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Cappadochia in the Summer

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If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you may be pretty familiar with Cappadochia.  Although I’ve seen so much of Turkey’s beauty this summer, Cappadochia is still, by far, my absolute favorite place to visit.  And I say that even though in the summer, every hour outside admiring the natural beauty comes with buckets of sweat and requires heavy sunscreen usage.

Since we drove right through Uchisar and were very hungry, we parked right outside the castle (Uchisar means third castle, or fortress) and had lunch.   After eating, we climbed up the fortress for some amazing views of the area.  It was my first time climbing up and seeing the entire region from above.  I was thrilled to find an elephant hidden in the rocks – see if you can find it in my gallery below.

Next up was a trip to the Derinkuyu Cave, or Underground City.  These tunnel cities are all over the region today.  Some you can tour, some are private, some are “undiscovered,” and others are used for commercial storage.  I can say it’s definitely cooler in the caves!  They were used in ancient times to fell the various armies that advanced on the region.

I woke up our first morning in the valley to the sound of balloon firings.  Excited like a kid on Christmas morning, I jumped out of bed and ran to the window to see the balloons.  I also found Kim, who had spent the night outside our cave room and was the first to be awakened by the sound of the balloons.  As awesome as it is to sleep in a cave room, it’s no place for allergy sufferers, as the rooms are full of dust and the bathrooms usually a bit mildewy.  We spent the morning finding a non-cave hotel with a triple room, which actually required some work.  The plus side is that everyone got the cave-room experience, and then we moved to another hotel in an old Greek mansion in Mustafapasa, which had a restaurant I’ve wanted to try for a year.  As with almost everywhere we ate in Turkey, both the Old Greek House restaurant and our hotel’s food was amazing!  I had the most amazing orange-honey of my life, and I’m not even really a honey fan.

The next morning we got picked up at 5 a.m. to finally go up in a balloon.  Although I’m not in love with balloon rides, since they’re usually a lot hotter and noisier than I think they should be, I was excited to do it in Cappadochia because the scenery is so crazy and unique.

Besides the beauty from above, I was also able to scope an area that I had wanted to hike since I first saw pics of Cappadochia.  It’s called the Love Valley, but it doesn’t take much time walking around for anybody’s eleven-year old boy sense of humor to come out.  You’ll see what I mean in the pictures.  Of course, even if most of the rocks look like a certain anatomy, it’s impossible not to see animals or other shapes in the formations, just like you would if you were watching clouds.

The best day of our really hot sojourn in Cappadochia was a hike and lunch in the Ihlara Valley.  It’s a valley along a creek lined with trees, huge rocks, and occasional cave churches.  But the best part is Aslan Cafe.  You eat in little cabanas that are set right in the creek.  If you get hot, just sit on the footbridge and soak your feet in the rushing water.  All the while, you can check out the wildlife.  We saw ducks, fish, fireflies, and a few cats.

Even in the crazy heat, Cappadochia is a vacation full of wonder! If you’re coming to Turkey, you’ve definitely got to check it out!

It’s my Turkiversary – do I speak Turkish yet?

On June 19th, I celebrated my Turkiversary.  In Istanbul, I took my mom and Kim on a walk in search of a fish restaurant I had read about in the Sultanahmet area.  Since we couldn’t find it, and my phone battery was dying due to excessive use of google maps, we finally surrendered ourselves to one of the restaurant hawkers and climbed up to a sixth floor terrace restaurant in the Sultanahmet area.  I can’t remember its name, but the food was decent for such an obvious tourist racket and the views were impressive.  We looked one way to the minarets of the Blue Mosque and the other way to the domes of Hagia Sofia during sunset, moonrise, and somebody’s wedding firecrackers that I decided to claim as my own for celebration of my Turkiversary.  Like all fireworks show that we enjoy surreptitiously, we didn’t exactly get the camera focused in time, so pardon the blur.

Now that I’ve lived in Turkey for a year, I feel obliged to examine the question – do I speak Turkish yet?

The optimist side says definitely, of course I speak Turkish, silly.  I’ve been studying it for a year and a half – it would be a shame not to be able to communicate by now.  And indeed, for basic interactions, I can hold my own.  I can even execute merchant-tricking bargaining in Turkish, such as when I bargained the prices for three separate carpets at the same time and got a lower price for each, probably because the guy was tired of dealing with me and my antics.  I can tell jokes, and earn genuine laughter (I hope) and smiles in return.  Telephone conversations are no big deal.  When I meet new people, it’s easy to explain what I do, and it’s easy to understand what they feel like telling me.

My Turkish studies exaltation came several times in Ankara when some random on the sidewalk asked me for directions, and in addition to understanding them, I was able to direct them to their desired location without ever betraying my identity as an American studying Turkish.

Of course, I have to burst my own bubble.  Although I’m positively somewhere on the line of survival Turkish, and even feel comfortably intermediate, I’m not fluent, and definitely not yet at an academic level, which is my desired destination.  When helping me “fix up” a paper in Turkish, a friend probably corrected 90% of every page!  I still feel like a ten or eleven year old when I speak in grad school classes.

To get there, to fluency, I have a whole summer to read some Turkish novels, at my own pace, and hopefully that will help me with the language studies while I’m hanging out in Romantic language speaking destinations like France, Italy, and Spain.  I also have the sometimes enjoyable task of deciphering all of my Turkish friends’ Facebook posts, which, for me, fall somewhere between good writing and reading “ttyl” or “lmao” before I was hip to how the kids texted these days.

Back to Istanbul!

kim  2013-06-19 at 19-20-30After completing our Balkan Loop, Kim and I headed south into Turkey to start the summer’s second phase, somehow dubbed the Epic Mediterranean Roadtrip during a late night skype planning session.  I don’t exactly remember the conversation, but I’m pretty sure wine was involved.

I was elated to be back in Turkey.  At our first rest stop (one of my favorite types of eating establishments in Turkey) we were greeted enthusiastically by the entire staff with “Hosgeldiniz” (Welcome) and “Buyurun” (Something like: here you are) as we walked right past the counter to the bathrooms.  I was even happy to see the cleaning lady finishing up the ladies room by leaving a watery sheen on every horizontal surface.  “Buyurun,” she said proudly, removing the mop blocking the door to allow our entrance.

A women makes gozleme in Istanbul.

A women makes gozleme in Istanbul.

After the friendly welcomes, my second favorite thing about rest stops in Turkey is the rice, served in the line cafeteria-style with a whole lot of other, really good food.  It’s a little more expensive than finding a cheap cafe in the city, but the quality is always there.  I usually get some kind of patlıcan (eggplant) dish, and the amazing rice.  I think the secret ingredient is butter, which corresponds nicely to my favorite food group, fats.  The rice is usually two-toned: darker gold pre-fried grains mixed with yellow-white boiled grains.  It goes perfectly with whatever main dish you choose.

After battling the traffic into Istanbul, we picked up my mom at the airport.  Since I had managed to wedge myself into the welcoming gate amongst some tour company greeters and expediters holding “Thompson Family” or “Sr. Enrico Luvio” signs, I wrote a happy “Mom” with my finger on my iPad and held it up, waiting for my Mom.  Although it took nearly an hour for my mom to see it, I got lots of laughs from other travelers and even a young Turkish man who offered to hold it for me in the middle of oncoming passenger traffic, until he got “corrected” by the airport security.  Mom wasn’t even phased to see him – she just looked immediately for me and went in for the hug!

The three of us spent a few days doing the standard Istanbul itinerary: Sultanhamet Square,

feeding birds around Sultanahmet

feeding birds around Sultanahmet

the Blue Mosque,

the Basilica, a great place to stop when you’re sick of walking around in the heat,

Topkapi Palace, where this time we toured the Harem, and I decided to focus on the glorious tiles,

Aya Sofia,

and the Bosphorus, where we took a cheap cruise.

I also took them to my favorite tourist haunt, the Chora Church and one of Istanbul’s best restaurants conveniently located down the street, Asitane.  Here they serve dishes from the Ottoman palace recipes.  This visit we enjoyed the summer menu where for me, the standout dishes were a melon stuffed with a beef/pine nut mixture and a walnut pesto.

I really wanted to take my mom, who loves antiques, shopping on the backstreets off of Istiklal Ave.  Unfortunately, the protests were still happening around Taksim Square, and I didn’t want to get my guests caught in a mess of tear gas and water cannons, so we went shopping in the Grand Bazaar instead.  It’s always an experience, and I think that now that I’ve been so many times I’d be impervious to all the wares and the highly skilled hawkers, but once again, I managed to get through with plastic bags cutting my hands and a significantly lighter wallet!  I bought a set of teacups in the traditional Turkish tulip shape.  These were incredible, however, because at least as long as they’re in the shop, they were unbreakable.  The merchant stood on them and banged them against the cement floor with no issues!  We’ll see how they stand up to a Navy move!

Not All Roads Are Paved, and Other Lessons I Learned While Driving Through the Balkans

  1. NOT ALL ROADS ARE PAVED.  And it’s really a better idea to stay on paved roads.  I actually learned this when I broke my transmission high in Turkey’s Taurus Mountains, but some lessons you have to “learn” over and over.  In many countries that we visited, especially Albania and Romania, “paved” meant that somewhere along the route, there was some paving.  The rest of the roads are covered in rocks, gravel, or dirt – amazingly, we didn’t get a single flat tire.
  2. YOUR GPS WILL NOT GET YOU THERE.  My TomTom was much more reliable in EU countries (Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria) and near useless everywhere else.  After crossing the border from Serbia into Romania, we were shocked to see even goat trails delineated on the screen when in Belgrade, the capital, only one road was marked.
  3. SO BRING A MAP OR THREE.  And look at it before you hit the road.  Otherwise you’ll be doing a lot of second-guessing, like we did, of where we actually were in relation to where we were going.  Frequently stopping and asking directions provides for adventures, but running into cold faces and no English can get a bit frustrating.  We finally came up with a formula of the TomTom and a couple of downloaded google maps on the ipad.  I also downloaded the google maps to my phone, so that once we hit our next destination we could see exactly where we were courtesy of cell tower triangulation.
  4. YOU HAVE TO PASS THROUGH CROATIA TO GET EVERYWHERE.  Because of it’s boomerang shape, Croatia is on the way to lots of other countries.  When we were driving from Sarajevo to Belgrade, we passed through a border checkpoint that we didn’t even know we’d go through (why you need to look at a map before you head out).  We thought it was Hungary, for whatever reason, until I finally recognized the Republik Hrvatska flag as we passed Customs.
  5. KNOW WHAT THE LOCAL CURRENCY IS and what it’s worth in relation to your native money before you hit the ATM.  If you didn’t do this, then go for one of the middle set amount buttons, and hope for the best.  We forgot to do this in almost every country, and ended up cash poor when it came to lunch.
  6. IF YOU’RE HUNGRY AND YOU SEE FOOD, JUMP ON IT.  In the most eastern countries, most establishments only served drinks and toast.  I guess everybody eats at home.  As much fun as it is to wander the streets and happen upon a great cafe, this is not so easy in Romania and Serbia, where we walked for hours looking for food more nutritious than bread.  Have an idea of where the food is before you head out to eat.
  7. THE BALKANS ARE BEAUTIFUL.  Despite the near-constant uncertainties and spells of being absolutely lost, the countries of the Balkans are great to drive through.  Most vistas are absolutely breath-taking!

Balkan Street Art Gallery

I’ve loved graffiti since I used to look for new “Cool Disco Dan” tags while riding Metro’s red line into Washington, DC.  I know it’s not for everybody, and a lot of people consider it straight vandalism.  In the case of the Balkans, I think it really adds some beauty, or at least interest, to the brutal blocks and blocks of communist-era concrete buildings.

Last Stop on Our Balkan Loop: Bulgaria

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Before taking a class on the Balkans last semester, I have to admit that I knew almost nothing about Bulgaria except that it’s capital was Sofia. I thought that it was the place of goulash, but that’s actually Hungary. In my class, I learned about the nationalism in the late 80s/early 90s, which manifested itself against the Turks who had been living in the country for around 500 years. It was a brief ugly time in Bulgaria’s history, where some Turks fled, some were forced to changed their names from Turkish to Slavic, and others resisted and formed a political party, the Minority Rights and Freedoms Party, which is still influential today. Like so many of the Balkan countries, it was fascinating to see the remains of Roman, Ottoman, and Austrian culture, mixed with Bulgaria’s own flair in each of the cities we visited.

In Sofia, I took a free walking tour and learned about the monarch’s attempts to save Bulgaria’s Jews from shipment off to the Nazis. Basically, as our tour guide said, he employed a long held Bulgarian habit of procrastination, and kept giving the Nazis excuses as to why he needed to keep them in country. Of course the story is not that black and white, but it is remarkable in such a difficult time. We also learned that the first freely elected president of Bulgaria was also a former monarch – I think for the first time in history!  During Communist times, churches acted as shops in order to continue operations.  The country’s symbol is all about lions, which were only ever in Bulgaria for Roman gladiator type activities.  Now it’s even the name of the currency, lev.

At the Rila Monastery, I learned a lot about the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. The monastery is situated in green mountains amidst springs and waterfalls, whose music you hear from various corners as you explore the site. In the actual chapel, there are no seats or pews as I expected from my Catholic upbringing. Instead, worshippers all stand, and the entire mass is sung, as it’s believed that through the act of singing you’re closest to God. Although we couldn’t take pictures inside the chapel, I have a few from the outside.

My favorite part of visiting the monastery was visiting the kitchen area. At different times, the monastery hosted thousands of people, and the kitchen is equipped with a huge oven and other implements to support that. I was really fascinated by the interior of the rooms, though, with uneven stone-tiled floors worn down over the ages.

The church is also credited with preserving Bulgarian folk culture when Bulgaria was under occupation. Now the government takes care of that. Unfortunately we didn’t see anybody in traditional dress, except the monks, who wore long black robes. Since it was a bit chilly up in the mountains, they wore Adidas jackets over their robes! At dinner that night, we did get to see some folk dancers in all of their finery while enjoying traditional Bulgarian food – it was delicious!!!

By far, my favorite thing in Bulgaria were the sunflower fields we passed on the way out!

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Everybody Gets Hit in Romania!

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The other day I pulled into the first service station we could find to investigate a check engine light. The mechanic happily tightened some hoses and reset the computer, then, after a cursory check of the rest of the car, asked me about the tail light.

From a distance it looks normal, and illuminates just fine, but up close you can see that the light is held in place by some standard packing tape, with just a few holes and slits in the colored plastic. I know I should get it fixed, but I kind of like seeing it as a souvenir from Romania, where a taxi driver made it possible. I explained the accident to the Turkish mechanic who just laughed and laughed. He had done a road trip through the Balkans a few years ago and got into a few accidents too: Everybody gets hit in Romania, he said. This is hilarious to me, because even though most of my American friends who visit Turkey find the driving here crazy, it’s got nothing on Romania.

Scenes from the 10th-14th c. wood and stone Corvin Castle:

Although we walked around some beautiful towns and even visited a Transylvanian castle while in Romania, it’s the driving adventure that we remember the most. On the Romanian road, the right of way goes to he who acts the craziest. The drivers make the most absurd decisions to pass when there’s clearly no space, or a curve coming up, or even a huge truck in the oncoming traffic lane. Out of my rearview mirror, I saw a tall white van somersault in the air several times then crash to the road, probably fatally, because it pulled out directly into an oncoming truck’s path. Woah!
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My accident was minor in comparison to a suicide van flipping through the air. At the same moment that our GPS led us to the wrong address for our hotel, it started pouring. Right after I pulled over to put the top up and find our hotel, we got clipped by a cab. Because nobody spoke the same languages, it took about ten minutes of pointing and shrugging at each other before the cabbie let on that we had to go to the police station. I think he hoped that i would give up and we could all just move on, which in retrospect, probably would have been a better use of time.

We had to wait for an English-speaking police officer, who really just spoke Romanian louder and slower at me. Luckily, with my Spanish background I was able to guess latin roots and mostly fill out the accident form. The cop took a bunch of pictures, did a BAC, then filled out a bunch of forms and handed us copies. “Finished,” he told us, then took the Romanian taxi driver to another room.

Since I had no idea what I had signed for, I took iPhone pictures of all the documents and sent them to the Romanian scholar, who sent them on for further translating. Eventually, we all figured out that the other guy was at fault, and I could get my car repaired on his insurance. Whew! I was relieved that I wasn’t at fault, or required to stay in Romania to work this stuff out. We decided to forgo the Romanian repair and hit the road the next morning – who knows what another day of driving would bring.

Some random Romania:


Besides crazy driving, Romania’s other claim to fame is great drinks. Not many people eat out, but they do meet for coffee or lemonade and enjoy it together for a few hours. So even though we had bad luck finding good food, we had all kinds of fresh, flavored lemonade and excellent coffees.

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