Places I’ve Lived #21 – Izmir, Turkey

In a way, I feel like I’m cheating when I say I lived in Izmir, Turkey. The main reason is that in the criteria I set out in the beginning of this process of documenting where I lived specified that I needed to be working and paying rent in a place to have it listed – technically, I wasn’t working while I lived in Izmir – I was looking for work and learning how to make a living from a travel blog (this one, actually).  But there is no time for that sort of waffling.

Izmir was wonderful and difficult at the same time. I moved into an apartment with two Turkish heavy metal-heads. My wife was pregnant and back in Morocco and I was suddenly living a bit of a rock star lifestyle – going to shows, hanging out with friends in Izmir, and (really) looking for work during the day. I LOVED living in Izmir. It was this bizarre couple of months when the universe gave me a chance to breathe – my wife was safe and happy with her mother, I was unemployed but had a little bit of money coming in and was surrounded by friends, and I was in one of the most exciting places on the planet. Izmir is cool.

Izmir has great food, great events, and great sport. The Gozetepe football team is one of the best in the world. I’m not going to write too much because I was only there for three months…my job hunt came up with many promises but few offers. Turkish schools in Izmir typically made this offer – “We are going to give you the best offer ever” – when I expressed interest they would say “The best offer ever comes after completing two years of the worst offer ever…really”. I didn’t accept any.

Eventually, after a lot of fun and a lot of searching – my friend Gaye offered me a job working at her hotel in Istanbul. I packed up and headed up there. After all, I had a wife and a baby on the way – I couldn’t afford to just hang around Izmir like a millionaire playboy…

Izmir, Turkey

Izmir has a population of around 3 million making it the second largest city on the Aegean besides Athens and the third largest city in Turkey. In ancient times it was known as Smyrna. Izmir has 8500 years of history in the same location and when you walk around this city, you can feel it.

Izmir is an amazing city filled with progressively minded and forward thinking people. It is the gateway to the Aegean with ferries running to many Greek and Turkish Islands.

Alexander the Great, the Selcuks, the Ottomans, the Romans – they all had their day in Izmir. And I had mine too.

 

 

Places I’ve Lived #20 – Manisa, Turkey

Throne of PelopsWe went to Manisa on our honeymoon and since I’d blogged my way out of a pretty good job in Fez, I turned it into a job interview with a school there. I’d been emailing the director and he had said to come anytime and he would show us around. So we did.

The bus ride there from Istanbul was long and beautiful. We passed mountains and streams and finally came to a city with a large mountain behind it. It felt good to me. I called the director and he gave us directions.

We got to the school and met with the director. Manisa is primarily a business city and so it doesn’t have all the cheap or luxurious options for travelers that other cities in Turkey have. Otel Emirhan was fine and offered us a/c, television, breakfast, wi-fi, hot water showers, and a decent bed in a clean room. Once we had settled in a bit, we went to a great little cafe where we met with a second director from a different school.

I  had the interviews, but we both ended up getting jobs at the school with the second director! We moved to Manisa, Turkey!

There were plenty of shops, movie theaters (that even sometimes have films in English), big green parks, a beautiful old mosque, and a lively souk filled with fresh fruits and vegetables, cheese, and more. Manisa is also home to the famous “Tarzan of Manisa”

It’s  in the mountains, has plenty of hiking nearby, wild horses, it’s a 30-minute bus ride from the beach city of Izmir, and in ancient times Manisa was where Turkish Sultan’s used to undergo their Sultan Training. Furthermore, Manisa was named one of the best cities to do business in for all of Europe. So,it all seemed pretty great to us.

We went back to Morocco for two weeks and then I returned to Manisa. I was there for almost two months before my wife came to join me. The school was good. I loved my students and I got along well with all the other teachers and the directors. They helped me get a residence permit, a bank account, and to get all the things I needed. When my wife arrived, things got more complicated. Since she was Moroccan, it was more difficult to get her a residence permit. She felt like the school was cheating her. Our relationship with the directors and some of the other teachers took an adversarial turn.

She had to make a visa run to renew her visa so I booked her a flight to Morocco. Then we found out she was pregnant. She wanted to take two weeks to a month back in Morocco but was needed in classes. I was suddenly feeling like papa bear and things turned ugly when they wouldn’t agree to let her have the time off. I felt like it was important – it was Christmas and she was pregnant – she needed to be with her mom. They threatened to fire her. I gave them an ultimatum that if she couldn’t have the time off, they would have to fire me too. So they did.

She flew home and I started looking for a new job and a new place to live since I’d been renting our apartment from the school. I loved Manisa but figured I would have more luck and a better life in nearby Izmir.

Manisa, Turkey – Ancient Tantalus and Magnesia

The ancient name of Manisa was Magnesia, the name comes from the magnets which come from Sypil mountain, also known in ancient times as Tantalus. The entire mountain is, in fact, one huge magnet. Stories of magnetic gold being found here, and stories of the Olympian Gods struggling with humans also come from this amazing mountain.

Cities here date back as far as 5000 BC and some researchers have postulated that it was a highly advanced city on Sypil that was swallowed into a great lake during a large earthquake. The great lake no longer exists, except as a minor body of water, but geologic evidence shows that there was one, it did exist, and there is some evidence to show that this was actually the site of a civilization of which we know very little. What was the name of this city?
Atlantis. And of course, with stories growing and changing it is more than likely that from a relatively advanced civilization being destroyed in a large lake that the story could grow to a continent sinking into a sea. Not unlikely at all.

Atlantis in Turkey
Tantalus was named after the first King of this region. Tantalus, the son of Zeus. Keep in mind that Homer came from the nearby city of Izmir and he is the first one to write of ‘magnets’ in historical records.
It should also be mentioned that many of the sages of ancient Ionia said that the word magnet actually meant spirit. And the name Sipylos comes from greek and means ‘Gate of the Gods’.

Tantulaus in Manisa
 

7 Easy World Travel Tips

Travel like a proHere are a few easy world travel tips that will make your adventures more fulfilling, cheaper, and more like what you’ve always imagined travel should be.

1. Smile at the world and the world will smile back at you. Seriously, far too many people don’t smile. A smile invites people to interact with you.

2. Let people help you. I know, you want to be a rugged traveler that doesn’t need anyone. The truth is though that one way human beings build relationships is through helping each other. Let someone help you find a place, accept the offer of a stranger, ask for help when you need it.

3. Help other people. Don’t expect anything in return but when you see someone drop something, help them pick it up. If you find a wallet, make it a quest to find the owner and return it. Help an old lady up some stairs.

Travel tips4. Be the first to visit a place. I know, it sounds impossible but the truth is that in every town there are little cafes that only the locals know. In every country there are creeks or cities where tourists have never been. In the entire world, there are places that you’ve never heard of. Make these your mission.

5. Fear is your friend. When you feel fear it is your body’s way of giving you a warning. Pay attention to it. Know what it is. Learn to count backwards from three and ask yourself if you need to be afraid of this or not. Overcoming your fear is a massive rush. Listening to your fear and not getting killed is an even better rush.

6. Don’t be rigid. Part of the joy of travel is that it allows us to grow and become something different than we have always been. Open yourself up to new ideas. If you automatically say no, you will certainly miss something.

7. Remember to ask question about the people you are talking with. It’s far too easy to start talking about yourself. We are all our own favorite subject. People you meet will ask you questions. Answer them, but be brief and don’t forget to ask them about themselves. They are also their own favorite thing to talk about.

Okay, seven isn’t enough…here is an 8th tip!

8. READ! If you are traveling and you don’t like to read, you will have a less wonderful time than those that do. When you are traveling the world, you will have times when you have to spend hours waiting for something. A book can make that time a joy. Why not try my latest book? Vagabonds: Sometimes Getting Lost is the Point.

Vagabonds: Sometimes Getting Lost Is The PointPlus, if you read about the places you are going or have been, you will find all of your travel more fulfilling.

Sure, you can read the guidebook, but there isn’t much better than reading a story about a bar in Tangier and then walking into the place two days later.

Fiction, biography, travel memoirs, or holy books like the Q’uran (if you are visiting a Muslim country). All of them will give you insight into the places you are visiting.

3 Continents, 4 Countries, & 6 Cities in 24 Hours! #FlashbackFriday

So far, I haven’t exceeded this record that I set back in 2011. To be honest, it was a little too much, too fast. 

Skopje, MacedoniaThis was a new personal best. Skopje-Sofia-Istanbul-Casablanca-Fes-Sefrou and all in time to give flowers to my sweet wife on Valentines.

What’s your personal best? Comment below.

I was pretty proud of the hell bent for leather nature of this trip.

From Skopje I took a bus to Sofia where I said hi to Tim and Peppy and then caught an overnight train to Istanbul. That day I caught a flight from the Asian side of the Bosphorus to Casablanca, Morocco thus leaving Europe going to Asia and then to Africa.

Sofia, BulgariaFrom Casablanca, I caught the train to Fes where I then took a taxi to Sefrou. Once in Sefrou, I just caught my breath and spent a lovely ten days with my wife and her family (though, it can be exhausting to be around the family- but that’s normal with in-laws, right?)

So – Europe to Asia to Africa
Macedonia to Bulgaria to Turkey to Morocco
Skopje to Sofia to Istanbul to Casablanca to Fes to Sefrou
Not bad for a day’s travel.

Total distance: 4090 Kilometers

I’ve gone further in a day, but not covering as many countries, cities, and continents.

 

 

Istanbul
Istanbul

Night Train Istanbul to Bulgaria

Casablanca Morocco

Fez Medina Fes Morocco

Aesthetic Feasting at the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum

In 2010, my wife and I were married in Morocco – two months later we took our honeymoon trip to Turkey. At the end of our trip, we were again at the Ayasofia Hotel where we had begun it. 

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Checking into the Ayasofya Hotel, we found ourselves with one last day ahead of us. Hanane was exhausted but there were a few things I still wanted to see before we left Turkey.

I walked up the street past the Blue Mosque and across the Hippodrome to the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts while Hanane showered and took a nap in our big plush bed. The museum holds a wealth of Turkish and Islamic art from the Ottoman and Seljuk periods along with beautiful pieces and implements from as early as the 8th Century A.D.

The museum building itself is the palace of Ibrahim Pasha which was built by Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent’s own architects. Ibrahim Pasha was Suleyman’s Grand Vizier from 1523 to 1536. The building has elements which date back to 1500.
Ibrahim was choked to death and his wealth taken by the imperial government when after the Sultan’s death he voiced support for the wrong prince. That’s why I usually don’t pick one Prince over another.

The museum is filled with Turkish carpets, illuminated Qurans, calligraphy (at which the Ottomans excelled), carved and inlaid wood, glass, porcelain and stone treasures. I went through quicker than I would have preferred but felt that this was more of an exploratory mission.

The Turkish ethnographic exhibits were interesting though quite a bit like modern life in rural Morocco, I saw many things that are used daily in the house of my in-laws laid out as museum pieces.

I would have enjoyed lingering but a Canadian film crew was there and had set up some very hot lights for a TV shoot in that section.

A modern Turkish arts section in the front was small but had an interesting exhibit of claiigraphic embroidery which I enjoyed a lot.

While I was out I booked us seats at a Whirling Dervish performance. Originally, I had thought we might be going to Konya to see the real thing (no admission and not really for tourists) but since we hadn’t I thought it would be a shame to leave Turkey without seeing the whirling dervishes for which the country is famed.

The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art is open from 9 to 5 (closed Monday). Admission is 10 Lira.

Shores of the Bosphorus – Istanbul’s Beautiful and Important Waterway

Back in 2003, I worked as a stock broker. I enjoyed the interaction with customers, but didn’t really like the pushy sales aspect of it. I would sometimes have long and wandering conversations with my potential clients – one of them, a New Yorker named Joel stopped me during a pitch for Krispy Kreme donuts one day and said out of the blue “What the hell are you doing working as a stockbroker? You need to quit that job, move to Turkey and open a guest house on the shores of the Bosphorus!” I should have listened to him, but instead slogged through stock broking for a while more, wrote some books, worked as a commercial fisherman, and eventually became a tour guide in Hawaii – before finally ending up on the shores of the Bosphorus nearly a decade later…now in 2019, I look back at the time I was in Turkey (from 2010-2012) as one of the most deeply fulfilling periods in my life – largely because of my connection with the Bosphorus…I have no idea how he knew – but Joel was right. I wrote the following while I was there.

IstanbulIt’s impossible not to love Istanbul. This magnificent city of 17 million people, more than 5000 years of history, and more than a little bit of shopping, sight seeing, and culinary adventuring.

Istanbul is divided into two major parts…Europe and Asia. In fact, Istanbul (that’s Constantinople) is made up of the oriental, the occidental, and everything in between.

Those who come here and have the money, like to stay at the 5 star Ciragan Palace Kempinski Hotel which sits alongside the Bosphorus and boasts gardens, shops, and ultra fine dining.The high school next door used to be a harem. There is a helipad so you can land your helicopter. The master suite is just 15,000 Euros per night (About $22,500 at current exchange rates)Those who don’t have the money can find plenty of other options like the Four Seasons which used to be a famous jail. Or maybe you want to search Istanbul hostels.

In terms of transportation, the tram (metro) is by far the easiest and most hassle free, but in Istanbul, the taxis aren’t too expensive, they just take longer to get anywhere because of the traffic. As for buses, too crowded for me, but sometimes necessary. It’s that or driving and frankly…do you want to drive in a city of 17 million? No freaking way.

IstanbulTurks are incredibly nationalistic and you see the beautiful red flags and the images of the modern day founder of Turkey Mustapha Kemal Ataturk everywhere -as you should. Ataturk created a state that could have easily become fascist but instead, he turned it into a Republic and handed over the reins of power. A rare and amazing hero.

Still, it’s not all wonderful. Plenty of cabbies will charge unwitting foreigners Euro fares and give change in lira. There are rip offs in rug merchant shops, restaurants, and souvenir shop. Just the other day, a longtime Istanbulu immigrant friend and I sat down for lunch without asking the prices first. Complacency is not your friend. The cost was a staggering 47 lira…about three times what we normally would pay. The moral, Pay Attention or Pay Too Much.
Here’s an example: you give the cabbie 50 Lira. He drops it when you aren’t paying attention and then tells you that you only gave him 5 lira and he demands the rest of the payment. Since the notes are the same color and you are new to Turkish money, you apologise for the mistake and give him a 100% bonus. Lame, but it happens.

One of the things I love about Istanbul is that it is a friendly city to not only western tourists but also to eastern and Muslim tourists. In this city you see fully veiled Saudi women and their families eating next to distastefully clad housewives from Orange County and their families. It’s equal opportunity for East and West. Same goes for when you go to the hamams, the bazaars, or into the mosques…of course, in the mosques, hopefully everyone is covered appropriately.

IstanbulIstanbul is a city filled with bars, restaurants, shops and ancient historical sites. From museums to the nightlife in Taksim to Friday prayers to just wandering around Beyoglu and finding Ottoman Palaces that are falling down and held up by nothing but vines right next to brand new apartment buildings. Compare and contrast and no wonder so many American’s ask why the city is so rundown….it’s not rundown, it’s 5000 years old. The decrepit next to the sparkling new is something we don’t see in the segregated west. In Istanbul the poor neighborhood might have rich people and the rich neighborhood will certainly have poor people. No economic segregation going on here. It’s real. Modernity becomes part of history eventually…and in Istanbul you can see what was once modern but now is ancient.

IstanbulAnd then there is the food. Far from being just kebabs and chorba (soup) there is a wide and varied cuisine in Istanbul from pide and pizza to homemade ravioli, balik ekmek (fish sandwiches) and then there is the palace food. Palace food tends to be the over the top stuff the Ottoman Sultans enjoyed. Things like quail inside duck inside goose inside something even bigger. The Ottoman version of Turduken.
If you prefer you can find Indian, Chinese, and even Mexican food. I have to say though, the tacos aren’t as satisfying and the sushi, well…it’s expensive and not quite right. Still, it is here. And then there is the view although I find this equation to be fairly good: the better the view the worse the food up to about 40 lira. After 40 lira the food begins to taste good again. So, want a good view…make sure you don’t scrimp or the taste will ruin the view for you.

And the view is great whether you are looking at the famous Blue Mosque, the amazing wonder of the world the Aya Sofya or even the tree lined and ancient Constantinople Hippodrome. Mosques, Churches, Greek and Roman Ruins, and plenty of museums showing everything from ancient Lydian to modern Istanbulu art. The view in Istanbul is like no other.

IstanbulEven the over the top Topkapi Palace which sits like a jewel on the crown of the Sultanahmet area is now available for you to sip tea in or have your breakfast next to. It wasn’t always this way since this was the political and cultural center of the Ottoman Empire when it was the strong man of the world, rather than the sick man of Europe.

Like all of Istanbul there are more than a few fat cats, plenty of wild (though tagged) dogs, and no shortage of grassy places to enjoy a picnic. Plus you can see the staff of Moses and the sword of Mohammad among other religious relics. No one seems willing to tell me if they’ve tried throwing the staff down and making it into a snake though. if you tend towards the more worldly treasures you might enjoy seeing the Topkapi Dagger or the Spoonmakers Diamond (5th largest in the world). One local friend told me that the Prophet Abraham’s missing saucepan is also in the museum…now how in the world did that happen?

IstanbulStill, Topkapi is for Amateurs, the Pros head to Dolmabahce Palace over on the other side of the Golden Horn.

The Versailles of Istanbul is worthy of the name and whereas you don’t get to see all of Topkapi, Dolmabahce is thrown in front of you like a white slave before the potential Ottoman buyers looking to diversify their harems. Beautiful, dangerous, and well…expensive. All the yellow metal you see there is real gold.

Istanbul

Go out at night in Istanbul and you will find that the gold changes hands quickly and easily as the frantic hustle and dance of one of the world’s largest cities never stops. From the junk buyers to the carpet sellers, everyone is still working at night and those who aren’t are taking vanity to extremes as they show what modern, hip, young, rich Istanbul is all about. Watch a Turkish soap opera and you might think things are exaggerated. They aren’t.

As for food, you can spend little at the food stalls in Mehene, Nevisade Sokak and Kumkapi. Or you can spend as much as a corrupt Vizier somewhere else. And if you want to spend, there isn’t a better place to do it than in the clubs. Step into a club and the price of drinks goes 3 to 20 times higher than elsewhere but that’s all about the status of being there. You are there drinking, so obviously you have plenty. This is where you go if you want to impress the other sex and there is one thing that impresses Turkish women more than anything else…. When I was teaching, I would ask my students what was more important Love or Money…out of hundreds of Turkish students only two girls ever said love. Money is where it’s at and if you aren’t flashing it, you’re missing out on the ‘action’ in Istanbul.

Istanbul

But hopefully, you won’t miss out on experiencing real life here. The life on the streets, drinking tea, riding the ferry with commuters, playing backgammon on the streets, or just walking around the next corner to see something that is unexpectedly beautiful.

There is one more area where you will need your wallet…shopping. Istanbul is filled with shopping and while the prices can be very reasonable, you can also spend as much as you want. Prices will vary by as much as 1000% from shop to shop. Seriously. Where is the shopping in Istanbul? …everywhere. Literally.

But there is no place to shop like the Grand Bazaar (even if the prices are two to three times higher there for most things) With more than 4,000 shops spread in some 60 streets along with a post office, a bank and a mosque of its own with even  a health centre within the Grand Bazaar. And I might add, this is all covered. It’s the first indoor shopping mall and it is filled with carpets, ceramics, antiques, jewellery, gold and well…everything else.

Pay a visit to Café Bedestan. It’s worth the trouble and finding it will be your adventure. Just go in the Grand Bazaar and start asking.

Also everywhere is the ambiance, the feeling and a part of that is the smells. From the spice market to the smell of coal being used to heat samovars to the smell of cigarettes wafting out of a chai shop. It’s all a part of this incredible place.

Istanbul

And as we are talking about tobacco, it is a good idea to mention the nargile (hookah) cafes. Sheesha is usually just tobacco with some molasses and maybe a bit of apple. It’s smoked without contact to the fire and filtered through water. Nope, it’s not dope. Used to be it was opium or weed, but now…sorry hippies, just tobacco. Still, it can be fun, relaxing, and more than a few people claim it gives them a buzz.

The real buzz though is just wandering around the streets of Istanbul and seeing all the wonders that exist here…

The Blue Mosque of Sultan Ahmet in Istanbul, Turkey – #flashbackfriday

Blue Mosque IstanbulOn our honeymoon trip to Turkey back in 2010, my wife and I were excited to visit the famed Blue Mosque in Sultan Ahmet, the monument and tourist section of Istanbul.

The Sultan Ahmet region is named for Sultan Ahmet I who ruled from 1603 to 1617 AD. The Sultan Ahmet Mosque, known as the Blue Mosque was built near the Aya Sophia to provide a greater wonder than that of the Hagia Sophia. It was commissioned by the Sultan and designed by Mehmet Aga and what the Aya Sophia offers in terms of interior is surpassed by the exterior of the Blue Mosque.
Just a short walk from the Aya Sophia, the Blue Mosque was also crowded with tourists.

In all of Morocco, the only Mosque that non-Muslims can enter is the Hassan II mosque in Casablanca. In Turkey, anyone can go in. We entered the Blue Mosque with reverence but some Muslims from other countries get a little outraged to see Buddhists, Christians, women in shorts, and other non Muslims inside one of the world’s great mosques.

As we entered it was nearly the time for prayer and the guards were getting the non-Muslims to leave. Prayer was a little different from prayer in both Morocco and Hawaii.

Blue Mosque Istanbul

The call to prayer in Istanbul is coordinated between the many mosques so that you don’t get the same warbling effect you get between mosques in Morocco all sounding the call to prayer at slightly different moments. Instead, it is more like a symphony with the various mosques singing point and counterpoint. The call to prayer itself is different than that in Morocco and many Turkish Muslims don’t know how to read Arabic script, the language of the Koran. They often know the words, but not the meanings and thus the prayers can be less detailed than those of Arabic speaking countries.

Blue Mosque IstanbulWhen the mosque was built, it rivaled the Kabaa mosque in Mecca and the six minarets were equal in number to those of the Kabaa. In order to keep the peace, Sultan Ahmet built a seventh minaret in Mecca in order to show that he wasn’t moving the center of Islam to a new capital, though in effect, that is what he did, at least for a time.

The Blue Mosque is a geometric wonder in that the outer courtyard is exactly the same size as the interior and it’s proportions and measurements all align with the concepts of sacred geometry. It was built in the ten years between 1606 and 1616. Sultan Ahmet I died just a year after the Mosque was completed. His tomb is located in a separate building nearby.

Entry is free but restricted to Muslims during the time of prayers.

 

The Istanbul Archaeology Museum and the Basilica Cistern – Slideshow Saturday

Istanbul Archaeology MuseumThe Istanbul Archaeology Museum is located near the Topkapi Palace inside Gulhane Park in Istanbul. I first visited it when my wife and I honeymooned in Turkey in 2010. The museum has more than a million objects in its collections many of them from Byzantine, Greek, Roman, and even earlier civilizations.

This visit was not the most exciting part of our trip, especially for my wife, but she enjoyed the incredible collection of statues and the ancient sarcophagi, some of which date back as early as 400 BC.

Istanbul Archaeology Museum

As you enter the museum grounds there is a statue of a lion which comes from one of the ancient wonders of the world, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus.The museum is massive. It took us nearly half a day to stroll through the main collections at a rapid pace.The sarcophagi are definitely worth seeing, though I was disappointed to read that the Alexander Sarcophagus is actually the tomb of a king named Abdalonymous.

One of my favorite finds was the snake’s head from the Serpentine Column in the Hippodrome. I thought the serpents looked rather headless. The Museum of the Ancient Orient was closed for renovations while we were there.

If you want to visit the museum, it is open Tuesday – Sunday from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. Admission is 10 lira.

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Night Train from Istanbul to Bulgaria

Night Train Istanbul to BulgariaIn 2012 while living in Istanbul, I was fortunate to make many friends and have many adventures. This was the beginning of one of them.

If a Turkish night train sounds dangerous to you, you might want to consider getting some travel insurance  before you begin your cheap trip to the Balkans.

Leaving Istanbul is like leaving home. As I say goodbye to my friend Gaye, I can’t help but feel sad to be leaving this incredible city that delights the eyes, mind, body, and soul.

Still, the fact that the bag with all my ‘good’ clothes in it and another bag with the rest of Hanane’s and my things from Turkey both sit in Gaye’s basement means that I’m coming back.

Not to mention, I’ve got a flight to catch to Malaysia at the end of the month. And then another flight from Istanbul to North Africa when I get back. So, like friends and those we love, for Istanbul it is really only a ‘see you later.’ That helps.

Also helpful is the fact that I’m boarding an overnight train from the former Constantinople and into Sofia, Bulgaria. Not only is Bulgaria new and unknown to me, I’ve got a berth on a sleeper car. There’s something just incredibly cool about that. The cost of the ticket…about 30 euros including the sleeper.

The train itself looks old and as if it has come out of a Soviet Republic. I admit I knew nothing about Bulgaria before leaving and it was only when I mentioned on Facebook that I was going into the former USSR, that a friend told me I was wrong. Still, it was Eastern Block and hardcore communist, so I suppose that excuses my American ignorance a bit…that and the fact that I am American. Usually I do better, at least I don’t think Cuba is in Australia or Asia.
An American couple are in the cabin next to the one I share with a Bulgarian mountaineer who is just returning from Nepal. He actually lives in Seattle, he tells me Nepal was the most disgusting place he had ever visited.

The story continues below, but I thought you might want to see all the pictures I took first…the the slideshow is next with the story below it.

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Next door, the American man and woman are getting progressively more smashed and I swear I hear one of them crash down from the bunks to the deck. At the border crossing at 3 am they go to the tiny duty free stall and carry back what looks like a bottle of whiskey. When we arrived at the border the Turkish engine detached while we went through a relatively painless customs procedure. The conductor had to wake the Americans by pounding on their door for about five minutes. This was, of course, before they went to the duty free.

The two hour wait at the border was because we had to wait for the Bulgarian engine to come to us. We arrived in Sofia about 3 and a half hours late at right around 1:30 pm. Prior to that we made a stop in Plovdiv where the conductor this time spent ten minutes waking the Americans who staggered out with their clothes hanging on them the wrong way. As I had gone to sleep I heard them having progressivly more slurred conversation. Something like “Just because you fell, doesn’t mean you can’t be proud of getting up there, I mean you did it.”

I kind of loved these two. Getting shitfaced on a night train from Istanbul to Plovdiv. I didn’t want to talk with them because I was afraid it would spoil the nice spell they had charmed me with. when they staggered past to get off the train at Plovdiv the man, who looked a bit like Johnny Depp said “Hi” to me in the drunkest tones and the smell of bourbon wafted up. I took their pictures as they looked around the platform completely confused. I just didn’t want to forget them. Even if they wouldn’t remember their trip.

Arriving in Sofia, it was cold. The train station was freezing and the effect of having cyrillic alphabet all around me was that giddy feeling of culture shock that I both love and hate. I felt completely disoriented. My phone  wouldn’t work in Bulgaria, but I was very pleased to find that Bulgaria has the decency to put a wifi hotspot in the train station. Sitting in the cold station, I found my couchsurfing host’s number and then called him with Skype. You have to love technology.

He told me to go to the bus station and get a cab to his house instead of using one from the train station since the guys at the station would rip me off.

The cab was just about three euros and that took me to Tim’s door. In my pocket was the drunk American girl’s hat which I’d spotted in their cabin as i got off the train, picked up, and kept as a souvenir. It was very fluffy and very blue. I imagine it was how the two of them felt when they woke up later.

Kadikoy – A Trip to Istanbul’s Asian Side – Flashback Friday

From 2010 to 2012, I was fortunate to live in several Turkish cities. Istanbul, Izmir, and Manisa. Turkey and Turkish people won my heart over and over. There is nowhere like it on Earth or presumably anywhere else in the universe. I am grateful for the time I was able to spend in Turkey. For a time, I began to feel like a true Istanbulu, a resident of Istanbul. This was written during that time….

Istanbul

Istanbul is the only city in the world that sits in both Asia and Europe. The amazing part of that is that many visitors to the Queen of All Cities never leave the European side. In fact, a day trip to the Asian side can be interesting, delicious, and won’t cost you very dearly.

The ferry from either Eminonu or Kabatas will cost you 2 Turkish Lira each way. The trip itself across the Bosporus takes about fifteen minutes and while you are gawking at Sultanahmet from the sea on the right side or the Bosporus Bridge on the left, don’t forget to pay attention to the little tower that rises from an island in the middle.

IstanbulThe Princess Tower is a place of legends and fairy tales and dates back to the Byzantine era. While there are more than stories than one, the most famous is that of a king who wished to save his little girl when a seer told him she would die. As in most such stories, his plan backfired. In any event, keep your eyes open on the left side of the ferry.

Arriving in Kadikoy you will notice the big thing that looks like a balloon. In fact, it is a balloon. Filled with helium, the Turkbaloon takes passengers up for sight seeing during the summers.

IstanbulAfter you disembark from the ferry you will see a lot of construction work underway. This is for the tunnel under the Bosporus. In a city with 5000 years of history, every inch yields new archeological finds…and bureaucratic red tape to hinder completeion. It should be complete in a couple thousand years more.

Passing the construction head into the backstreets of Kadikoy and enjoy some shopping without the hassle of the Grand Bazaar or other touristic areas. Duck into the passageways and you will find both treasures and oddities. One passageway is filled with the odd collection of comic books, military gear, and sporting equipment. Somehow the three go together.

IstanbulDifferent passageways have different themes so you can find book areas, clothing areas, and of course there are the street vendors offering all kinds of deals on all kinds of things. In fact, Kadikoy is home to the biggest food market in all of Turkey!

Further along pull a chair up to one of the tables at Hamsi. Hamsi is oneIstanbul of the best kept secrets in Istanbul. Here you can enjoy great mezas, fresh black sea sardines (Hamsi), and a couple of pints of cold Efes beer. If that doesn’t appeal to you, right next door is the most delicious lahmacun (Turkish pizza) in the city. Some may argue about this, but when you taste either the meat or the cheese version, you will know the truth. Don’t forget to sprinkle the purple spice on it. It’s a form of poison ivy, but don’t worry, it’s not poison, it’s slightly bitter and delicious. Make sure you also sample their fresh Ayran (yogurt drink).

In fact, Kadikoy is filled with bars, restaurants, and even cinemas. This neighborhood dates back to about 5500 B.C. and today has approximately a half million residents. With all that, a trip to Kadikoy is definitely worth your time.

 

The Derinkuyu Underground City in Cappadocia – Flashback Friday

In 2012, we took a trip back to Turkey from Morocco to see friends and visit places we hadn’t had the opportunity to visit when we worked there as teachers in 2010 and 2011. Cappadoccia was one of those places. While we were there we stayed in beautiful rock hewn palaces, took hot air balloons over the surreal landscape, explored the open air museums of Goreme and even explored an ancient underground city – yes, we climbed 85 meters down into a deep cave with our infant on our backs – my wife looks like a mommy version of Laura Croft (Tomb Raider) in some of these pics. As I look at this now, I’m awestruck with the memory and reality of that place and very underwhelmed by my old Pentax photos – it’s astounding how much better photos with an iphone are…below is the original post…..

Derikuyu City Underground CappadocciaYou might think that the world is all discovered, all explored, and all figured out. You might be right, but I doubt it – people have thought that for a long time, but as recently as 1963 one of the world’s most amazing discoveries came to light in the Cappadocia region of Turkey.

Was it found by a team of intrepid archeologists? Nope. Was it found by a group of explorers or spelunkers? Nope. It was found by a guy who wanted to knock down a wall of his house and build a better one. He knocked the wall down – and found a room behind it. And then another room, and another – in fact, he found one of the largest underground city complexes the world has ever known. He found the Derinkuyu Underground City.

Even today, the full extent of the underground city is unknown. Archaeologists have penetrated as far as 40 meters beneath the surface but they suspect that the city goes much further down – to a depth of 85 meters. To put that in perspective, that’s about the same as the height of the statue of liberty and the pedestal it stands on which is 91 meters combined. So far, there have been 20 levels discovered. Visitors, like us, are allowed into the first eight levels. Less than 10% of the total that has been explored is open to the public. I can tell you first hand – that 10% is vast.

At full capacity, the city, built by the Hittites sometime around 14 centuries before the common era (that’s before Christ without Christ or B.C.E) , could house between 3000 to 10,00 people, their livestock, and their possessions. As I said, the full extent of the city is still unknown and some scholars believe that it is actually connected to other underground cities in the region by tunnels that stretch for miles!

It’s not as outlandish as it may sound as there has already been one such tunnel discovered which stretches 8 km (about 4 miles) to another underground city, Kaymakli near Nevsehir. When you consider that there are at least 200 underground cities that have been discovered thus far in the region… the possibilities become incredibly fascinating.

 

Derikuyu City Underground CappadocciaWhile it’s fun to think of thousands of people living underground like ants, most historians suggest that the cities were built for defensive purposes and were never meant for long term inhabitation of a large population. For short periods, Derinkuyu is large enough for 10,000 people (though some say it is large enough for 50,000) . On the day we were there, it felt like it was pushing pretty close to that. Tour buses arrive constantly and since the entire city isn’t open to the public, they are all crammed into the same sections. Luckily the ventilation systems designed by the ancients are incredibly effective although there was actually a bit of panic when groups coming down to the 8th level wouldn’t make way for groups who wanted to get back up to the top. The galleries began filling with people and at one point a woman actually began to scream. Finally, the guides managed to make the way clear and there was an exodus for the exit eight levels above.

One thing we didn’t have explained to us was where all those people used the toilet – we had to go back up to ground level for that, which, when you think about it, was a relief. Pun fully intended.

To get to the Derinkuyu Underground City, you will need to go to the above ground city of Derinkuyu which is about 40 km from Goreme. While there are about 600 doors to get in the underground city, as a visitor you will need to wait in line and buy a ticket. Your best bet is to hire a tour from Goreme or Uchisar.

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Turkey and All The Trimmings – Diving into Culinary Istanbul

I’m thankful that I had the chance to live and work in Turkey for several years. On this Thanksgiving, I am in Hawaii, but I look back at Turkey…and all the Trimmings. Happy Thanksgiving from Vagobond!

The Blue Mosque Spiritual Center of Istanbul

I love Istanbul. It’s big, it’s ancient, it’s filled with people from all over the world, but most of all – it’s delicious. Like the city, the food of Istanbul is a mixture of the large, the old, the international and, well, deliciousness. To help explain what I mean by that – here’s a very brief history of Turkey.

Turkey was the birthplace of the founder of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It was the greater part of Alexander the Great’s Empire, it was the Eastern Roman Empire, and it controlled Egypt, the Middle East, and North Africa as part of the Ottoman Empire. After World War I, Turkey was split into regions controlled by different European powers and after Attaturks’ war of Independence it became modern Turkey. The Western part of Turkey is in Europe, the Eastern part of Turkey is in Asia. If you’re looking for the center of the world – Turkey is it. If you’re looking for a world cuisine, go no further than Istanbul.

Peacock was a delicacy served in Ottoman Palaces for a different kind of Thanksgiving

Italy may be the birthplace of pizza, but when you go to Turkey you get something more magical. Pide. Cooked in wood fired brick ovens and served on long wooden planks, pide is essentially a large pizza stretched out until it is often more than a meter long and a hand wide. This is the ultimate Turkish fast food and it’s a great place to start when you want to eat Turkey with all the trimmings. Pide isn’t the real Turkish Pizza though, that distinction belongs to lahmahcun.

Pide in Turkey

Pide is the longest pizza in the world!

Lahmahcun is a thin oval shaped Turkish pizza on a very thin pita crust. You can get a cheese lahmahcun or the traditional which is finely chopped meat and herbs baked until crispy. To eat it in the true traditional style, squeeze a bit of lemon on it, put a small bunch of parsley or sorrel on it, and then sprinkle it with sumac. North Americans invariably ask “Isn’t that poison?” and while there is indeed a poison sumac (similar to poison ivy) the Turkish version is a slightly sour purple condiment that goes perfect with lahmahcun. Now, just roll your lahmahcun up and eat it like a burrito.

This next is a statement that can cause some controversey. Turkish home food is very similar to Greek home food. The controversey comes because any Turk will twist that statement on it’s head and say that Greek home food is like Turkish home food. I sat in a cafe on Kos and watched a Turkish man try to order a Turkish coffee and refuse the Greek coffee that the Greek waiter kept offering him – was it possible that only I knew that they are exactly the same thing?

The Turkish Home is the Culinary Center of the Country

Stuffed grape leaves. Dolmates in Greek, dolmades in Turkish. I took a cooking class in Istanbul recently. A New Yorker in the class learned that we were going to be making stuffed grape leaves and said to me behind her hand “I thought this was a Turkish cooking class, not a Greek one.” The truth is more complex. Dolma means stuffed in Turkish but has no meaning in Greek. As one Turkish pundit put it “in Greek dolmates means ‘stolen’.“

That brings up a good point. Watching foreigners interact with Turkish food is one of the great Turksih delights. Americans say that kifte is like hamburger, Mexicans say that a donor durum is like a burrito, Greeks say that everything is like the Greek version, Italians raise their nose at pide and lahmahcun but then eat it with simple smiles. One of my favorite reactions was when an older English lady was eating a bowl of iskembe chorbasi (chorba, by the way is a generic word for soup in Turkish, though it is often used to describe a minestrone type soup – which makes sense when you realize that shorba is an Arabic word that is used to describe a minestrone like soup.) The English lady was obviously enjoying her chorba and asked me what it was made from. The name iskembe is derived from a Persian word – shikamba. Shikamba and iskembe both mean – tripe. Tripe soup. When I told her, she wouldn’t eat any more despite her earlier enjoyment. “I won’t eat cow stomach,” she said, “Even if it is delicious.”

For Turks, iskembe is the perfect cure after a night of hard drinking. Hard drinking usually involves drinking raki, the Turkish national liquor. An anise flavored hard liquor that typically is served with fish. For Turks the word fish always goes with raki. So, raki balik, liquor and fish. My kind of country.

In a way – with the drinking, the fishing, and the tripe – Turks are the masters of feasting. if you don’t believe me, you can look at one of the most famous of the Ottoman palace foods – a quail cooked inside of a chicken, cooked inside of a duck, cooked inside of a peacock. The North American redneck Thanksgiving version is a chicken inside a duck inside a turkey – suitably called Turkdukin. I’ve no idea what the Ottoman/Turkish version is called – but one thing you can be sure of, it’s going to be delicious.

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