March 21 – April 2, 2009
3/21/09 - 4/2/09 50 °F
After the hot days in Egypt and Jordan, it was a shock to land in Istanbul where the average temperature was about 10 degrees Celsius (50 Fahrenheit). Just our luck – Spring was late this year. No matter, there's so much to do and see in Istanbul that it did not deter us. Actually, to Ashok's delight, it just meant more reason to stop in the colorful tea gardens for Turkish tea and sheesha. Istanbul is a blend of the Middle East and Europe – you get the hustle and bustle of the western world, but the buildings and decor have the intricate details of those in the Middle East but more colorful.
The prices reflect the shift as well. Whereas tea and sheesha would be about 5 EGP ($1), it's around $5 here... (didn't think I'd say it but we started to miss Egypt. ha!). Even with the relatively higher prices it's still a shopper's paradise. The intricate and colorful patterns are everywhere and on everything from lights to housewares to carpets. It's hard to resist... we ended up buying a lot of stuff: bowls, coffee and tea cups, and a sheesha! Only after we walked out with the bags did I start to wonder how we're going to haul all these breakable stuff around for the rest of our trip. There are still more things to buy, and next time I'm going to bring 2 empty suitcases.
Istanbul is also a foodie's paradise. The most popular are the kebabs (some of the best we've had), and the meze (same idea as tapas or dim sum – small dishes),
or one can have a simple grilled fish sandwich by the ferry dock and watch the guys grill the fish and make the sandwich on the small boats despite all the serious rocking caused by the passing ferry boats:
There's also this piping hot milk and honey drink that is sold on the street that is so good and just hits the spot on a cold day.
Our favorite though, has to be Ciya Sofrasi. It's actually been written up a lot, but unlike other places, the fame has not gone to the owner's head and the food is still delicious and the prices fair. The chef makes different dishes everyday based on recipes from other regions in Turkey. We liked it so much we trekked out to the Asia side several times just to eat there.
And then there's the sweets - Turkish Delights, Baklava - that's everywhere. Here's some colorful stalls at the Spice Market:
It's also at the Spice Market (fish stalls outside) that I saw the ugliest fish I've evr seen:
It may sound like all we did was eat and smoke sheesha, but we did do a good amount of sightseeing as well. Istanbul has a lot of waterfront and it would have been even nicer to just sit by the water if the weather was warmer.
Cappadocia was one place recommended by many of our friends so it was definitely a place we wanted to visit. The region is famous for the rock formations that to me seem very fairytale like, like some place where gnomes live:
This time the low season worked in our favor and we got a cheap flight & rental car, and a good rate at a really nice cave hotel (Kelebek Pension). The town of Goreme is set right in the midst of the rock formations so it looks a bit unreal:
It felt free to have our own transportation once again, and it gave us a chance to really explore the area. We saw a volcanic crater lake (Nar Lake) for the first time in a town nearby:
In one of the towns we walked into a very traditional coffee shop. At first I thought they were not going to allow me to go in because there were only men inside, but they didn't object (just got a lot of stares). By the time we left, Ashok was invited to sit at one of the tables to chat with them (probably to satisfy their curiosity):
The other must-do in Turkey is the Turkish bath, even though most modern Turks actually don't go to the bathhouses any more and the few that are in business are more for tourists. The two historical ones have such bad reviews on the web that we hesitated going, and opted to try it out at the Kelebek Pension. It was the best experience! Basically you lay on this big stone slab that's warmed up and then the masseuse douses you first with buckets of warm water, then with soap bubbles, and then he/she scrubs you down with a loofah (skipping the private areas) and shows you the dirt that's scrubbed off you. Follow that with more soap and warm water, and then when it's all done you get wrapped up in layers of towels and sent to lay down on a lounge chair to “recover”. All baths should be like this! Granted this was not the traditional bath – my masseuse was a Thai girl! - but with this type of pampering I really didn't care.
Apparently while we were in Cappadocia, Turkey switched to daylight savings time but we had no idea. Not until the hotel staff came to get us for the Turkish bath appointment on our last day did we realize that we had been doing everything an hour late for a couple of days. Imagine if we didn't get the baths then we would've missed our flight back to Istanbul. As it is we cut it really close. We were doing fine until we asked someone for directions and followed signs for what we thought was the word for “airport” but what turned out to be the name of a neighboring town. Oh well something like this was bound to happen at some point. In the end we got back to Istanbul safely and enjoyed one last sunny day in Istanbul (and meal at Ciya). Turkey is definitely one of the countries where I will be visiting again.