Turkish Delights: The Cultural and Historical Medley of Turkey–Istanbul, Cappadocia and the Izmir Region
“Turkish Delights: The Cultural and Historical Medley of Turkey–Istanbul, Cappadocia and the Izmir Region,” Ithaca Journal, Elmira Star-Gazette and Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin, May 3, 2014, 1-2D, http://www.ithacajournal.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2014306060068
All photos by Marcia Jacobson
Blue Mosque, Istanbul
I reached back in my memory and thought of Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi and other sites that we saw 18 years ago, and asked my wife, Marcia Jacobson, if it was time to revisit Turkey. After we concurred, we also agreed that this time we had to include Cappadocia and classical sites near the Aegean — and that meant the Izmir environs.
We chose Turkey for our 2014 spring break, booked an 11-night private tour with Dos Plumas travel and bought our own transatlantic airfare.
Turkey is having political ructions, with a prime minster, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is feuding with Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic cleric who used to be his ally. Erdogan seems to have lost the confidence of a significant part of the population, especially the young people who find him autocratic and corrupt. (For an in-depth analysis of the political situation, see the recent article in the New York Review of Books, Christopher de Bellaigue, “Turkey Goes Our of Control,” 6:6, April 3, 2014, 18-22.)
Turkey is a complex country politically with a rich culture, European, Asian, and Middle Eastern crosscurrents, and wonderful historical sites representing the diverse groups that have ruled here, stunningly beautiful scenery and bright young people. We not only learned a great deal, but also had for most of the trip warm sunny weather.
While one cannot predict the future, I felt that Turkey, was not only quite striking, a must-see for both experienced and beginning travellers, but also quite safe for tourists.
As veterans of the outbreak of the so-called Arab Spring, which erupted during our late December 2010 Tunisia visit a few years ago, we were ready for excitement, especially because local elections occurred the first Sunday we we there, and there had been significant demonstrations shortly before our March 26, 2014 arrival. We found some trepidation on the part of Turks and visitors about the local election Sunday, March 30.Twitter and YouTube were jammed while we were there, but we encountered no real trouble and felt comfortable during our entire Turkey visit.
We loved our return to this wonderful historic city where we had spent several days in the late 1990s. Istanbul had many more tourists than 16 yeas ago, but relatively few Americans due to the current political turmoil. While we did have some rain, we saw tulips and hyacinths in bloom beautifying every section of Istanbul that we visited.
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
Our well-located Hagia Sophia Hotel in the center of the historic center gave us access to the Hippodrome — the center of Roman, Byzantine, and then Ottoman life — the astounding mosaics in the Hagia Sophia (once a church, then a mosque, now a museum), the majestic Blue Mosque, and Topkapi Palace, the luxurious palace where Ottoman Sultans lived for 400 years and now a museum. Indeed, we had a partial view of the Hagia Sophia from our hotel room and a better view from the breakfast room. This area is more touristy than I remembered with many “tourist menu” restaurants, but after a full day with our guide, we limited out dinners to this area and, with some help, found some reasonably decent restaurants.
Bosphorus from Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
One splendid Istanbul day began with a visit to Topkapi followed by a two-hour boat ride on the Bosphorus. At Topkapi, do not miss the magnificent jeweled dagger than was the focus of Jules Dassin’s film Topkapi. On our prior visit, we took an all-day ride up the Bosporus to the Black Sea, and if you have another day, I recommend it. You can get off the boat at several villages, explore a little and then get back on.
Other highlights included the Spice Market, the Grand Bazaar, the beautiful Yeni Cami mosque, the Basilica Cistern, the archeological museum and the Istanbul Library. Last time we saw the astonishingly beautiful mosaics at Cora Church (now a museum) and were sorry to miss them this time.
Istanbul is a fabulous walking city. On the same day, we enjoyed walking in the once Jewish section called Balat, then we walked around Taksim square, the site of serious political demonstrations in the past year. Later, we walked to the Galata tower, dating from the 14th century and offering panoramic views from its top, before taking a ferry to the Asian side, where we walked some more.
That there were two synagogue bombings in November 2003, killing 27 people, means that special arrangements need to be made for synagogue visits.
Dos Plumas did not do well on Jewish Istanbul, and cannot be recommended for this part of an Istanbul visit. While Afrida is the oldest synagogue in Istanbul, I would pass on it because the rude hosts allow you to see and learn very little. We spent 10 minutes or so in this synagogue where we were treated more unpleasantly than we have ever been treated in a synagogue, church or mosque.
Formerly a synagogue, the Jewish museum is really a cultural center to inform visitors about the traditions and history of Turkish Jewry. We saw three other synagogues from outside. But unlike many other tourists with other companies, we did not visit the interior of the still-functioning Ashkenazi Synagogue — which was one of those bombed — near the Galata tower. There are now about 20,000 Jews left in Turkey, 18,000 in Istanbul of a 14,000,000 population there and 76,000,000 in the entire county.
Upon arriving by plane to Cappadocia, we saw stunning topography with beautiful natural rock formations created by the erosion and weathering of ash left by now-dormant volcanoes. With the sun shining, the next day we toured the Goreme open-air museum with monasteries and small churches cut into the volcanic rock during Christian period. These former churches contain striking frescoes dating from 9th to 12th century and in some cases even earlier. The entire Goreme valley is a UNESCO world heritage site.
Fresco in Cave Church in the Red Valley, Cappadocia
Our final day in Cappadocia was a beautiful sunny morning with temperatures in the mid-60s. We took a fairly rigorous and beautiful 3.5-mile hike in the “red valley” — red for the rock color — amidst the volcanic rocks cave dwellings, and some churches dating back to the 6th century. We also visited Kaymakli, one of several underground cities where various peoples dating back to 2000 BC hid from persecution.
During our three nights in Cappadocia, we stayed near a town famous for pottery: Avanos. After dinner one night, we attended a whirling dervish performance — really, a religious ceremony by a branch of Sufism — where the 10 performers outnumbered the audience of seven. The performance was held in a beautiful old caravanserie (a kind of roadside inn for travellers in the time of the Silk Road).
The Izmir Region
View of Sirince, near Izmir
After an early morning flight from Cappadocia that lasted little more than an hour, we arrived in Izmir. We stayed four nights in a charming hotel (Nisanyan House) overlooking Sirince, a small quaint village of 500 outside Izmir, which we explored the day we arrived and where we had a few meals.
The highlight of our sightseeing in the Izmir region was Ephesus. We
Ephesus with Library facade in the background
While Ephesus dates back before the Greeks, most of the remarkably preserved ruins date to Roman times. Ephesus boasted fine boulevards, an immense theatre, enormous private homes inhabited by the privileged leaders, and the well-preserved façade of the Library of Celsus. We spent several hours steeping ourselves in ancient history. It was a privilege to see this astonishing site. After Ephesus, we also visited the ruins of a huge church build on site of St. John’s grave. Both earthquakes and regime changes over history have played an important role in damaging these sites.
Calcium deposits in Pamulkkle
The next day we also focused on Roman ruins, notably a long six-hour round-trip drive to see the thermal springs at Hieropolis and the layers of white calcium carbonate of at nearby Pamukalle. On our last full day in the Izmir region, we focused on the Greek ruins at Prienne followed by a brief beach stop on the Adriatic — too cold for swimming — before an early Sunday departure. While there are other archeological sites in the area, we felt we had absorbed our quota.
If you go
Group tours can be fun and economical, although spending two weeks with your new best friends can be wearing. Private tours are far more efficient although more expensive — we paid $9,800 plus air fare for our tour — but you do twice as much because you eliminate waiting for other people to shop and getting everyone organized at each stop. This allows you to do in 11 nights what perhaps a group tour might take 15 nights to do.
Moderate-priced group tours provide lunches and dinners that are often mediocre. If you go on a tour with an upscale company or take a university or museum tour, group meals will be better but still homogenized to meet the needs of an elderly clientele who may not be adventurous eaters.
On the whole, we were pleased with Dos Plumas Travel, especially with our exceptional guides, able drivers and Mercedes vans. While the trip was well organized, the company is not the most generous in terms of what they provide in terms of paying fees for museums, etc. and the Jewish Istanbul tour was disappointing and poorly and stingily arranged.
Indeed, throughout the trip, everything not on the ”program” is considered an extra to be paid for by the client. I was embarrassed and dismayed to be asked to pay extra lira at several of the sites we visited.
In the past, I felt that if I hired a personal guide, we could within reason go where we wanted. I was particularly troubled because we paid for this trip with a dollar that had strengthened considerably; indeed, when this happened on a prior private trip to the Balkans, the company we used had voluntarily refunded some money. That the American owner, Jim Reynolds, is now living in the U.S. may be a problem in terms of keeping up the highest standards.
The dollar is strong against the Turkish lire, which has dropped more than 20 percent in recent months, but has come back a little since the March 30th election.
Our hotels were selected by Dos Plumas travel, and that company’s Cappadocia and Izmir choices were a tad idiosyncratic and inconsistent. Keep in mind the term “boutique hotel” is elastic and that such a hotel can be charming without meeting international hospitality standards.
In Istanbul, the well-located Hagia Sophia in the historical district is a good four-star hotel. The hotel provided a nice buffet breakfast; when we asked for Turkish coffee and fresh juice, they accommodated us without extra charge. In fact at this hotel, annoying little charges — such as those for extra bottled water — will be waived if you ask.
Sira Cave Hotel in Uchisar, Cappadocia has several of its 12 rooms in underground caves that were once private homes. We were in a two story lodging carved into the rocks with the bottom story bedroom in a windowless room. It was a unique experience but too many little things needed attention: the electric lights were not reliable, the door key was difficult to work, the bathtub drain was not functioning and the whirlpool only worked the last day.
Our Izmir region hotel, Nisanyan House had a gorgeous view, quaint rooms, and beautiful grounds. But it is another quirky hotel with a staff that speaks little English. With one owner in prison for violating building laws and the other owner — his divorced wife — away guiding a tour not on the premises, this hotel may have been more idiosyncratic than usual. As the impressive thirteen-year-old son of the owners noted, the hotel was running itself. Or to be more accurate, he did the best he could in the absence of parents. But, here again, we experienced some bumps.
Both our Cappadocia and Izmir hotels were occupied by very few others guests — perhaps because it was early in the season — and the at times haphazard service and erratic meal preparation may have been a response to this.
Ladies making Turkish Pancakes in Cappadocia
Food and restaurants
Be advised portions are generous, and we quickly learned we should split dinner. Baklava, either pistachio or walnut, can be fabulous almost anywhere — including at a street kiosk or local bakery — and was served at our Istanbul hotel on the breakfast buffet. Turkish breads are good but not world class or at least what we found were not. All prices below are converted to dollars for two and without alcohol.
In Istanbul, we had some good, pleasant, well-served but hardly memorable meals. Our hotel, the Hagia Sophia, had a tasty dinner pre- fixe meal for $30, featuring on the night we dined a meat kabob — really a steak made from minced lamb — lentil soup, a salad, and a desert plate with baklava and other sweets.
Pudding is a modest, well-known establishment that serves tourist food at higher prices than you need pay. My chicken was overcooked and could have had a vintage in terms of age. $25. I would avoid this place. Divanyolu Caddesi No. 6, Sultanahmet, 34400 Fatih.
The quite well-regarded Matbah serves an interesting meal under the rubric “Ottoman Palace Cuisine.” We shared a shrimp stew that was really a soup containing small shrimp, a nicely prepared cheese pie and a sweet chicken dish with saffron rice. Although slow, service was pleasant, and the experience was fun and the food good, but this was not a memorable meal. $30. Cankurtaran Mh., Caferiye Sk No. 2, 34400.
Latin Kupa. Good mezza (an assortment of salads) and baklava but very ordinary kabobs and perfunctory service. $30. Yerebatan Cad, Seftaki Sak, No. 6 Sutltanamet.
Our Cappadocia hotel had a well presented breakfast served at the table but rather ordinary included dinners with soup, salad, a main course and desert. On the last night, we ordered from the menu and the fish in parchment and lamb chops were excellent as were the yogurt soup and chocolate soufflé. The night before we had a chicken stew, which was inedible.
Meals at Nisanyan House in the Izmir region were erratic. We had two dinners included. Soups and mezzas were excellent, but the fish in parchment did not have much taste and was not fresh from the sea. On the last full day, in response to my request, breakfast was more than ample, but the effort varies.
We had some very inexpensive and authentic dinners in Sirince at restaurants where locals eat. Ocarbasi serves authentic and reasonable Turkish food; $15. Sirince Koyu Klise Yani, Sirince, 35920 Selcuk. Mercann had some tasty mezzas and savory moussaka. $17. Be aware that no one speaks English here, and misunderstandings are possible. 16. Sokak Nr. 15, Selcuk, Sirince.
Author of numerous travel articles and the 2012 book “Endtimes? Crises and Turmoil at the New York Times” (Excelsior Editions of SUNY Press, recently released in a new paperback edition), Daniel R. Schwarz is Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow at Cornell University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on twitter @danRSchwarz and at facebook.com/SchwarzEndtimes.