Last week, I introduced my new nostalgia column, "Turkey's Hidden Top 10", where I go into some of the hidden gems in the beautiful country that is Turkey. You can check out the 1st iteration here. The previous issue talked about another old neighborhood in Istanbul that houses some of its famous history and cultural diversity.
In honor of summer, this blog is about the Turkish Riviera. Turkey has a long beautiful coastline with some of the most beautiful and active spots on the Mediterranean. If you're looking for a great way to map out your trip here, check out this post.
If you're looking to get a combination of the adventure and relaxation this region supplies, look no further than three little towns: Xanthos, Letoon, and Patara.
This UNESCO Heritage site is a waymark on the Lycian Way, which is the Appalachian Trail of Turkey; but older, hotter, shorter, and with a nicer finish. Xanthos is famous because it was the capital of the Lycian Federation until the invasion of the Persians in the 4th Century BC. What remains are the Lycian Acropolis (the Roman one as well) and many ornate Lycian sarcophagi, the most famous being the Harpy Monument.
It's a surprise there's this much left because after the Lycians found out the Persians were coming, they murdered all the women and then committed mass suicide, with only about 80 families opting out.
Another UNESCO site, Letoon has a history that is closely tied with Xanthos. It's the next stop on the Lycian Way after Xanthos and is an important religious site. You can find Hellenistic Temples and inscriptions written in Lycian, Greek, and Aramaic. Some even detail a visit from Alexander the Great.
The greatest lore surrounds Mithridates VI of Pontus. Wanting to clear a grove of trees on his way to sacking the city of Patara, he has a nightmare about the importance of the trees and the repercussions if he were to cut them down. He relented and they won the battle. The importance of the grove lasted so strongly and deeply to those that lived there that its inhab-itants blessed the site every generation for over 1000 years and was even christened in the 700s.
Patara was the primary port of Lycia, you can see why with their 11 miles (18km) of continuous beach. A dip in the pristine water is definitely called for if you've just finished the Lycian Way. However, the city has its own historical significance. It has many ruins - like a 40 ft. tall lighthouse from the 1st century AD - but it's most famous as the home of St. Nicholas or Santa Claus. This makes Patara a significant pilgrimage site, but I'd prefer just going to the beach.
A middle-aged man passes under a vivid yet rustic sign that reads BÜYÜLÜ FENER, which fits like a puzzle piece among the colors of cafes and apartments that flood this block in Balat. He pushes open a glass door that rests under a row of rainbow stained glass. Once inside he’s greeted with a welcome from the owner, Gediz, as he scans the walls and shelves. This isn’t your typical antique shop, which pop up all over the neighborhood.
A Unique Antique
Not just because Gediz is the only female owner in the area, but because instead of the other shops where you feel like you’re walking into an old Ottoman tea house, here it’s like you’ve entered the Art Director from Turkish Mad Men’s supply warehouse. On the walls are rows of small tube TVs, record players, and typewriters flashing with vibrant colors. One of the record players spins a song from the 1960s that only the Turks seem to recognize.
A Piece of our Past
The man’s eyes stop on an unassuming collection of retro cigarette packages. “Can I buy just this one?” he asks. Gediz tells him of course, but that it’s not worth much without the rest of the collection. “That’s fine. They used to sell this box in Cyprus when I was a kid there. So, when I saw it it immediately brought me back to my time there as a child.”
And that’s why people come to Büyülü Fener (magic lantern in Turkish), not necessarily to find the next rare find of the antiquing world, but to bring back a fond memory or experience. Gediz told me that what really separates Büyülü Fener from the other antique stores is that hers isn’t one; it’s a nostalgia shop.
Balat a Microcosm of Praxis
In a city that is rapidly modernizing, the gentrification can be dispiriting. And, when your commute consists of passing block after block of Soviet-style apartment buildings, you want to find the colors, diversity, and romance of the storied Istanbul. That’s what propelled Fener-Balat to become such a hotspot for tourists, expats, and locals alike. Büyülü Fener fits this neighborhood aesthetic perfectly. It’s what drew Gediz here in the first place. Cihangir had become flooded with overpriced housing and Karaköy had been overrun with chain stores, making a small business nearly impossible. But here, every business is personally owned and new people are moving in droves, but they haven’t destroyed the neighborhood’s character. In fact, as long as they adapt to their surrounding culture they can help enhance it. The neighbors across the street are Bulgarian immigrants on the first floor, Syrians on the 2nd, and from eastern Anatolia on the 3rd. Imams walk the street and wave at the employees from the nearby Ecumenical Patriarchate. Women with head scarves will chat with their neighbors in mini-skirts. Gediz says there’s a weird balance where if you don’t judge, no one will judge you. This is why Fener-Balat is where the city on the cusp of two worlds analogy comes alive. When you live in a sterile apartment and work a sterile job, it feels like the old Istanbul is dead, but you can still find it here.
I always assumed that antique shops were a staple of the neighborhood, but apparently, I was wrong. Büyülü Fener was only the 5th and opened a little over 2 years ago. Now there are 19, with that number changing every day. While the store may be new, Gediz tells me that opening it has been her dream since she was a teenager. After daring the corporate world for many years, while simultaneously filling her apartment to the brim, she decided to pursue her dream to open her own place and live the laid-back lifestyle of Balat.
A Bit of Nostalgia
She began collecting when she was 16. At first, it was anything that interested her, but then it slowly morphed into attaining collections as well. The evidence is on display everywhere. There’s an eclectic record collection with many hailing from Turkey’s rock heyday in the 1970s summed up with a Barış Manço print in the front row.
Apparently records are making a comeback and many people who buy them don’t even own the players. However, she still sells them, and they all work because Gediz and different specialists team up to restore all the gadgets and electronics in the store. She will buy paintings and photos that barely get settled on the wall before they’re sold. Retro gas lamps are probably the highest selling item for locals, but tourists love trinkets because they can fit them in their suitcase. There are collections of old soda bottles, miniature alcohol bottles (still full), postcards, and a slew of things that you didn’t even know would make you feel nostalgic.
The nostalgia bug hits me hard when I see an old tin toy car that looks like a larger version of a Hot Wheels toy. Across from the entrance, you’ll notice a giant one, like a Cadillac version of all those Fisher-Price commercials I saw as a kid where you actually can ride in the car. Not one to show bias, a miniature burgundy stroller, perfect for a toddler to play house in, rests opposite the car and in front of the original signage for Balat Hastanesi.
I bee-line my way towards the sign and begin sweeping through the box of Swiss and Turkish postcards underneath it, I can’t help but read all the messages people wrote their loved ones that now live on through the curious eyes that pry into them. It seems every item in the store has a story. A special one sits in the corner of the store on a 1950s era stove top. An old cast iron sauce pan lacquered in floral patterned paint looks banal at first. But, Gediz tells me these were exclusively made in Western Europe and discontinued there about 40 years ago with the development of lightweight cooking materials.
She lifts up the top to an engraved “Made in Turkey”. “It’s the only one I’ve ever seen in all my years of collecting that was made here,” she says. So, maybe the rare finds are here as well.
The Business of Antiquing
I finally ask her how she knows what to buy and that it will sell? She says it’s impossible to predict what items people will buy, so she gave up trying. Instead, she buys things that she’d want to decorate her home with and that sometimes that’s beyond just an eye for commerce. “It’s hard for me to sell some of this stuff because I like it and I become sort of attached to it,” Gediz tells me. She then shows me her favorite item, a toy robot resembling R2D2 and when you open its head there’s a cassette player inside. I ask her how much she would charge for something like that. “It’s not for sale. This is still part of my personal collection.”
If you think you can pry it from her, come to Büyülü Fener in Balat from 10-7 any day but Monday and try.
If you've seen The Martian and thought you too would like to colonize Mars, you actually don't need to go as far you'd think. Matt Damon flew out to Wadi Rum, Jordan, which is also the home of the famous Lawrence of Arabia during WWI. There are numerous sites, both historical and geological, but the real jewel is the insight that you gain into the Bedouin culture and lifestyle. We signed up with Wadi Rum Nomads who are one of the top rated companies because the tours are informative, comfortable, reliable, but mostly because the people who organize it are friendly and open about their lives in the desert. Our guide, Atillah, told us about chasing his pet camels into Saudi Arabia, growing up as one of 30 kids, and hunting. My favorite was about the tiger that once got loose in the desert.
There's different trips and varying lengths you can do from riding a camel or jeep for a morning or up to nine days of walking. We opted for a day of visiting all the major sites followed by a night camping under the stars. The walking treks can be intense as it's hot and climbing sand dunes are much harder then they appear. But, if you still want some of that, you'll get it. Jeep tours are 95JOD for 1 person or 55JOD if you're 2-4 people.
Below, are some of the awe inspiring spots that the Nomads team will show you along the way.
The first stop on the tour ties is connected to Wadi Rum's most famous story, that of T.E. Lawrence or more famously known as Lawrence of Arabia. The Brit who helped lead the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans in WWI. For the Bedouins, the spring has been a major life force for centuries. Now, the water flows through piping, but you can climb the rocky hillside and simulate what the Bedouins used to have to go through to get a drink. With gorgeous views of the Red Desert ahead of you it's a great introduction to the beauty and strain of the valley.
This quick jaunt is a break from the sun, but also protects ancient Arabic inscriptions and ancient Nabatean hieroglyphics. The mountain appears daunting; however up close it's a quick walk to see the inscriptions that put into perspective the history and alien nature that desert holds in all its nooks and crannies.
Abu Khashaba Canyon
The hardest walk of the day tour, but still a moderate hike. Words don't really do justice to the experience - walking through the middle of sandstorm, the only respite being a lush oasis encapsulated by a silver haze. The thing I least expected about Wadi Rum (and Jordan, in general) was its palatial size. Unlike pink sand beaches in the Bahamas that are beautiful but manipulated on Instagram, out here everything was bigger and more striking than I'd seen before.
Um Fruth Rock Bridge
The most visited locale in the preserve, this bridge is worth the vertigo-inducing climb. It's also much easier going up then down. However, the view is worth it. A 30 meter climb with nice panoramas, make sure you arrive early as it can be difficult to get a shot of you on your own.
This dune is the perfect spot to watch the sunset. Some days there will be those elusive watercolor-like skies. However, ours was almost like a negative photograph. There were all the colors of the desert streaming across the ground with white and silver streaking through the sky. A truly unique view, that taught me those cotton candy skies online aren't the only immaculate sunsets. Weather permitting around here is where you'll sleep.
The full day trip will also bring to a massive red sand dune, which is a bit arduous, but worth it to sand board down; Lawrence of Arabia's house, where he stayed to endure the tough desert winter, but more interestingly, the home was supposedly built by Nabateans; and also the Little Bridge, which is smaller than Um Froth, but fun to climb around nonetheless.
The most beautiful bit of the evening came after an unexpected disappointment. Weather prevented us from sleeping out under the stars in a bivouac tent, instead we were brought to one of the guide's uncle's camp where we were treated to Bedouin music and home cooked food, as we fell asleep beneath the stars or in a makeshift cabin. A magical way to end the night.
During celebrations many people wave about the colors red, green, and yellow. They have a beautiful hue when the flags wave about and, not coincidentally, these are also the colors of the Kurdistan flag so many Kurds hoist their flags during the parades. In many parts of Turkey this practice can be extremely polarizing. The tenuous relationship between the Turkish government and the Kurdish people has the bloodstains of terrorism and military intervention drowning the diplomacy that is barely treading water.Read More
Chris and I were lucky enough to sit down with improv comedian/jack of all trades, Tyler Denison, to talk about the comedy scene as well as his personal experiences in Istanbul - with some great anecdotes and life lessons thrown in for good measure. Give it a download on iTunes (and us a rating while you're at it!) or if you prefer you can find the link on soundcloud.
A heads up - there's a foul word or two thrown in, but otherwise the content is still pretty PG. (Sorry, Ginny!)
In episode 2, Chris and I delve deeper into the idea of living in Istanbul by talking to long time resident, Tarik. He runs the website yabangee.com, which is a resource for all things Istanbul. Chris and I have been contributors over there for the past 2 years, so we knew Tarik would be a great person to ask about what's really out there in Istanbul for those of us who stayed past the usual vacation period. You can listen here or find us on iTunes by searching Into Istanbul.
Giving us a rating and a comment (or even just a listen) would really mean the world to us. If you missed our 1st episode don't worry you're not going to miss any vital information, but we do provide some more background on what we're doing.
So, if you want to check that out you can find it here.
Thanks and hope you enjoy!
Beer in Istanbul is a touchy subject for a lot of expats, who generally fall into a few camps when it comes to preference. You have your beer snobs that scoff at the idea of drinking Efes or Bomonti, or pretty much anything else you can buy at a grocery store for less than 8TL. We get it, your favorite microbrewery brews on their organic farm on the top of some mountain in Vermont with hops plucked by the hands of virgins; we just don’t want to hear about it every round (who am I kidding, I sometimes fall into this group). Then there are those who drink alcohol like water. Mosquitos don't go near them because they smell permanently of rakı and they will guzzle down whatever swill you throw at them. Finally, there’s the rest of us, who are just tired of having only one or two choices at a pub that are actually from the same company (look it up — Efes owns and brews most beers in Turkey) and occasionally like drinking something a little different. Thankfully, it seems that because of rising beer prices in Turkey, there are two new Turkish options that are becoming more prevalent and reasonable (if you can find them): Gara Guzu and Pera. I’m going to try to guide you to your best option regardless of whatever camp you fall in.
Gara Guzu — which is how “kara kuzu,” or black sheep, is pronounced in a regional dialect — has two styles available right now: Amber Ale and Blonde Ale. Both are a little easier to find than Pera. With that said, I’ve still only seen the Blonde Ale at bars (and only at Joker No. 19 and United Pub, both in Beşiktaş). It ran me 12 TL, but at Koç Market in Cihangir I found both for 5.50 TL. If you really want to try these beers on a night out, the aforementioned pubs have them, as do a few other places in Beşiktaş. I’ve also seen them in Urban Cafe, located off of Istiklal. Finally, you can try your luck in markets around Taksim and Beşiktaş that carry larger liquor selections.
As for their flavors, I prefer the Blonde Ale. In fact, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. It has a crisp and slight citrus flavor with a slightly bitter aftertaste. It’s a lighter beer with a matching golden color that goes down smooth. The blonde has a 5% ABV so you can put a few down without feeling too heavy. It’s probably best when the weather starts heating up. I suggest eating it with lighter fare: chicken, seafood, salads, and greens. It also can take the bite out of spicy foods.
The Amber Ale is also pleasant. It would be a somewhat run-of-the-mill option in parts of the world with a heavy drinking culture, but here it’s the Dom Perignon of amber ales. It’s got a bitter and hoppy taste, but it’s not overpowering. It has a 4% ABV, and is a good choice if you’re tired of the sweetness of Efes and want something to go with your burger, wings, or anything fried.
Pera, which was allegedly the original name of Beyoğlu, was a little harder to find, but you’ve got more options when you do. They produce a saison dubbed 2. They also have a malt that’s more of a kölsch called 1. Finally, they have 3 (big surprise on the name) which is a smoked beer. The saison has a similar taste to wheat beers like Hoegaarden or Blue Moon. The others are styles that you probably can’t find anywhere else in Istanbul. I will warn you now: These last two aren’t for the casual consumer and definitely are more geared for the beer snobs of Istanbul.
The first one I tried was the kölsch, which they labeled as a malt. It has a light golden color like other kölsches and is 4.1% ABV. It’s sweet and smooth when it first goes down, but is followed by an aftertaste that’s eerily similar to how Icy Hot smells. It didn’t leave a great impression on me, if you couldn’t guess, but I’d definitely take it over Miller Lite or something similar. At a store, I found a 50 cl can of this beer for 5 TL. Compare that to the bar, where it was 17 TL. So I recommend picking this one up at a store and drinking it at home with some spicy food.
Next, I tried the smoked beer. Again, this is definitely for the niche consumer. I haven’t seen this one in any bars yet, but I did find it at Tekelist in Beşiktaş (along with the others from this article) for 5 TL. It has an amber color with an ABV of 5.1%. The flavor was difficult for me at first because it tastes like you’re drinking the grease from a grill. However, it grew on me. I’ve heard that if you eat smoked or grilled meats with it, the meat offsets the heavy smoked flavor, which this definitely has. Underneath that you can find a roasted malt, which tastes quite good if you can get over the smokiness.
The last one I tasted was the saison aka Magic Quality Beer or, simply, 2. I’m biased because I like this style in general, but found this to be the most palatable of the bunch. It’s 5 TL for a can at Tekelist and 5% ABV. It has a sweet taste and a bright gold color. It matches well with any food I can think of and if you’re a fan of more traditional flavors, this beer should be your go to out of Pera’s selection.
The Best of the Best
Overall, my favorite was Gara Guzu’s Blonde Ale, with Pera’s 2 following close behind. However, I’ll acknowledge that personal preference is individual, so I included a chart to show which one of these you might prefer:
Note: The blonde ale is closest to a wheat beer. The amber is closest to an IPA, American macro lager, or pale ale. The Kölsch, probably Pilsener (with a bite) and the smoked is nearest thing to a porter or stout you’ll find here. If you get sour on the flow chart, you’ll probably want to get the saison.
Where to Find Them
If you know any bars that have a large selection of microbrews there’s a chance they have one of these. Also, you can do what I did and call or message the place on Facebook or check eksisozluk.com. People upload on there pretty regularly with the locations they’ve found these beers. Please comment below if you know places that have these beers on offer — help me out!
A version of this article was originally posted here.
P.S. - There have been some major developments in this department in the past year, so I will do some "research" and post my findings.
After that if it’s breakfast time check out Betty Blue, but you really can’t go wrong anywhere down here. If it’s lunch, Met Et Doner is rated the 4th best Dönerci in the city. Work off the food by dropping into the art galleries or figuring out a way into Greek Orthodox Church of St. Panteleimon.Read More
Like many places in Turkey, there’s a story behind Lake Sapanca’s name. In fact, it derives from a myth that many locals apparently still believe. Sapan is the Turkish word for slingshot, and allegedly an old man carrying one happened across the original town asking for a glass of water. No one was willing to spare one, so on his way out he cursed the entire town to be submerged in a flood. As the story goes, the town was flooded and Lake Sapanca was created.
What To Do
The villagers, awestruck by this prophetic act, deemed this old man with a slingshot worthy of remembrance. Some even say that the original town’s mosque still sits at the bottom of this massive lake.
Regardless of the validity of this story (needless to say, I have my doubts…), I want to thank whatever or whoever created this serene and peaceful reservoir. Located just past Izmit, Lake Sapanca is easily accessible by train, bus or car from Istanbul. The area is loaded with activities for all seasons both on the lake and off, with accommodations that range from camping to luxury spas and resorts. It’s a beautiful weekend destination that made me feel like I was in another world, even though it’s only a short jaunt from the concrete jungle that is Istanbul.
There are a variety of ways to get to Sapanca, the simplest being driving. Having your own wheels is also beneficial because there are nearby areas that can only be accessed by car – it is possible to get these places using a combination of buses and cabs, but that can eat up time and be inconvenient. There’s a high-speed train from Pendik to Arifiye (12 TL) that takes an hour and usually leaves five times a day. You can then take a cab from Arifiye to central Sapanca, which costs around 30 TL and takes about 20 minutes. You can also take various tourist buses. VIP goes directly to Sapanca, while the other companies go to Adapazarı Merkez (approx. 25 TL), where you can get a bus to Sapanca Istasyonu for 3 TL. The bus journey will take you no longer than 2-3 hours. Actually, we found that it took longer to get across the second Bosphorus bridge from Esenler then it did to get from Beykoz to Sapanca.
Where to Stay
On the lake, there’s a lot of high-priced villas and homes for rent, and there are also expensive resorts with spas and pools. The most famous is the Richmond Nua Wellness Spa, but a room will run you around $300 a night. I stayed at a place called Ogun House Hotel that was pretty central, clean, comfortable, had bikes that guests were free to use, and was about a sixth of the price of the nearby spas and resorts. One of the employees even gave us a ride around, explained some of the history and showed us points of interest. But if you want something a little more out in the woods or just really want to escape the crowds, there are a lot of campsites around Kartepe, about 20 minutes from the lake, as well as spots surrounding the lake itself where you can either pitch your tent or pay for an actual site.
On the Lake
Once you venture from your hotel or campsite, you’ve got a plethora of options. Fishing is a big draw here, either from the shores or a boat. Trout (alabalık) is the main catch, and you can find it in restaurants all around the lake. In the summer, swimming is obviously popular along with water skiing, canoeing and kayaking. There’s also little stands all along the shoreline where you can rent paddle boats.
As for villages, there’s the signature Sapanca, with its waterfront lined with cafes – the perfect spot for breakfast. We went to Gulizar, which had quite a large breakfast buffet for 30 TL. In the main traffic circle you’ll find some tea gardens and a bar or two (be forewarned the area is on the conservative side – there aren’t many tekels or bars – so you may want to BYOB). If you travel in the other direction on the waterfront away from the restaurants it will take you to the yürüyüş yolu. It’s a pretty bike and walking path that is a good place for your morning run or just an afternoon lounging in the grass. There are also benches and picnic areas if you prefer to have a cookout. We had dinner at Sasa Harmanlık, which is located right before the start of the bike path. It has decent enough food with a dining section situated on a pier over the water.
Kırkpınar is another place where you can lie in the grass along the shore. It’s about a 20-30 minute bike ride from the center of Sapanca, but definitely worth the trek. There’s a number of tree farms on the way, sporting different types of firs and pines that made the ride smell like a living room during the Christmas season. When you finally get to Kırkpınar there’s a beautiful little strip of grass along the lake, dotted with brides and grooms having their wedding photos taken, where you can grab tea or have a barbecue. If you want to head inland, there’s a lot of farmland and an interesting rural landscape that stretches for a couple of miles. Some of these farms have in-house restaurants and sell their own organic products (although there is debate about the legitimacy of the organic claims at some of these places). Otherwise, to get into the more scenic sections inland you need to hop in a car and drive for about half an hour.
Around the Lake
When you do make it inland – and I suggest you do – the big tourist draw is Kartepe. Mainly a ski mountain and resort in the winter, there’s also a fair amount of trekking to be done on foot or ATV during the rest of the year. I didn’t get to see much in the few days I visited, but I’m definitely going back to explore the views. One side gives you Lake Sapanca with the other showing off the Gulf of Izmit. All of this with vistas of the Samanlı Mountains in between.
Another must see all year round is Maşukiye. Located more towards the base of Kartepe, the area is known for its series of man-made waterfalls that wind around breakfast balconies and cabins. When you get tired of all the people, you can go for a walk on the nearby trails. If you’re more of an adrenaline junkie there are ATV tours that will let you see more in less time (they’re also easy enough for beginners). If that’s too much excitement for you, there’s a pretty mild zip-line before the restaurant area where you can at least get a little rush before you relax at a cafe and listen to the water stream down. My biggest disappointment was that I didn’t take advantage of the paintball courses halfway up the road – who doesn’t love shooting at your friends in a beautiful, natural setting?
Lake Sapanca offers leaf peeping in the fall, skiing in the winter, and boating and fishing in the spring. But whenever you decide to visit, it will always provide you a quiet and peaceful escape into nature.
If you liked this post, please check where it was first published over at yabangee.com where you can see other informative posts about Turkey from myself and other ex-pats and locals.
Fall is a perfect time in Cappadocia (or Kapadokya). It is an ideal climate. Distinct from the sweltering heat in the summer and the bitter cold that makes trekking and ballooning difficult to impossible in the winter. Spring can also be beautiful but can include showers without warning and ruin the idyllic views. Regardless of the season though there are many valleys, cities (above and below ground), and churches that are amazing to see any time of the year. Some locations are essential for a visit to Kapadokya. To get a significant list you can check out mappadocia, but for more in-depth hiking trails you can find numerous other sites online, or you know, a map. I'll be writing a little bit about my opinions on the best hikes and villages a bit later. Below is a small overview of the most famous and best locales in the region. Important to note, Kapadokya is a region and not a specific area; so there are many places to find and explore, but you may need to do a little bit of driving or trekking to get there.
KAYMAKLI (Underground City)
Probably the most fascinating place I've ever been to (and most claustrophobic), Kaymaklı is mostly a set of elaborate tunnels carved out of stone that doubled as homes, meeting areas, and defense fortresses. When walking around, sometimes almost crawling, you can see a winery, food storage, living rooms, kitchens, and ventilation shafts. Dug out by the Hittites over 3,600 years ago it was used as their full-time living space. Later it was used by persecuted Christians and pretty much any culture that had to hide from anyone in this region for the next 2,000 years. This city goes down about 80 meters and originally more, but earthquakes have collapsed anything deeper. I could make a post only about here and its history, but this is just a slight impression of what you'll see. If Kaymaklı is too far out of your way, then Derinkuyu is the deepest of the open sites, and there's also Özkonak. Its tunnels are slightly newer but have communication pipes and areas where they could dump hot oil on enemies in the tunnels, which the other sites don't have.
ALL THE VALLEYS
The most famous features from beautiful Kapadokya are its fairy chimneys, and some of the best places to see them are in Kapadokya's immense valleys that are great for camping or just hiking, especially in the fall. Ihlara Valley is a vibrant green canyon carved by the Melendiz River and flush with wildlife. It's a pretty relaxing walk that totals about 14km. There are many famous fresco churches and tea gardens that line the trail and culminates with Selime Monastery.
Pigeon Valley whose stone walls are lined with pigeon houses that used to fertilize the land runs from Üçhisar to Göreme.
You've got the aptly named Rose and Red Valleys that are connected and lead to many churches and stellar views, as well as crazy landscapes. If you end near Ortahisar, then there are excellent viewpoints near the end of the trail next to Aktepe. Also near Ürgüp is Zemi Valley which has two paths. One takes you up with a view, and the other takes you into a valley with cave churches and green scenery. If you have kids or want a real light hike, try Swords Valley. It's next to the open-air museum in Göreme and still gives you some views of the fairy chimneys and cave churches. Finally, there's Love Valley which is slightly more difficult than Swords and gets its name from its distinct, non-gender neutral fairy chimneys. It's still suitable for children (if they don't make the connection to the valley's anatomical resemblance) and picnicking but gives you some chances to climb around and challenge yourself a little bit if you want.
But not every fairy chimney looks the same and two areas are unsurpassed regarding individuality and beauty. Devrent Valley is the first and is famous for its personified formations like Napoleon's Hat and the Camel. There are numerous other unique configurations, and you could spend a few hours hiking around to find them all. Paşabağ is apparently the location with the highest frequency of fairy chimneys, and they have dark, mushroom-looking heads and slender stone stems.
These were formed from centuries of volcanic and meteorological activity that have eroded away the weaker stone but could do nothing to the more hardened, darker basalt. There are a few vistas to see and chimneys to climb into that provide good photo ops. You can hike around the ridges or look up at the vents in wonderment.
CITIES OF KAPADOKYA
After days of hiking, you may want to reintegrate into society and talk to people. The most significant city (and biggest airport) is in Kayseri. I didn't spend much time here, and there's not a whole lot to do. In general, it's a very conservative city that is a little removed from the more exciting parts of the region but gives you easy access to all the crucial locales and has some of its history as well.
Nevşehir, a smaller province, but the slightly more interesting looking place (has the other, smaller airport for the region). It contains the village of Ortahisar which is built into the side of what looks like falling over wizard's hat and at night looks like Mickey Mouse's from "Fantasia." It's a little closer to everything than Kayseri but a little less accessible from other parts of the country.
The main cities of Kapadokya for sleeping and eating are Ürgüp and Göreme. Ürgüp has Temenni Tepesi which is a hill with a panorama over the entire town and a not so good restaurant but lovely tea garden at the top that used to be the town's public library. There's also a tomb that is sometimes open where you can walk around. Otherwise, in Ürgüp you have Ziggy's restaurant, which is fantastic albeit a little expensive. Up the hill from there, you have Turasan Şarap Evi which is the predominant winery in the area. Here you can buy most of the wine that you'd get at restaurants for a quarter of the price. And of course, you can do a tasting so you can figure out which ones are your favorite.
Göreme is a lot smaller population wise, so you have a lot fewer options for food and nightlife. However, if you stay here, you'll be situated closer to the unbelievable Göreme Open Air Museum which sports the most well-preserved and diversely colored church frescoes. Karanlık Kilise is an extra fee but is a must see. Nearby there's a lot more hiking possibilities and cave churches dotting the landscapes of Göreme National Park. But the way to start the day and catch it all in view is by taking a hot air balloon ride up at sunrise and picking the spots you want to see from the ground.
Finally, for the winter enthusiasts, you have the tall peaks of the Taurus mountain range. The tallest mountain in Anatolia is Erciyes which is about 13,000 ft. or 4,000 m tall. You can climb it, but it is a technical climb and is snow-capped all year-long. Apparently, there are a couple of caves and some inscriptions from ancient cultures near the summit. Or you can just go skiing about 1,200 m down from the top.
The 2nd highest mountain in Anatolia is Hasan (3,268 m or 10,722 ft.) it's about a six-hour climb from the highest point reachable by car and supposedly gives a good view of all of Kapadokya. The last mountain in the region is Aktepe where you get the beautiful views without all the work.
About 1,350 m tall, its erosion is still forming Devrent, Rose, and Red valleys. Sunset point gives you a view of the mountain and all the valleys and is even more spectacular during sunrise when there are tons of hot air balloons flying around.
While this post is a little long-winded it still only covers a fraction of the valleys you can hike, the unique villages you can see, and the history you can let seep into your brain. Hopefully, this gives a little insight into the multitudes of experiences that await you that I hope to delve into later on.
Ramadan in Turkey (or Ramazan in Turkish) is by far the most famous of the Muslim holidays and definitely the longest. The Muslim calendar is lunar and is about 11 days shorter than the Gregorian Calendar. So, that's why you'll see the dates change every year. Ramadan is one month and is a physically and mentally arduous experience. For some, it's also a spiritually enriching one as well.
Some basic facts about Ramadan:
- 29 or 30 days every year
- Culminates in a 3-day long holiday of eating everything you can. In Arabic, this is commonly called Eid. Turks refer to it as Şeker Bayramı (Festival of Sweets) or just Bayram in Turkish.
- Most famously you cannot eat during the daylight, drink water (or anything else), smoke, or participate in pleasures of the body. This practice is called Oruç in Turkish.
- There are many exemptions: sickness, old age, pregnancy and breastfeeding, prepubescence, menstruation, or traveling all exempt you from having to fast. Though, I believe some of these only mean you need to make up the lost day later, feed someone less fortunate, or give enough money to charity to afford one day's worth of food. This practice is referred to as fidyah in Arabic.
- Suhur is your morning meal. You can often expect to be woken up for it by people walking down the street banging a loud bass drum.
- Iftar is the nightly meal, and you can often get it free at mosques (or Camii in Turkish)
- Niyetliyim - The phrase you say to those who offer you food or drink during the day. The closest translation I've been told is, "I'm intended."
- It's the fourth of the Five Pillars of Islam. It is mandatory in some countries with punishments ranging from a small fine to imprisonment.
- Kaffaraah means atonement and that if you deliberately break your fast, you need to fast for 60 straight days or pay for the food of 60 people for one day.
- Laylatul-Qadr commemorates Mohammad's revelation of the Qu'ran. While meditating, he allegedly was spoken to by the Archangel Gabriel who motivated him to create the holy book.
How To Fast
This year is a rather intense year for fasting as June 20th was the third or so day of Ramadan and also was the longest day of the year. So far the meals have been at approximately 3:30 AM and 8:40 PM this year. So, you have about seven hours to eat and have to go through the lengthy hot hours of the afternoon thirsty and hungry. Personally, I'm trying to do it for about a week until I travel back to the States (using that travel exemption!). I'll let everyone know how it goes. I've known a few non-Muslims who have done the entire month a few times.
Why People Fast
Which kind of brings me to the next point and that's why you fast. You see people from other faiths (or no faith) attempt it and while the holiday is intended for Muslims other religions throughout history have employed fasting, and the meaning is similar.
- Achieve taqwa (Turkish: takva), and it's mainly the purification of your soul and mind to be closer to God. By being selfless and fasting for Allah.
- Shows self-discipline. It supposedly develops one's mind from the physical to the moral and therefore to the spiritual level by suppressing carnal desires.
- To help you empathize with those less fortunate than you. By stripping yourself of indulgences, you are supposed to understand the plight of poverty better and thus make you a more ethical person and help you achieve taqwa.
Ramadan in Turkey
With all that said, Ramazan in Turkey can actually be a normal, if not quiet, time. It's a nice change of pace for a bustling city of 16 or so million people. Many people don't fast or try it for a few days and give up. It's business as usual with a lot of places. Offices remain open, as do restaurants. In more conservative areas you probably want to avoid eating, drinking, or smoking in public. Though no one will say much, you may get some stares either because that person is irritable from hunger or because they are just so hungry that they can't take their eyes off your sandwich.
When Ramadan (the 9th month on the Islamic calendar ends) the holiday begins, and that's when most people leave for vacation. It's a public holiday in Turkey and busses and trains are free. There are often big feasts with friends and family. Before you eat you are supposed to donate food to the poor equal to every member of your household before the Bayram prayer (it's worth noting now that prayer is essential during Ramadan as it is in other days in Islam, with Iftar coming after the evening prayer and Suhur before the 1st). The first day of Bayram you wake up extra early to pray and go around in your best clothes. Children will come around and kiss your right hand and press it to their foreheads, and then you are supposed to give them candies or small amounts of money, kind of like Halloween.
It's really an exciting time and a great insight into religious devotion and purpose, as well as just culturally. I'll check back in a few weeks to let you know if I failed or not. Also, I'll admit to not being a religious scholar. I know I'm missing a lot but if there are any glaring inaccuracies feel free to leave a comment.
Ramazanınız Mübarek Olsun!
In Greek, it means Holy Wisdom and the building served as a Greek Orthodox Church when it was ordered to be built by Emperor Justinian close to 1,500 years ago. It was the Byzantine's 3rd attempt at a grand church after the 1st two were taken down by fires and riots. Completed in 537 AD, it stands as a landmark of the area's Christian, Muslim, and imperial history. It was converted into a Mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453 and has been a Museum since 1935.
There's a lot to process when you get in there. So, I'm going to give you a little help with some of the most important locales. Whether you don't want to pay for the audio tour or guide, just want to impress someone with your knowledge of near eastern history, or you aren't in Turkey and want to see what you're missing out on. Here is a view of some of the most impressive sites in the world.
The first thing you'll notice when you finally get inside (Get a museum card, so you don't have to wait in line!) is the Imperial Door. This massive bronze door opened only when the Emperor arrived and sat beneath one of the most impressive mosaics, which I'll mention later and opens up to a majestic view of the lower gallery where most of the attractions stand. This is because churches at this time focused on the east side of their corridors. This trend continued when it became a mosque because Mecca is south-east of Istanbul and therefore the mihrab and other vital facets are located in this area. Above the door sits one of the more famous mosaics, which I'll talk about later. Also, when you enter, there are two massive indents in the floors that were caused by two statues that stood for close to 1000 years.
Where the Imam would lead Friday services, it sits on top of about 40 steps where you can allegedly see the imprints from the original chair. It has an epic stature next to the altar and overlooking the coronation block. It also stands near the mihrab (formerly the altar) in the apse area. When you visit, you'll notice the mihrab is slightly off center. This is because it pointed straight to Mecca (south-east of Istanbul) and was altered from its centered position during the Mosque conversion. Above the altar is a mosaic of the Virgin Mary and another one of the archangels Michael and Gabriel (though these images are hard to discern nowadays). The minbar is just an aspect of maybe the most fascinating part of the museum, the apse.
The apse that is mentioned and the picture above incurs quite the crowd in front of it. It was the central area for spectacles at Hagia Sophia. The throne directly faced another area that is of particular importance: The Omphalion.
Ostensibly, it's just a spot on a marble floor with different color tiles and doesn't appear to hold any importance, besides the fact that it's roped off. In actuality, it's the spot of the Byzantine Emperor's coronation. This exact spot was the place for emperors such as Basil I & II, Irene, Zoe, and Alexius, to see their ascension to power.
I find this to be such an important site because even though it has an unimposing appearance. It is the exact spot of the transference of authority for the most influential person of the most potent empire for about 1,000 years.
The Islamic calligraphic roundels that hang from the walls amongst the numerous Christian mosaics are another fascinating aspect of the Museum and provide a contrast between Christian and Islamic history. These roundels are the largest calligraphy plates in the world and spell the names of Allah, Mohammad, and six of Mohammad's brothers. They were apparently placed during Aya Sofya's transition into a mosque and illustrate the separation from Christian art and architecture.
Christ as Pantocrator
What Hagia Sophia is maybe most known for are its mosaics. Just like looking at a Rembrandt painting can tell you about the Dutch Golden Age or Baroque Age, these mosaics fill you in on beliefs and ideas from the Byzantine heyday, as well as their decline. The first mosaic you'll notice (and there's lots of them) is the Christ as Pantocrator (Ruler of All) above the Imperial Door.
Here you'll see Christ seated with (who's probably) Leo VI kneeling before him. Gabriel is on the right side of the frame and Mary on the left. My shitty photography makes it difficult to recognize the book in Jesus's left hand, but the Latin inscription reads, "Peace be with you. I am the light of the world". (John 20:19; 20:26; 8:12). This mosaic dates back to the late 9th or early 10th centuries.
The Deesis Mosaic is probably the most famous and is located in the upper gallery. It marked the beginning of the Renaissance of Byzantine art. It was completed in the 13th century and is notable because of its attention to detail in facial features, vibrant colors, and because it was ordered to be created to mark the end of Roman Catholicism in Constantinople. It shows the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist pleading with Christ Pantocrator for humanity's salvation.
Empress Zoe Mosaic
Another illustrious design is the Empress Zoe Mosaic that dates back to the 11th century. You see Christ Pantocrator surrounded by Empress Zoe who holds a scroll to symbolize all her past donations to the Church, with an inscription above her head reading, "Zoe, the very pious, Augusta." Next to her, is her 3rd husband Constantine IX holding a bag of money to show his donation to the Church. His inscription reads, "Constantine, pious emperor in Christ the God, king of the Romans, Monomachus." Above Christ's head are the letters IC and XC meaning, Iēsous Khristos in Latin. The faces in the mosaic have been scratched off previously and are believed to have been initially created for another Emperor and Empress or just one of Zoe's previous husbands.
Chamber of Warriors Mosaic
The Chamber of Warriors Mosaic is the last one I'll discuss. There are numerous others to see, like the Alexander or Mary Mosaics. The Warriors' Mosaic is interesting because it flanks Mary, with baby Jesus on her lap, with Constantine I holding a model of his namesake, Constantinople, and Justinian presenting a copy of his most celebrated accomplishment, a model of the Hagia Sophia.
There are countless other beauties to behold in and around Ayasofya, including other mosaics that have as rich a history as the ones mentioned above, remnants of the 2nd Hagia Sophia, Tomb of the Sultans, the Library, the Weeping Column, the Marble Door, and many more. I can only suggest you visit this place yourself to understand truly how it feels.
Why You Need to See It
If you've been on the fence about visiting this place, then you may want to take advantage of the opportunity while it lasts. There has been a big push to convert Hagia Sophia back into a mosque, especially after comments from Pope Francis acknowledging the Armenian Genocide. Protests started on the weekend of May 23rd to turn the structure into a mosque again. Causing massive outcries from secularist Turks as well as Greeks who see Hagia Sophia as a significant feature of their religious history.
What this conversion could mean is a few things for visitors. Much like the rest of the famous mosques in Turkey, it will remain open to public visitation (probably) and close only during prayer times. The most significant changes would be the carpeting of the floor, covering items such as the coronation square. Also, the legendary mosaics on the walls will be covered with plaster as the depiction of religious figures aren't allowed. So, some of the more impressive and must-see sights will be forever hidden from view.
While the idea of changing it back to a mosque has been debated for a few years, it's only been talk up to this point so that I wouldn't freak out quite yet. Though, with the current political climate and the rising of Islamist policies from the ruling AKP, I wouldn't put it past them to push forward with this plan.
I recently went to Eskisehir, which is a city in Western Anatolia about two hundred miles southeast of Istanbul. Despite Anatolia being known more like a dry grassland plateau, the western section is rugged and green. It's covered in forests and green ridges that contrast starkly with the heavily industrialized Sea of Marmara coastline to the west and the flat urban sprawl of the capital, Ankara, to the east. When I first arrived, I didn't know what to expect, and I was just told it was a fun city and only about a three-hour train ride from my home in Istanbul. It was hyped up by friends as a kind of college town, but I was just looking forward to a weekend away. As soon as we left the train station and made our way down the main street, there was a giant mall. In front of the mall was an, "I 'heart' Eskisehir" sign, much like the famous, eponymous ones in Amsterdam.
At first, I found the structure a cheap imitation. An attempt to make the city seem like a more prominent destination by mimicking a sort of banal tourist stop. I still think about the structures in both towns that way. However, the longer I stayed, the more it accentuated the parallels between the two cities in my mind over the weekend I spent there. Amsterdam's cultural history may be more famous, but Eskisehir's is even more significant. The title means "old city" in Turkish and the founding dates back to 1000 BC. While Eskisehir wasn't home to Van Gogh and Rembrandt or any famous Turkish artists, it does house a Museum dedicated to the artistic glassware that Ottoman art is known for. Amsterdam is probably most well known for its tourist drawing Red Light District, but don't expect anything like that. So, if you want to smoke a joint and buy a hooker, Eskisehir isn't the place for you. For a predominately Muslim country though, you can find a nightlife here that is more open than any other I've seen outside of the typical expat havens and Istanbul. It has a somewhat liberal population, as well as a high number of young people that leads to a pretty big bar scene with quality foreign beers, if like me; you get tired of drinking Bomonti and Efes (The Miller and Miller High Life of Turkey). You can also find pool and ping pong tables at most places, which aren't easy to find in bars in the rest of the country.
Most of these bars run near the Porsuk River. Unlike the iconic Amstel, it doesn't cross every nook and cranny, but still bisects the city. Cafes, restaurants, and various other shops line the river. You can regularly find people sipping on tea or drinking beer or raki with the rattle of dice from a game of backgammon going on. It's an excellent alternative to the packed and expensive tourist trap that is Amsterdam (don't expect to hear people speaking English in Eskisehir as they do in Amsterdam, though). Walking along the river, I couldn't help but feel the same relaxed vibe that I had felt this summer in Amsterdam but with fewer crowds and drunk 18-year-olds.
However, if you've ever been to Amsterdam outside of the Red Light District, you know that much more defines the city than drugs and prostitution. There is an artistic feeling that permeates the air there, and maybe that's what I breathed in while in Eskisehir. Its architecture exemplifies this. When I walked along the river banks, and in the Odunpazari neighborhood I couldn't help but notice the unique houses, similar to the ones that struck me so much when I was in Amsterdam. Amsterdam's homes are noted for their long and narrow style with white trim (seen below).
Odunpazari has a style that is a little different but felt reminiscent of the one in Amsterdam. They looked like inverse images of the typical apartments above. What with them being shorter and broader with inverse color schemes. Nevertheless, I felt like I had stumbled on an older Dutch colony as I walked through.
The structural differences are probably more due to the period they were built, with Odunpazari's neighborhood dating back to about 1000 AD, while the city of Amsterdam was founded approximately 400 years later. There is also more necessity for Amsterdam's tall, thin style because of the need to conserve space, which Eskisehir doesn't have to deal with. Similarly, the Odunpazari neighborhood has numerous mosques dating back to the 1400's and 1500's much like the era most of Amsterdam's classic churches are from.
Overall, the cities provide a lot of similarities and contrasts between Turkish and Dutch culture. There's unique architecture surrounding river banks with elaborate bridges connecting the sides. Religious buildings accentuate otherwise unimpressive skylines. There are apparent differences between the Muslim culture that shaped modern Eskisehir and the social democratic doctrine of Amsterdam, but they share common traits. They are two of the most beautiful places to relax, and they embody a friendly and welcoming nature that makes me wish I could go back.