Ataturk’s ‘hood

Ankara is somewhat off the Turkish tourist trail. Steve and I saw only a handful of non-Turks during our 44-hour-long visit, and folks seemed surprised to see us. Still, we wanted to shoehorn in a quick visit for a couple of reasons. This city has been Turkey’s capital for the last 99 years. Also, it boasts a couple of attractions worth seeing.

So after winding up our cruise Tuesday afternoon, we flew from the nearby airport in Dalaman to Istanbul and spent the night there. An impressive high-speed train delivered us to Ankara’s main train station around 3 pm Wednesday.

Thursday morning (5/26), we taxied to the first Major Attraction, Ataturk’s Mausoleum. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, as anyone here will tell you, was the father of modern Turkey. Bold, intelligent, and charismatic, he led the resistance movement against the Ottoman sultanate and later, the Greek invaders, and in 1923 became the first president of the new Turkish republic. He spent the rest of his (relatively short) life working to transform the place from a medieval theocracy into the modern, secular, industrial powerhouse it eventually became. It was he who moved the capital from Istanbul to Ankara. Over the years, I have visited some of the most impressive tombs on the planet — Mao’s on Tienanmen Square, the Taj Mahal, Lenin’s final resting place in Moscow, Ho Chi Minh’s in Hanoi — and the complex containing Ataturk’s body ranks among them.

We approached it via the grandiose “Lion’s Path” leading up to the huge Ceremonial Grounds.

The view from the bottom…

…and from the top.

As luck would have it, our visit coincided with some sort of holiday involving children, and the plaza was was jammed with kids of all ages.

That’s Ataturk’s actual tomb up in front.

We took in the scene for about an hour, then caught another taxi to the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations. (Taxis everywhere in Turkey have been easy to hail and are stunningly cheap. Many rides around town cost only a dollar or two.) I had read that this particular museum (another project of Ataturk’s) ranked among the best in the world for antiquities.

It probably wouldn’t appeal to everyone. But Steve and I both recently read The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, a mind-boggling look at recent archeological discoveries that have upended experts’ understanding of how human civilization developed all over the planet. Among the most important findings have been digs in Turkey revealing communities and cities thousands of years older than the ones previously thought to be the earliest. This particularly museum holds many artifacts from those excavations.

I found it riveting, and it was pleasant to have as much time as we wanted to wander around the well-annotated exhibits. I lingered before the original 9000-year-old statue of the mother goddess whose photo I had seen in Selcuk……and there were any number of other charming goddesses…

Someone fashioned these ladies more than 4000 years ago.

We eagerly eyed the re-creation of a typical home in Catalhoyuk, the settlement of up to 8000 people that apparently thrived in central Turkey for about 1,200 years, starting around 7,400 BC

We also saw amazing examples of cuneiform, ancient writing on clay tablets that apparently stored tons of information in a very small space — and have survived for millennia.

We wandered through the museum for almost four hours before heading back to our hotel, the Bugday, pronounced BOO-DIE. As in the name of Turkey’s current president (Erdogan), the ‘g’s in both names when written in Turkish have two dots over them, indicating they are silent.

The Bugday is a well-rated business hotel located only a short taxi ride from the train station. It cost $42 a night for our comfortable, immaculate room and lavish breakfast each morning. What I didn’t realize, though, when I reserved a room is that the neighborhood around it is a home-remodeling Mecca, filled with block after block of shops selling plumbing fixtures, wallpaper, paint, brushes, bathtubs, urinals, ceramic tile — like some vast Home Depot broken up into individual vendors.

It didn’t offer much in the way of restaurants, however. Our first night, we asked the guy at the Bugday’s front desk if he could point us to any. He told us about a small joint down the block, but although open, it didn’t seem to be serving a single customer. We spotted a Radisson Blu in the distance and, confident that it would at least have a cafe, we walked there. But the dining options looked so dubious we got up from our table and left.

Next to the local bus station, we eyed a guy grilling meat on a cart. Because we were getting desperate, we decided to chance it. But… how to figure out what our choices were?

A young man materialized, offering help. This has now happened at least a half dozen times since we arrived here. We’ll stop somewhere, befuddled, and almost instantly, a helpful English-speaking Turk will approach and bail us out. With aid from the young guy, we ordered a meatball sandwich and beef strips wrapped in pita bread. While they were grilling, we took a seat at one of the tables inside.

The view from our table indoors, looking outside at the grill.

Soon our translator and three of the companions with whom he’d been drinking tea came up to our table and asked if they could practice some English with us. They all were students preparing to enter the local technical university. We of course were as happy to chat with them as they appeared to be, encountering us.

The next half hour or so was great fun. The kids ranged from 17 to 22 and were studying various things: history, business, sociology. We talked about where we all were from, how they were dealing with the terrible inflation, why we had come to Ankara. Then one of them blurted out, “What do you think of Ataturk?”

I felt a bit flummoxed. It would be a little like me striking up a conversation with a Japanese tourist and asking, “What do you think of George Washington?” But Ataturk here is more than a historical figure. He’s a symbol of progress and secularism, one that stands in contrast to the authoritarian and Islamist Erdogan, the current president who has increasing looked to the past. The students made it clear they despise Erdogan and all he represents. When they learned about my past work as a journalist, they asked if journalists could be punished for writing critically about the US government. They looked a bit nervous even talking about these things, while at the same time relishing the conversation.

Our second (final) night in Ankara, Steve and I took a taxi to Tilye, widely acclaimed to be the best seafood restaurant in the capital. For a little under $100 (way more than we’ve paid for any other meal), we consumed several marvelous fish dishes, a bottle of excellent Turkish sauvignon blanc, tasty bread, and two delicious desserts. It was superb, and I wouldn’t have missed it. But I also wouldn’t have traded a second night’s dinner there for our conversation with those curious Turkish kids.

Boat life

Less than 24 hours have passed since we were cruising the Mediterranean on a 90-foot-long wooden sailing ship. Yet somehow I can’t quite remember what I did between the time I woke up yesterday and our disembarkation 7 or 8 hours later. I know we ate breakfast. Later came a light lunch. I know I spent time laying on the velour-covered foam mattresses laid out on the rooftops over the main salon and the fo’c’sle. Rocked gently by the boat’s forward motion through the swells, I didn’t sleep. It felt more like a dream, an existence untethered from time.

Steve and have only a cruised a few times before, always on smallish vessels in exotic waters — down the Amazon, up the Nile, meandering among the fantastic rock formations of Vietnam’s Halong Bay. A close friend had sailed for a week on Turkey’s Turquoise Coast ten years ago, and her descriptions tantalized me; made me realize such cruises were a hugely popular touristic option. But the global lockdowns triggered by Covid halted all that maritime activity. I eventually learned that our cruise westward from Olympos would be the first offered by Alaturka, an old, well-respected Turkish cruise operator, since the onset of the pandemic. Although Turkey was never very locked down, tourists couldn’t get there because many governments stopped allowing their citizens to travel. The results were catastrophic for cruise companies like Alaturka. It didn’t operate at all in 2020 or 2021; the company had to offload 2 of their 4 vessels. Rahmi, the captain of our boat, had to sell his car to survive. Ali, the chef, lost the restaurant he ran during the off-season.

Their delight at finally being back on the water probably contributed to the ambient ebullience when we boarded Saturday afternoon. I myself was flooded with pleasure-tinged adrenaline at the sight of all that varnished wood and polished brass.

View of our sister ship, which sailed carrying a private charter group.
Not hard to understand why they call this the Turquoise Coast.

Didn’t take me long to figure out how comfy those mats were.

We learned we would be sailing with a crew of 5 tending to 18 passengers from all over the globe: 4 girls hailing from Australia, New Zealand, the US, and Canada, the latter married to one of three hilarious medical residents from the Canadian Maritime provinces. The other 9 were white South Africans, all friends and family of Andre, celebrating his 50th birthday with several weeks of bacchanalian partying.

Andre’s crew started slamming down the hard stuff within minutes of coming aboard. Here’s Andre starting off our first full day with a slug or two of tequila — before breakfast.

We set sail but stopped several times for excursions over the next three days. That first afternoon we made for a seaside village called Simena (aka Karakoy). A dinghy took us ashore, where a short steep climb led us to ruins built by the Lycians 2300 years ago.

The view from the ruins

Then we were off again, motoring over more ruins, submerged in the azure water. As the sun neared the horizon we docked at a bigger, more boisterous town called Kas to spend the night there.

Steve and I toured the town then returned to the boat for dinner.
Meals took place at this long, sociable table.
All the food was excellent; a standout were these beauties, which the chef grilled over a grill set up on the bow sprit.

Several of the South Africans were avid divers, and Sunday morning a group set off to explore an underwater wreck. That night we were supposed to dock again in another party village (Kalkan), but late in the afternoon a brewing squall made the wind so fierce we had to anchor in a protected inlet.

It was really nippy!
And so windy Rahmi had to lash down our speaker to keep it from flying overboard.

The change in plans prompted the South Africans to organize a game involving dice and tequila (several bottles of it, consumed in the form of shots.) Miraculously Steve and I (alone) had the sense not to join in, giving us the almost unique experience of feeling like teetotalers. Still, we drank enough gin and wine to enable us to join the riotous dancing that ensued both before and after dinner.

I was just as happy not to be hung over when the helmsman cranked up the engine at 5 the next morning. In our cozy cabin, we managed to snooze despite some serious rocking. When we finally arose and made it on deck, it felt like we had journeyed to a different watery planet, this one windless and painted in a different palette.We once again motored to a deserted beach and were ferried onshore to Butterfly Valley.

It was a great place to hike, shady, filled with flowers, and culminating in a pretty waterfall. Returning to the beach, we found it transformed…

…by a horde of day boats.

…who found plenty to drink.
The water looked so beautiful I swam from the beach back to our ship.

That swim felt exquisite. The sun was hot; the water not too chilly. But it turned out to be the only time I got into the water on the trip. Every time I was tempted, the other option was stronger.

Most of our fellow passengers jumped in several times a day.

Steve and I also passed on the opportunity to jump off the (alleged) second highest paragliding site in the world, though the Canadians went and seemed to enjoy it.Steve and I did join in on the final excursion of our trip. Late Monday afternoon we anchored off St. Nicholas island……where a short dinghy ride took us to a trailhead leading to some Byzantine ruins built in the 7th century.

The ascent through the crumbling stonework and old tombs was pleasant. At the top, everyone else from our boat had hauled up cocktails or bottles of wine, forethought Steve and I had lacked. The landscape alone was pretty intoxicating, though, and we took some pleasure in being sober as we scrambled down over the rocks and scree in the deepening gloom.

That night after dinner, we moved the long table once again and this time danced to more ethnic fare: Turkish and Greek folk dance music, The Circle of Life from the Lion King. I may not remember every archeological site. I may not be able to tell you how I passed all those lazy hours. But I don’t think I will ever forget that revelry.

Ali was both a great chef and a fine dancer.

Fire on the mountain

If YOU heard about a place where a Greek god had battled with and slain a female monster and, commemorating this victory, the mountain spouted flames — and they had continued burning for more than 2000 years… would you be able to resist going to see it? I couldn’t. The burning mountain is Mt. Chimaera; it’s near the towns people stay in before embarking on an sailing trip along Turkey’s Turquoise Coast.

Steve and I wanted our adventure here to include some time on the water. So after leaving Ephesus, we flew to Antalya on Turkey’s southern Mediterranean coast. We spent a night in its historic core, so picturesque it made Steve blurt out, “This makes Carmel look like a dump!” Then we took a taxi Friday morning to a backpacker joint in Olympos, about 90 minutes southwest of Antalya. I’d read that nightly excursions to the Chimaera would be available, but when we checked in, the affable manager sadly said, due to Covid, these were sporadic. Not many Turks were interested, and foreign tourism, though recovering, was a shadow of its former self. He said he would let us know that evening if a group could be mustered. If so, it would cost 100 lira (about $6.50) apiece.

I felt disappointed, but Olympos isn’t a bad place to chill. A couple of blocks from where we were staying, there were beautiful ancient ruins. The pleasant path that winds among the crumbling stone structures leads to a beach fronting turquoise water. Though the beach was too rocky and the water too chilly to tempt me to plunge in, the scene was archetypally picturesque.

When dinner back at the camp began at 8, we hadn’t heard a peep about the pyro-nocturnal excursion.I’d given up, but Steve wanted to double check. He was all but panting when he came back with the news that a van would be leaving in just 15 minutes, promptly at 9 pm. We threw our walking sticks and sweaters and flashlights into the daypack, then piled on the vehicle, happy to find another couple already aboard. We picked up two more couples at a nearby hotel, then barreled into the darkness.

If you ever go to Turkey and want to see the famous fires yourself, here’s my advice: stay in the town of Cirali, not Olympos. Only a half mile of shoreline separates the two towns, but the deep ravine between them complicates vehicular transit. You have to drive up the twisty mountain road for 20 minutes, go south on the highway for a minute or two, then zoom downhill again to the neighboring town. On the far side of Cirali, we climbed for another 5-10 minutes before reaching a parking lot where the 8 of us piled out of the van.

It was 9:45 pm. In limited English, our driver said we had to be back by 11. The other three couples (all in their 20s and 30s) bolted up the stony path into the dark, disappearing from view almost immediately. Steve and I opened our poles and took off after them as fast as possible.

I’m glad we’re reasonably fit and that we had the poles and flashlights. In the daylight, the hike up the mountain would not have been grueling. In the dark, it felt like a challenge. The night was moonless, and no lights illuminated the stony path; no railings demarcated the drop offs. Gravel made some sections slippery. Stony steps eased the ascent in many places — except when the stairs were a foot tall. OSHA would not have approved.

After about 25 minutes, we made out the orange glow of what appeared to be campfires.

No wood or other obvious fuel was feeding them. The fires looked more than anything like what you see in a phony rock fireplace — burning quietly, small and controlled.The guidebooks say they can be extinguished by covering them, but they will pop up again nearby. Steve judged it to be a natural gas seep, mostly methane. The Greek myth is a lot more romantic, however. According to it, the lady monster had the head of a lion, the body of a goat, and the tail of a dragon. Mounted on the winged horse Pegasus, the hero Bellerophon killed the Chimaera by pouring molten lead into her mouth.

Steve and I spent about 20 minutes amidst the fires and the other visitors — a peaceable assembly who mostly gazed at the flames meditatively. A solitary ginger cat meandered among them (unusual for Turkey, which seems to have almost as many cats as people).I particularly admired the forethought of the guys who’d brought sticks and marshmallows, for toasting.

Fires seemed to stretch up the mountain into the distance. We sat down for a moment to drink in the scene. Cats have an uncanny ability to detect my cat allergies; sure enough, the ginger made a beeline for me and climbed into my lap.

It was time to move. We didn’t want to miss that 11 pm departure and we suspected that the dark descent would be harder than the climb up. It didn’t help that one of our flashlights died, and a spare from the bus dimmed to almost nothing. We made it.

Now I’m writing about it in another place I never expected to be: on the deck of a traditional Turkish gulet, a 2-masted sailing vessel iconic in this area. It’s even more wonderful than the magical mountain (but I’ll wait till the end of our cruise before trying to describe it).

Jeannette’s letter to the Ephesians

Tuesday afternoon, Steve and I flew to Izmir (once known as Smyrna). It’s the third largest city in Turkey, but we didn’t pause to tour it. Instead we caught a taxi at the airport and rode south for about an hour to the town of Selcuk, the ancient site of a once great city known as Ephesus. We spent all of Wednesday in and around it. Following the example of St. Paul, I have a few observations to offer the locals:

Dear Ephesians,

You need to consider expanding your touristic marketing. You’re not doing enough to attract women. Not only feminists but those who don’t embrace that label might go out of their way to visit a place where women thousands of years ago held enormous power; were worshipped as goddesses! I know you’re not trying to hide this information. I read about it in the guidebooks. But you’re not promoting it much.

The guidebooks tell readers that long before the Greeks rose to dominate this region, the locals worshipped a goddess of fertility known as Cybele.

Over the course of thousands of years, she morphed into Artemis, the Greeks’ maiden of the hunt and a divinely Mother Nature figure. To honor her, King Croesus of Lydia (he of the enormous wealth) built one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world here: a temple three times the size of Athens’ Parthenon. The Ephesus museum contains a model that suggests it looked like this:

Only a solitary column of that colossal structure remains today; Steve and I didn’t try to visit it. In the distance, it looked underwhelming. (You can spot it in the photo below.) But why hasn’t someone built a cool multimedia center that would bring the past to life?

The museum does display two marvelous statues of Artemis that were buried for ages and thus escaped the grubby paws of marauders like the Goths, who destroyed the temple in 268 AD.

The Romans called her Diana. Those are bulls at her side.

The big Artemises are next to a gallery devoted to the ancient woman-worshipping fertility cults believed to have flourished in this area between 8,000 and 10,000 years ago. But the statues in it are quite small, the room is dimly lit, and the explanatory signage in the museum isn’t great. It’s easy to blow right by and miss them.

In the gift shop, I did find a pocketbook adorned with an image of the statue of Artemis that’s covered with breast-like follicles — or are they seeds? Or bull testicles? Certainly something deliciously fertile. I would have jumped on a nice t-shirt bearing that image, but this is all there was:

Don’t get me wrong, Ephesians. The big attractions that draw the hordes of visitors didn’t disappoint us. Strolling over the marble streets of the vast archeological site, once home to a half-million people, cut with grooves from their chariot carts, let us connect with Greek and Roman daily life 2000 years ago.

Wealthy members of the community lived quite sumptuously, as these residences attest.
The city of Ephesus offered all manner of attractions, including one of the biggest libraries in the world…
Toilets, very sociable!, whisked away the solid waste with running water.

Our guide claimed that this footprint advertised one of the many brothels.

Resident enjoyed lots of public art, including this relief of the goddess Nike. See where the footwear company’s famous swoosh came from?
All around a great place to hang out.

We spent about two hours there, then drove up a nearby mountain to the site where the Catholic Church has declared that the Virgin Mary spent her waning years. Later in the day, we also roamed the enormous ruins of the basilica erected by Emperor Justinian on the spot where St. John was said to be buried.

The weather was lovely. No place was jammed with tourists. We enjoyed it all.

And yet even Mary’s house left me shaking my head. A humble stone dwelling has been constructed to suggest what her dwelling might have looked like.The Catholic Church says it was somewhere near the house that the body of the elderly Virgin was lifted off the ground and physically assumed into heaven. Catholics all over the world celebrate this event every August 15. But we found not a single plaque on the site mentioning it.

Somehow it felt like just another example of ignoring spectacular history starring women.

Yours, respectfully

Coming clean in Istanbul

Flying halfway around the world is a grubby business. That’s true, even when it goes flawlessly, as it did for Steve and me last Thursday and Friday. We had some tight connections (in Denver and Frankfurt), but we arrived in Turkey’s biggest city within minutes of our scheduled time. After sharing all those toilet seats in all those cramped airborne WCs, however, I always deplane feeling soiled, no matter how spiffed up I am when I start out. In this case, even though we breezed through immigration and quickly collected our bags, we had to wait for our friends Larry and Virginia, who took a separate flight from LA to join us for the first few days in Turkey. They had to get SIM cards for their phones, and then we squeezed into a taxi together and rode for about an hour to the home-exchange lodgings I had secured. By the time we figured out how to get into the building and ascended the two flights of stairs and clomped into the apartment, it was after 8 pm. Steve, Virginia, and I then walked the long block to the Carrefour market on Omar Pasha street to buy breakfast supplies along with cheese, crackers, and wine. We ate some of that, and all I could do was collapse into bed, without showering, grossness be damned. I did know, however, that the next day would bring an extraordinary experience in hygiene.

Virginia and I had made an appointment at one of the most distinguished bath houses in the world, the Hurrem Sultan Hammam. The “hammam,” I have learned, has been a fixture of life in this part of the world for millennia, dating back to the days when Istanbul, then known as Byzantium, was the eastern anchor of the Roman empire. Those Romans loved their communal baths, and apparently contemporary Turks still have a fondness for them.

Virginia’s and my bathhouse was extra special for a couple reasons. The Hurrem Sultan hammam is located in the ancient heart of the city, literally next to Hagia Sophia, that stunning basilica-turned-mosque-and-museum. Just the experience of getting to there from our flat in Kadikoy, on the Asian side of the city, was pretty jaw-dropping. Saturday morning we caught a taxi and rode for about 15 minutes to the Bosporus — the strait separating Europe from Asia and connecting the Sea of Marmara with the Black Sea.

Ready to board the ferry

The city of Istanbul has straddled the Bosporus since a couple of hundred years before Christ. The ferry ride from Kadikoy to the European side only takes about 20 minutes, but for me time seemed to stop as I drank in the iconic skyline.

Our first glimpse of Topkapi Palace in the distance

We disembarked and strolled across the Galata Bridge, filled with fishermen and Istanbul residents, human and feline, sauntering over the Golden Horn inlet.

We detoured through the structure known as the Spice Bazaar (aka the Egyptian Bazaar). It’s amazing we didn’t get trapped there and miss our appointment altogether, considering how beautiful the building is, and how enticing the merchandise crammed into it.But we pressed on and eventually reached Sultanahmet Square, the beautiful plaza that once was the site of the Roman emperors’ palace and today is flanked by two of the world’s most spectacular religious structures (Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.) We grabbed a casual lunch, then Virginia and I checked in for our cleaning extravaganza.

Yet another reason the Hurrem Sultan Hammam is so special is because it’s almost 500 years old and was designed by the greatest-ever Ottoman architect and paid for by one of the most interesting women in history (just my opinion). Roxolana was Ukrainian, the daughter of an Orthodox priest from Poland. Somehow at 15 she got kidnapped by raiders and was bought by a slave trader, sent to Constantinople, taken to the Askaray district, stripped naked and put on sale with all the other captured virgins. She caught the eye of the chief advisor of the sultan — the one who eventually became known as Suleiman the Magnificent. The advisor bought her as a gift for his boss — an addition to Suleiman’s enormous harem, where with luck Roxolana might get his attentions for one single night. Instead the sultan wound up breaking all the rules not only by falling madly in love with her but then, more outrageously, marrying her and making her one of the most powerful people on earth. The bathhouse she commissioned over the centuries fell into ruin, but it was restored in 2011. Here you see Virginia and me about to enter it and check in for our appointment.

I think many elements of what we experienced over the ensuing two hours and 20 minutes are standard features of a Turkish bath, as it has long been carried out in this part of the world. But I can’t imagine it being done in a more sumptuous manner. We had signed up for The Works, and the process started with our being led to beautiful wood-paneled dressing roomswhere we shed all our clothes and donned tiny string thongs, shower slippers, and bathrobes. We each had our own personal attendant who led us to an inner sanctum under a graceful, light-filled dome. Directly under it was a six- or eight-sided marble platform. I can’t be specific in part because I couldn’t take a camera or notebook into that hot, steamy enclave filled with naked women of all ages, sizes, shapes, and colors. Even the attendants wear nothing but towels wrapped around them and tucked in over their breasts and at their upper thighs.

White marble alcoves surrounded the central area. We entered one of them, shed our robes, and took a seat as our attendants dipped copper bowls into fountains fed with streams of hot and cold water. They poured the warm mixture over us, bowl after bowlful, then told us to sit for a while (to let our pores open up, I think.) Then the cleaning ladies returned and began scrubbing each of us — hard! — with mitts that felt like they were made of Scotch Brite. Looking down at my arm, I noticed little brown bits appearing on it, and for a second, I wondered if it was some kind of soap coming from the mitt. Then I realized it was my own skin, being stripped off. I almost fell off my marble bench, laughing, at the look on the face of Virginia, sitting directly across from me and gazing down at her own flesh being scrubbed away. She was clearly horrified.

Also fantastical was the sight in the center of the room, where attendants were laboring over naked women stretched out — face up and face down — on the platform. The attendants were wafting great clouds of bubbles onto the women, then stroking and massaging the flesh under the pillowy white blobs. After our attendants coated almost every inch of us with a mud paste, allowed it to soak in for about 10 minutes, then washed it all off, Virginia and I were led to the bubble platform and instructed to lay face down on it. I lack the power to adequately describe the exquisite pleasure of the mass of bubbles landing on my hot, clean, wet, naked skin, sliding over it, lubricating the massage.

We got lots of helpings of the bubbles and a long and thorough massage. I was drifting to sleep when my cleaning lady poked me and got me to my feet. She led me (and Virginia’s attendant guided her) to a wooden alcove on the first floor, where they served us an icy fruit drink and morsels of Turkish Delight. The final step was to be taken after a while to a private massage room on the top-most floor for yet another massage, this one fueled by oils and a lot of muscle power.

When I emerged, blinking, into the sunshine, I felt dazed. I think Steve and Virginia and I must have chatted on the journey back to Kadikoy, but don’t remember being able to speak.

For at least the next two days, Steve kept exclaiming over how soft my skin felt every time he made contact with it. Not that there was much of that. We were too busy trying to squeeze in more sightseeing and shopping in the Grand Bazaar (which makes the Egyptian Market look a bit like a strip mall, compared to the Mall of America).

Ancient Egypt, the Ottoman sultans… here it all blends together. This is one view of the Blue Mosque.

We also spent some time exploring Kadikoy, which turned out to be a wonderful home base. First settled by the Greeks almost 3000 years ago, it’s the oldest part of greater Istanbul. Today it’s a bustling, densely populated district filled with beautiful parks, great restaurants, and a shopping thoroughfare that kept reminding me of some of the grander boulevards in Paris.

I felt really sorry we didn’t have more time in Kadikoy; I’m sure we won’t get back there when we return to Istanbul two weeks from today. Between now and then we’re traveling to other amazing places in Turkey. When we do return to the Bosporus, we’ll stay in the heart of the old city where Steve and I have long lists of other things we want to see and do. Still I’ll have to restrain myself from going back for another helping of bathhouse pleasure.

Journey to the center of the world

Tomorrow we take off for Istanbul. It’s about as centrally located as any place on our globe, and if it isn’t the actual center of the world (what is?) was the most important city of the most politically dominant land mass (Eurasia) for longer than any other city I can think of (like… 2000 years?) I’ve never been outside the airport there, so for me this visit will make Turkey the 76th entry on my list of Countries Visited. Steve spent some time there once before, though, when on a round-the-world odyssey with his parents. He celebrated his 9th birthday in a hotel overlooking the Bosporus. Though young, he was deeply impressed by the city and always said he wanted to go back. For the life of me, I don’t know why I also didn’t long ago yearn to get there.

Now that I’ve been reading about the Romans and Byzantines and Ottomans who ruled their respective empires from Constantinople (as Istanbul was known for most of its glory years), I’ve been lusting to go. I’ve “learned” 644 Turkish words (according to Duolingo), and if I can remember 30 or 40 of them in the weeks ahead, I’m hoping they’ll be useful. We plan to travel all over Turkey, but we’ll start and end in Istanbul, and I have to confess it’s the city that most fascinates me, at least pre-launch. I know all of Turkey has had some hard times recently — overseen by a brutal, backward-looking leader; and currently enduring inflation that will be the worst I’ve ever experienced first-hand (70% in the past year.) Yet it continues to be an economic powerhouse. Istanbul is still the biggest city in Europe, the rank it has held so many times over the millennia. Even today, it’s the fifth largest city on earth.

Will it be too depressed? Or depressing? We’re betting it won’t. But I’ll do my best to share whatever we find along the way.

Mission accomplished

Steve and I ate countless delicious meals over the course of this trip, but I have to say: few things tasted more satisfying than the glue on the stamp I bought in Monaco, the last of the seven Europeans microstates we had set out to visit.

I started planning the first iteration of our Microstate Tour early in 2020 and had booked virtually every aspect of it when governments at home and abroad prohibited international traveling. I then planned and arranged a second version in the spring of 2021 — that one structured around the two French weddings we were invited to (in Bordeaux and Provence). But uncertainty over lingering Covid regulations forced the respective couples to postpone their nuptials to the fall. So I planned and booked the trip a third time. Heading to the airport at the end of August, I only half-believed Steve and I would complete the itinerary.

But it all came off, almost flawlessly. The worst glitch was Alitalia’s cancellation of our three flights (one from Rome to Malta and the one from Sicily to Nice, via Rome). I found alternative carriers, however, and I even nurse some hope we’ll get our money back from the canceled legs.

At the second wedding last weekend, several people asked what my favorite tiny country was. What I could tell them was that the one both Steve and I longed to spend more time in was Malta.Ironically, Malta is the one microstate I didn’t blog about. We had barely 72 hours there and then went on to Sicily, where we met our friend Michael and blasted around the Italian island like Amazing Race contestants. On Sicily I barely had a moment to sit down, let alone write. And then we raced on to Monaco.

Before going to Malta I had predicted to Steve that San Marino would wind up winning the biggest piece of my heart. I loved the feisty Sammarinese independence and the beauty-drenched vistas you meet around every corner. The vibe is very different in Malta. Roughly four times bigger than San Marino, it’s a monochromatic world, at least around its magnificent harbor (the only area we got to).

One of the inlets into the much larger harbor

Almost everything is built out of pinkish tan sandstone, which makes it look a bit like a movie set. Dozens of productions have been filmed here in recent years.

They include Game of Thrones, The Da Vinci Code, Captain Phillips, and more.

Malta the country consists of five islands. We only got to the biggest, most populated one (also called Malta). We stayed in a 400-plus-year-old building on Senglea, a finger of land sticking into the harbor.

Viewed from Valleta, Senglea is the finger on the right. To the left stands the fort that was the site of the great siege.

This side of the harbor was the one-time bastion of the famous Knights of Malta, wealthy Christian noblemen who hailed from all over Europe and hated Islam. In the early 12th century, they fought as Crusaders and over time evolved into something like anti-Islamic pirates. In 1530, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V gave them Malta as a permanent home, and they reached perhaps their greatest moment of glory in 1565 when about 500 knights and a couple thousand foot soldiers held out against a vastly larger fleet of Turkish warriors. After their success in resisting the Turkish siege, Muslim expansion into Europe ended; a pretty good case can be made that because of what happened in Malta 450 years ago, Western Europe today is dotted with cathedrals rather than mosques.

We stayed on this street.
The view from our kitchen window.
Walking down to the main thoroughfare from our byway.

The larger than life character who led the Maltese resistance was a Knight named Jean La Valette. He oversaw the building of a new capital across the harbor from Senglea and its two sister cities. The new enclave became Valletta, which claims the honor of being the first planned city in all of Europe. La Valette designed an orderly grid in which tall stone buildings lined streets made intentionally narrow so that folks walking down them would be shaded from Malta’s blazing sun. Valleta is just a ten-minute ferry ride from Senglea. Steve and I made the trip a couple of times in order to sample Valleta’s crackling night life, visit a few of its sumptuous churches, and take in some of it scenic viewpoints.

One of the traditional Maltese vessels.
Here’s one of the dozens of Valleta’s lively side streets

But we were keenly aware of all we couldn’t cram in — exploring important archeological sites both on Malta and Gozo (the second biggest island), swimming and snorkeling in the turquoise local waters, visiting other museums and forts, and more.

But you can never see it all, eh? On our Microstate Tour, Steve and I were away from home for 42 nights. We passed through 11 different countries, slept in 22 different lodgings, and on several occasions I felt as tired as I can imagine ever feeling. Yet over and over the sights and people and new insights recharged us. If we didn’t see it all, we never regretted trying.

As one final note, I have to credit an excellent book, Secrets of the Seven Smallest States of Europe, by Thomas Eccardt that I stumbled upon after I was well into planning Steve’s and my trip. Published in 2005, it’s too dated to be a practical travel manual today, but Eccardt’s lucid writing about the mind-numbingly complex history of all these places was a great help. To anyone else who’s tempted to see Andorra, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, San Marino, Vatican City, Malta, and Monaco — or any combination of them — I recommend it. And wish you bon voyage!

Monaco — not just a mini-Vegas

Of all the microstates, Monaco surprised me most. I had low expectations. I’d planned for us to be there less than 24 hours, partly because all the hotels are astonishingly expensive. (If you want to save money, you stay in the adjoining French town of Beausoleil, but our goal from the start was to sleep at least one night in every microstate.) Also, a friend who lives in Europe had dismissed Monaco as a nothing more than a shopping mall for the rich.

Partly to avoid the astonishingly expensive hotels and partly because it sounded cool, I booked us into an unusual Airbnb accommodation: a power boat (maybe 40-feet-long) berthed in the harbor in the heart of the city-state. Two days before our flight, I had messaged Olivier, the guy who owns the boat. He advised me to get an Uber at Nice airport and tell the driver to take us the “Le Port Hercules a Monaco.” He would greet us when we arrived.

Things with Olivier got a little weird when I alerted him we were on way from the airport and should be arriving about 6:30 p.m. (the arrival time I had earlier predicted.)

“OK,” he wrote. “I understand I wanted to see you because I have an important dentist appointment at 6:20 p.m. so I may be able to be there to receive you only at 7:45 p.m. Will you go? Best regards, Olivier”

“Oh dear,” I wrote back. “I do not understand what you mean when you say ‘will you go.’ We have nowhere else to go beside your boat. What should we do?”

“I understand,” he shot back. “I think you will arrive before 6:30 p.m. these just that I think I be there to receive you at 7:45 p.m. if you do not mind.”

“Olivier, We have nowhere else to go,” I responded, seeking a tone for my WhatsApp message that would suggest gritted teeth. “I will be very, very sad if Steve and I have to stand on the dock in the dark waiting for you. That will not be good.”

Eventually, he messaged that he had moved his appointment “so no worries I’m here and I’m looking forward to welcoming you.” That too was a bit of an overstatement. Le Port Hercules, where our driver deposited us, is a large area with several entry points.

Here’s Steve wondering: where might Olivier be?

More tense messaging with Olivier followed, and when he finally showed up, he turned out to an exuberant young man who showed no sign of being in the grip of any dental emergency. (He claimed to have rescheduled the appointment, which he said was routine.)

His boat looked like the photos I had seen on the Airbnb website (save for the beat-up condition of the deck cushions.)After Olivier left, Steve and I enjoyed a glass of the Prosecco which Olivier had kindly left for us and reminded each other that we never, ever want to live on a boat — unless it was one of the megayachts like the kind that re crammed cheek by jowl into the docks of the Monaco port.

This was the biggest bed on Olivier’s boat.

Those whoppers costs hundreds of millions of dollars, however, so a future residency on one is highly unlikely.

Although Olivier’s boat was cramped and chilly and the bed didn’t have a blanket, the location couldn’t be beat. In one direction, the casinos and high rises of Monte Carlo reminded me of Hong Kong. (Indeed we’ve read that Monaco is the most densely populated country on the planet.) In another, we could see the royal palace.The flag was flying so we knew that the current prince (Albert II, only son of the late Prince Rainier and Princess Grace) was home with his family.

The next morning, we strolled from the harbor up to the royal family’s neighborhood. We had coffee and croissants at a cafe facing the palace. It has a cozy air (as palaces go). Then we ambled through the narrow streets, as charming as any in Europe. Beyond the center of the old city, a cliffside park and plaza reminded me of the best viewpoints in La Jolla, except for the public restrooms. Steve reported the Monegasque ones to be the cleanest and nicest he’s ever seen anywhere. A bit later, we wandered into the austere but elegant cathedral where the one-time movie star, Grace Kelly, married the prince.To one side of the alter we found the site she was buried after dying in a 1982 car accident. Her husband lived for 23 more years, but now he reposes next to her.

A plaque outside the cathedral recalls happier days.

One of the cool things about Monaco is that you can walk all over the country. Later that morning we visited the area around the grand Monte Carlo Casino; sadly, guided tours were canceled, due to Covid.But the streets around the place are filled with shops and businesses and markets, some mundane…some not.

I’ve been in plenty of wealthy neighborhoods over the years, but never in a country crowded with the super rich, as Monaco is. I have no desire to move there. But it was entertaining to visit.

Holy microstate!

For a while, I considered skipping Vatican City (aka The Holy See) altogether. It’s the only one among the seven smallest European microstates I have visited before (more than once). But when it became clear we had to go through Rome to fly to Malta, I rethought our plan. How could we ignore this enclave that’s not just the smallest of the smallest countries in Europe, but smallest in all the whole world? When we learned that our old friend Megan (whom I met as a freshman in high school) coincidentally would be in Rome at the same time we would, the stop was irresistible.

It was Megan who suggested we visit the Vatican gardens. I never knew you could. But she secured tickets online and on a sunny morning, we headed for St. Peter’s. Around the back of the cathedral, inside the entrance to the Vatican Museums, we gathered with a group of maybe 15 people. An ebullient Polish-Canadian art historian named Kinga led us outside and down a wooded path.

I took no notes; it was too pleasant simply to stroll through the dappled light and note the horticultural variety as we passed from section to section.Some formal, most less so. We ambled by some flowers, but more of the ornamentation was watery or sculptural or redolent of the distant past.

What tickled me most were the private views; sides of things I’d seen before but never from these angles: a glimpse of that ultra-famous dome……the stark simplicity of the outside of the Sistine Chapel……or the homely building where the former Cardinal Ratzinger (aka Benedict, the recent pontiff who retired) is living out his final years.

It’s the peach-colored building in the distance.

I asked Kinga if Pope Francis often ventures into his back yard, but she didn’t seem to know how often that happens. If it did, she assured us, all the garden tours could be canceled to accommodate him. “We must remember, it’s his home!”

After we left the gardens, our tickets also permitted us to enter the museums, so of course we couldn’t resist dashing through the endless halls to pay a quick visit to the Sistine Chapel. After that, we walked outside and around the walls of the city state to enter St. Peter’s Square. The line to get into the church was daunting. We had to check out of our Airbnb flat and move on, so we settled for just a photo in front of the grand edifice. That was good enough. The gardens had shown us a place where at least a handful of humans (the Pope and a few hundred others) actually live. It felt a bit more like a real country.