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One cold January, my sister and I decided to escape our dreary northern U.S. surroundings and jet off to someplace interesting. Warmth would have been great, but what we really wanted was a cheap escape, so we went online and looked for the lowest fare to the most interesting place we could find. It turned out to be $500 round-trip and the destination was Istanbul, Turkey!

We had about a week to play with, so we decided to fly to Kayseri, a small airport serving the Cappadocia region of Turkey, as soon as our international flight landed in Istanbul. We were tired and at the airport anyway, so this worked out beautifully. Cappadocia is an otherworldly landscape of ancient rock formations in central Turkey. The area is riddled with caves and features bizarre rock towers called fairy chimneys – mushroom-capped pillars formed by wind and water erosion of ancient volcanic material. Just as fascinating as the geologic oddities are the man-made caves, tunnels, and even whole underground cities carved out thousands of years ago, often as religious refuges.

Fairy chimneys in Cappadocia

Fairy chimneys in Cappadocia

Most hotels are cave dwellings; some, like ours, utilize fairy chimneys for the “upstairs” rooms. The rooms are cool and stony, as one might expect, but warmed with Turkish rugs and throws and nice amenities. They were a unique place to stay, although I was quite happy to not be in one of the true underground rooms; I’m way too claustrophobic for that! Area towns such as Goreme, Urgup, and Nevsehir all offer shopping and dining, but none was particularly lively in the dead of winter. We did find a great Turkish bath which was a warm and heavenly diversion in the cold January weather. And luckily, even though it was the off-season, we were still able to fly high above the moonscape and pinnacles in a hot air balloon one early morning. The dawn ride was absolutely freezing, but the views were well worth the frozen toes.

Entrance to our cave hotel room

Entrance to our cave hotel room

Our hot air balloon pilot, Cappadocia

Our hot air balloon pilot, Cappadocia

Ready for take-off, Cappadocia

Ready for take-off, Cappadocia

Back in Istanbul, we hit a minor heat wave (not my usual weather luck, as any co-travelers with me will attest) and enjoyed four days of sightseeing at a balmy 60-degrees. We loved the east-meets-west ambience of this city with Byzantine roots, a lengthy Ottoman history, and moderate Muslim culture today. With my Greek roots, I felt a connection with the city’s early history (and often argued good-naturedly with our wonderful city guide about the origins of things like baklava and the evil eye!). Both the Ottoman period and the subsequent transition from Sultanate rule to a modern, fairly secular democracy today were fascinating parts of a history that is seen in the architecture, government, and culture today.

On the Galata Bridge, Istanbul

On the Galata Bridge, Istanbul

The Golden Horn, Istanbul

The Golden Horn, Istanbul

We did all the main tourist things – the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and Topkapi Palace – but we also did some good aimless rambling along the Bosphorus waterfront, through Beyoglu to Taksim Square, around the ancient Sultanahmet neighborhood (where we stayed), and of course, in the amazing markets – the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market.

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

The Blue Mosque, Istanbul

The Blue Mosque, Istanbul

Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

Nuts or scarves, dates and copper cups, tapestries or jewelry? The choices were wildly varied, enticing and, really, just overwhelming with 60-some blocks of streets filled with thousands of shops under one roof at the Grand Bazaar – one of the largest enclosed marketplaces in the world. Here is where we felt the balance shift firmly toward Asia in this continent-straddling country. Visions of the Silk Road, trading merchants, exotic spices, and magical rugs danced in our heads as we threaded our way through the labyrinthine streets and stalls of the Bazaar and the Spice Market. We seemed to be quite popular with the vendors, but quickly figured out that this had nothing to do with our looks or exotic blonde hair; indeed, anyone with a less-than-local look was pounced upon hungrily by the aggressive shopkeepers. We left Turkey with many delights, both edible and not, and proclaimed our January bargain trip a huge success.

Spice Market shop, Istanbul

Spice Market shop, Istanbul

Grand Bazaar wares, Istanbul

Grand Bazaar wares, Istanbul

Nuts, fruits, and - yep - spices at the Spice Market, Istanbul

Nuts, fruits, and – yep – spices at the Spice Market, Istanbul

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