Wednesday, August 06, 2008
Our visit to Turkey was one of our more exciting, interesting and fascinating vacations. Turkey is a land of historical significance and one can experience much of this history first hand while visiting the various sights and monuments. At the same time, a visit to Istanbul gives you a sense of the modernism and development happening in this part of the world as Turkey continues to push for membership in the European Union. It was great to have Aanish and Ayaana with us on this trip and share these experiences together as a family.
Mona did a fantastic job as usual of planning the trip. The itinerary was perfect for the 8 days that we were in the country. The hotels she selected were outstanding and conveniently located.
The day we landed in Istanbul, there was a bomb blast in the city that killed nearly 15 people. We found the Turkish to be as resilient as Indians in dealing with this situation.
Turkey has the best of history, culture and nature to offer. Sights range from ancient ruins like Aphrodisias and Epheusus to grand architectural marvels like Aya Sofya and Topkapi palace. In contrast, you have the interesting natural landscape in the region of Cappadocia where volcanic activity has resulted in fascinating rock formations that have been used to create dwellings, tombs and places of worship by people who lived here around the 1st century. We had an opportunity to visit unique sights such as an eight level deep underground city, ruins at the city of Troy and various ruins that were reflective of ancient Greek and Roman architecture. I am ready to go buy a book on the history and culture of Turkey, rent and watch Troy and read Ayaana's Greek history text book
The major highlight of our trip was a ride in a hot air balloon in Cappadocia. This was a first for me, Aanish and Ayaana. We had to wake up early at 4:15am to get to the site before sunrise. Unfortunately, the winds caused some delay and we did not take off until 7:30am. The experience of watching giant balloons being filled with air and taking off with 20 or more people in a basket was quite fascinating. We were extremely fortunate to get a smaller balloon assigned exclusively for the four of us. We sailed over the various lava rock formations and watched other balloons in the air soaring over the mountains. The wind decided to get turbulent causing the pilot to cut the ride short. We crash landed in a field and fell in a heap but luckily nobody was hurt including the pilot who was at the bottom of the pile. Another activity that the kids enjoyed was the ferry ride from Bandirma to Instanbul.
Each one of the hotels that we stayed in during our visit were selected by Mona after careful research and all of them were unique in themselves. I think our best stay was in Cappadocia at the Elkep Evi Cave Hotel. This hotel had suites built into caves in the mountainside. And these were real caves, with bits of sand and rocks occasionally dropping from the ceiling and walls. The suite was luxurious and the service was excellent. Hotel Empress Zoe in the historic district of Istanbul ranked a close second with its charming decor and central location.
We found the people in Turkey to be warm and friendly but extremely aggressive and pushy when it came to selling their products and services. Even the restaurants had a representative out on the street to lure potential customers into their establishments. The Turkish clearly are fond of Indians and we were always greeted with smiles and stories of similarities between the Turkish and Indian cultures.
Turkey is a haven for shoppers and has everything for everyone. If you are a history buff, there are plenty of antiques and historical art items available for purchase. Turkish rugs are famous and you get everything from cotton to wool to silk. Of course, the most fun is to shop at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. If you do not have the stomach to bargain, then this is not the place for you. Mona impressed all of us with her art of bargaining and driving deals at a 50% discount. We certainly did our share of shopping until the time we boarded the plane.
Driving in Turkey was actually quite fun and enjoyable. The roads and highways are very nice and the signs are good. We had a rental car that we used to drive over 2000km during our stay and we never got lost. Even is a small town like Bergama with narrow streets, we were able to find our way quite easily. The rental car came with a starter that I had never seen before. You stick an electronic credit card sized card into a socket and press a Start button in order to start the car. The kids loved it. Driving long distance in Turkey was no different than in any other part of the world. Mona yelling out directions, kids playing or arguing or both in the back seat, all of us trying out various snacks purchased at local markets etc. Barring one incident (minor issue when I took a wrong turn and drove straight into incoming traffic!), driving in Turkey was fun.
One of the important criteria for enjoying a vacation for us has always been the food on the trip and Turkey did not disappoint. Istanbul has some of the best restaurants that serve delicious Turkish fare. We sampled a lot of the Turkish cuisine including a dessert that is made with chicken and burnt. Traditional favorites like the Doner Kebab, Shish Kebab etc. were delicious whether you have them at a roadside stand or in an elegant restaurant. Variety in food is definitely limited and there is not much of a choice of international cuisine. We had Turkish breakfast every single day which never varied from one hotel to the other - tomatoes, cucumber, variety of bread, cheese, green & black olives and a boiled egg. Roadside fare was also delicious like roasted chestnuts, corn etc. We did manage to stumble across a Mexican restaurant on our last day of the trip. Mona and the kids have not had Mexican food since we left Los Angeles and needless to stay we had to stop here. Not the best but hey, when you have been craving for the stuff for 18 months, it tasted good!