Monday, 25 November 2013

Cappadocia - a Magical, Ancient Land

Salt lake -Toz Golu
Whenever I mentioned I was going to Turkey to someone who had been there, their first question was always "Are you going to Cappadocia?" It was obvious that this was a special place so not only were my expectations high but a buzz of excitement was building in our whole group as we journeyed there from Ankara.   Most of the four hour trip was through flat, brown, dusty countryside which looked barren but nevertheless boasted extensive crops of sunflowers, squash and grapes interspersed with very occasional small herds of cows and even smaller flocks of goats and sheep.  We had a brief stop for lunch at the vast salt lake, Tuz Golu, dazzling in the sun,  where you can dig a small hole and bathe your feet in damp salt.  It is thought to be highly therapeutic. Then it was on to Cappadocia arriving  late in the day.


Well, once I was there I knew what those previous visitors had been talking about.  This magical and surreal landscape is the result of major volcanic activity 30 million years ago.  The vast deposits of ash covered 4000square kilometres and formed into tufa, a soft rock, which has gradually eroded  to create strange, sometimes phallic, shapes which are more politely called "fairy chimneys".  Over the centuries people have carved and shaped them into dwellings, churches and even underground cities.   Cappadocia is, quite simply, spectacular,  the stuff of fairy tales and legends and I was thrilled by it and looking forward to exploring it.

Drinks on the terrace overlooked by cave dwellings

Our accommodation was in Surban Hotel, a lovely stone building, lavishly decorated with Turkish rugs and antique artifacts  in the village of Urgup.  Pre-dinner drinks on the roof terrace in a golden setting sun, overlooked by cave dwellings and interesting rock formations was spell-binding.

 Breakfast was memorable too.  Served in the cave-like basement of the hotel the buffet boasted large bowls of thick syrupy plums, cherries, liquid golden honey and yogurt.  Absolutely delicious - so good that now just writing about it makes me drool.

Koray - guide par excellence

 After breakfast we met Koray, our guide for the next couple of days,  a flamboyant, happy, hippy character with flaming red hair.  He was brilliant, full of knowledge, passion, enthusiasm and bubbling with joie de vivre.  He took us off to explore the wonders of Cappadocia, stopping at vantage points and climbing up one of the highest formations known as The Castle to get panoramic views of the whole region.

Cappadocia - view from The Castle, the highest rock formation
  A leisurely stroll down through the nearby village took us to the Pigeon Valley for a hike along the valley floor. It is a narrow chasm winding between dramatic cliffs with cave dwellings and pigeon houses carved into them. It is also lush and fertile with abundant crops of fruit and nut trees and vegetables growing in every nook and cranny. 
Hasan makes tea for us, Pigeon Valley

About half way through the walk we came upon a humble tea house belonging to Hasan an extroverted, and welcoming elderly man who offered us tea  for a tip.  He entertained us with a quiz and awarded everyone a prize, giving the best prize to my friend Hilary who guessed his age as 24....he looked to be mid 70s.  Fun, laughter and a pleasant respite from the heat.

A comical looking cave dwelling

In the Pigeon Valley

Lunch in Goreme at a 400 year old family run restaurant (it has belonged to the same family all that time) was healthy, tasty  mezze and then it was on to the Outdoor Museum.
Mezze for lunch

Inside a Byzantine cave church at the Outdoor Museum

Byzantine frescoes

This was an important Byzantine monastic settlement carved into the tufa and reaching up the side of a hill. Although there are scores of refectory monasteries in the region the Outdoor Museum contains eleven dating from the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries. The cool cave dwellings contain long tables and seats carved from the tufa and adjoin the chapels, some of which still bear their original frescoes.  The two best, and most complete, examples are the Dark Chapel and the Blue Chapel. It is interesting to note that St Paul set up the first Christian colony in Cappadocia after his expulsion from Jerusalem.  The Outdoor Museum is a UNESCO World Heritage site, is fascinating and  deserving of  a 2 hour visit, at least.

View from a cave church - Outdoor Museum

With my rug purchase

 It was a big day but there was more to come.  Firstly we visited a carpet studio where we saw a demonstration of Turkish dyeing and weaving techniques and had the opportunity to buy rugs woven there.  I had decided I would not buy a rug in Turkey but when I saw them my resolve crumbled and I came away with a small but beautiful rug, a perfect souvenir of Cappadocia .

Whirling Dervish dance

In the evening we were taken to a very touristy dance performance.  This is the type of thing I hate - bus loads of tourists packed into a venue, great platters of food placed in front of you and self conscious "traditional dances" performed before the hordes troop back to their buses and home. All far too contrived and commercial for my liking and this was precisely that but it had two redeeming features.  Firstly we got to see the Whirling Dervish performance.  This was interesting in that the whirling is actually only a small part of the ritual.  Most of the time is taken up with slow meditative walking and much bowing to one another.  The whirling, though, was really something to see.  The other good part of the night was unseen by most of the guests but something I was lucky enough to participate in.  The dancers performed a mock wedding ceremony and as part of that led a congo line of guests, a la the Pied Piper of Hamlin,  me included, right out of the restaurant and into a courtyard where there was a huge bonfire.  There they performed traditional village dances around the  blazing fire while we joined in.  It was joyous and I loved it.  Eventually we returned to the restaurant to re-join all the other rather bemused guests who had been wondering where we had gone. 

So what did I think of Cappadocia so far?  It was everything that I'd hoped for and more.  This ancient, unique, biblical land is indeed magical.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Ankara - Turkey's capital city

From the air Ankara doesn't look appealing.  This ancient Anatolian city, now home to 4 and a half
million people, is set in a parched and dusty landscape and scarred by rows and rows of identical apartment blocks.  My guide book tells me that it was previously known as Angora and is famous for Angora goats, cats and rabbits and for pear, honey and muscat grape production. It also tells me that this city, dating back to the Hittite period, around 1200BC, was chosen by  Ataturk, as the capital after the War of Independence, and that it  is a lively, intellectual, cosmopolitan city with a strong student culture.  Ok, I thought, I'll reserve my judgement until I've had a proper look at it but, unfortunately, once on the ground my opinion didn't change.  It still looked unappealing.  My diary notes that I found it congested and ugly.  I later realised this was a bit harsh, Ankara contains wonderful treasures well worth visiting the city to see.

But before viewing the attractions we needed to eat. I love going to local restaurants overseas, the type of place that local families frequent, and this is what we did the night we arrived.  It was interesting in that the restaurant seemed to have a segregation code - men downstairs, women and families upstairs. Our meals were huge, tasty and very cheap and the proprietor made a big fuss of us bringing complimentary pickles and other dishes.

Ankara Kalesi, The Citadel
By morning we were wondering if anybody ever sleeps in Ankara. Traffic and shouted conversations
from the street below kept us awake all night and then, at 5.15am, the Mullah from the nearby mosque made his call to prayer.  There was no need for a wake up call, we were already up,  breakfasted and off  up the hill to the old part of Ankara, Ankara Kalesi, the Citadel.  Still lived in and operating as a self contained village and boasting some lovely Ottoman architecture the walled citadel was founded by the Galatians, completed by the Romans and extended by the Byzantine Emperor, Michael II in the 9th century.  It is a charming part of the city with wide views, thick walls and quaint winding streets which we enjoyed strolling, greeting  locals along the way, before stopping to make purchases at the Citadel nut and spice market.

Left:  Lovely Ottoman buildings inside the Citadel

Right: Residents of the Citadel live a very traditional lifestyle
Garden at Museum of Anatolian Civilisations
The nearby Museum of Anatolian Civilisations is a stunner. Located inside a 15th century marketplace with wonderful domed ceilings it displays artifacts from Anatolian  civilisations through the ages, right back to Palaeolithic times.  I stood entranced before display cases of jewellery and household utensils dating back to the very earliest period of settlement and marvelled at glass objects still intact after 2000 years, and at how sophisticated household items were and  how little the design of these objects has changed over the centuries.  We were very  lucky, the museum was quiet and we could take our time.  If you are in Ankara, this is a "must do".

Genclik Caddesi, Ataturk's mausoleum
Another absolute "must do" is Genclik Caddesi, Ataturk's Mausoleum and Museum.  In keeping
with the reverence and high esteem Ataturk is held in by the Turkish people this is monumental in every sense of the word.  Sited in a vast square surrounded by colonnades the entry itself is impressive. The walkway in is 260 metres long and is lined with statues of lions, the Hittite symbol of power and strength.   Ataturk's tomb is encased in a 40 tonne slab of marble sited with a view overlooking his beloved city in a mausoleum which is colossal, austere and peaceful. 

Beneath the mausoleum is a museum chronicling the War of Independence.  I found it engrossing and learnt a lot as my school days knowledge of Turkish history was sketchy, to say the least.

Upstairs is an exhibition displaying Ataturk memorabilia including photos, clothes, his personal extensive library, including books he wrote, and even a reconstruction of his home office. The whole complex is a pilgrimage site for Turkish people and deserves a visit of at least a couple of hours.  Hint:  Go early, as we did,  to avoid the crowds and school groups.

So, to sum up, modern Ankara is not the prettiest of cities  but well worth a visit for its rich history, its significance as a symbol of Turkey's independence and the special treasures housed in its museums.  As the saying goes "Don't judge a book by its cover".


Sunday, 10 November 2013

Istanbul - Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace and a cruise on the Bosphorus

View of Hagia Sophia from the gallery

Fortified by lunch we continued our sightseeing walk by crossing the square opposite the Sultan Ahmed Mosque to Hagia Sophia (Divine Wisdom). This magnificent landmark building was built in 537 as a Roman Catholic cathedral before being converted to a Greek Orthodox cathedral when the Greek church split from Rome It had another period as a Roman Catholic cathedral before,becoming a Mosque in 1453.  It remained a mosque until 1931 and is now a deconsecrated museum.  For 1000 years it was the largest cathedral in the world and is considered to be one of the best surviving examples of Byzantine architecture.  The interior is decorated with marble pillars and glorious Byzantine mosaics, many of which were plastered over during its Islamic period but have now been, once again, revealed.  A vast dome dominates the interior and to get the best views of the inside it is worth climbing up the steep cobble stone interior ramps to get to the gallery. It is an awesome place, in the true sense of the world, with a fascinating history.

Hagia Sophia

Byzantine mosaic in Hagia Sophia

Inside Topkapi Palace

The nearby Topkapi Palace was the main residence of the Ottoman Sultans from 1465 until 1856 when they moved to Dolmabahce Palace on the shores of the Bosphorus.  It is a Unesco World Heritage site and is described as "The best example of palaces of the Ottoman period".  In its heyday it was home to over 4000 people in what was a walled city spreading over many acres on a headland with wonderful views out to sea. It consists of large courtyards surrounded by multiple buildings, some of which are now treasure galleries housing collections of eye popping jewels, porcelain, weapons, manuscripts and clothes plus holy Islamic relics, including Mohammed's cloak and sword.  I loved the clothes gallery, goodness those Sultans must have been absolutely huge, judging by the size of the clothes!  I also loved the stunning tiling inside the buildings. We didn't go into the Harem, which cost extra and by late afternoon we were all too tired to bother.  Hint:  Get to Topkapi early and go to the treasure galleries first to avoid the crowds. We queued to get into the galleries but found strolling the other buildings easy and un-crowded.

Well, what a day, so much seen, so much to take in...all fantastic and made so much more interesting by our eloquent Turkish guide who explained everything clearly. 

Lamps hanging in Hotel Kybele

Our evening meal was on the rooftop terrace of the delightfully quirky Hotel Kybele.  I fell in love with Turkish lamps at the Kybele where literally hundreds, of all different shapes and colours, hang from its ceilings.

Dolmabahce Palace

Next morning a 20 minute walk  took us to the waterfront and our own chartered  boat for a cruise on the Bosphorus.  It was a gloriously warm, sunny day and pleasantly relaxing  lounging on large Turkish cushions watching Istanbul's European waterfront slip by.  We passed luxury waterfront hotels and expensive homes and then the delicate and exquisite  Dolmabahce Palace before landing beside the large stone Fort of Rumeli.  This was built in 1451, in an astonishingly short 4 months, to protect the inner harbour of Istanbul.  It eventually became a prison and then fell into disrepair but is now largely restored and provides stunning views out to the Golden Horn and down the harbour.  We climbed up the steep, perilous, unrailed  staircases to the top of the walls to take in the views and then, of course, had to clamber down again which was nerve wracking, to say the least.

Fort of Rumeli

Back on the boat again and we were off to the Asian side of Istanbul.  It was fascinating to be in a city which is divided into European and Asian sides although there is little to show any difference. 

We stopped at a picturesque fishing village for lunch where we bought luscious peaches, plums, goats cheese and bread rolls  which we ate sitting on the sea wall while watching fishermen mending their nets.  I wanted to make a note of the name of the village and seeing a sign carefully wrote it in my diary.  Later that day I asked our hotel owner if he knew it,  he laughed and told me that what I had written down was "Ferry Landing"

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Istanbul - Sightseeing

The beauty of staying in Sultanhamet is that  the key historic attractions in Istanbul are mainly within walking distance.  After the ear splitting 5.30am wake up call from the mosque right beside our hotel I managed to go back to sleep but was still up and ready to go early on what was to be a six hour walking tour of Istanbul old town.

We were met, at 9, by our Turkish guide who was an invaluable fount of knowledge.  Guiding in Turkey is a prestigious occupation where guides require a tertiary degree, must speak a minimum of two languages and will have studied long and hard to attain their guiding license.  It is such a good system that all through our trip we had excellent, articulate, well educated guides and is something other countries, including New Zealand, could learn from.
Our group in the Basilica Cistern

Our first stop was at the Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnici), an extraordinary underground reservoir built by the Byzantine emperor, Justinian, around 560AD.  It is vast, 140m long, 70m wide with a capacity of 100,000 tons of water.  The striking thing about what is essentially just a water tank is how beautiful it is.  336 columns support the ceiling, many of them elaborate Corinthian columns.  This seems a bit over the top for a water tank but the columns were simply recycled from demolished, abandoned or damaged buildings.  Tourists are fascinated by the medusa heads at the base of two columns, some theories are that they were simply put there to attain the correct height of the pillar but there are
myths surrounding them including the fact that they may have been put there to protect the cistern.  Either way they are a real, much photographed drawcard for visitors.  The Basilica Cistern, no longer a supplier of water to the city, is a beautiful, atmospheric place with raised walking platforms and large fish now living in the water.  Until I visited I never knew it existed. I believe it was used as a location in one of the James Bond movies and features in a Dan Brown novel.

Left and above left::  Inside the Basilica Cistern

Right: Medusa at the foot of a column in the Cistern

Our next destination, just across the road, was the Blue Mosque, more correctly, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque This is a stunning building and we were all very excited about our visit It was commissioned by Sultan Ahmed when he was only 19 years old and built between 1609 and 1617. He was so dedicated to the construction that he worked as a labourer on site.  Sadly, he died aged only 28. Turks never refer to it as The Blue Mosque, it was named that by westerners because of its blue tiles covering the interior.  The tiles are exquisite and are in many colours, blue being the most predominant, however, I had expected it to be much bluer that it is. It is lit by hanging lamps and
chandeliers and also by the light gleaming in from 260 windows giving the mosque a feeling of peace and serenity.When originally built it was a complex of buildings which included a hospital, a school, a market, and a soup kitchen, in fact a mini city, much like the European monasteries were.  The prayer hall is 2646 square metres and can accommodate 10,000 at one time. In Islamic culture the dome represents the heavens.  The main dome is 43 metres high.  In all there are 30 domes and six minarets. The Sultan Ahmed Mosque didn't disappoint.
 It is a truly beautiful, peaceful and mystical place.


Right: That's me, all scarfed up ready to enter the Blue Mosque

Below: The interior...not a good photo.

Below right:  A photo I took of a photo showing how the mosque looks during a prayer service.

Outside the mosque is the Hippodrome, built in 203AD by Emperor Septimius Severus as a sporting
and social centre for the city.  Originally lined with large bronze statues, now all gone, it was the location of the popular chariot races.  One of the key features of the hippodrome is the Egyptian obelisk, bought to Istanbul (Constantinople) by Emperor Theodosius in 390AD. In remarkably good condition the obelisk is 3500 years old.  The hippodrome is now renamed Sultan Ahmed square and is a popular strolling and meeting place for the locals.

It was time for lunch.  We had had a wonderful morning, learnt so much and seen some amazing sights, and there was much more to see, but lunch at a nearby cafĂ© was a chance for a welcome sit down and rest and time to discuss our morning's activities.