Monday, November 1, 2010

A foray into Europe (but not really)

Greg and I arrived in Istanbul on 18OCT. This will be the closest we get to the U.S. until we return to Europe sometime in February or March next year. We were not just geographically close as my mom & step-dad also flew to Istanbul to travel with us for a few days. Since we were traveling together for about half of our time in Turkey, I did not have much spare time for writing but kept a daily log of our activities which I will include at the end of this post. Before I forget, here are the links to my Picasa web albums:

My opinion, based on this visit as well as multiple previous visits (on a Windstar cruise in 2002 and on layovers when I was a flight attendant), is that Turkey is highly doable on your own. You will be generally welcomed everywhere; eat delicious food; and be captivated by the sights, sounds & even smells everywhere you go. Note that you will encounter some language barriers; you will get hassled to “buy this” or “eat here“; you will probably have to use a squat toilet at some point and there may not always be toilet paper or paper towels in the public restrooms; and you will be awoken by the call to prayer broadcast from the nearest mosque. But these are not all bad things; they just add to the authenticity of your Turkey experience!
a "fancy" public restroom
A few tips if you’re planning your own trip to Turkey: Check out the Rick Steves Turkey tour itineraries to see where they visit plus how long it takes to get from A to B by private bus. Based on many years of experience using his guidebooks & tour info to plan my Europe trips, if his tour goes there, it’s probably worth it! I also highly recommend the Turkey Travel Planner website for tons of useful, practical information plus discounts & special offers on lodging in particular.

Here are a few of my observations in the form of likes & dislikes during our 11 days in Turkey:

  • Helpful, friendly staff at hotels although not all spoke English
  • Better roads than expected but be prepared for aggressive driving
  • Pictures don’t capture the mostly wonderful smells (spice bazaar, earthiness of potato farms, grilled meat) and sounds (call to prayer, hot air balloons, silence in caves, storms coming in from the Aegean)
  • Complimentary “Mediterranean” breakfasts (cheese, olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, yogurt, breads, etc.) and Turkish food in general
  • Visiting with Mom & Ronnie, of course!

  • Aggressive waiters at outdoor restaurants in Istanbul trying to get you to eat/drink there; similar in Kusadasi but less extreme; surprisingly shopkeepers at the bazaars were much less confrontational and, in fact, were less willing to bargain
  • Some areas in Cappadocia are overrun with tourists and not really protected or well managed.
  • There was almost always a line for the women’s toilets. For example, at Goreme Open Air Museum there were 4 women’s toilets (only one Western style) and no toilet paper for about 20 busloads of tourists. At Kayseri airport’s domestic arrivals area there was 1 women’s toilet for a planeload of passengers!
  • “Fleecing” of tourists - $20 visa, high admission costs to see sights (average $15 per person per sight), pay-per-use public toilets
  • Pushy guides at sights trying to sell personal guided tours, guidebooks, etc. Watch out for their intro line, “Where are you from?”
  • Hot air balloons in Goreme -- expensive for what you get ($250 for max one hour ride with 20 other people in basket); too many balloons in air at same time and no obvious safety standards concerning how close balloons should be allowed to buildings & natural features but they are certainly beautiful to see from the safety of a balcony or terrrace
  • Unable to check in more than 2 hrs before domestic flights so spent a lot of time sitting in airports instead of nice lounges
  • Budget airlines are really budget -- you can check up to 20 kg per person for no charge but carry-ons are restricted to 7-8 kg; everything served on plane, including water, is for purchase
whoa, that's a lot of tourists!
My trip log:
After 9hr flight from Bangkok, arrived AMM; slept & ate breakfast at Crown Lounge (free entry w/Priority Pass) to kill 5 hours
2+hr flight to IST; over 30 min waiting in line to purchase Turkish visa and then to clear immigration
Got bags quickly from carousel and spotted driver with sign then Mom right behind him
1hr drive to Erboy Hotel due to traffic around Sirkeci area
Checked in, drank complimentary glass of Turkish tea, reviewed local map with concierge
Settled into our quad room (1 double bed, 2 singles)
Walk around Sirkeci neighborhood and the spice bazaar
Ate dinner at Ozler Restaurant on sidewalk with cats playing at our feet

Awake at 6:30 but stayed in bed until everyone else started getting up around 7:15
Ate large free breakfast at hotel
Walked out door @ 10am
Intended to start our sightseeing day at Hagia Sophia but lines were too long so went to Blue Mosque first, then Yerebatan Cistern
Lines were shorter at Hagia Sophia by that time so we only waited about 15min
Drank canned Efes beer outside in park
Walked to Beyazit Mosque then through Grand Bazaar and along waterfront
Sat inside Yeni Mosque for prayer service
Walked across Galata Bridge and back
Ate dinner at outdoor doner restaurant
Bought beer from supermarket to drink in our hotel room

Slept until 8am, ate breakfast, walked out @ 11am
Topkapi Palace - entry 20TLY but to get into Harem area was another 15TLY so we only did the main areas; sultan’s clothing was very large; Treasury rooms: 86 carat diamond; Islamic artifacts: footprint & beard of Mohammed, staff of Moses, etc. (didn’t realize it was a pilgrimage site until I saw the crowds)
Walked to Suleymaniye district to see old wooden residences, very much deteriorated
Tried to stop for beer at one of the outdoor cafes near the mosque but they are not allowed to serve alcohol
Suleymaniye Mosque is being completely renovated and thus closed but still could enter surrounding tombs of Kanuni & Hurrem Sultan Suleyman
Helped my mom buy spices from Nil Baharat & tasted lots of dried fruits & nuts
had drinks at Hamdi rooftop restaurant
Walked through spice market looking for soaps for Mom but too expensive 4-10TLY each; tasted then bought pistachio pomegranate nougat candy
Ate dinner at our hotel’s restaurant; I had the  “Sultan’s favorite veal stew“, house red wine, comp breads & fava + oil dip -- DELICIOUS!

Up at 5am; 6:15p/u (1hr ride) to SAW for 8:40 flight
1hr flight; short ride to SunRent office in Kayseri to sign paperwork for our rental car
Finally found place to get lunch to go (chicken doner wraps)
1hr drive to Goreme; checked in at Cave Life Pension and got intro to area by Mustafa
Drove to nearby sights: Pasabagi, hiking in Dervent Valley, Wish View hill in Urgup/Ortahisar, wine tasting at Turastan winery, walk around Uchisar
Dinner: 20TRY set menu at restaurant on busy main road; good food but service was spotty
Laundry was not dry on roof so moved inside in case it rained

Up with prayer call then with sound of hot air balloons
Nice breakfast: boiled eggs, salami, 2 cheeses, olives, tomatoes, bread & jam, coffee/tea
30min drive to Kaymakli (underground city) - certified guides there were very pushy and said that we wouldn’t get anything out of it on our own but we had already paid 15TRY pp for entrance and cheapest the guides would offer was another 10TRYpp; once we were underground I listened to some of the French tour guides and picked up some info and yes, would have understood more of what we were seeing with a guide but we can always look it up online afterwards for free!
1hr drive to Ilhara Valley mostly past farmland - locals harvesting pumpkin seeds & potatoes by hand
Ate lunch in Belisirma on river
Hiked south along valley floor; climbed up to one church but frescoes mostly destroyed by vandalism; continued south but after walking another 30min we still had not seen signs for another church so we turned around; luckily a young man from the town of Ilhara offered to show us the nearest 3 churches which also meant repeating our trek south another 5min past where we turned around! Frescoes were in better shape overall and churches larger with interesting design but still not protected from vandalism
Returned to restaurant where we had parked as sun was setting; we ended up hiking for 2.5hrs total
Drove to Selime to see cave monastery in fading light
Returned to Goreme via reverse of daytime route; full moon lit the way, mostly large transport trucks on roads, but some farm tractors (many people still working/loading trucks with huge bags of freshly harvested potatoes) & cars; saw mice running across the road
Ate dinner at Cappadocia Kebap Center (local place in town): chicken doner wraps, crispy fries with mayo/ketchup/chili pepper sauce I concocted

Awoke to sound of prayer call then hot air balloons but when I looked out, many fewer than yesterday; totally overcast, even foggy, so low visibility
After breakfast decided to stay at Cave Life tonight instead of driving to Konya or another nearby town; moved Mom & Ronnie’s bags into our room
Goreme Open Air Museum - many tour groups, had to wait in line to enter small viewing areas for churches; interesting frescoes but again many almost destroyed by vandals; decent explanation signs in 4 languages (Turkish, English, French, German); more fleecing - charged extra 8TRY to enter one church even after we had already paid 15TRY to enter the “museum“!
Drove back into main part of town to browse souvenir shops - Mom was looking for particular gifts; surprisingly shopkeepers did not seem willing to bargain very much; bought pumpkin seeds from old farmer selling from his car in parking lot, also tasted sun-dried apricots wrapped around almonds, local grape juice-derived candy (like nougat), other dried fruits
Ate lunch at Fat Boys - slightly Westernized hangout
Back to hotel to finish packing then load up for drive to Kayseri airport; took about 1.15hr
Half tank of diesel at 3.10/liter cost 80TRY
Stopped at doner shop so Mom & Ronnie could get some food to take with them as it is expensive at the Turkey airports
Heavy security around airport; no other passengers or drop-off vehicles anywhere
Greg & I drove back to Goreme alone L; picked up chicken doner wraps from same place we ate last night but got them to go
Tried to check email (no wifi in our room); had to sit with Mustafa and about 8 other local guys who were watching TV in the small common room

Prayer call @ 5:45am; got up at 7:30
Talked to students from Georgetown on semester abroad in Istanbul (history & international business majors); power out for about 30min so sat in candlelight
Ate breakfast & used internet
Drove through Urgup: saw men raking pumpkin seeds
Mustafapasa - walked around town, liked the variety of painted doors, cats, donkeys, emptied pumpkins
Cemil - abandoned Christian church from early 1900’s
Returned to Goreme, bought local wine, snacked on pumpkin seeds in room
Walked into town, had dinner at same café (Cappadocia Kebap Center) - good food, reasonable prices

Didn’t wake up to prayer call today but did hear hot air balloons around 7am
Ate breakfast - love the fresh-made deep-fried cheese bread
Drove to Kayseri; planned to buy durum (chicken wraps) before going to airport but shopkeeper wasn’t serving until 1pm
Dropped off at airport at 10:45; flight not until 3:35
No wifi at airport so edited photos offline
No restaurant in domestic terminal only small snack shop
Finally checked in for our flight at 1:45pm
Walked to international terminal (which wasn’t technically open at that hour) to eat in upstairs restaurant which only served the “meal of the day” - a lamb, potatoes & rice dish, some breads, and chicken wraps
Ate lunch while watching Turkish Air Force planes take off
Returned to domestic terminal; went thru two security screenings then boarded flight by walking on tarmac
1hr flight to Izmir
Had previously arranged taxi service through our hotel; 1hr drive to Kusadasi while sun set - lots of farmland, greenhouses
Easy check in at hotel but very little intro/info offered
Walked around pedestrian area just below our hotel; ate dinner at local restaurant “Yuvam” as recommended by hotel staff
Oddly the restaurant appeared closed but when we stood in front of their door the owner said “Villa Konak?” as if he knew we were coming and promptly moved a table & 2 chairs into the alley; no menu, only option to eat meat, roasted eggplant, white beans, pickled asparagus, rice, bread for 15TRY each; ordered 2 beers but noticed that waiter went to nearby market to buy them (for 3TRY each) then sold them to us for 5TRY each; food was delicious but we did have to contend with cigarette smoke, screeching pull-down doors of closing shops, the usual scrounging felines
Returned to hotel to shower, sleep

Slept in today (until 8:30) but still woke up to nearby mosque’s morning call for prayer at 5:47; last night we noted that the times for prayers are posted and change slightly every day; seem to correspond to lunar cycles…
Nice leisurely breakfast albeit alone in hotel’s dining room: boiled eggs, fresh yogurt, asst homemade jams, fresh fruit, olives, salami, cheeses, breads, muesli or corn flakes, coffee or tea
Started storming off & on and we wanted to catch up on photo uploads, etc. so sat on terrace for several hours while the rain showers passed
Hotel staff called Egypt Air to confirm our flight to Cairo on the 29th
Eventually went for a walk along the waterfront: fishermen, cats waiting for a catch, other strollers - mostly European/German; got Greg’s hair cut - villa owner’s son walked us to his barber
Stopped in tourist info office to ask about bus to Ephesus but man wasn’t very helpful - didn’t speak much English
No cruise ships in port today so very few people on streets and shopkeepers not too pushy
Bar street was deserted, still closed at 6pm
Came back to hotel and drank our free red wine on terrace
Ate dinner at nearby Turkish pizza shop; pizza & chicken wings in cast iron skillet

Got up at 7:30 with alarm; ate breakfast while it poured rain
Walked to dolmus stop about 5min from hotel; took dolmus about 30min to Ephesus
Took fixed rate taxi to upper gate; arrived along with first tour buses; no ships in port in Kusadasi but apparently at least one Costa ship was in Izmir - lots of German & French tourists, some Asians
Rented one audio guide for Greg; I navigated with the free map; took us about 3 hrs to walk the whole site at leisure
Lots of cats; I don’t particularly remember any from my first trip in 2002
Took dolmus into Selcuk; walked 20min to St John’s Basilica and toured the site, then to Isabey mosque nearby
Walked into town and had snack (Turkish sandwiches) at local café
Took dolmus back to Kusadasi; checked out local Tansas supermarket as we need to purchase a few supplies tomorrow
Returned to hotel; sat outside on terrace, chatted with mom on Google Talk, drank complimentary Turkish tea with breads, then later beer
Had dinner near hotel at small doner shop: bean & salami soup with bread

Woke up to pouring rain, ate breakfast, dropped off laundry, bought supplies (deodorant, toothbrushes, toothpaste) at Tansas supermarket; only sell large bottles of multipurpose solution (for around $20!) and dental floss was around $5 so we’ll wait to buy that in Egypt
Spent majority of day on terrace doing trip research for Israel & Jordan
Entertained by talkative gray cat
Drank beer, had afternoon tea
Picked up laundry (most expensive yet at about $34 for two loads)
Got hair cut by same barber who cut Greg’s hair 2 days ago; always interesting to see how different cultures “interpret” a short hairstyle for women; so far all barbers on trip have been men; drank complimentary apple tea
Ate dinner at outdoor table on main pedestrian street but it was windy & much cooler

Got up at 4:30 for 5am taxi (1hr drive) to ADB airport
Ate our breakfast sandwiches (cheese & cucumbers) that hotel had prepared for us
45min flight to IST; sat and even napped on benches in departures area from 8am-noon waiting to check in for our 2pm flight
Finally checked in and cleared immigration; spent 1hr in business lounge
Had to go through another security check at gate
2+hr flight to Cairo

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