1. After seeing the “Feel like a Star” Turkish Airlines commercial in Germany, we were quite excited to see if the service lived up to the claims. The commercial features a good tune that sticks hard in my head. Well, Turkish Airlines was great. Check-in was seamless, and they offered us exit row seats from Nurnberg to Istanbul. We didn’t feel like celebrities, but also have no complaints and would gladly fly them again.
2. In Istanbul we stayed at the Hotel Grand Peninsula. We got a room with balcony overlooking the Sea of Marmara. 80 euros. Seems overpriced but the cheapest double rooms in Istanbul during the high season are only around 10 Euros cheaper, and it was well worth the extra to have balcony. We spent many hours up there drinking beer and getting away from it all. The hotel is in old town Sultanamet, which is the area encompassing the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and the Topkapi Palace. It also happens to be backpackerland too, quite chilled out and no tourism hassles but correspondingly nowhere interesting to eat or drink.
3. Istanbul is a great food city. Highlight by far was Çiya. Pronounced “Cheeya.” Their Web site can be viewed in English. Like many Turkish restaurants they do not have a menu, you just go inside and point to what you want. Çiya is utterly casual but makes exquisite food that is seriously beyond similar-looking joints. It’s mainly Anatolian cuisine with many flavors and dishes neither of us had encountered before. The soups were the highlight–don’t waste time on the mezes which are of fine quality but not unusual like the saucy items are. I chose a “sour” soup with bulgar balls. The flavors were pleasantly reminiscent of Persian food. Forgot what Josh had but it was also unique. One of their soup offerings was beef with sour cherries. That’s the kind of interesting fare you will find there and apparently their menu changes almost daily.
Josh knew about a place that makes boza, a traditional drink made with partly fermented millet or bulgar. It’s sweet and thick as pudding and tastes great, especially with the sprinkle of nutmeg (or was that cinnamon?) on top. Great atmosphere in the boza bar too. By coincidence we found one of my favorite snacks in the whole wide world across the street: dry roasted chick peas (leblebi), served hot.
Another major food highlight was the buffalo cheese at Karakoy Ozsut, Yemişçi Hasan Sk. No: 9/11. Tram stop Karaköy. Josh had a tip. It’s a regular hole-in-the-wall restaurant and they do not advertise themselves as a buffalo cheese specialist. However, inside there is a photo of their herd and the kaymak is luscious decadence, especially when drenched with honeycomb.
You will be surprised to find that coffee is NOT popular among Turks. Turks drink tea. Finding good coffee is hard. Josh found out about a traditional coffee joint called Mandabatmaz. It must be the best in the city center. The location is Olivia Geçidi No: 1/A. It is off the long shopping street Istiklal
The coffeeshop is near the only remaining brewpub Balans, which has a decent dunkel named “Caramel.” Most beer in Turkey is swill. Efes has to be ice cold and downed fast (before it warms) to be drinkable. The Efes dark and the Gusta helles weizen are the two best commercial beers. Other beers here include Turkish Tuborg. You can also purchase a few nasty malt liquors to make you puke.
Found a nice nargile (hookah) place with beanbag chairs across the street from, coincidentally, a restaurant that specializes in beans called Fasouli. Fasouli, of course, means beans.
4. Istanbul has an evocative skyline with many minarets, but also an ugly and endless urban sprawl. We saw the suburbs unfold while on a boat through the Sea of Maramara to Büyükada, which is the last of the Princes’ Islands. Büyükada is a pleasant place. It is also home to a few Category 5 Hippies (Goa-style) who drum circle in the town square. Cops and little children alike were laughing at them. The overpriced seafood was disappointing, and I would not eat on the island again although it’s nice place to visit–and is CAR FREE!
5. Most of Turkey is liberal, easy, and relatively hassle-free. People aren’t trying to rip you off. Foreign women are not gawked at, will feel safe, and can even wear shorts except for the more conservative areas of the country. Turkish women wear whatever they want including tank tops. Only about 20% wear headscarves.
I was also surprised by low level of carpet touts. On my first visit to the city over 10 years ago, was constantly being invited inside for “tea,” which is the code for a long hard sales pitch like time share selling. Now the city seems way more laid back. Also I was taken aback by how friendly the people are, even in Istanbul–and the farther we get away from the city the friendlier it gets.
6. This was my first real encounter with Ramazan. It’s not a big deal in Turkey, people are just not that strictly religious here although some towns like Konya are known to be so conservative it is hard to find something to eat or drink during the day.
The Aegean and Ancient Ionia
1. Upon advice from the indispensable Turkey Travel Planner Web site, we took the fast ferry across sea of Marmara to Bandirma, connecting with train to Izmir, where we would continue to final destination Selçuk. I would not do this journey again. The scenery was uninteresting if not ugly for almost the entire journey. The overnight bus would have been almost as long and grueling, but it also would have been a one-shot deal with no transfers except maybe in Izmir. On the contrary, we took the 90 minute ferry, then a 5 hour train, then a bus because the train line ran out, then another train. Anyway…
2. Selçuk (pronounced Sell-Chook) simply rocks. Could spend a lot of time in the small-medium town of about 30,000 people. Very laid-back, chilled out vibe, inexpensive and easy. Is backpacker friendly without being overrun by tourism or hippies. Loved the hotel Urkmez, which is number 2 on Trip Advisor. Got a balcony room, this time it was less than half the price of Istanbul, 30 euros for the two of us including breakfast.
Saw the Ephesus ruins, which I have wanted to see for many, many years. This is one of the reasons we are in Turkey. We walked to the site from the hotel, and it took around 45 mins. Alternatives to walking include dolmus and tourist buses. Dolmus (pronounced dolmush) are surprisingly organized and easy. They seem intimidating and chaotic at first but are neither.
Selçuk is home to a Wonder of the Ancient World, the Temple of Artemis and the ruins in Selcuk itself are of great interest including the Basilica of St. John the Apostle, who lived here. Nearby is also a unique 14th century mosque called Isa Bey.
You can see Priene, Miletus, and Didyma all in one day from Selcuk if you have a car or take a tour. The going rate for a tour is 40 euros per person including guide, lunch and admissions. It is an all day venture and makes the day trip hassle-free. For two people it’s also around the same price as (and less trouble than) renting a car. However, I think 40 euro per person is too much money. Lunch and admissions are cheap and so are the public buses, so we opted to do it ourselves on the dolmush.
We have the luxury of time, though. If you don’t a tour might be the best option. Doing it on the dolmush means we could only see maximum 2 out of the 3 sites in one day and even that would be ambitious. Given we are in the area for a month and have plenty of time, we opted for the easy going day trip only to Priene.
It took 1.5 hours each way from Selçuk with 2 dolmush transfers, one in ugly, overdeveloped, Kissimmee St. Cloud-like Kuşadası (pronounced Kush-AH-Duh-See) and the other in random Turkish town Söke. You have to return backwards to Söke to get to Didyma or Miletus, which is why it’s almost impossible to see all three sites in one day.
Priene is well worth a visit. The site is amazing and still being excavated by German archaeologists. I much preferred the independent way, because I can’t stand being herded around in a tour bus listening to a guide who has merely memorized material from guidebooks.
3. The Pink Bar in Selçuk is a happy place. We were drawn there again and again.
There are no superlative restaurants in Selçuk although the food everywhere is decent. Ali Baba is on the tourist circuit but does have a great veggie kabob. The Hotel Kalehan has what may be called finer dining although it’s very casual. They have some good wines and although not cheap will not break the bank either.
Selçuk has big market on Saturday that encompasses several city streets. As large as it is it is very low-key and you won’t get yelled at to buy things. They sell clothes, housewares, carpets, food, and everything else you might need like build-your-own shovels. Just pick your size stick and your ideal spade and away you go. There is a smaller Wednesday market with mainly produce on road towards Sirince (pronounced Shirinje). Sirince is our home for the next month. More on that later.
4. A funny aside. We have twice been alerted we have the “heaviest backpacks ever” by two different hotels. They don’t know that we are traveling around the world in multiple climates including winter 😦 They also don’t know we are carrying a bottle of Cantillon Cuvee de Champions to celebrate our accomplishments at the end of this month 🙂