Terrell's Turkey Journal
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
Uçisar looking like an El Greco painting
At Fatima’s house
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.
Left: Fatima’s tractor trailer is much prettier than American farm trucks.
Right: Our driver Hüseyin with his wife and younger daughter
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.
Vivian’s school kids
Fran looks at Church Mosque from the overlook
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.
left: Hüseyin gets a break on the drive through the mountains
right: Jude, Fran and Terrell enjoy the scenery in the pass
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.
The mountains come down to the sea
The ruins at Phaselis
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).
Swimming in the hot spring Roman style
Vivian poses with Pamukkale
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.
Left: the courtyard of the peaceful mosque
Right: the wedding musicians playing as the gifts are paraded to the bride’s house
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.
Left: Stan reads from Acts of the Apostles in the amphitheater at Ephesus
Right: the library at Ephesus
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.
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.