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Archive for the ‘Asia’ Category

Merhaba!  I recently had an opportunity to travel to Turkey with a group of family members including my 10 and 7-year-old daughters to attend a wedding. I had heard great things about Turkey and was very excited about the trip. I was also looking forward to exposing my children to such a different culture than what they’re accustomed to. I consider traveling part of their education and I was eager to share the different sites, architecture, food, music and other cultural aspects of Turkey.  I had read and heard everywhere that Turks love children, but had also heard there was not much in Istanbul for children to do.  But I didn’t need to worry.  As I usually find out on trips, after a certain age, children are much more easily entertained than adults!  For the most part, they’re also easier to please and impress.

After a stopover in JFK, we left on our overnight non-stop flight to Istanbul. The girls loved having their own personal video screens with a large selection of age appropriate movies and games.   After our arrival at the pristine and modern Ataturk International airport, we sleepily and slowly made our way to our hotel in Sultanahmet, the historic district of Istanbul. It was not too hard to convince everyone to take a short nap but it was not easy to wake them up from it!  As I usually like to do when I arrive in a new city, we decided to take an open-top bus city tour.  It’s a great way to get a good overview of the city as well as learning about the history and sites you are seeing thanks to the audio commentary provided.  Of course the kids loved sitting on the top-level of the double-decker bus.  It was great seeing the different parts of the city, fortresses, mosques, parks, palaces along with the street vendors, fish markets, children playing and local families out and about. 

We had an early dinner at the hotel, our first round of Turkish food.  As we found out throughout the trip, it was not easy pleasing the girls palates. Although they eat a variety of foods at home, Turkish food is very different from what they are used to; from their use of different spices, yogurt and vegetables to the different grains, and ways of cooking.  But we almost always found something they could eat such as pasta, delicious pide (similar to white pizza) , french fries, calamari, rice, humus, some kebabs and watermelon (often served after dinner) and they were happy to find that Turkey has a huge variety of many types of fun shaped and delicious breads which we all enjoyed throughout the trip.  They loved buying fresh squeezed orange juice from the many juice stands and even found they loved apple tea, which is served in tiny glass cups throughout the day and after dinner.  My oldest even brought some back to make at home!  

After an early wake up due to the time difference and the 5:30am call to prayer heard throughout the city, we went for breakfast.  This was an easy meal each morning. There were lots of great choices at the buffet including more western choices such as cereals to more Turkish choices such as olives, feta and other cheeses, yogurt, etc.  The girls mostly enjoyed fresh bread with Nutella every morning, a rare treat back home!   Our first day of sightseeing by foot was spent visiting Ayasofia, where everyone was as impressed with the architecture and frescoes as the girls were taken by the cute kitties walking around the grounds (and throughout the streets of Istanbul).  We also visited the Basilica Cistern, a very interesting site and welcomed break from the mid-day heat. Unfortunately my 7-year-old did not care for the dark, underground site and couldn’t wait to leave.  Fortunately it did not take long to visit and getting ice cream and getting to feed the pigeons afterwards quickly put the scary visit behind her.  The Blue Mosque was beautiful and grand.  The girls loved finally getting to wear the scarves we brought to cover their hair and were very interested to hear about muslim customs. After walking around the Hippodrome, with the different columns, including a small obelisk, we rested our feet during a nice outdoor lunch where the girls had some pide and the waiter made napkin roses for them!  Refreshed, we headed for the Grand Bazaar.  There isn’t much you can’t find there.  The girls were fascinated by the vendors and different types of merchandise.  They had their cheeks pinched by vendors several times (a typical gesture towards children in Turkey) and one especially forceful pinching session drew my 7-year-old to tears after she had walked away.  I found that her big blue eyes were quite irresistible and while she loved the compliments she received, she did not care for the pinching!  My 10-year-old enjoyed buying her own souvenirs and asking for prices at the different stalls and making her own decisions as to whether the price was right. Dinner was enjoyed by all tonight in one of the quaint pedestrian alleys of Sultanahmet. To the delight of the girls, we got to sit at a low table surrounded by a bench covered with lots of pillows were we sat to eat our dinner. This was their chance to eat dinner on the couch!

The next three days were divided between sightseeing and wedding related events.  We walked across the Galata bridge, where we checked out the fishermen and then rode the tram to Galata tower and saw the amazing 360 degree views form the top.  We had dinner at Hamdi, a great restaurant with delicious Turkish food and beautiful views of the waterfront and New Mosque (Yeni Cami).  Some of the adults enjoyed a visit to Cagaloglu, one of the oldest, biggest and most impressive Turkish baths in Istanbul.  We visited Topkapi Palace, a large and beautiful complex of which the nicest and most interesting part was the harem, where we saw beautiful tiled mosaics and the girls were interested to learn that the sultans had many wives but there was a special place where only “the favorites” were allowed.  They were amused by the “posh” baths with gold-plated faucets, mosaic and marble walls and floors yet “toilets” that were carved out of stone and at floor level.  Their favorite palace however was probably Dolmabahce.  Whereas Topkapi has more Asian and Ottoman influences and overall appearance, Dolmabahce is much more Western.  So based on their idea of a palace, Dolmabahce was more, well, palatial!  Huge carpeted rooms in reds and blues with heavy French draperies, high ceilings, French ornate furniture, crystal chandeliers everywhere, high canopy beds, maids quarters, children’s playing rooms, libraries and every other type of room imaginable definitely impressed them. Of course they were also impressed to learn that president Obama had had a state dinner there!  We also all thoroughly enjoyed the Bosphorus cruise.  The ferry is simple, with bench seating and a snack bar on board.  But the views are amazing on both sides.  We made quick stops along the way where we beautiful waterfront homes and lots of different types of boats.  We got off the ferry at the last stop, Anadolu Kavagi, and had a seafood lunch and got to walk around the small town and visit a couple of shops before boarding the return ferry. 

The wedding we attended couldn’t have been more beautiful. It was held at Del Mare, a beautiful restaurant with excellent food on the Asian side of Istanbul.  The setting on the water is amazing, and the beautiful sunset was a perfect backdrop for the couple arriving by the restaurant’s private boat.  Later, once dark, we enjoyed the view of the Bosphorus Bridge, with its light display that changes colors every few seconds.  We had a great time dancing to both American and Turkish music and really enjoyed the food.

We left the amazing historical city and the hustle and bustle of Istanbul behind after 5 days for a very different experience.  We flew from Sabiha Gocken airport, on the Asian side of Istanbul, to Kayseri, in the Cappadocia region of Turkey, known for its striking landscape, unusual rock formations, some known as “fairy chimneys”, underground cities, and entire cities built inside these rock formations, including homes and churches.  On our drive from Kayseri to Goreme, where our hotel was located in the center of Cappadocia, we saw the landscape changing from flat rural land to unusually carved mountains and soon enough we spotted the first fairy chimneys!  Many hotels in this area have taken over some of these ancient “cave homes” and have made the necessary changes to convert them to hotels.  A cave hotel is a must if you want to get the full experience here.  We stayed at Kelebek hotel, a beautiful cave hotel at the top of a hill looking down on Goreme and the valleys surrounding it as well as mountains in the background.  The views from the many levels, patios, restaurant and pool of the hotel were extraordinary.  We never tired of it.  Of course the girls thought it was very cool to stay in a room that was carved into the rock!  And the unusual scenery was unlike anything they had ever seen.  The small and refreshing pool was a welcome sight for them. I enjoyed my local Efes (beer) on one of the loungers with a great view while they splashed in the pool and made friends with an Italian girl who was also on vacation. I enjoyed watching them interact and trying to communicate in languages the others didn’t really speak, with a lot of gestures, grunts, pointing, and translating help from the parents.  But adults can learn from kids.  They managed to have a wonderful time and make a new friend despite the obstacles.  After the relaxing break, we headed for Goreme’s outdoor museum.  It was an amazing place full of previously inhabited cave homes, cave churches with frescos still on the walls, etc.  The girls really enjoyed going in the different rooms and trying to figure out what the rooms and different carved niches were used for and going through door openings, cave hallways and up and down steps carved into the rock to access the different rooms.

The next morning, after being woken at sunrise by the call to prayer coming from the nearby minaret, I decided to go outside my room to one of the hotel’s patios to admire the sunrise.  It was probably the most beautiful sunrise I have ever seen.  The colors in the sky were breathtaking and the amazing landscape below made it even better.  Soon, I started seeing the hot air balloons rising up into the sky and before too long, I walked around the entire hotel counting a total of 20 balloons in the sky. This is a popular (albeit pricey) activity in this area that most say is worth the cost and I hope to be able to participate in on my next visit.  After a delicious and plentiful breakfast, we departed on our full day tour of the area.  We started with a 3 km hike in the Rose Valley. It was hot and we drank plenty of water but the views and terrain were unusual and breathtaking. The tour guide picked grapes off forgotten vines which we ate along the way and made the girls forget about the heat for a while.  The path was mostly sandy and could be a little slippery at times. So shoes with good treads are recommended!  After we were picked up by our van, we drove to Pasabag (Monks Valley), where the most unusual mushroom-shaped rock formations can be seen and explored. After some refreshing fresh squeezed orange juice from a vendor, we got back in the van and went to a local large pottery studio and factory where all pottery is made by hand, mostly using pottery wheels and painted by local artists.  The quality was incredible and appreciated even by the non-connoisseurs.  The level of skill, precision and patience required to finish some of the pieces was hard to imagine.  After our visit, we had an excellent lunch at a local restaurant before heading to Kaymakli underground city.  Not for the claustrophobic, or the very tall, this was a very interesting and entertaining tour.  We wandered through 4 floors (all below ground) around the different rooms once used for sleeping, eating, stables, storage, cooking and more, all connected by tunnels were everyone but the girls (finally grateful to be short) had to bend at the waste and crouch down to get around. 

On our way back to town we stopped at an ATV rental shop and decided to take a 1 hour tour (another great way to see the area).  We had an absolute blast going down dirt roads and off-road.  It was a first time on ATVs for all of us and not only was it a fun way to see the are from a different perspective but it was an exciting and great way to end the day.  After being “air dusted” by the guide, we went to dinner and went back to the hotel for one last quick dip in the pool.  To the disappointment of my 7-year-old, the tooth fairy did not come from one of the fairy chimneys this night, no matter how much wiggling she did during the day.  It wasn’t until the flight back to Istanbul that she finally lost her tooth and hoped the tooth fairy would know where to find her!  The following morning was a repeat of the previous one with the amazing sunrise, views and hot air balloons in the sky. After breakfast we departed for the airport for our flight back to Istanbul.  Because most flights back to the U.S. depart early in the morning, we had to spend the night in Istanbul. For convenience, we chose to stay near Ataturk airport and stayed at the recently opened Courtyard by Marriott. I was very happy we stayed there. There are not many great choices around and I would guess that this is the best one. It was certainly the nicest Courtyard I had ever stayed in with very large, modern and nicely appointed rooms, nice bathroom, good restaurant and a beautiful circular indoor pool which we enjoyed this afternoon before dinner and our last night in Turkey.

I highly recommend Turkey as a travel destination. It is such a wonderful mix of Eastern and Western cultures!  It’s a perfect alternative for those who do not want to travel further than Europe, are comfortable in Europe, yet want to explore something quite different.  And for those who have been to Turkey on a cruise and explored the coastal towns should return and explore Istanbul in-depth as well as some of the beautiful inland areas such as Cappadocia.

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