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Trip Report Turkey: The land of crowds, caves, canyons, volcanos, and seas

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Recently back from a two-week trip to Turkey; a country I’ve wanted to visit since hearing people share their stories several years back at a Boston GTG. Problem was I couldn’t get anyone to join me. This year I decided to go via a Rick Steves tour.

Just as I was about to book the tour, my sister called and said it wasn’t safe for me to go alone so she reluctantly decided to join me, but still thought we should do the tour. Later that day, she called to say her husband was coming and we no longer needed to do the tour. By the end of the week, her two adult children (25 and 28) also were coming and I was the ‘tour guide’. I wasn’t given much direction for planning the trip other than to say they didn’t want to spend a lot of time driving, no more than 3 stops and that part of the trip had to be on a beach. Also knowing their preference for hiking and rock climbing, I knew I had to find a mountainous area.

Against this backdrop, I got onto Fodors seeking guidance and was directed to Cappadocia and Cirali; Cappadocia I had planned on, but the recommendation for Cirali turned out to be a gift. Some compromises on my part were in order as I had to choose between Ephesus and Istanbul. I would have preferred Ephesus, but chose Istanbul because it was easier. I read lots of trip reports and thank each one of you for posting; the combination of advice made for a truly remarkable trip.

Istanbul: 4 nights at the Dersaadet Hotel

The location in Old Town was perfect, it had a great rooftop deck overlooking the sea, good breakfast, decent coffee and pleasant staff. We had 2-rooms; both had tiny bathrooms; triple room was a good size and the double was tiny—not a room you want to hang out in--that’s when the roof deck came in handy.

We pretty much followed the Rick Steves guide. Day 1 was the Hagia Sofia, Blue Mosque and the Underground Cistern. It was my favorite day. Crowds were manageable and sites were phenomenal. The Sofia was as amazing as everyone says. It made me think of Ken Follett’s “Pillars of the Earth” and the resources it took to complete. It took 7,500 architects engineers, and other craftsmen to complete the church and cleaned out the emperor’s coffers; it is a marvel to behold. On the other hand, my nephew’s reaction was to be appalled that anyone would build such an extravagant religious structure to honor a leader. So, there you have both ends of the spectrum.

Day 2 was to be the Bosphorus Cruise on the public ferry and the Spice Market. At the start of the day, part of the group decided to walk to the ferry and some of us took the tram. In retrospect, it was not a good idea to break up. The ferry departed at 10:30. Rick says you need to get there early to get the best seats; by 10:29 we still had not connected. What to do? Three of us bought tickets and were the last to get on the ferry. Rick was right; we got bad seats. It was interesting to see the freighters and the buildings along the river, but it was a very long day. When we got to the end of the river, we started our ascent to the Fort. Along the way, nature called. Finding a public rest room, I duly paid the fee and only then, encountered my first hole in the floor toilet. Oh, my…. During that experience, I ended up dropping my brand new camera. Where and how I dropped it, I’ll leave that to your imagination.

There were some interesting restaurants along the way, but we kept going because Rick's guide said there was only time to either eat or hike to the top; not enough time to do both. Along the way, the views were beautiful, but at the top, the fort was blocked off for excavation and we couldn’t enter. Since we had plenty of time to catch the next ferry, we stopped halfway down to eat. I had fried mussels, which were delicious. And, we made it down with time to spare. By this time, I was ready for happy hour on the hotel’s roof deck, so it was a long way back. In retrospect, I think it would have been a better day had we gone only a couple of stops, had lunch at a nice restaurant and then returned to the city. As it was, we got back about 5ish and the trams were jam packed with people. We decided not to go to the Spice Market

Day 3 we planned on the Topkapi Palace, Grand Bazaar, the Museum of Modern Art, and Taksim for a nice dinner. The grounds at Topkapi were very nice, but once we bought our tickets and went through the gates, the crowds were overwhelming. We left.

Onto the Grand Bazaar. I went with Rick’s guide in-hand to follow his seemingly easy tour to find the artisans; the others stuck together and went off in a separate direction. The guide said to go in the entrance at the back of the mosque. Little did I know there were gates every few feet; I went in the wrong way and was hopelessly lost. With guide in hand, one very nice fellow gave me directions, but asked that I go look at his rugs. I made it clear I wasn’t interested in buying, but felt compelled to take a look. Mistake #1. When I went in the store, no one else was in there; he made a phone call, two salesmen entered, closed the door behind them and guy #1 disappeared. It was difficult to get away and very intimidating. When I did get out, guy #1 knew I was interested in the silversmith and asked that I go to his friend’s silver store first. I did and that was mistake #2. Coming out of that store, I gave up and barely found my way out. Needless to say, I bought nothing at the Grand Bazaar. Outside, I met up with the family and they were all excited about their purchases. At this point, I should have put away the guidebook, but didn’t.

Next was the Modern Art Museum. Since it was Thurs, it was free. They had some interesting video installations and a wonderful deck on the water. But, their drink prices were outrageous.
As it was close to dinner, we then headed off to Taksim square, taking the funicular up. Outside, we were hit with a wall of people. We headed toward Istiklal Street and the crowd seemed to get heavier. I didn’t want to go any further; the nearby Burger King even looked like a good enough place to eat. We decided to take the next side street and stop at the first restaurant we came to. At this point, we decided we’d had enough of the area and would return to the peace and quiet of Sultanahmet and our roof top deck.

At the end of each of our stays, I asked for the activity/event that everyone would most remember. This is what I got:

• Spice market felt like being in the Middle East
• Grand Bazaar
• The haunting call to prayer
• The door shutting in the rug store at the Grand Bazaar
• Kabobs and baklava
• Happy hour on the hotel roof
• “Getting out” of Istanbul, especially the crowds at Topkapi and Taksim

We all agreed that 4 days in Istanbul was one too many. Next, we are off to Urgup in Cappadocia. And, I’m off to figure out how to upload my pictures.

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    Jackie,

    A great start to your report. Thanks for taking the time to write--enjoyed hearing about the trip at the GTG. Also looking forward to photos--sorry about your camera.

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    Jackie- Fabulous start to your trip report... if not so much your trip. :(

    I really enjoyed your first installment and looking forward to the rest.

    When my adult DD and I were in Italy earlier this year, we had a series of wild misadventures trying to get back from Siena to Florence. Our saviours were a newlywed couple from Turkey! We became fast friends and they have encouraged us to visit Turkey some day. So, this is a wonderful read for me.

    Thanks for sharing. Looking forward to pics! (Shutterfly has free web sharing for pics, if you don't have any other way.)

    P

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    Jackie, loving your trip report - it brings back so many memories. It's interesting to read about the crowds. We were in Turkey Oct. 22 - Nov. 4 with our time in Istanbul at the end of the trip. The only place we really saw crowds was at Topkapi; there were lines to get into the rooms. That month or so difference in our timing must have made the difference in the crowds.

    I have to admit, as much as we loved Turkey, the pressure to buy was offputting.

    Can't wait to hear about Cappadocia and our favorite hotel!

    Ellen

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    It's interesting to read your comments about pressure to buy. Maybe we look like we have no money but we found the pressure to buy much greater in China and in a couple of places in Cairo. Personally I found the merchants in Istanbul to be clever, charming but civil. Maybe we were lucky.

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    Hopefully the Istanbul pics will show up here:

    http://picasaweb.google.com/traveler01880/Istanbul2010?authkey=Gv1sRgCKfA7feahfPVhQE#

    Celeste--good luck planning your Turkey trip. It ought to be fun ;-) planning for two other couples. My next time will follow a path similar to the one you are planning. You even interested me in an African safari at some point.

    Sarge--I did enjoy Istanbul and think it is a place everyone should go. I think maybe a couple of cruise boats must have come in or something, because up until the 4th day, the crowds were manageable. Also, the people were so friendly. My sister even commented that except for Ireland, the Turkish people were the most friendly she had ever encountered.

    Ellen--The evening crowds were at Taksim, the tram at 5:00, and the inside rooms at Topkapi. There was alot of pushing and shoving, tight spaces and hot temperatures--very uncomfortable surroundings. My niece and brother-in-law went to the spice market one afternoon--they said crowds were really bad, based on their feedback, I opted not to go. I do regret that decision.

    Cold--I read many trip reports ahead of time about how not to engage with merchants, so I basically didn't make eye contact unless I was interested in an item. The guy from the Bazaar that got me to go to the rug store was very charming and I was curious to see some rugs. I may have ended up buying something. It was just when two new men came in and shut the door behind them, it set off my antenna. I felt more frightened than pressured; I wondered if the door was locked. When I told them I didn't like any of the patterns, they finally stopped laying out the rugs and I walked out the door.

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    Part 2: Urgup, Cappadocia

    We flew Turkish Air from Istanbul to Neveshir, a 1 hour flight, and took the airport shuttle to the hotel. We opted not to rent a car and the consensus was that it was the most stress-free vacation because we weren’t fighting over the map, directions or getting lost. For those interested, I did get a quote for a van and driver for $100USD/day + gas and the driver’s expenses.

    We spent 5 nights at the Melekler Evi and what a wonderful 5 days it was! Looking out from our terrace, I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

    The rooms were spacious, well decorated and had great showers. There were lots of outdoor terraces—3 just outside our room. It sits above the town with stunning views of the nearby caves and mountains. Location is excellent; a 5-minute walk to town, restaurants and the wine store. On the grounds are pear trees and grapevines. A tasty breakfast was served under the grape arbor each morning.

    We had no guide book for this leg of our journey—this always make me nervous, especially when choosing restaurants. Soon after arriving, we walked to town for lunch and settled on Somine’s which became our go to restaurant. They had good prices, plenty of variety good service and good food.

    We walked around town and found some interesting shops. The most interesting was the Hakan rug shop next to Han Ciragan Restaurant. The owner would buy old camel saddles/packs, shepherd’s bags and baby carriers and then have them restored for resale as rugs, wall hangings or pillow covers. We walked by the store at least twice a day and would stop to visit, sometimes buy, and even have apple tea with him. At another hole-in-the wall shop, run by a very “old lady”, we found onyx and pottery items that seemed incredibly inexpensive. Among other items, brother-in law got a large Hittite vase-like pottery item that he negotiated down to 30TL (with a cost of $320 to ship home)--more about the vase later. Old lady grinned ear to ear every time we came by—maybe it was because every time we walked by we went in and bought more.

    The other place where we made friends was the natural food store. We bought lots of dried fruits and nuts which became staples for our 5:00 happy hour on the upper deck at the Melekler. But before happy hour began, we had to hike up to the wine store. The wine we most bought was red and made from “big grapes” or “okuzgozu”. The best brand we found was Kocabag, but only found it in the hotel’s wine cellar, meaning it was rather expensive. On the beer front, there was only one brand, Efes, a pilsner; on a very good day we could find Efes dark. Our daily routine was to meet up on the deck with beer, wine, and nuts and watch the sunset and the moonrise over the city. These times were pretty spectacular.

    We took tours with Rock Valley Travel. First day we did the “Red” Tour; major stops were at the Derinkuyu underground city and the Ihlara canyon.

    The underground city went down 16 flights, but only 8 were open to the public for safety reasons. As soon as we went down 1 level and no longer saw daylight, I was ready to bail. After a few deep breaths, I forced myself to stay and was glad I did. The city was built in the year 2000 BC and each year for 2 months, 2,000 people and their animals lived underground. It was like being in Raiders of the Lost Ark. My nephew and brother in law were not inclined to stay with the tour group and preferred to go off on their own exploring. Me, I stuck to the tour guide like glue. The only time it got really bad was in one very long tunnel. What seemed like a couple of tour buses of people came down all at once. While waiting for them to clear out, a very large crowd had gathered at the bottom waiting to ascend.

    Another stop was at a “mineral” lake where they had just discovered the waters had healing powers. They were building a hotel complex and expected it to be a major draw. To me, it looked pretty remote. I asked if its powers had been medically proven and the guide said yes, it had the powers to heal arthritis. Hmmm.

    Then we were off to Ihlara Valley which was very beautiful and an easy hike; it was even cool down in the canyon. The guys were looking for something more challenging, so they were climbing vertically and running back down to catch up with us. You know those people on tours that the group is always waiting on—that’s my nephew and his father. We ladies loved the hike, but it could have been longer. This was followed by a pleasant lunch along the river. Last stop was at a caravansary, a 13th century inn along the silk road which traders and their animals were allowed to stay for 2 (?) nights.

    Day 2 the ladies did the “blue” tour which included Zelve and Goreme open-air museums, pigeon valley and a couple other stops. At the first stop, we thought it was just to take pictures, so no one had hats or water. It ended up being a hike through Devrent imagination valley. It was hot and sun was beating down. I think being without water got the whole group off to a bad start. By the time we got to Goreme, it was so crowded to get into the churches. The guide took a vote and the consensus was to leave. We went onto lunch in a very large building designed specifically for tour groups. It was noisy and food was just okay.

    A couple of interesting things I learned from the tour guide were that Goreme hadn’t been “discovered” until tourists started visiting Turkey. I was amazed that the Turks were unfazed by such a treasure until foreigners came to explore the area. The other thing was the forced exchange of Greek and Turkish populations in the 1920s. The Turks were resettled in the caves of Zelve and resettled once again when the caves became structurally unsafe (1950s?)

    Our last stop was a pottery demonstration in Avanos, a chance to watch the artists paint the design on their work and a visit to the shop which had Hittite pottery. We found the very same vase that we bought back in town from the “old lady”. Price? 5,000TL; we had paid 30TL. We spoke to the man who did the pottery demonstration; he said there must be something wrong, we cold not have bought the vase for that price. I shared with him the pictures on my camera and after reviewing them, he said it had all the markings of the same vase he was selling. He quoted us the price of $320 to ship it home. As we were about to get on the bus, he ran out to tell us to get get rid of all the clothes and protect in well in one of our suitcases because we had the real thing. Priceless!! A better end than a beginning to our trip.

    The guys decided they wanted to hike Argus, a volcano and needed to hire a guide. The guide told them they couldn’t hike to the top because they didn’t have the proper footwear nor technical equipment; they went anyway. Away they drove in a “tin can car”, a car that they had to get out and push part way up the mountain. They drove as far as they could and then had to walk. From what they said, they hiked 3 miles around the crater and then headed down. Nephew said guide didn’t know how to guide and even left them on the way down to hitch a ride back to his car. It was an adventure they paid $250 for.

    That night we ate at our hotel. It was the best meal we had in all of Turkey. It was a fixed menu with mezzes, soup, salad, main entrée and dessert, eaten out under the stars. It was outstanding. They Melekler is not a restaurant, but offer dinner upon request and with notice.

    Next day we planned on a walking tour through the Rose Valley, under the full moon, again with Rock Valley Tours. We had the day free and found a pool at the Urgup Club. Not a place I would recommend. From there, we did a wine tasting at the nearby Tursan winery. The wines were not full-bodied enough for my liking. We had wanted to book dinner at our hotel again that night, but were told the tour would be a 3-4 hour hike so we would not make it back in time for dinner.

    We got picked up about 5:30 pm and taken to the meeting point, there was no sun and the sky looked ominous. When I asked what would happen if it rained, I was told there were lots of places to take cover. On this tour, it was just the 5 of us and the guide. It was amazing; my favorite tour. It was very cloudy with not much of a moon, so it got rather dark. They only people we met along the way were the multigenerational family of farmers picking their berries and veggies. We took our time exploring caves, churches and rock formations, taking pictures and going off the beaten path. It was just us; no need to hurry to catch up with the group—which is what we were doing on the previous tours. I think by this time, the guide was tired of us. He offered no stories, no history; just kept on walking ahead. When I caught up, I asked “no history to pass along”? He said it was just a valley resulting from a river that once flowed through the area. He did have a cold, maybe he wasn’t feeling well…. On the way back, it did start to rain and there was no protection to be found. Fortunately, it didn’t last long. With all our off trail exploration, the hike only took two hours, not the 3-4 hours we were told. Altho, we loved the trek through the valley, we felt we had been ripped off. The tour lasted half the time we were told. Most disappointing was that we had missed the opportunity to have dinner again at our hotel.

    When we got back to Melekler, we asked if there was anyway we could just have appetizers. Luckily, they obliged. It was a simple meal, but yet delicious. We were invited to visit the wine cellar; the collection included wines from Napa as well as some homemade recipes. We ended the evening in our favorite spot, the upper deck overlooking the city, drinking wine.

    Our collection of most memorable events:
    Meeting the rug guy
    Cliffs in lhara Valley
    Cave dwellings all around
    Beautiful hotel with grand views and fabulous dinner
    No rental car; no getting lost
    The “tin can car” guide and climb up Argus
    Everything was amazing, especially the people
    The church at Goreme that “took my breath away”
    Being 8 stories underground where people once lived
    Hunting for treasures, such as the 5000TL vase we got for 30TL
    Rose valley, with rock formations that looked like dinosaurs, was like being in the land before time

    Yes, we loved Cappadocia, especially the Melekler Evi where, as my nephew puts it, “it was all about the cave hotel”.

    Next day we are off to Cirali.

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    Jackie,

    Just caught up with your photos. Thanks for posting them. I liked seeing the relative scale of the buildings and streets. I enjoyed the ones taken on the cruise and from the fort. All very interesting. Your hotel roof deck had a great view too!

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    Jackie, I've been waiting for this chapter. I could picture almost every step of your report, wishing that we, too, were sitting on our balcony at the Melekler Evi overlooking the stunning scenery of Urgup. We loved our dinner there also. We ended up with the same guide all three days from Rock Valley. He was amazing and made the history come alive.

    My husband is tall and big-boned, and we almost thought we'd have to leave him in one of the tunnels of the underground city! I can't imagine how those people lived in those cities for months at a time - it's amazing.

    Thanks for your wonderful report.

    Ellen

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    Ellen-you can probably tell that your trip report served as the model for our Cappadocia trip--same hotel, same tour company. We all thank you!

    Here is the link to Cappadocia pictures

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    Finally, the last leg of our trip....

    Cirali

    Cirali is difficult to get to, but worth the effort. There are direct fights between Cappadocia and Antalya, but even going through a travel agent, I didn’t find them. We flew first to Istanbul and then onto Antalya.

    Up until this leg of our journey, we had been transported in Mercedes Benz vans. It appeared as tho the luxury ended in Antalya as a Hyundai with nonworking AC awaited us for the 2-hr drive. Between flight delays and traffic it took 11 hours from the time we left Urgup until we arrived at our hotel. It was a bad fight and an uncomfortable drive.

    We arrived at the Arcadia Hotel and the day’s travel stress disappeared.
    We dropped our bags off and met at the hotel's restaurant. We arrived to an open aired, candle-lit space with cloth-covered tables under a full moon with the Mediterranean in the background. Postcard perfect. I couldn't have imagined a better, more soothing, welcome.

    I stayed in a mountainside large comfortable bungalow with a good, quiet air conditioner. It sat among citrus trees and jasmine bushes. Scent was heavenly.

    Hotel provided mountain bikes—it had been 20 years since I had ridden a bike and I still feel the seat’s imprint on my backside. I was so focused staying upright, I don’t even recall going through the village center.

    It was so hot during the day, we spent it in the water and waited until late in the day to set out on the bikes. We biked to the Olympos ruins one night and to the chimera fires another. On the way back, stopped at Oleander to eat. Food was good, but service was bad. 



    Even though there is not much to do in the town, the time passed very quickly. We spent 4 nights and I thought we'd get bored after 2. Nope. My sister said she needed another 2 nights and her husband needed at least 6 days to climb all the mountains. As it turned out, it was too hot for him to do much hiking. The area is incredible. The hotel is surrounded my mountains and beach. Couldn't ask for a prettier, more relaxed setting. My nephew described it best “another day in paradise”.

    Most memorable Cirali moments:
    • Biking to the chimera and seeing the fire on the mountain under full moon
    • Seeing sea turtles
    • Boat ride
    • Catching fresh fish and having it cooked for lunch
    • Having no cash and learning there was no ATM machine in town

    Back to Istanbul

    Next day we are back to Istanbul for one night before heading home. I had asked for reservations on the10: 30 pm flight, but unfortunately there was a misunderstanding and ultimately we were catching a 5:30 am shuttle to the airport. So, lesson learned----pay attention to flight times.

    We stayed at the Airport Marriott Courtyard because of early morning flights and free shuttle. By this time, no one wanted to go back into the city and we never let the hotel. Nice hotel, heavy security. Outside was surrounded with barbed wire and we had to go through security to go into hotel. That was a little concerning, but the Marriott people said they just have higher security in foreign countries.

    Turkey is a beautiful country, people are warm and friendly, roads are good, language is not a problem. My next time I’d like to take a driving vacation and hit the towns along the Mediterranean coast. Rest of the family agreed.

    Cirali Photos

    http://traveler01880.smugmug.com/Travel/Cirali-Turkey/14237139_45TXC#1052064424_QDdwU

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