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Turkey 2011

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        | 24 Oct | 25 Oct26 Oct | 27 Oct28 Oct29 Oct
30 Oct | 31 Oct1 Nov2 Nov3 Nov |  4 Nov |

24 October Monday - Day 1

On Monday morning, Jessica and I loaded our suitcases into the car and drove to Dulles Airport. There, we checked in and received our tickets for our first flight to New York but not the connecting flight to Istanbul. After landing at JFK, we exited the gate and took the overhead tram to gate 1, where we found Turkish Airlines and checked in. A long line at security proved to be faster than we originally feared. But because of delays for our first flight, we entered the gate just as our flight was boarding. We quickly grabbed some food at a doner shop and took the food onto the plane.

The flight time from New York to Istanbul was reported to be 8 hours and 50 minutes, an hour shorter than the ticket stated. Jessica spent time reading, while I opened up my book for learning Turkish (better late than never). A friendly, young Muslim man sitting to my left chatted with me for a bit. He said he was heading to Mecca with his family for his first pilgrimage. At one point during the flight, he asked if he could pray on the floor in front of us (since we were in an exit row with plenty of leg room). I said sure. We definitely were not in Kansas any more.

After trying several different in-flight movies (and stopping them after 5 minutes, as the stories were horribly predictable), Jessica and I decided to try and get some sleep. We had about four hours left until we landed in Istanbul.

25 October Tuesday - Day 2

We awoke just as the crew was serving breakfast - tomato and cheese omelette with fruit. Oddly, as Jessica had requested gluten-free food (when we bought tickets online), she received an omelette made only from egg white and without cheese. And she was offered a roll. Apparently, the Turkish Airlines food service does not understand the meaning of gluten-free.

We landed shortly thereafter, then disembarked and headed to customs. While in line, we realized that we needed to get out of the customs line and enter the visa line to buy our 90-day tourist visa. Then, we got back in line, showed our passports, and were officially in Istanbul.

Since we had arranged a pick-up through our hotel, we looked at the row of men holding signs with people's names until we found my name. This was the first time I've ever done that. Then I saw an ATM and withdrew some Tukish Lira before going back to our ride. The young man walked our bags to the street, where we waited for a van that took us to our hotel.

Since it was still morning, it was too early for us to get our room. Instead, we chatted with the friendly young Turk working the hotel desk, then went to the rooftop cafe for a second breakfast. After eating, it was still morning, so we headed out to the Blue Mosque. Before we could enter the mosque, we needed to remove our shoes and place them in plastic bags. Jessica also was given a scarf to wear around her head. Once inside, we marveled at the fascinating blue tiles, the mammoth stone pillars, and the huge domes overheard.

Back at the hotel, we checked in, washed up, and headed out for lunch using a restaurant suggested by our concierge. Jessica enjoyed the multitude of colorful lamps hanging from the ceiling, while I was entertained by the street vendors carrying stacks of bread on their head or rolling giant carts full of products.

Following our late lunch and a rest, we headed to the Grand Bazaar, a large shopping area full of jewelry, leather jackets, clothes, rugs, ceramics, and more. As Jessica was feeling colder than expected, we tried to price the jackets. But all of the merchants were asking very high prices and our bargaining skills were not quite ready for the challenge. Jessica also looked at hand bags, finding a beautiful red one, and managed to talk the price down. Lastly, she found a hand-woven hat that was able to keep her warm.

On the stroll back, we found a nice restaurant tucked in a narrow alleyway that was out of the wind. It even had a glass ceiling and heating lamps, so it was quite warm. I ordered grilled lamb chops, while Jessica ordered a dish with pureed eggplant and sliced sirloin steak. The staff let us eat without any rush, so we were able to spend a long evening enjoying our food and discussing our plans for the next day.

26 October Wednesday - Day 3

After a nice breakfast at the hotel, we headed toward the Hagia Sophia. There was a long queue of people at 10:45 am, but we got in line anyway. Luckily, the line moved quickly, so within 20 minutes, we had purchased our tickets. I tripped off the security people twice (first with an iPod in my pocket, and second with a mini-tripod in my bag). After getting the audio guide, we set off on the map, pressing numbers associated with each spot to hear a recorded explanation.

Once inside, we were amazed at the size of the structure. The main dome is 182 feet (55 meters) high. In each of the corners, there are massive circular wooden panels with Arabic calligraphy. Each panel is 24.6 feet (or 7.5 meters) across. The ceiling of the structure is held up with a combination of interior pillars and flying buttresses outside. As the building was first used as a Christian baslilica, there are Christian mosaics on display. One features the Virgin mother and child along with the rulers Johannes Komnenos II, his empress Irene, and their son Alexios from the 12th century C.E.

In 1453, Mehmet the Conqueror converted the building into a mosque, which explains the presence of the Islamic items such as the mimbar (an Islamic-style pulpit) and the mizhrab (a niche showing the direction of Mecca). In 1935, the Turkish leader Ataturk turned the structure into a museum.  After two hours of wandering around the magnificent building, we headed out to catch a tour bus.

We purchased 24-hour tickets for a hop-on, hop-off tour bus. We had the option of riding the tour bus and getting a recorded audio guide of the city or hopping off to see a local site. We could then wait for the next bus and continue our journey through Istanbul. After a short ride, we hopped off at the Dolmabahçe Palace. This was a European-style palace completed in 1856 to house the rulers of the Ottoman Empire. After spending the morning in a 1500-year old basilica-turned-mosque-turned-museum, this 19th century palace seemed downright modern! Photography inside was not allowed, however, to protect the many original paintings and fabrics inside. Grandiose opulence is the only was to explain this palace, where Ataturk himself died in 1938. The final room had a giant chandelier that weighed 4 1/2 tons! Talk about opulence.

Back outside, we waited for the next tour bus to arrive. And waited and waited in the cold, windy, diesel-fouled air. After 45 minutes, we gave up on the hop-on, hop-off, try-your-best-to-hop-on-again bus, and hailed a taxi back to the hotel. Then, we went a restaurant recommneded by our friendly concierge. We even explored a small cavern in the basement of the building! Apparently, these were ruins from some ancient time.

27 October Thursday - Day 4

After enjoying another fine breakfast at the hotel, we headed out to our favorite hop-on, hop-off bus. After getting detailed time information (and complaining a bit), we decided to hop on the green route to take a tour around the Golden Horn, a waterway running to the northwest. We did not hop-off during the ride, however. After the hour-long bus ride, we returned to our starting point in Sultanahmet, in between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia.

We decided to grab some lunch at nearby cafe and hoped that we would have time to catch the next red route bus before our 24-hour tickets expired. We left the cafe at 1:30 pm, thinking that we would miss the bus, but it turned out the bus left at 1:45, so we were good. The second bus had a longer, more interesting route. We even cross the Bosphorus Bridge into Asia - marking Jessica's first time in Asia. From the high elevation of the road, we saw many great views of Istanbul.

Back in Sultanahmet, there was still some time left for sightseeing, so we headed to the Istanbul Archeology Museums. This complex is composed of three buildings. We first entered the Museum of the Ancient Orient, where we saw many old relics. There were artifacts from ancient Egypt, stone carvings from Babylon, and rock reliefs from the Hittites. Next, we went to the Tiled Kiosk of Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror, where we saw pottery and wall art made from blue tiles. Our final stop was the impressive Archeology Museum. The first floor had a large collection of sarcophagi, stelae, and statues from ancient times. We had only a little time to peek at the second floor, which told the history of Istanbul beginning with artifacts found around 7,000 years ago.

For dinner, we decided to go up to a rooftop restaurant, where we hoped to get nice, evening views of the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. Instead of main courses, we ordered several meze, or appetizer dishes. After dinner, we heard the late evening call to prayer from the Blue Mosque, so we walked up to the outdoor deck to hear it. We were treated with great views of both the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia while the Islamic call to prayer echoed through the air.

28 October Friday - Day 5

On our last full day in Istanbul, we went to Topkapi Palace after breakfast. We bought tickets for entrance to the palace grounds, then rented audio guides, then bought tickets for entrance to the Harem. The audio guide gave us an audio description of the various sites we saw. We were very impressed with the many beautiful tiles that covered the walls inside the buildings. Some of the rooms had beautiful stained glass windows as well.

After the Harem, we checked out the Fourth Court, then took a quick walk through the relics and the treasury. We skipped treasury room 1, since the line was incredibly long. Luckily, we were able to see the famous Topkapi dagger in treasury room 2. This ceremonial dagger has three large emeralds in its hilt.

After walking through a few more rooms, we felt overwhelmed with the opulence of this home of the Ottoman rulers from 1453-1839. We next headed out to find a place for lunch and settled on a cafe just off the main street. Then, we walked down to the coast to catch a Bosphorus Cruise vessel. It was a medium-size ferry that only had about 6 tourists due to this being the end of the tourist season. We cruised up the strait along the European side of Istanbul and came back along the Asian side. It was a chilly day, but there was a sheltered section inside the ferry that kept us warm.

In the evening, we took a recommendation from our friendly concierge to ride the tram up to Beyoglu to eat at a nice restaurant. Although the menu was in several different languages, the door man did not beckon us to come in, as so many others did in the historical district. Being hassled to eat at a restaurant is a common occurrence in the Sultanahmet district. Our dinner was great, and the dessert was fantastic. Afterwards we walked down the pedestrian street known as Istiklal Cadessi, which was full of throngs of people. Then, we rode an underground funicular down to a tram station, and took the tram back to the hotel. This funicular was built in 1875, and is the second-oldest underground railway after the London Underground.

29 October Saturday - Day 6

Today, we thanked our hotel concierge and rode a taxi to the airport. Interestingly, we had to go through security before checking in. After going through security, we realized that we had been dropped off at the international terminal, not the domestic one that we needed. (The taxi driver had assumed it was what we wanted.) So, we had to walk a bit to get to the domestic terminal, check-in, and go through security another time.

After the one-hour flight to Izmir, which included lunch, we set out to find a way to Kusadasi. One method was to catch a train to Selcuk, then a short bus to Kusadasi. The ticket vendor told us that it was a 2 1/2 hour wait for the next train and recommended we take the bus. Luckily for us, a bus was just about to leave for the local otogar (bus station), so we hopped on. Once at the Izmir bus station, we looked around and found a bus leaving in ten minutes for Kusadasi. Lightning struck twice for us today. Within another 90 minutes, we had arrived in the seaport town of Kusadasi.

After checking into our hotel (and being greeted by the exceedingly friendly owner), we took a stroll around the town. A short causeway connects the town to an old island fortress that now provides a nice backdrop for tourist photographs and couples looking for a little solitude. That worked well for us on both accounts.

Leaving the island, we spotted a waterfront cafe, ordered drinks, and picked up a backgammon board. We spent the evening playing and watching the sun set over the water. It was warmer here than in Istanbul, but still a little windy. Although Jessica had a coat to keep warm, I was fine without one. Neverthless, one of the waiters came over and put a shawl across my back. Good service here in Kusadasi.

30 October Sunday - Day 7

Today we went on a locally guided tour to Ephesus and a few other locations. The friendly Turk behind the concierge desk arranged the tour for us. Of course, the van arrived 10 minutes early, while we were still eating breakfast, but thankfully he gave us time to finish. After we hopped inside, the van picked up several more passengers and headed to Ephesus.

Our first stop, however, was in the town of Selcuk, where we saw the last remaining column of the Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Then, we walked to the Isa Bay Camii, a mosque dating back to 1375 that is still in use. After a short break, we then drove to the highlight of the tour.

Ephesus is one of the best-preserved classical cities in the Mediterranean. Archeologists are still making discoveries, as much of the ancient city is believed to still be buried under dirt. Our tour guide alternated between giving us explanations and giving us time to wander on our own. It wasn't always clear, however, when we would need to find him. Neverthless, we were very impressed with the size and preservation of the ruins of this ancient city, which once housed 250,000 people!

My Lonely Planet guidebook advised us to pay the extra Turkish Lira to see the Roman Terrace Houses, so we did. And we were not disappointed. Inside a large roofed structure, we saw the remains of many houses of ancient wealthy Romans. Many wall paintings and floor mosaics were still not only visible, but rich in detail. It was definitely a highlight of the trip.

Back outside, we checked out the grand facade of the Library of Celsus, but had to run to catch our van that was scheduled to leave. The one problem with being on a tour is that you have to follow someone else's schedule. Of course, when we arrived at the van, there were two people we had to wait for. After half-an-hour, our guide returned and said that he reported them missing. (I took this to mean that that gave him the permission to leave them behind.) For those of us waiting in the van, that was a half-an-hour of wasted time, however.

Next, he brought us to a jewelry store - not at all interesting. The English speakers in the group (4 of us) were not interested, so we asserted our desire to leave. Our guide then rounded up the group and took us to lunch, which was included in the tour price. Jessica struck up a conversation with a German couple and their daughter. They spoke some English, but not fluently. The man was a Jordanian who was raised in Germany. When we said that we had just gotten married, the woman said that Muslim men are allowed four wives, but her husband just has one. Then she joked: one wife, one problem, four wives, many problems.

The next stop on the tour was a visit to the ruins of a house purported to be the final resting place of the Virgin Mary. Though there is no archeological evidence to support this claim, locals belive the vision of a German nun, who claimed that this was where Mary spent her last days. I was not impressed with this site or the story behind it.

The final stop was back in the town of Selcuk, where Jessica and I visited the Ephesus Museum. Here, we saw statues, and jewelry recovered from Ephesus, including two statues of Artemis, the goddess of fertility. This was very interesting to see. We then headed back to Kusadasi and found a place to have dinner.

31 October Monday - Day 8

After several days of trying to see as many things as possible, we decided to take it slowly today. But we also wanted to do something different. So, we bought round-trip tickets for a ferry to Samos, a nearby Greek island. The ferry left at 9 am and arrived on Samos ninety minutes later.

We took a stroll down the seaside street of Varthi, the port town on Samos. Then, we found a small Greek restaurant to have lunch. Next, we walked north where we heard we could find a small beach. We could have also taken a taxi or rented a car to go someplace more interesting, but we wanted to keep the day cheap and simple. Eventually, we found a small pebble-stone beach by a resort that had closed due to end of the summer season.

So, we 'squatted' on this small beach, which had many beach chairs. The weather was too chilly for beachwear, but sitting in the sun still felt nice. And the sound of the crashing waves was very relaxing.

After a chill afternoon, we headed back to the dock, where we caught the ferry back to Kusadasi. Then, we walked northward, finding a stretch full of restaurants where we weren't hassled by the staff standing outside. It felt quite nice to pick a restaurant on our own.

1 November Tuesday - Day 9

Our adventure today took us away from the coast and toward the mountains of inner Turkey. After checking out of the Kusadasi hotel, our friendly concierge flagged down a mini-bus heading to the otogar (bus station) and told the driver of our destination. We had 40 minutes to catch our bus leaving for Denizli, and the mini-bus ride was supposed to take 10-15 minutes. After about 15 minutes, a group school kids left the bus, and Jessica said, "Otogar?" The bus driver reacted with a facial expression that easily revealed that he had passed our stop. But he flagged down a mini-bus driving in the other direction and we quickly hopped onto that one.

After another 15 minutes, we still had not arrived at the bus station, and we were getting worried. It was almost 10 minutes to 9 am, when our bus was scheduled to leave. In another minute, the bus driver pointed out the window and said, "Otogar." Hopping out, we bought tickets and were soon on the bus to Denizli.

It was a three-hour ride, during which Jessica and I entertained ourself with the individual audio and video entertaiment available in each seat. Through a video screen in the back of the seat in front of us, we could choose to listen to various genres of music, watch American music videos, watch Turkish videos, or play games.

We arrived in Denizli shortly after noon. Immediately after deboarding, a Turkish man spotted us and came over shouting, "Pamukkale." He recognized that we were tourists and were most likely headed to the famous site of Pamukkale. We gave the excuse of needing the bathroom, so I could check travel times for a bus we would need in two days. Then, we returned and agreed to take his minibus to Pamukkale. The Turkish mini-bus is how many locals travel. It's basically a mini-van that follows a pre-determined route. People wait by the side of the road and flag it down as it passes.

After 30 minutes, we had arrived in Pamukkale and were able to easily find our hotel. After a good lunch, we walked to the Pamukkale Natural Park, which has a small mountain of white calcium deposits dotted with saucer-shaped pools of water. Hot springs feed a pool, and the water travels down the mountainside, depositing the calcium carbonate from the water. The unique geology here creates quite a fascinating vista. In order to walk the path up the mountain, we were required to remove our shoes to protect the white rock.

Once on top, we headed straight for the Antique Pool, where a hot spring feed a pool of water that was once a sacred pool of ancient Hierapolis. The remains of marble columns remain in the water, making it a very surreal swimming experience.

After enjoying the water, we emerged into the mountain air, chilling as the sun began to set. We then headed back down the white mountain under the darkening sky, being treated to an evening view of this alien landscape.

2 November Wednesday - Day 10

Today we rode a minibus about 90 minutes southwest to the ruins of Afrodisias - a classical city from the first century C.E. I'm not sure if it was a Roman or Greek city. Maybe a little bit of both. The site was very devoid of tourists, since it is remote and since the summer travel season is over. Therefore, we nearly had the entire set of ruins to ourselves.

The ruins here are very well preserved, even more so than Ephesus at times. We saw many upright columns and one nearly intact building. Much of the structures are built with marble and rich with detailed carvings. One of our first stops was the theater, which could house 7,000 people.

Further along the path, we saw a portico, or a long road with the remains of columns on both sides. We also saw the remains of a pool, the remains of a bath, and a black and white checkered tile floor. One of the most impressive sites was the stadium, which made the theater look small. This 886-feet (or 270-meter) long stadium could seat 30,000 people. It is one of the largest and best-preserved stadiums from classical times. It was used for Greek athletic competitions, gladiatorial combat, and wild beast fights.

After finishing our self-guided tour of the outdoors, we walked through the small museum that housed an excellent collection of statues and carvings recovered from the site. Included was a statue of Aphrodisias, which was the goddess namesake of the city. The city even housed a temple in her honor, making this ancient city a popular destination for pilgrims.

We then found the restaurant outside of the ruins and had a late lunch of beef and chicken served on metal kabab sticks. Then, the minibus drove us back to the hotel.

In the late afternoon, we returned to see the calcium cliffs of Pamukkale in the twilight and decided to have dinner in town. After finishing our meal, a young couple who rode in the minibus with us to Afrodisias sat by our table, so we chatted with them. They were from Paris, though the man was originally from Chile. In fact, the two had met each other while hiking the Inca trail to Machu Pichu. Now, they alternate living in Chile and France and use their vacation time to travel the world together. A fitting story for a day we toured Afrodisias, a city built to worship Aphrodite, the goddess of love.

3 November Thursday - Day 11

Our hotel was kind enough to drive us to the city center of Pamukkale, where we waited for a minibus to Denizli. We arrived at the Denizli otogar (bus station) about 9:30 am and bought tickets for the 10 am bus to Izmir. Soon, we were on our way to our last stop in Turkey.

Although we expected a four-hour bus ride, we made it to Izmir after 3 and a half hours. The Izmir bus station is not in the city, however, so we had to ride a free shuttle bus to the city center. There, we caught a taxi for the short ride to the Swissotel. (We decided to splurge on our last day). After checking in (and being overwhelmed by the luxury and size of the hotel), we walked out for a late lunch. Then, we toured the boardwalk by the sea and the bazaar, which was crowded with locals buying presents for holiday.

We soon wandered back to our hotel and enjoyed wine and cheese in the skybar with a nighttime view over the harbor. We then took a recommendation from Lonely Planet on a nice seafood restaurant nearby. There we enjoyed eggplant and ocotopus starters, and moved on to the sea bass cooked with thistle root for the main course. We also reflected on our how much we had enjoyed our travels in Turkey.

4 November Friday - Day 12

This morning, we awoke at 4:30 am and were out of the hotel just after 5 am to catch a taxi to the airport. We had an early flight at 7 am that took us to Istanbul. Once there, we walked from the domestic terminal to the international terminal. After going through passport control, we headed to our gate, where we had to have our passports checked by several different people. We also had to go through security at the gate, most likely since increased security is required for flying to the U.S.

Our flight back was ten hours and 40 minutes. We passed the time reading, watching movies, and resting. When we landed, we had gained six more hours in our day. Then, we found our car in the parking lot, and drove home, full of the memories of an enjoyable honeymoon.

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Site created 1 May 2004
Page last updated 14 Jun 2012
dave at backpackingdave.com