Monday, September 27, 2010

Turkey Pt. 2- Highs and Lows

Back on my own I decided to head east to Kas, a small fishing town, for the sole purpose of kayaking to the sunken city of Kekova.

Kas was really cute and really hilly (which I wish I knew before passing on the hotels free pickup from the bus station), but the sunken city the next day was a bit of a letdown.

They claim there are Byzantine ruins submerged 6m below the sea along the shore of the island, the result of a series of earthquakes in the 2nd century. Where were the underwater mosaics? I didn't see a one!

Good thing there were some cool Germans, a Brit, Malaysian and Coloradan on the trip to add fun and give me playmates for the rest of my time in Kas, enjoying Turkish Independence Day.

On the plus side, we did get to visit Kalekoy, a fishing village on the ancient site of Simena, which is only accessible by boat (or kayak in our case). It was very charming, with the ruins of sunken Lycian tombs- that were actually there (like the Egyptians, they believed they needed goodies for the afterlife) and a Crusader fortress.

I also got to try Turkish ice cream, which is best described as gummier than ours and delivered with all sort of antics that make you feel pretty foolish, but funny--- games really meant to amuse kids but that doesn't stop them from poking you in the nose with ice cream or handing you the cone and making the ice cream disappear.

Before catching my next 14 hour overnight bus, I spent the day shopping in the town's trendy boutiques and enjoying the mezes at Bahce Restaurant, the first spot in all these months that I actually couldn't get a table the night before (making me want to go even more). Time at the Hideaway Hotel's pool and rooftop with views of the sea, not to mention the hospitality of the owners, really topped off the experience.

Cappadocia is tops of most people's lists (except the crazy sailor who told me to skip it and "just watch a video")-- it is the land of "fairy chimneys and valleys of cascading cliffs" formed when Erciyes Dagi erupted. Think Star Wars! Over time underground cities and cave churches were added to the landscape.

My friend Ambien and I arrived in Uchisar, a favorite of the French and much less touristy than neighboring Goreme, somewhat rested but still in need of a few hours sleep (again, it was too hot to do anything, so don't judge.)

The first step was finding the guesthouse that Gokturk recommended- an artist's house with AMAZING views of the valley. First problem- instead of getting dropped off in town I was dumped along the main road having to guess which way to town (I guessed right). Second obstacle- it is 7am. Third challenge- since I wasn't dropped in the correct place I couldn't find the proper starting point for my directions. Thankfully, after wandering around for a bit, two old Turkish men (right out of central casting) walked me part of the way to the house. I think he probably wanted to kill me as he was hollering at me in Turkish from atop the fairly steep hill and in my Ambien haze I bypassed the house (I quickly realized my mistake).

After the most over-the-top breakfast of 1,000 dishes and a day of rest on my private terrace I motivated for sunset atop the Uchisar Castle for the views of Rose and Pigeon Valleys and the Cappadocia countryside.

The Castle is a tall volcanic-rock outcrop with tons of tunnels and windows, and NO barriers to prevent you from plunging to your death.
Since day 1 was admittedly pretty lazy, I motivated on day 2.

Oy, it was some day! Despite me thinking hiking alone is a bad idea for the last 5 months, the guesthouse owners were very reassuring that the "nice walk" to the neighboring town of Goreme would be no problem (really, hiking in mini Grand Canyon is okay?? You can't get lost?). Yeah, not exactly how I would now put it. Literally, this was the first time I thought I might need that emergency evacuation insurance!

So, my first attempt at the "easy to find" path ended in a cliff--- backtrack (it is hilly remember, but yeah, more good Everest training). The second attempt I figured I needed to get in the valley. Needless to say, I was never quite sure if I was on the right path and at some point figured I had a better shot of finding Goreme than getting back to Uchisar (thank god I looked at that REI compass for the first time ever before leaving or I may have cracked).

The highlight- when I was trying to cross a small cliff with a tiny footpath and the ground started crumbling under my feet (it looked like a MUCH bigger path until I got there). Grab on to something- yeah, that was crumbling too. I was NOT having fun! Now I definitely wasn't going to backtrack. Safely across I just wanted to get to Goreme as the path continued to twist and turn through creeks, orchards, bushes--- can this really be the right path? Finally I exited the jungle to see another human, funny enough a couple from Chicago-- I wanted to hug them! They were also kinda lost.

Goreme does seem to exist just for tourists, but sometimes that makes life easier. While there I visited the Open Air Museum, yet another UNESCO World Heritage site, a cluster of rock cut churches, monasteries and chapels. The cave churches were decorated with frescoes that are in surprisingly good condition and you could really get a sense of how these early Christians lived.

You will be happy to know I caught the local bus back to Uchisar- I learned my lesson on that hike.

But before I left Goreme I booked a hot air balloon ride for the following morning- a "must do" in Cappadocia. It was strange- I seemed to have struck a good bargain without even trying. I am still totally confused why they sold me the ticket so cheaply, making me promise not to tell anyone else what I paid and listing the price on my receipt at 45 euro more than I actually paid. Still looking for the catch.

The next morning I rose with the call to prayer at 4:30am for the balloon trip. The barking dog outside the guesthouse gate totally freaked me out- was he going to be kujo once I unbolted the door (after I figured out how to unbolt the door, that is)? All bark and no bite thankfully. Then there were the chickens to navigate around.

Although I wasn't dying to do the balloon ride, it was really cool. The sun rose over the wacky landscape as our pilot took joy in driving the balloon into crevices, barely missing crashing into the walls, and then higher than all the other balloons. The views were stunning and while I appeared to be the only single person doing what may be deemed a romantic activity, I really enjoyed it.

Since that only occupied me until 8am, what was I to do until my overnight bus to Istanbul?

Well, of course, take various public buses to the
underground city of Derinkuyu, about an hour ride away. It didn't take long to find company for a private tour- the two Aussies at the bus stop in Nevsehir with a map were a dead giveaway ;-)

The underground cities were created in the 6th and 7th centuries by the early Christians (est. 10,000 people) to escape from the Persians and Arabs. This particular city had 6 different levels and room for livestock, cooking, food storage, school, church, a morgue and lots of wine cellars (I guess you need to drink a lot if you are living underground). They also had very advanced systems for keeping the air and water supplies fresh and climate control.

They never used these cities for any great length of time, only when they got the warning signals that were sent by lighting beacons atop the mountains- apparently they could send a warning message from Jerusalem to Constantinople in a matter of hours. It was really very impressive- people were so clever back in the day!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Turkey Pt.1

(Apologies for the long absence, it wasn't me being lazy- China blocks access to Blogger and Facebook, so I was cut off! So, to what I did a month ago....)

It's been ages since I've been on a plane, and even longer since I took a bazaar connection.

Apparently the largest population of Turks outside Turkey is in Germany, hence the cheapest flights, so I flew from Budapest to Hanover, connecting to a 2AM flight to Izmir, Turkey.

I didn't stay in Izmir long, just 2 hours until the train came to take me to Selcuk, home of Ephesus and one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Temple of Artemis.

But before I hit all the ruins I needed a nap and then a quick dolumus (minibus) ride (driving with the side doors wide open to get some air- again, silly me being the cautious American) to Sirince, a cute hill town known for their fruit wines.

For the thousandth time I was called Jennifer Lopez (this time before they even knew my name was Jennifer-- sadly she must be the only American woman people know!), this time by the hospitable waiter who walked me arm-in-arm to sample pretty much every flavor of fruit wine so I could make an informed decision. If memory serves me correctly, blackberry was the winner, paired with a delicious plate of mezes.

Everyone is super friendly in Turkey (well, men- like Zanzibar I am not sure where they hide the women). I began to think I was the only single foreign woman in the country since EVERYONE wanted to chat (and sell me a rug eventually, I am sure). Once while walking down the street one passerby said "hello again"- I guess we met before??

After the heat of the day subsided I trekked to the Basilica of St. John. They claim he wrote his gospel here in 95 AD (wait, that means he must have been very old- I detect a flaw in the story) and his tomb is located within the ruins. It must have been very impressive back in the day.

From Ayasuluk Hill, where the Basilica stood, I spotted the Temple of Artemis, or the one column that remains of the 127 that once stood, making it the largest temple in its day , even surpassing the Parthenon. I had intended to get closer, but then I walked to Ephesus and opted for the crazy overcrowded dolumus back to town.
It seems I may be the only one that walks the 4km to Ephesus since I didn't see anyone else (often I question my decisions when I don't see other tourists). As Lonely Planet said, the first stretch was nice and then the end not so much- thankfully I got a lift towards the end from a minibus driver who took pity on me while on his way to pick up a group.

Although not a big ruin girl, I did enjoy Ephesus, funny enough with an older Belarusian couple from NJ that I met while offering to take their picture (it is my new thing, I offer to take their photo and have met all sorts of random people that way- I'm friendly girl ;-)

Ephesus is the best preserved classical city in the eastern Mediterranean and was a prosperous city in 600 BC. and a pilgrimage site going back to 800 BC. It has a Great Theater built between 41-117 AD that holds 25,000 people and may have been the start of stadium seating- each row is pitched more steeply than the one below to give the best views.

The Library of Celsus, which held 12,000 scrolls at one point, also had an interesting architectural feature- the base of the facade is convex and the central columns and capitals are larger making the library appear bigger than it really is. Clever, eh?

Apparently they also have a house where the Virgin Mary stayed late in her life, but I didn't make it there.

I did however see the storks going in for a landing on the Byzantine Aqueduct outside my hotel while enjoying some lentils with the owners of the guesthouse (they were so nice!) and listening to the evening call to prayer (which I strongly prefer to the morning prayer at 4:30am!)

The next morning the journey continued with a 3 1/2 hour bus ride to Pamukkale. It was cool!!!!

Again I waited for the heat of mid day to pass, while lounging by the pool, before I made my way up to the travertines and Hierapolis, the large spa city above town.

The travertines were created when warm mineral water cooled and deposited calcium as it cascaded over the cliff edge. In order to preserve them you have to walk barefoot which is a little painful at times but well worth it since it is like nowhere I have been- like a giant white goopy sand castle with pools you can sit in coated in mud.

But that isn't even the best part! I spent 2 hours lounging around the Antique Pool, a thermal bath with submerged sections of original fluted columns. I found a nice column to lay upon in the 36 degree water and even an American to chat with (they are rare here)- she had all sorts of good Istanbul advice having lived there now for years as a university professor.

The ancient city of Hierapolis, with its amphitheater, baths, etc., was an afterthought after the pool and travetines.

Like Selcuk, I had lots of new friends here too, but you will be pleased to know that I did turn down the motorcycle tour to the top of a mountain with some random guy on the street. Was funny, this time I was greeted as "New York" by another person I apparently also met earlier. Too funny! (No, I'm still not buying a rug!)

Even funnier, the kid who appeared to run the bus company (not sure about child labor laws here- there seem to be a lot of 12 year old boys working on the buses). He was seriously a 55 year old man stuck in a 12 year old body giving me advice should people try to cheap me- priceless!

Fast forward many hours on various sized buses and I am in Marmaris on the Turkish Riviera (also known as the Turquoise Coast) about to embark on an 8 day sailing course with Sail Catamaran Turkey. It was a spur of the moment decision to sail and I found the company in one post on Tripadvisor (my bible) that I could never find again.

As it turns out, I was their first US client- go figure.

If you didn't already figure it out, it is called the Turquoise Coast since the water is the most amazing shades of blue-- spectacular!

Levent and Ayca, the couple who own the business, are absolutely lovely and kinda famous in Turkey for circumnavigating the globe and writing a book about their journey.

As it turns out, I was surrounded by Turkish fame- one of the other sailors in training was a famous former football (aka soccer) star in Turkey (and so much nicer than American athletes).

Being the only native English speaker definitely had its pluses and minuses. I met some really great people, but I missed out on a lot of the conversations and drama taking place around me in Turkish (and maybe the lesson on how to anchor the boat ;-). On the next to last day I finally clued in when an argument broke out and all I could understand was the word "Jennifer" every now and then- uh oh, I think maybe I unknowingly befriended the wrong (maybe crazy) sailor. :-(

Thankfully they took pity on me, especially Gokturk, and went out of their way to speak English every now and then which I really appreciated!

Either way, I was able to visit some really lovely spots on the Mediterranean, sleeping under the stars (it was too hot in the cabin), enjoying some good fish over LONG dinners (they really have to consolidate the dessert and coffee courses) and sampling Raki, their unofficial national drink similar to Ouzo (and equally anise-flavored and icky).

The highlight was probably when we docked in Selimiye where I did a little shopping, drank super tasty lemonade and had the most amazing meal. Funny, it seems the way to order in these parts is to barge in the kitchen and pick what looks good. I found it bazaar- can you imagine going into a kitchen in the US?

Levent also led us on three nice hikes (or climbs might be a better description as you can see in the photo) and we all had the scratches from the rocks and prickly shrubs as proof. No, it was worth it for the views and the castle at the top one day, plus I needed the training for Everest.

At the end of the week I passed the test for my beginners sailing certificate and actually kinda know a few things, except my knot skills which are lacking despite Gokhan's best efforts. Feel free to quiz me.

I also happily made a few new Turkish friends :-)

Thursday, September 2, 2010

A Little Buda, A Lot of Pest

In a little over 3 hours on the fast train I was in Budapest, Hungary for five whole nights in one place (yes, it does get exhausting moving to a new bed every night or two!).

My start in Budapest was not great-- it seemed a little Ruskie for my liking, complete with the dilapidated train station, no ATM and no one that could tell me how to find one through the construction outside (I don't want to walk 3 steps out of my way with backpack), a hard to find metro and then a broken ticket machine--- yes, even new mellow me was frustrated.

But then I arrived at Second Home Hostel and from then on fell in love with Budapest. It is an amazing city--- not as sparkling as Vienna- a much cooler, grittier version, with obvious remnants of the communist days, like the adorable, old, yellow trolley cars (they have new ones too, but they have no charm) and the not so friendly locals.

My first full day here happened to be my b-day, celebrated at the traditional Hungarian bath, Szechenyi, soaking with the locals and tourists in the indoor and outdoor thermal pools of various temperatures and features (locals playing chess while in the water, swimming, turbo jets, etc.). Follow that up with a massage--- ah, nice!

After polishing off the Andrassy and Hero's Square/City Park walking tours and talking to the fam (the highlight being Angelo's singing) I decided I would treat myself to a nice dinner at a restaurant decorated like a 70's communist cafe- the duck was delicious. And, just when I finished my entree, three guys sat next to me and invited me to join them for a glass of wine. My phone kept buzzing so I explained to one that it was my b-day (I felt rude on the phone) and next thing I knew I was embarrassed beyond belief by basically a firework display that seriously lasted for 5 minutes! (I was thankful my back was to the restaurant.)

The next day I tempted fate and tried sushi in a land locked country- yes, maybe not the best idea but I was really craving it and I didn't get sick, so it all worked out.

Obviously the perfect post sushi activity is the House of Terror, a surprisingly good museum in the building that housed the Arrow Cross (the Gestapolike enforcers of Nazi-occupied Hungary) and the AVO and AVH secret police (the KBG-type wing of the Soviet satellite government). Both regimes tortured and killed their Hungarian subjects in the basement of this building, with the 3,200 murdered commemorated on the entry wall next to a Soviet tank like the ones that rolled into Budapest to squash the 1956 Uprising.

Torture inspired me to treat myself to a very expensive tea and dessert at the opulent New York Cafe, an over the top mix of Neo-Baroque and Neo-Renaissance-- they seemed to like to mix and match different styles is all their buildings, but it work for them.

Another "must do" is apparently the Opera House. Lucky for me, there were two Budafest performances left so I got to see Il Trovatore performed again (for a bargain price). The building is quite grand and gild-a-rific (Franz Josef said it couldn't be bigger than the opera house in Vienna, so they found a loophole- make the interior grander instead). I had a seat in a box- for some reason my box had 4 people and then neighboring one was a woman alone so I asked if she minded if I moved over- unexpectedly she was not so welcoming, but then agreed reluctantly when I think she realized it made her look like at total bitch (she was from South Beach, surprise, surprise!)

The next morning I was up and out bright and early (a rarity) to get to Parliament before all the English tours sold out (damn, why didn't I bring my EU passport, yet another museum free for them). I don't think the sense of urgency was really necessary but I was glad I went since the building was stunning inside and out.

Budapest's Parliament, built between 1885 and 1902 to celebrate the Hungarian millennium year of 1896 (there was a lot built for this celebration it seems, including the Millennium Underground, the oldest subway on the continent), is the second largest parliament building in Europe (it is a couple meters longer than London). They are very proud that it was built with nearly all Hungarian materials (just a few marble columns from Sweden) and 84lbs of gold.
On view are the famous crown with the crooked cross which was a gift from Pope Sylvester II in 1000 (that oddly the US kept safe in Fort Knox for a time) and the now unused chamber for the House of Lords (they got rid of them) with the cigar holders outside. I highly recommend!

Another walking tour, this time of Leopold Town and Pest Town Central. Highlights, other than Parliament, were:

1) St. Istvan's Basilica which interestingly does not have the standard Jesus on the cross over the alter and creepily has the right hand of St. Istvan on display (this 1000 year old relic crossed the line to gross!)

2) The flag with the center cut out, where the communist seal was inserted by the Soviets, commemorating the 1956 Uprising when the communist police and Soviet troops opened fire on demonstrators from rooftops. Sadly, there are tons and tons of failed Hungarian uprisings- they didn't seem to be very good at overthrowing any regime.

3) Liberty Square was pretty, despite the controversial Soviet War Memorial (they did liberate them in April '45, but then their fate wasn't so great), with ornate apartment buildings from the late 1800's. The US Embassy is also on this square and even I am starting to hate us since we block off huge areas around the building making it very hard to get around.

4) Historic McDonalds- the first one behind the Iron Curtain (they no longer have Cherry McFlurries :-(

5) The Grand Market Hall- well, pretty much like most markets selling food and tourist stuff--- a lot of paprika in this case.

6) Parisi Udvar Gallery- a hidden gallery with lovely woodwork, mosaics and stained glass dome that used to house fine shops and is now basically empty and in disrepair, like much of Budapest's beautiful buildings covered in soot (there are major renovation projects underway).

Good thing I quit touring after a late lunch (where I sampled their fruit soup- eh, not my thing) because I was out LATE with my b-day buddies. The night started with drinks in an outdoor courtyard, then some violin playing at a small Hungarian restaurant, more drinks at a really cool hidden bar, dancing to god knows what in an underground bar that used to be the "National Ditch" (an aborted construction pit) and then more bars (I think).

Seriously, we could buy huge buildings for a bargain price since many of these bars were inside courtyards of huge, empty buildings. From the outside it looked like nothing and then you walk through a random door and into these amazing spots with DJ's, cool art (aka graffiti) and whatnot.

That 4am evening didn't help my efforts to get to Buda, but I was down to my last full day and needed to make it across the river (I couldn't pull another Salzburg and skip it).

In fact, I didn't really love Buda all that much, other than the views of Pest. I quickly ran through the Castle Hill walking tour, stopping at Matthias Church (which was at least different from the other zillion churches I've seen the last couple months) and Fisherman's Bastion before making the very strange decision to go to the Hospital in the Rock museum (at the expense of the more obvious choices of the National Gallery or History Museum, both housed in the palace).

The Hospital in the Rock was an underground network of hospital and bomb shelter corridors from WWII and the Cold War. They had waxy figures to add color, but it was actually just weird. The best part was the very Ruskie looking cape I got to wear since it is chilly in underground tunnels.

Given my late start I really didn't have time for museums and culture, I needed to get to Rudas Baths, at traditional Turkish bath that is only open to women on Tuesdays. There I spend an hour going from pool to pool- warm to hot to cold to cool, and so on. I am not exactly sure the proper way to operate these baths and the Hungarian women are not particularly helpful.

That night Second Home cooked dinner for the guests (I didn't get there in time for any lesson), which was so nice and good to have a mellow evening with some of the other travelers I had gotten to know a little over the past few days.

Last day and I had to hit a few things in Pest before my night flight. Really I just wanted to get my hair done, but I found no bargains to be had so figured I would wait until my next stop.

So, in honor of Laura, I went to the Holocaust Memorial Center which was honestly just too text heavy. I have a MUCH better understanding of the plight of the Jews in Hungary where 600,000 perished at the hands of the Nazis- one out of every 10 victims of the Holocaust!

On my walk back I did pop into the Applied Arts Museum for a quick glance-- as the guidebook said, the building inside and out is a sight to be seen. Interestingly it was inspired by the Indian dynasty known for the Taj Mahal with white stucco arches and columns inside and a green tiled roof outside.

Since my hair was to remain looking crappy, the rest of my time was spent at a western style shopping mall where I was actually able to buy some supplies for upcoming adventures, including sailing gloves, a surprise in a land locked country (stay tuned for my next update to see why!)