Caves, Balloons, Mosques, Bazaars & Boulders in Turkey

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After four months in Europe, things begin to look the same. Old town squares blend together until you’re not quite sure where you saw the Astronomical Clock or the porcelain tiled Mural of the Princes. Don’t get me wrong, European cities are great, but we were ready for more exotic sights by the time we reached to Turkey.

When arriving in Istanbul, you are immediately struck by the towering minarets, brightly colored carpets, lamps, and scarves, and the bustle in the streets. It was our first taste of Eastern culture. The Blue Mosque (Sultanhamet Camii), Hagia Sophia, the Grand Bazaar, and Spice Market are everything you’d hope they’d be. Yes, there are a lot of tourists, but it seemed to add to the chaos and charm of the city.

The call to prayer never gets old for me.  We recorded this sound clip one afternoon.  Click to listen as you read on:

The Grand Bazaar is a wake up call to the senses. The bright, glowing lamps and layers of rugs hanging in the shops, the soft cashmere scarves piled high on tables, the determined shopkeepers luring you in to sample their merchandise, and the smell of çay and kebabs bombard you at the turn of every corner. It is loud and bustling. The same goes as you walk through the cafe-lined streets. Confident and charming waiters call out to you in a way that you almost start to believe that you really are hungry, even though you ate just an hour ago.

Istanbul is loud, rowdy, and gritty on the outside, but soft and calm on the inside. Once you step off the crowded street and into one of the many mosques, all is quiet. Families are lounging in the courtyard and barefooted Muslims are quietly praying inside on their own little spot of carpet.

The beautifully painted domes, towering columns, warm, glowing lamps, and soft rugs below your feet engulf you with tranquility. It is also easy to find a quiet corner in a cafe for a çay or puff of nargile. I’d love to go back someday and see more of the city.

Our next stop was Göreme by way of Ankara. This is Turkey’s version of Southern Utah (except fewer Mormons). Cappadocia draws thousands each year with fairy chimneys and other strange formations caused by ancient volcanoes and river deposits.

The rocky landscape is filled with peaks jutting into the sky, precariously placed boulders, and suspiciously phallic formations. The soft rock is also home to “pigeon houses” and numerous underground monasteries and churches. The farmers carved out their homes in the stone to collect the pigeon droppings used as fertilizer. Now that’s what I call a shitty job.

The Christians built underground cities to hide from persecution. Now there are countless guesthouses and hotels in these caves with all the mod cons. It is a fascinating area.

Cappadocia, Turkey

The big-ticket tourist attractions in Cappadocia are the hot air balloons. We were aware of the popularity before arriving but were struggling with the insane cost for 60-minutes of floating. Seriously, over $150 per person seemed awfully expensive, especially for our budget. We had decided against it and planned to go horseback riding instead. As usual, Clark was up way too late one night and was nice enough to wake me up at 4:00 a.m. with a spontaneous idea to go take balloon photos. If we weren’t going to ride one, at least we could get some cool photos. He was up all night working on our video montage (you better watch it!). I reluctantly agreed and dragged myself out of bed so we could take the damn photos. We set out on foot in the pitch black of early morning.

We walked to Ürgüp Balloons, one of the companies that our cave hotel recommended and luckily ran into a very jolly employee. We had happened to arrive at the building where they bring the balloon riders before take-off for breakfast. He brought us inside and kept us warm (and caffeinated) with several glasses of chai. Spontaneously, we decided to screw the money and just do it. We wanted the experience, and it was one of our highlights of our time in Turkey.

PLEASE NOTE: I do not recommend this approach.  In high season they would have been booked solid and unable to squeeze two sleepy passengers into the basket. Book ahead to avoid disappointment.

To view the bumpy landscape from above is definitely the way to go. Our balloon pilot, Ömer, was great. The wind luckily carried us right over the famous Love Valley, and we could almost reach out and touch some of the iconic formations. Near the end we climbed to 600 meters (almost 2,000 ft.) to take in a dazzling panoramic view. After a smooth landing, we all received our flight certificates with a champagne toast, and they drove us back to our hotels. It is an experience I highly recommend…despite the sky high price tag.

Balloons - Cappadocia, Turkey

We then headed to Konya (home of the Whirling Dervishes), Izmir (a crowded, energetic city) and the nearby Ephesus ruins, and then Antalya and Alanya (two very touristy, lame resort towns).

Today, we traveled to Alanya to catch a ferry to Cyprus, but guess what?  Despite all the online info to the contrary, they are done running for the season! So, we had to come up with a Plan B on the fly. Tomorrow, instead of the boat, we are backtracking to Antalya to take the evening flight to Nicosia. From there, we head overland to Larnaca and fly to Cairo.

We put together a short video of the highlights, and don’t forget to view all of our photos on Flickr. Enjoy!

Posted from: Antalya, Turkey

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