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Terrell's Turkey Journal

May 2004

Just to preface things, in the spring of 2004 my boss offered me a chance to travel to Turkey on a tour with Meli Seval of Melitour. I hadn’t really considered Turkey as a travel destination before, but I wasn’t about to turn down a trip. I had a wonderful two weeks with Meli, my boss’ husband Stan, Vivian from Oregon and her cousin Fran from Arizona and Jude from Florida. In fact, it was so good I’ve been back twice to do two more of Meli’s tours. Here’s the journal I kept of that first trip.

 

Monday & Tuesday
5/10, 5/11

It’s probably better to gloss over the hideous details of getting to Turkey except to say that it took WAY longer than it should have, bringing actual travel time up to 23 hours with a relative total, given the time change, of 36 hours. There was MUCH waiting in airports.

One good thing about arriving in Istanbul so late…it made getting through officialdom at the airport a snap with no lines or waiting. Meli, true to her word, had a driver waiting just beyond baggage claim who whisked me through the dark along the edge of the Sea of Marmara to the Hotel Ayasofia. A hot shower in our tiny bathroom, a few words with my roommate Jude and then I was dead to the world for the next few hours… 

Vivian tries smoking a narjile in Istanbul                 minaret


Left: Vivian tries the narjile while Fran watches
Right: Vivian and Stan admire a minaret at the Blue Mosque


Wednesday
5/12

….only to be awoken around five in the morning by my first ever call to prayer. The mosque on the street over from the hotel seemed to have its loud speakers pointed directly at our room, but as I lay there trying to go back to sleep, I could hear beautiful echoes of the call from mosques all through the area. The scale sounded odd to my ears with notes halfway in between where I would normally expect them, but the rhythms and pauses of each muezzin and the interplay of loud and soft from mosque to mosque was lovely.

Stan (Simone’s husband) had arrived even later than I did, but was at breakfast when I came down. We shared olives, tomatoes, cornflakes and tangy yogurt that we sweetened with honey as we recounted our airplane misfortunes. At ten, I joined Meli, Jude from Florida, Fran from Tucson and Vivian from Oregon in a pre-tour day of exploring the city by car. We drove first to the Suliemaniye, where Suleyman the Magnificent is buried and visited his tomb and the mosque. Leaving there, I, always alert to new and interesting looking food, pointed out a man pushing a cart full of bread that looked like soft pretzels, causing Meli to stop (which in turn caused a small but noisy traffic jam) so she could buy some for us. We drove, by a VERY circuitous route to a tea shop situated in a row of tea shops and in the shadow of yet another mosque, where we sat outside in the sun on padded wooden benches surrounded by crowds of office workers taking a lunch time tea and backgammon break. We followed their example and had our first glasses of Turkish tea in tulip shaped glasses while we ate our bread rings, known as simit, and even tried smoking water pipes (narjile). The very pleasant mild smoke is pulled through apple-scented water, which gives it a nice flavor much less harsh than cigarettes. The whole tea house experience was a wonderful non-touristy break, the first of many special Meli Moments.

After tea, Meli drove us up along the European side of the Bosphorus, partly to see a museum that turned out to be closed. Mostly it was a chance to see the waterfront, the old wooden houses, private yachts and carefully arranged seafood stands that reminded me of the ones in Seattle’s Public Market. We stopped to have a snack of a kind of börek, made of noodles and cheese that tasted a lot like kugel. After lunch we drove back to Sultanamhet (the name of the area of Istanbul where our hotel and the Aya Sofia, among other things, are located) to meet up with Stan and officially start the tour.

We gathered on the hotel’s lovely rooftop terrace, enjoying the view of the Sea of Marmara in the late afternoon sunshine among the potted roses and vines. After a glass of tea (yes, there will be many glasses of tea in this journal) and a brief talk from Meli on her philosophy and methods, we walked up the hill behind the hotel to the Hippodrome and on to the Blue Mosque, known locally as the Sultan Ahmet Mosque. Meli told us how unusual it was to have six minarets on a mosque and how after building this one, the Sultan had had additional minarets added to the mosque in Mecca. She then took us inside, sat us down on the carpet and proceeded to tell us in great and dramatic detail, complete with gestures and voices, the story of the Sultan and the architect and the building of this beautiful building with its perfect proportions and lovely blue tiles. Not only was the story informative and entertaining but it gave us a chance to observe people coming to pray (Meli interrupted herself often to point out things happening around us and explain their significance, like why women generally pray in the back of the mosque since a man cannot be behind a woman as she prays. Not discrimination as most of us would assume, but politeness given the postures assumed in Islamic prayer). We were able to absorb details of the architecture that I would otherwise have missed. After our visit to the Mosque we walked a few blocks further to the Blue Hotel Terrace Restaurant where we sat outside on the rooftop terrace with a stunning view of the sea and the Prince’s Islands on one hand and the beautiful Blue Mosque looming directly above us on the other. Starting with meze of stuffed peppers and eggplant and marinated French cut green beans and the classic tomato, onion, pepper salad, we continued with a main course of large meat dumplings that had been sliced and grilled then served with rice and French fries. The whole meal wound up with chocolate pudding topped with sticky Turkish ice cream over paste choux puffs. I tried a Turkish coffee, but had a hard time adjusting to the presence of grounds in the tiny cup.

A wandering stroll back down the hill through the cool evening air made a perfect end to our first day.


Thursday
5/13

Thursday morning began early. After the call to prayer the seagulls started their chorus of “mine, mine, mine” so I was glad to get up and dress at seven. After breakfast with Stan, I came up to the roof terrace to “journal” for a half hour and enjoy the sun and view. At 8:45 we met Meli and headed up the hill again. Pausing in the Hippodrome at the Egyptian Obelisk we had our first hint of what a good guide Meli was going to be. The Hippodrome was lined with huge tour buses disgorging hundreds of tourists heading for the Blue Mosque. She had planned our evening visit specifically to avoid this situation. We would never have been able to appreciate its beauty or understand the building as a sacred space in the midst of these hordes. As we threaded our way through the crowds, Meli urged us to hurry so that we could arrive at our destination, the Basilica Cistern, as they were opening the doors. Descending stone steps, we arrived at a cavernous space with dramatically low lighting revealing hundreds of columns with carved capitals supporting brick domes. We moved along elevated walkways over the water that reached up to the knees of the columns listening to the constant sound of drops falling from the ceiling. With just our little group, the place seemed eerie and mysterious. Meli explained that the city needed cisterns since there was no fresh water in the immediate area and that this particular one had been built to support the construction of the Aya Sofia almost above us. The columns had been taken from older ruins and used with their elaborate capitols and carvings intact. At the far end we saw the huge Medusa’s heads turned upside down to support this massive public work. Meli told a little story…no, there’s never a day without a Meli story…about how in the past young lovers would come down to the cisterns, rent a boat and a candle and row about on the waters. As we were leaving, the first of the tour bus groups began arriving, immediately ruining the quiet and destroying that sense of mystery that Meli had allowed us by having us arrive early.

We headed back up into the sunshine where Meli presented us with our own small glass version of Medusa—the blue eye of the Medusa is used as a charm to ward off evil. We immediately began to notice that this blue eye is everywhere in Turkey, watching and guarding wherever we went.

We headed next to the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts where Meli gave us a short lecture on the history of Istanbul complete with tea. The man who brought us the tea also brought a plate of bread and cake—his own lunch brought from home—that he shared with us. Everyone in Turkey seemed overjoyed to see Meli wherever we went. She then gave us a little time to wander the museum looking at carpets and pottery before gathering us to impart two truths about Turkey to us. The tulip comes from Turkey not Holland and something about the desert that she will be horrified to know I’ve forgotten.

After the museum we walked to the end of the Hippodrome for lunch at a “pudding house” and then we continued on to the Hagia Sophia. After a little sit down in the courtyard under the trees where Meli told us the history of this famous building, we went inside where we found an amazing exhibit of children’s art that used the motifs of the Hagia Sophia to express the common bonds between Christianity and Islam. Feeling a little exhausted (Meli assured us that this was our marathon sightseeing day and the rest of the tour would be different) we walked a little further to The Topkapi Palace where Meli left us to manage on our own. Passing through a very narrow outer gate along with the enormous tour buses was thrilling but the galleries in the museum were so crowded, it was difficult to see much. I persisted through the crowds in the treasury to see the Sultan’s dagger (yes, the one they try to steal in the movie. I had to tell my brother that I had actually seen it.) The group finally said “Enough!” and we wearily made our way back to the hotel to clean up and rest until dinner time.

That evening Meli took us for the advertised “fish dinner” which was much more entertaining than that sounded on the itinerary. We arrived by cab at a long pedestrian street packed with restaurants on both sides, many decorated with little white lights, all with tables spilling into the street. At our chosen restaurant, we were immediately served little plates of meze with potatoes, white beans, peppers, purslane in yogurt (very bitter), and octopus (very excellent!). Fran and Jude had raki to drink which is an anise-based liquor poured into a tall glass and then water is added until it’s the strength you desire. Both the small dishes and the raki are traditional accompaniments to the fish. A group of gypsy musicians came into the restaurant and began to play what Meli told us was traditional Turkish music. According to her translations, the lyrics sounded a lot like bluegrass. One guy played an instrument I’ve never seen before called a kunun. It looked like a giant zither with many strings and something like stops on the left side that he would flick very rapidly with his little finger. The youngest member of the group played the violin and was very good, treating us to a “Devil Went Down to Georgia” style solo. Meli and the young women at the next table knew the words to all the songs and began to sing along. Meli explained that families sing this style of song around the dinner table at home. The whole evening had gotten very lively and fun by then. I found out that Meli, like me, had been an exchange student with AFS, which gave us a real connection.

As we walked down the street after our meal, we passed an ice cream stand. Meli says, “Terrell should have ice cream!” I’m very full from dinner but I had read that Turkish ice cream is different than ours, sticky like taffy, so I’m game to try it. The guy ladles some on to a cone with a long iron rod. When I reach for the cone he flips it out of my hand with the rod. This went on for some time. Everyone was very amused at my expense, but I did (finally) get to eat the ice cream.

A hair-raising taxi ride, which thankfully only lasted a few minutes, took us back to the hotel for our last night at the Ayasofia.

 

Spice Market Istanbul              


Left: A feast for the senses at the Spice Market. 
Right: The Hagia Sophia or the Ayasofia as you prefer


Friday
5/14

Bags out by 8:30. We boarded our minibus at 9 to get to the Covered Market before the crowds and while the merchants were still relaxing over their morning tea. We entered the market along the “main street” festooned with huge blue and yellow banners celebrating Fenerbahçe’s championship in the Turkish soccer league and lined with jewelry shops glowing with gold. We could see other avenues branching off, every inch packed with merchandise. Different avenues seemed to specialize in certain products like leather goods or textiles. The accumulated effect was overwhelming. Meli led us out of the main building to a row of bookseller’s shops where Vivian and I, both inspired by the novel we had been reading (My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk), bought miniatures painted on the paper taken from old books.

A short, rather bewildering wander later, and with a quick stop at a cafe that sold chicken dishes including a sweet chicken pudding, the group met up again to head off to a church/mosque/museum that the guidebooks call St Savior in Chora. Meli used another experienced guide trick to make sure that we showed up just as everyone else was heading off to lunch so we were able to get a good look at the incredible Byzantine mosaics and frescoes. She guided us through the building, using the architecture and artwork to explain about early church history and theology, pointing out that Mary and Christ are shown as relative equals with the right hand mosaics about Jesus and the left about Mary. I particularly enjoyed the scene of Joseph “contemplating” as Mary gives birth. The frescoes in the side chapel include one of Jesus saving Adam and Eve, which is to be interpreted as Jesus saving all humanity regardless. The artwork had all been covered over with whitewash when the building was being used as a mosque, but Meli pointed out, not for the last time, that Muslims did not destroy the artwork, just covered it.

We returned to the bus just in time to escape a downpour and headed to an Ottoman restaurant not far from Taksim Square for lunch. The fruit desserts were very good. Quince, pear and raspberries in sweet sauces, the quince eaten with yogurt cream and mint. We then strolled up the street, took pictures at the Atatürk monument and bought handmade chocolate before meeting up with Meli to go to the Spice Market. Outside the market, we found the nursery section with plants including a beautiful small-leafed basil. Inside, we bought therapeutic oils from an herbalist where I found and purchased some medicinal honey. Passing stands with conical piles of vivid spices, we stopped at a dried fruit stand where Vivian got some raisins that the salesman promised would give her “good poopers.”

From the market, we crossed the road to the waterfront where we boarded our own personal boat for a ride on the Bosphorus. It was chilly out on the gray water, but the ride provided us with a wonderfully different view of the city. We ended the ride on the Asian side, where the bus met us to take us to dinner. We had big sampler plates including a meat dish that Meli told us was called ‘thigh of a woman.’ After dinner we drove to the train station for our night train to Ankara. As we were rolling through town, we were treated to fireworks from the soccer stadium where Fenerbahçe was celebrating their championship. We had a night cap in the dining car and then retired to our two person compartments for the night.

Fran, Terrell and Jude in Taksim Square              on the Bosphorus
 

Left: Fran, Terrell and Jude in Taksim Square

Right: Cruising the Bosphorus

 


Saturday
5/15

We started the day breakfasting on the train in the dining car. I had slept very well but I’m afraid some of the others had not had as good a night as I had. Arriving at the train station in Ankara we were met by Meli’s elderly gentleman, four porters who have worked there forever. She had told us that they always rushed to greet her and this time was no exception. We paused a moment for pictures, then made our way almost directly out to the parking lot, being waylaid only for a moment by the newsstand and a brief but heated discussion of a government vote on the education system. Meli has most definite opinions on many topics. In the parking lot we boarded the mini-bus that would be our transportation for the rest of the trip and met our driver, Hüseyin. A short drive took us to the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations. I had been told beforehand about this impressive museum, but I think that without Meli I would have only seen a collection of fairly interesting artifacts. With Meli’s “lecturing” all these artifacts had related significance that gave us a much better understanding of the peoples who have lived here.

After a delicious lunch of donar kebab (Meli’s instructions: They will serve you a plate. Don’t eat yet. They will ask if you want butter sauce. Say yes, but don’t eat yet. They will ask if you want tomato sauce. Say yes. Now you may eat. Terrell’s note: I don’t care what diet you’re on, say yes to the butter sauce.), we went to see Atatürk’s Mausoleum. For me, this was, unexpectedly, one of the highlights of the trip. The mausoleum is on top of a hill, commanding a view of the city. The sun was out by then, but a chilly wind was blowing, snapping the Turkish flag above us. Meli found us a corner in the courtyard in front of the main building where she related to us the life of Mustafa Kemal and his role in establishing the Turkish Republic, about the fighting, the sacrifice of the people, and the intense pride that she and her fellow countrymen feel about their country and its founder. I assure you that most of us were in tears by the end of the story. It was an amazing feeling to be that close to the birth of a country, only 80 years away. I remember reading a Louisa May Alcott story in which one of the older characters tells about meeting the American Revolutionary War hero, Lafayette, and how it was a life changing experience for her. Imagine being only eighty years away from Washington and America’s struggle for freedom. It made me feel that I should rush out to do something that could make me as proud of my country, as attached to it, as Meli is to hers.

After the mausoleum we re-boarded the minibus to drive to Cappadocia. We drove mostly back roads so we could see the scenery, chatting as we went. Stan’s frequent humming drew a request for a real song. He sang in Uighur and Chinese. I kept the foreign language theme going with an Italian song, Bella Ciao, and made everyone sing and clap the refrain with me. That caused Meli to leap into the back seat with us to sing, too. Then she and Vivian began exchanging tour guide horror stories that kept us laughing. The semi-rainy day produced a spectacular phenomenon as we drove. We saw a partial rainbow that became a full rainbow that became two full rainbows that came straight down to the side of the road. As the Americans started speculating on the location of the pot of gold, the Turks informed us of the Turkish folk wisdom that says anyone who passes under a rainbow changes sex. Stan was getting a bit worried, but we managed to avoid any drastic consequences. We stopped for tea and bathrooms at a huge gas station, then headed on to our destination, arriving at the hotel as dark was falling. Fran and I kept remarking how much the landscape looked like Arizona, not too surprising since both landscapes feature soft stone eroded by water. Just as we were getting to the hotel we saw the first of the stone tower formations known as fairy chimneys. Meli told us to close our eyes and not look, saving them for tomorrow.

The reception area of the hotel in Üchisar, the Museum Hotel, was beautiful rock construction with fabulous kilims on the floors and couches, painted wood doors and roof beams, and a fire burning in a corner fireplace. We each had unique rooms with stone walls and vaulted ceilings, elaborate bathrooms and handmade textiles on every surface. Since it was getting late, we headed immediately to the lovely dining room, also elaborately decorated, for supper. I succumbed to temptation and had a cigarette by the fire with Meli and then stumbled back to our room through the dark and rain, took a long shower and fell seriously asleep.

Ankara train station Meli's elderly gentlemen              Vivian listens to Meli at Ataturk's mausoleum

Left: Meli’s elderly gentlemen in Ankara.

Right: Vivian listens to the best Melitour lecture at Ataturk’s mausoleum

 


Sunday
5/16

It was threatening rain and quite cold in the morning—I went back and changed into warmer clothes after breakfast—so we again ate inside the dining room although outside the dining room windows we could see a wide stone patio with a spectacular view over the valleys below. The breakfast buffet was magnificent with the best quality Turkish offerings of cheese, yogurt, olives and breads as well as made-to-order omelets and fresh-squeezed orange juice.

After breakfast, Meli took us to visit Fatima in her home carved out of the soft volcanic rock. Apparently, the rock is only soft until it is exposed to air, then it hardens making it ideal for house building. We peeked into the barn before making our way to her living room, the room where visitors are received, lined with bed-sized couches with rug-covered hard pillows at the back. Our hostess welcomed us with cologne and homemade Turkish Delight and we sat and chatted with her and her husband about her family and home. She was very charming with a beautiful warm smile and spoke enough English to answer most of our questions. Her granddaughter came in and was coaxed to use a few words of her grade-school English. Fatima brought out a stack of scarves like all the traditionally dressed women wear that she and her daughter-in-law had decorated with tatting and of course we all bought a couple and had fun trying to learn the right way to wear them. Outside, I tried to get a picture of the farm truck parked under the apricot trees painted all over with folk designs like pigeons and tulips.

Leaving Fatima’s, we went on to one of the outdoor museums, a valley of rock dwellings that had been a functioning town up to the 1950s when the rocks became too unstable for people to live in. One of the larger carved out spots was a church from the 6th century AD. Meli spent some time explaining early Christian symbols for us. We hiked around the rocks a bit more (grateful for the shawls we had purchased just outside the museum since it was chilly and showery) stopping to sing at one concave rock face to hear the acoustics. When Stan launched into Rigoletto, a group of Turkish engineering students burst into applause. Meli, of course, made them sing something in Turkish in response.

Lunch was lentil soup and our first plates of manta (tiny meat filled dumplings) in a restaurant with a lovely Selcukian stonework doorway. The design looks a little like Escher blocks with cubes making a sort of arch. Hüseyin showed me how to tell the difference between the two nearly identical red spices on the table—the spicy red chili flakes are shinier than the sumac—and how to sprinkle it on the manta. He likes his hot.

Afternoon took us to the Göreme Open-Air Museum, a center of early Christianity and one of the earliest monasteries with hundreds of holes in the rocks that each represented the home of a monk. Some of the carved-out rooms were churches with beautiful frescoes including one of St. George, who Meli told us lived in Cappadocia, killing the snake (or dragon). Since my dad, my brother and my nephew are all named George, I liked that one best.

Our last visit of the day was to a state-sponsored weaving cooperative where they are trying to keep alive traditional rug weaving techniques…a process which includes selling rugs to tourists. They showed us the double knot technique of weaving on wool and on silk, demonstrated how silk strands are retrieved from silkworm cocoons and did a brief explanation of dye methods, then took us upstairs for tea and a show. Our guide had his handsome, muscular assistants roll out carpets for us as he explained regional variations and historical differences in carpet designs beginning slowly and then leading to a full-fledged spectacular with round “magic carpets” flying through the air and layer upon layer of gorgeous rugs in amazing colors and patterns flung before us. Even if you didn’t want to buy anything it was fun. Yes, I bought a small one, but I was the only one out of the group who did.

Dinner at the hotel was lovely with grilled fish and local figs and apricots for dessert. I began to dread stepping on the scales at home, but I couldn’t pass up any of this delicious food. Meli has begun to refer to us as the “eating tour.”

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Uçisar looking like an El Greco painting

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At Fatima’s house


Monday
5/17

We awoke to a beautiful sunny day, which we started with breakfast on the terrace. The view over the valley was gorgeous…fairy chimney rock formations, a multicolored mesa in the distance, hot air balloons rising and descending. Meli doesn’t like the balloons because they’re noisy but they were very pretty in the sunshine.

After breakfast we checked out of the hotel and went to see one of the famous underground cities. The first levels were built thousands of years ago by the Hittites. Later, Christians from the third century were among the people to enlarge them and hide from their enemies in them. Meli introduced us to Mustafa who as a child had played in these tunnels, then as an adult had worked here as a guard and after retiring had taught himself English so he could be a guide for tourists. The city itself was fascinating. We saw about four levels of the eight that exist. It was amazing that people could build such a large complex construction and also amazing that they could stand to be down there in the dark and cold even with attacking enemies above. After duck walking through several very small passages, we made our way to the surface and sunlight. We then headed off to Avanos to Chez Galip to see a demonstration of traditional pottery making.

Galip is an old buddy of Meli’s. He looked like an old hippy with wild curly hair. He sat down at an ingeniously designed kick wheel and showed us a few throwing tricks as Meli translated. The shop was also carved into the rock, with eight rooms leading back into the hill. Most of the rooms were full of pottery for sale but one was rather gruesomely hung with thousands of locks of hair with people’s names and addresses attached. His Dutch wife Lilliane said they use the names in a lottery every year. The winners get to come stay and study pottery with Galip.

After the pottery, everyone, including Galip and Lilliane, jumped in the bus and went to his mother’s kilim shop. This time Meli told the story of traditional weaving practices, explaining the history of flat weaving and the functions of different pieces by putting together a sample “hope chest” from the items in the shop to show what weavings any young bride would have brought to her marriage.

After rugs, we went for kebabs for lunch, finishing the meal with a special dessert that used tiny threads of crispy fried pastry and honey layered in a pie shaped pan and cut in wedges. As usual I ate a lot which I shortly regretted since our next stop was at our driver Hüseyin’s house. We met his wife and younger daughter and mother-in-law who, of course, offered us food! They had made beautiful dolmas for us, which would have been even lovelier if I hadn’t been so full. Vivian talked grape farming with them and then we all admired the hand-knit clothes being made for the grandchild that Hüseyin’s older daughter is expecting.

In the late afternoon, we hit the road again, heading to Guzelyürt, a small town on the way to Konya whose name means beautiful homeland. It was fairly high in the mountains and quite chilly. We arrived at our hotel, the Karballa, which was once some sort of theological seminary, built with heavy stone walls and now remodeled as a lovely hotel. Before letting us go to our rooms, Meli assembled us in the dining room that had once been the refectory of the school and with Beethoven’s glorious ninth playing told us the story of how she had met Rick Steves (with whom she worked for years) and how she had found the hotel by accident while leading a tour with him, pretty life changing events for her.

We went from there to our rooms. Stan, Fran and Vivian all had rooms in the main building with vaulted stone ceilings, gorgeous kilims, wall hangings and beautiful appliquéd bedspreads. Jude and I had a less magnificent room in another building, but we had the last laugh. The heat was off in the main building and when the temperature dropped at night, they were freezing while Jude and I were toasty warm.

 

Fatima's farm truck Cappadocia        
 

Left: Fatima’s tractor trailer is much prettier than American farm trucks.

Right: Our driver Hüseyin with his wife and younger daughter

 


Tuesday
5/18

The sun and I were both up early, so I took a walk by myself down through the village which reminded me a lot of the village I lived in when I was an exchange student in Italy. I got back to the hotel with still some time to spare before breakfast, so I sat in the sun on the edge of a fountain with the beautiful snow capped mountain Meli called Father Mountain in front of me. An old gentleman who had been sweeping around the garden brought me a cushion from inside to sit on. People are so nice! The morning chorus of cows, roosters, goats and dogs really let me know I was in a country town, as did the two women riding by on mules on their way to farming chores. After breakfast the bus took us on a round-about route to a high point on the hillside. Meli led us down a path towards an overlook. We passed a little boy and girl dressed for school who eyed us nervously but didn’t say anything. Vivian had lagged behind to take a photo, then came rushing back to the group. “Meli”, she said,”I thought you told us the emotional part of the tour was over,” and showed us the little bunch of wildflowers the children had picked and given to her after we walked by.

We came to the edge of the overlook where we could see another rock house village, this one only recently abandoned. We sat and listened to the sounds of animals drifting up from below. We walked down from the overlook on a path that took us to a church that had been used since about the third century where we stood under a dome that had been repainted in the 18th century to sing “Amazing Grace” which made Meli cry. Then we walked down to the Cami (the mosque) in the old village which you could see from the architecture had once been a church. Meli told us that Guzelyürt had always had a mixed population of Christians and Muslims who got along well. The Christian houses even have carvings over the doors with a cross and the words Memshallah. When the Republic was founded, the Christians were forced to leave and the Muslims turned the church into a mosque calling it “Church Mosque” and moving (without destroying) the wooden partition from Czar Nicholas (you can still see his crown) to frame the mishrab. The town that the Christians founded in Greece uses the old name of this town, Karballa, and, now that Greeks can get visas to come to Turkey, they have a big festival every year where they come visit their old town and their Muslim neighbors. The imam of the church mosque came to let us in to see the building. Vivian (thanks Viv) asked if he had done the call to prayer that we had heard that morning and then complimented him on his voice. At Meli’s request, he then sang the afternoon call for us there in this ancient church/mosque. It was very beautiful and very moving.

Hüseyin met us outside the mosque with the van (no uphill walks on Melitour) and took us to a second Fatima’s house for lunch, so we could see what home cooking is like. Before lunch, Meli used the opportunity of a private living room to give us the Islam lecture, explaining about the five pillars. I was very interested in her demonstration and explanation of the physical characteristics of Islamic prayer and how it incorporates (literally) the whole body as well as mind.

The ladies of the house, Fatima and her daughter, made us lunch, mostly from ingredients grown on their own land…sustainable agriculture in practice. We had beautiful fresh baked pide (flat bread but more like naan than pita), homemade börek with potato, salads and (imported) rice pilaf. Afterwards, Meli gave us the scarf demonstration showing us what styles of head wraps are worn in various parts of the country for various practical reasons and how all of these styles differ from the fundamentalist religious head covering.

The afternoon was devoted to the drive to Konya with a stop on the way at a caravanserai. A very large and well-preserved example of these silk-road stops, the size of the stables was amazing. Across the street was a more modern version with bathrooms and a music shop with many Turkish CDs for sale. Most of us bought some to take home especially a recording of Turkish composer and pianist Fazil Say’s oratorio, a musical setting of the poetry of Nazim Hikmet.

We arrived in Konya and checked into a “businessman’s” hotel in the center of town that reminded me a good bit of China. We left an under-the-weather Fran at the hotel and went to have an excellent dinner at Kösk Konya Mutfagi with the best dolmas we had on the trip. The stuffing tasted almost like chorizo. I’m hoping I can get Gourmet Magazine to get me the recipe. We ran through the pouring rain back to the bus, and went back to the hotel for a few minutes of BBC news in English on the first television we had seen in a while before collapsing into sleep.

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Vivian’s school kids

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Fran looks at Church Mosque from the overlook


Wednesday
5/19

Jude and I were awakened early by the cry of a street vendor selling simit bread rings. The highlight of breakfast that morning was a new food. The sweet honey-like sauce that we put on our yogurt, according to what we could understand from Hüseyin, was made from grapes. My Turkish cookbook calls it pezmek and it was yummy.

Our big sightseeing objective for the day was to see Rumi’s tomb and the accompanying mosque. The founder of Sufism is definitely the big tourist draw in this town. We began at the mosque where we seated ourselves in a corner to get our Meli Lecture on Sufism. Unfortunately, there was a bird that had gotten into the building that kept flying near us. The usually fearless Meli confessed that she had a phobia about small flying things in enclosed spaces. The lecture got interrupted several times before we finally gave it up and moved on to the tomb itself. The tomb, also unfortunately, was very crowded, mostly with Turkish women and children. It was the only place we went on the whole trip where someone tried to tell us we should have our heads covered, even though it is not a mosque and Rumi himself has asked that the Sultan not build such a monument. Rumi’s father’s sarcophagus stands (yes, vertically) at the foot of his famous son. There were many works of art displayed in the building but it was too crowded to see much so most of us made a hurried exit. And thus endeth Konya. We returned to the bus and headed out of town on our way to Antalya.

Lunch along the way was at one of those roadside gas station/restaurant complexes in the mountains in the rain. As part of our break, Meli took us next door to a supermarket where we shopped for chocolate and cologne (every private house and many of the restaurants we went to offered ‘cologne’ for our hands), toothpaste, Turkish Delight and whatever else struck our fancy. Then back in the van for more driving through gorgeous mountains. One pass was high enough that there were patches of snow almost down to the road. Jude was ecstatic.

The mountains come all the way down to the sea (Meli says they come down to dip their feet in the water) so the descent into Antalya had the water in front of us and snowcapped mountains behind. As we approached the touristy area near the beaches, we saw Germans and shops everywhere we looked. We stopped at a park with a beautiful waterfall, not tall but with lots of water, where they had designed the walkways so that some of them were just underwater and you could wade without getting in the river. Meli told us that Turkey has so much water that they are actually shipping water from this river to Israel by blimps. Next we stopped so Meli the adoring mom could go see her son Ahmed at his job at a jewelry shop that sells high-end jewelry to German and English tourists.

Finally arriving in Antalya, we wove through the streets past Hadrian’s Gate and into the old section to our hotel. The outside was a nondescript wall but when we stepped through the carved wood door we were delighted to find ourselves not in the lobby we had anticipated, but in a vine covered courtyard with pink bougainvillea and red hibiscus and a grapevine growing up to a third story balcony. The floors were covered in kilims, there were carved wooden staircases leading to upper stories and turtles wandering around under the tables of the outdoor dining area. We met Hakka, the owner who had restored this two hundred year old Ottoman house and converted it into a hotel before we went off to our rooms in the next building. Our room had a beautiful green suzani hanging that Jude wound up buying before we left. It was already late, so we decided to have dinner at the hotel (fish, very nice) and then went for a walk. Clearly a party town, we saw lots of restaurants and bars and heard lots of music playing in the distance. Vivian was all for finding a place to go dancing but the rest of us restrained her. We found a jewelry shop full of interesting antique pieces to pacify her and then, daringly, considering the winding nature of the streets, took a different path back to the hotel.

 

                Jude, Fran and Terrell in the Atlas mountains

left: Hüseyin gets a break on the drive through the mountains

right: Jude, Fran and Terrell enjoy the scenery in the pass

 


Thursday
5/20

The weather had been cool and drizzly the night before, so we were happy to see a clear blue sky in the morning. Apparently the medley of “sun” tunes we sang in the bus on Wednesday had been an effective chant. We left the hotel and drove through the busy streets of Antalya and then along the sea about 45 minutes to Kemer to get on our boat. The port was a zoo with huge tour buses disgorging tourists heading for the boats, but we managed to make our way through the crowds to the one reserved for us. We met our captain Ahmed and his son Dennis (I have no idea if that is how he spells it, but that’s how it sounded) who came with us since he was on holiday from the second grade that day. We set out on a southernly course along the coast. It took a little while for the Americans to relax, but it soon became apparent that the object of the day was to do as close to nothing as possible, so we sat back, enjoyed the sunshine and the water and pretended to be Turks. I sat in the sun. Meli and Stan slept. Vivian read the paper. We came to a nice cove and anchored for a while. Fran and I went for a swim in the incredibly clear water, which, by the way, if you’ve never seen the Mediterranean, really is the exact color that we refer to as Mediterranean blue. The snow covered peak of Mt. Olympus seemed to rise directly over us. Meli warned that there was a chance of sea urchins near the rocks of the shore so, even though I didn’t spot any, I stayed in the water rather than climb out onto the rocks. We weighed anchor and sailed on to a second cove, where we ate lunch, cooked for us in the galley by our captain. His wife had sent delicious squash blossom and zucchini dolmas, and he pan fried fresh mackerel. A second swim followed lunch, but by then I was feeling a little fried myself. We turned around and headed back north to a third cove. I looked up from my journal writing at some point to find eight-year-old Dennis was piloting the boat. Even a kid can motor along on a sea with no tide or waves to speak of. After Vivian won all Stan’s money at poker and Ahmed had beaten Meli a large number of times at backgammon, we sailed into a final cove where a boat came out to meet us from the shore and ferry us to land at the foot of the ruins of the Lycian city, Phaselis. Most of the ruins date from Roman times and Meli explained that the Emperor Hadrian had been welcomed at this very spot before walking up the marble street under the arch bearing his name. The arch is in pieces on the ground now, but the name is still there. We did a quick walk through the ruins and then found Hüseyin waiting for us on a second beach on the far side of the city.

Too much sun and mackerel were really doing a number on my stomach by the time we got back to the hotel, so instead of joining Fran, Vivian and Jude at the evening’s scheduled Turkish bath (much to my disappointment) I went to bed with a Sprite and my book. I can tell you they were pretty giggly when they got back.

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The mountains come down to the sea

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The ruins at Phaselis


Friday
5/21

First stop this morning was the Antalya Museum, which wasn’t really on the schedule, but we had some extra time so we got to stop there before we left town. There was lots of sculpture, some from Ephesus and many interesting sarcophagi. Unlike most of the other museums we had been to, this one had a gift shop where we stopped to shop, buying a number of things. Someone wound up getting a book of Nasruddin Hoja stories. We met the director of the museum, who seemed very nice. He told us that he was keeping the gift shop open in spite of government shut downs.

We set out in our trusty bus, the first part of the drive being enlivened by Stan and Meli trading Hoja stories. These stories are jokes, folk tales, and morality tales all rolled up into one lovable character…Nasrudin Hoja. Stan knew them from his time in Western China since the Hoja is popular through all the Turkic area. I was still feeling pretty bad so I got the back seat to myself to stretch out on. Hüseyin (what a nice guy) loaned me his pillow so I could be miserable in comfort. We stopped for bathroom and shopping breaks at a beautiful turquoise lake that had a white magnesium ring around it, where I apparently left my jacket with my disposable camera in the pocket (an almost full roll!). Not my best day. A while later we stopped for lunch at a restaurant that specialized in mushrooms. We had them broiled with cheese and stuffed into manti, even a sweet mushroom dessert. The bread was very good. We continued on towards our destination, the hot springs district with the famous white cliffs of Pammukale, arriving at our hotel in the late afternoon. We immediately changed into bathing suits and headed over to the springs, passing the ancient necropolis on the way. Meli explained that since many people had come to the springs for thousands of years for their failing health, there was naturally a large graveyard in which many different burial styles could be found. At the spring, we swam briefly in the warm waters among the ruins of Roman columns. I think it would have been lovely on a cooler day or with fewer Germans in scanty bathing suits, but this particular crowd did nothing to inspire ruminations on the elegancies of Roman life. While we were swimming, Meli took pity on the young guide at the next table and wound up giving her “five pillars of Islam” talk to his group of English tourists. She is an incurable teacher but she told us she was glad to hear that the Brits were curious. After swimming, the rest of the group walked the little path down the white cliffs while I stayed out of the sun in the van.

Returning to the hotel, which was a large, luxurious, spa-ish kind of place, we decided to check out more water-oriented activities before dinner. Stan and I went to the large outdoor pool, Jude and Vivian checked out the indoor hot whirlpool and Fran went for a massage. Dinner was on the large open air terrace above the pool. Buffet tables held huge quantities of food on which the German tourists descended like starving locusts. There was a lovely sunset as we were finishing desserts of sweetened apricots. The rest of the group went off exploring after dinner while I returned to the room to watch soccer on TV (a ‘friendly’ between Brazil and France, nil nil draw, oh well).

Fran and Vivian swim in Pamukkale's hot spring

Swimming in the hot spring Roman style

Vivian at Pamukkale

Vivian poses with Pamukkale


Saturday
5/22

After a breakfast enlivened by the sight of large German tourists wolfing down huge plates of baked beans, we boarded the bus for one last long drive. For the first part of the drive, we wandered through some other small villages that boasted hot springs less famous than the ones as Pammukale. We stopped at one of those villages to visit a beautiful mosque with storks roosting in the minaret. There was something particularly peaceful and elegant about the inside of the mosque—the floor was covered by a collection of rugs rather than the single carpet we had seen at other mosques—and the imam was very happy to welcome a group of Americans. Outside in the courtyard we could hear drums and horns being played, so we headed off to investigate. There was at least one wedding being celebrated in the village that day and the drums and clarinet-like instruments were accompanying wedding gifts to the home of the bride. There was dancing in the streets. At a second bride’s house, Meli ran inside to see if we could come see her gifts displayed, but they had already been loaded onto trucks to go to her new home.

We continued on meandering quite literally, since we were in the valley of the Meander River. Yes, that’s where the word comes from. We passed through many small villages, including one where Meli pointed out a curious local custom. A number of the houses in the village had one or more bottles on the roof. Meli told us that each bottle represented a daughter of the house who was eligible for marriage. More than one bottle meant more than one daughter. A broken bottle indicated that there was an engagement. The drive also passed through incredibly fertile farm land with acres of cotton, hay, citrus trees and olives. There is so much water in this area that there are roadside truck washing stations every few miles with water that gushes continuously in case a dirty truck should happen by. Hüseyin was jealous. His part of the country is much drier and farming is more difficult. As we were passing a field of white flowers that Meli identified as opium poppies, grown legally under government supervision, we saw a small stream of steaming water. We stopped to watch as local sheep farmers (nomads, perhaps?) washed raw wool in the hot water from yet another hot spring.

Meli brought us to the ruins of Nissa (Nysa), another unscheduled visit, as a special treat for Stan, since the early geographer, Strabo lived and wrote here. (If you didn’t know, Stan teaches Geography at Miami University in Ohio.) The Roman ruins include an amphitheater and a barrel-vaulted tunnel, still strong enough after two thousand years to support the tour buses parked directly above. Leaving Nissa, we paused for a moment to buy fresh halvah in a village shop. After all, we hadn’t eaten in at least an hour.

Our next stop was for lunch at a roadside café specializing in çöp kebab, tiny pieces of lamb threaded on a wooden skewer. We continued on to Selcuk, where we stopped to shop for ingredients for our supper at the weekly farmer’s market. Vivian and I would have loved to wander through the open air market examining the mounds of unfamiliar produce but we had miles to go before we slept…or ate.

On the road to Kusadasi, Hüseyin pulled off unto a dirt track that had us all a little worried, but it turned out to be the road (and I use that term loosely) to Meli’s farm. Being in the neighborhood, we naturally had to stop and check on the progress of the plantings and the houses that she’s building for her children here. We watched another Hüseyin and our Hüseyin work on the new gazebo for a while before bouncing back out over the dirt road (I really thought we were going to take out one of the baby cherry trees on the way) and resuming or journey to Kusadasi and Meli’s “summer home.” As we got close, we were treated to views of the Aegean. Meli’s house is up a steep hill in a development of town houses. Her mother (who looks like her older identical twin) greeted us at the door and invited us in to relax on the kilim draped couches with glasses of tea and slices of cake. Looking around, we realized that the real reason Meli is a tour guide is to give her an opportunity to shop the markets of Turkey and Central Asia in order to decorate her house. You could easily use this house as a traditional crafts museum with wood carvings, stone work, and textiles of every description on display. We spent the rest of the afternoon either cooking supper (Fran and Stan and Meli’s mom) or relaxing (the rest of us). I got Hüseyin to teach me a Turkish card game and then made him teach me how to count the points in Turkish which caused much laughing on both sides. As the sun was going down we went up to the highest terrace (there are three on different levels) to toast the almost end of the trip with a glass of wine and to watch the sun sink into the sea. Afterwards we retreated to the lowest terrace for an al fresco dinner of grape leaf dolmas by Fran and rice pilaf by Stan served to us on a table cloth that Meli’s mom, an artist, had painted especially for the occasion.

The rest of the group had rooms in a hotel in Selcuk, but Jude and I got to stay at Meli’s house Saturday and Sunday night.

Mosque courtyard Turkey         Wedding musicians Turkey

Left: the courtyard of the peaceful mosque

Right: the wedding musicians playing as the gifts are paraded to the bride’s house

 


Sunday
5/23

We woke to beautiful blue skies and the promise of a warm day. Breakfast was served on the middle terrace and featured Meli’s mom’s homemade orange marmalade. I finally got a good look at the pot they make all that tea in. It’s like a little double boiler. The tea steeps in the top over hot water in the bottom. You pour some tea into your glass from the top and then add hot water from the bottom until it’s the strength you want.

Hüseyin’s trusty bus reunited us with the rest of the group and we set out for our first destination, the Ephesus Museum. This indoor venue protects many of the valuable carvings from the ancient site as well as providing context to help us understand what we would later see at the ruins. As usual, Meli had stories to tell and we weren’t the only beneficiaries. A large group of school kids got the story of Odysseus and the Cyclops, since we were standing in front of their statues, in Turkish before we got the English translation. After the museum we drove the tree-covered hill that is a center of Christian pilgrimage. Meryemana, according to ancient tradition, was the house occupied by the Blessed Virgin during the last years of her life. St John is supposed to have brought her to the area since Jesus entrusted him with her care. There is a small house where you can light a candle and a wall where people come to tie a piece of cloth or paper with prayer requests. Meli told us that in the old days, people would tie the cloth to trees just as in the old folk religions. As we were leaving, some of the group took the opportunity to send postcards from the post office there so they could have the Meryemana post mark.

The next stop was the magnificent ruins at Ephesus. You can look up details of the historic site in any guide book or, better yet, buy Meli’s book Ephesus: Step by Step, so I won’t try to describe them here. I will tell you that our favorite things were when Stan read from the chapter in the New Testament that described events that took place in the amphitheater where we were standing, the backgammon boards carved into the city steps and the view from in front of the amphitheater towards the site of the ancient harbor. Meli added a humorous note by taking us to see the ruins of the communal toilet. Nice to know that the ancients were human, you know. Although there were boat loads of tourists from the cruise ships docked at nearby Kusadasi, the ruins are large enough that we never really felt crowded.

As we walked along the marble road to the far gate of the ruins, Meli reminded us that this was the official end of the tour. We celebrated with a group picture in front of our faithful van and then a drive up into the hills, past zillions of olive trees, to a beautiful little town called Sirince where we wandered through the weekend market and shopped for silver earrings at ‘Demetrius of Ephesus’. I found a little antique shop that had some old textiles for sale, so I splurged on a scarf with hand embroidery on impossibly delicate linen. The group then climbed up to a restaurant at the top of the village for our last dinner together. Meli ordered raki and Hüseyin poured and mixed the water for us (although neither of them drank) so we could propose a series of toasts in honor of our travels. We feasted on manti and gözleme (savory pancakey sort of bread) and exchanged addresses, promising to send each other pictures and journals. As the sun was setting we boarded the bus one last time to drive back to the hotel in Selcuk where I said goodbye to Fran, Vivian and Stan, and then on to Meli’s house. I had to say goodbye to Hüseyin then, but he told me that he expects to see me next year. I assured him this was true.

 

Stan reads from the New Testament at Ephesus      The library at Ephesus

Left: Stan reads from Acts of the Apostles in the amphitheater at Ephesus

Right: the library at Ephesus

 


Monday-Wednesday
5/24-26

And so we went our separate ways. Jude had already left to catch her ferry to Greece by the time I woke in the morning. The first Hüseyin was driving back to Cappadocia. The second Hüseyin drove Stan to the Izmir airport to catch his flight to Istanbul and then on to Central Asia. Meli drove off in her yellow convertible to pick up Fran and Vivian for a few more days exploring up the coast (where I hear they found a wonderful little village and got to meet traditional weavers in their homes). I got a ride down to my hotel on the beach south of town where I spent my last two days doing absolutely nothing. Sitting on my balcony, enjoying the sea breeze and the glorious sunsets, reading on the beach, taking leisurely walks into town…my idea of the perfect way to finish this fabulous vacation. Meli had arranged one last convenience for me, a ride to the airport on Wednesday, so I was taken care of from the first day to the last. An uneventful flight home brought me back to Seattle and reality. Sigh. But that’s OK, I’m already planning my return trip.

Melitour Turkey 2004 group 

Above: Our farewell group picture

 

Thanks to Vivian for most of these pictures since I lost my camera on the road 

If you'd like to travel with Meli yourself, you can visit her website at MeliTour.

 Be sure to tell her Terrell sent you!

See a list of suggested reading (I am a bookseller, you know) on Turkey here.