Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Turkish Delight

Off we go in our Fiat
Istanbul (Asia side) skyline

Road Trip Through Turkey

The lush agricultural Turkish countryside
Normally our drop into each country we visit begins with a brief stay after landing in the major city of that particular country such as Bangkok, New Delhi, and Kathmandu. Sharon and I decided after having spent a week in the crowded confines of Indian cities that our plan for Turkey was to change it up a bit by flying into Istanbul, going straight to the rent a car counter, and driving out of the city into the fresh wide open countryside to regain some sense of peace and tranquility, especially after our marathon of travel to reach Turkey which included our 14 hour cab ride to New Delhi, staying up all night and finally boarding the seven hour flight at 4AM.
You can expect this every morning, like it or not

Totally unprepared for the weather
We touched down onto the runway in Istanbul at 9:30 AM, breezed through immigration, grabbed our bags, walked through the arrival greeting area to the car rental office, rented the car, gleaned all the travel info from the map the helpful friendly staff provided us circling in pen what places we should visit. Turkey is quite a large country so we decided to head towards the Aegean Sea coast, which I heard was incredibly beautiful and continue until we rounded the coastline towards the southern coast that borders the Mediterranean Sea. But first things first, such as how to get out of the massive city of Istanbul that spans into two continents and wraps around the Marmara Sea, and then point our Fiat to the western coastline. Our rental car agent suggested we drive our car onto a ferryboat after crossing into Asia saving us four hours of driving through closely linked small towns to Bursa, a mountain city with great beauty. The three other workers in the rental office agreed this would be their choice.

With car keys, bags, rental agreement, and map in hand we trekked out into the parking garage, found our car, loaded in our gear, and then the rental agent accompanying me, checking the condition of the car, looked at the blazing fuel gauge light and with a prefacing ooh!!!, informed me I needed to get to the gas station very quickly. Giving us brief but accurate direction to find the gas station we began our journey into the uber historical countryside of Ottoman, Byzantine, and Roman empires. Leaving the garage was our first look into this massive city being drenched by the rain, wind and cold temperatures but we felt a huge sense of freedom in our warm Italian cocoon heading east to the ferry dock all before 11AM. After fueling up at $8.00 per gallon for diesel fuel, we fell into our responsibilities, Sharon being the navigator and I the pilot, the ferry dock appeared through our windshield hours later, as we got caught in a traffic jam due to a nasty accident, on and off ramps are few and far between so clean up of these situations is nearly impossible.  Arriving at the ferry dock the line up of traffic was light, the rain was threatening and the wind was strong. An entrepreneurial pretzel bread vendor informed us in a combination of rough English and charades that the ferry wasn’t going to sail because of the rough seas. He sold us a couple of his rings of bread, and Sharon was hooked, it would become her daily bread! We retreated from the port and found a lovely little restaurant on the other side of the motorway affording us a refuge to eat, review the map and rethink our route in a warm comfortable setting. This restaurant was our first introduction to the Turkish cuisine of salads and kebabs. It was wonderful! Then a brief stop at a little market next door, for some provisions and we ventured onto the toll ways, taking the long way around towards Bursa. We didn’t feel too bad about not taking the car ferry, especially as Sharon is prone to seasickness. We had time and it allowed us to view all the quaint towns on the way to our first destination, driving through pouring rain.

I will forever get preconceived thoughts about how places on a map should look. In this case it was not only the map but the descriptions from our travel helpers at the rental agency that formed my thoughts of Bursa being a country village so as we entered the city with its streets lined with large box stores emblazing names familiar to our neighborhoods I realized this village is a smaller version of Istanbul with mountains surrounding it. Once we drove past the outskirts of the shopping haven, Bursa’s charm was it’s old town center and later we discovered a beautiful mountainside suburb by the directions given to us by a very helpful woman at a travel agency we were introduced to while searching for a hotel.

Once we settled into our termal Hotel Boyuguzel. The name “termal” is the Turkish term for natural hot springs. Our hotel had a basement level housing very old marble walled bathing rooms where the hot springs water flowed into the tub within each room, Turkish baths! The water temperature was about 104 degrees…just right to soak away the fatigue of my first day of driving. The next day I came down with a bit of illness similar to what Sharon had a few days earlier in India so I laid low in our room while Sharon explored the beautiful flower filled parks and narrow winding streets of our hillside town.
The beautiful quaint fishing village of Foca

After a night of sweats, downing lots of water I awoke feeling much better and we decided to explore the small towns further up the mountain since the weather was still rainy and cold. The scenery up the mountain was lush forest with tiny villages. One very small village we ventured into is where Sharon viewed an old bent over Turkish woman walking along the very narrow lane in the center of the village. We slowed up to safely drive past the large woman draped in a black cloth, she turned her head peering into the drivers window and the image of this woman hasn’t left Sharon’s memory since. The woman’s look and expression lead me to fantasize of her grabbing the bumper of my car, holding it in place while the tires spun trying to break free. It was a little creepy in that respect.

Earlier, further up the mountain we ran into snow and I couldn’t pass up a photo op with Sharon standing in the snow in her sandals. I couldn’t believe we were in snow. Once leaving Nepal after trekking in the Himalaya’s, we sent our cold weather clothes back to the US thinking a lovely spring would greet us for the rest of the trip…oh how wrong we were.

The next day we headed west to the Aegean coastal city of Canakkale, the real first introduction to both the outrageously lush agricultural Turkish countryside bridged with the stunning beautiful fishing towns along the coast. This part of our journey into Turkey started us visiting numerous ancient historical ruins of temples, castles, cities, mosques, and monuments dating as far back as 7000 BC. The historical and ruins sites are extremely fascinating, either we would have to become archeologists or pass on some of the sites because they began looking repetitive and at $20.00 for tickets at each site, Turkey could have the Stetters wipe away their national debt. If you were an ancient civilization buff Turkey would be your nirvana.

Canakkale is a really beautiful city with a long seafront lined with parks, cafes filled with men drinking tea and playing games, and restaurants touting fresh fish dishes. Our only dislike was our room at the Hotel Berlin where spending one night was like smoking a carton of cigarettes. After that experience, we are much more picky about our room and less driven by the cost promising never to repeat a night at the Berlin or any other hotel of its kind.

The next day we decided to go to the city of Foca, a place not mentioned by our travel rental car helpers but I had read it in a blog from a person touring Turkey a year earlier and raved about it being so quaint. We decided to check it out and it proved to be one of the most beautiful places on our trip plus the Hotel Bula Bula Varsi that we tripped upon while winding through the very small streets of this fishing village was one of the most charming hotels we’ve stayed in. The combination of the hotel and the village of Foca ended up being one of the most memorable on our journey.  From Foca other parts of this region were easily accessible so we decided to enjoy ourselves in this town for a few days. First the weather was nice but the gray clouds and pouring rain followed us, though we observed it never rained on us while we explored the ruins or other points of interest. The travel gods seem to be with us always. Most of the areas we visited throughout Turkey had to do with fortification or invasion because this country has been in conflict with one warring group or another for over nine thousand years. The remains of these large cities are indescribable not only in their scale of size but the athletics’ and engineering feats of their very existence.  

Before entering the area of our next choice of sites to visit, we thought it would be better to get off the beaten path and into a small town before the expected tourist towns close by the sites.  So we chose a turnoff to a hillside town called Buldan on the map and looking at it from a distance it seemed like just what we were looking for, to spend the night and get a fresh start in the morning. Cruising through the town we noticed an apparent lack of hotels and soon we were out of this town motoring up the steep winding forest roads. Though very beautiful it didn’t appear to offer anything that resembled a hotel. I turned around on the narrow tarmac pavement and retraced our route through town when a gentleman on a small motorcycle with sidecar caught my attention. He drove up to us, quickly realizing our lack of any Turkish verbiage, waived his arm in an international signal to follow. He drove his motorcycle to the curb in front of a fabric store and came out with the shopkeeper. I got out of the car and told the young shopkeeper I was looking for a hotel. The merchant said nothing but walked to the end of his block and pointed down the intersecting street to a plain four-story building.

On the way back to his shop, with a limited English vocabulary, he told me his wife was an English teacher and that we should come back to his shop later. I thanked him and said we would return after getting settled in our hotel.  I returned to the car and after navigating the series of one-way small streets we got to the “hotel”.  To reach the hotel lobby you had to walk through a hallway lined with shops of various services and end up at the very end of the walkway, climb four flights of stairs while still not seeing anything that would tell you there is a hotel somewhere up there and finally reaching a platform with metal doors leading into a very simple reception room.  By the width of the hallway and the color scheme leading to our spartan room, Sharon and I agreed this had to be a former hospital. Considering the price and it being the only hotel in town we took it.  At least it was very clean and didn’t reek of cigarette smoke.  After settling in, we went back to the shopkeeper’s establishment and he called his wife to come over to the shop. He called for some tea. I discovered most all the shops have a direct intercom box to their local teashop and can order through directly for “chai”. His wife arrived and they invited us to their home for dinner and to meet their twin boys. The evening provided Sharon and I an insight into how a medium age Turkish family lives. She explained the relationships of family, work, politics, likes, dreams, and hardships. This generous family didn’t have much but opened their home to us for the evening while the twins played endlessly like three-year-old boys would in any other country.  The next morning Sharon assembled a bowl of fresh fruit from the street vendors and we delivered it to the shop before we motored out of Buldan to continue our journey.

Not all of the sites we visited had to do with the remains of empires villages. Though the hot springs of Pamukkale had once soothed the warriors of past conflicts. This collection of turquoise pools cascading down the side of a steep mountain is truly a phenomena and from afar it appears to be a snow covered ski resort but the white covering is lime sediment lining the mountain side and the pools that jet out from it’s face. We removed our shoes, rolled up our pant legs and entered these pools hot water with temperatures ranging from the mid nineties to around 102 degrees.  

After a week of following the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts I became quickly aware of how far we drifted south so we turned north onto a highway equal to that you’d find in any US state that cut through the snow covered mountain passes heading directly towards Istanbul.  Fortunately the roadways permitted me to drive between 110 and 130 (kilometers per hour) cutting the distances down rather rapidly. Halfway to Istanbul I was flagged over by the police to check my driving papers. I wasn’t expecting to be out of the car so when I had to step out into the 3 degree temperature to deliver my information to the officers sitting in their warm car I couldn’t stop shaking. They weren’t happy with my documentation and tried to instruct me as to what they wanted to record in their log, but between my uncontrollable shaking and the breakdown in language, they frustratingly handed back my papers and told me to go. On the second day north we stayed just outside of Istanbul in the rather depressing industrial city of Adapazari.  

Our re-entry into Istanbul was rather awkward but by early afternoon we found a nice hotel within walking distance of the old town on the European side of Istanbul. The city is fast paced with a heavy Islamic veil draped over it.  The highlight of our Istanbul trip was a boat trip up the straits of the Bosphorus, a body of water dividing Europe and Asia, a waterway between access to the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Sharon and I boarded the ferryboat along with a planned trip to last most of the day taking us to a small fishing village at the mouth of the Black Sea. All the passengers finally settled on their seat selections as the ferry spun about and headed north, up the busy waterway. I was surprised by how much the banks stretching along this body of water were developed. As we looked out the windows watching the historical buildings drift by a young man with two young ladies sat across from us. This Turkish man was providing troves of information in perfect Queen’s English of buildings and the history of each as they came into view.  We were nicely benefiting from his deep knowledge when Sharon thanked him for his commentary. He introduced himself as Cenk and explained he was Turkish but was schooled in England, traveled all over the world, lived in Germany for a couple years with his German wife (one of the two women with him), but moved back to Turkey because he could not get work in Germany.  Soon we came upon a small village and he explained this village was famous for it’s yoghurt and as a child how his grandmother used to stop here and buy him one. We looked out the window and within minutes he returned with five small cups of this delightful tradition along with packets of powdered sugar just like grandma used to serve.

Later that afternoon we ran into Cenk on the boat again and we invited him and his two companions for a bottle a wine once we docked.  Over wine Cenk told us we must sample Ottoman cuisine and suggested a great restaurant and afterward if we felt inclined, to stay up and catch a unique music venue funky small club close by the restaurant.

So that night we made our way by train back across the Bosphorus to the Asia side of Istanbul and discovered a much more high end cosmopolitan Istanbul with very pricey shops of every known brand but in the setting of old Istanbul with cobbled streets. The weather didn’t cooperate and while the rain began to drench us, we followed the directions to the restaurant missing one important landmark and having to back track a bit. Eventually we were seated into a warm cozy fanciful restaurant enjoying some fantastic tastes never sampled by either of us.  Dinner ended with rice pudding and then our quest for the “Bronx Club” began. Now the rain was a steady pour and I purchased a one use only umbrella from the number of vendors taking advantage of mother nature’s gift.  We asked in our restaurant, vendors, shopkeepers, and other passer-bys but no one had heard of this club that was to be close by.  After about the twentieth inquiry we started to get snippets of information and within 20 minutes we walked to the end of a dark alley towards the illuminated sign of the Bronx Club. Up three flights of stairs, pay the entry fee, and now we were into the really hip club scene of Istanbul. The band, BaBaZula began at 11:PM performed a mixture of traditional Asian Turk, jazz, rock fusion along with the stage performance an agile exotic belly dancer. We stayed quite awhile but realized we needed to catch our flight to Athens Greece the next day so we said our last goodbye to Asia and caught our cab to Europe. As a parting shot to Turkey, I have to two things to suggest for future visitors to this interesting and beautiful country, be ready to have the same breakfast of hard-boiled eggs, cheese, olives, lunch meat, and instant coffee every morning and take ear plugs to muffle the obnoxious off key call to prayer from the loud speakers from every minaret in the country five times a day.

1 comment:

  1. every gal in Constantinople lives in Istanbul, not Constantinople...