Our first taste of non-Istanbul Turkey was in Selçuk (pronounced sell-chook). In planning our flight, we didn’t take into account that the next train from the Ismir airport departed only half an hour after our plane landed, and the one following wasn’t for another two hours. But by some miracle, our bags came out quickly, we found the station easily (following signs for Metro and walking for about ten minutes), and got on the correct platform with six minutes to spare. Fifty minutes aboard the pleasant, clean, and modern train took us through lovely agricultural landscapes, with crops including olives, grapes, cabbages, and others we couldn’t recognize at our speed. Interestingly, nearly every building had solar hot water—something we didn’t see at all in Istanbul.
It was late afternoon when we arrived at the charming Humeros Pension, a 19th-century compound elegantly decorated in Turkish rugs and handcrafts. The very friendly innkeeper, Dervish, had good English and was both welcoming and helpful.
After falling in love with our room—another sultan’s palace—we still had time to visit the ruins of the Byzantine St. John the Evangelist Church, built by Emperor Constantine I (4th century C.E.) and expanded by Justinian (6th century) over the grave of Saint John, author of the New Testament’s Revelations. This enormous ruin, currently consisting of a lot of archways and columns, occasionally with lintels across, would be the 7th largest cathedral in the world, if it were fully reconstructed. Despite limited signage, it was still quite interesting. It also afforded excellent views of the beautiful citadel farther up the hill (unfortunately, closed for renovation during our visit) and the Isa Bey Camii (mosque) just below the church, built in a transitional period between the Seljuks and Ottomans.
For dinner, we chose tiny Eyder’s Restaurant, on the main tourist strip, an excellent choice. The food was delicious: lentil soup with chili peppers…yogurt with olive oil and, paprika, and herbs…mixed organic local greens cooked with lemon…and a mushroom and tomato stew for which the cook (the proprietor’s wife) went next door and bought mushrooms. As a bonus, we got to watch a very silly TV game show in Turkish. First, the female contestants had to stack loaded glass teacups and saucers. Then the winner and her husband had to play one-on-one soccer with another couple until one pair scored ten points; the winner got a new car.
After an elegant breakfast befitting our elegant surroundings, we got a ride to the far side of Ephesus (the most-foreign-visited attraction in Turkey outside of Istanbul). One of the best preserved and largest sets of Greek/Roman ruins anywhere, this city once was home to 250,000 souls. Today’s ruins show traces of its former grandeur, including one medium-sized and one huge amphitheater, fountains, baths, several gymnasiums (some quite enormous), and the magnificent Library of Celcus—which must have inspired palace architecture all the way through the 19th century. The Library commemorates the virtues of Wisdom, Virtue, Intelligence, and Knowledge with a series of statues at the front.
The park also includes one of the earliest churches dedicated to the Virgin Mary, who lived out her last years nearby. If the legend is to be believed, St. John came here originally to accompany her. St. Paul also lived here, but we saw no mention of any sites relating either to his tenure or his epistle to the Ephesians.
Walking back 3 km from the ruins along a pleasant tree-lined boulevard, we were treated to good views of the citadel. Just before town really starts, a left turn brought us to the ruins of the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. There wasn’t much left of it, but it was a nice way to spend 20 or 30 minutes—at least a few of them on a marble platform of substantial proportions, surrounded on three sides by water, and with the remnant of a wall around it.
A few more blocks up Kaluncar Street and we arrived at the Seljuk-built (in 1375) Isa Bey Mosque, whose spacious but modest interior had a quiet power. Architecture fans will note that it’s the oldest mosque with a colonnaded courtyard in all of Anatolia. Foodies should not miss the vendor of organic fresh pomegranate juice on the opposite corner (look for the signs that say “bio”). This little market was also the first place we saw onyx for sale.
The next day, after a leisurely breakfast of fresh fruit, cheese, olives, yogurt, hardboiled egg, bakery bread, and other goodies, we departed our lovely hotel and headed back to the train station. Three hours on the train, half an hour on the minibus (which you can catch directly across the street from the railroad station), and we arrived in the tiny, touristy hamlet of Pamukkale. With only two hours of daylight remaining, and a TL 20 admission fee, we saved the travertine park and Hieropolis ruins for the following day. But we took a stroll around the pond, which is right next to the park, and offers dramatic views of the travertine cliffs, along with an assortment of ducks and geese in both familiar and unfamiliar varieties. Pedal boats, some swan-shaped, can be rented. Then we explored the town, which took all of about fifteen minutes, and noted our top dinner choices to check on Trip Advisor.
For some reason, Pamukkale attracts enormous numbers of tourists from Korea, China, and Japan—to the point where several restaurants offer Korean menu items, a couple also have Japanese and Chinese choices, and several more have translated their traditional Turkish menus. However, after reading the reviews, we stuck with pure Turkish. The restaurant we chose, Yuruk Sofrasi, was on the main road rather than the tourist strip, which meant we didn’t have to walk the gauntlet of touts in front of their restaurants. We removed our shoes outside the door and sat at low tables with our legs extended and our feet sticking out. On a Tuesday evening in December, we were the only customers. The owners were watching TV news, on quite loud, and continued to watch as they cooked for us.
Yuruk Sofrasi offers only two types of food: gozleme (Turkish crepes) or barbecue. As vegetarians, the gozeleme was a no-brainer. We shared one filled with spinach and feta, and another with spiced potatoes. Both were quite good, and the wonderfully light crepe (perhaps made in part with buckwheat flour) was tasty. Oddly, the spinach plate was stacked about twice as big as the potato. By sharing, we had plenty to eat. Price for both, with two glasses of tea, was only TL 15.
The next morning after breakfast, our hotelier dropped us at the South (Byzantine) Gate, on the Hieropolis side of the park. Amazingly, the vast park was almost deserted. We sometimes went 20 or 30 minutes between encounters with other travelers. Hieropolis has some beautiful ancient buildings, most notably the amphitheater. Also, it’s really fun to see the juxtaposition of these 2000-year-old buildings and the white cliffs and flowing water of the travertine immediately below. But if you had to choose between here and Ephesus, the clear choice would be Ephesus.
After about two hours exploring the ruins (and lunching in the ruins of Apollo’s temple, which was a pretty cool place for a picnic), we checked out the thermal baths, decided they were too much money for the somewhat nippy weather, and headed into the travertine section.
Shoes off here! And for good reason. In some places, you’re in water six or eight inches deep. We kept rolling and rerolling our pants legs up every time one of them slipped down. One of the slippery spots was precariously close to a cliff edge, but we kept our balance We were pleasantly surprised that most of the way was neither too slippery, nor too rough—though there were a few spots of each. It looked like the walking would be very uncomfortable, but actually, it was quite pleasant. Our feet were pretty cold though, by the time we emerged about 40 minutes later.
The problem is, once you’ve done the park and walked the town, there isn’t a lot else to do, at least in December. We could have prolonged our stay in the park by paying admission either to the baths, the museum, or both, but neither seemed worth it. So now we had a few hours of down time for a leisurely dinner before we caught the dolmus (minibus) to Denizli for an overnight bus to Goreme, in Capadoccia (as it’s mostly spelled outside the region).
This time, we chose a Japanese-owned eatery serving Japanese, Korean, Turkish, and Ameritalian fare. The Japanese dishes we chose were decidedly homestyle, decently prepared but without much pizzazz.
The bus turned out to be quite a culture experience. We chose the second row, but when the conductor checked our tickets, he moved us to the front row—telling the occupant he evicted that we were tourists (one Turkish word Shel could pick out). We were the only foreigners on the bus. Dina speculated that they were worried we’d miss our stop. Then he made us put our shoes back on, which we’d taken off assuming we were going to bed. Unfortunately, we were both wearing our large, heavy hiking shoes, since our smaller ones fit much more easily in our suitcases! Not happy about another nine overnight hours wearing them (even untied and loosened) without a break. Note to future travelers: keep a lightweight pair of slippers in your carry-on bag!
After an hour’s drive, we made the first of several half-hour rest breaks, and then when we started up again, they served drinks and snacks (repeated again at 1:30 a.m., following the second stop). Then, finally, they turned off the lights and let us sleep for 2-1/2 hours.
We’d been wondering why we had seen so little evidence of nightlife; surely the Turks don’t just stay home every night. Tonight we found that at least some of the men head out to party at our 1 a.m. rest area, which was hopping, with neon lights blazing and hundreds of men gathered in animated conversations over tea and cigarettes in the cafeteria, the sweet shop the courtyard, and the (nonsmoking) mosque. A wild little slice of Turkish life we’d have missed if we’d chosen to fly.
Arriving in Cappadocia (as most of the locals spell it) at 6:30 a.m., we settled into the Goreme Mansion Cave Hotel—which was a bit challenging, because nobody seemed to know where it is. But the hotel owner knew what bus we were arriving on, and showed up to take us the very short distance.
Like the vast majority of hotels in Goreme (pronounced geh-REM-ey), the Mansion Hotel is a cave. Most of buildings in and around the town are “fairy chimneys,” ranging from close to the ground to many stories high. Hundreds were used as churches in the first millennium after Christ, and quite a few still have a lot of the artwork from that period—restored, in some cases; just as discovered and barely perceptible, in others. The town and surrounding area feels sprightly and magical, and even in quiet December, is welcoming plenty of tourists. It’s a really fun place to walk around.
For organized activities, numerous travel agents sell balloon rides as well as the Red or Green Tour. The Red Tour stays fairly close to Goreme, visiting the Goreme Open Air Museum, several of the nearby valleys with good views of the chimneys, and a pottery village. We felt pretty confident that we could do those highlights on our own. But the Green Tour is much more ambitious, and without renting a car, would be the only practical way to see many of the sights. There’s also a Blue Tour with a route that goes about the same distance as the green, in a different direction—but no one seemed to be paying it much attention. Since we hike every day at home, we chose the green, which included the abandoned underground village of Derinkyu (some of which is 50 meters below the surface), the cave-based Selima Monastery, a traditional Turkish lunch, a 3.5 km walk through the canyon of the Ihlara Valley, and several photo stops.
But first, a day on our own.
The first of several walks we took that day was to the Goreme Open Air Museum, about fifteen minutes walk uphill from the main square. This a large complex of cave dwellings and churches, including two where the frescos have been spectacularly restored, and many where weathered remnants of the ancient Byzantine art can be seen. In retrospect, it might have been better not to make it our first stop, as our timing (10 a.m) put us there at the same time as all the Red Tour groups; it was teeming with tourists, including groups from Korea, China, and Germany. Still, there were far less tourists than in the summer, and plenty of room to see everything. We spent about an hour and a half climbing up and down stairs, poking around, and taking photos where permitted (which did not include the interiors of the two restored churches). The museum has plenty of bilingual signs and it was pretty easy to get a sense of the place. Admission: TL15.
After a tea break, we turned at the sign for El Nazar (The Nazarine) Church and explored a small piece of the hiking trail through Zemi Valley, one of many places where you can get up close and personal with the fairy chimneys without having to pay. Some of them are quite enormous, dwarfing anyone standing in their shadow.
When we went out again, we planed to head toward Çavusin, the pottery village. But both the sun and the temperature were dropping rapidly, so we settled for a half-hour in the back streets of Goreme, which afforded plenty more opportunity to see cave houses. For dinner, we tried a “pottery kebab,” served flaming in a metal urn topped with foil. The more authentic version would have been a clay pot that would be broken to serve us, but this was impressive and dramatic.
The following day, we were booked on a balloon flight. However, there was too much fog, and after keeping us waiting in the snow for an hour, they called it off. Later, one of the pilots told us the crew was prepared to fly, but the civil aeronautic administration refused permission.
So instead, we switched our bookings and did the Green Tour. And luck was with us in the form of an excellent guide, Sirkhan, who filled us in on a lot of local lore and even skipped the obligatory shopping trip. Much of what we saw turned out not only to be difficult to get to if you didn’t know your way around, but also nearly absent of any signage. So doing an organized tour turned out to be a very good choice. Among the highlights: the very evocative Selime monastery, whose 5th-century cave community housed a school, a church, a large public kitchen with the ceiling still blackened from smoke from the tandoor ovens.
Visitors to Cappadocia will hear that this is where the first Star Wars movie was filmed. But according to Sirkhan, the Turkish government refused permission, so instead, the filmmakers photographed the landscape extensively and recreated it in Tunisia.
We also really enjoyed the hike at Ihlara, where we dropped down several hundred feet to a poplar- and willow-lined canyon floor along the Melendir River, with massive buttes and canyon walls reminiscent of places like Zion and Bandelier National Parks in the American Southwest. The light was just right as we walked through, bathing the basalt and the river in a golden glow.
Lunch in a small village afforded the opportunity to try another new dish: a casserole of mushrooms, vegetables and cheese served with bulgur.
For dinner, we chose the beautiful Goreme Restaurant (Muze Caddesi #18), with a vast high ceiling, kilim cushions and rugs, and a very friendly, English-speaking owner, Hassan Serinsu. This was the first place we’d seen a vegetarian version of manti (Turkish ravioli), which was served under yogurt and tomato sauce. This restaurant also had a “world plates” menu, from which we chose a Chinese-inspired spicy noodle dish. Both Turkish and “world” dishes were offered in vegetarian versions whenever possible. The two main courses and drinks (fresh-squeezed orange juice and an Efes—the only commercial beer native to Turkey) cost only about $20 (TL 41). We went back the next night for unusually flavored falafel —I tasted sumac, I’m pretty sure, and maybe a hint of cinnamon—a dish of baked mushrooms with garlic, butter, and mozzarella-style cheese, a side of rice, and drinks, as well as a long wi-fi session after dinner. Oddly enough, the bill was once again TL 41. On our way out each night, the waiter poured copious amounts of hand sanitizer from a beautiful engraved metal vase.
We also tried (elsewhere) another famous Turkish drink called salap, a thick, tapioca-like hot beverage made from orchids. But my favorite is still the amazing fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice, followed closely by the fresh-squeezed orange. Ayran, a drinkable yogurt, is third, followed by Turkish coffee. No one drinks tap water here; the Turks brew themselves very strong black tea (spelled çai and pronounced chai) with a ton of sugar, and to tourists they serve either Lipton or apple tea—usually from a powdered mix that’s mostly sugar, (I checked one brand in the supermarket; it didn't even contain any apples.) The markets offer a bewildering array of herbal blends, but we didn’t encounter many people actually drinking them. Bottled spring water is inexpensive, readily available, and tasty; if you know where to look, a single lire ($0.50 US) gets a liter and a half as of December 2013, even in on the overpriced streets of touristy Old City Istanbul. One of our hotels did offer bagged herbal teas in choice of sage or apple. The sage was quite delicious and the apple was a big improvement over the instant mix.
Our last full day in Cappadocia was our best. We got our balloon ride! And it was glorious! Riding in a hot air balloon has been on Shel’s “bucket list” for decades, but we always held back because it’s quite expensive in our area. Here, at least in the off season, not only was it half the price of home, but we got to fly over the fairy chimneys, on a beautiful clear day with a magical snow cover. About 30 balloons went up, each holding between 10-30 passengers, standing tightly packed in a wicker basket. The excitement as the balloons slowly inflated was palpable, and even more so as they gained enough pressure to go vertical. You don’t realize, looking from the ground at a balloon in flight, how massive they are; the fabric envelope stretched high above our heads. With so many in the air at once, it felt like being part of very special club. It was so exciting we didn’t notice how cold we were until after we were back on the ground with the adrenaline wearing off. Shel wore thick socks and boots, and Dina had alpaca socks over a regular pair, but we still got chilled. We went back to our hotel to thaw out, literally putting our feet on the heater for a while.
Our next major activity was walking the Pigeon Valley Trail from Goreme to Uchisar, a hilltop village less than 3 km away. Most of the trail is flat, but toward the end, it climbs steeply, and then when the trail ends, Uchisar is still towering above. The climb into town isn’t as bad as it looks, though.
Once in town, we passed several very fancy restaurants and hotels as we continued upward on Goreme Street. By luck, we chose the House of Memories restaurant, where we had one of the best meals of our whole trip. The owner, Byram Tug, was extremely gracious and spoke more English than many people we’ve met. He apologized that he had only limited choices today but told us what he could prepare, and then made it to order: red beans in a tomato-olive oil sauce, gozleme (stuffed pancakes) with cheese and spinach, çacik (tzaziki—thick yogurt/cucumber dip with herbs), and bulgar salad, followed by a very generous portion of excellent baklava.
Walking back down the trail took much less time than walking there, and we encountered the only person we saw in either direction: a Chinese woman who told us that several people had tried to discourage her from the walk, between the two or three inches of snow and the wild dogs. At home, we hike in that much snow frequently, but here, people are not at all used to it. In fact, our guide on the Green Tour told us it was his first time ever hiking in the snow in five years of leading tours, and he was shocked at how easy and beautiful it was. There are dogs all over Goreme, and some of them hiked with us for extended periods. But they seemed friendly, well-fed, and not at all threatening.
Getting back well before sunset, we had plenty of time for shopping. We found that the Goreme craft shops offer excellent value, and we even found one where nobody bothered us while we looked. So we looked a lot, and bought a lot, from Galeri Has on the main square (El Sanatlari Carsisi 24)—paying all of 73 TL for a drop-dead-gorgeous tablecloth (that was 45 of it), two hats, a pair of earrings, and an elegant little change purse with embroidery. Later, we saw a similar tablecloth but in a less beautiful color, for about 2/3 of what we’d paid. Oh, well! We still felt like we got a very good deal.
One block past the mosque, we noticed a restaurant patio with lanterns made of hollowed out dried gourds, with bits of colored glass inserted into holes drilled in the exterior. These were quite pretty, and different from anything I’ve ever seen. We chatted up the owner, and he told us that he started making them as a hobby, to decorate a restaurant where he cooked. Customers started asking to buy them and he made it into a part-time business. Now that he owns his own restaurant, he’s pretty busy but still sells a few each week. He even gives classes in how to make them. I suggested he put up a website to sell the plans, but he wasn’t interested. Before I could get his name or business card, he first got a phone call and then a large group walked into the restaurant. So, not wanting to interfere with his paying work, we exited without his contact information.
We had one more beautiful hike the following morning, with all the trees and shrubs glowing magnificently in the early morning frost—it was so cold that the section of Dina’s hair nearest her face actually froze over with her breath-moisture. And then, sadly, it was time to catch the airport shuttle and head back to Istanbul.
Shel Horowitz is the founder of Business For a Better World. His latest book is Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green. D. Dina Friedman is the author of two young adult novels: Escaping Into the Night and Playing Dad’s Song.
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