When last we heard from Mike’s dad Jim, we’d just finished a trip through Ephes, Antalya, and Cappodocia. The ‘Balloons and Ruins’ tour, you could call it. But that was a year ago, and for Jim, that’s too long to keep the wanderlust at bay. Since he didn’t have a chance to visit Istanbul last time, a return visit was on the agenda. Here’s how it went down: Istanbul (part 1)
I (Mike) hop on a bus and go to Istanbul to meet dad at the arrivals gate. (Akasha is still teaching and will join us later.) We take the bus to Taksim square, and soon enough we are in the heart of the doner district. “So much doner,” Dad says, looking at the dozens of giant inverted cones of meat spinning in the florescent light. Well, we had to have some, because when in Istanbul, you eat doner, you can’t help it.
But as good as the doners are, you come to Istanbul for history. And Dad likes the ancient sites and museums. So in the morning we head right to the big ticket tourist sites, conveniently clustered in the Sultanahmet district. When we climb off the tram, boom! it’s the moody, dust-colored domes of the Hagia Sophia, and just across a beautifully manicured plaza stands the stately and grandiose Blue Mosque. Collectively we’re up to our noses in thousands of years of history, and Dad and I are suitably awed. It’s raining a bit, so we head inside to the museums. Now, I like a good museum, but Dad LOVES a good museum, and the Topkapi museum is filled with all sorts of things to keep his eyeballs full. From sitting rooms where Sultans made battle plans to relics of Muhammed and Moses (yes of course that’s his walking stick in that curio cabinet), thousands of treasures are on display. It’s one of the benefits of being an ancient center of power: You get to ‘collect’ lots of cool stuff! Trabzon
Istanbul is great, but Turkey is huge and there’s tons to see, so we catch a plane bound for Trabzon. This is where Akasha is waiting for us – she’s finally done with school and ready to party with us on the shores of the Black Sea. She’s been wanting to visit here for years because the mountains south of the sea are so steep that the locals have a sophisticated whistle language that they call across the mountains with. We book a tour bus at the local agency and take a ride into these mountains, and get a sense of how steep they are and how remote a village can be, and why they might need a whistle language. Our driver is fearless, making a relentless assault on the switchbacks and narrow roads. And then we stop near a waterfall, with a great view of the tiny and ancient Sumela Monastery clinging to the narrow steep cliffside.
We climb up the narrow steps, take a look at the beautifully painted church. For over fifteen hundred years, generations of Christian monks stayed in this tiny niche, until World War I and shifts in population left it deserted and it was converted to a museum.
Georgia The next day we rent a car and drive east along the sea. It’s a windy and rugged drive along a coast dotted with ancient castles and palaces from the days of mythology. We stop in Rize and hike up old fortress walls, then down to a graveyard from the 1200’s. We’d be happy just to poke around the Turkish coast, but Akasha realizes the country of Georgia is only a few hours away. Why not put another stamp in the passport? Jim is up for it, of course – we love Jim for his sense of adventure – we probably wouldn’t be here if not for him. So on we drive, stopping only for snacks, and then we are in Georgia, the land of cone-topped churches, with a neon cross on a dark hill, and we have only a few hours to get the car back to Trabzon. A further exploration will have to wait. We drive back in darkness and rain and a fading rush of adrenalin.
Gaziantep From Trabzon, we fly south to Gaziantep. Here, we stay at one of the nicest hotels we’ve found: The Zeynip Hanim Hotel. It’s in the heart of old Gaziantep, down cobbled streets barely wide enough for a cab to squeeze through. Inside its white stone walls, Zeynip Hanim has plenty of old-school Ottoman charm, a lovely courtyard, and rooms that are spacious and warm. Here we are welcomed like long-lost relations, given tea, and shown on a map where all the sites can be found.
After checking in, we are hungry, so the concierge walks us down to the Kadir Ustan Kebap for dinner. This is a bright friendly place with fresh food and a super-friendly owner. The waiter fills our table with so much meze (appetizers) that there’s barely room for Dad’s lambchops and Mike’s antep kebap. We all enjoy the food so much, and the owner is so friendly, we decide to go back the next night. That’s where we meet a wonderful family – two dentists and their daughter, a senior in high school. Akasha and the mother chat the night away, and everyone gets along so well that the next day, we meet up and they show us around their city. They take us through the market district, where metal-workers are pounding red-hot metal into trays and teapots. Our new friends help Akasha track down a set of copper pans. They take us to an underground cave-mall lined with carpets, then to a Sufi museum, and after that, a coffee shop where we sample the region’s famous pistachio coffee. It was a true whirlwind of hospitality. I need to quickly mention the Zeugma Mosaic Museum – one of the great museums of Turkey. Short version: These mosaics, housed in two cavernous buildings, were taken from the remains of the city of Zeugma. (History geeks will want to click here.) It was an amazingly lovely place with an great collection. It is well curated and displayed. I would recommend getting there early before the crowds.
Antalya From Gaziantep we fly to Antalya, a resort town on the coast of the Mediterranean. Our hotel is again in the old quarter, the cobbles and narrow streets a challenge for me in the rental car, but Akasha’s expert navigation gets us there no problem.
In the morning we go out to Termessos, the most impressive unrestored ancient city we’ve ever seen. Its a a steep drive followed by a long hike up, but eventually we are in the rocky remains of walls and columns with spectacular views of the valley we drove up. Then we find a huge theater dug into a cliffside, with more mountains looming across the valley. I scamper down the hard granite steps to the stage, grown over with scrub and littered with stones. Akasha tells me to pose for a picture, and I answer. Then I realize that though she’s a few hundred feet away, we’re using our normal voices. Thank you, ancient, amazing acoustics – we can hear each other perfectly. An hour in the other direction from Antalya are the remains of the city of Perga. This is a much more accessible ruin because it’s on a flat plain, so it’s a much easier walk. Most impressive is the bath, whose walls are still standing, and some are still holding water.
We wander out into Perga, and come back as the sun begins its final descent to the horizon. Everything is orangey and glowing in this light, and it gets very romantic. Then we are distracted by bells and bleating. Akasha sees them first: a herd of sheep being led through the ruins – about twenty of them, cranky and tired. Akasha and I both want to pet them, but they’ve been walking through too much mud to be very cuddly. The shepherd guides them with a tapping stick and voice commands over the broken monuments and under the shining columns, to the grazing fields on the other side of the walkway. It’s very cute and bucolic. As we drive away back to the city we can continue to pick out columns and arches popping out along the roadside. It’s weird to realize that as modern as Turkey is, it’s also ancient all the time, if that makes any sense.
Istanbul, part 2 The next morning we drive to the airport and part ways. Dad and I send Akasha back to Ankara and work – her vacation has ended far too quickly. We board a plane and return to Istanbul. We have time to poke around the Basilica Cistern, the great underground reservoir that once kept the city supplied with water. We walk again through the Grand Bazaar. “So many things!” Dad says. “Who buys it all?”
We take the metro out to look at the Seven Towers area of the Theodosian Walls. This is our second visit, and I realize dad must think I am strangely fascinated by these fortress walls. “So many rocks!” I say. “How did they move them all!” But that’s family, to put up with each other’s weirdness. On our last night together, we have Thai food for dinner in the Pera district, to celebrate the end of a great trip, and also because it’s almost my birthday. In the morning I escort Dad back to the airport, where he begins his journey back to good ol’ Birchwood, USA, and I take the bus back to Ankara and Akasha. And that was our final Spring Break in Turkey. We’ve enjoyed our time here, and hope to see a few more sights in Turkey, like Mt. Nemrut. We have plans to visit Venice, Italy this month. And remember that we will also be in America for six weeks before our next adventure in Warclaw, Poland, begins in August. So get ready, America, because here we come!