The wonders of food

I never thought of Turkey as possessing one of the world’s great cuisines. Countries like France, Italy, Thailand, Mexico evoke fantasies of rich and delicious food. Imagine our joy when we discovered Turkish cuisine.

Like many great cuisines Turkish food is an amalgamation of many influences. From the Asian steppe that is the original home of the Turkmen, it absorbed Greek, middle eastern, and even French and German elements. Combine this richness with fresh flavourful produce and a real passion for food and a great cuisine was born.


Another surprise was the pride Turks put into the preparation of their food. From the smallest Lokanta to the most expensive restaurant the food was almost uniformly high quality. After a few meals we understood why there weren’t a lot of western fast food restaurants.

People have asked us what our favourite food was and we really couldn’t answer. Every meal started with a plate of mezzes, appetizers like haidari (yogurt with mint or dill) patlijan (eggplant salad) and the Imam Fainted (stuffed roasted eggplant) followed by a main course kebap or shish and then dessert. Every meal was a wonderful experience.

Istanbul, City of Spires

Many places are beautiful or magical or ‘special’ but some just lodge themselves in the memory and grow, infiltrating your dreams and intruding on your waking life. Istanbul is one such place. The spires of is mosques seem to float on a cushion of history and myth, the crowded and bustling streets of he bazaar pulse with life. Istanbul has been many things to many people throughout its storied life, and whether you call it Byzantium, Constatinople, Stanboul or Istanbul, once you see it you will always be drawn back.

Istanbul has been a magnet for artists, writers and dreamers for centuries and it certainly cast its spell on us. We hope to return soon, but if we don’t it will live in our dreams for ever.

Turkey — Day Twenty-nine — Istanbul to Vancouver

Monday, November 5, 2008

Our day started way too early. WAY too early. We were up and had our suitcases at the front door in the darky-dark-dark, waiting for the shuttle bus to pick us up. Sabo was asleep behind the counter in a chair, his legs laid over another chair and a blanket spread over all. It was very sweet, and we didn’t wake him.

It had rained in the night, and the cobbles were shiny and black, hypnotizing for two very tired people.

The shuttle came on time and our giant suitcase and two duffle bags were thrown into the back with great haste, and we were bundled in. The first passengers of the day, I guess, which didn’t bode well. No — it didn’t. We made a quick and disorienting tour of the major hotels of Sultanahmet, picking up people and piles and piles of luggage.

It seemed like we might have been late for our airplane, since we were still collecting passengers as of six am, and we needed to be at the airport for six-thirty to give us time to check in for an international flight at eight-thirty. I was forgetting the first rule of driving in Istanbul, though: go as fast as you can all the time. We sped along the waterfront road, Kennedy Caddesi, all the way to the airport and got in just in time. Of course we had to wait until every other passenger and their crap was lifted off of our squashed suitcases before we got to join the lineup at the entrance door — can you tell I was cranky?

The lineup at the entrance door seemed a little strange, until we realized that the customs — complete with x-rays and suspicious looking uniformed people — were right at the entrance. You didn’t get to go anywhere in the Ataturk Airport without being fully x-rayed. I put my bags on the conveyer belt and walked to the other side, where the lady with the wand gave me a once over, not even pausing at my ankle, not even tsk-ing at my flipflops. The guy on the other side of the x-ray machine was a little excited, though, and not in a happy-fun-birthday-party kind of way.

Taking several steps back, and keeping her hand on her hip, the lady customs official told me to open my backpack in a very serious tone. Eeek! The Turkish jail seemed suddenly, uncomfortably close. Finally, my personal lightbulb lit up, and I knew exactly what the problem was: I opened my pack and unwrapped… my tap! My beloved solid-brass hamam tap, which I wasn’t about to trust to the vagrancies of luggage-sorters, was carefully wrapped and stowed in an inner pocket of my carry-on luggage. I pulled it out and showed it to the lady, who took it over to the nervous guy beside the x-ray machine. I was very afraid they would confiscate it, if not for my stupidity of bringing a gun-shaped object onto a plane, then because it was a cultural treasure. The Turks are very close about such things, I’ve heard.

The x-ray man spent several minutes with my tap, consulting with someone on the phone, before bringing it back to the lady who wrote something on a list (the stupid tourist list?) and gave me back my tap, telling me with a few eyerolls to stow it in my checked luggage. Ok!

Steve came though without incident.

Getting on the plane was a usual cacophony of lines and more lines, checking luggage and finding a duty-free. We tried to buy some raki to bring back to Canada, but we weren’t allowed to buy alcohol because we weren’t on a trans-Atlantic flight! It didn’t matter that we were spending all of 20 minutes in Frankfurt, we couldn’t buy. We consoled ourselves with about a million boxes of the previously-elusive lokum and some jam. We even bought a bunch of little chocolate-covered Turkish delights to make sure we used up every last kuruş.

Breakfast on the plane, which was running late, was passable. We remembered how good the food had seemed on our previous experience with Turkish Air — little had we known at the time! Not that it wasn’t still good, by airplane standards, but we already missed the food.

WARNING: rant ahead!

We got off the airplane in Frankfurt and were met by a woman from Lufthansa, who looked at our tickets and told us to make haste downstairs to the gate. At the gate, we joined the very long line. Finally at the front, watch-checking all the while, the lady at the gate looked at our tickets, rolled her eyes and sneered, and told us we needed a boarding pass — from two flights upstairs. We tried to tell her the lady had told us to come straight here, and we’d already been in line ten minutes, and we really wanted to get seats together. She basically told us “run, then”. We ran.

Upstairs, out of breath and irritated, we told a man at the Lufthansa information kiosk that we needed boarding passes. He also looked at our tickets and told us, very excitedly, that our plane was leaving very shortly, and we should have just been boarded. We told him that we were told in No Uncertain Terms to come up here for boarding passes. He looked at us incredulously and got on the phone, yelling at the other end in German, while waving us back downstairs. We ran again. The bitch woman at the counter, now looking both snotty and like she’d just had a strip taken off her, looked at our tickets, looked at our luggage stickers (complete with barcodes) and typed some information into the computer, and waved us through to the waiting room.

At the counter, most of the travelers were being herded onto a bus to go out on the tarmac to board. I explained to the nice young woman what had happened, that we were Very Irritated and we wanted seats together… and that it was our honeymoon. She looked completely crestfallen and advised that the flight was actually oversold and she wasn’t sure we’d even make it on the airplane, let alone with seats together.

I cried. I was so frustrated, so anxious, and in mourning for leaving the most amazing city I had ever seen. I was bereft, and it showed. That poor girl! She told us to just wait, and she’d see what she could do. After waiting more than half an hour, she waved us onto the bus, the last people on the plane. To her credit, and I don’t know how she did it, she arranged for us to have three seats together so we could have some room.

On the plane, tired and stressed beyond reason, we waited. And waited and waited and waited. Finally the captain came on and announced there was a delay because there was a problem with some luggage that was being offloaded from the airplane. Steve and I looked at each other, thinking the same thing: that woman at the gate was so horrible, could she have screwed up our luggage on purpose? No, we thought — we were being paranoid.

/rant

The flight was long and uneventful, the flight crew gracious and kind, the food passable and the Simpsons movie a sad disappointment. Deplaned in Vancouver, aching and tired, we waited at the luggage carousel. And waited. And waited. Notice a pattern? Eventually we were paged to the Lufthansa counter, where we were told that in fact the bitch woman HAD typed one number wrong on BOTH our checked pieces (one I could see as accidental, but two? yeah). Our luggage was still in Frankfurt. It wouldn’t be arriving in Canada until the next day, and would be put on the bus to the Coast after that. At least Lufthansa was going to pay for the bus. Still. Crap!

We left the luggage area, still shaking our heads. What crap! We had wanted to show John and Gayle our carpets, and my tap! My precious tap! That bitch! I knew we should have stayed in Turkey.

Of course, there was still the matter of customs. Steve had his oud and backpack in hand, and I had my backpack and purse. Even estimating low on our YTL conversions (and who doesn’t do that?), we were still a few hundred over our duty-free limit. We dutifully showed the customs guy our slips. When asked about the rest of our luggage, out poured our tale of woe and Lufthansa. He gave each of us a close look, shook his head, and carefully changed an ‘8’ into a ‘5’ on our form and waved us through. Finally, something good happened!

We were met by John and Gayle and taken back to Tsawwassen for a very sweet reunion with Angel, who was so overcome with emotion that she leapt into my arms for cuddles and couldn’t stop yipping and whimpering. Poor doggie!

After a brief rest, we piled our rather sparse luggage and overjoyed dog into the little blue car (she jumped in as soon as the door opened and refused to get out) and took off for the Coast and bed. Ah, sweet bed.

The next day, I received an apologetic phone call from Lufthansa advising the luggage was in and on the bus, which unfortunately got in after the depot was closed. Unwilling to go another day without my tap, I met the bus. The driver said there wasn’t anything for me and I’m afraid I lost it a little bit on him, falling just short of grabbing his lapels and demanding my RSFH at once! Not surprisingly, he found the suitcase and duffle bags, and they were in my possession once again. Thank goodness!

At home, I noticed a round burnt hole in the bottom of the duffle bag that held our big carpet. I was angry all over again, though I couldn’t quite imagine the Lufthansa woman finding our luggage and putting out a cigarette on it… well, maybe I could. Fortunately the carpet was undamaged, or there would have been hell to pay. That said, the RSFH was damaged beyond repair: missing one handle, most of one wheel, and a plastic thing that previously covered up a pointy piece of metal. There was also a broken glass or two, which I guess could even have been squashed in the dolmuş on the way to the airport. Still — not impressed.

It was a sad way to end what was in every other way an ideal first backpacking trip. I cannot say enough good things about Turkey: the food, the people, the easy transportation, the food… go to Turkey, at least once in your life, go. It is a wondrous, wondrous place. Steve says I had such a good time because the Turks liked me, that I fit in well with them. I think I was open to the experience, the language, the humour… I could live in Turkey. Not that I’m not grateful to be Canadian, because that sure opens a lot of doors (ah, Kanada!), but I love Turkey.

I love Turkey.

“Come, come again, whoever you are, come!
Heathen, fire worshipper or idolatrous, come!
Come even if you broke your penitence a hundred times,
Ours is the portal of hope, come as you are.”

Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi

Turkey — Day Twenty-eight — Istanbul

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Our last day in Istanbul. Steve woke before dawn.

Our first evening at the Med Cezir, Steve had scouted around and had found a rooftop terrace just at the end of the hallway and up some stairs: it was closed for the winter, or at least all the tables and chairs were stacked up, but it still gave an astonishingly good view. The Hagia Sophia glowed to the right, the Baths Of Lady Hürrem and the Mavi Ev Hotel at immediately in front, and the elegant minarets of the Blue Mosque reached for the sky on his left. Having been on the go from morning until night, I hadn’t even tried to look at it, taking his word that the view would be spectacular. Given the weather, he hadn’t lingered up there either.

On this day, though, our last, much-cherished last day in Turkey, we woke to clear blue sky and glorious sunrise, unexpected given the previous clouds and impending winterness. For once I couldn’t resist getting up early myself, and I joined Steve before seven for sunlight on the golden spires of the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. It was amazing. It was indescribable. It was a washed clean sky backdropping the faded red arch of the Hagia Sophia, set like a fire-hearted ruby against tuquoise, lit by the golden sun. We stood in the long morning rays, both feeling as if you could see the warmth in the air, could reach out into the sunshine and your hand would come back with a powder of gold clinging to the surface. A half turn left brought the eye to the spires of the Blue Mosque, each crescent moon on the tip of each minaret a glittering treasure and the white gleaming so perfectly…

After an hour or more, we tore ourselves away from the spectacle and, after a nice warm shower, went down for breakfast with Sabo, who was very chatty and entertaining. He teased Steve unmercifully and Steve gave as good as he got. We liked Sabo very much.

The Ottowonians hadn’t called, so we decided to head off into Kumkapi ourselves. We stopped by the Arasta Bazaar to see if we could find Jedi’s owner and get an address to send the photos Steve had taken our first meeting, but he wasn’t there.

Wandering through the streets, south and east and down the hill to the Sea of Marmara, we followed our map to the ‘Küçük Aya Sofia’, or ‘little Hagia Sophia’ – a beautiful little church in the Kumkapi neighbourhood. While we could have found it quite handily ourselves, a young boy walking by decided to escort us to the gate… and then held out his hand for coins for the privilege of having guided us. Not wanting to cause a scene, and chagrined that we hadn’t told him no thanks at the outset, we gave him a few kuruş, even though we were sure it wasn’t what we were supposed to do.

It had only taken some twenty minutes or so of gentle strolling through cobbled streets to reach the Küçük – little – Hagia Sophia from our hotel in the heart of Sultanahmet. We were surprised to see very few tourists at this lovely and spiritual church which was begun five years before the Büyük (?) Hagia Sophia. Just as old, and almost as uplifting, as its larger step-sister (Justinian was father to them both), the little one was a wonderful thing to see. The very kind Imam (as the little ‘un is now a mosque) led us up the circular stairs to what was once perhaps a pulpit – it gave a splendid view of the whitewashed domes and cobalt blue medallions. It was lovely. He mentioned on our way out not to feed the animals pay the children for guiding us there. Oops!

On our way back up the street, we stopped to admire some cats. Ah, Istanbul! Full of kedi!

We decided our next stop would be the St. Saviour of Chora – once church, then mosque, and now the Kariye Müzesi. The frescos and mosaics were reputed as being truly incredible and we were keen to go. From my eBay-purchased Istanbul street map, it looked like we should be able to walk there in an hour or so…

The rest of Kumkapi that we saw was lovely, in a run down sort of way, which is actually how we found most of Istanbul that we saw. There were these great old wooden buildings with wooden-framed bay windows on the upper floors. Some had been carefully restored, and the wood gleamed against the subtle white of the stucco. Others looked like they had had a bomb go off inside them some hundred years ago, and their windows drooped and hung and clung to the walls. Sometimes these were right beside each other. In that moment, I would have given almost anything to buy and repair that old house, and live the rest of my days in Istanbul.

The streets were bright with Turkish banners – a leftover from National Day or general pride?

After a while, we turned right and headed straight uphill, aiming for the Divan Yolu where we could walk down to the old walls of the city and turn up to the St. Saviour Museum. Passing numerous stalls on the streets that gave me the secret hope that perhaps the reported closing of the Grand Bazaar was not so – unfounded, as it turned out – we came up onto the Divan Yolu almost right at the entrance of the Grand Bazaar. Turning left, we followed the tram line down to just past the university, stopped to admire a mosque under restoration, and turned right a street before Ataturk Boulevard, thinking the Museum was just down there.

We got just down there to the Fevzi Paşa Caddesi and I, in a fit of brilliance, realized I had missed an entire fold of the map. The St. Saviour was further away than all the distance we had already walked that morning, and it was rising noon. We sat in a little park attached to a mosque and considered our options: sit and watch the kedi gambol on the grass all day (very appealing, as it didn’t involve walking any more that day), take a taxi to the Museum (which would break our perfect record of taxi-avoidance) or walk a little further down to where we might be able to catch a bus (of limited appeal, as it involved applying feet to pavement).

After a little whining, and a little resting, and a little watching kedi play, I mustered my blistered toes to walk over to the bus stop where the bus was blessedly not too far behind. The Lonely Bastard had given clear directions as to which bus to catch and the driver obligingly confirmed his destination. Standing in the crush, we barely had a chance to register the sights we sped by: a kedi on a stone wall, a knot of black-clad young women with brightly coloured handbags, a football stadium with a tank parked in front.

Disgorged from the dolmuş, we popped out onto some very working class streets. The bus ride was surprisingly short: no more than fifteen minutes for what would have taken more than an hour to walk. We picked a random twisty street that looked as if it would lead in the general direction of the Museum.

The twisty street was picturesque and teeming with kedi. Feral cats sat in lumps on every wall, curled their tails around their delicate feet on every doorstep and one – just one – shot across the road on three legs, the other curled underneath, its front leg a shattered mess of blood and shocking white bone. Tired and overwhelmed with the last day of Istanbul, I nearly burst into tears on the spot. The broken cat was gone in a flash, and if I could have caught it, if in a million years, what could I have done? Rushed it to the veterinarian? Given it a shot of Phenobarbital? Swung its head into a wall or broken its neck, quickly, giving it an easy death? I was devastated.

With me not exactly in the best mental space to admire a bunch of dead rocks, we decided to stop for a quick lunch before we ventured into the museum proper. First we checked out Asitane, a recommended restaurant, which is a few short metres from the museum and its accompanying souvenier stalls. Asitane looked lovely, being in the basement of a graceful old house, but there was literally no-one in there for lunch and the wait staff looked quite disgruntled at our arrival. The menu looked appetizing but expensive by our standards, and I felt a little dusty for crisp white napkins and uniformed staff, so we headed back out and got a quick tavuk döner and urfa şiş at the café right across from the museum. It was certainly adequate, and it was a bit of a relief to be able to throw bits of chicken at the waiting kedi. This was definitely a tourist place, though, like almost everywhere we had been in Istanbul.

Slightly more heartened, we walked around the gate and bought our ticket. The approach to St. Saviour is really neat: instead of walking straight in, they wind you around the back of the building across a lawn, give you time to admire the architecture and striped brick exterior and in through the side… to come straight at a hall of the most splendid frescos.

After the Ottoman invasion, this little church in the country (Chora: country, from it being a ways out of the city proper, right up against the city walls) was repurposed into a mosque. Instead of destroying the mosaics and frescoes, the clerics plastered over them, unwittingly preserving them for the next 500 years. Now the plaster has been removed and the paints and tesserae glow almost as brightly as they did when first made in the 11th century.

We were overwhelmed. We were awestruck. We were… lying on the marble floor taking pictures of the glorious ceiling. Well, Steve was. Good for Steve. The other patrons looked at him like he was crazy, but we caught several of them flat on their backs in the same spot.

A large Spanish tour group crowed the place when we arrived, but they left after not too long and we had the place – well, not to ourselves, but relatively sparse. The tourists who were in attendance were rapt and respectful, which you cannot help but be in such a place.

It’s so hard to know what to say about the St. Saviour at Chora except “go there” – at once, or as soon as you can, or at some point in your lifetime – it is not to be missed. It’s not just the frescoes and mosaics, as amazing as those are. It’s the carved angels above the door, the green marble flagstones, the little Byzantine heads carved of stone peeking out from corners (all but one with the faces gouged out; I almost killed myself trying to get a clear photo of the one that remained), the vaulted domes (oh! the domes!) and every single surface is decorated with some lovely thing. What an amazing, amazing thing to see.

I almost cried all over again the beauty and the sadness of so much lost, including one poor little kitty with a shattered leg. I did look out the door into the garden one time to see a young man scooping kibble out of a backpack onto the grass in front of a few cats – he told me that he came around to feed the strays and look for any injuries. I told him about the broken one and he had seen her too; he hadn’t been able to get a hand on her, but he said he’d look out for her. I couldn’t have been more relieved and I almost cried some more.

In better spirits, we left the St. Saviour and thought we’d head back to Eminönü to check out the Kahve Dunyasi and get some cups and chocolates and chocolate spoons. Mmm… spoons! Fortunately the bus going back down the road dropped us off at the bus loop across the street from the spice market in Eminönü. We moved like eels in the crowd in the underpass, walked briskly across the Eminönü Square in front of Hamdi and practically ran the rest of the way to the coffee shop… which was closed. Yes, closed. On Sunday. The prime-est coffee drinking day of the week in Vancouver, and it was closed. I was very sad. Very, very sad. Steve was sad too – sad that he hadn’t let me buy the crack coffee yesterday, though he couldn’t have known.

Desolate, we walked back across the square to the underpass and through to the Galata Bridge. Well, maybe only I was desolate. Fortunately, it’s impossible to stay desolate on the Galata Bridge: the fishermen are so happy when they pull up a shiny wriggling fish comma-quote-comma, and so happy when they don’t. I guess it’s true that a bad day fishing is still better than a good day working, and the men we saw were living proof. Some had buckets full of living proof that they were having a good days fishing as well. The pale sun and weak blue sky were a gift on a Sunday afternoon in November and they knew it as well as we.

We thought we’d experience the Tünel, which is the 19th century funicular that carries passengers up the hill to the end of Istiklal Caddesi. It is a phenomenally short train ride, lasting something in the area of a single minute. We weren’t to find out in person, as the signs at the entrance advised it was closed for repairs. Standing around trying to figure out an alternative to walking up the hill, a dolmuş pulled up and the driver advised he was there to take people up the hill. For free. Yay! We climbed aboard and got the first seats. We thought we had been the only confused tourists stymied by the lack of Tünel, but apparently not. People of all shapes and sizes squished onto the bus. It was the most dolmuş-ed dolmuş we had been in in Turkey. The Tire bus was palatial in comparison.

After a very quick (I think I’ve mentioned Istanbullus drivers) and scary ride up the hill, we were disgorged in the same square we had bought the prints and cards in – just up from the street of musical instruments.

Feeling peckish, we stopped for a panini in a coffee shop called ‘Gloria Jean’s Coffee’ which loomed over the eastern side of the square. Wow, what a disappointment. It was easily the worst panini either of us had ever had, which was even more shocking given that the food in Turkey was so superlative. All I can say is ‘yuck’ – overpriced, overrated, and the coffee was crap too. It was rising 4pm and there might have been a sunset, so we walked a few blocks down Galip Dede Caddesi to the Galata Tower, paid our 10YTL each at the entrance and joined the queue at the elevator.

Let me point something out to the uninitiated, as there were many uninitiated on the Galata Tower that day: the signs indicate that you should turn to your right upon exiting onto the rather narrow deck that rings the tower top. You should then continue to your right, in a clockwise fashion, until you return to your starting point and exit. Turn to your RIGHT, people! Since we were not the only people having thought to enjoy the sunset from the vantage of the lovely Genoese tower that peered right out over Beyoglu, the Galata Bridge and Sultanahmet to the Sea of Marmara lost to the haze beyond… not really a surprise, I suppose – the deck was crowded with eager faces and a silver fortress of digital cameras and cell phones all raised to the view and taking pictures as fast as ever they could. The few individuals who had, inexplicably, decided to turn LEFT made life very much difficult for the rest of the people on the deck. Clockwise! Come on!

Fortunately Steve could tell that the sunset wasn’t going to be very much of anything, and we hastily (and irritated-ly, in my case) made our retreat to the stairs that led back down to the very cool bathroom and the elevator landing and emerged, flushed and triumphant, back onto the cobbles surrounding the tower.

Back up Galip Dede to the square, we found ourselves next to a little cd store. Having a few hundred YTL burning holes in our pockets, we thought we’d load up on some Turkish music to bring home. We picked out a half-dozen cds and asked the total less than 65YTL! Most of the cds were 11 lira or less – incredibly cheap by Canadian standards. Steve and I took one look at each other and picked out another six cds.

Our feet not feeling quite battered enough, we decided to walk up the Istiklal Caddesi to find the orginal lokum shop of ‘Ali Muhiddin Hacı Bekir’ who, according to the Time Out Istanbul, invented the now-ubiquitous Turkish delight in the 18th century.

What a bad idea. We knew we wouldn’t have considered walking along Robson Street on a warm Sunday night. It just isn’t our kind of place. Istiklal Caddesi was not our kind of place. It was very crowded, and the people were rather terminally hip. In some ways it was very interesting: certainly a side of Turkey we hadn’t seen. Most of the people we saw in Sultanahmet were dressed quite conservatively, as were most of the people in the countryside. This was our first look at that modern Turkey that sits with one foot in the Ottoman past and the other firmly stepping into cutting-edge Europe. The girls and boys were fashionable and fine, and very, very conscious of that fact. Like I said, not our kind of place, in our grubby pants and fake shoes!

All was not lost – I picked up an ‘Istanbul’ cup from Starbucks and we found a neat little bookstore where we bought some cookbooks of Turkish cooking – in English, even! We never found the lokum store… we found where it was supposed to be, at 129 Istaklal Caddesi, and scouted around a bit, but never found it.

It was full dark when we gave up on the lokum hunt and turned around. We were tired, a little hungry and exceedingly footsore, and we wanted off the Istaklal Caddesi train so badly it hurt. We took a random street to the left, back down to the Bosphorus and walked down to Kemeraltı Caddesi, which is the street the streetcars run on; the street which spills onto the Galata Bridge and home. The walk downhill was reasonably pleasant, except that it involved being upright.

We were pleased to arrive almost exactly at Tophane tram station, bought our tokens and settled with great relief onto the benches of the tram. It was about quarter to seven when we crossed the Galata Bridge to Eminönü, and we took a quick look at each other and decided to subject our poor feet to another indignity: we exited at Sirkeci station, walked across the street to the Sirkeci Istasyonu, and joined the lineup for the Dervish sema – the sufi ritual that puts the ‘whirling’ in ‘whirling dervish’ – that is held Sunday nights in the former waiting room for the Orient Express. We thought the performance – I hesitate to call it a ‘show’ – began at seven, but apparently it was seven-thirty. Had we known it would involve that much standing, we might have skipped it. We didn’t know, and we couldn’t quite bear to have our last night in Turkey whining away in our hotel room. So we stood. And stood. And shuffled, and whined a little bit, and made friends with the other tourists in line, and stood some more.

When we finally reached the front of the line, I found myself frantically learning some new Turkish words: flipping through my phrasebook, I explained, while pointing at Steve, göz (eye) and ön (front). The young man who was acting as usher figured it out, and told us in limited English that there were reserved seats in front for us.

Other than telling the car rental people that I would be the only driver and a few curious stares, this was the only mention we had to make of Steve’s eyesight on the entire trip.

We were so very happy to sink onto our chairs in the front row: there were chairs arranged in rows on three sides around a roped-off area in the centre of the room. We were dead in front, in the centre of the row, facing the chairs where the musicians were to sit against the windows of the old train station. Amazing! It seemed quite remarkable that we would just be able to show up for a performance which we hadn’t booked for, hadn’t planned on, hadn’t bought tickets – just show up, and get the best seats in the house.

Precisely on time (not Turkish time!), the musicians filed in and began to play. It was exquisite – we were unprepared for how lovely it was. Steve noted that they didn’t seem to be as tight as a band that played together often would be, but they still did an excellent job. The room collectively held its breath as the… dancers? whirlers? derviş? dervi? entered the room, carrying rolled up sheepskins. They entered reverently, with grace, and their long white skirts swept the floor. They unrolled their sheepskins, made their obeisance, were gathered into a little knot by the head derviş, and, as the music grew, each took – in their own time and manner – to spinning.

They sema unfolded with a billow of white skirts; they spun around open space; we watched, each caught out of our mortal coil. It was heart-breakingly beautiful. It was a poem, a painting on air, a prayer so deep and moving that I almost cried. As we watched, we got a sense of each of the derviş: the head man, whose face bore an expression of profound serenity, and whose feet made barely a whisper on the stone floor; the older man who whirled with a strong and focused energy – we wondered if he had come late to the Sufi, and what he had done before; two youngsters whose long limbs floated like spiders on the wind and a third young man, burning with desire to do it all so perfectly as he whirled, and thought, and strove for communion. “He’ll get it someday,” I thought. “He’s so young still.”

Within the sema, the dancer, holding up one hand to gather blessings and dispersing them to the crowd with the downturned hand, with a thousand shades of meaning and faith in every movement, the audience is to feel more blessed, closer to God. We felt closer.

When the derviş rolled up their sheepskins and left, followed by the musicians, there was a pause before the applause. For something that was put on for tourists, it had a sense of authenticity which I think was felt by virtually everyone in the audience privileged company of watchers.

Feeling replete with the day, we bought more tokens (our last tokens) and got back aboard the tram up the hill to Sultanahmet (our last tram!) and walked past the glorious Hagia Sophia, all lit up for the night (our last night!). Ah, we were going to miss Istanbul.

At the Med Cezir, we ordered a plate of mixed mezes and chatted with Sabo and Erol. Before dinner was served, I ran down to the little corner store for cookies and Nescafe sticks and a few little souvenirs. Steve got a little antsy when I was gone for too long; back at the hotel and with food in front of us, Steve regained his good humour enough to give Sabo advise on married life; Erol commented on the spending habits of wives. I was wise enough to not make a fuss. We shared some of our snacks and chocolate with the hotel staff before creeping back up the stairs to pack.

Packing was a painful and traumatic experience, even more so than our poor toes (recalling that before Istanbul, we hadn’t worn proper shoes in almost a month). Exhausted and sad, we rolled into bed later than we should, knowing we had to be up at oh-dark-thirty for our pickup at five in the morning.

Turkey — Day Twenty-seven — Istanbul

Saturday, November 3, 2007.

Saturday morning we were up fairly early, and had a lovely breakfast – Istanbul style Turkish breakfast was a bit of a surprise, which is itself a surprise given the consistency of the ubiquitous Turkish breakfast. Breakfast in Istanbul usually has a boiled egg, rather than the scramble we’d gotten used to. It also has that piece of salami and the cheese was in a container – not bad, certainly, but not quite as good as the pots of apricot jam and fresh fruit and cheese we were getting in the south.

First thing, we headed over to the little PTT (post office) kiosk outside the Baths Of Lady Hürrum to get some stamps to send out our sadly-overdue postcards. At least we were sending them from Turkey, and not Vancouver, which had seemed more and more likely.

After obtaining stampage, we wandered back to the southern side of the Aya Sofia and up the very short road that leads to Topkapi Palace. We weren’t quite early enough to beat the crowds, but the place is big enough so that it didn’t matter much.

We walked through the first huge gate and into a beautiful, lushly grassed park, dotted with enormous trees and peppered with kitties! We watched some cats carefully eyeing a little girl who was eager to pet them, and then running away when she got too close.

There was also an armed guard who good-naturedly allowed us to take pictures of him, AK47 and all.

You would think you’d buy your tickets at the next gate, or at the lovely gift shop set into the wall, and many tourists (including us) were confused. However, the tickets are purchased at a few openings in the wall right beside the Dosim, or government gift shop, in the next gate down. There were also tons of tour guides, complete with authorized guide cards, offering their services. We opted not to take the tour, but instead bought ourselves the Topkapi Palace book at the museum bookstore just inside the main gate. We were once again confronted with having our bags and ourselves x-rayed before entry, which makes sense given the value of the objects contained in the museum.

Upon entry, we made a beeline for the Harem, as we wanted to see it before the real hordes arrived. It really was an amazing structure, with halls and courts and dormitories for both the concubines and their eunuch guards. The tile work, mother-of-pearl inlaid doors and the marble floors were amazing, as was the strong sense of history: this is where emperors were born, where palace intrigues and so many closely cloistered lives were drawn out. We liked the Harem very much and were pleasantly surprised at how many rooms were on display, as we were under the impression that only a few rooms were visible.

After the Harem, we found ourselves in the First Court, where there were lots of lovely Ottoman salons and a small café. The views over the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara were spectacular. Many of the buildings in this area were closed for restoration, which is actually reassuring: we liked it that laurels are not being rested on. One of our favourite buildings had ornate tiles from the 15th century on the exterior. Amazing!

We wandered back up to the Third Court, which is where the treasury is located. We were able to walk right into one of the galleries and joined the queue shuffling around the room, looking at all the sparkly things. The sheer quantity of diamonds sent Steve into small-glittery-object-overload, but we I managed to join the line of people stringing around the walls to look at the Spoonmaker’s Diamond and the Topkapi Dagger (which would be much more impressive if not for the cheesy enamelled basket of flowers on the hilt, which looks like a some kid stuck a crappy sticker on an otherwise stunning object). Some of the items were on loan to a display in Japan but the quantity did not seem diminished.

Even though there are signs EVERYWHERE stating that photographs or video of any kind are NOT allowed in the Treasury, there was a woman who kept taking photos. You’d think when the Man With The Really Big Gun told her to stop it, repeatedly, she might have opted to follow the rules. When we saw her surreptitiously taking photos with her camera phone, we decided to leave rather than be present for the (seemingly) inevitable takedown of her and her phone.

By this time, our feet were getting sore, and we were way overwhelmed by the sheer size of the complex. It is some 700,000 square meters, about half the size of the country of Monaco. We were ready to go, and drifted back towards the entrance with the Hagia Sophia looming redly overhead.

We popped briefly into the armoury to take some photos of weapons and armour: lots of chain mail and nasty-looking axes. The reception room was a little underwhelming as it is mostly a display of textiles, but the council chambers were overwhelming in their opulence. It was interesting, because we usually think of ornateness as being somehow tacky or decadent. Topkapi was certainly ornate, but because everything seemed themed with repeating motifs and colours: grey marble, blue tiles, stars and arabesques of stone and shell made the whole quite cohesive… except for the council chambers. They were pretty tricked out. Someone should have lost their gold leaf license for that room.

I took a photo of a Turkish family and found myself counting them down in Turkish: üç, iki, bir, *snap*.

We wandered… ok, limped back through the park and back to our hotel, for a little lay-down before joining the fray of Istanbul. This was my second day in ‘real’ shoes, given that I had abandoned my faithful Tevas in Selçuk and we were doing way too much walking for flipflops. I was in the 20YTL Puma-esque runners I had bought back in Fethiye and was developing some blisters. One of the security guards in Topkapi had ‘tsk-tsked’ Steve for wearing sandals, so he was thinking it was time to bow to the fact that it was, in fact, November – especially as it was starting to look like rain.

It was funny, actually. We had arrived in Istanbul a month earlier for 20C weather, and were unbearably hot. Now, back in Istanbul for 12C weather (which would be balmy for November in Canada), we were bundled in every sweater we’d brought – I guess we acclimatized!

After our nap, we were raring to hit the road and lit out for the tram station yet again. We had one umbrella between us, which we had purchased for just a few lira at the Tire market. In the Sultanahmet Park, we were approached by a tout carrying umbrellas for sale. When I asked “kaça?” he replied “on-beş” – fifteen lira. I offered beş lira, and his eyes nearly fell out of his head – maybe at my lowball offer? or that I was making it in Turkish? His surprise must have thrown him off his bargaining game, because I bought it for seven lira… though he recovered his composure enough to tell me he only had two lira change for my ten-note. Ah, touts!

Just after the umbrella purchasing, we were delighted to randomly run into our Canadian friends – they had had some splendid adventures: Sharon (or Barb?) was exploring her Armenian heritage and they had met some people in Kumpkapi who might be able to give her more information about her family, so they were off to meet with those people again. We discussed meeting on Sunday for a hamam, which none of us had tried – having given them the Med Cezir’s phone number, we parted company.

We popped into the Tur-ista office to see Davut and thank him for his excellent advice and let him know the travel was seamless and the tours of Cappadocia enjoyable. He was surprised and happy to see us, and we were brought more cups of tea. During our conversation, we mentioned that we were leaving Istanbul dark and early Monday morning: turns out Davut was able to arrange our shuttle bus to get us to the airport in time to make our flight – yet another potential taxi ride avoided! The shuttle was cheap: less than 10YTL each, and it would pick us up right from the hotel. Yay! With that part of our journey arranged, we walked out onto the street and up the twenty or so steps to the Sultanahmet tram stop. Tur-ista: helpful and convenient!

After tramming down to Eminönü again, we joined the crush in the underpass heading towards the Spice Market. So this was Saturday in Istanbul! Good lord. We recognized that we were getting a little snappy at each other and decided that lunch was in order. We were right in front of the restaurant we had eaten at the on our second day in Istanbul: Hamdi. At our previous visit, it had been the best food we’d eaten in Istanbul and we wondered if it would stand the test of time.

Actually, Steve wasn’t super happy about eating at Hamdi again – he would rather have tried somewhere else. On the one hand, I could understand that. On the other, I knew that we really only got snappy when we were hungry or tired, and I wanted us to have food in our faces before we started spatting. I guess I ‘won’ that one, but it wasn’t a victory… at least from the panoramic balcony at Hamdi, we could see the roof of our next destination, the Rüstem Paşa Camii, as well as the river of Istanbullus walking across the square to the Spice Bazaar. It was a little chilly for the balcony, but the wait staff brought out blankets to wrap around us. The food was adequate. Well, that’s a little harsh: it was nice, and it was tasty, but we’d certainly had better outside Istanbul… at Dibek, at the Canada Hotel, at the Park Café, at the Hotel Bella… this wasn’t anything special, and I regretted for both Steve and I. It was also expensive: almost 50YTL for an un-extravagant lunch without any alcohol. Note to self: bring snacks so you can hold out for a new experience.

Turning left out of main entrance of Hamdi, we walked down the street towards the Rüstem Paşa Camii – the Rüstem Paşa is a little, notoriously hard-to-find mosque that dated from the 16th century. Steve had heard that the tiles were just about as spectacular as those in the Blue Mosque, but with way less tourists.

About halfway down the block, we passed on the left a little coffee shop called Café Kahve Dunyasi that looked just like the kind of modern Vancouver-style coffee-shop I know and love, perfect down to the jumble of crowded patio tables sprawled all over the sidewalk. I veered into the doorway, as if pulled by caffeinated magnets. Inside, I realized how much I had missed the smells and sounds of coffee: after a month of (albeit delicious) tea and the occasional watery Nescafé (the general term for instant coffee), I was jonesing for some java in the worst possible way. Steve is familiar with my affliction… addiction, and patiently joined me at the counter. The Kahve Dunyasi beat the pants of any Starbucks I’ve ever been to, with stacks of boxes and jars of chocolates on the counter and shelves full of coffees and beautiful coffee cups all bearing the Dunyasi logo, to say nothing of the smell of rich coffee and chocolate which actually made me drool. When asked our order by the barista, Steve went the safe route and opted for hot chocolate. While my usual tipple is a latte, I decided to resist the urge for normal and ordered a Türk kahvesi. Two nice ladies at the bar in the corner got up and let us have their spot. We perched ourselves on two tall stools and watched the coffee parade.

Again, Starbucks this was not. The cacophony of tables outside had actual waiters heading out to service a cheerful clientele, rather than the snakey line of snarky customers waiting to be served their early-morning hit at the counter of every Starbucks I’ve been in. We were delighted to see every cup heading out the door with a little chocolate on the saucer: some had chocolate spoons, some a little bonbon, and others had a little dish of chocolate covered espresso beans. We were fascinated to see what kind of chocolate came with our orders and soon enough it was revealed. Steve had a chocolate spoon – not chocolate-covered, mind you, but an actual spoon made of chocolate. I received an exquisite little chocolate-covered lokum which was unbelievably delicious. By looking pitiful, batting my sparse eyelashes and looking up (and repeating about twenty times) the Turkish word for spoon (kaşık), I got one of the baristas to hand me over a chocolate spoon as well. I was very pleased, and wanted to buy a bunch of cups and boxes of chocolates to take home. Steve was anxious to get going and convinced me to come back the next day to buy all that stuff; otherwise we’d have to haul it around the rest of the afternoon.

Empty-handed but full-bellied, we exited to our left and walked straight into the maze of streets that circle and spiral around the Rüstem Paşa Camii. Unlike the last time we were here, when we visited accidentally while looking for the aforementioned Hamdi restaurant, we had a purpose, and this time purpose bred achievement. Achievement and a half-dozen stone and fragrant wood prayer beads bought from an old, old man who spoke exactly zero English, but we were able to communicate enough to exchange a handful of lira for a handful of beads and a meaningful glance as I thanked him. It was a lovely crystal moment and every time the wood of the prayer beads warms and breathes in my hands, I am taken back to that alley, facing that old man with those ancient eyes gazing into my own.

A left at the next alley and a duck down into a passageway and up some stairs, we arrived on the terrace of the Rüstem Paşa Camii. At the far end of the terrace was the turist entrance: I flipped my headscarf over my head and slipped off my sneakers. When we entered, I knew immediately that this was completely unlike the Blue Mosque. Here there was a reverence and a serenity that other structure simply couldn’t know. Perhaps it’s the constant string of tourists stomping through the Blue Mosque, or that the few competitive drops fouled the gallons of sanctity (the maker wanted it to rival the Hagia Sophia in grandeur), or just that the blessed intimacy of the Rüstem Paşa could not be recreated by acres of mosque and the huge, clumsy domes.

As we stood and gazed at the dome full of light (where did that sunlight come from?), Turks from the street came in to pray, unselfconsciously. The fluidity of the movements brought tears to my eyes. Even the tourists were reverent: I suspect that if a tourist went to all the trouble to get to this particular, secretive mosque, then they knew the drill. That may sound a little snarky, and I don’t mean it to, but it was nice to see people with their shoes off and headscarves on, making donations at the exit.

Needing to use the washroom, I headed down the ‘near’ set of stairs: the ones meant for tourists (I couldn’t have found that entrance if my life depended on it; we came up the believer’s stairs). Knowing that every mosque I’d been to had a reasonably clean tuvalet available for a few kuruş, I found the room where the ablutions would occur and walked up to a man in a little booth by the entrance to the tuvalet… he looked a little surprised to see me, which I understood when I, surprised, found myself looking at a line of Turkish male bums using a 16th century urinal. Huh. I backed quickly out of the line of sight and waited what I hoped was a decent amount of time before ducking back to the booth. When I asked the man for the bayanlar (lady’s), he gave me an UTS and indicated one of the stalls with a door, located right beside the (exquisite marble) urinal. Huh. As the need was pressing, I handed over my coins and dashed into the stall, where I found the floor wet and I suspected NOT with recent mopping. It was altogether a disgusting little incident and I determined not to let the terrible tuvalet ruin my fond memories of the Rüstem Paşa.

Steve and I headed uphill and slightly to the left, hoping we’d run into one of the many entrances to the Grand Bazaar. The streets were a little twistier here, which is saying quite a bit as they weren’t exactly die-straight up from the Spice Bazaar. Keeping the approximate location of our destination in mind, we found it with surprisingly little trouble. The Istanbul map we had was detailed but frankly unhelpful as the street names did not seem to correspond to what was actually on the signs – when there were signs. We had been warned of this and were unfazed. Walking through the back streets of Istanbul was just as interesting as any destination we could find, which was good; without a useful map, it was either sheer luck or the will of Allah that led us to the alley of knockoff t-shirts that led to the Grand Bazaar.

Ah, Grand Bazaar, how I love you. The riotous colours, the chaos and cacophony and chorus of touts offering everything under the sun, or under the glowing jewelled lamps, as the case may be. Still on the lookout for şiş çatal, I asked a man with a stall full of fancy-schmancy pottery and cooking utensils if he had any. Without looking away from my face, he pointed at a crock on the floor full of skewers with decorative tops. I spent a happy few minutes making sets (oh, too many fish in that one) and bought a number for what seemed like a very reasonable price. One mission done, and we hadn’t even walked 100 feet!

We drifted around the corner, and perhaps another corner or two, when we saw a shop full of shoes. I went to take a look at their stock of almost certainly fake Pumas, and pointed out a few pairs of sneakers to Steve, who was still in sandals. The shopkeeper leapt on us like a hyena on a three-legged gazelle: “ah, the gentleman has picked up our Pradas – these are genuine antelope leather! These are 300 lira shoes, but you – I give YOU brother-price!” He then proceeded to whip out his lighter and wave it in the general direction of the shoes in order to prove they weren’t made of nylon and therefore going to melt. It continued much in this vein for some twenty minutes and two glasses of apple tea each, until Steve bargained him down to 60YTL and got him to throw in the ‘Puma’ brand socks he was trying the shoes on with.

The shoes were nice, and they were (genuine cow) leather, but they sure weren’t Prada. In fact, they lost one of their labels before we left the Grand Bazaar, and the other was gone within two weeks of being back in Canada.

We encountered some interesting people as we wended through the streets and squares of the Grand Bazaar – the touts that called to us in every language, starting with German; the old men walking through the bazaar that would grab me by the arm and ask me where I was from: “Canada” “Ah, Kanada!” all big smiles; the greasy young man who hit on every pretty girl who stopped to fondle a cheap pashmina and told Steve while looking at me out of the corner of his eye that he had ‘millions’ of American women in his bed, and had a date with one that night. Huh.

We attended a few shops mentioned in the Lonely Bastard as must-see places and, frankly, they were making hay out of the exposure afforded by the L.B. In some cases the items were interesting but in every case, they were shockingly overpriced. We declined to spend our money there… it’s not like there weren’t plenty of other shops to browse in, and a million wonders for sale.

The Grand Bazaar is a wonderful blur and remembering all the things we saw is like trying to recall everything you see on the PNE midway when you’re drunk on cotton candy, flashing lights and rollercoasters. I know there were acres of knockoff clothes and the softest, plushiest robes you ever felt; glittering lamps and belly-dance outfits for little girls; forests of nargilehs and deep blue pools of ceramic bowls; walls of diamonds and gold, and, wonderfully, a whole area dedicated to antiques.

Most of the antiques I saw were either obviously passed through a goat not antique, were so antique they wouldn’t make it out of the country, or were shockingly overpriced – often at least two of the three. One ring I liked very much was over twelve hundred lira. Eep! By this time Steve was getting a little cranky – his vision tends to get overwhelmed by ‘small object overload’ and lunch was some time ago. I saw the last store before we would be leaving the antique area, heading south, and thought I’d make my last-ditch effort for my last, most improbable mission…

Since my first day in Istanbul, I’d been coveting a tap – a brass tap like the kind that turn on the water for the prayerful to wash before they enter the mosque.

I had had Erol write down for me the word for ‘faucet’ (musluk) since my phrasebook wasn’t prepared for a leaky tap (among many other things) and I had asked every likely antique seller if they had such a thing. Most of them looked at me like I had two heads or worse, so I had pretty much given up hope. I was kicking myself for not purchasing the one I saw at the Citadel in Ankara; schlepping a pound of brass for 27 days would have been worth it, I told myself. Worse yet, I resented Steve a little for talking me out of buying the one in Ankara, a fact which was not helped by his irritability at my asking countless incredulous shopkeepers if they had a faucet.

This last shopkeeper – I wasn’t holding out much hope. After I asked him, and answered his quizzical look with another butchered Turkish request for a faucet, he led me around the corner to a basket on the floor that was… full of taps! Oh my! I couldn’t have been more excited! I pawed through, found one that was ornate but not too ornate and, dreading the response, asked how much it was? He looked me up and down and requested 45YTL – about $35. I offered 40YTL and, not surprisingly, he took it. I was probably overcharged by about 10YTL but for the eight dollars and Steve’s priceless patience, it was worth it.

At this point Steve and I had a miscommunication: he wanted to eat something and stop looking at little objects; I thought he meant he wanted to leave the Bazaar and eat a proper meal, when really he would have been happy to sit for a few minutes and have a snack at one of the little cafés in the Bazaar. Instead, we left the Bazaar and walked up the road towards Divan Yolu thinking we’d find a place for dinner. The sound of music stopped us in our tracks and we looked over at a bustling tourist spot called… well, it might be called ‘Safran’ since that is the sign on the wall in my pictures, but really I was so tired that I didn’t pay a heck of a lot of attention. I might have wanted to walk around the Grand Bazaar until my feet were bloody stumps, but it’s not to say that would have been good for me. Sitting on divans on the floor around a low table, listening to what was no doubt cheesy tourist music was very, very good for me. The food was tasty, if not fancy, and reasonably priced – I guess we were just far enough from Sultanahmet to avoid the really exorbitant prices.

The band came around and played very entertainingly for each table, collecting tips along the way. During the intermission, Steve went and chatted with the musicians a bit and ended up playing on one of their instruments, a kind of banjo-oud called (Steve thinks) a dhadak.

Dinner over and nerves soothed, we walked hand-in-hand down the Divan Yolu towards Sultanahmet and home. Everything seemed right in our world with the possible exception of having to leave Turkey in some 36 hours. As we were humming over our good fortune at being together, in that marvellous place, I saw something I hadn’t seen before in Turkey: an older man, dressed like any other in a dark sports coat and pants, squatted on the sidewalk with his cap in his hand laid upon the sidewalk, begging for coins. His face was turned away from the stream of people, hidden by his other hand. Every line of his body indicated defeat and an almost-unbearable shame. I walked on a few paces, contemplating that this was the first beggar I’d seen in almost a month in Turkey.

I was reminded of the drunk in Selçuk, and Marco’s brother explaining that no-one in Turkey would be homeless or hungry because they would have a family to take care of them. Did this man not have a family? Or was this his way of taking care of them? Or was the curl of despair in his fingers an act, shaped just so to draw in the sympathetic tourist? I couldn’t bear it. I stopped and walked back, dropped a few lira in his cap, and moved on. He didn’t move a muscle: didn’t show his face, didn’t lift the veil.

Saddened and suddenly dissatisfied, we walked back down to Sultanahmet, where the crowds added to the midway feel, and our spirits lightened again. Back at the Med Cezir, we found Erol sitting in the dining room with Sabo, a friend and a guitar: they wanted Steve to get his oud so that they could play together. Steve obliged and they had an interesting thing going on with Erol on the guitar, Steve picking away on the oud and the friend singing a folk song. I ran up to get the computer to record the spontaneous amazingness, but by the time I got back down, Steve didn’t want to be recorded, so I only was able to capture Erol and his friend. It was still pretty cool, though. We had a great time chatting and hanging out, drinking endless complimentary cups of tea until our eyelids drooped. Steve and I staggered up the stairs to bed, replete with all the wonders of Istanbul.

Turkey — Day Twenty-six — Istanbul (oud shopping)

Friday, November 2, 2007

We woke early to the endless suburbs of Istanbul rolling by. Breakfast was decent enough, though not quite as good as on the Ankara run – ah, back in the land of salami slice on the breakfast plate! We were back in our cabin in time to pack up and watch the blue Marmara sea disappear behind football stadiums and industrial parks.

We pulled into the train station and discovered the bad thing about first class: the sleepers had been at the ass end of the train the whole time, keeping away from the noisy engine, but now they were the furthest from the exit, and we felt every inch of the marble-covered platform as we pulled the RSFH the length of the train. Knowing that this was the easy stretch didn’t exactly help.

We exited onto the street and went to the same ferry dock that we had arrived at, some twenty-four days earlier. Breakfast was not so decent that we didn’t pick up two simit on the ferry dock. Fifty kuruş each: we must be in Istanbul.

Manoeuvring the RSFH through the turnstile along with about one hundred irritable Istanbullus commuters sucked.

Launching it and us onto the ferry sucked a little more. We had repacked it to be a little lighter, but that meant we had the RSFH and an equally heavy duffle bag full of carpet. With our packs, that meant that we had two pieces of luggage each, which wouldn’t have been so bad except that the considerable weight of the carpet bag (ha ha) slowly cut off the fingers of the wielder, and the RSFH often required one person at one end and the other person at the other end to lift it over, say, the gap between the dock and the ferry. It was challenging. Did I mention one hundred irritable commuters? Yeah.

I’m being overly dramatic – while getting ON the ferry was a challenge, once we were on, people very nicely made room for us and our irritating luggage.

Even though I was a little trepidatious about being back in Istanbul, armed with teşekkür ederim and lütfen, even with our RSFH, things seemed easier. Well, except for the lifting part.

Rinse and repeat for offloading, with the addition of the gap we had to leap over as it took so long to get the luggage to the door that the ferry was just about pulling away… very exciting!

When we got to Karakoy on the European side, we at least knew approximately where we were heading: back to the Galata Bridge, through the underpass (scary), right at the fish market (smelly… ok, not really), right into the gun bazaar (scary… really!) and up the stairs (hernia!) to the Beyoglu tram station, where we purchased two tokens and joined a whole new set of irritated commuters trying to get onto the trams.

We just managed to get all the bags off the tram at the Sultanahmet stop and stopped to regroup on the sidewalk. I’m still not sure how we managed it (certainly parts of it have been blocked from my memory), but we lugged all that crap to the hotel over endless miles of cobbled sidewalks. Actually it wasn’t miles – the hotel was just as close as advertised. The Med Cezir is basically opposite the Four Seasons, just down the street from the Baths Of Lady Hürrem and around the corner from one of the ‘Ev’ hotels. It’s in good company!

From the outside, the cheerfully-painted Med Cezir looked like it belonged – a pale lemon-yellow building with a cute little café-style restaurant on the left and the hotel entrance on the right.

We staggered into the hallway that led to the admissions desks where we were kindly, and amusedly, greeted by Erol, the owner. The kindness seemed very typical of him, the amusement mostly generated by the fact that we now had to carry the luggage up three narrow, spiralling sets of stairs to the third floor where our room was. Yay! The first flight was fairly normal, the second, a little tighter and steeper. The third flight of stairs was just as steep and incredibly narrow at the top, and the light in the hallway was controlled by a motion detector that unexpectedly turned off after there had been no movement for, say, twenty seconds. Pretty much the amount of time required to find one’s key, for instance, or to take a breather after hauling a large and unwieldy suitcase up three flights of stairs.

After waving our way down the hallway to get the light on, we made our way into the room, and were pleasantly surprised. There was a double bed, a reading lamp (our first in Turkey), a wardrobe, and a pile of clean towels on the bed. After doing a recon in the hallway, we found two bathrooms to serve three bedrooms: one was possessed of a half-sized bath with shower and the other was a powder room. There were actual little hotel soaps (which we ignored, preferring our Tire olive oil soap during our quick showers) and plenty of spare tp. Everything was spotlessly clean, if not glamorous.

This was so worth the 60YTL per night we were paying: the room was good, the stairs were… healthy, and the location was un-freaking-believable, as we realized when we abandoned our luggage, walked back down the stairs and twenty short steps into the park I only know as Sultanahmet Park between the breathtaking Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

Steve wanted to be sure we got to Beyoglu today to check out the street of music shops. We had asked Erol if he knew of anywhere to go and he had told us, being an oud and guitar player himself, which streets to visit.

We first headed over to the Divan Yolu where we veered off onto a sidestreet and walked a block to a small music shop. The shopkeeper was nice, but not very interested in us, which was fair, as his ouds were nice but not very interesting.

The tram station was close and we had the hang of getting our tokens, so it took no time at all before we were whisking across the Galata Bridge. Just for the sake of entertainment, we decided to deliberately miss the Beyoglu stop and got off at the next one down the line, where we walked back along the street to the bottom of the hill we were to walk up the street of music. We passed storefronts full of Vespas (Alex would have just died) and sidewalks full of astonished Istanbullus (we weren’t in a tourist area) before we found ourselves at the bottom of a fan of streets spreading up the hill above us.

We knew we had to walk up Yüksek Kaldırım Caddesi which would turn into Galip Dede Caddesi, which is the street of the musical instruments. Yüksek Kaldırım was easy enough to find, now that I had the hang of finding the street signs high up on the building on the left corner of the street. From my up-since-six-am perspective, however, it didn’t look all that easy to walk up. From sea-level, the streets of Beyoglu head straight up the hill – there is the Tünel that can take you up from near the tram station to the top of the hill at the end of Istiklal Caddesi, but that would have bypassed the entire street of the musical instruments. We needed to walk up.

Daunted, we stopped to take a look at the street signs to make sure this was actually the right street and were promptly accosted by a döner seller. We weren’t a hard sell, as the tavuk on the pole looked fantastic and the price was just a few lira. We sat under some trees at little tables with little umbrellas and a very aggressive, skinny little cat. He ended up with quite a bit of my tavuk, but his kitty desperation when the food was gone was heartbreaking. It was hard to reconcile the thousands of starving strays creeping around Istanbul: you just wouldn’t see that in Canada. Instead, they would be rounded up and sent to the SPCA where some of them would be adopted into loving homes, and others would be put to sleep. Which is best? In Istanbul they have a chance, I guess, especially with soft-hearted turists possessed of a liberal hand with the tavuk.

Full and fortified, we headed up the caddesi, stopping in what seemed like every musical instrument shop along the way. Now I know how Steve feels when he’s tagging along with my shopping! Only when I’m shopping, we’re not brought constant cups of tea and invitations to sit and visit. Well, not everywhere was that friendly, but most shopkeepers were very pleasant and they all seemed pleasantly surprised that Steve could illicit vaguely appropriate noises from the ouds he tried. Every so often he would also pick up a guitar and blow them away.

We finally found a shop where the ouds were better than good and the salespeople were very nice. Since a lot of this trip was paid for by an inheritance from Steve’s grandmother, and she would have wanted him to have a musical keepsake from it and her, we had kept money aside specifically for an oud. The one that Steve liked the best was a little higher than his budget, but I kindly offered to put his Christmas present money towards it! Suitably revenged for his offers regarding the kilim we bought in Selçuk, Steve decided to bite the bullet and get the one he wanted. Purporting to need some time to think on it, we left the shop and decided to head uphill a bit to see what we could see.

After what was actually a very short time and an easy hike, we came to an open square which marked the start of the Istiklal Caddesi, a long pedestrian-only street which lead eventually to Taksim Square and which seemed to be Istanbul’s answer to Vancouver’s Robson Street. This was also where the Tünel ended up, so I think the neighbourhood is also known as Tünel.

There was a little tram that appeared every so often, carrying the lazy or footsore down Istiklal Caddesi. We didn’t really feel like doing the full-on stroll as dark was coming on and the tram never seemed to be leaving when we weren’t busy looking at something interesting. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the street looked like it was mostly occupied by the young, hip and terminally fashionable. Besides, right in the little square we could see a few little art galleries and went to look for post-cards or other interesting things.

We sure did find interesting things – copies of old lithographs of the city, decorated words in Arabic script, sketches of dervishes and a bunch of delicate watercolour Istanbul skylines with pen & ink boats and seagulls in the foreground. Lovely things! We were delighted to find out that the prices were very reasonable for original works: even though they were made very much to a formula, the execution was still quite wonderful. When we told the shopkeeper that the frames (brown) and matts (not white) weren’t to our taste, he offered to have his wife come to the shop and do some custom frames for us. Even with the custom framing, the price were still very reasonable, so we assessed our Christmas gift needs and picked out a half-dozen paintings.

By the time our order was framed, wrapped and bagged, it was almost full dark, and we had quite a distance to get back to our pension. On the upside, the walk down Galip Dede Caddesi was much easier than going up, and we passed amazing sights including the Galata Tower and cars attempting to drive down a street full of people. We stopped in at the music shop and purchased the oud, which Steve cradled like a babe for the rest of the night.

I couldn’t resist the sight of an open shop manually squeezing fresh orange juice where you could buy a glass for a lira, so we stopped for juice. Steve declined, as his hands were full of oud, but I found it delicious and worth every penny.

Back down the hill, back on the tram, back to Sultanahmet – we felt like old hats at this and my enjoyment of Istanbul increased with every step on a marble paving stone I took. I was no longer overwhelmed by touts and trams and every little thing; more comfortable with Turkish and the Turks, I finally felt able to handle and truly enjoy this amazing city.

We strolled into the Med Cezir with our purchases in hand. Erol and his assistant, Sabo (which means ‘loyalty’ in… Kurdish? we were proudly advised by the young man in question) were delighted to see us. They fixed us some very passable mezes at a fairly reasonable price (by Sultanahmet standards) and watched Steve explore his oud.

It had been a long, long day and we weren’t really up to going out or even visiting that much. We hauled our very sorry rear ends up the stairs, waved at the motion light, got out our keys, waved at the light again and were in our room, soon to bed. It only took a second or two before we realized that the ‘double’ bed was actually two twins pushed together. The foam topper helped a little, but it still wasn’t as perfectly comfortable as it might have been, with a bit of a raised seam where the beds joined. That said, we had no regrets and we felt that we were very lucky to have come across this particular pension; we snuggled across the seam and slept very well.

Turkey — Day Twenty-five — Pamukkale & Night Train

Thursday November 1, 2007

The morning was a scurry of activity at the hotel: we had more on our plate than just eating yet another delicious breakfast and showering in abundant hot water. We wanted to leave Pamukkale in the evening on the night train – the Pamukkale Expresi – from Denizli to Istanbul that was to leave at 5pm. Since we wanted a sleeper, we asked Karyn if she knew if there was somewhere in town we could reserve our ticket. There wasn’t a travel agent handy, so she had Ibrahim check availability online and there was only one sleeper unit left! Eek!

Karyn suggested we buy the ticket online, but of course we didn’t have a credit card. We were intensely grateful when Karyn offered to buy the ticket for us, so long as we also paid her the few extra lira to cover her bank charges for her Australian credit card. Since this beat hollow the prospect of a panicky dolmuş ride into Denizli to buy a ticket that may or may not have still been available when we got there, we gladly accepted. Even with the small charge (which Karyn showed us on her statement – she didn’t take a fee on top of it, even though we would have happily paid one), it was still less than $50 each – I think 49YTL each for the ticket and two or three lira for the service fee.

The next order was the hotel we would stay in the next night. As exciting as it was to have arrived in Istanbul that first night and look for our hotel room, we wanted to see if we could get in with the Canadians who would be arriving there that night. We tried to call on Skype, taking advantage of the free wireless, but the connection was a little spotty. Karyn – again, such an awesome hostess – lent us the phone for no charge, even though we were calling long distance. Unfortunately that hotel was full. Karyn then looked online and advised of a few hotels that had space and were reasonable, including one called the ‘Med Cezir’ (pronounced Med Jezeer) which was right in the heart of Sultanahmet. We called, heart in our mouth, and were told by the nice man on the other end of the phone that he was full up for doubles with their own bathroom. We were just about to hang up when he told us he did have a double with a shared bathroom. The price was great, and we wanted this to be done, so we accepted – no deposit, just our names and the advice that we’d be there in the morning. Yay! Now we had somewhere to stay and a way to get there: we could enjoy our day in Pamukkale.

It didn’t seem like it would be difficult to get to the famous travertines since we could even catch a glimpse of them from our bedroom window. Indeed, it was a short walk up through the winding streets, past the little lokanta we were in last night, to the pond at the bottom of the road that led to the travertines. The sun intermittently broke through the high cloud and made the upper hillside sparkle. It was interesting from far off; fascinating from up close. We paid our 5YTL and walked (shoes on) up the gravel path until we reached the white… how do you describe the travertines?

Technically, they are the result of a natural hot spring which carries a large quantity of calcium dissolved in the water. When the water reaches the surface and spills out over the top of the hill, the calcium precipitates out of the water and is deposited on the natural rock as a new kind of rock called ‘travertine’. Over many thousands of years, layers and layers of calcium have created terraced rock pools that shine white in the sun. Perhaps because of the ability of the white pools to reflect the sky, they are coloured the same bright turquoise that we have seen many times in alpine lakes. From a distance, the white structure on the top of the hill looks like a shining fortress, which gives Pamukkale (pamuk: cotton, kale: castle) its name.

We had waffled, as I think many travellers do, if it was worth it to even go to Pamukkale. We had read the reports that the hotels in the area had diverted the mineral water for their own little pools and the reduction in calcium-rich water spilling over the travertines had made them dingy at best, completely ruined at worst. We pro’d and con’d for several days: Denizli was out of the way, but it was on the way to an easy route back to Istanbul. The travertines might not be as spectacular as they were, but it might be our last chance to see even the faded glory of an incredible natural sight. As we took off our sandals and took our first step into the cool white lower pond, we were so glad we came. Up close, you could see that some of the pathways were a little gritty and not all the pools were full. There were some workers digging a ditch of some sort along the edge of the travertines and I was glad to see they are still working on repairing it.

The silt in the bottom of the pool was pleasantly squishy between our toes, and it created fun little swirls as we walked through. The water didn’t get past mid-thigh and we hung out in the pond, watching the clouds roll through and hoping for more sunshine. After not too long, a crowd came down the trail and took over our pond, and it was time to move on. It is a requirement that you walk up the trail without shoes on as the dirt from shoes makes the rock grubbier. Most people adhered to it and I glared daggers at those who didn’t. Really, there was no reason not to take off your shoes: the rocks were surprisingly smooth to walk on, even where the surface was patterned into tiny rock ripples. Frankly, if you don’t want to take your shoes off, don’t walk on the travertine! Not that I was irritated or anything.

At the top, we were impressed at the quantity of the ruins that cover the plateau: we had read that Heiropolis was darn cool, but this was really neat. We decided to first take a look at the ‘Sacred Pool’ which was located in a very strip-mall looking building. The sacred pool itself looked interesting in that there were indeed mineral waters and actual Roman ruins in the water – broken columns you could swim by and over. The whole thing seemed a little dingy, though, and the prices were obscene, plus there was that whole strip-mall atmosphere. I think that if the ruins in Turkey were more hands-off or somehow less accessible to be touched and leaned on and generally mauled, swimming with ruins would be more attractive. As it was, we felt as though we had had enough of an intimate ruin experience that we didn’t need to get naked with them.

Instead of a swim, we bought two wildly overpriced Magnums and went outside to sit on a tomb and eat our icecream. See what I mean? intimate ruins.

We walked along the cliff edge over to the left and admired a few tombs that were being very sloooooooowly drowned in a rising sea of travertine, or at least until a tourist policeman (well, maybe a park caretaker, but he looked mighty official) told us to keep back from the edge.

Keeping away from the edge wasn’t much of a hardship given the interesting group of ruins, including a colonnaded street, a couple of well-preserved arches, and a hillside just covered in ruined tombs. I think I read on ‘Turkey Travel Planner’ where Tom Brosnahan said that lots of Romans came to Heiropolis to take cures in the spa but many of them died instead. Perhaps it was best we didn’t swim in the sacred pool!

We walked through the triple arches towards the necropolis where we admired the jumble of tombs and tried to decipher the interpretive signs.  The tombs were very interesting and some were even open to visitors!  The magnitude of the excavation was overwhelming.
Tiring of ghosts, we wandered back to the arches and walked up the marble-paved streets, lined with rows of columns and poplars.  It was lovely and graceful and we went twenty minutes without seeing another soul.  

We found stone paths to follow up along the hillside that were paved in huge marble slabs. It took a while to realize that these were city streets that would have served all the now-razed neighbourhoods we were walking through. The streets were laid out in a grid pattern and sometimes we thought we saw the remains of drainage troughs underneath the streets where a slab was broken. I would have liked to follow the street up the hill to more tombs, but we wanted to take a look at the theatre before heading back to the hotel to get packed up for the dolmuş to Denizli. Walking those paths made me feel closer to history than any other place we had been, even Ephesus, and I felt if I could just walk a little further, I could walk right into the past.

Instead we slogged up the normal modern road up to the theatre, where you enter from the top. The theatre was apparently restored by Italian craftsmen in the 1970s and it was the first theatre we’d been to where you didn’t have the run of the place. To prevent people from going down onto the stage, there was a wooden barricade set up on the walkway above the first rows of seats. Frankly, we felt a little gypped. Those Italians did a nice job and all, but as I’ve mentioned, we were spoiled by our access to and intimacy with other ruins.

By this time it was well into the afternoon and we wanted to be on a 3:30pm dolmuş at the latest. Even though it was only a half hour into Denizli, and the dolmuş went every fifteen minutes or so, we wanted enough time to comfortably wrangle our RSFH to the train station and make our 5pm train. We decided to head down the hill where I would take a quick fifteen minutes in the museum and Steve would go back down to the pool with water in it to take some more photos now that it was a bit sunnier.

Fortunately the ticket to the museum was inexpensive, since I certainly didn’t waste any time there: I basically ran through taking photos that I figured I could admire at my leisure. The rooms weren’t well-lit and it’s probably best that Steve didn’t attend, as the detail on the friezes might have eluded him.

The guards looked quite entertained as I left with a quick teşekkür ederim: I’m not sure they’d ever seen someone go through so quickly.

I found Steve in the lower pool as expected. It felt a little sad to walk off the travertines, put our sandals back on, and turn our backs on Pamukkale. We were very glad we came.

Back in town, we found our landmark lokanta and set off in what seemed like the right direction to get back to the Venus Hotel. I’m sure you can see where this is going, though we were unsuspecting… that we were most certainly NOT headed in the right direction. On the upside, we saw back streets of Pamukkale that most tourists do not see. On the downside, we were tired and hungry and anxious about the time, and spatted pretty much the entire 20 minutes we wandered around lost. We did ask a little girl the way to go, but she pointed us in the entirely wrong direction, which really didn’t help the situation. Finally coming back to the travertine entrance from around the far left side of town, we saw Karyn and Ibrahim parked in front of a shop. They offered us a ride back to the hotel and then a ride back to the dolmuş stop with the RSFH, which we gratefully accepted.

At the Venus, we hurriedly packed our things and found that we had had a casualty on the trip: my loyal Teva sandals, which had carried me faithfully throughout Turkey, to say nothing of the other adventures, were now officially dead. The sole was separating, they smelled atrocious and they were too heavy to justify carrying back to Canada for interment. I sadly left them on the top of the garbage can in our beautiful room in the Hotel Venus. Farewell, old friends.

Downstairs, we said our goodbyes to the dogs, the mum and dad, and were carted back up into town by Ibrahim. What a nice place! We had just enough time to grab snacks: simit, suyu and a few cookies before hopping on the dolmuş. I hadn’t realized how much time had gone by while we were lost, and even though the dolmuş was going relatively quickly by dolmuş standards, we arrived in the Denizli otogar at about 20 minutes to five.

Wrestling the RSFH and our packs out of the dolmuş, we were assured by the driver and various passerby that the train station (tren istasyonu in Turkish) was just down and across the road. They didn’t say that the sidewalks were GRAVEL or that our wheelie RSFH wouldn’t wheel very well (ok, at all) on gravel. They also didn’t mention that it was rush hour in Denizli, and that crossing six lanes of road would take our lives into our overly full hands.

We were hot and tired and overly-adrenaline’d when we finally ran down the metal mesh stairs (also not very good for the RSFH wheels) onto the platform. Fortunately, we changed our printed confirmation for tickets without incident and got on the train with five minutes to go before five. Needless to say, we were very, very relieved and actually quite pleased with ourselves. It had taken a lot of co-operation, cheerleading and finely choreographed suitcase-lifting to get ourselves to the train on time, and our satisfaction wiped the spat from our minds.

One last push of the suitcase onto the train and into our little room, and we were free from suitcase lifting for at least another twelve hours. What a relief! We ate the contents of our little fridge as we watched… the station.  Had we known the train would leave some twenty minutes late, we might not have panicked so badly.  Insert UTS (ubiquitous Turkish shrug) here.  

Finally, the train started off, leaving the city of Denizli. After about twenty minutes, it screeched to a halt.  We thought it might have stopped abruptly for a station, but official-looking people were running up and down the track outside the train, shouting at each other.  We wondered what all the fuss was about — did someone get left behind?  The conductor eventually told Steve that a passenger’s child had pulled the e-brake.  Hee hee!
After not too long, the train started again and we watched the darkening countryside roll by, before repairing to the dining (cough smoking) car for a well-deserved dinner.

There was a little menu card on the table from which we tried to order, but the waiter was either not familiar with English or (bastardised) Turkish, because he kept indicating things were not available or giving us blank stares. We were pretty sure we had ordered some mezes and perhaps a şiş of indeterminate animal by the time he left.

When he arrived, proudly bearing plates of food, I realized that this was what menu roulette must really be like. Steve just smiled; he’s played this game before. Everything was good, but it was also a surprise: we had two eggplant salads, one of which might have been Imam Bayıldı, a haydari-like dish, a cucumber-yoghurt soup that must have been cacik, and liver. Yes, liver. Now I’m SURE I didn’t point at that item on the menu, but we got it anyway. I have to say the taste was ok, but the texture was… well, it was liver. So it was liver-y. Fortunately Steve likes liver. It was all quite reasonable in both taste and price, though not quite as good as the food on the Istanbul-Ankara train. Finally satisfied, we hung out in the dining car until we were smoked out. There isn’t any smoking allowed in the train carriages themselves, so the smokers hung out either in the gap between cars or in the smoking car, which was fine. Turkish cigarettes are somehow less irritating to my allergies than North American ones.

We found ourselves tired out when we got back to our room and sat talking and watching the lights of the countryside go by. I was a bit anxious about going back in Istanbul as I wasn’t sure I had liked it much the first time through. Istanbul is chaotic, noisy and crammed to the gills with people, and I’d felt out of my element. I also wasn’t keen on introducing the RSFH to the cobbled streets of Sultanahmet – or to the ferry gangplanks, either… but Steve reassured me and I reassured him, since he had similar fears, and we cuddled and felt like successful newlyweds after our trying day. Whatever Istanbul was like, we’d manage it together.

Turkey — Day Twenty-four — Pamukkale (Aphrodesias)

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

We had a good sleep at the Venus Hotel.  Waking up refreshed and a little more aware of our surroundings, we were even more pleased at the bright and fresh nature of our room (yet again a triple for the price of a double, and the extra bed held all our extra crap).  Karyn confirmed that they are slowly fixing up all the rooms and common area.  Over a delicious breakfast, we had a great chat about the vagrancies of the Lonely Planet.  

Karyn explained that when the LP guy had come to their hotel a few years previous (to write for the 2007 edition), he didn’t even stay in the hotel, just took a look around and left.  Fortunately, he gave them a good write-up, but telling potential travelers that the hotel is pink and romantic doesn’t actually give any idea as to the quality of the rooms or food.  In addition, because the information is collected literally years before the edition is printed, prices are way out of date, which can give travelers a nasty shock upon arriving at the hotel or attraction.  
There doesn’t seem to be any avoidable way of the L.P. being out of date that isn’t prohibitively expensive for them and the consumer (and guide books are expensive enough as it is), and we did get a lot of assistance at least in knowing what to see.  Our frustrations regarding its inaccuracies were echoed by Karyn, and we promptly adopted her nomiker of ‘Lonely Bastard’.  We had a love-hate relationship with our guide book, that’s for sure.
This is one of the reasons I haven’t provided a lot of information about the prices we paid: the information won’t be relevant for long, and we were traveling in the off season.  What seemed like a good deal to us might not be possible to get in the high season.  To say we were there in the ‘shoulder season’ would be an extreme understatement.  In fact, Karyn and Ibrahim were off to Southeast Asia on their ‘summer vacation’ in just a few days.

Karyn also told us our options for getting to Aphrodesias: hire a car and driver for 100YTL or take the bus for 25YTL each. Obviously the bus was the better route, but it would only go if there were a minimum of four people, so we had to cross our fingers that more intrepid people wanted to go see the ruins.

We were just finishing up breakfast at 9:30 when the bus came by for us, happily with two other people in it! We gulped our tea and climbed on board, where we met Sharon and Barb, two lovely Ottowa-onians (?) who had spent the bulk of their month’s holiday in the East, near Van, which sounded really spectacular. We all bonded right away and chatted as the bus went and picked up another man, Tatsi from Japan, who hadn’t much English but had a very good attitude.

We stopped on the way out of town for some very cheap and delicious simit to take with us. I think the simit were about 10 kuruş each, which was the cheapest we had seen anywhere. Fortunately the taste did not reflect the price, and I bought simit for everyone on board, including a surprised Tatsi.  Yum!

The bus ride was quite long, but we filled it with hearing and regaling stories about our various adventures in Turkey: Sharon and Barb had met a man by chance who became their driver, guide and fast friend. Their stories cemented our desire to return to Turkey and see ‘the East’ as they did. They, in fact, are currently planning their next trip at which time they will go up into all the little villages Noori, their driver, said he would take them to, plus the Black Sea and all kinds of other adventures which are in store for them.

They’ve been doing very well travelling without any real Turkish language at all. Turkey is pretty easy to travel in in that regard, though I still like my Turkish words!

We finally arrived at Aphrodesias, or the parking lot for Aphrodesias, and were told to meet our driver at 2pm. Then we all piled into the shuttle… wagon, pulled by a… tractor, which (for free) took us all the way to the gate.

After paying our whopping 4L (less than the L.B. said it charges) admission charge, we entered the ruin by way of a cobbled path that passed a field full of amazingly carved sarcophagi. As it was by now about 11, we decided to take pictures on the way back.

Aphrodesias was the site of a prehistoric community since 5000 BC or so, and had the shrine to Aphrodite since 600 BC, but only became a real town in the 1st or 2nd century AD. The town reached its peak at about the 3rd century AD and was abandoned in the 12th century AD. The little village of Geyre grew up in its place, which moved after an earthquake in the 1950’s, after which time the excavations began in the 1960s to very recently.

The central part of Aphrodesias is actually the village square, and contains a gift shop, rather nice washrooms, a few scruffy cats and the Museum. There are also several options for where to start your explorations. I got left behind a little (taking pictures of the kitties), when I heard shrieks and laughter coming from up the trail. I found my people had discovered that a shrub with very ‘Day of the Triffids’ pods on them. When disturbed by a foot or stick, the little pods shot up into the air and landed sometimes metres away from the original plant. Bizarre!

Hearing the high-pitched squealings of a multitude of primary-schoolchildren on the theatre, we decided to approach the ruins from a more circuitous route. We headed on a goat track up to the left, joined by a shaggy dog whom Barb referred to as ‘Monsieur Woof Woof’ to his great delight.

The little path led us to some interesting places: we saw a chunk of stone carved like a leaf just stuck in the dirt; we saw a lone section of city wall; we saw a marble wall in the middle of nowhere with beautiful panels of carving, with an old wooden chair propped up against it; we saw huge snails and seed pods that looked like snail shells. We finally ended up following a very dubious-looking trail that led to the rear part of a very complete colonnaded walkway: we weren’t sure if Tatsi thought we were really cool for leaving the beaten path or absolutely crazy Canadians bushwhacking through the back forty of Aphrodesias. From there we looked at the well-preserved baths and the enormously grand theatre, which we had all to ourselves for about ten minutes. Steve and I had really good luck all through with getting spectacular ruins to ourselves.

At this point, Tatsi abandoned us to go on ahead, so I guess the verdict must have been ‘crazy’.

We went around the back of the theatre to more baths and more ruins, and a particularly charming kitty that followed up for quite a while, pausing to sit picturesque-ly on bits of broken ruin. I pulled a few ticks off his ears, which gave me the bug-induced willies, but it was for a good cause.

After more ruin-wandering, at which time Mr. Woof Woof returned and the cat sensibly left, we headed over to the stadium which was incredible: it had seated some 30,000 people to watch sporting events (athletic and gladiatorial) in relative comfort. There were designated seats, and guilds would have areas designated for them to sit as well. Barb and Sharon were politely chatted up by a tour guide who was taking a little break from giving a private tour to some Americans, proving correct their statements about being hit on by Turks of all walks. They had had some interesting experiences to say the least!

As we were getting close to time, we took a very quick look at Aphrodesias’ most famous ruin, that of the monumental gateway — the Tetrapylon of Trajan — that led pilgrims to the Temple of Aphrodite. It was beautifully restored, though somehow a little small after the Library of Celcus.

Passing yet more kitties and friezes, we found ourselves with a whole fifteen minutes in the Museum. Fortunately, that was all you really needed for a quick look at the Statues With Heads, if you passed over the majority of Statues Without Heads. We were able to get the tractor back to the parking lot only a few minutes late. Frankly, after the wonders we had seen, taking pictures of the sarcophagi didn’t seem so interesting.

In the parking lot, there were (surprise!) handicraft stalls selling trinkets, among which were some very sweet little whistles shaped like birds, much after the fashion of the whistles in the book ‘Birds Without Wings’ which I received for Christmas last year. We bought two, as they were very cheap and very cute.

Back on the bus, we had a little discussion about lunch, which is to say Barb and Sharon tried to explain to our driver (who had very little English) that they wanted to go to a cheap, village restaurant rather than a tourist place. As they had no Turkish, this involved a lot of them speaking clearly and loudly, and a lot of me looking up words in the phrasebook, like ‘inexpensive’ (which is ucuz, pronounced ‘oojooz’) and saying things like ‘lokanta’ which I already knew (restaurant).

He seemed to understand, and we drove off in the opposite direction from which we came. After a while, we came to a small town, where we pulled off the main road in front of a greasy spoon. Barb seemed a little dubious, but Sharon explained that the more quaint places were just for tourists, so we went in.

We were the only women in there, and definitely the only tourists, but it was full of locals which seemed like a good sign. The menu was a large piece of paper under the glass on the tables, which conveniently had pictures of each dish along with the Turkish name. We all had the special casserole except Tatsi, who had pide.

We taught Barb and Sharon the Turkish name for cherry juice, as they had also developed an addiction to vişne suyu. The vişne suyu was an unfamiliar brand (did you know the ubiquitous Cappy is made by Coke?) and came in glass bottles for the first time.  It was divine.

We were brought fresh, warm bread and the typical salad with lemon juice just before our casseroles arrived, boiling and sizzling in red-hot ceramic pots. After they had cooled enough to touch, we ate them with huge enjoyment – çok nefis indeed!

The casserole was followed by a sweet pastry covered in honey and halva – it was delicious too, but way too sweet for me. The driver explained in broken English and charades that the tea was free, from him. How nice! The total bill, each, for drinks, bread, salad, roasted green peppers, casserole, dessert and chai was a whole 10YTL each. We were very impressed with our driver’s lokanta selection, and told him so, as best each of us could.

We all paid the driver 30L each instead of the 25L fare, in order to give him a good tip. Back in Pamukkale by just after 4pm, we made arrangements with our newfound Ottowa-onians to meet at 7:30 for a light dinner or drinks, or something of that social sort.

Once back in the room, Steve and I settled down for a quick cuddle and chat before seeing the town (which we still hadn’t managed). Unfortunately, we both drifted off, and woke at 7:15, completely groggy and exhausted. We weren’t really in any mood for drinks, or dinner given the size of our lunch, but felt that our current course of action was more fitting for a pair of octenegarians than newlywed thirty-somethings.

We dragged ourselves down into the lounge, where Barb and Sharon turned up a few minutes later, and directed us to a small restaurant called ‘Mehmet’s Heaven’ which was certainly nice enough. We had some adequate (and not too filling) mezes, and Steve and I uncharacteristically got a bottle of local red to share between us. It was very drinkable to my palate, but quite dull to Steve’s, which is typical of our shared wine experience.

Conversation was very interesting: Barb works for Statscan and Sharon is a museum curator, and both are quite up on Canadian politics. Steve held his own in the discussion, but I was a little at sea, except when complaining about the high cost of real estate. Since our new friends were heading to Istanbul the next day, early, and were also flying out Monday, we tentatively arranged for the girls to go to a hammam (Turkish bath) in Istanbul, as I had been too chicken to go on my own. We also got the name and number of their hotel, as their rates seemed good and we had been waffling over what hotel to try and book at for several days.

More than a tiny bit tipsy, we left the restaurant after 11pm, said goodbye, and staggered gracefully down the road and into bed.

Turkey — Day Twenty-three — Selçuk & Tire to Pamukkale

Tuesday, October 30, 2007.

First chore of the day: stuffing every last purchase into an unsuspecting rolly suitcase.  That’s two, no THREE carpets, twelve or more pillow cases, a multitude of glass eyes, three little drums, a number of books including a hardback Koran, two red flag tshirts, a little jar of honey and god knows what else.  
The suitcase weighed quite a bit.  
As we wrestled sixty pounds of creaking, wheeled nylon box down one flight of stairs, we got our first glimpse of how incredibly stupid we were to attempt to haul all this sh*t home ourselves.  If it hadn’t been for that very prideful streak combined with an rancid teaspoon of Scots thriftiness we might have pleaded our case to Urdal or Nazmi and made arrangements to ship at least the big carpet home.  Needless to say, we didn’t, much to our intense dismay over the next five days.  
Breathing hard and a little flushed after the suitcase match (a draw, on points), we left the suitcase in the lobby of the Bella and hauled our sorry rumps back up the stairs for a last exquisite breakfast.  We were honestly not worried about leaving the behometh down in the lobby: not only did we have perfect faith in the Bella staff, but any poor thief would have had a paralyzing hernia before he got it out the door.  
It was a sad thought that we were leaving Selçuk, but we were also looking forward to the Tire market (Tee-ray, not what you drive on) that the Cliftons had raved about.
Thankful that we were leaving our red suitcase of death behind, we walked down the hill from the hotel, turned right and then crossed the street to the left just past where the market had been — ah, the otogar! Just where we were hoping it would be!
It was easy enough to find the Tire dolmuş; it was very conveniently labeled.  For just a few lira, we climbed aboard the empty dolmuş and had our pick of window seats. It seemed like a few seconds later that we saw familiar faces climbing on the bus — the Cliftons! They seemed happy enough to see us, though I suspect that they may have come to the conclusion that we were stalking them… 
The dolmuş crept out of Selçuk, taking every possible opportunity to dart across three lanes of traffic to pull over on the side of the highway to fit one more person in.  It left the main road and wandered around villages so tiny they didn’t have a name, picking up all kinds of people as it went.  It seemed that tourists got on in Selçuk and locals got on everywhere else.
We were glad enough to be popped out of the crush at the market in Tire.  With a small break for the little, clean bathroom by the mosque, we set off up the hill into the market proper.  Now this was an ethnic market!  Having read that Tire was known for its felt-makers, and having had such a lovely experience in Konya, we wandered around the lower part of the hill, looking for them.  
There were blacksmiths and saddlers and finally! felt makers.  Unlike the art creations made by Ikonium, these were practical items: saddle pads and slippers.  Not unlovely indeed, but not nearly as decorative as Ikonium.  We did find one decorative felt-maker but the items were just not up to Mehmet’s standard and we declined to buy.  I was actually very tempted by all the practical items I saw.  If I had but owned a horse (or even a larger dog), I would have gladly bought a bridle or two, or some of the blue-dyed leather collars. Perhaps a giant copper pot, lined with tin?  
The livestock area was a little sadder, though just as practical: droopy chickens in cages, panting goats leaning against a stone wall, and one resigned sheep.  The smell was of droppings and despair, but I couldn’t complain  — not given the quantity of tavuk and kuzu I had consumed over the past three weeks.  All things considered, I am much more comfortable with creatures that live a free-range life, spend an unhappy (but pain-free) day at the market, and then are killed and used in an atmosphere not redolent of the abattoir.  
We decided to climb the hill to see the older part of the market and to see what was around the corner.  This market was incredibly interesting!  I stopped at a few places to attempt to ask for the decorative metal skewers which had served our kuzu şiş at some restaurant or another.  Not only did I covet them myself, but they seemed like a good masculine gifts (Turkish girly gifts being readily available).  The only problem with this was that my trusty guidebook failed me on the matter of ‘skewer’.  The closest I could get was ‘fork’ or çatal, which I requested in several shops and stands.  I was met alternately with the UTS, a quizzical look, apologies (at not having the skewers or not being able to understand me, I’m not quite sure) and, in one case, a man who abruptly left his shop to return five minutes later with plain but serviceable skewers which I respectfully declined.
On a more positive note, I found some delightful chunks of olive oil soap which the man indicated to me was from local olives for something like a lira each, which seemed incredibly cheap.  Since we had run out of Olay, we needed some soap (especially given the non-deodorizing properties of the Turkish deodorant).  
The wonderful thing about the Tire market was that it was mostly there for the Turks, unlike the other markets we had seen, which were mostly for the tourists.  The upside was also its downside, however: if we lived in the area, we would have been buying food and soap and clothes and bridles and chickens and every other thing we saw.  Not living in the area meant there wasn’t too much that was practical for us to purchase and take home — the tourist’s dilemma, for sure.  Just walking around and up and down the streets was a magical experience, even if we left with surprisingly empty hands.  
Empty hands, maybe — empty stomachs, no way!  We found a little hole-in-the-wall which was selling what the L.P. reported to be Tire’s specialty.  It was a little awkward being the only non-Turks (and only non-man) in the shop, but everyone was friendly and a nice farmer got up and moved to a shared table so that Steve and I could sit alone at a table.  We stuffed ourselves on delish kebap and were pleased to see a Turkish couple come in and the woman sat beside me.  I wondered if my presence made it easier or harder for her to come in and eat?  
Emerging back onto the street, we watched the fish sellers for a while.  While most of the other merchants sat back on their haunches, quietly waiting for customers, the fish guys were LOUD.  They yelled at each other, threw fish at each other and every so often broke into song, the lyrics of which I would have given a pocketful of lira to understand.  Their stalls all had electric lightbulbs dangling above the piles of piscine… probably to make them look shinier and fresher, not that they looked (or smelled) bad in the slightest.  
We eventually tired of the fish show and decided to wander slowly down to the dolmuş station and catch our ride back to Selçuk as we knew our train left at five in the evening and it was almost two.  Ok, Steve wanted to get back to Selçuk asap; I wanted to look around and covet things some more. We managed not to spat and found ourselves at the dolmuş station intact.  After lazily inquiring where the Selçuk dolmuş was leaving from, we were surprised to be hustled down the hill and across the street where our intrepid guide threw himself in front of a white minivan to stop the bus.  It agreeably screeched to a halt and we clambered aboard, short of breath and temper, passed our money to the front and… stood.  
The dolmuş was so dolmuş-ed that I ended up sitting in the stairwell while Steve’s bum clung to half a seat at the back.  The reverse trip gradually sloughed passengers by ones and twos and we were both able to sit after not too long.  By the time we reached Selçuk we were even able to sit together, and we were all made up and happy again.  We stopped by the Van to say goodbye to Marco and his brother (who was pining for the German girl) and had a satisfactory short visit. Our happiness continued right up until the point where we walked back up to the Bella and reacquainted ourselves with our luggage — from this point forward to be known as the Red Suitcase From Hell (RSFH).  
Pulling only a few vital back muscles, we loaded our RSFH into the hotel’s minibus and then out again at the train station.  If it weren’t for the unforgiving burden, it would have been an easy ten-minute walk.  As it was, we were grateful all over again for the Bella’s free ride policy.  
Purchasing our train tickets to Denizli was completely straightforward.  We just walked up to the ticket window, asked for tickets and paid our what, 15 lira each?  It was very inexpensive and we were there only a half hour in advance.  It appeared that most tourists took the bus instead: the bus shaved an hour off the trip but cost a little more.  It wasn’t the price that was a factor: our last bus trip hadn’t been the most pleasant ever, especially compared to our last (and first) train trip.  We wanted to stay a little off the tourist trail and see a different slice of countryside.  Plus we like the pace of the trains in Turkey.  Very civilized!
This trip was not to change our mind — other than the disc-rupturing lift of the RSFH onto the train, the stowing it in the aisle (and hanging onto it the entire trip in order to have it not crush the person across the aisle on every slight corner), and the resigned (but not unfriendly) looks of the people who had to squeeze past it in the aisle, it was all very civilized!  
We were able to buy snacks and drinks for cheap and we chatted a bit with a pair of Korean girls who hadn’t made any arrangements for somewhere to sleep or how to get from Denizli, where the train ended, to Pamukkale, where they wanted to stay.  We had been thinking of following in Bill & Nancy’s footsteps once again, but the people at the Bella had recommended the Venus Hotel in Pamukkale and in fact had called ahead to make us reservations for two nights and arranged for the Venus people to pick us up in Denizli.  Since the L.P. concurred that it was a nice, pink, and apparently romantic place to stay, we were game.  
The train pulled in just after ten at night and we were greeted right away when we hauled our RSFH off the train (off is easier than on!) by an older Turkish couple who identified themselves as being from the Venus.  They helped us schlep our crap out to the parking lot, followed nervously by the two Korean girls.  They were suspicious that the kind offer of the Venus people to give them a lift to Pamukkale came with strings, and Steve and I acted as translators as we were most fluent in the only common language.  
Satisfied at last, the Koreans followed the four of us out to a tiny sedan with a tiny trunk.  Apparently the only strings were to be the straps from my backpack straps which I used to tie my precariously-lodged pack to the hinges of the open, stuffed trunk, which the Turkish mum thought was very ingenious.  The mum sat in the front, with at least two backpacks and a suitcase in her lap, and the four tourists crammed into the back, with one Korean on the other’s lap.  It was insane.  Seatbelts were a joke.  The Turks looked very entertained, and indeed it was nothing short of hilarious, at least until the top Korean started looking a little green around the edges.  
Fortunately, it only took some fifteen minutes to get to Pamukkale, and nothing drastic or messy happened.  We popped out of the little car in front of a very sweet looking hotel with an arbor-ed terrace and an empty pool.  It was right across the street from the Melrose Allgau Hotel, which had been our other choice.  The Koreans were invited to go find the hotel of their choice but they sensibly opted to check in at the Venus.  
We were greeted by several large golden retrievers (it seemed like dozens) and the owners, Ibrahim and Karen, a young couple — she’s Australian — who were about our age and incredibly nice.  The hotel was lovely, with fresh tiles, paint and an open airy room with a spotless bathroom and distant view of the travertines, lit up in the night.  We asked for a restaurant recommendation as the snacks on the train were no substitute for a real dinner.  Ibrahim’s mum, who was part of the collection party, made it clear that she was ready, willing and able to make us some dinner instead.  It was late and we agreed eagerly, which was a very good thing — the casserole was delicious.  
We were absolutely beat and so were only enticed to chat with the other guests (Germans), Ibrahim, Karen and Ibrahim’s brother (?) for an hour or so before we hauled ourselves into our comfy bed and fell fast asleep. 

Turkey – Day Twenty-two – Selçuk (Isa Bey Camii)

Oct 29, Monday. Selçuk. Still.

We woke up in a leisurely fashion, with no firm plans. Well, we had one firm plan — to stay in Selçuk. When we were up and dressed, our first mission was to find either Erdal or Nazmi and make arrangements to stay another night.

We had decided to stay in Selçuk and visit the market in Tire (pronounced Tee-ray) on Tuesday, rather than rush back to Istanbul Wednesday night in order to make it to a Thursday market in one of the neighbourhoods outside Sultanahmet. That meant we could push our departure to Pamukkale to Tuesday afternoon after Tire and then leave Pamukkale via the night train (Pamukkale Expresi) on Thursday night and then arrive in Istanbul Friday morning. This also gave us an extra day in Selçuk, which made us very happy.

It was no surprise that the Hotel Bella were able to accommodate us another night; we didn’t even have to change rooms. Actually, when Erdal had found out that we were there on our honeymoon, he had offered to have us change to a ‘nicer’ room on the third night, when the ‘nice’ room freed up. We were blissfully happy in our slightly-less-nice room and all moved in, so we declined to be moved (though the thought was very nice). It was also going to be okay for us to leave our bags behind the desk while we marketed, and then we’d be given a ride to the train station.

Up at breakfast, relieved, we were sorry to see most of our new hotel friends, including Linda, getting ready to leave… breakfast was delicious, as usual.

Steve was feeling a bit headachy and the hotel was doing our laundry, so I volunteered to go get Steve a shirt from the town while he rested, which would also ensure that every scrap of clothing could be washed. I walked down through the fresh morning streets to the little store owned by the Tat Cafe guy and looked at tshirts. I had liked the idea of the bright red one with the Turkey flag on it, especially as today was ‘National Day’ (a patriotic holiday mostly marked by school children marching and singing). I found two tshirts in a reasonable size and was charged some ten lira each for them. That’s much cheaper than a touristy tshirt in Canada. I was ok with the price and didn’t bother haggling… especially as the owner had bitched at me the other day about tourists trying to haggle over every little thing when the markup was actually tiny.

On my way back to the hotel, I was hailed by a young man sitting outside a carpet store. I greeted him in return and he asked me a question, which I answered, and before I knew it, I was having a very interesting conversation with Marco (whose real name is Yıldız), owner of the Van Carpet Store in Selçuk. We ended up having a really interesting conversation about tourism and the effects of all-in-one resorts and hotels on small towns. He had asked if we had bought a carpet and I said yes, and he asked if it was at the hotel. When I confirmed yes, again, he told me in a very straightforward manner — not accusatory, whining or trying to get me to buy a carpet — that the hotels that are all-in-one don’t really do tourists very well in the long run.

Basically, Marco’s argument was that when a hotel puts you up, feeds you and sells you a carpet, you have dumped all your tourist wealth in one place. Sure, the owners of that hotel do really well, but what about the cafe down the street? Or the carpet shop around the corner? If they can’t make it because all the tourists spend their money in the hotels, then they close up shop, and the town has a different flavour — not prosperous and happy, but poor and desperate — and then the tourists just won’t come because there isn’t anything to see. Then both the original hotel owners plus everyone else is out of business. Marco said that of all the thousands of cruise ship tourists that come into Kuşadası and come through to Ephesus and sometimes Şirince, not one stops in Selçuk. 

If every tourist who got off a boat in Kuşadası stopped in Selçuk for a glass of water, everyone in town would be just fine, but they don’t — they go to the hotel, they eat there, they buy their tours there, they buy their carpets there, and all they do is look at the picturesque little towns and little shops and they don’t buy anything in them. What could I do but agree? I can’t even recall where the conversation went from there — I remember saying I had to get back to my husband, waiting at the aforementioned hotel — but then we’d find something else interesting to talk about. We talked about Turkey, and Canada, and carpets, and Lake Van where he was from (v is pronounced w). We talked about the Kurds (as he is Kurdish), and Iraq, Bush and American tourists. It was all very interesting and I was genuinely sorry that we had already bought our carpet.

After an hour or more, I tore myself away, promising to come and bring my husband, whom Marco was keen to meet.

I ran back to the hotel, which was only a half block away, and found Steve not quite fuming at my lateness. Nazmi had been keeping him entertained and Steve had made the payment for our carpet and hotel stay, emptying his pockets in doing so. Steve felt a little conspicuous wearing a bright red Turkey-flag, but decided to cope rather than go out naked. Good choice, Steve!

By this time, it was just about lunchtime, and in the spirit of spreading the tourist wealth, we decided to head into the centre of town and try and find the sandwich place the Cliftons had raved about. They had said it was near an area with stairs, on the side closest to the hill with the castle on it. We found the area with stairs — a little plaza lined with restaurants and a few stairs at each end. We were casting around for the correct restaurant, dodging restauranteurs trying to thrust menus into our hands, when we heard our names being called out over the din.

There is nothing more startling than having your name called out in a foreign country where you have no expectation of knowing anyone or being known. It’s a wonder we even answered to our names at that point, but we obligingly turned around and saw the Cliftons madly waving at us from tables set along the edge of the plaza. We walked on over and Mrs. Clifton was so pleased that we were looking for the restaurant she had recommended. We were so pleased she was there to point out the correct restaurant! They and their guests were just about to leave, so we ordered the sandwiches and snagged their table and their little kedi entourage that was busy begging for scraps. They were also going to the Tire market on the Tuesday, so said we might see them again there. We’d be glad to see them anytime, they were so friendly and helpful, even to the point of offering us a place to stay in Oxford, or the loan of their Greek house the next time we were in Selçuk. So nice!

The sandwiches, when they arrived, were quite startling unto themselves, but, like the Cliftons, in a very good way indeed! I had ordered the special: salami, onions, cheese and an egg (I declined the ubiquitous hot pepper); Steve had got the special without egg and with hot pepper. We hadn’t seen Turkish panini before now, and too bad we hadn’t. It was easily the best panini I’d ever had, which isn’t much of a stretch as I haven’t had many. It was also the best panini Steve’s ever had and that man knows a panini!  It was hard but I managed to eat most of it myself: only a few bits of egg and salami were offered to and wolfed down by the kitties.

During lunch, we had chatted a bit about Marco and other pressing things, like Tracy’s souvenir. Back in September, I bought this very laptop, and gave my parents a few post-dated cheques to pay off the last of it. Tracy had opted to tear up the October cheque in exchange for us getting her something of the same value that was inherently Turkish — she didn’t care what, exactly, but it had to be Turkish and over and above the birthday and Christmas presents she would already be getting. In order to carefully choose the best souvenir for her, we had considered and rejected most of what we’d seen: a vase or pottery was too fragile and not practical enough; jewellery (even Turquoise, her birthstone comes from… guess where — Turkoise) was too personal; a leather coat too subjective and impractical; a nargileh too addictive — you get the picture. We had been thinking textiles, as there were beautiful embroidered bedspreads and pillows and all manner of things, but we had shied away from a carpet, thinking it was too subjective a taste to buy for someone else.

After the conversation with Marco, I felt a a desire to support additional businesses in the town, and ultimately we decided that as everything was ‘too subjective’, our best bet was to buy something beautiful and practical, and use our best judgement in getting something that would appeal to Tracy. As a carpet is both beautiful and practical, it was actually a good bet.

We walked back to the carpet shop and were about to tell Marco what the plan was, when we saw what was spread out on the floor… silk carpets! Like kilim, flat woven, but made of SILK. They were simply amazingly stunningly beautiful. Marco explained that his family went and bought carpets around the Van area of southeastern Turkey, and then they shipped them to him. He would pick out the best quality ones and then sell the rest on to other carpet stores (yeah, no doubt everyone says this, but he seemed genuine). Steve was totally taken with one of the silk carpets, but it was easily a grand over our initial carpet budget. Fortunately, drool washes quite easily out of carpets… next time we get one of those!

Hanging out with Marco, his brother and his younger cousin was a hoot. We chatted and drank stupid amounts of tea, and admired carpet after carpet. For both practicality and beauty and value for our lira, we decided a kilim was the way to go. We looked at about thirty as I tried to picture each and every one in the front room of the Kaslo house. Finally we found the perfect one, and I took that as a sign to take a break and go to the tuvalet, which was located in the very back of the shop.

On my way back from the bathroom, I glanced up on the wall and saw the most wonderful kilim I’d seen in our entire time in Turkey — on a black background, it was covered in little woven animals of every description! Goats and swans and camels and kedi (some even had stripes!) and bugs and all kinds of lovely things. When I admired it, Marco said that it was one of the ones his dad had brought him and he liked it so much he stapled it to the wrong side of a pillar where tourists would be unlikely to see it… apparently it had been up there, unmolested, for three years. I kept going back to it, but there was no way we could afford it as Marco wasn’t really into haggling for it, since he didn’t mind keeping it. Still, other than the fantastically expensive silk carpets, it was my most favourite-est thing in the store. This kilim was from the Van area, which is near Mount Ararat, where the hulk of Noah’s ark is said to lie. The pattern with pairs of every animal, is traditional to the Van area, and is called a Noah’s Ark pattern. It was a marvelous thing, and I wanted it very, very badly.

Finally, Marco said that he was ready to let it go, and reduced his price to where we could only just barely afford it within the confines of our carpet budget. Steve even offered to put my Christmas-present-budget towards it, but I hoped that wouldn’t be necessary… it pretty much ate up the money we had been keeping back to buy a piece of ceramic with, but we both decided that this was a) more beautiful, b) more unique and c) more practical than pottery, especially in the ‘getting it home’ aspect. As Marco was picking staples out of the kilim, his brother walked in and was genuinely surprised that Marco had agreed to sell the carpet and confirmed his story that he’d deliberately hidden it for the better part of three years. We hadn’t really doubted Marco, but one does wonder in a carpet store if one is being fed a line to make the item more desirable.

When given the shipping options, we again said that we’d take the carpets with us rather than having them shipped… which was again a stupid, stupid mistake.

In any case, replete with carpet, we decided to head out for some more sightseeing in town, but we promised Marco we would come back that evening to have some more tea and play backgammon.

After dropping off our carpet in our room at the Bella, where we felt only a tiny bit guilty telling Urdal that we had purchased a carpet somewhere else (though he seemed mollified that it was only a kilim), we walked up and over the hill to the Isa Bey Camii, which we had peered into from the heights of St. John’s Basilica only a few days before.

The exterior of the mosque was very lovely and peaceful and the inside of the courtyard even more so. Apparently it’s quite unusual for a mosque to have a courtyard, which is a shame, as this was so wonderful and serene. The little pool with spigots and wooden sandals was almost more magnificent than the marble and gilt fountains of the Blue Mosque, and more venerable in its simplicity. We walked the inside of the walls, seeing the occasional carved block of stone that must have been pilfered from the ruins of the Basilica. There were several plane trees, which I can only imagine are called that because they look just like the woodworking tool, even to the graceful sweep where one’s palm would rest.

Eventually, a troop of French tourists came in with a guide, and they all gathered around the entrance. We thought we’d take the opportunity to go in with them, as we knew the mosque must be open for visitors at this time. As the tourists (funny how we didn’t think of ourselves as tourists!) put on scarves over their shorts and tank tops, I slipped my red scarf up over my head and we took our shoes off outside the door and came in. We felt quite proper and rather like old hats of the mosque-visiting variety… right up until the moment I walked up to the man wearing a black suit and asked for “iki billeti, lutfen.” The imam gently explained in halting English that you didn’t buy tickets to see a mosque, at which I just about died of acute embarrassment.

I apologized over and over, but the imam very graciously waved off my apology and added that I didn’t have to wear a headscarf or take off my shoes outside the door; in fact we only had to take off our shoes if we wanted to walk on the carpets. However, we very much did want to walk on the carpets, and stepped off the marble foyer onto the most amazing assortment of carpets. As we walked reverently around, the Imam explained that when they restored the mosque in the 1970’s, they put a call out to the townspeople of Selçuk to donate carpets for the floor. The townspeople sure pulled through, as there was a most interesting and motley assortment of carpets all over the floor: no acres of broadloom here, instead there were carpets of lurid greens beside a cream with the lustre of silk, shiny nylon next to glossy wool, fresh dyes next to carpets with perfect wear marks (here knees, there a lesser imprint of devoted forehead).

After the French left in a flurry of removed headscarves and “au revoirs” we walked around again, enjoying the tranquility and chatting with Mustapha, the imam, who showed us pictures from a photo album of the mosque in disrepair and dis-roof. He had been imam since it was opened and was now past fifty (though he looked not much older than us). When we asked if we could give a donation, Mustapha advised that we could buy a book from his little display, and the proceeds would go to the upkeep of the Isa Bey. We picked out a Qu’uran, as we had wanted to buy one in Turkey anyway. He also picked out a card, and wrote our names on it in beautiful arabic script, with the date, the location (Selçuk), and a blessing. He gave it to us to tuck into our Qu’uran, making it clear that this was a gift (even though we suspected he usually charged for such things).  An even better gift was his invitation to return in the evening, before evening prayers, as the the lights would be turned on and we would be able to see the interior more clearly than in the slight gloom.

Since we now had somewhere to be at 6:25pm, as evening prayers would be about 6:40pm, we thought we’d make the most of the last of the afternoon by taking a quick look at what was once one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Getting to the leftovers of the Temple of Artemis took us straight out of the Isa Bey and down the street away from the Hotel Bella. We walked down the back street, past gates that were once painted bright colours, and a whole pack of kedi eating fish skeletons that were being thrown onto the cobblestones from a busy looking restaurant. When we reached the busy road that would have led to Ephesus, we turned right and walked down a beautiful avenue, under broad-branched trees. It was a little less serene when we walked past an army outpost with guards armed with machine guns… still not used to that!

We also passed some funny metal scuplture-y looking things that turned out to be public exercise machines. Weird!

A short walk later, we passed the entrance to the Temple of Artemis, and didn’t even notice. In our defense, it’s not very spectacular. At all. When we realized our error and backtracked the few metres to the entrance, we simply walked down the grassy road which was littered with broken glass and garbage, to the very uninspiring Post of Artemis. All that was left was a green space that showed a vaguely rectangular, sunken form, with one lone pillar that was more than half concrete. Obviously the Temple’s stone had been looted in order to make other spectacular structures: the Basilica of St. John, the Citadel overlooking the town, and even our most beloved Isa Bey Camii. In some ways it was a shame, and in other ways understandable. The only regret I had was walking all that way to look at the Big Boring Post of Artemis.

We walked back into the town centre for dinner, which we found at the (L.P.) recommended ‘Old House’ restaurant. We ate in a beautiful little courtyard filled with orange trees which were full of crows. It being the gloaming-time, the crows were flocking, and apparently they were flocking in town, rather than up at the Basilica. In any case, the food was excellent, tasty and filling, and we had a floor show in the form of the restauranteur madly shaking the crows out of his trees.

Since we had an hour to kill before our date with the imam, we stopped by a random store and bought a bright red, not-too-flimsy suitcase to carry our treasures to Pammukale the next day. We also stopped by and saw Marco again. He was sitting on pillows out front of the carpet store with his brother, who was making big kuzu eyes at a very pretty blonde German girl called Marlena and playing backgammon.

We hung out for a bit before dropping our suitcase at the hotel and walking back up over the hill to the Isa Bey, where we were greeted warmly by Mustapha, and shown into the lovely, lovely mosque. Mustapha Bey was right: it was even nicer with the lights on and we were able to take lots of photos of the vivid carpets and the timber-arched ceiling. I realized a few minutes into our visit that I hadn’t pulled my headscarf up; I immediately did so, apologizing and embarrassed again, and Mustpaha reached over to touch my chest over my heart and said “it’s ok. Allah knows.” Allah knew what? that I was contrite? That I’m not Muslim? That my intention was to be respectful but my memory prevented me? It didn’t matter; I felt comforted and honoured at the same time.

As the amplified sounds of the muzzein drifted in from a distant minaret, Steve and I started walking to the door. Mustapha stopped us with a raised hand and told us that Isa Bey wasn’t a major mosque and only three men had come to pray that night, and further, he had spoken to the men and they had agreed that we could stay. Pardon me? We had never spoken to a tourist who was invited to listen to prayers inside a mosque before. We weren’t quite sure if Mustapaha said we could take photos or not, so we sat and leaned against a pillar, cameras at our side, and listened to the singing of the sura. The prayers were sung by an older man in a white coat, and it was beautiful: heart-breakingly, jaw droppingly, indescribably, life-changingly beautiful. The singing and the refrain, the practiced grace of the men as they bent and knelt to pray, the echoes ringing from high on the venerable stone walls: magical.

We felt incredibly privileged to be present in that place at that time.

After the prayers were done, Mustapha introduced us to the man who sang the sura: he was a retired imam, the most famous in those parts, and he had sung a specific sura about Mary and Joseph because we, newlyweds, were present. Mustapha marked in our Qu’uran the passage that was sung for us.  If we could have felt more honoured in that moment, we would have been, but we were full to the brim with acknowledgement of our good fortune.

Walking back over the little hill to town, we couldn’t stop talking about our experience at the Isa Bey. Why us? What did we do to deserve such a special experience? I recalled Mustapha reaching out a finger to Steve’s Turkey shirt and saying he liked it… but surely a tshirt wouldn’t have been the reason? I asked for tickets, which was pretty gauche, but I apologized, which might have redeemed us? We took off our shoes, we brought our own headscarf… maybe it was simply that he knew that Allah knew that we’d be receptive and reverent in that moment. Whatever the reason, we felt very blessed.

The night was yet early, and we were wired after our experience, so we headed back to the carpet shop where we sat on the carpets at the front of the store and watched Marco’s brother let Marlena win at backgammon. We were joined by a pack of American tourists — missionaries, actually — who were VERY low key and respectful. We half-jokingly offered them some of our Canadian flag pins to attach to their lapels, but they declined. Most Turks recognize that an American who is traveling in Turkey, especially independent travel, didn’t vote for Bush, and are respectful in turn.  

Mind you, I couldn’t tell you the Turkish words for “where are you from” but by the second week I knew exactly when they were being spoken to me: sometimes in a friendly fashion, sometimes curious, sometimes a little hostile.  Whenever I replied “Kanada”, the expressions (no matter what they had started as) turned happy and I would be patted on the shoulder, smiled at, and treated to a flood of incomprehensible Turkish.  I’m not sure how happy I would have been having to say “USA” in response to that question.  

The conversation over tea and sweets was a fascinating mix of polite small-talk and very intellectual discourse on the nature of travel, the benefits of independent ‘culture’ travel, terrorism and sovereignty. With the US having decreed that Turkey should not go into northern Iraq to go after the PKK, and Turkey (understandably) ignoring them, sitting with a few Kurdish men, a German, and some Americans made for a lively and well-considered conversation. 

We felt very much at home with this group of people, and honestly felt as though we made some fast friends at the Van carpet shop.  Marco told us that the next time we came to Turkey, we must go to Lake Van and stay with his family. He even offered us one of his mother’s Van cats, the white ones with one blue eye and one green eye. I actually think they’re considered a cultural artifact and not eligible for export, but it was kind of him to offer!

At one point, a drunk man stood in the square yelling something in Turkish, and Marco’s brother stood up and yelled back at him: I didn’t understand the words but the message was clear: f*ck off! We realized it was the first time we had seen a drunk person in Turkey. Marco’s brother explained that in Turkey, if someone has a ‘problem’ like that, their family would take care of them and you wouldn’t really see it in public. Someone who has no family, or doesn’t have the support of their family, is considered more abhorrent than just a drunk. Interesting!

In order to give his brother a chance with the pretty Marlena, Marco did a slightly spooky trick on her which he called the ‘magic carpet’. She was a good sport, but the brother didn’t really have a chance, even after they fumbled through a Kurdish folk dance to some rather awful Kurdish pop on the radio, and even though he was cute.   It was late when we said our goodbyes, promised to visit again, and walked back to the hotel.

Back at the Bella, I went to our room to get the computer before joining Steve on the terrace, where I found him with a sleepy-eyed Nazmi, smoking a large and rather wonderful nargileh (hookah). The smell of the smoke was divine, and when pressed for the second time to take a puff, I relented and, for the first time in my life, put lips to smoking-device. Yes, that’s right — the first time. I thought Steve was going to fall right off the divan in shock, but when in Turkey… it was surprisingly nice and I didn’t even cough up a lung. Actually, it was VERY nice and I immediately suggested to Steve that we should buy a nargileh to take home. He took one look at me and absolutely refused, which is probably for the best as apparently I was promptly addicted. Maybe it was the chocolate-apricot flavoured tobacco, or the romantic Orient-Express-ness of it all, or having had a sura sung to us in the Isa Bey, but sitting on a rooftop terrace in front of a fireplace smoking a nargileh felt like the perfect end to a superlative day.