The long flight from YXE to DAR called for a stopover somewhere in Europe. Turkey beckoned and we answered her call. One week, split between Istanbul and Cappadocia.
Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) is a busy and beautiful place—an amalgamation of East and West. Littered with architectural triumphs, which manifest as imperial mosques, palaces, and towers, Istanbul has one of the most recognizable skylines. The locals had an endless supply of hospitality, good-humour, and insightful conversation (this took awhile to get used to but we soon learned that while they may also want us to come into their shop, Turkish people “help from the heart”, as one of our new friends told us).
The city is a history nerds dream: over centuries the city has attracted many marauding armies each that left a unique imprint on the city. Greeks, Persians, Roman, Venetians, and Ottomans took turns ruling Istanbul. The city was also the end of the Silk Route, linking Asia and Europe. This diversity is reflected in a myriad of culture, architecture and cuisine.
We stayed at the Orient Hostel (lovely and helpful employees, clean rooms, and good location) in Sultanahmet. The neighbourhood is a showcase of the city’s glorious past, crammed full of mosques, palaces, churches, and houses dating from the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman periods.
A few full days were spent “mosque-paeding” about, visiting the tombs of Aya Sofya (and returning a few days later to see the actual Christian church, turned Mosque, turned museum that explained why people kept telling us it cost 30TL), checking off the Blue, Suleymaniye, Fatih, and Sultan Ahmed Mosques, and Topkapi Palace. The Blue Mosque became the “Spanish Steps” of Istanbul – in true wandering fashion, we weren’t quite sure of our location, in relation to our hostel. So every blue-ish Mosque was potentially the Blue Mosque. We succumbed to asking the volunteers indirect questions, hoping to deduce our location without appearing oblivious. Doing so, we learned that a UNESCO World Heritage Site’s criteria is vaguely defined as “outstanding universal value” – thanks UNESCO, your signs really cleared that up.
We ventured to the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market, where no pockets were picked and no gaudy jewelry was purchased from shops emitting gold and silver auras from their windows.
I admit, the Grand Bazaar was much more modern than had been expected. I half expected stalls constructed with wood and fabric, run by men with monkeys dawning a fez and a vest. I blame Disney’s Aladdin and accept it as a totally unwarranted assumption.
What struck me the most about Istanbul were the people. From helping with directions (even if they were “Go 300m that way and ask again) and using a transport card (that was donated by a hostel staff for the day) to exchanging money when euros were accidentally paid instead of lira, everyone seemed incredibly willing to help, even if it wasn’t needed (and no, they didn’t ask for money, either). Folks in the street, buses, parks, and restaurants would come over to chat and give us their opinions on what we should see in the city.
To escape the hustle and bustle of the city for a few days, we ventured out to Göreme in Cappadocia. Our pension (Anatolia Cave) was, as the name hints, built into a cave!! Cappadocia has an incredible landscape shaped by volcanic eruptions, erosion, and man. From 1800 B.C., rival empires drove Göreme inhabitants underground. For the Hittites to the Christians, the honeycombed underground cities were sites of religious refuge. Carvings and frescoes span the caves, eight stories deep.
Our host was able to get some excellent deals on tours, while one “Rule of Thumb” I follow is to be wary of tours, taking advantage of his services paid off. One evening, we saw traditional Turkish dancing: the Whirling Dervishes, folk dances, and a belly dancer that could move body parts I’m not convinced I have. They fed us a plethora of food and tried to teach us to shake and shimmy, yet the old mates showed us up big time. We took part of the spectacle that is watching the sunrise from a hot air balloon. Viewing the rocky landscapes, shaped with cones, pillars, pinnacles, mushrooms, and chimneys from overhead, especially paired with 150 other balloons sky bound. The Aussie gals were spot on: if you have the chance, seize it.
Later in the day, we traipsed about on the Green Tour – taking us through Derinkuyu Underground City, Ihlara Valley, Selime Monastery, and a town considered as location for Tatooine (sorry Star Wars fans, it lost out to Tunsia).
I went in knowing very little, associating the country with Fez hats and Turkish Delight (which in turn, I associated with the dork Edmund from The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe). I left with a plan to go back and a few important lessons learned: Turkish Delight is actually fantastic (provided it’s the fresh, not pre-packaged stuff) and that my future as a belly dancer is quite grim.