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.

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?