So I’m wrapping up my Turkey posts with a roundup of my five favorite things about Istanbul. I think the tag “five faves from…” could easily apply to anyplace and anything, so watch out… it might just become a regular feature around here!
1) Sweets at Saray. There are lots of sweet shops selling pasha lokum, more famously known as Turkish delight, along Istiklal Caddesi. But all of them pale in comparison to Saray Muhallebicisi, a restaurant, tea and dessert shop that’s been satisfying Istanbul’s sweet tooth since 1935. Saray’s huge storefront window, filled with a tempting array of Turkish sweets, is completely mesmerizing.
Until Saray, I never knew watching syrup drip could be so hypnotic. You are getting sleeeepy… you will want to eaaaat meeeee…
Brisk, efficient staff in old-school uniforms dish out tray after tray of sweets to a packed house and long queues at the takeout counter. Towering stacks of treats disappeared literally in minutes. It was fascinating to watch.
Speaking of sugar frenzy, this was another one of those moments where everything was so yummy I forgot to take pictures. Just take it from me, those sweets in the window are every bit as rich and delicious as they look. Best washed down with a hot Turkish tea or strong Turkish coffee!
With a soaring, seemingly unsupported dome (a true architectural feat of its time), what Aya Sofia is today is… magnificent.
From the stunning ceiling that once held 30 million gold mosaic tiles (tesserae) to the chandeliers that hang overhead, Aya Sofya left me in awe and simply thankful to be there.
Some beautiful mosaics still remain on the second floor. Great detail, vivid colors, and lots of gold—which I love! They seem to glow even after more than a thousand years.
When I travel, I’m always on the lookout for a funky accessory or two to take home with me, and markets are great places to look. These chunky rings fit the bill perfectly!
I found Ortakoy to be a really nice, relaxed, and very local place to walk around. People just hang out by the riverside for a chat, a snack or a glass of tea (or all of the above) while enjoying the view of the Bosphorus. That’s Asia on the other side of that bridge, by the way.
Steaming hot and loaded with toppings, it was the perfect lunch on a chilly fall day. It was cheap and filling too!
5) Cross-continental cruise. After shopping at the market and stuffing ourselves with kumpir, Marlon and I hopped on a ferry that took us on a short cruise up and down the Bosphorus. This strait connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmaris, but more importantly, has Europe on one shore, Asia on the other.
Aside literally putting you between Europe and Asia, the Bosphorus cruise is also great for sighting all the ultra-wealthy homes (stately mansions and chic, all-glass apartments) lining both shores, with their jacuzzis and yachts out front.
Like the strange and silly couple we are, Marlon and I had a laugh sticking our noses in the air and showing off our “summer mansions” to an imaginary yacht full of imaginary guests.
To me, it was all very Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. But to Marlon, this photo was all about “I’ll bet my orchids, it’s brewed!” Can anyone remember what commercial that was?
Much has been said about how Istanbul is where East meets West, Europe meets Asia. Seeing this for the first time is where it really hit me, with a jolt. Yes, it looks like a European boulevard. Even the idea of an evening stroll is so European. And if you have any doubt that you are still in Europe, you only have to peer into the narrow, sloping side streets that branch off from Istiklal Caddesi.
But the energy, the rush and the madness is all Asia. And instead of wilting at the sight of this crowd, I felt alive. It was the spark of energy I needed after a long day of traveling… and a long time away from home.
I think it mostly has to do with the people. With a population of 13 million, Istanbul definitely feels much more like Manila (pop. 19 million) than Amsterdam (pop. 800,000), and that is especially obvious on Istiklal Caddesi. It seems that half of Istanbul was walking there that Friday night. Another thing about the people… well, they look like me! I can’t count the number of times someone talked to me or Marlon in Turkish during our stay.
… or go to church. Or both, because this store and the church are right across from each other!
Another thing that reminded me of home? Street food.
These yellow “flags” are how I discovered midye, mussels stuffed with rice and spices.
Georgie and Bavaria belong to Suzan, our fantastic Airbnb host in Istanbul. My personal theory is that cats are an indicator of a great apartment and a thoughtful host; I was definitely right this time.
Black-and-motley Georgie was the most affectionate cat ever, purring and cozying up to us literally from the moment we walked in the door. (Note: hire her to give Rogue some coaching.) She even climbed into bed for a cuddle on our last morning… just like Rogue would if we were at home! As you can see, she had lots of bonding moments with Marlon. Bavaria was more reticent, but being deaf and very old, that was easy to forgive.
Turkey is cat country. There are big, beautiful, fluffy cats everywhere—the type that would be pet store material in Manila. Being the crazy cat lady that I am, I couldn’t resist snapping pictures of the cats I saw. Coo over the cuteness, after the jump!
In Amsterdam there are shop cats, restaurant cats and even pub cats, but street cats are a rare breed. I didn’t realize how much I missed them until I got to Turkey. They were everywhere—yowling to be fed under the table in Goreme or sleeping outside a jewelry store in Istanbul. And though they were always underfoot, not once in six days did I see a single Turk kick or even shoo away a cat. I even saw a hulking, macho leather-clad biker type bend down to scratch the cat sleeping underneath his bike.
Even the (slightly) posh restaurant we treated ourselves to on our last evening in Istanbul had its own cats, complete with their own bowl of food and water by the door. It’s hard to claim to be really posh with two fat cats like these sprawled across the floor. And I like that.
Dog lovers, I haven’t forgotten you. Say hello to the scruffy scoundrel of central Goreme!
Don’t say I didn’t throw you a bone. Har har har.
I thought it was going to be easy to stick to my low/no-carb diet while in Turkey. (“They eat a lot of kebabs right? Grilled meat? I should be fine!”) As you can see, I was way off the mark… but quite happy to be wrong!
Then we drove about thirty minutes to the ancient underground city of Derinkuyu. Built in the 8th century B.C. and enlarged in the Byzantine era, Derinkuyu was an underground refuge where entire towns, complete with their livestock and possessions, could weather enemy invasions. Though its series of chambers, tunnels and stairs extend eleven stories into the ground, only 10 percent of it is accessible to the public today.
Confession time: I’m claustrophobic. I braved the first room on the first level, but after attempting to walk further in I knew I couldn’t handle it. So I stepped out and decreed Marlon our official representative and photographer.
We worked up our appetites for lunch with a hike through the truly stunning Ihlara Valley. A 16-km gorge cut deep into the mountainous landscape, we hiked only about a fourth of the way through it (4km, which took about an hour to an hour and a half). Four kilometers was not too bad at all. Remember, I like hiking now!
Hike along with me, after the jump!
We began our hike with a visit to one of the many old churches carved into the walls of the canyon. The pattern junkie in me loved these ancient frescoes on the ceiling and walls.
Then we were off at a rather fast clip. Again, I felt like a character in an adventure novel.
… walking amidst scenery taken right out of an epic fantasy.
I almost expected a pair of unicorns to come galloping down this stream. Very Legend, circa 1985.
This was definitely the most active day tour I’ve ever been on—because more hiking and climbing followed after lunch! This time, it was up the mountain to the stronghold of the Nome King (Return to Oz, 1985)… or the Selime Cathedral in real life.
It’s worth the climb, though, to access the hauntingly lovely complex of monasteries, churches and refectories carved within these rocky peaks.
The view of Tattooine from the top is a big bonus. The tour guides are very emphatic in correcting the myth that parts of Star Wars were filmed here, but you can see why people would think that.
On the way back to Goreme, we stopped for a view over Pigeon Valley.
It’s called that because all over this valley, the rocky peaks have been turned into pigeon houses. Pigeons were very important in Cappadocia, which is largely an agricultural region, because they provided fertilizer for the crops.
Of course, no agency-organized tour can end without a big selling opportunity. For our last stop, we were taken to a workshop that processes onyx, a mineral mined in this region. Some of the onyx baubles were pretty, but stone is not really my thing.
However, I did win an onyx egg for answering a trivia question. (Marlon couldn’t believe I know who the founder of the Republic of Turkey was. He thinks he’s married to Hermione.) So at least I got my Cappadocia souvenir without having to spend a cent.
Six months later…
After a sunset hike through the stunning scenery of Cappadocia, I now know why.
How Cappadocia converted me, after the jump:
On our way back to town from the Goreme Open-Air Museum, Marlon and I saw the path in the photo above. It simply… beckoned. So we decided to walk off the road and go on our first hike.
And you know what? I really enjoyed it.
But you never walk in a vacuum, do you? When you’re walking through scenery like this, you just want to keep going. Its beauty simply compels you to go on. (And the cold actually helps!)
Walking through the Cappadocian landscape is like being a character in one of my favorite fantasy, young adult or adventure novels. In this wide, circular clearing, I felt like Aragon (okay, maybe Frodo) waiting for the attack of the Nazgul in Lord of the Rings…
… while these red arrows spray-painted on the rocks (helpfully pointing the way to Rose Valley) reminded me of Labyrinth, where Sarah scrawled red lipstick arrows on the flagstones to mark her path through the maze.
After taking a few photos from our little cave…
… we watched the sunset together in silence.
Then it was time to walk back to Goreme, which welcomed us back with this lovely lavender sky.
Is this what I was missing all along? If hikes are always this lovely, I can definitely see myself hiking more. Consider me a convert!
I’m not the biggest fan of walking, but there is a lot to see along the way, from spiky alien foliage to the cutest little tag-along pups to camel rides (and the quirky signs advertising them).
The open-air museum is a sprawling monastery complex built by early Orthodox Christians between the 8th and 12th centuries.
Exploring the site takes about three hours at a leisurely pace. You can’t exactly speed through it since there is a lot of uphill walking and climbing involved.
Like most everything in Cappadocia, these churches, refectories and monasteries were hewn out of rock, taking advantage of the natural shelter afforded by these caves.
It’s not just the raw beauty of these rock formations that makes this place a treasure…
… but also how they represent a rare successful collaboration between man and Mother Nature. These caves have served as natural vaults for the paintings and decorations made by the early Christian monks, keeping them safe for centuries. (Given the region’s bloody and tumultuous history, I’d say they did a pretty good job.)
Inside these rock walls is a truly special site: the Dark Church. For an extra 8 TL (which is well worth it), the stunning frescoes within (some damaged, many still vivid) take you back to what it was like to be a Christian in the 12th century. No photos are allowed inside so this is as far as I can take you.
For a Catholic like myself, the experience was like stepping into an alternate universe (or have I been watching too much Fringe?), a could-have-been. Though we share the same central figures and events as the Orthodox Church, I noticed that the frescoes placed heavy emphasis on saints we barely know—St. Basil and St. George are two of the most important ones.
It made me wonder what history would have been like if the two churches had never parted ways. What would I believe today? Would it have been better for all of us? I guess we’ll never really know; the beauty of a place like Goreme is that it helps us imagine, ask, and wonder.
It was such a nice feeling to come home to our cave after being out in temperatures ranging from 7 to -2℃. Having a fireplace helped too, though we only lit it on our last evening in Goreme.
There was a slight smell of wet stone in the bathroom, but nothing highly objectionable. Though from some of the reviews on Booking.com, it seems a few travelers took issue with that. Lighten up, prissy people, it’s a cave. Let’s just be happy it even has a hot shower and a warm bed!