Turkey: The Highs and Lows of our Ottoman Odyssey

Good thing kebabs are delicious: They are on nearly every menu in Turkey.

We entered Turkey after a relaxing month in Greece. Our first impression? Wealth. The minute we stepped off the boat in Kusadasi (from Samos, Greece) we were entranced by the relatively modern buildings, the fancy cars, and glitzy signage. Immediately, we were hounded by taxi drivers cleverly vying for our lira — a hustling spirit (for better or worse) we hardly found in Greece. In our ride to the hotel, our cab driver pointed out a state-of-the-art hospital, an American-looking amusement park, and new housing developments: We finally had a tangible understanding of its neighbor’s “economic crisis.”

We were joined here by our two good friends, Amelia and Davin, who only had 10 days to spare in the country. We’d decided to visit Ephesus and Pamukkale first, then fly up to Istanbul for a relaxing 5 days in the city. (Istanbul was not relaxing or particularly enjoyable — in fact, we were really disappointed in the place — but we’ll get to that later). We left conflicted about Turkey. The summary:

The HIGHS

Ephesus
Going to Rome? Add Ephesus on your itinerary. It’s a few thousand kilometers out of the way, but it offers a more complete Roman ruin experience than anything we saw in Italy. Once the third largest Roman city, Ephesus is now famous for its Library of Celsus — one of the most beautiful building facades ever. It’s incredible, but we were even more wowed by the Terrace Houses, a new archaeological dig that’s uncovering the terrace homes of Ephesus’s once rich and famous occupants. The detailing of the mosaic floors and painted walls is kind of breathtaking. Please cough up the extra few bucks to enter; it’s more than worth it.

The grand facade of the Library of Celsus

Inside the Terrace Homes dig. Look at the detail on the walls and floors!

Aerial view of Ephesus around noon. Try to arrive before the cruise ship passengers flood the place around 10:30 am.

*****

Lokum a.k.a. Turkish Delight
A precursor to the jelly bean, these nut-wrapped gummy chews became a favorite snack of ours during the trip.

Our favorite lokum flavor: Pistachio.

*****

Travertine Terraces in Pamukkale
We were wooed by the pics in our guidebook: nature’s version of a tiered wedding cake oozing with calcified frosting and brilliant blue pools. So we hopped aboard a two-hour pleasant train ride inland from Ephesus to Denizli, from where we caught a 45-minute bus to the tiny town of Pamukkale. The Sunrise Aya Hotel was basic, but super clean and cheap: Why can’t there be more $35/night hotels in Europe! There’s really nothing to do in the town, so play it like we did: Arrive late in the evening, sleep in, soak in the sun over a long breakfast (with plenty of Turkish coffee), then spend a few hours in the late afternoon traipsing barefoot through the travertines and roaming the ruins above them.

No shoes allowed, but these water-covered terraces are surprisingly not slippery.

Tweens in Travertine: These giggling kids flopping through the water made the experience even more fun.

The star of the show: Pristine terraces filled with blue water (and this adorable couple).

Head up in the late afternoon, and down during sunset. The colors are magical.

Hierapolis
The travertine terraces are fun; the ruins above these terraces are truly spectacular, and better yet, deserted. Again, here are some of the best Roman ruins I’ve seen… not anywhere near Rome. We spent the golden hour wandering in and among sarcophagi, temples, a gorgeous theater, and the bathhouses of ancient Hierapolis.

Don’t miss the ruins high above Pamukkale. Most people come for the travertines and completely ignore what we thought were some of the best Roman ruins on our trip.

This was the prettiest theater we saw on our ZINK Year — and absolutely no one was there.

Walking alone with through this once-bustling city. Wow, this makes me miss traveling. Can we go back?

*****

Manti
The world’s perfect dish may be Turkish. Want to make this girl happy? Give her a bowl of manti, tiny meat ravioli smothered in a tomato yogurt sauce. The texture (creamy and chewy) mixed with the acidity (tangy yogurt, tomato paste, red-pepper oil) of this dish work perfectly together. You can get a decent version at Agora in DC; the best is at No. 19 in Beyoglu, Istanbul.

manti

Manti: The world’s perfect dish?

Ayasofya, or Hagia Sofia
To continue the hyperbolic theme here, I can comfortably say this is one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve seen. From basilica to mosque to museum, Ayasofya’s history is overwhelming; its looks — jaw-dropping. Soak in the immensity of the nave, then head to the upper gallery for what I consider to be the most impressive piece of Byzantine art: the Deësis mosaic.

A spiritual melting pot. Beautiful despite all that temporary scaffolding.

The highlight of the Deësis mosaic: Christ’s unbelievably soft, detailed, and glowing face. Crafted in 1261, the mosaic was covered in plaster in the 15th century when Ayasofya was converted to a mosque.

*****

The LOWS:

Istanbul
Was it too much hype? The weather? The floods of tourists? We were all a little disappointed in Istanbul. With the exception of the locals-only neighborhood we stayed in with its börek shops and lahmacun takeout counters (north Beyoglu; near Osmanbey metro), the city felt too clean, bland, perfectly packaged for mass consumption. It clearly once had a magical, gritty feel that travelers fell in love with, but have years of media hype and cruise-ship dockings sucked dry its intrigue? We were only there for 5 days, so my lukewarm impression may be unfair — plus, we really only spent time in the Beyoglu and Sultanahmet districts, which are the modern and tourist districts respectively. Plus it rained everyday. Plus the beer is expensive and not-so delicious. Plus we found ourselves in the middle of a riot… though, despite being listed as a “low” below, at least it provided some grit.

For all you Istanbul lovers out there: Have you visited recently? Do you still love it? If so, what did we miss?

Sure, Istanbul is lovely. It’s also packed with tourists and by extension, a bit flavorless. Sadly, we just didn’t love this city.

The bustling Istiklal street in Istanbul. Worth a visit, but expect to find tons of American chains. (Need jeans? Mavi is 100% a Turkish brand).

The Spice Market is probably worth a stop if you can stomach that sea of tourists.

The Spice Market is probably worth a stop if you can stomach that sea of tourists.

For more authenticity, head north. Here’s a typical scene from our neighborhood in north Beyoglu, near the Osmanbey metro stop.

*****

The Grand Bazaar

Oh, how I wanted this to be magical. In fact, after our incredibly disappointing first visit, we returned the next day just to make sure we hadn’t missed the Grand features. The structure of the Grand Bazaar is gorgeous — and worth a wander to gaze at the hand-painted walls and ceilings. But tacky trinkets outweigh treasures, and your fellow shoppers will all be tourists. Argh. This list pointed us to some interesting shops. Any other tips? For an authentic market experience, where should we have gone?

Inside the very Westernized Grand Bazaar. Expect to find a lot of tourists.

*****

The Riot

We unintentionally planned our visit over May Day. Like years in the past, anti-government protesters took to the streets and the police chased them away with tear gas. See here. We thought we’d be far away from the ruckus in our neighborhood, but soon enough, crowds of masked protesters sprinted down our street with policeman chasing after them with tear-gas guns. Our friends got caught in the middle of it, ducking inside a glassed-in bakery shop as the torrent rushed down the streets; we watched the action from our basement window. Remnants of the tear gas made our eyes water and throats itch. Good times. I’m rarely excited to leave a place, but I was giddy to board our flight to Rome the next day.

The scene from our basement apartment in Istanbul during the riots.

The scene from our basement apartment in Istanbul during the riots.

******

Almost everyone I’ve met has absolutely adored Istanbul. We didn’t and that’s okay. I will certainly go back one day and work harder to try to find the magical nooks and neighborhoods. If you have tips for readers (or us!) on what those magical places are, please leave them here.

As for Turkey, we barely scraped the surface: No hot-air ballooning in Cappadocia. No whirling dirvishes in Konya. No hiking along the Lycian Way on the Southern coast. We know we missed a lot in a country with many diverse experiences — and if there was any tip we’d give to future travelers, it’d be to give it more time. Ten days was not enough to fully understand the culture, the people, and the history, or to experience much of the country.

For more pictures, check out our Flickr albums of Ephesus, Pamukkale, and Istanbul.

 

 

 

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