A (Turkish) Delight to the Senses - September, 2015

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October 30th 2015
Published: October 30th 2015
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A (Turkish) Delight to the Senses……

And so my next great adventure begins with a fairly decent (for me) departure time of 7:30am, with the first of my 3 flights across the globe to Istanbul, Turkey. First stop is Seattle and after a smooth breakfast flight of 2.5 hours I land at SeaTac, and spend my 3-hour layover relaxing in the Delta Sky Lounge, as usual. I find my favorite corner lounge chair – the one I had on my way to Hong Kong a couple of weeks ago – with the view over the concourse and the multiple takeoffs of Delta and Alaska flights headed around the world. Sipping on coffee heavily laced with Bailey’s Irish Cream, I doze until I hear the announcement that my flight to Amsterdam is boarding…..time to once more depart American soil and head for the Muslim world of the Turks.

An uneventful 11-hour flight across the northern section of the Atlantic had me touching down at Schipol at 8:30am and it was a delightful morning. Brilliant sunshine, clear blue skies and a brisk crisp breeze off the ocean – a little chilly with the mercury hovering around 48f, but wonderfully refreshing after so many hours trapped in a metal tube with recirculated air and too many humans packed in tight! I hadn’t slept at all nor watched more than a couple of new movies, but it still seemed as though the flight hours flew by (no pun intended), and I was back on the European continent before I realized it. Another short layover (2 hours scheduled) but due to bad weather in the east, we were delayed almost an additional hour before we finally took off for the direct flight to Istanbul on KLM. In spite of my diamond elite status with Skyteam I didn’t get upgraded to first class on this final leg of the trip, and spent the next 3 hours cramped in those miserable economy seats with the “great unwashed” – what’s up with that? I had forgotten how the other half lives, having been spoilt rotten for most of my traveling career – sure brought me back to earth in a hurry, I tell ya! I was never so happy to see terra firma by the time we kissed the tarmac at Atatürk Airport.

The rain had cleared by the time we landed, but heavy overcast skies threatened more of the same before the day was done. It was extremely humid, sticky and a strong wind blowing but at least getting thru immigration and customs was a breeze, in spite of the long lines from three arriving international flights at one time. My luggage was on the carousel when I got to baggage claim and then it was time to find my scheduled ride to the hotel. A cute young Turk by the name of Melish was holding a sign displaying my name as I entered the Arrivals Hall and in minutes, we were in the shuttle bus and headed for old town Istanbul where I would be spending the next two nights. Did I luck out or what? The Legacy Ottoman Hotel is located just two blocks from the waterfront, in the heart of old town – and it’s gorgeous. As I entered the lobby, I thought I had stepped into a Turkish palace – no doubt the marble inlaid floors and fabulous hanging chandeliers were my first clue. Just simply stunning. It’s a 6-story building and my room was on the 3rd floor, very close to the elevator. Even the elevator is worth a mention: glass enclosed in a gilt-frame, it’s a replica of the Golden Age of the 1890’s – an iron elevator with the 2-door metal enclosure to operate. As I stepped out onto the 3rd floor, I had an incredible view thru the interior windows, of the lobby, reception area and the various floors…..see my photo below.

My room is small as is the bathroom, but perfect for what I need – I don’t plan on spending a lot of time in it. My luggage was delivered immediately and first things first, a shower – I had almost two days of travel stain to wash away. Standing in the glass-enclosed shower stall with streams of hot water pouring over my tired body, was exactly what I needed to give me enough energy to make my way to the 6th floor, where dinner was waiting. By 8pm I was seated next to the restaurant window overlooking the Golden Horn – I could even see the Galata Bridge in the distance and the façade of the Hilton Conrad Hotel, where I usually stay when in the city. Two large cruise ships were moored close by and were a blaze of colored lights. The skies had cleared somewhat since my arrival, and the city was sparkling with light in the evening darkness, reflecting in the waters of the Sea of Marmara. A delicious 4-course meal was presented to satisfy my appetite and it started with a small slice of spinach and feta cheese, baked in super thin layers of puff pastry and accompanied by a Greek salad, topped with a light lemon oil dressing. So far so good and delicious. I had previously selected a dry white wine which surprisingly went very well with the steak, baked squash and broccoli which was the main entrée, followed by a plate of chilled fruit, including fresh figs (I adore figs) topped with Greek yogurt, sour, cold and wonderful. By 9:30pm I had enjoyed a great dinner, people-watched the restaurant and viewed the city of Istanbul glowing against the night sky – now it was time to crash and get some sleep….I was half dead on my aching feet. Set my smart phone alarm for 7:30am and dropped into bed – I was asleep soon as my head hit the pillow.

The persistent chiming of my smart phone had my eyes open after a fairly decent night’s rest – at least I could see clearly and my lower back and legs had recovered from the cramping of that dreadful economy seat. Breakfast was served in the Istanbul Room again on the 6th floor, but on the other side of the hotel with a view of Old Town and the waterfront. Again I grabbed a window seat so I could enjoy the comings and goings of the fishing boats. It is the main fishing season right now and there were dozens of watercraft cruising the waterway, with their nets spread behind the vessels. Istanbul is definitely known for its cuisine and the fish and seafood available here are fabulous to say the least. Fish restaurants line the waterfront, you’re spoilt for choice when deciding where to eat and prices are low. In the hotel breakfast is buffet-style with endless selections of fruit, juices, salads, olives, meats, eggs, custards and god-only-knows what else on the heavily-laden tables. Made a beeline for the coffee area and almost broke out in song when I realized I could order Turkish coffee (boiled on the stove top as opposed to drip) lightly dusted with powdered chocolate and served with piping hot milk – I’ve died and gone to coffee heaven, for sure. Two cups of that ambrosia and I was ready to peruse the rest of the menu. The fruit section had fresh figs, dried mulberries and apricots – I filled a cereal bowl with all three and topped off with fresh sour Greek yogurt and sliced almonds – can this get any better? Yes it can. 8 different types of olives, baked spinach and feta cheese sans puff pastry and sliced ham made up the rest of my breakfast – it was really good. Now it’s time to re-acquaint myself with the city.

Weather definitely cooperating for sightseeing. It’s around 60f with a chilly breeze and heavily overcast but thankfully no rain as yet. A 15-minute slow walk brought me to the Hippodrome where, during Roman occupation times, chariot races and competitive athletic events took place. I looked around for Charlton Heston (a la Ben Hur) but no doubt he was off somewhere on a coffee break. Next up was the Blue Mosque, a magnificent 17th century Ottoman edifice, famous for its 6 minarets and incredible interior, covered by thousands of hand-painted blue tiles. As it is a working mosque, I was required to remove my shoes and don the hajeb (hair covering or scarf) – no doubt my blazing red hair is an offense to both God and Man – such is life but nothing new for me. I had brought one of my hajebs from Egypt for such an event, so I was prepared. An hour roaming around and taking photos before I crossed the square and entered Hagia Sophia or St. Sophia – the great Byzantine Basilica built in the 6th century which remained the largest cathedral in the world for almost a thousand years, until it was later converted to a mosque. It now serves as a world-famous museum. I have been here a couple of times previously, but it never fails to take my breath away – the interior is stunning.

It was noon by the time I emerged back into Taksim Square, so decided to make my way towards old town and my hotel. I needed to exchange dollars and always first seek out a bank or exchange center which doesn’t charge a commission – yes, I’m cheap! A block from the hotel I found such a place and picked up 347 Turkish Lira for $100 – I’m set to go for the next couple of weeks. My room had been cleaned by this time so I kicked back, turned on CNN International and got this blog started. Stay tuned….lots more to come.

The alarm sounded at 6am and got to enjoy another great breakfast buffet before I hopped on the bus for the 5-hour drive to the northwest region of the country, to visit Gallipoli. For those reading this not familiar with the famous location, it is the peninsula where the Turks battled the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (hence the name ANZAC) along with other western nations, starting on April 25th, 1915 during WWI – the Turks won. More than 500,000 men died in this massacre and it was the trigger for both Australia and New Zealand to gain independence from Britain and become “stand alone” nations, while still remaining within the British Commonwealth. It was one of the major battles during the war and a few years ago, Mel Gibson made a movie of the same name. Stopped at three major cemeteries each dedicated to a different country – Australia’s was the most impressive with a sweeping view over the Dardanelles Strait, which separates Europe and Asia. Very solemn and moving places and apparently every April there are large contingents from “down under” arriving in Gallipoli to celebrate the event.

By mid-afternoon it was time to make tracks for the hotel where I would be spending the night – but first I had to cross the Dardanelles. What better way to do this than a ferry, which is exactly what I did. A fabulous 45-minute ride brought me to Asia and I arrived in the small town of Canakkale, which is the major jumping off point for those coming to visit the famous battlefields. The scenery from the ferry was very impressive with crusader-era forts on each side of the Strait, still apparently guarding this critical 40-mile long waterway which joins the Aegean with the Marmara Sea. Haven’t seen the sun since I landed in Istanbul 4 days ago but at least, it hasn’t rained yet. Still very overcast with strong breezes keeping the temperature in the mid 60’s around the clock – it’s cool and refreshing and I have some great photos so far.

The Kolin Hotel is a 4-star establishment just outside of town and sits right on the beach with water views from every room. A 7-story building and my room was on the 6th floor overlooking the outdoor swimming pool and Jacuzzi. Considering the size of the town, I’m surprised it can support the quality of this hotel, but then it is a very tourist area. A quick shower, change of clothes and I headed downstairs to the dining room where dinner was buffet style. Again laded tables with every type of salad, meat, vegetable, fruit, dessert, soup and bread imaginable – I swear these folks were obviously present at the feeding of the 5,000 with Jesus and have been making up for lost time ever since! Back to the room and time to switch on CNN to check out the US Stock Markets and who is shooting who these days. Long and busy day tomorrow, so I need some sleep.

Had a really rough night and wasn’t able to get any decent sleep at all….I was up and around by 6am long before the automatic wakeup call sounded. This morning will be one of the highlights of this particular trip – visiting the ancient city of Troy, praised by Homer in the Iliad and long thought to be a myth until its discovery by Herman Scheilman in the early part of the 20th century. It was a 2-hour bus ride to the excavation site of this mythical city and I was able to doze off and on before arrival.

I spent at least 3 hours wandering about, seeing not just the ruins of this fabled location but also the latest discovery, made quite recently of a much older civilization. The Troy of world fame is dated around 1,300 BC – recent excavations have unearthed red mud defense walls which have been dated to 2,500 BC – no word yet on who those folks were. Apparently the more the archaeologists dug down, the more civilized layers they found, now they believe there were 7 Troys over a period of 2,000 years. Amazing what you find out by wandering around ruins, huh? I had visions of Paris and Helen, Hector and Achilles and the 1,000 Greek ships sailing into the bay to rescue the wayward wife of Menilaus. That above sums up my Greek mythology and the story of Troy!!! And just in case anyone was wondering, I didn’t get any glimpse of Brad Pitt in the area.

Lunch was in the home of a local family just 20 minutes away from Troy, a small village up in the surrounding mountains. All home cooked food by the mother on an open fire in the small front courtyard of her house. I dined on grape leaves stuffed with spiced rice, phyllo rolls with Greek cheese, a corn soup, eggplant, bulger (cracked wheat) rice baked with tomatoes and peppers and of course baklava for dessert. It was such a great experience and I felt a million miles away from Istanbul.

Pergamon was the next stop, which in ancient times was a major trading site in the 2nd century BC and home of Galen, who is acknowledged to be the father of alternative medicine. He built the first hospital in the area and practiced as the leading physician for the city, until his death. Many of his original formulas are still in use today. Only ruins in short supply remain, but a bronze statue of this medicine man stands in the town square.

Finally the sun broke thru around midday and the temperatures climbed fast, before I knew it, the mercury was hovering around 85f and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Talk about an about-face from the climate gods. Supposed to be this way for the next few days, fingers crossed.

From Pergamon, it was a 3-hour drive to the third largest city in Turkey, the port city of Izmir with a total population of 2.5 million. It’s a major port and the home of the Turkish Navy. Izmir is a very popular tourist city and was known as Smyrna in Hellenistic times. Founded by Amazons (yes the warrior women, not the online retail merchant!) 3,500 years ago, it was named after their warrior queen. It offers a variety of impressive archaeological sites, not to mention easy access to the world-famous ancient Ephesus, which I visited last year.

Arrived at the Ege Palas Hotel after 6pm and was assigned a beautiful suite overlooking the beach….even got a king size bed which I really appreciated. Dinner was a fixed menu in the Roof Top Bar and Restaurant on the 21st floor. The food wasn’t particularly appealing and certainly not exciting enough to mention, but the views of the bay and the city blazing with light against the night sky, were incredible.

Back in my room by 10pm, I took my tablet out onto the balcony and brought this blog up to date while watching the activities of the crowd down on the waterfront corniche. It was a perfect night, warm with a gentle breeze off the Aegean and ferries passing from one side to the other. Couples strolling arm in arm and others playing Frisbee on the grass – I spent a pleasant hour “people watching” before finally calling it a night.

Didn’t set my alarm as today is one of rest and relaxation – no bus rides, no sightseeing, just a complete day to do whatever. I made my way down to the breakfast room around 9am but was disappointed in the buffet selections, so settled for yogurt, figs, a couple of breakfast pastries and coffee. I was here in Izmir a year ago so am somewhat familiar with the waterfront area. It’s a wonderful place for shopping and people-watching from the numerous cafes and coffee bars lining the main street. A little shopping is in order and then relaxing around the hotel for the majority of the day.

The weather really cooperated, with brilliant sunshine, cloudless blue skies and the mercury hitting 86f by midafternoon. After completing my hotel reviews on Tripadvisor, I took a walk along the waterfront and stopped for apple tea and pastry. Didn’t find anything I wanted to buy, but did get some great photos of Izmir and the marketplace. Back in the hotel by 2pm and grabbed a nap for a few hours, making up for the lack of sleep I’ve experienced since I arrived in Turkey. Had dinner in the hotel but was really unimpressed….the food is bland, pretty much tasteless and without any creativity – can’t have everything I guess.

On the road again bright and early and headed south to visit the World Heritage Site of Pamukkele, which is a series of “terraces” formed by millions of years of geyser water bubbling up from the depths in the form of hot springs and turning everything in sight to a beautiful blinding white. They cover an approximate area of about 2 square miles and it’s a lovely spot to spend a few hours. This was a Roman town 2,000 years ago and the ruins of their temples, baths and theatre still remain. It was a four-hour drive to reach this legendary location and I managed to spend four hours onsite, photographing the incredible white terraces and hot blue pools before returning to the bus. The place is overrun with Russians and some of the sights were not to be believed. A couple of women were strutting around in tiny bikinis and if they were under 250lbs each, I would be shocked – I still shudder at the mental image….LOL. Not a pretty sight, I assure you.

The bus now headed southeast away from the Aegean towards the Mediterranean city of Antalya – the playground for the rich and infamous (especially if you’re Russian or German) – Turkish is virtually a foreign language here. Founded by King Attalos of Pergamon as “Heaven on Earth” (and here was I, thinking that term applied to Las Vegas – who knew?) and has become a prime destination for tourists in Turkey. Long popular among yachters, the city offers the liveliest nightlife on Turkey’s southern coast, fantastic beaches and world-class shopping (world class prices as well). The Pamphylian city of Perge are the historical ruins in the area, along with the ancient city of Aspendos. All that remains of this interesting place is the theatre which is in such remarkable condition, it is still in use today after 2,800 years! The acoustics are incredible - a tour guide was actually singing from the stage and could be heard clearly from every seat.

Just outside of Antalya is the main city museum with artifacts dating back over 2,500 years. Some of the finest terra cotta pots and gold jewelry is here, including the ear rings, bracelets and necklaces found by Herman Schielman at Troy and which were photographed being worn by his wife Sophia in the famous picture. There was gold everywhere – reminded me of King Tut’s treasure in Cairo. Spent a couple of hours wandering around – impressive place.

An early morning departure as the drive to Cappadocia was a long one and en route, stopping to visit the 13th century Caravanserai of Sultanhan, a large abandoned city and shelter built on the Silk Road, whose main portal gate is considered a fine example of Turkish Sejuk art. During the Sejuk period, trade flourished requiring roads for caravan transport and inns for the traders. The Caravenserai provided these traders, both foreign and native, with heated rooms, food, medical attention, equipment repair and many other common conveniences. There is a small mosque in the middle of the courtyard’s center, known as “Kosk Mescid” where religious practices were conducted. The building resembles a large open-air castle with fortified walls and giant wooden doors which were closed and locked at sundown. Due to the value of the goods on the camel trains on the Silk Road bandits were everywhere, and this ancient Motel 6 was all that stood between the traders and probably mugging and/or death.

Cappadocia is famous for two things: the Whirling Dervishes and the rock-cut temples with ancient underground cities, dating back thousands of years. After checking into the Dinlar Hotel (I won’t bother describing this tourist hotel – not worth my words), I grabbed a quick bite down in the restaurant and got ready to depart to another Caravanserai building a few miles away, which is the home of the Dervishes. Known as “Sema”, it is the inspiration of Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi (1207 to 1273), as well as being an integral part of Turkish custom, history, belief and culture.

Once inside, I had a front row seat to watch this religious ceremony which represents an entire mystical journey, a spiritual descent through love, in which the Dervish deserts his ego, finds the truth and arrives as “The Perfect” – this is a direct quote. It consists of 6 men – five actually dance while the leader controls the movement around the stage. It’s hypnotic, watching each man going deeper and deeper into a trance while their white skirts flare out into a perfect bell. The accompanying music is from a 3-man group playing an Oud, a flute and drums – almost put me to sleep, but thankfully one of the dancers was cute enough to capture my attention for the full 45-minute performance, so all was well….LOL At the conclusion, the men file out of the room in total silence to return to their cells to meditate – given a choice, no doubt they would prefer the local bar, but that’s just my opinion. This religion is based on seven advices, first developed by Rumi when he was 25 years old. Here goes:

In generosity and helping others, be like a river
In compassion and grace, be like the sun
In concealing others’ faults, be like the night (my personal favorite, I got a LOT of faults)
In anger and fury, be like the dead<li style="color:� font-family: 'Calibri',sans-serif; font-size: 11pt; font-style: normal; font-weight: normal;">
In modesty and humility, be like the earth (not words that apply to me, obviously)
In tolerance, be like the sea
Either exist as you are, or be as you look (haven’t quite figured this one out yet)

Leaving the building, I emerged into the open air courtyard and hot cinnamon tea was served to conclude the evening – I was hoping for a shot of bourbon, but was disappointed – such is life in the Muslim world.

The next morning was the highlight of this entire trip for me – time to ride in a hot air balloon over the incredible landscape of Cappadocia. I was picked up at the hotel at 4am and after driving almost 30 minutes into the middle of nowhere the van arrived at the ballooning headquarters, to meet up with others passengers who were courageous (or stupid) enough to do this activity. Off to the launch area which is a flat field and just as the sun was about to peek out over the surrounding mountains, the balloons were ready to be filled with hot air and take to the skies. Just watching the crew prepare the balloon which would transport me to another world, was an adventure. It takes more than 2km of material to make these balloons, and the rigging and ropes are another 6kms! Passengers ride in baskets of 10, 12, 14, 18 or 20 people – I was joining a 14-person basket plus the pilot. Once the balloon was fully inflated, it was time to climb in. No it doesn’t have a door, you have to climb up the side with foot and hand holds – thank god for stretch jeans! One of the other passengers was an elderly Indian man – had to be 80 years old at the very least and not what you would consider in great shape (he could barely walk) – and getting him up and into the basket was an experience to behold. It took 3 of the crew to get him in and then it was my turn. Right at this time, the pilot was climbing into the other end of the basket where all the controls are located. One look at this gorgeous hunk was all I needed to virtually leap into the basket – and when he offered his hand so I wouldn’t fall, it was all over except for the raging hormones (mine not his) – I was definitely in lust….LOL. This promised to be a great ride and that is exactly what it turned out to be.

There is no sensation at all of movement, even when the basket first lifts off the ground. Other than the hissing of the propane tanks and the roar of the flames every time hot air was needed, it was total silence as we started to climb into the air. We soared over the magnificent Cappadocia landscape with its incredible fairy chimney rock formations and were joined by at least 70 other balloons of every color and description – god, it was so surreal! We spent 70 minutes at 7,000’ altitude covering an area of approximately 3 square miles, seeing villages, plateaus, and the open air museum of the Goreme Valley. Here is where the early Christian churches were carved out of solid rock in the Ozkonak Underground City, which is another World Heritage Site. This is one event I will never forget – what’s next – bungee jumping, sky diving? You never know with me.

Once we were back on terra firma, champagne corks were popped and we sipped bubbly and munched on sponge cookies to celebrate our flight. I even have a signed certificate of this flight, which will join my Jameson Whiskey Taster diploma from Dublin and my Rounding the Horn certificate from South America, on my travel wall back in Las Vegas.

I spent the remainder of the day exploring the underground city of Ozkonak with its early Christian churches hidden away in the rocks, to avoid Roman persecution. The wall paintings inside these churches have been dated back to the 3rd and 4th centuries AD and some have faded considerably. No pictures are allowed inside – they even station an armed guard at each entrance to ensure compliance. But I was able to take photos from outside some of them:

Time to make the return journey north and next stop was Ankara, Turkey’s capital and the third largest city in the country. First stop was the Mausoleum of Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, founder and first president of the Turkish Republic. Leading up to the front door of this mausoleum, the vast brick courtyard and monumental avenue is lined with Neo-Hittite stone statues and cenotaphs beneath its colonnades. The most noted cenotaph within this complex, is the one of General Ismail Inonu, a close comrade of Ataturk’s. The actual tomb of Kemal Ataturk lies deep within the mausoleum. The final stop of the day was the Anatolian Civilizations Museum – built in two Ottoman era buildings located very close to Ankara Castle. This museum’s unique exhibits feature Anatolian artifacts dating back to the Paleolithic Age. It is a marvelous museum and has been voted the best European one for the past four years. It displays everything in chronological order – you walk from era to era, right up to the birth of the Turkish Republic in 1923. It is stunning. Interactive displays for each era and the artifacts have to be seen to be believed. More of the Schielman Troy gold jewelry is also in this museum.

My last full day in Turkey started with an early departure from Ankara en route to Istanbul. Not three hours after my departure, the two bombings went off at the Peace and Democracy Rally with 96 dead and 247 severely wounded. No doubt about it, when I hit town, shit happens! What are the odds? My hotel was less than 6 blocks from the actual bombing site. Had it happened while I was still there, who knows if I would have gotten out of the city that day?

It’s a six-hour drive back to Istanbul – not very interesting scenery during this ride, so I kicked back and dozed for most of the trip. Arriving in this city – the only one located on two continents – at 2pm, my final sightseeing event was a cruise on the Bosphorus, the winding straits separating Europe from Asia. Humble fishing villages and contrasting suspension bridges are set against the dramatic outline of the Strait, and demonstrates the link between East and West. I have done this cruise once before, but it never gets old – this is ancient land and you are transported back to the time of the Sultans, their harams, their concubines and palace intrigue.

My flight to Amsterdam was leaving at 6am the next day and as Istanbul is such a chaotic city with heavy traffic and narrow streets, pickup for the airport was 3am. No point in trying to sleep for just a few hours, so I sat up on the hotel room’s balcony and watched as this fabled city slept. It really is magnificent with so much history to spare.

And so I fly home. Uneventful flights and I was walking into my house by 4pm local time, that same day. Now I have just 2 days to relax, unpack, repack and prepare for the next adventure…..stay tuned folks, it only gets better! Cheers.

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