Goodbye, Ankara: Here’s what we loved about you most

It has been an interesting two years and they have flown by quickly, due in large part to the charms of our temporary hometown, Ankara. For an international capital, Ankara can seem quaint and bucolic; the word provincial may even come to mind. But that’s not a bad thing. On the contrary, there’s plenty of fun to be found if you’re patient and keep an open mind. Here are some highlights of our stay.

Rainbow seen from our window

Rainbow seen from our window

Lojman Livin’ – Being up on a hill, away from the bustle of Ankara proper, does have its advantages. The view is consistently spectacular – we’ve watched many a storm roll in and enjoyed the rainbows (double, and triple!) afterwards, and waking up to the sun in the window has been a treat every morning. Bilkent has made the grounds very attractive, with plenty of flowers always in bloom and a constant variety of fruiting trees – spring has been a festival of scents and colors. So while we may complain a bit about being isolated in a ‘foreigner bubble’ away from the sounds of ‘real Turkey,’ overall we’ve been happy with our home away from home.

Ulus fish market

Ulus fish market

Ulus – This is the historic center of Ankara, the place where it all began. You can wander here every weekend and never see it all. The Romans were here back in the day, building temples and roads. Later civilizations would add and rebuild until today. Here you can visit an ancient castle, shop in a covered food pazaar, haggle over carpets, buy artisan jewelry, and watch craftsmen work in the metal district. Relax with a plate of the best manti in town, and before you know it you’ve had a great afternoon on the town.

On the daytrip

A rainy daytrip, with a cool waterfall

Hiking trips – Nadide Yildiz arranges some great trips. Some of them are just hiking off in a small town or wilderness reserve. Others are culturaly specific. We saw waterfalls, communed with trees and shrubs, and met great new friends. Either way, Nadide is a great hostess.

Great little restaurants on side streets – If you push out and explore you can find some great restaurants. Our favorite is a little fish place tucked between the Kizilay and Tunuli neighborhoods. It’s called Yesil Cam, named for the movie-making district of old Istanbul. Here the chef grills the fish on the street, and traditional mezes from tomato salad to lamb’s brains are brought to the table on a huge tray. The atmosphere is old Turkey. Musicians serenade you tableside with traditional Turkish folk music. If you’re there on the right magic night, you’ll see the patrons get up and dance on the sidewalk, shaking off the years with the help of the music and more than a little Raki. Akasha left a trail of her favorites on trip advisor if you want to try some restaurants off the main streets.

The Pazaars – foods, fleas, and anything you could want. We’ve been to the big food markets at Yuz Yil, Umitkoy, and many other locations in Ankara. Once a month an antique mall sets up in one of several rotating marketplaces, and you can sift through remnants of Turkey’s cultural history – comic books, movie posters, costume jewelry, vintage clothing, old tin toys – anything and everything. It’s like a pop-up museum, and everything’s for sale.

Game Cafes – scrabble, chess, backgammon, just not a lot of cards. You can play games, drink a cold beer or a hot nescafe, and play games all night long. If you are feeling like a super dork, try playing english scrabble with Turkish letter distributions.  Even without Q’s, it’s not easy – you get way too many vowels, especially u’s.

Ataturk's resting place

Ataturk’s resting place

The Anitkabir – This is a monument to the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. He saved Turkey from being divided up by western powers after WWI, and laid the foundations for the Turkey that we know today. His picture remains a fixture in every office, restaurant, shop, and classroom in the country. This complex of polished stone and granite columns features a museum of his life, a history of his military exploits, and his final resting place. A proud, somber site, one of the few must-see attractions of the city he made the capital.

Finding not-Turkish food – Because Ankara really doesn’t have a lot of food that isn’t Turkish. And because Ankara has a big mall culture, with lots of the same chain restaraunts, when you find a unique restaurant it is really exciting. Some of our favorites have been Big Bang Burger, Wu Yang, and Cafe Linz.  Wu Yang is an east Asian restaurant with Chinese and Korean food. it can be great, if your order right.  I love the house made spicy tofu.  It is similar to Sundubu with fluffy clouds of tofu in a spicy sauce. Order a side of rice and kimchi to put yourself in Korea for the evening. Definitely show up with a group of 6-8 to get the circular table, order a variety of dishes, and share family style. Cafe Linz has delicious desserts like a house made chocolate souffle and sachre torte.

Street Dogs – Ankara has them. So does Istanbul and Izmir. Everywhere in Turkey are street dogs. For the most part they’re friendly, well-behaved, and cute, prefering to spend time napping in public squares to begging for snacks. They make for great local color. Several friends adopted them for house pets, and for a sweet friendly dog you couldn’t do better.

We could go on: Cheap taxis, friendly faces, simit carts, dondurma (ice cream), doner shops, walks in the wilderness, endless shopping caverns, crafting supplies, Ankara has it all, and with its own flair. But it’s time to move on.

Thank you Ankara for your hospitality. Now, we’re heading to Wroclaw, Poland next, as you probably know. We are going to continue blogging on this site, and plan to do so more frequently.

Thank you for reading, we’re happy you’ve joined us on the web or on the road.

Remember: Adventure is out there!

Weekend in Nemrut

Nemrut mountain national park, in southeastern Turkey, is a bit remote but utterly charming. It’s best known for the mountaintop giant heads, built by a megalomaniac king, King Antiochos I,  a few thousand years ago and many people just go for the relics.  We discovered the lower regions are filled with wonderful hiking trails and rushing streams and even more antiquities. It was very relaxing and everyone agreed it was our favorite trip within Turkey.

On our second consecutive long weekend (it was Labor Day this time), we went with a group of friends to  Adiyaman. There we were met by Bayram, the owner of Karadut Otel Pansyon, who drove us an hour out to his place in the national park. We spent a day touring the sights, starting with sunrise on the giant heads, after a long nap we hiked around the valley and relaxed. After lunch Bayram’s son took us out on a tour of the region including the Roman bridge, the “new” Kahata Castle,   and the Arsameia Ruins.  The next day we took a leisurely walk around the valley floor. As you can see, the pace of life might be slow, but the beauty of the countryside is spectacular.

In the valley it was a perfect spring day, 70 degrees and sunny. Flowers were in bloom, and springs trickled their way into little waterfalls burbling along our hiking path.  Just 20 minutes away, up at the top of Nemrut it was cold, exceptionally windy, and there was still deep snow on the ground. We had imagined a dry, brown, landscape and were awestruck by just how green and rich the region was.

I would love to return to the Pensyon and spend time in Karadut again. It is a perfect retreat. While the food was simple, it was good. The vegetables, eggs, and meat served in the Pensyon were produced by our host and his family members. A traditional farm to table establishment. They made us feel at home and were beyond hospitable. On our way to the airport, Bayram took us to his favorite shop for the regional dish, cig kofte. We were passing a wedding, and he stopped for 10 minutes to introduce us to his friends. We had a cup of tea, danced with the bridal party, and cheered for their wedding. It was a one of a kind trip.

A day trip to Düzce

Last Sunday we took a day trip to Duzce, in the Black Sea region for a quick hike. Unfortunately, Remi had to stay with friends back home, but he had a good time investigating everything at their house.

The trip is organized by Nadide, who takes groups out exploring the region every Sunday. It was a lovely area noted for waterfalls and being on a very busy bird migration route.  The rains made the waterfalls extra special, so we were kind of lucky.  We were surprised to run into my co-worker on the bus out there. Kristen took better pictures than we did and was great company.

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It was drizzly, rainy, and foggy all day long, but that just made the views magical. We went for the waterfalls and they were stupendous. Take a look.

An Overnight in Safranbolu

View across the valley

View across the valley

A few hours north of Ankara and just shy of the Black Sea coast is Safranbolu, a small town with a big history. Once the center of Saffron trade, the city has been reinvented several times in the last few generations. In 1937 a steel plant went in just to the south, and lately it’s been reinvented again as a tourist destination, and so the old town is now studded with bed and breakfasts, hotels and a thriving tourist market.

We went up for a quick overnight in the middle of the week. The BLIS schedule allowed for a day off on Wednesday – it was republic day, and the entire country was celebrating the 91st anniversary of the Turkish republic.

Safranbolu is easy to get to even on the busiest days thanks to Turkey’s well-stocked busing industry. There are three or four major carriers, each sending buses up every hour or two. So we showed up at ASTI and found the bus leaving the soonest – Kamil Koc, pronounced Camel Coach – bought some gummi bears to snack on, and settled in for the ride. The bus was almost luxurious, with TV screens in each seatback and an attendant who came by with tea and snacks.

After some reading and a quick nap, we were in Safranbolu just past nightfall. It’s autumn right now, and the weather is crisp and cool, perfect for a night walk into town. We went by the UNESCO world heritage center, then down into the heart of old Safranbolu.

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Safranbolu2

Night market – chestnuts, eggs, and butter

There were still a lot of street markets open; vendors were selling everything including a bumper crop of mushrooms brought out by the abundant rain. We found a nice little family restaurant and ate the local pasta dishes, and chatted with the owners. Everyone has been so friendly, it’s wonderful.

Later we were surprised by a Republic Day celebration – a dozen cars decked out in Turkish flags driving through the town square, honking their horns, passengers hanging out windows and shouting huzzahs – a great display of national pride.

Our cart driver/tour guide

Our cart driver/tour guide

In the morning we took a tour on a golf cart of the old village. The streets are little more than well-arranged rocks, so it was a bumpy ride! Our host was friendly and kind, but he didn’t speak much English. Through Google translate, basic savvy and pantomime, though, we learned a lot about the area.

Safranbolu is built in a valley, and is the remains on an ancient sea’s coastline. This means there’s a lot of old erosion, cliff faces that overhang paths, and deep narrow canyons where water rushes in clear streams at the bottom. It wasn’t quite Cappadocia spectacular, but it was crazy enough to inspire oohs and ahs as we followed the canyon walls and watched the houses on the far side display themselves against a foggy mountain background.

Saffron bulbs for sale

Saffron bulbs for sale

After the tour it was time to do some Christmas shopping. The majority of the goods were saffron related – soaps and sprays and lokum (Turkish Delight). The variety of the food was amazing; every Turkish town has their own twists on the standards, and Safranbolu had a lot of delicious surprises. There were even vendors selling saffron bulbs in case you wanted to grow your own.

After picking up a few Christmas gifts (They’ll be in the mail soon, hopefully), we had enough time to grab some lunch and head back to the bus station.

A local artisan and his daughter

A local artisan and his daughter

It was a great overnight, but with a few museums, a Unesco world heritage site, and other sites in the surrounding area, Safranbolu will definitely be on our list for a return visit.

The great Jim visit of 2014

Winner winner pottery dinner

Winner winner pottery dinner

One of the wonderful things about living abroad is the chance to host friends and relatives at our place and show off the beauty of Turkey. So when Mike’s dad Jim came all the way from White Bear Lake Minnesota to Ankara for a visit a few weeks ago, we were glad to welcome him. Plus it gave us the excuse to head out on a road trip to revisit some of our favorite places, and take in some new sights.

Dad arrived in his usual good spirits and settled right into Ankara and letting us take him in to town for dinner. During the next few days, some of our Bilkent friends showed him around the highlights of Ankara, and when he had a break from that, he enjoyed hiking the ‘wilderness’ trails of Bilkent University with our trusty hound Remington. Then, on Friday when school let out, Akasha and I picked up our rental car – a sturdy Hyundai – and the great Jim in Turkey road trip of 2o14 began.

Our first stop was Cappadocia, which you may recall that we’ve been to before, and might be wondering whether it’s worth going to again. The answer is a resounding YES YOU SHOULD GO MANY TIMES! There’s always something new to see, and the things you remember are just as spectacular if not more so.

A killer breakfast

A killer breakfast

Our hotel had a beautiful patio with a great panoramic view of the valley, and on our first breakfast Dad discovered the delicious joy of sigara boreks, honey and cheese, and cucumbers and olives for breakfast. From the patio we could  also watch a balloon company’s headquarters across the street, where a steady stream of baskets, propane tanks, and balloons on flatbed trucks returned from the fields where they’d landed after the morning flight, were cleaned and covered for the day.

We spent the day wandering the red and rose valleys of Cappadocia, in and out of the caves and churches, stopping for juice on a hillside cafe. In the evening, we stopped for dinner, and then Dad had more ice cream.

The next morning was our balloon trip. with Turkiye Balloons.  We woke well before dawn, and were picked up at the hotel by a shuttle bus that took us to breakfast, then down to the launch fields. Here, dozens of balloons were being inflated in the calm morning air, bright nylon colors reflecting sunlight, fluttering under the hot air being fanned into them as they rose, held in place by stubborn attendants on the ends of ropes or just grabbing the nylon. After twenty minutes or so the balloon was inflated, the basket uprighted, and about 20 tourists climbed up over the edge. After a pause for safety directions, (and pictures) we rose off the ground and went over the canyon on the slow steady breeze.

Whatever word you want: breathtaking, amazing, transcendent, pick it and times it by ten or so – the experience

Balloons over Cappadocia

Balloons over Cappadocia

was spectacular. We passed over the valley we’d hiked through the day before, drifting and oohing and awing and grinning like little kids. Our group was a great mix of Koreans, Russians, Spaniards, Argentines, and us Americans.  Our pilot was great, he told jokes and tried to speak to everyone, a bit, in their language.  When the balloon finally landed – right on the bed of the flatbed trailer that would haul it back across town – we got out, celebrated with a glass of champagne, and were bussed back to our hotel.We celebrated again, later, with ice cream.

After our flight we went down to Mazi to see a cave city that was off of the beaten path.  We pulled up to the village and were greeted by a group of guys. One of them is working on the restoration of the underground city and he gave us a brief breakdown of what his neighbor would show us. Then we went up to the top of the hill where he showed us several ancient pre-hittite tombs of stone in the old cemetery.

Our cave guide at Mazi

Our cave guide at Mazi

After this we walked back down to the road and went into the underground city. These cities had everything – wine cellars, nurseries, kitchens – even a stable where they kept animals! The rooms were linked by narrow tunnels we had to duck-walk through, and vented by narrow shafts that led up to the surface. We poked around ten or fifteen rooms, which our guide said was maybe 1 percent of the whole city – it was sobering to think of the people who had spent their lives there.

Afterwards we had tea with our guide and the guy working on the restoration – they were incredibly friendly and warm. It was a unique opportunity to see the town before it becomes commercialized, and I’m glad we were there.

Sadly, we had to leave Goreme and Capaddocia. Our rented Hyundai took us down through Konya – home of the Mevlana museum, where we stopped for, I think, ice cream, then down the coast to Antalya. Antalya is a nice little historic town on the Mediterranean sea surrounded by a sprawl of resort communities owned mostly, it seemed, by foreigners – I wouldn’t not recommend it, but I wouldn’t tell you to go out of your way for it. We had a nice dinner at a fish restaurant, and stopped by the Anatolian museum of antiquities, and after a few days, we were on our way again.

Jim discovers his love of dondurum

Jim discovers his love of dondurum

I’m pretty sure we stopped for ice cream somewhere as well. Turkish ice cream, dondurma, is extra sticky, which allows it to cling to the long steel rod the vendors use to scoop it up. This stickiness allows for lots of tricks, and the street vendors who serve it up have developed whole carnival routines to mess with the heads of people buying it – I wish we’d filmed it. But Akasha, dad, and I all got a kick out of watching them fling 5 kilo slabs of ice cream around, and play with the cones, faking handing it off and pulling it away time after time.

The library

The library

Our next big stop was in Selcuk. This is another beautiful little town near a historic city, the ruins of Ephesus, once a thriving commercial port and home to Greeks and Romans for centuries before a receding coastline and series of earthquakes turned it into a ghost town that wasn’t dug out again till the 20th century.

We wandered through the impressive restoration work, including the great amphitheater that once seated 15,000 people, and the facade of a great library three stories high. We ooed and awed and craned our necks, and giggled a little bit at the presumably original public toilets, with their tiny openings just a few inches apart. They’re probably technically functional, though this is highly discouraged.

From there we went up to Bursa, a smallish city we’d chosen mainly to break up the 10 hour drive back to Ankara. There are beautiful things to see in Bursa, and great ski resorts on neighboring Ulu Mountain, but we were getting tired, so we just had dinner at a small diner and retired early.

In the morning we stopped by the city of Eskesihir, and by evening were safely and kind of sadly back in Ankara. We took Dad around some more sights of the city – the citadel, and Ulus market, the Temple of Augustus. There were days and sights I’m barely even touching on here, things we barely had time to register, like:

The mineral springs of Pamukkale, with its own ancient city of Heliopolis;

Driving out to the Aegean sea to watch the surf.

Driving up to the assumed final home of Mary, Jesus’ mother.

The ruins of St. John’s basilica.

Stopping off in a national park on the migration path of pelicans and cormorants, watching them by the hundreds nesting and feeding on the banks of a lake.

Our return to Ankara, where Jim visited the Anitkabir, resting place of Mestafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish state.

And everywhere we went were friendly people who told us about their lives: men who ran fruit juice stands, journalists from near the Syrian border, women who studied the Koran on the train while on outings with their girlfriends, little kids playing with their parents. I wish we could write them all up and give you sense of the scale of Turkey, its sweep and history and rich vibrant life. I have to give credit on this to Akasha, the most outgoing travel companion you’ll ever have, who makes friends so easily I wonder how everyone can’t do it.

Well, I do go on. But. The most important thing that we learned, from all we did, was that Jim likes ice cream. A lot. On our final days in Ankara, dad set some kind of ice-cream : body ratio record in his three weeks of visiting.

We salute you, Jim. Intrepid traveler, good sport, great father and friend. We miss you! Did we mention that we have a spare room for you, when you’re ready to move in?

 

A weekend in Izmir

Well, a few days ago we had another long weekend here in Turkey, and decided to take a look at one of the great cities and a fantastic architectural site of the ancient world: Izmir and Ephesus.

We booked our faithful hound Remi into the local kennel along with his best dog friend Willie Nelson the border collie – we found a great place that’s cheap and comes out to our place to pick up and then, when the weekend is over, delivers them back to us! Turkey as it turns out is a pretty cool place for dogs.

Oranges

Reaching for street-level oranges.

Izmir’s a beautiful portside city surrounding a large bay in the Aegean sea. It’s surprisingly big – the third largest city in Turkey – but once you’re there it has a nice, intimate feel. We’d been so used to Ankara’s dry brown climate that Izmir’s green landscape was a shock. Every hill was covered in foliage, and the plum trees had just started to blossom. Our lungs and nostrils opened up in the humid salty air. Palm trees lined the beach, and many streets were furnished with orange trees filled with bright, full fruit.

We took the shuttle up to the Alsancak district, then hopped a cab up to our AirBnB neighborhood. The cab drivers are all very proud of their city – of the green grass and the wide ocean and deep and history. It’s one measure of how great a city is – how much do the cabbies love it? Our hotel was just off a main shopping district, above a jam-packed bookstore and next to a convenience store.

We went with our friends, one of whom was under the weather the first night so we went just the three of us to look for a nice fish dinner. There’s a whole row of restaurants along the waterfront, a strip you’d call touristy for Turkey but didn’t have the overbearing souvenir shops and kitsch factor that ruin a lot of tourist districts. Just nice restaurants with patio seating and acceptable prices. You’d be heartbroken, Minnesotans, who are suffering through a miserable winter, to know we sat outside until nine in the evening, drinking beer/raki and eating fresh fish!

Saturday we wandered along the coast, looking at the statues, then hopped on a ferry for a mystery trip to the northern shores of Izmir bay. Here we discovered a cute shopping district and a Muppet themed bar/restaurant where we ate a nice burger and  had a complimentary shot of Jagermeister. For some reason we didn’t get a good picture of the muppet menu, even though it seemed odd that Bunsen Honeydew and Beeker were selling mixed drinks.

The next day we took the train down to Selcuk, the town nearest to the ancient ruins of Ephesus. It was only six lira per person, and a comfortable ride. From there it was another 10 minute ride out to the ruins. It sounds like a lot of transfers, but it was really quite a nice little adventure.

On stage and ready for action at the great theater, Izmir

On stage and ready for action at the great theater, Izmir

Once inside the park you walk down a nice walkway and suddenly looming on your left is the giant 25,000 seat auditorium, once the highlight of a thriving metropolis of 300,000 people here on the western coast of the Anatolian penninsula. A grand walkway led from the auditorium down to where the harbor used to be, a thousand years ago, but which has now silted up. There have been some renovations, and the great facade that once stood behind the stage is long gone, but it is still one of the most impressive sights we’ve ever seen. It’s very impressive when you consider that much of it was carved from the rock of the hill behind it.

From there a path leads to the great library of Celsus, a two-story edifice recently rebuilt. It’s a beautiful, elaborate construction of yellow marble with statuaries and delicate columns that once held the library of the city. It stands in the sun and kind of glows. It was amazing.

So was the weather, I should say. It got into the seventies, just a touch of the heat that would come if we visited in the summer. The crowds weren’t bad, but there were tour groups from all over the world. We heard snatches of Chinese and German, lots of British English, and yes, even a group of Koreans! On the way in we’d even seen a Korean restaurant, so there must be enough tours coming through from Korea to keep that place in business.

We walked up the rest of the path, past the latrines (narrow holes, very close together, not much privacy in the pre-water closet days), an enclosed terrace house, then up to the second entrance. To go back we took a winding path that led down to where the archeologists are headquartered – this gave us a chance to see the ruins from the top of a hill, and they were just as impressive laying out in the sun as they were up close.

And so we returned to Selcuk, then took another dolmus – dolmus are minivans that carry fifteen to twenty people on pre-determined routes, kind of a cross between a city bus and a carpool – out to Serince, a small town nestled into the sides of a green mountain. Serince is famous as the center of local winemaking. Here you can sample and buy dozens of varieties of wine made from all kinds of fruits – strawberries, raspberries, peach, and quince, just to name a few. Traditional grape wine is also on offer. We spent a few hours here sampling, had a nice lunch of meze – small dishes of spreads for bread – with a bottle of red, and just watched the sun move over the mountains for a while. Mountain living would be wonderful, we all decided.

Then it was time to head back to Izmir. The trip was kind of winding down. Next morning our friends left on an early flight, and we had just enough time to wander down to the clock tower and get a last meal of traditional Turkish breakfast – a variety platter of cucumbers, tomatoes, cheese, honey, simit bread, and various other local delicacies. Then it was time to head out to the airport. This cab driver was no less convinced that he lived in the best city in Turkey, and we could find not reason to argue with him.

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Flora & fauna

Remi gave us an edge up on exploring in Korea and again, he’s been helping us discover our neighborhood in Ankara.  We walk him at least twice a day and have taken big walks to new places every weekend we’ve been here.

Central Turkey is so different from the plains, deciduous forests, and coniferous forests of Minnesota and the coasts and mountains of Korea. I guess we’re calling it a high-plains grassland. It’s dry but with enough water to support a large variety of plants and fruits we’ve never seen before.

So, we’ve been taking pictures of the cool plants, flowers, and stuff in our new biome.  I am such a super dork that I decided to put together a little photo blog so that you could enjoy late summer in Ankara with us.  All photos were taken before the fall equinox.

Revise

Um, so… we didn’t post this and now it is winter. From our limited knowledge of Ankara weather; winter in Ankara has lots of hoarfrost.

We realize that we haven’t shared our address yet…

If you want to send us a post card, please send it to our home:

us

Bilkent Dogu Kampus Lodjmanlar Blok E-10

Bilkent, Ankara 06800

Turkey

If you want to send us an envelope or package please send it to:

me c/o

Bilkent Laboratory & International School

East Campus 06800

Bilkent, Ankara

Turkey

Sorry, we are behind in our postcard and present sending.

We hear that packages get slowed down at customs, often. It is better to send via DHL or UPS. Just a heads up.

We don know that if you send USPS they will transfer custody to TPT.  TPT took 6 weeks to deliver a USPS 5 day shipping package to us and they ripped the package to shreds.