Saturday, May 16, 2015

Cappadocia from Above

I'm afraid of heights. Planes terrify me. Cliffs terrify me. Second story windows frighten me. Roller coasters send me running for the hills (as long as those hills aren't very high and don't have any cliffs.)

So it was with great surprise that I found myself early one morning in Cappadocia, Turkey climbing into the basket of a hot air balloon.

How did I get here? What was I doing? What is the meaning of life? 

I don't know - but there I was...


The air is slightly chilly - it's a good thing we brought our jackets. The sun hasn't quite begun to come up, but in the blue-gray light we can see the silhouettes of Cappadocia's surreal cliffs around us.

The company men unpack the air balloon with expert efficiency. It's strange (unsettling?) to see this contraption that we'll soon be riding thousands of feet through the air in get pulled out of an over-sized duffel bag. 

While we wait for our balloon to inflate, we begin to see other balloons rising into the air. They glow red and orange against the pre-dawn sky. 

And then, after a few minutes, it's our turn.

You don't even feel the balloon leave the ground. It's nothing like a plane, with its obnoxiously loud noises and sudden acceleration. In this case, one moment you're motionless on the ground, the next moment you're steadily rising into the air. The only sound is the steady burst of flaming hot air into the balloon. The calmness of the whole process (no turbulence!) eases some of my fears. 

Soon we're several hundred feet in the air. We're above the level of the cliffs and canyons now. All around us, in every direction, we see other balloons - dozens of them.

The ground continues to recede. 

Our pilot (a friendly Portuguese man who previously did the same thing in Tanzania) helpfully announces our altitude on a regular basis. 

"300 meters."

(i'm not scared)

"500 meters."

(nope, not scared)

"750 meters."


"1000 meters."

(ok, yeah, I'm a little bit scared.)

I make the mistake of looking down - straight down. The ground is really far away. There's only a few inches of basket between our feet and... Nothing. Thousands of feet of nothing. A video plays in my head: I lose my balance, trip over something, and tumble out of the basket...

It's a long way down.
Spoiler: Nothing happens. It is in fact very calm up here. I'm still scared, but I'm starting to get over it. We're in the air for quite a while, and I begin to appreciate the beauty of the setting. Even the cliffs and canyons seem rather small and far away now.   

We go just a little bit higher, until it seems like we're the highest of all the balloons in the sky. The sun rises over the horizon.

Finally, it's time to go back down. 

The process of going down is just as painless as the process of going up. It doesn't even feel like you're moving - until you notice that the ground is much closer now. 

Then we spend a good 15-20 minutes kind of just skimming along the surface trying to find a suitable place to land. When you're in an air balloon, you're more or less completely at the mercy of the prevailing winds. 

And then with a thump we make touchdown. 

(hooray! i'm not dead!)


We've landed in a fairly isolated spot, so it takes a while for the company vans to reach us to take us back to our hotels. After being fully deflated, the balloon is put back inside its duffel bag.

We just flew in that flimsy piece of cloth.
The pilot celebrates our safe landing by serving wine (and juice for the teetotalers among us.) And I think: I just spent more than an hour floating in a balloon thousands of feet above the ground - and I survived! If that's not worth celebrating, what is? 

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Bodrum and the Turkish Coast

On the Road

After Afrodisias, we left the ruins behind us (more or less) and headed for the coast.

The road to the coast takes you through some lovely rural areas.

If you're "lucky," you might even encounter some interesting road blocks.

The roads in the less developed areas could get a precarious at times - and driving through the little towns and cities is no fun at all - but we eventually made it to our destination.

The Coast

Bodrum is a major coastal city that has been around for 1000s of years. In fact, it's actually the site of one of the original (no longer extant) seven wonders of the world - the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus. The Mausoleum is just a pile of ruins now, but at one point it was apparently one of the most impressive architectural feats in all of the ancient world.

Our hotel, located up on the hillside overlooking the bay, offered a spectacular view of the surrounding area. From our table in the dining area we were able to watch the sunset over the sea. (The restaurant itself also made some wonderful local dishes that were among the best we ate during our trip.)

The 15th century Bodrum Castle at sunset

The city of Bodrum

The next morning we took a drive along the peninsula and stopped at one of the small local beaches.

Yes, my eyes are closed. My eyes are always closed.

We didn't have a lot of time to spend on the coast, but I enjoyed the chance to experience some more of Turkey's abundant natural beauty.

After about 24 hours by the sea, it was time for some more flying - to one of Turkey's most famous regions.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Turkey in Ruins, Part II

As I mentioned in Part I, Turkey has a lot of ancient ruins. Here are the two others we visited:


Pamukkale kind of offers the world's greatest twofer - on the hillside, you get the incredible hot springs and travertine pools I described in my last post. On the top of the hill, besides the incredible views of the valley below, you get the chance to explore an extensive ancient city.

Occupied by various groups over the millennia, Hierapolis was most prominent during Roman times - when it grew to a populationa of tens of thousands. Unsurprisingly, many of the ancient residents - like the modern visitors - came for the nearby hot springs, which were known for their therapeutic qualities.

Nowadays, you get a giant necropolis filled with

A sarcophagus (I think) near the cliff edge.

Lots of ruined buildings

Plus the aforementioned stunning views of the valley below.

Oh, and then there's Cleopatra's Pool. It used to be a main avenue in the city - but then an earthquake triggered a flood, and now it's the world's coolest swimming pool. 

The incredible Cleopatra's Pool

Yes, you get to swim among the ruined Roman columns and foundation stones.

The water, which comes from a nearby hot spring, is a pleasantly warm temperature. Altogether, it was a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend a morning.


Yes, our next city is named after the Greek goddess of Love.

Like Priene, it's also a bit more off the beaten path than Hierapolis and Ephesus, so crowds were smaller and ticket prices were very reasonable.

Me at Aphrodisias

There are some very cool ruins here, including a ginormous stadium.

The stadium at Aphrodisias

But the most impressive aspect is the museum, which houses thousands of artifacts found during excavations in the area. Most notably, they have many complete - and nearly complete - statues and monuments of famous citizens (along with some mythical ones) who lived and worked here so long ago.

It's always interesting to look into the faces of these statues - you see the artistic details of the creator, and you get a sense of the person it was meant to represent who died so long ago.

"Look into my eyes..."

A boy and his (winged) horse. I believe this is one of the few known artistic representations of the now extinct species of flying horse known as Πήγασος pegasoseud.  


We wandered around the museum for a while, and then headed back out on the road. Ruins can be beautiful and fascinating, but, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, "you kind of, like, get burned out on a bunch of old rocks sometimes, you know?"

So we head out to the gorgeous Turkish coast.