Thursday, September 1, 2011

Turkey: Istanbul and Cappadocia

By Melissa at 9:46 AM
August 24 - August 30

Istanbul
Istanbul is one of my absolute favorite cities in the world. If you like to travel, Istanbul should be on the top of your list. The fact that the geography resembles San Francisco, another one of my favorite cities, makes it even more lovable. Like Rome, Istanbul held sentimental significance for us because it was a stop on the secret, two-week engagement trip that Brian planned for me in 2009. He knew I had been wanting to visit for a very long time and made sure to plan an entire week there. Of course he promptly came down with a very nasty case of the flu almost as soon as we arrived and didn't recover until we left. Poor Brian didn't remember much about the sites we visited during the three or so hours of the day he felt well enough to go outside and worse, he couldn't even taste the food because he was so congested! But even with the little that we did see, I was hooked.

We revisited the major sites, the Hagia Sofia, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque), the Topkapi Palace and Istiklal Caddesi and stuffed our faces with all the different kinds of Turkish food we could find. The first night we went out to dinner with one of Brian's former co-workers who was at the end of her trip in the region, which was a nice treat. Spending so much time on the road it is really nice to meet up with a familiar face. And after finally being able to really taste Turkish food, Brian now agrees with me that is is one of the best cuisines in the world. This had previously been a subject of frequent debate since we talk about food pretty much all the time.
Lindsay and Melissa on Istiklal Caddesi
From Istanbul, Turkey
Brian and Melissa in front of the Hagia Sophia
From Istanbul, Turkey
Inside the Hagia Sophia
From Istanbul, Turkey
Looking down on the floor of the Hagia Sophia
From Istanbul, Turkey
Front of the Blue Mosque
From Istanbul, Turkey
Blue Mosque Ceiling
From Istanbul, Turkey
Courtyard of the Blue Mosque
From Istanbul, Turkey
Iskender Kebab
From Istanbul, Turkey

One of the great things about this trip is that Brian and I are experiencing a lot of things for the first time over a relatively short period, making the trip very memorable. Leaving Istanbul, we took an overnight train to Ankara and it was Brian's first time on an overnight train and our first time on an overnight train together. We had a cute little two-person sleeper compartment and of course barely slept at all because it's difficult to sleep with all the movement, but it was fun. After a extremely long 8-hour transportation delay in Anakara, we finally made it to Goreme, one of the central towns in the Cappadocia region, sometime after midnight.
Our overnight train compartment
From Cappadocia, Turkey
Watching Mad Men on the overnight train to Ankara
From Cappadocia, Turkey

Cappadocia
We chose to add Cappadocia to our list on the advice of many people and it was truly memorable. The unique landscape of Cappadocia, set in the heartland of Turkey, is really beautiful.  The cone shaped formations were formed by layers of ash deposited as the result of several volcanic eruptions from the three now dormant volcanoes that surround the region. The layers on the bottom, compressed under the weight of ash from later eruptions, became harder than those on top. Over the years, more of the upper layers were washed away by the rain and eventually created the conical rock formations you see today. The rock, called tuff, is very soft because it was formed from compressed ash, making it easy to carve caves and entire structures into the rock.

Since we arrived very late at night, we took it easy the following day, wandering around the open air museum containing rock-cut churches and lounging at an internet cafe. Our second day was by far the best and most memorable part of our time in Cappadocia and one of the most memorable days of our entire trip so far.
Goreme Open Air Museum
From Cappadocia, Turkey
Outside the Dark Church in the Goreme Open Air Museum
From Cappadocia, Turkey
Brian and Melissa at a dinner table in one of the caves in the Goreme Open Air Museum
From Cappadocia, Turkey

A mini-bus from Sultan Balloons picked us and 10 others up at 4:45am and drove us out to an open field a few towns over where three HUGE hot air balloons were being prepped to take us on our journey. I have no idea why, but when I saw how big the balloons were, I got more nervous. It should have made me feel better that the part of the balloon that was going to keep us afloat was more than ample, but it was 5:00am and I was not thinking clearly. But this was supposed to be an amazing experience so I put my apprehensions aside and climbed into the basket with Brian, the 10 other tourists, the pilot and assumed a white-knuckled position on one side of the basket.

Now, in addition to the fact that I don't particularly like heights, flying or otherwise being suspended up in the air, the time leading up to take-off was nerve wracking for so many reasons. First of all there are four big tanks of propane sitting in the central compartment of the basket to power the burners. Second, the four burners are only a few feet above the center of the basket and when they are turned on by the pilot generate what can only be described as a gigantic flame thrower right up into the opening of the thin nylon balloon that is keeping you up. And finally, the pilots can't actually control the direction of the craft, they can only control height, so they change direction by using the wind currents at different altitudes. Did I mention that between 40 and 70 other balloons from other companies also take off in the same valley every day, creating a massive traffic jam of aircraft incapable of steering themselves? What the hell was I doing?!

But, despite all of the alarm bells going off in my head, once we ascended up into the air, the experience was just magical. There's nothing between you and the surrounding scenery like there is on an airplane and aside from when the pilot needs to turn on the burners adjust the altitude of the balloon, being able to appreciate the landscape in complete silence is really not something to be missed. And despite there being a lot of balloons in the sky, there is really a lot of room in between each balloon. When we went up the winds were very light and there was no turbulence, so it didn't even really feel like we were moving. Also, our pilot was amazing. He navigated us down and around the valley and other balloons seemingly effortlessly, even dropping us into the valley within a few feet of the floor so we could get up close and personal with the rock formations and then back out before landing without so much as a bump in a nearby field.
Taking off
From Cappadocia, Turkey
Looking down on our launch site
From Cappadocia, Turkey
Balloons!
From Cappadocia, Turkey
More balloons!
From Cappadocia, Turkey
Sunrise over Cappadocia
From Cappadocia, Turkey
In a valley
From Cappadocia, Turkey
Fairy Chimneys
From Cappadocia, Turkey
Our deflating balloon
From Cappadocia, Turkey
After our flight
From Cappadocia, Turkey

We got back to our hotel around 7:30am so were able to rest a bit, eat breakfast and join a tour that headed out at 9:30am to the southern part of the Cappadocia region where we saw the Derinkuyu Underground City and the Selime Monastery. We saw many other great things on the tour, but those were the highlights of the trip and were well worth the fee we paid to the tour company. The underground city was built in the 8th century B.C. and later expanded and used by Christians as a refuge from attackers. It is a really impressive structure with seven floors, ventilation shafts, wells and separate areas for cooking, food storage, sleeping, worship and even meetings. It was able to provide refuge to about 20,000 people whom sometimes had to spend months living underground.
Panorama of Goreme
From Cappadocia, Turkey
Brian in Goreme
From Cappadocia, Turkey
Melissa in the Derinkuyu underground city
From Cappadocia, Turkey

Meeting room in Derinkuyu underground city
From Cappadocia, Turkey

The Selime Monastery complex, is in my opinion one of the most impressive rock-cut structures that we saw and much better than the churches in the open air museum. We learned that there are many sites in Turkey that are significant to Christianity because early Christians, who often had to hide their then newly created religion from ruling powers, found the soft tuff rock of Cappadocia provided an ideal hiding place for them.
Selime Monastery and our tour guide, Sardar
From Cappadocia, Turkey
Cave cathedral in the Selime Monastery
From Cappadocia, Turkey
Outside Selime Monastery
From Cappadocia, Turkey
Selime Monastery
From Cappadocia, Turkey
Brian in Selime Monastery
From Cappadocia, Turkey

Next we're heading southwest to the coastal town of Olimpos, for a few days of R&R.

Brian and Melissa in the hot air balloon over Cappadocia
From Cappadocia, Turkey

More pictures of Istanbul and Cappadocia.