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Trip Report Falling Hard for Turkey – Sept. 14 – 28, 2012

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X-Posted, so if this is familiar, you can stop reading. ;-)

Thanks to everyone who helped us plan our trip. First off, apologies for typos and inconsistencies with diacritics. I tried to proof but I know I missed things, and I was frankly too lazy to go back and insert cedillas and the like where they needed to go.

I first toyed with the idea of Turkey a few years ago, but it wasn’t until this year that we finally made it.

I can’t begin to tell you how much we loved Turkey and its people. I never thought a city could bump Paris as my 2nd favorite destination city (Hong Kong is the first), but I think Istanbul had done it. My husband and I are already making plans to go back next year.
As a warning, I’ll probably spend more time on logistics in my report—which I’m hoping can help others—than on the details of the major sites (and sights!), since I think those are well covered by other folks.

Pre-Trip Planning

From my research a few years ago, I knew it would be Selcuk (for Ephesus), Cappadocia, and Istanbul. We like to settle into cities, so I wanted about a week for Istanbul, leaving about a week to split between Selcuk and the Cappadocia region. Your advice helped us decide on two full days in Selcuk (vs. my original one day), and then we had three full days for Cappadocia.

In Selcuk, Hotel Bella was always the only choice, because of their vantage point overlooking St. John’s Basilica. (I just couldn’t escape the romance of that!) Booking was easy; I sent them an email, they responded promptly, I sent them our credit card info, and got a prompt confirmation.

For Istanbul, if our trip from a few years ago had panned out we would probably have stayed in Sultanahmet. Now, though, with a few years of thinking behind me, I thought briefly about staying in Sirecki (probably the Neorion) but given we had 6 full days we thought being away from tourist central would be a good idea. Plus, we decided we really preferred apartments for stays of more than a few days. I ended up booking, due to the airy photos and the incredible view from the terrace. I also had the owner book our airport pickup.

For Cappadocia, as well as our internal flights, I went through Turkish Heritage Travel (THT). I had decided to go the “safe” route of booking two of their small group tours and Butterfly Balloons, so I thought I’d might as well take advantage of the rest of their services. In hindsight, I wish I’d just done some of these things myself. As you can imagine, by the time I emailed them I pretty much knew everything I wanted, down to the internal flight numbers, specific days for tours, and the hotels I wanted. What I got back was a standard response with a standard package, and a suggested booking into one of the Kelebek sister hotels. I went back to them, deleting most of their suggestions, shuffling dates around back to what I had sent them, and reiterating that I wanted one of two specific hotels depending on the specific rooms available (Goreme Suites or Aydinli House---I had first emailed Cappadocia Cave Suites, whose photos I’d fallen in love with a few years ago, but they didn’t respond to any of the emails through their web form or directly.)

They came back again with yet another THT hotel choice, and there were still a few things I had to confirm. I threw up my hands and emailed Aydinli House directly with my specific room requests. Their prompt and friendly response was a relief. I’m not sure if the issue was the specific travel agent I got or what, but with all the back and forth and frustration I could have just booked even all the internal flights myself in less time by the time everything got sorted out.

Once we got to Turkey, everything THT booked for us worked perfectly, so I have no complaints there. Plus, it was nice having everything pre-paid so I had one less thing to worry about. However, I regretted not contacting Murat at Travel Atelier (although it seemed silly if I was going to use mainly THT’s tours) or just doing most of it myself. I think if I had done less research and was willing to just go with whatever they suggested, it would have worked fine. My mistake was making all the decisions before I contacted them and then expecting they’d just follow my itinerary.

I also learned a number of tourist phrases for the trip, but I rarely had to use anything other than greetings. In Goreme and Selcuk, which obviously cater so much to tourists, many people we encountered spoke enough English for us to get by. It was less so in Istanbul, understandably, but a few words and many hands gestured sufficed.

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    Part 1 – Getting There

    (Southwest, Turkish Airlines, Atlas Jet, Hotel Bella)

    We flew Southwest from Oakland to LAX. Our flight was late taking off. Originally we’d had about 3 hours before our Turkish Airlines flight, but by the time we got to LAX we had closer to 2. When we saw the check-line line at the Turkish Airlines counter, with many passengers checking in multiple gigantic boxes and pieces of luggage, we were especially worried. However, the line ended up moving faster than expected so we got to our gate with a comfortable buffer—especially since they were delayed taking off. Turkish Airlines’ Comfort Class was marvelous (even though calling their LA office to choose seats had been annoying—if I never have to listen to their theme song again…). We had flown Air France’s premium economy the year before, and the food was far superior on Turkish Airlines. I think the only thing I missed was being able to check-in at a separate counter and boarding with the business class folks. One strange thing, was that they made us put all our carry-ons in the overhead bins for takeoff. We couldn’t put anything under the seats. (However, when we landed in Istanbul they let everything keep bags out everywhere!)

    I don’t remember what time we landed but the flight was scheduled to arrive at Ataturk at 17:10 Friday evening, and I don’t think we were very late. As soon as we got off the plane my husband and I headed down to look for the visa booth. It was clearly marked on the right-hand side and there was only a small line of our fellow passengers. We plunked down our passports and our $40 and were good to go. Then there was a bit of confusion as to where we were supposed to go next. The visa booth was right next to immigration control for a number of countries, including African ones, so we weren’t sure if we were supposed to go there too. We finally asked an airport person and they told us we need to just go further down the corridor. We were obviously not the only people on that flight who were confused, so we managed to set a few other people straight as we headed way down to where our passport control line was. That line moved very fast; I don’t think they really checked anything. The longest wait ended up for our luggage, we exited the international area, stopped by an ATM, then followed the clearly marked signs to the domestic terminal. We checked in at the AtlasJet counter, which had practically no one there, and were sitting at the gate by 18:20, well in time for our 19:50 flight to Izmir.

    AtlasJet actually served free food on the plane. We munched on our sandwiches and I was happy to have more Cappy Vişne (sour cherry) juice, which I had discovered on the Turkish Airlines flight. When we landed at Izmir and collected our luggage, we headed out of the terminal to find the free AtlasJet. I don’t know if things work differently during daylight hours, but when we arrived and exited the terminal, we finally spied the AtlasJet guy holding a sign across the traffic lanes. When we got to him, he told us to go left and up a ramp. So we went left, found the long set of stairs which led to the parking garage, turned left again toward a small open air parking lot that looked like it contained shuttles, asked the parking attendant there, and he directed us to the end of the shuttle line where the AtlasJet shuttles parked. When we told the guys there we were going to Selcuk, they told us to get into a specific shuttle. We left the parking lot almost exactly at 21:15.

    When they dropped us off at Selcuk it was dark and we had no idea where we were. All the guidebooks made Selcuk sound like a sleepy little one-horse town, but the Selcuk we were in looked quite a bit more substantial than that. I pulled out our Selcuk map, asked a few people, and wandered up and down the street. Finally, we passed by a guy standing in front of a hotel. He must have heard us say “Hotel Bella” (what he probably heard was “Where the [email protected]#$% is this stupid Hotel Bella place?!”) because he stopped us and pointed us in the right direction, just around the corner from his hotel and up a steep street. It was our first taste of Turkish generosity.

    We checked in, Hotel Bella said they had to swap the Priene, Miletus, Didmya (PMD) tour we’d arranged through them from Sunday to Saturday (the next day) due to lack of sign-ups, and we headed to our room. We’d booked one of their balcony rooms and, as expected, it was super small, though nicely decorated. It had a large wardrobe but no drawer space for clothes (we ended up using some of the nightstand drawers). We tucked one of the suitcases into the wardrobe but the other one had to stay on the floor by the window. The bathroom was quite narrow. As expected, there was a sign that we could only stick toilet tissue in the trash bin. We were used to that from our trips to the Yucatan Peninsula, but I don’t think we ever got comfortable with the idea. The shower was a good enough size; not luxurious, but modern and clean. The mattress, like so many European mattresses, was futon hard.

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    Selcuk - Day 1 – “Faces like cherubs”

    PMD Tour

    We set our travel alarm clock for 7:30, giving us plenty of time to head up to the Hotel Bella terrace for breakfast. They have a lovely setup. Half of the terrace had regular tables and chairs, while the other half had padded benches lining the perimeter. We opted for the benches in front of a coffee table. As soon as we sat down they asked if we wanted coffee or tea, and if we wanted eggs (scrambled or fried). Then they brought each of us a plate of fruit, cheese, olives and simit, along with a few jams and honey.

    After breakfast we headed down to wait for our shuttle. We had 5 other people join our tour so we had a good, small group. It took a bit to warm up to our tour guide, John, but by the end of our tour we loved him. He had this gruff, slightly exasperated attitude like some college professors I’d known. His English wasn’t incredible, but it was good enough to be understood and fit the tour quite well.

    I had gone back and forth between PMD and Parmakkule, and decided on PMD simply because I didn’t want to spend three hours in a shuttle each way. Our first stop was Priene, and the first hint that a trip to Turkey was going to be more physically demanding than a stroll at the mall. Priene lies on a high plain, so we had to walk up to get there. Plus, it was getting pretty hot which made it worse. However, as our first sight of ancient ruins, it was breathtaking. John told us about the history of the site, including some fun peripheral notes such as how DNA testing of gladiators in the Ephesus cemetery showed they’d been mainly vegetarians. It was hard to imagine that the site, high up among cotton fields, was once abutting a harbor.

    Miletus is often talked about as a “throwaway” site, but I ended up preferring it to Didyma. I think it’s because I have a weakness for stark, fortress-like structures. We spend some time at the baths, where John again gave us tidbits about how the men would spend their time there ordering “wine, ice cream, opium, girls with faces like cherubs, boys…” Then we moved up to the theatre, slowly admiring the ruins in the distance, and through a large stairwell until we emerged in the light, surrounded by the horseshoe seats.

    Didyma was a much smaller site than I expected, and unlike Priene and Miletus, squarely in the middle of civilization. Although it had impressive columns and reliefs, and it was interesting to hear about the Temple of Apollo and its oracles, there was no way to get away from the crowds. So, yes, it was my least favorite.

    Lunch at a Turkish restaurant, with a large but inspired buffet of mezes and a main course of fried fish. Then back to Selcuk by 4:30, where we hit the Saturday market. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it was much larger than I imagined. When I read about the “market that sets up each Saturday behind the bus station” I was picturing an alley behind a bus station with some stalls. Instead, the bus station sits in an area full of restaurants and shops, and the market contained many stalls covering a number of streets. It was full of fruits and vegetable, nuts and grains, as well as cheap clothes and household goods such as trash cans and plastic hangers, and a smattering of vintage wares. I ended up just buying an ear of corn as a snack.

    As we walked back to the hotel, we got thoroughly lost. Again, Selcuk really wasn’t anything like the teeny town I’d been imagining. It’s full of trees, which means it’s hard to spy landmarks or street signs, and there are a number of multi-lane roads. So, yeah, make sure you get help orienting yourself if you go.

    For dinner we decided to stick closer to home, so crossed from the hotel to the smaller shopping area by us. We had dinner at Wallabies, because they had tables right on the square next to the aqueduct. Unfortunately, it was probably the worst food we had on the trip. Not horrible, but just blah. My lamb chops were dry and gristly, and the salad was just bland. The location, though, on a warm evening, was unbeatable. After dinner, my husband went looking for a shave (which sounded quite luxurious, even down to the burning of his stray hairs), and I wandered back to the hotel.

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    Selcuk – Day 2 – “Allah is in your heart”

    Ephesus, Ephesus Museum, Isabey Mosque, St. John’s Basilica

    After breakfast, where we met a lovely South African couple on their honeymoon, we headed to the lobby for the Hotel Bella’s free shuttle to Ephesus. They dropped us off at the upper gate and pointed us toward the ticket booth.

    Yes, it was crowded, and we tripped over large tour groups everywhere, but it was hard to care when surrounded by such magnificence. Unlike Priene or Miletus, we could almost get a sense of what it must have been like to live in the ancient city. The path is mostly a straight path through the site, with some small detours—including the ruins of the Church of St. Mary—so unlike Selcuk it’s almost impossible to get lost! I’ll also reiterate what everyone has said—go to the Terrace Houses. (FYI, not only is it a separate fee, but they have a separate ticket booth there, so don’t expect to buy the Terrace House tickets with your main Ephesus tix.) The frescos are gorgeous, the mosaics wonderful, and it’s really interesting to get a glimpse into the excavation and restoration work. As an extra bonus, the Terrace Houses are covered so it makes a nice respite from the sun at a convenient halfway mark through Ephesus. We spent more time at the Terrace Houses than most of the rest of Ephesus combined.

    We got to the lower gate for our noon pickup with enough time to browse the gift shop and get a drink. The Hotel Bella driver was late, but since we weren’t paying for it none of us could complain. While waiting, we got to chat with the South African couple, who hadn’t been on the same shuttle with us going to Ephesus.

    Back in Selcuk we got lost again, randomly popped into a small café (Yerim Café, with Pac-man on the windows) for a casual lunch, then finally found someone who could point us to the Ephesus Museum. The Museum is definitely not to be missed, especially having seen Ephesus, but I found sweep of history is rather overwhelming after a long morning. I wish I could have gone while fresh.

    On our way to the Ephesus Museum, we finally figured out where Hotel Bella was in relationship to everything else. Thus, we did not get lost heading back toward to the hotel to visit the small and unimposing Isabey Mosque, which sits beyond St. John’s Basilica, and is flanked by a number of tourist stalls. When we got there, the crows were swirling the minaret, so I stopped to stare. Two other tourists were arriving at the same time. As we starting taking out our headscarves a man bustled over and introduced himself as the Imam of the mosque. He told us there was no need to put on our scarves (“Allah is in your heart.”) and no need to take off our shoes (“Allah is in your heart.”). He gave us a quick history lesson and pointed out various features of the mosque. Then we asked us our names and said he’d write them out for us in calligraphy (“for free”) and took us back outside to one of the stalls. After he wrote our names in cards, he suggested we look around to see if there was anything we wanted, assuring us that all funds went back to the mosque. We ended up having him write another card for my mom and buying a small coaster. Under normal circumstances we’d be annoyed at the hustling—part of me still wonders if he was actually the Imam—but we actually found his zeal rather amusing.

    Our last stop for the day was St. John’s Basilica. The ruins were interesting, but the lack of signage made it rather hard to get a real sense of the place. I wish I had brought more info, but as it was we spent less time there than I thought we would.

    Dinner was at the Hotel Bella. Their mezes were amazing and their lamb chops were loads better than Wallabies! Except for the waiter’s amusement as we kept trying to swat away a wasp (“you should just not pay attention to it”), it was a lovely end to Selcuk. As the sky turned pink, St. John’s Basilica began to glow, and the lights turned on over the city. Then the call to prayer sounded over the calls of the crows and swifts. Time to pack.

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    Leaving Selcuk

    The next morning we had asked Hotel Bella to book us a shuttle, since we were paranoid about our flight. In hindsight we could have saved the money and used the train, since we certainly didn’t need more than an hour to check in and get through security at Izmir. The only thing we didn’t realize was that in Turkey’s airports you have to go through a security line to get into the airport, and then the additional expected security check to the gate!

    There was no one at the SunExpress counter, so check in was easy. (Finding it wasn’t as easy, since there were no signs in the terminal, but luckily the airport is small.) At the gates there were some familiar fast food places (Burger King etc.) and a Turkish food place, as well as a news stand with snacks, and a toy store. When we saw people lining up to board we joined the line, and soon we were on our way to Kayseri. Sadly, SunExpress charges for all food and drinks, so we were happy we’d fortified ourselves at the airport.

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    Cappadocia – Day 1 – “Turtles on a Stick”

    Aydinli Cave House and the Goreme Open Air Museum

    There’s something very reassuring about exiting a strange airport and seeing someone hold up a sign with your name. We’d arranged transport through THT and, sure enough, the guy was there waiting for us. After rounding up a number of other passengers, our shuttle took off for Goreme.

    On the way I kept staring out the window, waiting for the landscape to look like the photos I’d seen of Cappadocia—the ones that had first inspired me to plan a trip to Turkey. At first it just looked like any other highway, through a dry plain that reminded me of the American Southwest. We even passed a truck stop that advertised a Sbarro and Burger King among Turkish offerings. Finally, the ground started folding a bit. Then it became lumpy. And then…ahhhh….the earth heaved upward. The Cappadocia of my dreams.

    Check-in at Aydinli was easy, and a young guy whom we found out later was the owner’s nephew good-naturedly huffed and puffed with our suitcases up to our spacious room with its lovely view over Goreme. (If anyone wants more details about the room feel free to PM me.) It’s not a place to stay at if you are stair-phobic, though, because it requires steps just to get from the lobby to the rooms.

    Aydinli Cave House is owned and run by a local family, using the cave house their grandfather owned. Our room was a combination of cave and stone, but others are purely cave. What attracted me to this hotel in particular was its small size but also the airiness and clean design of the rooms. We were not disappointed. Everything was spotless, and we came to adore the family—especially the owner Mustafa and his son Cem.

    While we were checking in we mentioned to Mustafa that we were thinking of hitting the Goreme Open Air Museum before dinner, and he told us to just let him know and he’d have someone drive us there. I understand that such service is common practice among many of the smaller hotels in the area, and it was certainly much appreciated.

    So we checked out our room, then headed down to ask for a ride to the Open Air Museum. Even at close to 4pm, the place was heavy with tourists and tour buses. I can’t imagine what it looks like earlier in the day. We quickly learned to dodge the sites where tour groups were, and doubling back when they were gone. As we imagined, the cave churches are fascinating, with carvings and frescoes that range from the primitive (we heard one tourist comment that some drawings looked like “turtles on a stick”) to the ornate. As with the Terrace Houses at Ephesus, the Dark Church’s has a separate booth right in front of it.

    When I had been researching Cappadocia I’d been warned that we really need grippy shoes. The Open Air Museum certainly bore that out. Frankly, given the heat and given how many of the churches required a bit of climbing—including up steps that were something slippery and sandy, I was beginning to realize this Cappadocia was not a trip I’d suggest my healthy but elderly mother should ever make.

    When we left the Museum we thought about catching a taxi back, since the drive over had made it seem slightly farther than we were expecting. However, we didn’t see a taxi and lots of people seemed to be walking down the sidewalk to town so we followed them. We’re glad we did because otherwise we would have forgotten about the Buckle Church, which is outside and down a bit across the street from the Open Air Museum. The frescoes there are bright and gorgeous, plus you get to read about the restoration work.

    We also stopped to pet one of the camels and the burro at the little spot next to the restaurant/shop/bus parking lot. I was worried they wouldn’t even let me pet the camel without a fee, since I wasn’t interested in a ride, but they were quit mellow. My husband tipped the young boy watching the camel as thanks.

    Dinner that night was at Sedef, which we went to simply because we asked a shopkeeper. It’s rather swanky, as one of those main street Goreme restaurants go. They had a gorgeous, heavy menu, and cool mist was being sprayed every few minutes. I felt like a head of lettuce in the produce section at Safeway, but it was refreshing in the heat. The food was good, somewhat overpriced as expected, and service relatively attentive. Not a place I’d go back to, though, unless I were looking for a somewhat refined restaurant to impress someone with.

    The main streets in Goreme seem to be almost completely taken over by tourist shops and restaurants. However, as soon as you get off the main streets, as you head up the hilly inclines, you pass old women sitting in doorways gossiping, and horse carts, and piles of kindle. There’s construction of new hotels everywhere, so I wonder what the town will look like a few years from now, but the charms are still evident. As an FYI, all the ATMs we used seemed to dispense Euros and US Dollars as well as TL. We drove through Urgup later in the trip, and although I can see where it would be more "authentic" becsue its size allows for more "stuff" the flatness made it much less atmospheric. I'm really glad we chose Goreme with its fairy chimneys scattered throughout the town.

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    Cappadocia – Day 2 – “After a few days you just see a person”

    Explore and Hike Tour

    The next morning was our first THT tour – the Explore and Hike tour. We waited in the lobby of our hotel, and when the shuttle pulled up someone ran out, checked, and then came back and told us is was for us. We were lucky enough to have just one other person on the tour—who was coincidentally from San Francisco—so we had quite the intimate trip.

    Our tour guide, Fatih, was as animated and enthusiastic as new convert. He could talk for hours about the history and the stories surrounding Cappadocia, explained how the ashes and rainwater created the tufa that in turn were carved into the fairy chimneys, and talked about the construction and purpose of the pigeon houses. (Fertilizer!) He obviously spent a bunch of his free time exploring Cappadocia too, because he talked about some of his more “extreme” adventures with friends checking out smaller underground cities and climbing through churches and monasteries.

    Since we were such a small group we were not shy about pelting him with questions. We asked him about the names of the volcanoes, how crops were irrigated, how garbage was collected and even about the prison we passed by on our way back. After asking us if we’d seen the TV series “Prison Break” (“it’s the BEST show”), he told us the actor had actually toured the prison once to prepare for the show. Fatih had also been brought in to teach English there a few months ago, so he regaled us with his experience. (“When you first meet them you think of them as criminals, but after a few days you just see a person.”)

    Our first stop was at the Ihlara Village entrance to Ihlara Valley. Fatih led us down the path, where involved a bit of slipping. I wondered how the German tour group we’d encountered near the top was going to handle it, since a few of the people did not look all that spry. Much of the hike is flat, every time we had to haul ourselves around a boulder I cringed thinking about the older German woman with the walking sticks.

    However, other than the German tour group, we saw no other tourists until we stopped for tea at the half-way mark, where I believe the tourist center is. Then we were surrounded.

    I found Ihlara mildly interesting. It was pretty, and I marveled at all the cave dwellings and pigeon houses up the cliff. However, it was mainly a long hike along a pretty river with trees. I would have like the chance to explore the cave churches, but instead we only went to one. A much shorter visit would have been preferable, or perhaps one not part of a tour.

    After a leisurely and ample lunch at Belisırma (many mezes, soup, and a choice of Turkish entrees—I had a great plate of kofte) we headed to Selime Monastery.

    When anyone asks me about Cappadocia, I cite Selime first. It was definitely one of my highlights of the trip. It’s huge—set atop a rocky bluff—and incredibly atmospheric. The path up was a tad perilous and slippery and very narrow in parts. (I didn’t understand how some of the cute Japanese tourists in their cute shoes managed to get up without slipping and falling down the hill to their deaths.) But there were endless caverns and church carvings and tunnels to explore. Fatih pointed out a narrow tunnel at the back with a rusty iron ladder, whereupon you could climb and climb and climb all the way to the top. He was careful to say he didn’t endorse it for tourists, and when we took a peek with the flashlight he lent us we could see why. All three of us, relatively active, but old enough to have a healthy dollop of fear, chickened out.

    We ended our day at the Goreme Vista Point, for a lovely late afternoon view over the valley.

    Dinner was at Dibek, at one of their lounge-y tables. Food was fine, but they were obviously a bit tired of dealing with tourists.

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    Cappadocia – Day 3 – Up, Through, Lost, and Found

    Butterfly Balloons, Red and Rose Valleys, Kelebek Hamam

    Aydinli’s wake up call came right on time, followed shortly by the alarm on our travel clock. We were one of the first to get picked up by the Butterfly Balloons shuttle and as we wended around to the other hotels it was obvious that some folks had more trouble getting up on time.

    When we got to the Butterfly Balloons we checked in, they gave us the name of our pilot, and sent us in to a continental buffet. There, we bumped into the South African couple we’d met in Ephesus, and we filled each other in on our adventures.

    When it was time to go they told us to find the shuttle with the name of our pilot (a Brit named John, who had been in Cappadocia less than a year, and whom reminded my husband of Benny Hill—both in appearance and demeanor) and we’d be taken to the launch site. It was cold in the pre-dawn air, but it began warming up pretty quickly as the sun started coming up. We watched our balloon roll out, inflate, and rise, while all around us dozens and dozens of other balloons were doing the same.

    I expected a stool or something for the basket, but instead the balloon personnel helped us climb up and in. Not a bit dignified, and not all that easy for some of the older people in our basket. Then, before we took off, one of the guys went around and asked us for our camera so they could take our picture in the basket.

    What can I say about the experience? It was certainly extraordinary. I loved how we dipped into the valleys, skimmed the trees, and floated along the ridges. We had thought long and hard about the expense, but as everyone said, it was the ride of a lifetime. I am, though, glad we opted for the short ride; it seemed just long enough to me.

    After we landed, had the champagne toast and some cake, we were driven back to the hotel just in time for breakfast. (“Did you just come from the balloon ride?” asked Cem. “Was it awesome?” We assured him it was.)

    This was our free day, so we asked Mustafa about walking through the valleys to Cavusin and asked him to book an appointment at Kelebek Hotel’s hamam for us for later in the afternoon. We piled into Cem’s car and he drove us to Red Valley in his car, pointing out sights along the way and answering our questions about the history of his family.

    When I had been researching the valleys near Goreme, I looked at every hiking map I could. I even bought the fairly unhelpful Cappadocia book by Susanne Oberheu and Michael Wadenpohl. Nothing I looked at gave me the basic information I thought I needed—the length of a typical walk in each valley, the length of time to get there, the highlights of the differences between the valleys and, most importantly, very specific instructions on getting to and navigating through the valleys. However, some of the threads I read on internet made them sound like no-brainers.

    Welllll, remember how we got lost in Selcuk? It was nothing like getting lost in Cappadocia. Cem dropped us off and led us to the entrance to Red Valley via Zindanonu (or maybe Meskendir?). He gave us what he thought were very specific instructions and circled cave churches he said we shouldn’t miss. Before he left we embarrassed him by gratefully trying to tip him, which we was not having anything to do with. We made a note to stuff the common tip box in the lobby when we checked out.

    So we headed over to the edge of the gorge and looked around for the path. We saw nothing like any well-trod, large path. We finally figured this narrow trail had to be it and headed down. It took some slipping and a part where we did the sit-and-slide thing instead of trying to remain upright, but we got to the bottom. The first part of was easy, with the lovely white walls topped occasionally by pigeon houses rising on either side of us, and the whisper of trees leading us on. We passed by a New Zealand tour group, again, like the Germans, of the older type, who were trying to navigate though a tunnel made slippery by puddles. (“We should let this younger couple go by us, who can walk faster than we can.”)

    It was all good for awhile. We saw a sign for Red Valley and turned that way. Then we exited the gorge and found ourselves on a dirt road that grew increasingly wide. Our first signs of civilation were a horse. Then a motorcycle. Then a car. Then another car. The signs pointed toward Cavusin so we knew we had to be in the right direction. We even spied a small cave church off the side of road and climbed up the stone toeholds to peek inside. This is where my memory gets fuzzy, mainly because nothing else was clear after this. We began looking for the tea shop that Cem said marked the turnoff to Red Valley and the other cave churches. In my mind I thought it would be like Ihlara Valley, where we would be along some narrow, straight road, spy a sign for a cave church a few yards away, go look at the church, come back to the road. Instead, the dirt road was wide, there were no churches visible and when we got to a tea house, we couldn’t tell if the cleared areas around it were road, car park, dusty field or what. The official trail signs that appeared every so often at the side of the road didn’t help much either. Plus, the sun was beating down and I was really hot and really sweaty.

    We finally randomly picked a place and headed off the main road for about five long minutes. It led to some interesting fairy chimneys but nothing that looked like a church. We went back to the main road and tried another dirt area. We finally ran into the bizarre sight of a local Turkish man accompanied by an Asian woman with a parasol. Ah-ha! He must be a tour guide. He headed to where they had come from, thinking there had to be a church. We went up a slippery slope and found nada. We went down the slippery slope. We went back to the path. The woman was getting into a horse-drawn carriage, so I thought maybe she was on the Kirkit tour. Unfortunately, although she smiled at us she didn’t seem to speak English.

    My husband and I continued aimlessly, and we were both thinking it may have been a bad idea to do this hike independently. (Okay, me more than him.) We spied a grape field and thought we had to be someplace semi-important so turned. We finally came across another sign and turned that way. Woo-hoo! There was a local woman who had set up a tea stand and a sign for some church. We went that way. And kept going that way. And kept going that way. Passed a small grape field complete with grape pickers and a small tractor. We passed by an ATV tour and I thought uncharitable thoughts about the type of family who’d take an ATV tour in this pristine region. Then we kept walking, and walking and walking, and sweating and sweating and sweating. Then we came across the ATVs, parked! And we saw their guide lead them somewhere. I began to think nicer thoughts about the kind of family who would take an ATV tour. We followed them, and finally saw the church they were headed toward. More climbing, more slipping, and the lovely teenage son of this lovely ATV-riding family pulled me up to the top of the cave. The carvings of the crosses were amazing, but I know we never would have found it alone.

    After we left the church we continued down the path. We passed a grape field complete with grape harvesters. We followed another sign that went nowhere. We found an old cave that was obviously once someone’s dwelling, and had the air of an abandoned homeless encampment. We saw a sign that said we were in Rose Valley? We got further lost. We went down a narrow path with a steep drop to a stream on one side and the side of the hill on the other. We saw a moped in a tunnel but no sign of the person. I was picturing our bleached bones found years later somewhere in Rose Valley. Finally, oh finally, out of another tunnel, we saw two of the grape farmers we’d seen earlier wheeling barrows of grapes. We turned into the road they’d come from and finally, oh finally, we saw the small grape field. And then the tea lady, where I plunked down for tea and more water.

    After we were fortified, but no cooler, we gave up on the other churches and continued to Cavusin. It’s a charming, hilly small town topped by the church of St. John the Baptist that reminded me somewhat of Selime. We had lunch at the Panorama Café, mainly because Cem has told us they were high school friends of his, and we could have them call him and he’d come pick us up. Even after lunch I was too hot to think about going up the castle, so we just had Panorama call Aydinli and waited for Cem to fetch us.

    On the way back Cem needed to stop in Avanos, so we got to see a bit of that town. After seeing it I was glad we didn’t do one of the Avanos pottery tours not just because I’m not a big pottery fan but also because the town seemed rather flat and charmless.

    After some rest and reading, off to the Kelebek for our hamam appointment. Aydinli has a back stairwell that leads straight up into the Kelebek, so we were there in a minute. The newish Kelebek hamam is small and co-ed. First they had us lock our clothes in lockers. Wrapped in the short and thin pestemal they took us to the sauna. We sat there for a bit, on seats that would be too hot to sit on without a towel. Then they us into the small, pristine hamam area. A man took my husband to one side and a woman took me to another. She rather impersonally doused me with water, poured bubbles on me, scrubbed me down and did a light massage. It was nothing like the deep scrub I expected (like at a Korean spa), but it *was* after all a hamam built for tourists. Still, it was relaxing if nothing else. Then we were taken to the massage room. The hole in the face rest was too big so my head was pretty much held up by my temples. My husband said his guy gave him a pretty firm massage, but my gal was rather wimpy. I wish someone had escorted us out because we were not sure if there was some exit protocol we were supposed to follow. Instead, at the end we just sort of figured we were supposed to get dressed and go back out to the reception area to pay. All in all, it was a pleasant first hamam experience, but not earth-shattering.

    We had a pretty good dinner of pide at the Cappadocia Pide House Restaurant, where we watched a cat try to steal the food off the plate of the Japanese woman sitting next to us. I found it adorable; she was clearly not happy.

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    Cappadocia – Day 4 – Down, Down, Down

    Cappadocia Undiscovered Tour

    For our 2nd THT tour I was hoping we’d get Fatih again and I was hoping we’d be lucky enough to have a small group again. I was disappointed on both counts. We had a full shuttle this time, with an older couple from Spain, a Columbian-American family, a younger couple from Seattle, two young women from Singapore and—joy of joys—our South African couple again.

    I think we would have enjoyed this tour more if we had done this one first. As it was, after experiencing Selime, Keslik Monastery and Soganli Valley paled in comparison. Our short stint in Mustafapasa Village was only of moderate interest, and Sobessos hadn’t been excavated enough to wow us, especially with Ephesus in recent memory. Derinkuyu was the place we enjoyed the most, because it was the one thing we couldn’t compare to anything else. We also missed Fatih’s enthusiasm. This tour guide was fine but it all seemed rather rote to him. It may have also been the contrast between our other small tour and this larger one.

    The one amusing thing was how my husband got an earful both at Keslik and again at Soganli from an older British woman on a large bus tour about how strenuous the sights were. She was certainly not expecting the climbing and slipperiness.

    For our last night, we had dinner at Top Deck. Reservations are a must here. We tried to pop in the night before but they were fully booked, so we asked for reservations the following night. This restaurant, run by a Turkish chef—who looked remarkably like my chef brother-in-law—and his South African wife, reminds me of many of the small, chef-driven, nouveau-artisanal restaurants we have around San Francisco. It’s a place to go where you want Turkish food with a slight twist, interpreted with the purest ingredients. They have only one main dish a night (though they say you can request something different), so go prepared just to put yourself in their hands. We were very impressed and wished we had discovered them earlier. Plus, they were enjoyable people and the wife was fun to talk to.

    Leaving Cappadocia

    I’ve never left a hotel feeling teary before, but I did this time. I will always remember Cem telling us funny balloon stories at breakfast (how he made the mistake of going up with a ballooning friend once on a windy day and not coming back down for three hours; how the privy used to be outside so one could be sitting on the john, look up, and see a basketful of tourists looking down), Mustafa’s deep chuckle and all the kindness of everyone at Aydinli.

    We were picked up by the group shuttle and made our way to the Kayseri. The airport is, if anything, smaller than the one at Izmir. Warning, though; there is no concession stand at the gate so there’s no food or water to be had once you go through the 2nd security. Also, the gate area is so small it actually pays to get there a bit early otherwise you have no place to sit. I did see people with water, but I assume they must have gotten past security.

    Like SunExpress, Pegasus only has food for sale. (I hope AtlasJet never follows suit!) However, since we had skipped breakfast we ended up buying snacks on the plane. We had just enough time to eat them before we began out descent into Istanbul.

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    Thanks all, for reading this far.

    Kja, I think I should have ordered something else at Wallabies. They were clearly not feelin' their lamb chops! The lentil soup was good.

    Lexma90, yes, Istanbul is next!

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    Istanbul – Day One – Pilaf in the Rain; Galata in the Sunset

    Settling In

    We landed at SAW in the pouring rain, to 50 degree weather—a huge contrast from the upper 80s we’d been experiencing the prior week. Our driver was outside baggage claim waiting as promised. We were sure glad we got a driver because he couldn’t find the apartment and had to call the owner twice. He was very pleasant about it all, though, and even pointed out some landmarks when we got into Beyoglu. His English wasn’t great and you know our Turkish was almost nil, but I thought it was so nice of him to try so hard. (When we asked him what the boulevard that we later discovered was Tarlabasi was called, he told us the locals called it “Travesty Street” because of all the adult shops.)

    He finally found our apartment, right next to the Galatasaray Hammam, just down from busy Istiklal, where the owner’s daughter was waiting to greet us. Back that time the rain had slowed to intermittent mists.

    The apartment is on the 5th floor, so if we felt we were out of shape in Cappadocia, the apartment showed us how out of shape we actually were. But oh, the view over the roof of Galatasaray High School and toward the Old City was magical.

    We were starving, so after touring the apartment we went off in search of food. Since it was cold and wet I wasn’t interested in most of what we saw. Luckily, we stumbled upon Tarihi Kalkanoglu Pilavi, a tiny pilaf restaurant a few streets away. From the Turkish newspaper articles on the walls it obviously wasn’t a completely unknown spot, but it was decidedly down-home. With some pointing on the owner’s part and pointing on our part we each ordered savory pilaf with ground meat and beans. It was just the perfect lunch to drive away the chill.

    We wandered about aimlessly a bit more, marveling at the growing crowds on Istiklal as the Friday afternoon began turning into evening. (Little did I know Istiklal would always look like Time Square on New Year’s Eve every evening and weekend.) We went up to Taksim Square, where my husband bought an Istanbulkart from one of the unhelpful yellow self-service machines. (The next day, we found the white “official” booths—which we didn’t expect to look so much like newsstands that mainly sold snacks and cigarettes—and that went better.) We found a small Chinese mart so I could buy some chopsticks for the apartment. And we finally found a place to drop off our laundry. (Our apt had a washer but no dryer…I used it for a few quick-dry items, but for the bulk of the stuff I wanted a dryer.)

    I had read about watching the sun set on Galata Bridge so we headed that way. We accidentally found steep Galip Dede Caddesi (which we called “the Musician Street” throughout the entire trip due to the musical instrument stores), passed Galata Tower, got to traffic-filled Kemeralti Caddesi, figured out how to use the underground passage to cross, and made it to the bridge as the Alpine swifts started wheeling overhead, and the sun began descending over the ferries and ships and monuments and apartments and people.

    We had our first fish sandwich from a vendor on the Galata Bridge for dinner (to no ill effects), then ended our day early.

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    Istanbul – Day Two & Three – To the Golden Horn

    Mosques & More Mosques, Turkish & Islamic Arts Museum, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi; Losing faith in the Tram; Not finding the Calligraphy Museum

    Saturday & Sunday were our “must-see sights” weekend. And if you're wondering if we got lost as much in Istanbul as we did elsewhere—the answer is yes.

    The thing about Istanbul, that those new to it don’t understand until they get there (and I think those familiar with it underestimate), is that 1) distances are greater than they appear 2) even seemingly straightforward streets twist and turn enough so directions are never crystal clear. So my advice is to always give yourself more time than you think you need.

    We wended our way from our apartment down through Cihangir, realized my husband’s Istanbulkart had no money on it so couldn’t use tram at Tophane, continued toward Karakoy, and decided to have breakfast (eggs, olives, cheese, tea) at Cerkezkoy Delicatessen, which is right next to the famous Gulluoglu patisserie. Did we know that when we had breakfast? No. But through sheer luck we found it. I filed away that information for later.

    Continued toward the water—through a street where some street vendors had set up tables, and where my husband finally found a replacement for the clip-on sunglasses he’s broken in Cappadocia—until, a-ha!, we recognized the Galata Bridge. Stopped to buy me an Istanbulkart and put money on my husband’s, then we decided to just walk across the Bridge toward Eminonu.

    We headed to the New Mosque, which is gorgeous and pretty packed with tourists. We’d brought our own shopping bags to stash our shoes in, but we discovered that all the major “tourist” mosques have plastic baggies by the door. As the first of our Istanbul mosques, I could not get over how intricate, grand and gorgeous it was. Also, we noticed a number of women walking around without head-coverings. We would see that at all the larger mosques.

    On to Suleymaniye Mosque. We went around the Spice Market (again taking note of it as a future destination) and found ourselves in the maze of shops that surrounds that area. We kept asking people to point us in the right direction. I had a printout of two articles in “Today’s Zaman” detailing Eminiou to Sultanahment strolls, but in the bustle and with no way to get my bearings it didn’t seem practical to use it.

    Suddenly, I saw a sign for the Rustem Pasa Camii! Serendipity! I think I expected to go up the stairs into the mosque, but of course you go up to the stairs into a pretty open-air courtyard and then there’s the mosque. It was certainly more quiet than the New Mosque had been. The tilework is as lovely as described, but I think I was less impressed with it than others. It feels more serene, but I missed the awe I felt from the New Mosque.

    Then we were back on the streets and found our ways vaguely wandering through streets filled with toy and leather and clothing shops. We were also going up a steep hill. Coming from the San Francisco area, I thought I knew what a hilly city meant. I realized I had underestimated how many inclines Istanbul streets truly had. It also meant that it made it harder to hone in on landmarks as easily because the hills blocked our view at times.

    Finally, we saw another sign, and then we started seeing tourists headed up that way too. We paused for some fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice as fortification after the hill, then found the entrance to the Mosque. Unfortunately the cemetery area was closed, so we weren’t able to see the tombs of Suleyman and Roxelana. However, I adored the mosque’s painted dome with its creamy background.

    We had with us the Knopf Mapguide of Istanbul, and in it talked about a Calligraphy Museum in the area, so I wanted to go there. We walked past Istanbul University, skirted the Grand Bazaar, and briefly explored the stalls at the book mart. We popped into the charming Beyazit Mosque to see what a somewhat more local mosque was like. I confessed to my husband I was starting to prefer mosques to churches (with the exception of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco and Sainte Chapelle in Paris—and purely due to their stained glass). There were a number of men selling vintage and antique items around the mosque. I nearly bought a wooden fountain pen, but refrained.

    We wondered up and down Yeniceriler Caddesi, talking to people and even popping into the hotels in the area. No one had a clue about the Calligraphy Museum so we sadly concluded it was closed. The trip was not entirely wasted, though. We got to see Cemberlitas, the burnt column—which was neat but not so neat I wasn’t glad we hadn’t made a special trip. Plus, we noticed that the favored good of the week seemed to be spirographs, On every block there was some little boy selling them. My husband finally gave in, after negotiating from 50TL down to 5. The kid would probably have accepted less.

    We followed the street back to Sultanahmet and decided it was time for lunch. I didn’t have my “Istanbul Eats” book with me, so we succumbed to one guy standing outside of a restaurant and his promise of a terrace. I figured if I was going to overpay for mediocre food the least I could get was a view of The Blue Mosque. Both scenarios came to pass.

    After lunch we looked—and blanched—at the line into The Blue Mosque, so we hit the Museum of Turkish & Islamic Arts instead. I am not a big carpet person, nor am I a ceramics person. However, the detailed history, the artifacts (especially these fantastical bronze Selcuk animal figurines, and the Korans made my heart sing. I’m glad we got there before they closed for renovation.

    We were beat, so we thought it was time to head home. Unfortunately, the tram at Sultanahmet station was jammed back that Saturday afternoon. We could not get on the first two toward Kabatas at all, so we decided to grab a slightly less crowded (and by slightly I mean we were just able to squeeze in) one that ended at Eminonu. Another walk across Galata Bridge, our first ride on the Tunel funicular, Istiklal, then home.

    That night we tried to get into the “Istanbul Eats” recommended kabap restaurant Zubeyir. They were booked so we made reservations for the following evening. Instead, we ducked into another place kitty corner from Zubeyir, which we would count as one of our favorites from the trip— the small Kenan Usta Kebap. I had lamb ribs (kaburga) and my husband had lamb chops, plus a wonderful salad. I don’t understand how he was able to take unseasoned meat, slap on some spices, and make it taste so juicy and flavorful. What really sold us, though, was the warmth of the “grillmaster.” He didn’t speak a word of English, but when we saw how enthusiastic we were about his food he pointed out cuts of meat and offal from the glass case and tried to show us the best way to eat. The next night the food at Zubeyir was good, but the atmosphere, with the multi-story restaurant, nice menus and tablecloths, felt cold in comparison. When we went back to Kenan Usta a second night, we were greeted like old friends. (Plus, my husband said he didn’t realize Zubeyir’s kidneys had been slightly overcooked until he has Kenan Usta’s.)

    On Sunday we swore we’d get up in time to hit the Blue Mosque by 8am. Didn’t happen, in part because we didn’t realize the funicular and tram were on a slower Sunday schedule. (Well, we suspected that would be case, but didn’t confirm!) We got to the Blue Mosque at 8:30 and the tour groups were already out in full force. We joined the “tourist line” that winds around the outside but it moved pretty fast. In spite of the crowds, the mosque itself was just as breathtaking as expected.

    We had bought online tickets for Hagia Sophia, so when we got there at 9am we bypassed the line. It was grand, and all the tourists were tickled to see a cat holding court by the altar. However, I see why some people were disappointed in it. It’s a large building, but with an air of disuse and, unlike the mosques, felt unrestored in many places.

    Next was Topkapi Palace (which we’d also bought online tix for). I had vaguely remembered people talking about hitting either the Harem or the Treasury first, but I had my nose buried in the Rick Steve’s Istanbul book so we did the Harem first as the book suggested. Big mistake. I’m sure the Harem gets crowded, but you’re not in a single file trying to peer into glass cases the way you are in the Treasury. If you’ve tried to see the Hope Diamond at the Smithsonian you’ll know exactly what I mean. By the time we got through the Harem, the lines at the Treasury were insane, especially the first one into the throne room. We decided to skip that one and went straight into the 2nd room with its shorter line instead. Don’t miss the Topkapi Dagger, which wowed even my non-jewelry loving husband.

    We were also pleased to see the Harem exhibit, which was wonderful, and they had a special large exhibit of religious artifacts as well that included massive swords and what they said were bits of bone and hair from Mohammed.

    So, if someone asks me about order of the major sites on a single day, I would say we did it wrong. We should have gone to Topkapi first, hit the Treasury, then the Harem, then all else. Hagia Sophia should be second. Yes, it gets crowded, but because you’re not trying to look at anything very specific, it’s more forgiving of crowds.

    Lunch at Topkapi (doner, sherbert, something like a crème brulee), which was pretty good for museum food.

    After Topkapi we went to the Istanbul Archaeology Museums—three large buildings of artifacts. I enjoyed myself at the beginning. The mausoleums and mosaics were wonderful, especially the mausoleums with their high relief figures. However, I wish we’d gone when I was fresh because by the time we got to the Troy exhibit it was all starting to feel like interchangeable bits of pottery shards. If you go to the Troy exhibit, leave some energy to the time to read the translations of the contracts they had. It’s amusing to see the same types of legal agreements and kerfuffle we have today!

    Going back to Beyoglu we encountered the same packed tram issue. I got very intimate with an number of people, but also made sure to keep my handbag tight in front of me.

    We ended our day after the aforementioned dinner Zubeyir with the chicken breast pudding and the “kazandibi” at Lades 2. Although the chicken pudding is a must-try, I preferred the kazandibi with its more burnt caramel taste.

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    Istanbul – Day Four – Losing Faith in Rick Steves

    Chora Church, the Theodosian Walls, Balat-Fener (sort of)

    After some back and forth, we decided to try our luck taking a taxi. We went up to Tarlabasi and flagged down a cab. It took us a bit to get him to understand we wanted to go to the Chora museum (obviously my Turkish accent was inadequate) but we had absolutely no problem from there. The meter was on, he sped through the streets, we passed by all the wedding shops I’d read about so I knew we were going the right way, and he got us to the Chora Church in around 15-20 minutes.

    Chora is small but utterly exquisite. Unfortunately, most of detailed mosaics and beautifully preserved frescos are all along the halls so be prepared to spend a lot of time squeezing past people with your head craned upward. I made the circuit three times but I don’t think I could ever get tired of it. (Confession time: I like mosaics, but I’m really a fresco gal.) It’s definitely one of the places I will revisit if I make it back to Istanbul.

    After Chora, we decided to follow Rick Steves’ walking tour along the Theodosian Walls. The first hint that Rick Steves would disappoint us was when we couldn’t figure out which stairway the book meant us to use to climb to the top. So we just picked a likely one. The walls are incredibly high, and both the stairs upward and the top of the walls lack barriers. Did I tell you I’m afraid of heights? Well I am, so going up and down made my knees weak and I made my husband take pictures of the view from the top, since there was no way I was getting close enough to the edge to take decent photos.

    Then we continued up and down through the interesting residential streets, only slightly bothered by heat, through where children played ball and women hung laundry. I was tickled to even see a roving simit cart. (I told my husband that if I ever wrote a mystery novel set in Istanbul it would be called “Death by Simit Cart.”) I’d wanted to visit the Mihrimah Mosque, per a post I’d read, but we think we think the walk took us in the opposite direction from what where the post said it would be. Oh well; next trip.

    In spite of ourselves we managed to follow most of the directions in the guidebook with only minor issues. When we got around Balat, though, it was obvious that even a 2012 book can be out of date in multiple places. We backtracked twice, but still couldn’t figure out where the synagogue landmark was supposed to be. A man stopped us and tried to help by leading us to the Chora Church direction, but when we couldn’t shake him and when I noticed he had a shoeshine box with him, we waved him off and gave him the slip. We ended up on narrow Vodina Caddesi, a main grocery/restaurant street, and where a hip, young crew was filming a movie or something on a side street. We tumbled into a pide restaurant (Yaprak Pide) where the young guys were helpful, but obviously were unused to having tourists find their restaurant.

    After lunch, and since we had completely veered off from wherever it was the Rick Steves book said we were supposed to be, we decided to head toward the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. Wide street next to the Golden Horn, the international seat of the Orthodox church, how hard could it be? Let’s just say we never found it and we still aren’t sure how we missed it. The nice guys along the road had no clue where it was, the waiters at what looked like hip café had no idea. We saw a few Greek tourist restaurants so we know it has to be there somewhere, and no matter how many times we headed toward what we thought were tour buses we still didn’t find it. The guidebook said it was “unimposing” but I guess it was humble enough to be completely invisible to us!

    So we got to Ataturk Bridge, after stopping for a fish sandwich from an old grandfatherly type on a boat, but we could not figure out how to cross. I was thinking we could go to the Grand Bazaar next, if only we could cross the multiple lanes and cloverleaf on and off-ramps of the bridge. We finally flagged down a taxi and told him we wanted to go to the Grand Bazaar. He told us he couldn’t easily take us, though, because there was not way to make a U-Turn on Abdulezel Pasa Caddesi for a long ways. (Note, readers, this was the second time we did NOT get cheated by a taxi.)

    Turkish jaywalking is different from American jaywalking. In Istanbul it's more like an extreme sport. As we stood along the Ataturk Bridge, trying to figure out what to do, we saw all these people skirt the barrier, scurry across traffic, and onto the walkway of the bridge. We were desperate, so that’s what we did too. As we continued across the bridge, which is so much larger than Galata, I wondered if we’d be able to get off. Sure there were fisherman, but if it the Beyoglu side was anything like the other side it wouldn’t be easy. Then we saw a simit cart, and figured if a cart could get up the bridge we could get down.

    It still felt a bit dicey on the other side. We went down some steps and back up the other side, where we edged a roaring boulevard. Other people were walking but it didn’t make me feel better. It almost felt like we were walking on the side of a freeway. As we continued walking we came across small turnoff, so we stood there and flagged down a taxi for the Grand Bazaar.

    I can’t say much about the Grand Bazaar. It’s overwhelming and as I saw the same scarves and pestemals and Turkish delight and evil eye souvenirs over and over again I knew I wasn’t going to buy anything there. I was hoping to find some nice moonstone but I found myself doubting if I could bargain adequately. We did have our first Turkish coffee at Sark Kahvesi. After that, it was the last time my husband had his with sugar.

    For dinner we tracked down Sinasi Usta’s roasted sheep’s head from the “Istanbul Eats” book. I thought it was a restaurant (the book doesn’t say differently) but it turned out it was a just a glassed case outside another shop in the fish market area of Beyoglu. We managed to get across that we wanted to eat there instead of taking it to go, so he led us to the bar next door where we ordered drinks. After a bit, he came bustling in with the meat from the sheep’s head all chopped up, accompanies by spices, and with slices of bread to spread the meat upon. Since it was diced up and mixed, it was hard to tell the meat from brain or sweetbreads or anything else. It mostly tasted like a well-roasted meat, with the occasional pleasant cartilage crunch or creaminess that reminded us it was actually from the head.

    Dessert was an excessive feast. We headed down the street (after, yes, more wrong turns and by asking a few of the guys trying to get us to go into their restaurants) to Sakarya Tatlicisi so my husband could try their jewel-like quince dessert, complete with a dollop of kaymak—that thick Turkish clotted cream. I had kunefe, something I get regularly at a local Turkish restaurant in the U.S. Then my husband could resist trying something the shape of a giant mochi enrobed in the chocolate of a Hostess Ho Ho. It turned out to be a layer of something like fudge between two layers of yellow cake, all covered in chocolate.

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    Istanbul – Day Five – Over Yonder and Back

    Istanbul Eats’ “Two Markets, Two Continents” tour

    We’d contacted Istanbul Eats about their tours about two weeks before we left for Turkey. Obviously this was too late because their Secrets of the Old City tours for the days we wanted were already booked. So, we took the Two Markets, Two Continents one instead. From other trip reports it does look like the restaurants vary depending on which guide you get. We had Megan, who was simply lovely.

    Our itinerary:

    First a quick tour through a building that used to be a caravanserai, but that now houses many small working class businesses like ironworks. There we had a nice morning tea.

    Then a Turkish breakfast at Mutfak Dili Ev Yemekleri, which is normally open only for lunch and dinner. Eggs, cheese, so many pastries and jams and honey and kaymak. I, pre-warned, ate sparingly.

    Then onto the ferry to the Asian side. We had really good kofte at Adapazari Islama Koftecisi. The claim to fame for their kofte was that it was completely meat—no bread crumbs and no added fat. I was surprised at how flavorful and moist it was.

    We stopped at a pickle store (Ozcan Tursulari) and tried pickle juice.

    Then tantuni and one of my favorite drinks—the salty yogurt drink ayran--at Kadikoy Tantuni. What is tantuni? Picture very finely diced meat wrapped in a crepe. Juicy and so good.

    Then a dessert stop at Bilgeoglu, where we tasted various baklavas and where Megan suggested I buy my roasted pistachios instead of at the Spice Market.

    Then lahmacun at Halil Lahmacun, where we got to watch them roll out perfectly sized balls of dough for the brick oven.

    We were stuffed, but then it was on to Serger for more pastries, including the one Megan rhapsodized about, the special “katmer” that had to be pre-ordered. Phyllo, spread with kaymak and pistachio, which was then rolled and baked.

    Lastly, we waddled to Ali Usta for dondurma (Turkish ice cream). Megan said it was one of an increasingly smaller number of dondurma places that used salep (wild orchid root) instead of more common thickeners.

    We ended our tour with a leisurely round of Turkish coffee (with mastic!) at a tea garden.

    The tour was worth every penny, and my husband and I were especially thankful to have a guide this time, since we were tired of getting lost!

    Dinner that night was at one of two kokorec places Megan recommended. This one was on “Musician Street” just past the Dervish Lodge. Kokorec is sweetbreads wrapped in lamb intestine and roasted. Like the sheep’s head from the other night, it is then chopped up finely and mixed with spices so the resulting sandwich tastes pretty much like roasted meat with a slight offal overlay. We each ended up eating two of them.

    For, uh, dessert, we wandered back to the fish market and had fried sardines at Vera Kuzu Kokorec, then a hookah nightcap in the alleyway next to the Mado pastry shop. (It was my first experience with a hookah, and my husband delighted in taking many funny pictures of me making “how am I supposed to do this?” faces.)

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    Istanbul – Day Five – Spices and Water

    Basilica Cistern, Arasta Bazaar, the Spice Market, Bosporus Cruise

    We kept missing the Bascilica Cistern on our other trips, so we made it our first stop this time. (Warning, they only accept cash.) It was much larger than I expected, atmospheric, and full of fish.

    After not buying anything at the Grand Bazaar, I was really starting to get that retail itch, which I think many women understand. I was hell bent on buying something, anything, at the Arasta Bazaar. I expected a smaller version the Grand Bazaar, but Arasta is totally different with mostly “real stores” instead of stalls. Megan had told us that the shopkeepers at Arasta understand that tourists find it a better shopping experience so they price their goods accordingly. I nearly bought some wool animals at Cocoon for my niece but refrained. Other than that, Arasta was a bust.

    Then back over to the Spice Market where we first had another rendition of kokorec at the other place recommended by Megan. After walking through the Spice Market we ended up back outside at the shop she’d recommended to (finally) do some seriously damage to my wallet. The shop is called Inanc, and it’s right outside the side entrance to the Spice Market. We asked for Ibo, who is a short, whirlwind of a man, and who embraced us when we told him Megan had sent us. Prepare to be overwhelmed and completely steamrolled by his volubility, but he certainly knew his spices and, like the Imam in Selcuk, I couldn’t help but be charmed by his overt salesmanship. (When I asked him if he could recommended any other spices we shouldn’t miss, Ibo said, “Of course! I’m a salesman. If you want me to show you a million dollars of spices I will do it!”) We bought sumac and pine nuts and lemon salt and this rice blend and cumin and isot and corekotu, and I wish I had gotten some more chili.

    Time for the Bosporus Cruise. It’s impossible to miss the sign, because it’s big and in English. We got there a little less than ½ hour before the sailing and the prime seats were already filled. I’m really glad we only did the short cruise vs. the 3 hour plus overland version or the full six hour cruise. Frankly, I was pretty bored a quarter of the way into it and couldn’t wait to get off the boat. Take this with a grain of salt: I was bored on the Paris canal ride (except for the underground part), so I guess I’m just not good at sitting still while a boat moves slowly under me. Plus, as grand as the Bosphorus is, I come from an area with a large bay and next to the ocean, so I guess it just wasn’t novel enough for me. My husband found it relaxing.

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    Istanbul – Day Six – Going Native

    Shopping & More Shopping

    We tried to go to Lades 2 for breakfast but they were closed for construction. We ended up instead at Saray Muhallebicisi. I thought they only served desserts, but when we peeked in we saw people eating the egg dish menemen.

    Thus fortified, we then took our first Metro ride to Osmanbey. I had wanted to go to Nişantaşı, but I’d forgotten to bring my printout of Enigma2007’s Nisantasi walk, so naturally we got lost. Instead, we ended up at the Istanbul Military Museum.

    The museum is very large and impressive, detailing Turkish military history all the way through the Ottoman Empire and into the 20th century wars. The Armenian room was rather disturbing, with a decidedly pro-Turkey bent. But if you’re a military buff all the weaponry and costumes and history makes it a must-visit. They even had camel saddles!

    My husband and I parted ways after we got back to our apartment to do individual shopping. Next thing you know, I was following some jaywalkers across the multiple lanes of traffic, tram tracks, and sidewalk barriers of Kemeralti Caddesi, When I reached the other side, having not batted an eye, I realized with a thrill Istanbul had sunk into my bones. I was jaywalking like a native! Too bad it was our last day.

    I headed back to Gulluoglu to see if I could buy some baklava as gifts. Next time before I go I’ll need a primer, because they were so busy that I could not figure out the system there and how to ask someone if they were able to pack for travel. I slinked away, intimidated. However, back on the streets in Karakoy I found bought some evil eye souvenirs. (Yes, they are everywhere, so don’t buy the first ones you see.)

    Back in Galata, I found all the little independent boutiques I’d neglected to identify before our trip—right off of “Musician Street.” I was kicking myself that I hadn’t figured this out earlier in the week.

    I found a large vintage closing store off of Istiklal, which I wish I’d had more time to explore. Then off to Koska to buy some Turkish Delights as gifts, and stock up on as much pişmaniye—the halva cotton candy--as I could stuff in my luggage.

    I finally tracked down a souvenir for myself at a jewelry store across from the Museum of Innocence. The store makes jewelry that are supposedly replicas of ancient artifacts. Mine is a silver birdbath that is a reproduction of a Hittite item.

    We had a late lunch of wet burgers at the famed Kizilkayalar off Taksim Square, but agreed we preferred kokorec.

    Our last dinner was at the amazing Hayvore at the end of our street, which has old-fashioned Turkish cuisine interpreted with a twist. Then we headed back at Vera, where we tried their kokorec plate. Unlike the other two places we went to, where the kokorec was being constantly roasted, they chopped up the kokorec then stir-fried it before serving it to us. I felt the flavor was lacking a bit with this method.

    One last bag of roasted chestnuts from the street, and then home to finish packing.

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    Heading Home

    In the morning, we dragged our luggage up Istiklal to take the Havatas bus. I’d scouted out the location the other day, and was glad I did because it wasn’t nearly as straight-forward as I thought it would be.

    For those of you wondering how to find the Havatas stop at Taksim: essentially, if you're coming up Istiklal toward Taksim Square, look for the Ataturk monument and pretend you can head straight through it to the other side of Taksim Square. (In reality, a traffic circle surrounds it). When you're on the other side of the square, continue along the sidewalk slightly to your left. In front of you should start to see a bunch of fast food restaurants. (You should be able to see a McDonald's awning in the distance.) You'll continue past these restaurants until you see the Turkish Airlines sign past the fast food restaurants. Keep walking. You'll start to finally see the Havatas signs and buses on your left lining the street. On the buses will be clearly marked which ones are for SAW and which ones for Ataturk, but it doesn't hurt to confirm with the bus driver standing on the street. Then just give them your luggage, get on, and just before the bus leaves someone comes on board to collect your money.

    At the airport we went thought the familiar security line for entering the terminal. Then…be warned…the Turkish Airlines counter for the U.S. is on the other side of the main Turkish Airlines international counter. We stood in a line for a bit until someone told us we were in the wrong line. When we went over to the other side, we saw they had counters designated for each upcoming U.S. flight.

    Then another security line, blessedly short, to get to the gates. We had our last Turkish meal at the food court—again surprisingly good, but maybe it was just in comparison to fast food airport food—and I saw the shops that had the Gulluoglu baklava, nicely packaged in plastic boxes. Next time, I’ll definitely get final souvenirs at the airport.

    When we got to the gate, there was yet another security line to get to our Turkish Airline gate. I was glad we didn’t wait until the last minute because the line got increasingly long as we got closer to boarding time. So give yourself some extra time when you head to the gate.

    This time around, they let the Comfort Class passengers board with Business Class. We settled in, and prepared to say goodbye to Istanbul.

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    Final Wrap-Up:

    "Things I Enjoyed the Most"

    Roasted chestnuts everywhere

    The call of the Alpine swifts overhead

    The view of the Old City from our apartment balcony

    Kabap restaurants



    Chora Church

    All those gorgeous mosques everywhere

    Staying off Istiklal, within proximity to all those great restaurants and shops

    Watching the protests that marched along Istiklal nearly every other day, and trying to figure out what the cause was.

    Unexpectedly bumping into the South African couple we’d seen in Selcuk and Cappadocia on Istiklal, in the evening, among the crowd, going the other direction.

    Visiting Ibo at the Spice Market

    "New Things We Intend to Hit Next Time"

    Rumeli Fortress

    The Museum of Innocence

    The Istanbul Modern

    Pierre Loti Café (perhaps by taking the Backpacker’s Travel tour, so we can also hit the Chora Church again without getting lost…again)

    Kanlica to try their famous yogurt

    The Asian side and Nisantasi walks I meant to take

    Istanbul Eats “Secrets of the Old City” tour

    All those boutiques I missed

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    I am glad you enjoyed the Turkey Experience fully. next time in Cappadocia drop in for a cup of tea & coffee no matter business or no business :-)

    I was loughing reading one or two line about rick s. book and suggestion; Harem needs additional admission where treasury doesn't is the simple explanation of why there were different crowds but you managed to enjoy either way.


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    Murat, I would love to meet you if we get back to Turkey next year. Your advice over the years has been invaluable.

    Yes, we did enjoy Topkapi, in spite of it all. Next time we'll hit the Treasury first. ;-)

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    PegS, I'm just taking time to read your trip report ... I do believe we channeled each other! While we didn't spend a night in Selcuk, we did just about exactly what you did and where you did it. Uncanny.

    We stayed in the same apartment on Turnacıbaşı Street. We stayed in the Aydinli Cave Hotel and found Cem and Mustafa to be as charming as you did. Some of the logistics were different (we flew to Nevsehir instead of Kayseri; we took AtlasJet to and from Izmir on the same day; we had Royal Balloons ... like that) but on whole amazingly similar.

    Wasn't it great?

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    I liked the variety ... Gave me a flavor for both sides. If we were to ever return I'd rent something in a more residential neighborhood to see what life is like without a major tourist attraction two blocks away. And something that wasn't 77 steps up! ;-) We were in Room 12 at Aydinli, which wasn't the highest, but still up there.

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    Um...guess what room we were in at Aydinli. Yep! So funny. We must have the same tastes.

    I totally agree about the steps. I loved the location of the apartment, but even after a week I was huffing a bit by the time we got to the last flight.

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    So, we had the same basic destinations, same apartment, same room in the same cave hotel, had Megan as our Istanbul Eats tour guide (and thus frequented the same Spice Market vendors she recommended -- Ibo loved us as much as he did you) ate at the same restaurants, took the same bus to the airport... Wonder how often something like this happens?

    Peg, be sure to let me know where your next vacation is. Would be spooky if we match up again!

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    We've been talking about Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway, one other....maybe trying to squeeze in Iceland if we take Icelandic Air) or Japan for awhile. But there's also a very real chance we end up back in Turkey next year. I feel like there's still so much to explore, and wouldn't mind going when my memory is still fresh enough so I'm not bumbling through it again.

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    Well, Peg, if you change your mind and decide on Africa, be sure to let me know. That's where we're leaning at the moment. A colleague of mine is raving about the safari and Victoria Falls and candlelit dinners by the Zambezi. He's the same one who raved about the Hagia Sophia and Turkish food and look what happened there.

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    Hi PegS,

    I've actually posted this as a general question on the forum as well but I was quite taken by your comment thatyou came across many ATMs that dispensed US$ and Eyro as well as TLY.

    Were those ATMs associated with a particular brand? And were they all over,or just in bigger towns.

    Thanks for your report. Greg

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    Hi Greg. I saw ATMs...and they were pretty much all of them...that dispensed all three currencies in Goreme. I also believe we saw them in Sultanahmet by all the big sights, but along Istiklal they were all TL only.

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    Loved your report! I am planning a trip to Istanbul later this year. How was the weather in late September? You mentioned arriving in 50 degree rain! We try to avoid super hot weather. suggests it can be very hot in September. Thanks for all the info!

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    Peg...I see where you want to eventually take in the Pierre Loti of the highlights of my two visits.

    Make a note for your next trip to incomparable Istanbul...must get to Pierre Loti Cafe before 5 pm, sit outside, have a tea or coffee or (?) and at 5 slightly out of sync, you will hear the call to prayer emanating from several mosques while your gazing at the handsome Golden Horn below. Enjoy.
    I first came across this description in Lonely Planet more than 20 years ago, although it was hinted to me while working with the Turkish Airforce years before that. I have since recommended the experience to many Fodorites and family/friends.

    stu tower

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    peg..forgot to mention, It seems to me I saw in another post of yours some time ago that your husband is a BU grad.

    stu tower, Emerson College, (Boston) '51 A.B., BU '53, Ed.M

    Your detailed report will provide some concrete help to Fodorites planning to visit Turkey.

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    Stephh, that day was the only cool day we had. It got progressively warmer as we were there. I wouldn't say it was hot like Cappadocia was but we got quite uncomfortably hot trekking along under the sun.

    Tower, thanks for the Pierre Loti tip. It sounds wondrous. And, yes, my husband is a BU grad. I can't believe you remembered!

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    Peg and others, I clicked on the link for the apartment you rented, and it is no longer for rent. I found another listing that is in the same neighborhood. We've rented apartments in London before, but never anywhere else in Europe. What do you think of this apartment/location? Was it convenient enough to the metro, sites you can walk to (we walk a LOT on urban trips)? We'll also be 4 adults, and in Istabul for six nights.

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    sf, I loved the location. Depending on where along the mile-long Istiklal St. you are, you're relatively close to transportation. If you're close to the middle of that street you probably have a 10 - 15 min walk to transportation on either end. (There's the tram that runs along the street but I'd only take it if you are not in a hurry because it's super slow). On the Taksim Square side you're another 5-10 min to the metro. On the other end of the street you're at the Sishane metro station or you can take the funicular down and walk another few minutes over to the Karakoy station at the end of the Galata Bridge.

    However, be warned you're not on the side where the major historic sites are. If you're only in Istanbul for a few days I can see staying closer to Sultanahment, because otherwise you're spending at least 1/2 hour or more each day trekking over. However, if you're there longer--as we were--it was great being out of tourist central and in an area full of evening options.

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    Peg, we'll be there 6 nights and our son and DIL will be there 8 nights - that's why I was thinking an apartment would make sense. I'll try to figure out exactly where the apartment is.

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    sf, it looks like it's on the same street as the apartment I stayed at. I really did love the location, as long as you don't mind not being right at a metro. The only thing I couldn't figure out from the listing is what floor the apartment is on. If it's high up without an elevator that might be something to consider.

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    We will be flying from Kayseri to Izmir with Sunexpress. Just curious if they checked the weight of your carry on and checked baggage. When it refers to one carry on I gather that means nothing else even a purse. I'm praying the flight is not cancelled as they are the only one to fly direct without routing through Istanbul.By the way a great report.

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    Whistler, I honestly don't remember. We checked our bags, so our carry-on was just my bag and my husband's messenger bag. I"m pretty sure they didn't take those from us and weigh, but I can't be absolutely sure.

    What I do remember is that when we flew Kayseri to Istanbul the grumpy guy who checked us in told us we really should check in our luggage (which we hadn't planned on doing) so we did. I was annoyed when I saw plenty of people taking the same size luggage onboard as carryons.

    Kayseri did seem altogether a less laid-back airport than Izmir overall. I wonder if it's just because the cramped feeling of it made everyone more grumpy.

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    Dear PegS,
    I like to read travel blogs, and I loved to read yours. I mostly read Istanbul posts to find out how a "strangers" observes my hometown. I learned quite a lot from your post, thank you. I am living in the northern-european side of the city, and actually when I go to touristic part of the city (i.e constantinople peninsula) I feel myself as a tourist also. Sometimes i feel jelous about tourist really enjoy the the town, becouse as an employee in the financial district, the city itself becomes a workplace for me and holiday means for me is to escape from istanbul. But I have few suggestions for you if you come again: 1) you can attend a underground city tour, you can check antonina tour website, there is a roman city beneath the visible city, I'm sure you'll be impressed. 2) to eat good fish and meze's, try fish restaurans around sarıyer neighbourhood. I can suggest beylerbeyi also 3) attend a turkish wedding ceremony, or go to a football match. You may find turks when entertaining to be very joyfull. 4) in istanbul you can find much more diverse food cultures, but you can add cities as antakya, gaziantep, adana or mardin to your list. 5) you should see pamukkale 6) consider taking a blue voyage

    best regards..

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    Niyazi, thank you for the great ideas! I had no idea I could do an underground city tour, which sounds especially fascinating. I really hope to also make it during hamsi season.

    I know what you mean about not exploring your own city. I work in San Francisco, one of the world's favorite tourist spots. Yet it always amazes me that on weekends I don't take advantage of all the city as to offer.

    Sf: I'm not niyazi, but, but visiting Pamukkale and a blue voyage would be things you'd do outside of Istanbul. Here's info on both:

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    I realized that I havent mentioned my best holiday destination that I adored and looking forward to go back: Kackar mountains in the Black Sea region. However I found out that there are no proper english websites for those local tour operators. (That seems a good business opportunity by the way) Below is the link of the tour I attended, its in turkish but all the guys could speak english. It'a a nature/tracking and culture tour that I can highly recommend. It requireds some physical strength though.

    english websites for gourmet tours is also lacking. as a native, I dont need agents for such tours, but you may need one to arrange connections. I found out one agent that ı took a tour before also makes such tours to adana, gaziantep and antakya. I recomment one of such tours also. you will really feel enough to eat:) especially you may find antakya (antioch) quite interesting, as it hosts worlds first church found by Saint Peter himself before he went to Rome, one of the capitols of helenic state, third biggest Roman city ot the time etc. etc. but novadays, its quite close to a problamatic syrian border, therefore it may me wise to wait for settling down :( no problem with other cities.

    @happyTrvlr: As far as I know, a true blue voyage is at least a week long, there are surely daily trips but the concept is different.

    @sf7307: PegS's links are quite informative, no more to add, but both are outside istanbul activities. For istanbul, you can beat PegS's track, its a perfect 5-days program. You may just add prince's island tour to it, especially Buyukada. To find out how middle-class istanbul people spend a day, you may also have a walk in Bagdat Caddesi (Baghdat Street)in suadiye district- optional :)

    Thank for reading :)

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