Our Trip to Turkey
My husband and I just returned from a trip to Turkey and we can’t say enough about how much we enjoyed it. We’d visited Istanbul briefly during a pre-cruise stop in 2011 when we’d only had 3 hours to pay short visits to the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. That whirlwind tour whetted our appetites and we knew we wanted to return to experience more of that vibrant city. Recently we had the chance to do just that. I could use so many superlatives to describe the trip – awesome, incredible, wonderful, marvelous, memorable – but the word that came to mind most often was WOW and that was from the first day to the last. This “cultural baklava” offers layers of culture, history, delicious food, warmfriendly people. Here are a few the things that we recommend:
The 400 year-old Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque), with its six minarets, is one of Istanbul’s most recognizable structures. Although we had been there before, we were again captivated by the beauty of the blue tiles and the lush red carpet. Even though it is a popular tourist site, it continues to function as a mosque today.
Located very near the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia is another awe-inspiring must-see mosque. It was originally constructed as a church between 532 and 537 so it is also rich in history. As one of the greatest surviving examples of Byzantine architecture, the interior is decorated with beautiful mosaics, marble pillars and elegant chandeliers. It is currently under renovation, so large areas were obstructed by scaffolding, which took away from the majesty of the interior.
TAKE A CRUISE ON THE BOSPHORUS
One of the highlights of our trip was taking a cruise on the Bosphorus, the beautiful waterway that divides Istanbul since it sits on two continents, Europe and Asia. It isone of the world's most strategic waterways, connecting the Black sea to the Mediterranean. One of it’s most iconic sites is the Bosphorus Bridge, a beautiful suspension bridge that reminded us of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. It’s a busy waterway that offers several sightseeing options including ferries and dinner cruises. We chose to take a small yacht and spent several hours admiring the spectacular buildings, palaces and scenery.
WATCH THE SUN RISE OVER THE BOSPHORUS
In Istanbul we stayed at two different hotels and both had rooms facing the Bosphorus. Sitting on a balcony, sipping tea and listening for the call to prayer was a great way to begin a day.
VISIT A BAZAAR
No trip to Istanbul would be complete without spending time in the Grand Bazaar. Built nearly five centuries ago, with more than 4000 shops, it is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world. Originally built to sell textiles the offerings have expanded to include a myriad of other goods includingjewelry, hand-painted ceramics, carpets, embroideries, spices, antiques shops and many other Turkish delights. Visited by between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors daily, it is the ultimate shopping experience. Before entering I wondered how pushy the vendors would be. They were definitely insistent, but not overly aggressive.
We also spent time at the Spice Bazaar the second largest covered shopping complex after the Grand Bazaar. It has a total of 85 shops selling spices, tea, Turkish Delight and other sweets, but also jewelry, souvenirs, dried fruits and nuts. The sights, sounds and aromas are truly intoxicating. The spices we brought home have definitely enhanced the meals we cook. .
EAT, EAT, EAT
Delicious, delectable, delightful, divine…these words only begin to describe how good the food is – all over Turkey. As a foodie, I made a point of sampling culinary delights all over the country; From Istanbul to Kusadasi to Canakkale, to Pumakkale. From fine dining, to street food everything we ate was fresh, well-prepared and delicious; much of it organic and locally sourced. Everywhere we went there were street food options – roasted chestnuts, roasted corn on the cob and my favorite was in Canakkale. We’d just finished seeing the Trojan Horse when we came across a cart that sold cups of roasted, buttery corn kernels. Hot, tasty and delicious.
On our last night in Istanbul we had the fine dining experience of a lifetime at the imperial palace section of the Çiragan Palace Kempinski., a 5 star hotel that is absolutely regal. It was built in 1863 by Ottoman Sultan Abdülazizand it still reflects the ultimate luxury of a genuine Ottoman Palace. We dined at the elegant and award-winning Tugra Restaurant, located on the first floor of the historic Palace, and had the ultimate Ottoman dining. Each delicious course, work of art, was presented with a descriptive introduction and all the pomp and circumstance befitting sultans and their guests. We dined like royalty.
Although one of my travel goals is to eat my way around the world, I may not be able to circle the globe without returning to Turkey.
VISIT A RUG FACTORY
Carpet weaving represents a traditional art, dating back to pre-Islamic times and some of the finest examples can be found in Turkey. So visiting the Sultanköy carpet gallery was a real treat. In addition to admiring the beautiful carpets we had the opportunity to learn about their production, including dyeing and weaving techniques. We’d visited a similar factory in Selçuk during our 2011 visit, so we knew what to expect. We also knew that we did not want to go home empty handed, so after an intense round of bargaining, a purchase was made.
DIG INTO THE HISTORICAL SITES
We expected to visit sites like the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Grand Bazaar - and all were amazing. But they were only the beginning. Each of the historical sites/ruins revealed layer upon layer of civilizations past, complete with massive theaters, towering columns and even latrines. It really felt like we were walking back in history. Since none of them were very crowded we were treated to what felt like private tours. That was definitely the case at Alexandria Troas, where the site was opened up just for us; talk about VIP treatment! My husband and I had visited Ephesus in 2011 (with throngs of other tourists), so we knew what to expect. But on this visit we could see how much more of the ancient city had been excavated.
Visiting the sites requires lots of walking – up to a mile or more - and a pretty high level of fitness since much of the terrain is uneven. The fact that many of the sites had added wooden walkways made it easier to get around. But be sure to wear sturdy walking shoes.
MAKE A FURRY FRIEND
Everywhere we went there were LOTS of dogs and cats. In the city, in the countryside and even at the historical sites animals were everywhere! They were domesticated, healthy, well fed and quite friendly. Turkey is definitely a nice place for animal lovers.
Like many countries around the globe, Turkey has been affected recently by several violent events. So some tourists have taken it off of their travel destination lists. Some of our friends and associates questioned our decision to visit. However, we found no reasons to be fearful and felt completely safe at all times. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a reckless traveler and would not venture into a dangerous situation. But we didn’t feel any more at risk than we’ve felt at home in the U.S. It is still high on our list of favorite destinations and we plan to return in the very near future.
Now Watch me Zip!
To zip or not to zip? That was the question that we had to answer on a sweltering day in Montego Bay, Jamaica. We had gone there with a group of other travel professionals to familiarize ourselves with what that island paradise has to offer. We drove around the island touring many of the beautiful resorts, dining on sumptuous Jamaican cuisine, and enjoying many of the activities like Green Grotto Caves and Dunn’s River Falls. One morning we split into smaller groups and our group leader suggested going up to zipline after lunch. I had never done it before, so I had some serious reservations. But I figured what the heck, how rough could it be? I soon found out. Our merry band of 10 loaded into a van and began the trek up the hill, into the rain forest to begin our zipline canopy tour. Even the ride up the hill was a bit of an off-road adventure and we kept climbing, and climbing and climbing. Once we arrived at the destination we were ushered to a covered platform where we met our tour guides/canopy specialists.
They gave us a thorough safety briefing and instruction on how to stop and where hands should (and should not) go. It was a lot of information to absorb, but I did my best. Then they outfitted each of us with a helmet, leather work gloves and the safety harness that attached to the overhead lines.
I was getting more apprehensive (actually I was downright scared), but there was no turning back at that point. I wondered how fast I’d go, zipping along at the speed of my own body weight. I soon found out.
Our guides led us out of the open shack and I figured that it was time to zip….not quite. First we had a LONG trek through the rainforest. There were more than 300 uneven wooden steps to traverse, some uphill, some downhill, and all slippery from the humidity. That was quite a workout, to say the least.
By the time we finally reached the first of 10 platforms/launchpads, I’d kind of lost my notion to zip. Then, the adventure began. They attached the first person’s harness to the line and off he went. I was number 6 in line, right behind my husband.
I figured I could watch him and see how he fared. Or maybe he could catch me if I got into trouble. He took off like a champ and before I knew it, it was my turn.
Actually, my harness got reversed around and I couldn’t figure out how to turn back around. Let me tell you, zipping backwards is a serious rush.
Just about the time I was really getting the hang of it they “upped the ante” with a vertical drop. Yep, straight down for ~40 feet. That was a real surprise. There was always a slight feeling of danger since I was so close to the trees on both sides; at most 2-3 feet on either side.
It kept getting better. The grand finale was a 1,265 foot long traverse where it’s possible to travel at over 35 mph – and I did. What a kick!
When the last of our group finished our guides led us on a nice stroll back to the van. It was along a smooth path lined with lush flora and fauna.
It really was a wonderful, exhilarating experience that I recommend highly. Here’s a tip though. If you plan to go, take some latex gloves of your own to go inside of the leather gloves. Here’s why. Those leather gloves are used again and again by dozens of perspiring people everyday. The perspiration and the humid climate combine to make them quite mildewed and sour smelling. Even after washing our hands repeatedly with soap and hot water we couldn’t get rid of that pungent aroma.
But it was well worth it and I’m really glad we did it.
When You've Gotta Go....
Like many other travelers, I turn to travel reviews when researching a destination. I search several websites to get as much information as possible about the location. The “official” websites always give glowing reviews – even if they are “embellished” or slightly exaggerated. Reviews by other travelers can be a better source of information and it’s nice to hear about their personal experiences – both good and bad. At the end of the day you need to have your own experience to draw your own conclusions. Reviews are written about hotels, since we all need to sleep; restaurants, since we all need to eat and activities, since we all seek adventure/entertainment. However, there is another human need that is seldom, if ever, addressed. Where are the restroom reviews? Public restrooms vary greatly from country to country and region to region. Here are a few that I have encountered during my world travels.
USA - Generally speaking, in the United States we do a pretty good job of providing public restroom facilities. They can usually be found in hotels, restaurants, libraries, stores, malls, amusement parks, fast food joints and even roadside rest areas. They can be scarce in big cities, but are quite plentiful in suburban areas.
CHINA - During a recent trip to China I visited Beijing, Suzhou, Hangzhou and Shanghai and my, what an experience. The majority of toilets are squatters, so flexibility and good balance are necessary skills to have.
For Chinese locals who are been trained to use them from an early age, it’s no big deal. But for westerners, it can be a really big deal; particularly since there are no handles or rails to hold onto.
The good news is that if there is a stall for the disabled, it will have a western-style commode. So if there’s no one disabled in the restroom, it can be an alternative to the squatter.
But wait, there’s more. Very few – like almost none – of them have paper towels or toilet paper. It’s called BYOP (bring your own paper). So each day before we left the hotel I stuffed my pockets and purse. Yep, I felt like a Charmin pack mule but hey, you gotta do what you gotta do.
EUROPE - In European cities like Rome, Venice, and Barcelona, finding public facilities can be a real challenge. These cities are centuries old, so public facilities were not part of the original city plan. However, restaurants and cafes will allow you to use their facilities if you make a purchase. On a hot, sultry day it’s nice to duck into a cool café for a beverage, and a restroom break. However, once you guzzle that beverage, you need to visit the restroom again. You leave just like you came so it’s a vicious circle.
AMSTERDAM - Amsterdam offers a unique solution with their outdoor standing toilets. Obviously they are more suited to males than females, but they definitely serve the purpose.
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - It was easy to find pubic restrooms in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. They were plentiful and quite clean. I found this interesting (and educational) sign outside a restroom at the Mall of the Emirates.
EPHESUS - Obviously the need to provide facilities is as old as humankind. When I toured the ancient city of Ephesus I discovered that they had public latrines. Apparently a trip to the restroom could be an opportunity to socialize.
While public restrooms are not normally the subject of travel reviews, I hope that I’ve shed some light on this delicate subject. After all, “No matter where you go, there you are.” – Buckaroo Banzi
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