97% Muslim. Five times a day the call to prayer hauntingly reminds you of where you are. Muslims here are reserved, kind, good humored. Patriarchal. Still largely agrarian although the number one source of revenue is now tourism. Turkey has been found!

Our tour leader also serves as a guide, a wonderful young Turk with a degree in tourism, knowledgeable and reverent. Perfect host. 15 people, largely Canadian and US, lovely group.

I begin in Istanbul – 15 million+ population – busy, sprawling, but also surprisingly intimate. A place that has been through so many iterations and is perhaps unprepared but charging into modernity. Crawling with visitors. The Bosphorous River, between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea, is wide and elegant. Istanbul is the only place on earth that spans two continents - Europe sits on one side of a bridge and Asia on the other. The Golden Horn, the harbor, connects the two European sides of the city, where the major sites are spread out. The Blue Mosque shares a plaza with the elegant Hagia Sophia church – a metaphor for the city and the country, from Christian to Roman, Byzantine to Islam…

On an overnight train, we head to Ankora, the capital, and business capital, which is merely a station to connect with ground transport to the Cappadocia Region where remarkable rock formations create vast networks of “buildings” and caves line the hillsides. Underground cities have been excavated for visiting. Brown and arrid, we hike and explore the remarkable landscape. Hot air balloons take off every morning at dawn for an hour or so to float over the stunning topography. From below, the formations seem like stalagmites, from above stalactites [or is it the other way around?} The summation: more than 10 million years ago, three volcanoes erupted, dropping lava, mud and ash. Over time, they cooled to compress into a soft porous rock, which eroded and carved out structures that seem like giant trolls. They call them fairy houses. It is said the wind also contributed to the molding into tall cones and pillars. Indescribable so view good photos at http://www.google.com/search?q=cappadocia+turkey&hl=en&rlz=1G1ACAW_ENUS328&prmd=ivnsm&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=fzvITcmpCqbx0gGE7f2iCA&ved=0CD4QsAQ&biw=1172&bih=436

Goreme is a charming, old-West sort of city. Avanos, the pottery center, spreads out along a river with tree-lined paths. The Turkish Baths is quite the communal experience [shared the sauna with a lively group of Russians!] A performance of Whirling Dervishes presents the trance-like homage to Allah. We enjoy a home-cooked meal at the home of a family with adorable boys.

Konya, center of the conservative Muslim community, is a way station on the way to the Mediterranean. Also home to gypsies living in encampments on the edge of the city. Rumi Museum honors his poetry and spirituality.

On the way… rooftop solar panels on almost all the apartment buildings to heat water. Cost: $800. Lasts roughly 12 years. Visually an odd rippled affect. Also limestone and marble quarries, big industry in southern region. Whole hillsides carved out as if antiquity, but instead the signs of rapid population growth. Government builds standard issue apartment buildings for moderate income families and sells as condominiums. Not much variance in the modern architecture.

Note: Men stare at me, neither threatening nor admiring, rather as if I am odd in some way. I discover that a fellow traveler, also gray-haired, has the same reaction. Women dye their hair or cover their heads with scarves, so silver hair is indeed an oddity.

Antalya is Turkey’s version of Miami Beach – tall buildings line boulevards along the sea. In contrast, the old city, flanked by stone pillars and cobblestone streets, surrounds the marina. A walking path above the sea parallels the tram line, which leads to a lovely museum filled with iconography, excavated statues and ornately carved sarcophagi. We have a glass of wine at sunset on the hotel patio overlooking a cove – snow capped mountains are visible in the distance. Feels like the Cote D’Azur – in Turkey, the Turquoise Coast.

Kas, I could have stayed there a week – charming coastal seaside village. As if in Greece. We spend a lovely day on a boat owned by a local couple. He navigates, she cooks lunch. Warm people. Gorgeous day. The Med is cold for swimming but the sun is high. We travel close to the coastline to see a 4th century sunken city [kayakers get an even closer view] and an island disconnected from the mainland by a 10th c. earthquake. Simena, a tiny village built into the hills of an island, all wooden structures, mostly café’s and pensyons, is accessible only by boat.

Note: Buttercups, tulips and daffodils. Red poppies grow wild. Rows and rows of greenhouses [they look like salt flats from a distance] filled with tomatoes, cukes, corn and pumpkin. On hillsides, olive, peach and fig trees. Interspersed with tall pines along the mountains.

Turkish carpets are double-knotted, thus considered superior to Persian. Huge industry – 50,000 people involved. Men run the business, women do the weaving. Working conditions have improved so that some women can work from home. Natural dyes. Wool. cotton, blends and also silk – Turkey is third largest producer of silk. I succumb and negotiate well a lovely small cotton carpet in gorgeous shades of blue.

On the Aegean Sea. Fetiye. Lovely city, more upscale, sophisticated. Brits have summer homes here. Temples carved into rock. Seaside path with café’s. Lovely Bazaar. Some of the group visit the mud baths. Lunch in a tree covered courtyard downtown – mezes [tapas] largely eggplant and tomato based, also fava and lima beans, hearty and healthy, always with big chunks of baguette or flat breads. We also sit at tables by a dirt road where women cook filled pancakes [spinach, potato, eggplant] on a flat stone in the fire. Food is otherwise hard for me here – so much meat and cheese. Kebabs are good, also casseroles cooked in clay pots. Lemons squeezed into lentil soup, delicious. I rediscover halivah and also the pleasure of Greek tea – very dark. Apple tea an afternoon favorite, served in small tulip shaped glasses, the shape of the Arabic letters that spell Allah. [I bring a few home, will be perfect for afternoon tea.] At the fish market one night, we choose a fish, pay for it, then one of the restaurants within the market cooks to taste, served with rice and salad. Lovely meal.

Denizli, unusually modern city, home to textile factories and coal mines. Nicer looking new buildings. We lunch here at a hilltop café, en route to Pamukkale – circa 7,000 BC, built by Greeks. Mineral waters here crystallize over time into white cliffs. The remaining pools are pale aqua in color and varied in temperature. Geo-thermal engineering captures underground waters for irrigation. We explore the ruins of Hierapolis, an ancient holy city, a teaser to Ephesus which comes next.

Ephesus, 6th – 3rd century BC. Maybe as many as half a million lived here. 24,000 can sit in the theater. Once perched along a u-shaped harbor, which no longer exists. Greeks, Romans, Ottamons, they all lived here. Every sort of column is represented – Doric, Ionic, Corinthian. Once the center of “Asia Minor.” Founded by Amazon Goddesses. It is said that Mother Mary spent her last days in a stone house near here, under the protection of the Epostle John who spread his gospel from Turkey. Sophisticated infrastructure. Clay water pipes. Toilet houses with deep troughs flushed by flowing waters below. Fabulous library, which even empty feels like a library. Pagans and Jews here at one time as well - a mazuzah carved into a footstone near bibliotec. Only 15% of the site has been excavated – it is against the law to do more until the technology improves, so as not to destroy antiquity. We visit Sirince, an old Greek village in the steep hills above Selcuk, where Greeks resided until population exchange at close of WWI. Half a million Turks living in Greece were sent back to Turkey and over a million Greeks deported. Low pitched roofs, white stone walls, brown trimmed windows, all seem like Greece still. Narrow streets filled with vendors like a bazaar. Lush hills grow olives turned into oil and soap.

We enjoy a wonderful dinner at a cozy restaurant in Selcuk before departing for return to Istanbul. This city needs its own blog. To be continued…

Photos at: https://picasaweb.google.com/maple57/Turkey#