Turkish Delights

16. Turkey

Istanbul & Cappadocia

This Must Be The Place.

Her name was Olga, and I would meet her on my first morning in the Old Town neighborhood of Istanbul, a block from my intended destination, the Hagia Sophia. I’d eaten a wonderful breakfast at The Genius Hotel, was freshly showered, and had on a set of nice, clean clothes, which, admittedly, is not always the case these days.

As I walked the cobblestone street, my hotel still in sight, I would see Olga struggling in the road ahead, a duffle in one hand, dragging a huge suitcase in the other, one that was clearly overloaded and rolling uncooperatively. She appeared to be looking around for what I assumed was her hotel. Feeling happy and excited about the morning ahead, and fully engrossed in my newfound spirit of doing something rather than nothing, I stopped and offered her a hand. She accepted without word or hesitation, almost too quickly, in fact, and very soon I would discover why.

Olga’s suitcase was not only ungodly heavy, it was also unwieldy, with two of its four wheels missing. It was too awkward and heavy to carry by its handle, and with only two wheels, rolling it on rough cobblestone was like pushing an old-timey wooden wagon with square wheels.

Since Olga spoke no English, I had neither the benefit of meeting a fellow foreign traveler, or more importantly, asking her hotel name and just how far it might be. Instead, we just walked along, uphill, as I switched the suitcase to my other hand every fifty feet, then thirty, then fifteen. We would enter and cross the square between Hagia Sophia and The Blue Mosque, pass through a fenced security checkpoint, and continue on, all still uphill.

We would eventually approach a streetcar stop just as one pulled up, Olga indicating this was her destination, forced to leave quickly with no time for goodbyes – or thanks for that matter, but then, ehem, thanks is not why we lend a hand to those in need, is it? As the streetcar rolled away to destinations unknown, I waved blindly at a sea of windows through which I saw no sign of Olga waving back, me standing there in what, just fifteen minutes before, had been clean, dry, fresh clothes, now drenched in my sweat and the rain that had begun to fall. And in that moment I wanted to go back to my hotel, get online, buy a plane ticket, fly back to Athens, find that woman who had inspired me with her kindness to that homeless man and his daughters, giving him shoes and the girls food on that cold December day, and poke her right in the eyeball.

Merhaba, Ernie and Hads!

I hope this finds you both warm and well and curled in a ball on the back of a sun-drenched cushy chair alongside Grayson! My holiday season was wonderful, if not bittersweet, missing you, family and friends, though I never expected to feel slightly safer from Covid while traveling in planes, buses, and crowds of tourists than I would back in New England. Wear your masks, wash those paws, and be safe, please.

I’d finally caught up to real-time with my first Greece blog, and then immediately fell behind again, as it can be a bit of a challenge to sit inside and tap away at a keyboard when I can see things like the minarets of Hagia Sophia, one of the world’s most famous mosques (#15 on my Lonely Planet travel list), from my hotel bed. And by the time I get back from a day of hiking around, take a shower, grab some dinner and return to my room, the ol’ eyelids are usually at half mast.

I know. Blah-blah. You don’t care. But stick with this entry and maybe there’ll be some more eye candy in it for you both.

I mentioned above that I could see the minarets of Hagia Sophia, but each morning I would also be wakened at dawn by the call-to-prayer bellowing from its loudspeakers and echoing across town. Depending on my location, dawn’s call-to-prayer have been anywhere from 6:45AM to as early as 4:45 in my coming weeks of travel, with no escaping its audible grasp. Mosques used to have their own “muezzin” – as I’m sure you’re both aware – who would issue the call-to-prayer live, five times a day, but in time that was changed to a standardized recording used by all mosques. I like to believe it was to stop the creative freelancing, but it still doesn’t completely solve the problem of overlap, as echoes and distance across the city often create a jarring cacophony when that’s what wakes you from a peaceful night’s sleep, especially when it’s in a language you don’t understand and includes rolling, sometimes gutteral consonants.

I’d rented an economy, basement room at The Genius Hotel, but upon check-in, Savash – an extremely pleasant and very welcoming young Turk manning the desk with his friend Yaren – informed me by way of apology that they’d moved me to their best room on the top floor. It even had a private balcony, he said. Smiling appreciatively behind my mask, I told him I’d let it slide this time, and was tempted to add “just don’t let it happen again,” but felt I was already pushing my luck with the bilingual sarcasm.

My flight from Greece had gone off without a hitch, and customs and visa were a breeze. Getting my rental car was a bit of a bear, however, as everything I’m doing is “economy,” so the company wasn’t in the terminal. Our heavily accented exchanges by telephone were comical, and it took quite a while to get behind the wheel. I get rentals very infrequently, but I’d read a travel blog that said driving in Turkey – and Istanbul specifically – was pretty straightforward and easy. That writer lied. Of course it didn’t help that it was December, pitch black outside, rush hour, a Friday, and it was raining, so for most of my two-hour-one-hour ride I was blinking at headlights reflecting off glistening wet blacktop, windows, and mirrors, while trying to navigate some of the most insanely pretzeled off-ramps and onramps while using a juuuuuust-too-slow mobile phone GPS. As a result I would miss four turnoffs, with each attempt to double back met with bumper-to-bumper traffic. I was beginning to get nervous that The “Genius” Hotel might pull my reservation entirely.

But the staff at the Genius, from Savash to Amin, the hotel manager, could not have been more kind. Upon checkout Amin told me – knowing about my coming travels and my return to Istanbul very unlikely – that if I needed anything anywhere in Turkey, had questions or ran into any issues whatsoever, to call him directly. His kindness was sincere, as I would find all across this country, from Istanbul to Cappadocia. Far from the understandable concerns family and friends had about my visiting Turkey amidst uneasy U.S. relations and its own recent political turmoil, I had not been treated with this much welcome and kindness anywhere in my travels – and I’ve been treated well everywhere.

Hagia Sophia was built as a Christian Cathedral by eastern Roman emperor Justinian I between 532 and 537 AD. At the time it was the world’s largest interior space and remained the world’s largest cathedral for nearly a thousand years. It would later become a mosque, then a museum, and today it serves as both. Entering the prayer hall was overwhelming and admittedly a little emotional, a mix of awe at its sheer size, and the realization I was actually there, in person.
(My dear friend Zinakay will insist I’m not smiling here, but I am, dammit.)
It’s nearly impossible to capture the size and splendor in photos, especially using an iPhone 6, but rest assured, in person it takes your breath away.
Imagine what it would take to build this today, never mind 1600 years ago and without the benefit of modern construction equipment.
Turkey has laws protecting all of its strays. They are captured, vaccinated, tagged (cats get a cool ear tattoo) and released where they were found, and it is illegal to harm or move them. In fact, feeding and caring for them is a responsibility dictated by teachings from the Quran. This lucky guy has his own bed inside the Hagia Sophia, and I’ll bet he won’t sniff at it and walk away after a week.
Yes, guys, even your nemeses are protected here. In fact, inside the security checkpoint at the entrance to Topkapi Palace, sleeping at the feet of the heavily armed security team, were three stray canines taking shelter from the day’s wet weather. You’ll be happy to know, however, that they get lame green plastic ear tags instead of cool cat tats.
The Blue Mosque, across the large square from Hagia Sophia.
The Ceremonial Golden Throne, from the 16th century, and the room where visiting dignitaries where received in Topkapi Palace, the palace of Turkey’s Sultans.
I took a left when I was supposed to take a right, and would prefer not to talk about what happened next. Spencer, you never got back to me on how to delete photos from WordPress – get back to me ASAP please...
Restaurants line the main promenade in Old Town, the managers from each competing for my business with amusing sidewalk sales pitches as I passed.
An amazing dinner at Mitani Restaurant.
“Karaköy Güllüoğlu. A visit here is a must for the best baklava you’ve ever had in your life!”
wrote my friend Manos when I told him of my travel plans. This stop was along the ride back to the airport, and while Manos is only finding out now that this was also the ONLY baklava I’ve ever had in my life, I find it hard to believe there could be one that tastes better than this. Thanks Manos!
Off to Cappadocia.

From Istanbul airport I would fly to Kayseri and jump in a shuttle on my way to Göreme to see the magical Fairy Chimneys of Cappadocia.

The Fairy Chimneys are the result of volcanic eruptions millions of years ago which rained ash upon the region. The ash transformed into “tuff,” a porous rock which in turn was covered by a layer of basalt. As thousands of years passed, erosion wore down the softer rock, and the result is the mind-blowing, sci-fi pillars that rise from the ground throughout the valley, some as high as 130 feet, with the harder basalt forming a mushroom cap on top.

During Roman reign, persecuted, fleeing Christians realized the porous rock could be excavated, building homes and churches in the chimneys and nearby valley mountains, as well as entire underground cities that housed and protected thousands.

Today, not only do these chimneys and caves still stand amidst the homes and businesses of Göreme, some hotels, homes and restaurants actively use them. Yet, somehow, this isn’t even the most amazing part of Cappadocia. Every single morning the sky above Göreme is filled with dozens of high-and-low-flying hot air balloons filled with tourists getting a bird’s eye view of the entire valley.

And that is what brought me here…

Mom and I tried unsuccessfully to take rides at the South Kingstown Hot Air Balloon Festival several times (very weather-and-wind-dependent). The only tempering of my excitement in this moment is that Mom wasn’t with me. We’ll try again upon my return.
Waking to a blanket of snow (the first significant snowfall of my trip) made me think my attempt would once again be thwarted, but great fortune, courtesy of Dad, continues to be on my side.
At 700 meters up (nearly 2300 feet) we literally bumped into our neighbors. Our balloons would remain touching and spinning for slightly waaayyyyy too long. If my enjoyment and excitement in that moment could be summed up by an emoji…
My dear friend Yvonne, from the Philippines, by way of Kuwait. Like me, Yvonne’s trip was born of Covid contemplations, a lot of time to consider the meaning of life and how quickly it passes. The fortunes of our paths would prove to be much different, however. Early in the pandemic, Yvonne would spend several days hospitalized with Covid, unsure if she would survive. Sadly, Yvonne’s sister would succumb to the virus. “She didn’t take a single piece of gold with her. She didn’t take a dress. It made me think, what am I saving my money for? What am I waiting for?”
Yvonne would convince me to join her and a dozen others on a three-valley ATV tour the same day as our balloon ride (though I really think she was just looking for a driver). While it was extremely cold that day, it was a blast, and Yvonne overcame her fear and rode like a (cautiously slow) pro!
A view of Göreme, modernity mixed with the ancient chimneys of Cappadocia.
The chimneys rise everywhere throughout the valley, and yes, we know what you’re thinking, ladies.
I was able to hike the chimneys alone, exploring inside and out without restriction.
Hiking atop the roof of a hillside chimney, the active use of some was still apparent.
Uçhisar Castle offers the best view in all of Earth-bound Cappadocia, unless you happen to hike miles to get there only to be socked in by fog. Luckily, I wasn’t entirely Earth-bound my entire visit.
An ode to my big brother Steve and our road trip from California to Rhode Island when I was still a mere high school lad. Appearing like a desert mirage out of the seemingly endless straightaways of Arizona, we came across Bedrock City, whose existence no one believed (and we began to doubt as well) until the much later days of Al Gore’s intertubes proved its existence.
A view from my cave hotel’s dining room. The left arrow is the entrance to Pigeon Valley, and the right arrow is Uçhisar Castle, which I would hike through and to over the next couple of days.
It was offseason, so my long hikes through Pigeon Valley were devoid of other human beings and filled with amazing vista after amazing vista. Everywhere along the trail I could see “doorways” carved in the mountains by fleeing Christians. The valley was occupied and walked by those Christians, Hittites, Persians, Alexander the Great, Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans – and now by me.
I appreciate the invitation, Mr. Wayne, but I think I’ll pass.
At times I would stop and stand entirely still and hear utter silence other than an occasional chirp, a melting piece of snow dropping from a branch, or a quick whisper of wind. It made me appreciate how the monks of Meteora could live so contentedly amidst such constant silence, and how rare that is in today’s world.
I mentioned that my hike was devoid of other human beings. This, however, was slightly disconcerting. Sure, there are lots of stray dogs in Cappadocia…
…but that’s a big goddam dog. I would later discover that Gray Wolves roam the area (among other large animals) and the print would, in the comfort of my cave hotel room, appear to be a close match, in shape and size.
There are, of course, ways to soothe (fear of) the beast.
A Turkey turkey.
My cave hotel room.
Relax, guys, we’re just friends.

I would leave Turkey amazed by the landmarks and landscape, but equally so by the people themselves. So kind, friendly, and welcoming everywhere I went, exchanging helloes with every stranger I passed. In need of a PCR test to fly to my next destination, I would enter a pharmacy in the muddy-road town of Göreme, seeking directions in the unlikely event a clinic might be nearby. I was asked to wait as the pharmacist made a phone call, asked if now was okay, and when, quite surprised, I answered “of course,” he told me a hospital tech would be here within thirty minutes, and I could wait at the next door coffee shop if I’d like. Ten minutes later a car pulled up with two uniformed hospital employees, and two minutes after that I was PCR’d for $30 USD. None of them could have been more pleasant.

This Wish Tree overlooked Love Valley and some of Cappadocia’s many Fairy Chimneys. Mom couldn’t join me on my balloon ride…
…but she was with me in spirit, and part of that spirit forever remains in the magical landscape of Cappadocia. Happy Birthday Mom!

  

1 Comment

  1. Gail Sjo says:

    You are incredibly brave Peter! Can’t imagine where you get the confidence to explore all these fascinating places. And I am very glad you are sharing your journey because I have learned so much from your descriptions and pictures. Looking forward to your next adventure. Gail

    On Fri, Jan 7, 2022, 8:27 AM Please Feed The Cats While I’m Out wrote:

    > peteredodd posted: ” 16. Turkey Istanbul & Cappadocia This Must Be The > Place. Her name was Olga, and I would meet her on my first morning in the > Old Town neighborhood of Istanbul, a block from my intended destination, > the Hagia Sophia. I’d eaten a wonderful brea” >

    Like

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