We just got back from a week-long trip to beautiful Turkey! Even though we had not much time to look around, from what we could see, it was truly an amazing mix of East and West, of modern and ancient cultures. Geoff and I both agreed that it is incredible that you can hear the songs calling Muslims to prayer 6 times a day in the backdrop of Istanbul, yet the city is vibrant with modernly (and risquely) dressed women. The city, at least, seems to embrace people's choice of lifestyles, more so perhaps than most parts of the West. (I think that in the States, as much as we claim to embrace liberal ideas, if you choose to pray 6 times a day towards Mecca, people at your work place would definitely look at you funny.)
Istanbul itself is also an amazing mix of cultures -- there are bar-lined streets galore, such as in the Taksim Square area, terraces overlooking the hilly city, trams that run from tourist point to tourist point, and yet the guitar and drums music seeping out from the bars are traditional-sounding, somewhere between Arabic and Indian.
The Turkish food is incredible; there are elegant restaurants to match the best of Europe. Three restaurants in our hostel area that we can immediately recommend are De L'Artiste, Morro, and Solera. Of these, Solera was my favorite, because they serve up local Turkish wine, coupled with delicious cold appetizers that are of a local variety, but beautifully done with elements of savory surprise. The city also has countless bazaars -- the only one we visited was the Grand Bazaar, but the price and the quality of the goods there were fantastic. Between Geoff and me, we bought: a silver necklace, an exquisite mirror for my sister, a lamp set, a rug, a leather-made silhouette puppet, and a beautifully woven pillow case. :)
While in Turkey, we did the typical touristy thing. We flew into Istanbul, spent a few days there, took a flight out to Izmir, spent a couple of days there on an all-inclusive tour, and then flew back to Istanbul for a few more days. Istanbul was amazing because it was a party spot, but backdropped by the ancient buildings. It's incredible to think about the unique culture exported from Istanbul to the rest of the world over the centuries. It is of little wonder that it prides itself as the Cultural Capital of the World.
This is me fake-crying because of the weather. :) It was snowing our first day in Istanbul! Colder than in Berlin!!!
While we were in Izmir, we got to visit Ephesus, the third largest ancient city. A good amount of the stuff has been rebuilt from the excavated material, and the excavation is still on-going, but it was still impressive to see the ruins left after thousands of years.
Besides Ephesus, we also got to visit Pammukkale, which is a beautiful calcium bicarbonate deposit formed by centuries of active hot springs. Some of the springs were cooled greatly during the winter, but others were still bath-water warm! You can only walk through the labyrinth of springs with bare feet, but we braved the cold anyway....
As an added bonus of going to Turkey during the off-season, we got to stay at a five-star hotel for a night as part of our all-inclusive trip to Izmir. The food was delicious and our room had bubble jet stream bath, and a view of the ocean. It had been a long time since we had fallen asleep to the sound of ocean waves outside of our window, so it was a real treat. (Especially because we had anticipated staying at a hostel.)
Anyway, here were some other random things we did:
Geoff was fed some stuffed clams by a cute-looking Einstein man! Clams stuffed with rice is apparently a local specialty.
We visited a local (Geoff's favorite) shisha spot. Surrounded by colorful Turkish lamps and lots of locals, it was the perfect spot to enjoy some apple tea and some shisha.
Here is Geoff inside the Circumcision Room at the Topkapi Palace.
We couldn't take any pictures at the Whirling Dervish religious ceremony, but it was pretty cool and inside a fixed up bath house.
Speaking of bath houses, we had our first experience with a Turkish bath house. For the equivalent of about 30 to 35 Euros, you can strip down naked, lie inside a sauna, and then have a person scrub you clean. (It's not coed. Geoff and I were in separate parts of the bath house; he had an overweight man leaning over him asking him, "Is this GOOD? IS THIS VERY GOOD?" while scrubbing him down. I had an old lady and she also asked me if it was very good while I lay completely naked and she scrubbed me down. It was very unique -- definitely an experience I would recommend.) The bath house we went to was a traditional one -- it had been running since the 1400s.
And, as a last note (harhar, no pun intended), I wanted to share with you my excitement to see the Sigma notation on a Turkish bill. I am pretty sure that in Turkey, they put random accomplished people (not just politicians) on bills, so they also put down some visual representation of why that person's famous. You know I had to share this: