I hadsuchambitious plans. After we left Cappadocia and flew back to Istanbulon June 1, we checked into a hotel in the heart of the old city. I’d prepared a jam-packed itinerary, figuring into those last two and a half days we could squeeze several walking tours from the eighth edition of RickSteves’ Istanbul guidebook– rambles that would take us to dozens of sights we’d missed at the start of the trip when we werestaying onthe Asian side.
I was deluded. The city is so old, so stuffed with wonders large and small, ancient and contemporary, we could only gobble up a fraction ofwhat I’d hoped to take in,let alone digest it all.
We did make it to our foremost sightseeing targets.
We taxied out to where sections of the fabulous walls built by the Roman emperor Theodosius II still stand…
We spent several hours walking around the so-called “new district” – starting with Taksim Square then meandering along Istiklal Street, today a crowded, buzzy pedestrian shopping street.
We descended into a renovated ancient cistern, one of hundreds that once allowed Constantinople’s residents to enjoy more watery pleasures per capita than Americans consume today.
As we did these things, over andoverI was reminded of what I’ve learned before in my travels: no amount of reading or looking at pictures or films can prepare you forbeing in certain places.All I’ll say about entering the Hagia Sophia is that I felt a bit like a dolphin. In that golden ocean of space and encapsulated history, a sort of psychic sonar made my puniness palpable. But only actually being there can trigger that magical pinging.
Seeing Istanbul’s street dogs and cats was a similar experience. Before our trip, Steve and I watched two feature films (Kedi, about the cats, and a canine counterpart called Stray) documenting what a fixture of the city both species are. Why then did the sight of them still grab my attention; feel surprising? There they are, more of them!￼￼ They’re obviously cats. And dogs. But not at all like cats and dogs where I come from. The Turkish cats and dogs saunter along…
or snooze￼￼ or just hang out wherever they feel like it.￼￼￼ They’re clearly free spirits. Nobody owns them but people everywhere feed them – communal pets in the megalopolis.￼
I had to tell myself not to romanticize them, that their lives must have rough edges. They probably die younger than do dogs and cats in my neighborhood. But they don’t look like it. They’re plump and fluffy and even the dogs act like they don’t need people.
More than anything, they act like they own the place. I was jealous.
To squeeze the maximum fun into your birthday, here’s a handy tip: set your alarm for 3 in the morning! This will increase the amount of time you have to celebrate. If you happen to be in Cappadocia, as I was, you can be picked up by a van that will take you to a hot-air-balloon launch site. If the weather is cooperative, as it is for more than half the year, you can clamber into a basket holding 22 people and rise above one of the weirder landscapes on earth. After the ride, you can fill the remainder of the day with other amazing activities.
It’s a good thing Tuesday (May 31) was my birthday. I’m pretty sure Steve wouldn’t have agreed to that program otherwise. He’s not 100% convinced hot air balloon rides anywhere are safe. But deeming the Turkish experience to be a birthday wish, he acceded to it and afterward acknowledged that even he liked it.
It’s very exciting to watch so many giant balloons taking shape in the dim light before dawn; to be in the thick of them as they slowly rise and jockey for air space.I had expected the major payoff of this experience to be the view of Cappadocia’s famous rock formations — towering stone columns formed by the action of wind and water on soft volcanic ash deposits and known locally as “fairy chimneys.” (They reminded us of the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon.) The views were extraordinary.But even more wondrous was the sight of so many hot air balloons in every direction.Ballooning only began here about 30 years ago, but powered by images on social media sites, it has burgeoned in the last decade or so. Our pilot Tuesday said more than 150 balloons carrying a couple thousand people now fly here more days than not.
After the ride, Steve and I napped for a few hours and ate breakfast back at our hotel, built in a renovated cave house. For millennia, humans have been carving churches and monasteries and dwelling places into the soft gray stone that makes up most of the Cappadocian terrain.￼￼￼ Some were carved into the fairy chimneys; others into the hillsides.￼
An enterprising 34-year-old local named Ramazan Ilgezdi a few years ago converted one of those private homes into the hotel where we stayed.￼
Before doing that, Ramazon worked for years as a master ceramicist. During the pandemic, he also got his credentials to guide tourists. So it was Ramazan who drove Steve and me around for several hours after breakfast to some of the area highlights.
I won’t try to describe all we saw and did, just the one that left us slack-jawed: our visit to one of Cappadocia’s underground cities. More than 30 that have been found throughout Anatolia. Begun by the Hittites around 3000 BC, these subterranean marvels enabled women and children to hide out while their menfolk were fending off invaders — a bit like bomb shelters, but incomparably more sophisticated than anything any American ever dreamed of during the 50s. The one we visited (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) extended down seven levels, a vast labyrinth that experts think accommodated between 5,000 and 30,000 people and included a mind-boggling array of elements necessary to support months-long stays: areas for storing food and livestock…
… areas for cooking and wine-making and accessing clean water, worshipping and processing wastes, honoring the dead, communicating with the floors above or below one.
The underground refugees protected all this with an ingenious system of giant stone disks that could be rolled into place, behind which a single plucky woman with a spear could hold off a marauding horde.
For my birthday dinner, we ate in a restaurant specializing in Turkish “ravioli.” It was delicious, like most of what we consumed. But what I remember most about that evening was our pre-dinner outing to a restored caravansary.
The old Silk Road ran through Cappadocia, down what’s now the unprepossessing strip of highway you see in this photo:
Back in the 1200s, however, traders with their camel trains followed this route to bring spices and other goods from India to Istanbul (from whence all the merchandise could be carried onward into Europe.) Along the way they stopped in caravanseries — lodgings usually built around a courtyard where the caravans could stop to rest. One of them outside the town of Avanos in Cappadocia has been beautifully restored and hosts nightly demonstrations of the whirling dervish religious ceremony.
Dervishes, also known as Mevlevis, are Sufi Muslims who follow the teachings of the 13th century Persian poet and mystic, Rumi. Their ritualistic whirling surely ranks among the most beautiful meditative practices. What Steve and I witnessed Tuesday night may have been part show, but it nonetheless felt solemn and serious. The dervishes entered, wrapped in black cloaks that symbolize death; the tall hats they wear represent the dancers’ tombstones. Someone chanted verses of the Koran, then after a while, the men shed their gloomy outer gear to reveal pristine white jackets and full skirts. To plaintive music produced on a stringed instrument, a wooden pipe, and drums, they slowly began to twirl, skirts undulating out around them in waves. One by one, their arms floated upward, above faces soft with ecstasy.
What it all meant from a theological perspective, I can’t say. But it seemed somehow symbolic of my day, of this whole trip: a dizzying whirlwind that spun me up with happiness.
I’m starting this post aboard the Eastern Express, the Turkish train that runs all the way from Turkey’s capital to Kars, near the Armenian border in the east. Travel constraints forced us to take the train westward. We flew from Ankara to Kars Friday morning (5/27) and had a couple of hours that afternoon to explore the town and its citadel on our own.
All day Saturday we were driven around the surrounding area by a masterful guide, Celil Ersözoglu. The whole side trip reminded me it isn’t always true, as the adage claims, that the point of travel is “not the destination but the journey.”
Kars became one of our destinations in Turkey in part because Fodor’s Essential Turkey lists “Exploring Ancient Ani” as #4 on its list of 25 “Ultimate [Turkish] Experiences,” A thousand years ago Ani, 26 miles east of Kars, ranked along with Istanbul, Baghdad, and Horasan (between Afghanistan and Iran) as the most important stops along the Silk Road. Some 150,000 people lived there, and over the centuries they built beautiful places of worship and a massive palace, all encircled by a double set of thick stone walls. Earthquakes and invasions destroyed the place long ago, but what remains has an eerie beauty.
Celil made a valiant effort to explain all the history to us, but it was hopeless. I’ve retained almost nothing of the head-spinning chronicle of sieges and occupations and battles, though I can tell you geopolitical tensions still simmer here today. Celil pointed out the Russian barracks and guard towers glowering in the near distance, in Armenia.
The bloody politics should have been depressing. But I was too elated by the weather. Just days before, fierce winds and snow had pummeled the area. Yet we strolled the site in t-shirts under sunny skies. Far in the distance, clouds partially obscured the volcanic Mt. Ararat, the site where Noah’s Ark came aground, according to the book of Genesis. At 16,850 feet it towers over the other nearby snow-covered mountains — part of a range known as the Trans-Caucasus. The Greater Caucasus mountains in Georgia are even higher.
It was hard to believe folks call this part of Turkey “Little Siberia” because of its winters in which temperatures plunge to 40 degrees below zero. Summers are broiling. With wildflowers swaying in the gentle breeze, to me it felt like a paradise.
I also was thrilled to find myself on a section of the map I’ve rarely looked at and don’t well understand. Armenia was close enough to hit with a pebble tossed across the river. In the photo above, Turkey’s neighbor lies on the other side of that gorge.
The former Soviet state of Georgia lay maybe 50 miles to the north, with Iran not much farther to the southeast. Hillsides in every direction were green but barren; invaders and armies and freezing settlers long ago chopped down every single tree. Now it’s good pastureland, if you know how to deal with the packs of ravenous wolves who routinely prey on the livestock (and sometimes humans). But Celil said local shepherds, armed with their stout sticks and massive Caucasian herding dogs, shrug off the danger.
After surveying Ani’s ruins, we drove back toward Kars, but then Celil headed for a cobalt body of water about an hour to the north. Lake Cildir has become increasingly popular with tourists from the western part of Turkey, he explained. To my astonishment, he said 3,000 such visitors had flooded into Kars every day this past winter, eager to sample the frosty diversions. The lake freezes so solidly you can drive on it. Visitors ice-fish; they zoom around in cozy sledges.
We saw barely a soul on our visit Saturday, except at the roadside restaurant where we stopped for a late lunch. After that, Steve and I hiked for a bit in a beautiful canyon harboring a lonely castle, then Celil chauffeured us back to town.
We had to be on the train for an 8 am departure Sunday morning. A special tourist train also makes the same journey over these rails but it only runs a few times a week, and the schedules didn’t work for us. If they had, that choice might have been more comfortable than our ordinary passenger train. The tourist train’s WiFi might have been working, unlike ours. It might have had a real dining car, unlike the club car on ours, which offered little more than candy bars, stale-looking sandwiches, Nescafé and tea.￼
For about $65, I was able to book all four seats in a sleeping compartment on the non-touristic train. It was reasonably clean. As always, I enjoyed being able to lie in my berth and take in the lush panorama rolling by. Because we rode on this train, I now know that a huge stretch of eastern Turkey consists of rolling wooded hills intercut with swift-running rivers. Most of what we saw from our window seemed as devoid of people as the American West.
I would have been thoroughly satisfied if the train operators had just told us up front we would reach Kayseri (the gateway to Cappadocia, our next destination) at 5 am, and that the conductor would alert us a few minutes before arrival. The motion and long stops probably would have occasionally jolted me awake. But with my eyeshades on and perhaps a sleeping pill sedating me, I would have gotten a decent amount of sleep.
Alas, the timetable said the train gets to Kayseri at 2:37 am. Celil had warned us it never makes it that early. But who knew when it would arrive? Since I’d arranged for a taxi to meet us upon arrival, this all resulted in a fretful, fractured night. Around 9:30 pm we found a conductor, and with the aid of Google Translate, asked him to predict our arrival time. He consulted some electronic device and said it would between 3 and 4, then amended that to indicate probably closer to 4. We set our alarms for 3:30 — but didn’t actually reach the station until a few minutes after 5.
Still we connected with our taxi driver and got to Cappadocia about an hour later — in time to see all the hot air balloons hovering over the magical landscape. A good omen.
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…
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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).
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:
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 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.
Our guide claimed that this footprint advertised one of the many brothels.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
I have no personal interest in sex tourism. Never have; never will. It was instead a journalistic impulse that drove Steve and me to the Hotel del Rey Tuesday night. Costa Rica is one of the few countries in the world where women are allowed to legally sell their sexual services, though pimping and other forms of promoting prostitution are illegal, as is having sex with minors. Trying to wrap our heads around these extraordinary facts, we’d stumbled on wild online descriptions of the bawdy offerings to be found in “Gringo Gulch,” just a block off one of the main avenues in the heart of San Jose (Costa Rica’s capital city). Could this still be going on in the midst of what appears to be continuing Covid panic? Curiosity nibbled.
Nothing else about San Jose has seemed spicy — or even particularly attractive — since our arrival late Monday morning. The 91-year-old Gran Hotel where we’re staying in the city center is very nice, and it’s been fun to look out our window and see the people strolling across the Plaza de la Cultura. Almost every one is masked. But before 9 am, after about 7 pm, and at times in between, the streets radiating out from here have been depressingly empty.
The buildings lining those streets for the most part are forgettable, a mix of tacky strip mall and architectural brutalism. The national theater adjoining our plaza is an exception, and the post office building is so pretty we stopped to admire it. But where was the Spanish colonial heritage so evident in other Latin American capitals? The guidebook suggested an explanation: early Spaniards came here but when they found few natives to enslave and no gold, they lost interest and never left much of a footprint. “It’s kind of like Panama!” Steve exclaimed. “Only with volcanos and earthquakes.” (And of course no Canal.)
We spent most of yesterday giving San Jose our touristic best shot. Visited the Cathedral. Spent time in the national museum.
We should have done the jade museum, but after two exhausting hours of Costa Rican history, tromping up and down 5 stories to look at 7000 objects made of pretty green stone didn’t push my buttons.
In the afternoon we returned to the central market area (which had been lifeless at 8 am). It was crowded and colorful and studded with what seemed like the highest concentration of cripples and old ladies and other folks hawking lottery tickets I’ve seen anywhere in memory. I went Full Tourist and bought t-shirts that seemed to represent some of Costa Rica’s greatest charms.
Sloths are native and iconic.
And one of their presidents in 1948 dismantled the country’s military. Costa Rica still doesn’t have one!
Then it felt like we were out of things to do except study Lonely Planet for dinner options.
For my birthday Monday night, we’d had a great score — an Argentine joint featuring beef. Every table was filled, and we spent a couple of hours swooning over the food and loving the all-tango musical background. But even though Nuestra Tierra (our choice last night) had hundreds of enthusiastic online reviews, we and two saggy business types were the only customers, apparently for the night. Our waiter looked sad when we said we only wanted one beer apiece. When we turned down the free dessert, he looked almost desperate. The manager, sitting at the bar, may have been thinking of heading for the US border. It was then we resolved to stroll by the notorious Hotel del Rey, den of iniquity par excellence. Could some hilarity at least be found there?
We turned off the pedestrian-only Avenida Central…… which looked like this a little before 8 pm and walked the short block to Avenida 1, where the already-dim streets were darker and creepier. Almost all the storefronts were shuttered. Almost no one was out walking. But Google Maps insisted the Del Rey was just a block or two away. An online report had described the massive pink structure as sticking out like a sore thumb. This was true enough that we easily spotted it, but this thumb looked more dead than sore. Dark and lifeless, it made us wonder if it was yet another victim of Covid. Or had we simply been misinformed about its heyday?
We scuttled back to the main street, where a lighted storefront caught our eye: clearly a casino. Such gambling also is legal here. Lest our brief stab at vice-detecting fail utterly, we let the guy at the front door take our temperatures, and we squirted yet more sanitizer on our hands (the universal drill) and wandered throughout the two-story establishment. The light was gray and metallic. A few dozen patrons, each shielded by plexiglass barriers between their slot machines, slumped in front of the whirling mechanical images. In the far rear of the place, we found an electronic roulette wheel, so deserted that I managed to sneak a photo.
We didn’t feel particularly lucky, so we hurried back to the plaza of culture and were asleep well before 10. Now it’s morning, and we’ll say goodbye to San Jose in a few minutes and drive ourselves to the north. There the true Costa Rican experience reportedly awaits.
On our first-ever visit to Panama of course we would want to see the Panama Canal — vaunted 8th wonder of the world, 107-year-old shortcut between Earth’s two greatest oceans, Number Two on Lonely Planet’s “15 Top Panama Experiences.” And for Steve and me, experiencing the Canal had turned into something more; it had become a quest; a semi-sacred mission.
Weeks ago, in preparation for our travels, Steve began reading The Path Between the Seas, David McCullough’s splendid and definitive chronicle of what it took to create this engineering marvel. Steve immediately became besotted by it, declaring it was the best business story he had ever read. He couldn’t stop sharing the details with me and anyone else who would listen. I haven’t had time to read the book yet but I intend to. Listening to Steve convinced me I must.
Our guidebook and various online authorities assured me there were many ways of seeing and learning about the canal. A museum in Panama City was dedicated to it. A highly recommended activity was to visit one of the lock sites; at least two (at both ends of the canal) had fancy visitor centers. We could ride in a historical passenger train that ran alongside the canal, or pay for a boat ride through all or part of it. I fretted we would have trouble fitting in all the options.
When I discovered there was a home-exchange option in Gamboa, I got more excited. Gamboa is a tiny hamlet situated about mid-way across the peninsula. When the United States built the canal, it received a strip of land five miles on either side of it which it was supposed to be owned by America “in perpetuity.” Jimmy Carter ultimately decided (correctly, Steve and I think) the Canal and the Zone would be better off in the hands of Panamanians. That changeover happened in 1999, but in the 1940s, the US military built housing for the American canal administrators in Gamboa, and it was one of these elegant buildings that Jorge L (a Panamanian) acquired and now uses as a weekend retreat. He also rents out the place via Airbnb and trades it on homeexchange.com, a site that lets you arrange direct house trades OR receive “Guest Points” for letting other folks stay in your home while you’re away. You can then “spend” those points to stay elsewhere.
I thus arranged for Steve and me to spend three nights at Jorge’s Gamboa house. We were a little nervous about landing at Panama City’s airport at 4:30 pm, picking up our rental car, and having to make the 45-minute drive with night approaching. But luck was with us, and we arrived in Gamboa under thick clouds around sunset. Jorge had only sent GPS coordinates for the center of the town plus a photo of his house (apparently addresses are not a thing in Panama.) We were feeling pretty irritable driving around the rapidly darkening streets, trying to figure out which dwelling place might belong to Jorge, when we spotted a guy watching us with apparent bemusement. This turned out to be Omar, a sort of caretaker who confirmed that we had reached our destination.
Jorge had never mentioned him. Omar let us in and it felt a bit like stepping into a time machine; I tried to conceal my mixed feelings.
Two stories tall, both levels of the house had high ceilings and a gracious layout. It appeared to be more or less clean, but any 70-plus-year-old building set on the edge of a steamy jungle is bound to look and feel a bit grimy. I wondered how many exotic spiders and snakes and centipedes might be staying there with us. Omar gave us vague directions to the only eatery in town, and somehow we made our way to it in what by then was complete darkness. My heart sank at the sight of the garishly lit storefront, open to the street, no customers evident.
A tiny grocery store run by a Vietnamese couple adjoined it, however, and we bought enough supplies to return to the house and throw together a pasta dinner. The house was sweltering, but a floor fan made it bearable. Still I felt beyond sticky, and my mood dipped further when we discovered the shower taps in the only full bathroom appeared to be rusted into inoperability. I WhatsApped Jorge but heard nothing from him that night.
In the morning, Jorge responded that he would have Omar check the shower, and when he appeared moments later Omar somehow muscled the taps into life. Steve brewed the ground Duran Cafe Puro (“Panama 1907”) that we had bought the night before into something that tasted actually delicious. I cracked four thick brown eggshells and scrambled the whites and deep orange yolks in melted butter. With sunshine streaming through the windows, the house looked substantially more charming; its character outweighing the mild grubbiness.In high spirits, we set out for the Gamboa Rainforest Resort about 2 kilometers away. There we hoped to sign up for a tour or two and if necessary make a reservation for dinner in the fancy restaurant there.
I had read (and Jorge had confirmed) that this $30 million, 5-star hotel complex could be enjoyed not just by guests but also day visitors like Steve and me. It was less than a mile and a half from Jorge’s. We drove and found the parking lot almost empty. Still the grandiose entryway gave no indication it was closed. We walked in and gaped at one of the strangest sights I’ve ever seen.
The lobby was enormous, immaculate, and elegant, and the views breathtaking.
But where were the people?
Slightly dazed, we wandered around for a while and spotted one distant gardener and one guy cleaning the pool. We thought we heard the voice of maids in one of the guest wings. But we detected no other sign of humans. Indeed it looked like aliens had just departed after herding everyone onto the spaceship.
Clearly, we wouldn’t be booking spots on the the 11 am Gamboa Tree Trek. Or any of the Gatun Lake Expedition boat rides. Still, Gamboa is situated on the Canal, so we left the resort and did some poking around the town and the banks of the famous waterway. Parts of the town also looked abandoned.
From the Puente de Gamboa, it would be easy to mistake the Canal for a workaday river. But Steve was all too keenly aware of what went into creating this portion of the waterway — the infamous Culebra Cut. The cut passes through Panama’s continental divide and the highest point on the canal route. It’s excavation bankrupted the French company that made the first attempt to dig an isthmian canal and cost the USA twice what was originally expected.
Steve was dying to get a better look at the Cut, so later that afternoon we drove across the snazzy Puente Centenario and caught this view.We also looked forward to our visit the next day to the Miraflores Locks near Panama City. Steve was understandably crushed when he checked for directions on Google Maps Wednesday night and read that the its visitor center was closed because of the pandemic.
I double-checked and confirmed the closure. But I also saw that the Agua Clara Visitor Center, near Colon, had just re-opened to tourists on May 1. I had to make a reservation online, but almost all the slots were available.
When we arrived there Thursday morning, we learned that a big part of this center also was still closed (our entrance tickets were discounted, as a result.) But we were able to enter the huge, modern observation platform, where we watched a gigantic container ship from Hong Kong approach and enter the first of the three sets of locks that step boats down to the level of the Caribbean Sea.
These were the new locks opened in 2016, financed in part by Japanese and Europeans, that accommodate ships far larger than the original locks. Those are still operating, and about two dozen tankers and car carriers and smaller container vessels and other ships pass through each day. Although we couldn’t get close to the old locks, after we left Agua Clara we drove around some more and eventually found the nearby dam that created one of the essential components of the canal, Gatun Lake, at the time of its creation the largest man-made body of water in the world.
Making it all work in the face of unimaginable obstacles and challenges, “This was the greatest engineering effort in the history of mankind,” Steve declared. “Greater than the pyramids at Giza. Greater than landing a man on the moon.”
Friday we packed up and left Jorge’s place, happy in the end to have had our three nights there. (As it turned out, the only jungly creature who joined us was this two-inch-long lizard, who seemed to live in the kitchen.)We drove to Panama City, turned in our rental car, and took a taxi to The Sexiest Condo in Panama, which is how Vicki Marie S bills her unit on the 31st story of a high-rise overlooking Panama Bay. I used more of our home-exchange Guest Points to secure three nights for us here, and I have to say it is pretty sexy. Here’s the view of the city skyline from the balcony outside our bedroom with its king-sized bed.And the view of me wondering: how DOES one pole-dance, anyway?
Our immersion in Panamanian Canal arcana wasn’t quite over. This morning (Saturday, May 29) we spent a couple of hours at the gleaming Panama Canal Museum in the gentrified Casco Viejo neighborhood. If not great, it’s respectable, and I think at last Steve feels sated. We’ll have all day tomorrow to participate in the Sunday morning Ciclovia, visit the natural history museum housed in a particularly colorful Frank Gehry structure, and eat more of the excellent local fish. Probably it will all be fun. Still, I think we’ll depart for Costa Rica Monday most impressed by how much luck we had in understanding the greatest engineering achievement of all time.