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Turkey and Greece (1996)

a travel blog by shoshtrvls

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Day 1

Istanbul, Turkey

Well, it took me and Mark 23 hours to get to Istanbul; we left Philly at 1 p.m. on Saturday and arrived at our hotel at 7 p.m. Turkish time on Sunday. Fortunately, the trip was not as unpleasant as it might have been, despite the many long layovers and out-of-the-way stop-overs (someone at Olympic Airlines seems to think that Thessoloniki is on the way to Istanbul, which made what should have been a brief, 1 hour hop from Athens to Istanbul more like 4 hours). Although the plane was full, Mark and I were able to get two aisle seats across from one another and we used the time to plan the trip and to sleep.

Mark selected our hotel in Istanbul, the Ceragan Palace, which is literally a palace--a converted Ottoman palace just north of central Istanbul. It is about as plush as hotels get. There is a huge UN conference going on (Habitat II, I think), and it appears that all relevant dignitary types are staying here -- there is a metal detector at the entrance and armed guards all around the place. However, once passing through the front doors, all is marble, fountains, and quiet.

Our room, like nearly all of the rooms in the hotel, looks out over the blue Bosphorus and over to Asia. But as tempting as lounging on the patio was, after showering and changing, Mark and I decided that a real, non-airline meal was in order. At the suggestion of the concierge, we walked north along the Bosphorus to a small neighborhood called Otokoy for dinner. We selected a small open-air restaurant on the water and had a terrific dinner of sea bass. Afterwards, we walked around the neighborhood a bit--definitely an "in" spot for 20-somethings looking to see and be seen. The narrow streets were crowded with cafes, bars, food stalls, and peddlers of all kinds. We took it all in until the sound of the muezzins calling the faithful to evening prayers, a sound which would become a frequent backdrop on this trip, signaled us that it was time to head back to the hotel.

For me, the evening ended sitting on a stone bench behind the hotel (actually in front of the palace, as the original main entrance faces the water), with a huge full moon reflecting off the narrow strip of sea, watching the ferries criss-cross the strait, listening to the faint sounds of very good jazz coming from the hotel's piano bar, and delighting in the fact that I was finally on vacation.

permalink written by  shoshtrvls on June 2, 1996 from Istanbul, Turkey
from the travel blog: Turkey and Greece (1996)
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Day 2

Istanbul, Turkey

Our first full day in Istanbul was a busy one and filled with many of the required tourist activities. It started with an early breakfast at the hotel, after which Mark and I headed into Istanbul proper. Our first stop, a purely practical one, was in the modern business district of Taksim to purchase ferry and plane tickets for the next leg of our journey and exchange money. As the exchange rate was approximately 77,000 Turkish Lira to the dollar, figuring out the real cost of things in our heads took math skills which are sorely lacking in my genetic make-up. I solved this problem by creating a little exchange rate cheat sheet that by the end of our trip would become a tattered and illegible reminder of the fact that Mark and I are incurable spendthrifts. Meanwhile, Mark created a mini-dictionary with those necessary phrases such as (phonetic spelling here) "Kash pura?" (meaning "How much?"), "Tuvalet?" (toilet?) and, for me, "Eht Estaymayorum" ("I don't eat meat").

From Taksim it was down the hill to the main part of old Istanbul, the one featured in all the pictures of the many-domed mosques cascading down into the ocean. We began our sightseeing at Topkapi Palace, a several acre site of your basic old palace-type stuff, similar in many ways to the Alhambra in Spain. To be honest, not much held our attention until we came to the section where the wealth of the Ottoman empire was displayed -- room after room of ruby and diamond encrusted jewelry, arms, and furniture, and a dagger with an emerald handle that was stunning.

From Topkapi we walked down a block for our first of many mosque visits -- the Blue Mosque. The mosque had stunning stained-glass windows and hand-painted tiles, making the quick visit definitely worthwhile.

After the Blue Mosque, Mark and I did what we would do over and over again on this trip -- we shopped, of course. In Turkey, as in most middle-eastern countries, this means wandering through bazaars, being convinced by a tout to enter a store, and then sitting for hours sipping tea and watching hundreds of beautiful carpets unfold before your eyes, or stacks of miniature paintings being sorted through, or piece after piece of jewelry displayed. It takes a strong will to walk away without buying anything, but there is wealth to be gained, not just spent, in these visits. Carpet talk almost always includes learning about politics ("This carpet comes from near Lake Van, which you can't get anymore because of the Kurd problem." "Really? And what is your view of the Kurdish rebellion?" and so on) and lifestyles (what our houses look like, what their homes look like, etc). Of course, Mark and I did not come away from Istanbul's Grand, or Covered, Bazaar empty-handed; a few miniature paintings somehow found their way into our daypacks.[p>
As the shops in the bazaar closed down, Mark and I wandered through a few neighborhoods and eventually found a small restaurant in the old city where we had a quiet dinner before returning to the hotel.

permalink written by  shoshtrvls on June 3, 1996 from Istanbul, Turkey
from the travel blog: Turkey and Greece (1996)
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Day 3

Istanbul, Turkey

This was a much more leisurely day. Our morning began lounging at the hotel pool which, like everything else in this hotel, looks out over the Bosphorus, actually seeming to be a part of it as the water runs from the upper pool to the lower pool and into the strait.[p>
The afternoon took us back to the old city, this time for a visit to Hagia Sophia, the most famous mosque in Turkey. To be honest, however, I'm not quite sure why. It is impressive in size to be sure, and the few remaining bits of mosaic on the walls in the upper galleries were splendid, but otherwise I found the building entirely forgettable. Of course, this could be in some measure due to the huge scaffolding that was present and obscuring the view of about half of the main dome but, truth be told, the other half of the dome didn't look all that exciting so I didn't feel really cheated.

From Hagia Sofia we made the long walk cross town to the Fatih Mosque. To get there we walked through some of the oldest parts of the city, including a trip past the fairly well-preserved remains of a Roman aqueduct. And because our walk took us away from the most frequently visited tourist sites, we found ourselves in the most conservative part of the city. So, while I wore a skirt the came down below my calves and a scarf on my head, the fact that the neckline of my dress was something other than a turtleneck attracted attention, making me a bit uncomfortable.

The approach to the Fatih Mosque is a lovely, tree-lined pathway, and the mosque itself has some impressive tilework. In the adjoining cemetery is a tomb which houses the body of a dead sultan's tomb, which was interesting enough.

After Fatih Mosque, we moved on to the largest mosque in Istanbul, Sultanahmet. Along the way we meandered up and down (Istanbul is rather hilly) small streets, each of which had a different specialty -- fabric shops all on one block, pots and pans on another, appliances on a third. This was clearly the area where the residents shopped, avoiding the overly touristic bazaars. The big mosque was, well, a big mosque with more and bigger tombs. 'Nuff said.

Next we visited Economou, the wharf area from which most of the ferries which travel across and up the Bosphorus depart, and where the spice, or Egyptian, market is located. Here there was lots of activity, more great views, interesting wandering. Of course, the day would not be complete without another trip back to the Grand Bazaar where, after a bit of haggling and lots of tea, Mark finally broke down and purchased what was to become the first carpet of the trip (a 6x9 silk number), as well as another miniature painting.

Dinner that evening was in Kumkapi, otherwise known as Istanbul's outdoor restaurant row. Walking down the street involves dodging the constant barrage of "Come and sit down?" and "Please look at the menu," so much so that one could literally lose their appetite trying to shake these guys off. As a result, Mark and I decided to sit at the first restaurant where we weren't assaulted which, to be honest, turned out to be a mistake, as the food was mediocre at best.

permalink written by  shoshtrvls on June 4, 1996 from Istanbul, Turkey
from the travel blog: Turkey and Greece (1996)
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Day 4

Istanbul, Turkey

Our final morning in Istanbul was spent touring the Dolmabahce Palace, which was just down the road from our hotel. Also an old Ottoman palace, this place was spectacular, by far the most beautiful and impressive sight we had seen thus far into the trip. Room after room was decorated with Baccarat crystal chandeliers, Limoges fireplaces and incredible painted ceilings. The gardens were also spectacular and proved to be a wonderful place to wander and relax.

Unfortunately, we couldn't relax for too long as we had a bus to catch to our next destination, the town of Bursa, a capital of the Ottoman Empire.

permalink written by  shoshtrvls on June 5, 1996 from Istanbul, Turkey
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Day 4 (Continued)

Bursa, Turkey

The route from Istanbul to Bursa was a circuitous one; the bus first drove up the Bosphorus to the Sea of Marmara, then onto a ferry for the trip across to Yalova, and finally right into Bursa. Although we could have shortened the trip a bit by taking a quick hydrofoil ride across the Bosphorus to Yalova and then catching a local bus from there, but the fact is that riding the excursion buses in Turkey is definitely the way to travel. There are hundreds of different bus companies and they all run fairly nice, new, air-conditioned models at prices that were jaw-dropping; a five hour bus from Kutayha to Ankara cost us about $3.50 each, breakfast included! And then there are the little things, like the lemon-y water that gets poured on your hands several times so you can "freshen up" and the free bottled water, sodas and snacks which are served during the trip. Apparently, this makes up for the truly horrendous train service, which Mark and I didn't even dare attempt.

Arriving in Bursa late in the afternoon, we found a nice little hotel right in the center of things. After dropping off our bags, we immediately high-tailed it to the famous thermal baths in the suburb of Cekirge; the mineral water in Bursa is rumored to have healing powers and people allegedly make pilgrimages to Bursa as they do to Bathe in England. To make sure that we got the full benefit of the springs, we decided to go to the oldest Turkish baths, known as hamams, around -- well, at least Mark did. The hamam for men was built in 1555 for Suleyman the Magnificent (a name that crops up all the time in Turkey, almost as often as Ataturk's) and, according to Mark, was beautifully marbled. The hamam for women was just down the street; it was not built in 1555, nor did it contain much marble. Still, the experience was wonderful.

Hamams (at least the ones I've visited in Morocco and Turkey) have at least three rooms. Generally, the room at the farthest end is the sauna, where hot, hot water bubbles up from the center of the room. Small holes in the domed roof let some of the heat out, but on the whole these rooms are almost unbearable if you're not used to it. Some hamams also have pools in the hot room for dunking and relaxing, which this one in Bursa did. The room which adjoins the hot room has lukewarm water and pools, and here is where the serious bathing goes on. Although some people wash themselves, most people have friends or family wash them. A third alternative is to pay a professional to do it, which is what I did in Bursa. The process begins with a real scruffing off of all the dirt and dead skin cells that have accumulated since the last bath . . . and I mean scruffing, like until your skin is almost raw. Then the soap is lathered on and a serious deep tissue massaging takes place. Finally, your hair is washed, rinsed and combed. The last room is the cool room, which is used mostly for relaxing, sipping tea, and talking.

In Mark's case, he used the last room for falling asleep. Although I was done in a little over an hour and a half, I found myself sitting outside the men's hamam for another hour before a policeman hanging out across the street offered to go inside and find Mark for me. The policeman came out a few seconds later and made the international "sleep" sign (head tilted on hands pressed together), and shortly after that a rather groggy Mark emerged. By this time it was rather late and we were relaxed, so we simply headed back to the hotel for the night.

permalink written by  shoshtrvls on June 5, 1996 from Bursa, Turkey
from the travel blog: Turkey and Greece (1996)
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Day 5

Bursa, Turkey

I woke up early and Mark was still asleep, so I snuck out to survey Bursa on my own. I spent a few hours wandering through the market area, watching the shop-keepers set up their stalls of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and flowers -- a bounty like I've never seen before. (Apparently, Turkey is one of only three or four countries that actually exports food). Eventually, I found my way to the main mosque, Ulu Camii, and the bazaar, where I picked up some camel-hide shadow puppets -- a well-known local art form. I then returned to the hotel for Mark and returned once again to the bazaar for his wandering pleasure.

From the center of town we went to Uludag, a suburb of Bursa, and took the cable car up to the top of the local Mt. Olympus. Although it was June, there was plenty of snow to be seen among the grassy valleys and pine-tree covered peaks. At the top of the cable car were several small outdoor eateries featuring mostly lamb kabobs grilled tableside. Mark and I selected one for lunch and then took a short hike through the woods before catching the last cable car back into town.
Mark then went back to the bazaar (practicing his "Kash pura?" all the way) while I checked out two more mosques. By this time I was, of course, about as mosqued-out as possible, but the small Green Mosque was definitely worth seeing for the tile work alone, as was the Green Mausoleum nearby which houses the tomb of Mehmet I and his children.

permalink written by  shoshtrvls on June 6, 1996 from Bursa, Turkey
from the travel blog: Turkey and Greece (1996)
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Day 5 (Continued)

Kutahya, Turkey

Late in the afternoon we caught a bus to our next destination, Kutayha. The scenery along the way was beautiful--the fields that produced all the fruits, vegetables and flowers I had seen in the market in Bursa filled the landscape. Along the way, Mark and I munched on cookies and the sweetest strawberries and cherries I've ever tasted -- purchased in Bursa for about a dime a pound. Our arrival in Kutayha was late, so finding a hotel wasn't easy, but eventually we did and sacked out for the night.

permalink written by  shoshtrvls on June 6, 1996 from Kutahya, Turkey
from the travel blog: Turkey and Greece (1996)
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Day 6

Kutahya, Turkey

Mark and I rose fairly early and took a taxi from Kutayha to what turned out to be the best part of the trip so far . . . Greek ruins more spectacular than any I've ever seen before. And to think we almost missed them because the guide book we were using (Lonely Planet) barely made reference to them. The two-hour drive to get to the ruins, through pastoral scenes of shepherds with their flocks, cowherders, tiny villages surrounding tin-domed mosques, bright red poppy fields and Millet-type views of women bent over planting seeds, was exquisite -- each view a perfect painting.[p>
The ruins themselves were mostly set in an open field and coming upon them was amazing, somewhat like the photos one sees of Stonehedge. The closer we got, the more apparent it became that these ruins were very well-preserved. The main ruin, a Temple of Zeus, is set on a small hill, dominating everything around it. Virtually every column remains standing. In the gymnasium, the delicately carved marble moldings seem to have lost none of their depth and the chiseled writing on the pillars in the arena and stadium can be clearly read (if one understood the language, of course).

Wandering around these ruins in silence -- no other tourists, no one at all -- made the entire experience almost mystical. Eventually we were joined by a rather elderly caretaker, who walked with us back through the ruins to the road, explaining each of the different sites as we passed by and unlocking the gate which led to the cavern, formerly a swimming pool dedicated to Diana, underneath the Temple.

As we reached the road, the caretaker urged us to walk through the nearby village to see even more ruins, and we took his advice. The village was a small one, consisting entirely of mud and brick homes, thatched roofs, wandering chickens and dirt streets. And, just as the caretaker promised, every so often, a small ruin . . . the remains of a temple squeezed between two houses, a fountain around a corner, or an old column in the middle of the street. A wonderful experience.

Back in Kutayha by about 2 p.m., we had a quick lunch and then did what we (Mark actually) had come to Kutayha for -- porcelain and ceramics shopping. (Mark was looking for tiles for a house he has been building for almost four years now). Kutayha is known for its hand-painted tiles and porcelain and we wandered through shop after shop of some truly beautiful items. Unfortunately, none of the shops would ship anything and the pieces we were looking at were simply too heavy and breakable to carry with us. And besides, we really didn't see anything that demanded to be bought. As a result, we ended up at the actual ceramic factories just outside of town, which was a big mistake because we bought stuff . . . lots of stuff . . . tiles for my garden, bowls, vases, plates . . . well, you get the idea. Of course, even the factory at first said it couldn't ship -- until they brought in Hassan. Hassan, an executive who spoke perfect English (having studied at Berkeley and the University of New Mexico), is in charge of exports for the company (meaning bulk exports which our load, while "bulk" to us, was peanuts to the factory). Although it took about two and a half hours, with Hassan's help we finally arranged to have our purchases trucked to Izmir on the coast and then transported by DHL here to Philly.

Afterward the shopping was completed, Hassan invited us back to his home for dinner. Other visitors included a student from Hong Kong who was studying at the local university, a professor from the university with his son and daughter, and a few of their friends, turning the quiet meal into a large and jovial gathering. As a result, Mark and I stayed much longer than we had planned, enjoying the company and the food. However, as our bus to Ankara didn't leave until 1:30 a.m., we didn't mind at all

permalink written by  shoshtrvls on June 7, 1996 from Kutahya, Turkey
from the travel blog: Turkey and Greece (1996)
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Day 7

Ankara, Turkey

Mark and I arrived at the bus station, or otogar, shortly after midnight and the time waiting for the bus seemed like an eternity. But it eventually arrived and Mark and I dutifully climbed aboard and promptly fell asleep. At about 4 a.m., the bus pulled into a truck stop and we were fed a standard Turkish breakfast of soup and bread. For future reference, soup does make a good start to any day. Of course, the soup was already warming my insides when I realized that it probably had some meat in it; I finally realized that my vegetarian ways might not last the entire trip. (Up until this point, besides salads and the fish we were able to get in Istanbul, my diet had consisted almost entirely of the equivalent of grilled cheese sandwiches -- and Turkey is not known for its tasty cheese).

We arrived in Ankara at 6 a.m., like clockwork, and immediately high-tailed it to the airport (having been told many times that there is nothing to see or do in Ankara) for the flight to Erzurum.

permalink written by  shoshtrvls on June 8, 1996 from Ankara, Turkey
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Day 7 (Continued)

Erzurum, Turkey

Erzurum is the main city in the eastern Anatolias, just south of the Black Sea and west of several former Soviet republics, Iran, and Iraq. A brief stroll through Erzurum quickly convinced me and Mark that there was no reason to stay in Erzurum despite the many attractions promised by the guidebook. Erzurum is just a medium-sized city with not much of interest, except kabob houses. Lots of them. Smelling great. Juicy meats in the windows. OK, I did it. I broke down. I had kabobs -- my first meat in several years -- for lunch. And they were great.

permalink written by  shoshtrvls on June 8, 1996 from Erzurum, Turkey
from the travel blog: Turkey and Greece (1996)
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Welcome to my travels. On this site you'll find recent trips and some very old trips. You'll note that for some trips I wrote very detailed reports (at least in the beginning), for others, I didn't even take notes of where I was on what dates. Nevertheless, I've done my best to document, to...

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