Tuesday, April 28, 2015


It's hard to describe what makes Pamukkale so magical.

From a distance... God is watching us.

No, wait. Sorry. Wrong song.

From a distance, Pamukkale just looks like a gray mass of rock - strangely off color from the surrounding landscape, but still nothing particularly distinctive.

As you get closer, it continues to look like... A gray mass of rock.

You get to the parking lot, look up, and see the top of the hill a few hundred feet above you. "Do I really have to walk all the way up that?" you ask yourself, already tired from a long day of sitting.

You start walking up the slope, and then there's a guard telling you to remove your shoes. Now barefoot, you step across a narrow channel, and then you're standing in water. Warm, wonderfully comfortable water that feels good on your feet. And the ground and sides of the hill are white. Very white.

From this point on, the path up the hill is a cross between a waterfall and a very shallow river. And you're walking straight up it.

As you ascend, you start seeing the famous travertine pools, filled with pale blue water. You can walk in them, but the ground can be a bit rough on your bare feet, so it's best to just enjoy the view after you've taken a few snapshots. To your left you can see the town and the surrounding countryside.

And at some point as you make your way up, you think this might one of the coolest things you've ever done.

It takes some time to reach the top, but it's still over too soon.

Fortunately, after you've explored the ancient ruins located at the top of the hill (more on that in a later post), you still have the journey down to look forward to.

In the meantime, you watch the sun set over the pools, in awe of the natural beauty around you.

On the way down, you hear a sound floating up to you from the village below - the evening call to prayer. You pause. You listen to the ancient prayer, and you see the beautiful white landscape around you in the fading light of dusk and the last rays of the sun on the horizon, and you feel the warm water at your feet - and you realize that this is one of those rare moments of perfect and transcendent beauty. Something that can't be captured in photographs - or with words.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Turkey in Ruins, Part I

One of my favorite aspects of traveling to Europe and Asia is the chance to see some of the truly ancient sites that mark the roots of civilization. Sometimes you forget how relatively new America is until you visit Eurasia where there’s seemingly a ruined fortress or palace or village in every valley and on every hilltop. While there, you can't help but think of the thousands of years of human history that have shaped the land into the form it takes today.

As you travel through some ancient ruin your mind inevitably turns to the long-gone men and women who built and fought and sometimes died for this piece of land - now merely a ruined tourist attraction for curious passersby.


Turkey itself is overbrimming with ancient towns and cities, some of them dating back 5,000 years and more. We only hit a few of the highlights, but each offered something unique and worthwhile.


After a quick flight from Istanbul to Izmir, we headed out for what is undoubtedly Turkey’s most well-known ancient site - the Biblical town of Ephesus. An inevitable stopover on every “Holy Land” cruise and tour, Ephesus is the town referred to by the apostle Paul in his Epistle to the Ephesians. Its connections to the apostles made it an important city for early Christians, and several ecumenical councils were held there in the early days of the Church.

The city once held 50,000+ people, as well as the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

The people and the temple are gone now, but there’s still a great deal to see here. Nowadays, Ephesus’ most well known sight is the Library of Celsus - an incredibly well preserved reconstruction of a 2,000 year old public library.

The Library of Celsus at Ephesus
But there are miles of ruins to be explored.

Of course, with fame comes crowds - tour bus crowds. So at times the place felt a little bit overloaded. You feel compelled to keep moving when you’d rather just sit and contemplate the sights around you. Nevertheless, it’s all quite a sight to behold.

A statue in Ephesus

The modern town of Selcuk is the most convenient stopover for Ephesus, and it's quite an attractive city in its own right. Our hotel - Villa Dreams II - was way up on a hill, and as such the view from our balcony was fantastic. At sunset, you see the town spread out below you, and an ancient fortress standing above it like a citadel. In the distance you can see the thin line of the Aegean Sea.

Unfortunately, none of my pictures of this panorama turned out very well, but here's a picture I took from our hotel balcony in the very early hours of the morning:
Selcuk right before dawn
A Side Tour: The Carpet Making School
Anyone who has ever been on a tour will undoubtedly be familiar with the unplanned, extra “bonus” stop at a locally owned business who has made a deal with your tour guide. Generally, these shops sell cool and interesting and altogether too expensive locally produced items. Upon arrival, the owners give you the royal treatment - glasses of apple tea, tours of the school or factory with an explanation of each step of the production stage - all while they constantly remind you that there is “No obligation, no obligation!” Of course after all that, you feel obligated - or you feel bad if you’re not quite ready to spend thousands of dollars on an authentic Turkish handicraft.

In our case, it was a “courtesy” visit to a local carpet making school. And it actually was quite cool - they explained to us how local women come and spend several months learning how to make various kinds of carpets, and how upon “graduation” the women are turned out to make the carpets at their own home and in their own time - thus providing an extra source of income for impoverished local families.

We were able to see a few women working at their looms, and it was hard not to be astonished at the time and effort required to make the rugs. Apparently, even a medium sized silk rug - with incredibly tight stitching - can take months and months to make. 

The “guide” then brought us to the showroom, where the workers unrolled a dizzying array of invariably unique and attractive rugs made by members of the school. “No obligation to buy,” they remind us. Of course, we’d love to buy one of them - many of them are incredibly beautiful. But, unfortunately, $5,000+ for a silk rug is just a little bit out of our price range. And so you leave, and it’s hard not to notice the looks of disappointment on the faces of the gallery owners. 


Priene - like most of Turkey’s ancient sites, Priene tends to be overshadowed by Ephesus and Hierapolis. However, located halfway up a mountain in a rural part of the country, it’s arguably in a more beautiful location than Ephesus and inarguably features far fewer crowds.

Me, and the view from Priene

It’s hard to keep track of who lived where and when, but I believe his was mostly a Greek settlement, and it never had the population of Ephesus and other ancient cities in the area.

Beyond the extraordinary view of the fertile river valley below and the cliffs above, some of the things that stood out to me at Priene were the sheer number of fallen columns

As well as the large ampihtheater, where I sat on a throne like some sort of king.

The only other visitors we came across were a German family standing in the amphitheater who inexplicably began incanting some sort of (creepy) poetry in a tone and rhythm not unlike something you might hear at some sort of demonic invocation.

No demons appeared, but by this point the clouds were threatening thunderstorms. So we headed back down the mountain and on to my favorite place in Turkey.

Next time I visit the incredible travertine slopes and pools of Pamukkale. Until then, dear reader: Güle Güle.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Istanbul (not Constantinople)

Airplane travel really sucks the life out of you. International travel in particular. For five or ten or fifteen hours you exist in a sort of limbo (or perhaps purgatory) as the cramped metal tubular thing you're flying in hurtles towards its destination. And no matter how many newfangled in-flight entertainment options the airlines offer, the time seems to drag on forever.

...But finally, after about 12 (or 1200, depending on your arithmetic) hours of flying, you arrive - and (hopefully) it's suddenly all worth it.


It's 9:00am in Istanbul, we're tired, bleary-eyed, and bedraggled - and ready to explore one of the world's great cities.

Istanbul is a huge, sprawling city with many thousands of years of history and a population of more than 14 million people. Even if we had a full month in the metropolis it would be altogether impossible to visit every interesting site. With just three days to visit, we've opted for the "Greatest Hits" tour. Fortunately, a good majority of Istanbul's most famous sights are located in and around the relatively compact Sultanahmet section of the city.

The Mosques

Our first stop, about a ten minute walk from our hotel room, is the central square where both the Blue Mosque (aka Sultan Ahmed Mosque) and Aya Sophia (aka Hagia Sophia) lie directly across from each other. The Blue Mosque is possibly the most impressive of the two sights, but both are awe-inspiring in their own way. It's not until you're up next to them that you realize the true massiveness of these buildings.

The Blue Mosque is still a working mosque, so it's closed at certain times of the day for prayers and most areas are not accessible to the public. However, it's arguably most impressive on the outside, so it wasn't too much of a problem.

Interior of the Blue Mosque
Aya Sofia, once a Greek Orthodox church and then a mosque, has since been officially converted into a museum. As such, it's much more accessible than the BM and we were able to explore it more fully. Both on the outside and the inside, it's a sort of strange mashup of different styles - with symbols of Islam side by side with very Christian images of Mary and the cross.

Interior of Aya Sophia

Basilica Cistern

At the entrance of the Basilica Cistern - right next door to the Aya Sofia - you descend about 100 feet into a gigantic underground (you guessed it!) cistern.  Hundreds of pillars - a small handful of them carved with images of Medusa and other ancient figures - hold up the ceiling and create an appropriate sense of "epicness." As befits a cavern that's capable of holding millions of gallons of water, the whole place is humid and slick with moisture.

There's not much to the place other than the pool of water and the pillars, but it's still a unique experience to walk through this still architecturally impressive 1500-year old well - though it's probably also the most dispensable of the places we've visited so far if you don't have a lot of time in Istanbul.

Topkapi Palace

It's a short walk from the two mosques and the cistern to Topkapi Palace - a complex of palaces, residences, and other buildings used by Turkish sultans and other government officials for nearly 500 years. A mishmash of architectural styles, Topkapi is probably more notable for the history behind it than for any single building.

Some of the most notable areas in Topkapi:

-A "treasures" room containing many Holy Relics, including keys to the Kaaba in Mecca as well as swords and cloaks believed to have been worn by the Prophet Mohammad and his companions.

-Various rooms containing some beautiful examples of Arabic calligraphy. I've often thought that Arabic writing can be a work of art in and of itself, and these were some of the finest examples I've ever seen.

-The palace site also provides an interesting vantage point across the Golden Horn and Bosphorous Strait (the body of water that marks the boundary between Europe and Asia.) It's only when you see the city from this angle that you truly get an idea of how truly massive it is - sprawling as far as the eye can see in almost all directions.

Grand Bazaar

About a 15-30 minute walk from Topkapi is one of the single largest markets in the world. Though very busy, the Grand Bazaar seems slightly less chaotic and stressful than some other Middle Eastern markets I've visited (I'm looking at you Cairo Market.) You never feel completely trapped by shoppers and merchants, and even though the entire place is enclosed and some of the alleyways get somewhat tight, I never feel any trouble from my mild sense of claustrophobia and intense fear of being smothered by human beings. Of course, that may simply be down to the time of the day we're visiting.

The market is filled with thousands (3000+) of shops selling everything from tourist items (like t-shirts, kitschy "art" products, and beautiful but hugely expensive Turkish rugs) to everyday goods like groceries and spices and delicious, delicious chocolates.

Of course, haggling is one of the most essential skills for shopping at any market in this part of the world - and it's a skill I have yet to develop. So rather than being quoted an insultingly high "tourist price" for a t-shirt that says "I Heart Istanbul," I'm content to sit back and enjoy all the wares on display and leave the bargaining to those more inclined to such activities.


Once you leave the immediate area of the two big mosques - and the inevitable accompanying tourist trap restaurants - you should be able to find reasonably priced meals. During our first two days in the city, we ate at several restaurants that provide excellent, filling meals for an affordable price. In fact, our cost per meal averaged about $7 per person. 

The best dish I tried was a yogurt & kebab dish from an unpretentious restaurant across the street from our hotel. But every meal we had was good.

On the dessert end of things, I'm sad to report that Turkish delight - at least the varieties we've tried so far - just isn't that good. The flavors are too artificial and the gummy consistency just doesn't do it for me. However, we were offered a small sample of a pomegranate & pistachio delight that tasted much better than anything else we tried, so it may simply be down to finding the right place that makes it fresh and with the right ingredients. 

Beyond that, the pastries are uniformly very good, and freshly made baklava is divine.


We stayed at the Basileus Hotel, a fine establishment with wonderfully helpful workers and a delicious breakfast buffet every morning. The hotel itself just overlooks the narrow streets and similarly nondescript buildings across the way, but there are lots of shops and restaurants nearby, and the main area of Sultanahmet is just a short walk away.

Unfortunately, our time in the city coincided with the worst power outage in Turkey in many years (the cause of which is still unknown), so we ended up spending part of the evening in the dark and without internet. But this situation allowed us the experience of going into a darkened bakery and ordering baklava and cheese pastries by candlelight, so it was probably worth it.

Anyways, after two full days of sightseeing, it was just about time to finally catch up on sleep. Jet lag, like airplane travel, isn't much fun.


Next up, dear reader, we visit some lovely ancient ruins. as well as one of the most amazing places in the world.

In the meantime, here's a random photo dump: