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This website is about Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ). I'm a black belt who started in 2006, teaching and training at Artemis BJJ in Bristol, UK. All content ©Can Sönmez

16 September 2009

Turkey 2009: 30th August-16th September

My father is Turkish, and as a result I've been to his home country many times, in order to visit relatives. We used to go as a family every year, but I shifted to travelling on my own with my girlfriend around 2001. As my parents have some property over there, in both Bodrum and Istanbul, it is rather tardy of me that I'm only taking my gf eight and half years into our relationship. I guess better late than never, as the cliché goes.

For this trip, we decided that we wanted to see a bit more of Turkey than just Istanbul or Bodrum, so plumped for a tour group company, Intrepid Travel. My gf and I have travelled with Intrepid before, back in 2004 when we joined one of their tours around China. As there was a 20% discount on Intrepid's 'Comfort Turkey' offering, we jumped at the chance.

The itinerary takes you from Istanbul to the famous rock formations of Göreme in Cappadocia, then onto the conservative town of Konya, followed by Antalya, which by contrast is saturated with tourism. A boat trip from Kaş came next, then the ghost village of Kayakoy, never repopulated after the exchange (more on that later). The trip drew to a close with historical Selçuk, well-placed to visit the ruins of Ephesus, then finally the natural wonders of Pamukkale before returning to Istanbul.

30th-31st August: Istanbul ^

We flew out with British Airways, which is the first time in a while my gf and I have looked beyond the no-frills budget airlines. It was refreshing to not get punched in the wallet for the smallest extras, with a relatively decent meal in the middle of the flight. We arrived into Turkey too late for the orientation meeting at the Blue Hills Hotel in Sultanahmet (the epicentre of Istanbul sight-seeing), so instead had to introduce ourselves to everyone individually at breakfast the following morning.

It soon transpired that with only a few exceptions, our fellow travellers were middle-aged Australian women (ranging from around thirty to seventy). There was also an American and a New Zealander, while my gf and I are from Europe. The gender balance was therefore very heavily female, myself and an older gent providing the sole male representation. That was perfect for me, as I much prefer the company of women. Even better if it's mature women, as that greater life experience tends to mean more interesting conversation!

The tour leader, also Australian, took us on a quick walking tour of Istanbul over the course of the morning (including the beautifully tiled Rustam Paşa mosque), after which we had the day to ourselves, before an overnight train to Göreme. Fortunately for me, my parents were finishing off their own trip that day, which meant my gf and I could meet up with them and have a lovely meal at Saray Muhallebicisi, my favourite restaurant in Beyoğlu. Took me a while to find my father, who found my distinctly touristy outfit hilarious: pale white legs poking out of shorts, shades and a suitably silly hat from Spain.

Travelling from Sultanahmet to my father's boyhood haunts in Taksim meant I got my first look at the new tram system (or at least, new to me). It costs 1.50 TL to go one way to any stop (no matter how near or far down that line), then a further 1.50 TL if you want to change or go back the other way. You either buy a 'jeton' (a round token made of metal or plastic: don't mix them up. For example, the Taksim funicular uses the plastic ones, whereas everywhere else – I think – uses the metal coins), or use an 'akbil'.

If you're familiar with the Oyster card on the London Underground, this works on the same principle: load up your akbil with money at a machine or ticket office, and you can then use your balance by touching it to the relevant part of the turnstile. The akbil itself is a plastic strip with a metal blob at the top: you insert the blob into a round circle on the turnstile, whereupon it tells you how much you've got left, and makes a click to inform you it is now possible to push your way through.

1st-3rd September: Göreme, Cappadocia ^

Our overnight train left Istanbul at around 22:30, getting into Ankara the next morning, followed by a private transfer to Göreme. The surrounding area of Cappadocia is famous for its bizarre rock formations, which are often referred to as 'fairy chimneys'. At least, that is what you'll read in guidebooks: most of them actually look like a giant penis made of rock. I took the conventional photographic route, but there were plenty of imaginatively posed pictures produced by other members of the Intrepid tour group...

Lewd photography aside, these 'chimneys' have seen a good deal of history, having been used as cave dwellings over the centuries. Once you break through the layer which has hardened through exposure to the air, the rock is apparently very soft and easily excavated. That is why people used to literally dig their homes out of these natural structures, the most fascinating examples of which are at the Göreme Open Air Museum. There was once a monastic community in the area, who carved not only homes, but churches too: frescoes still survive, along with iconoclastic decoration.

On a more random note, there was also a large film crew following round a group of men in tracksuits. My girlfriend and I looked on curiously from the steps of an old monastery, trying to work out who these people were. A few days later, that question was answered as we briefly watched the TV in our Konya hotel room: it was the Turkish football team, who were training in nearby Kayseri. My father would have been a lot more excited than I was to see Fatih Terim (current national team manager and famous ex-player for Galatasaray), so shame he wasn't there with me.

The Open Air Museum also gave me the opportunity to pick up a Müze Kart ('museum card'). For 20 TL, this gets you into a huge range of museums and sites across Turkey, so it's incredibly good value. My parents had recommended I get one, as it pays for itself quickly, especially given how expensive places like Hagia Sophia and Topkapı Palace are. The only downside is that you have to be Turkish. That means while I had no problems (except other Turks often find it a little strange my grasp of Turkish is so tenuous), I had no luck trying to get one for my girlfriend. "Turkish only, sorry," was the blunt response.

Göreme is relatively touristy, but in a much less obnoxious fashion than a major centre like Istanbul or one of the coastal resorts. We weren't pestered by touts, and as the guide books promise, the hotels are plonked straight into the middle of ordinary village life. Outside where we were staying at the Arch Palace, there were a bunch of chickens and a rooster, while villagers regularly pulled their carts up and down the road, taking no notice of us.

However, being tourists, we were keen for entertainment. Intrepid offers a 'Turkish Night' as one of its optional activities at this point, and despite the way it sounds, it was actually a lot of fun. The performers all seemed eager, with a real sense of humour, so while I've no idea how authentic the folk dancing and food was, I don't particularly care: very enjoyable.

Belly dancing was, as you'd expect in Turkey, a central part of Turkish Night. I had mentioned to the tour leader that the last time a belly dancer had tried to call me up for some audience participation, I was an introverted child on the cusp of puberty, bubbling with hormones. So I tried to hide under the table. That didn't help, as the belly dancer chased me down, gyrating hips leading the way.

I'm now an introverted adult instead, but as an adult, I have access to the joys of alcohol. Naturally the tour leader told everyone in the group to try and make sure the belly dancer picked me, so I was getting through a steady stream of red wine in preparation. Certainly did the trick when I was indeed eventually called up, made even less intimidating by the various other guys who were brought up along with me. The dubious fruits of the belly dancer's instruction can be seen below:

Apparently my gf was disappointed by my lacklustre hip wiggle, given that I'm normally MUCH more enthusiastic. I guess she has a point, as I look a little stiff, but hey, I need '80s music to really throw myself into the dancing. Other cheese will do the job too, like at my sister's wedding (for Facebook friends of mine). ;)

3rd-4th September: Konya ^

As the alcohol slithered its way out of our systems, we were on another bus across the country, this time to the conservative centre of Konya. 'Conservative' was a word that repeatedly popped up in descriptions, and to an extent it is certainly true. Far more women in headscarves, and Ramadan appears to be a bigger deal than places we'd been previously. That was made abundantly clear when it got later at night, and it was time to announce the end of fasting. Most places would make do with a guy chanting, or possibly drums. That's not good enough for Konya: they set off a massive explosion. Which is especially loud if you happen to be trying to drink tea in the park a few metres away.

I have to say that Konya itself didn't hold that much interest for me. It was nice not being bothered while walking through the shopping areas, and the Mevlana Museum had a few attractive exhibits, but it isn't a city you especially need to see. If I was in the area again for some reason, I'd bypass Konya and head straight for Çatalhöyük, an archaeological site I would love to visit (unfortunately we arrived too late during our one day in Konya). It can legitimately stake a claim as the oldest human city in the world, founded around 7000BC (IIRC).

If you're heading to the Mevlana Museum (2 TL), be aware that it's a pilgrimage site, so wearing a headscarf and covering your shoulders and knees would be advisable. It also apparently attracts the mentally unbalanced, judging by one chap who was wandering around stroking everything in reach and pressing his face to exhibits. He seemed entirely unconcerned with the prominent DO NOT TOUCH signs, brazenly slouched next to one of the tombs. Security attempted to get him to move at one point, but either they gave up trying, or he said something suitably pious in Turkish. I would be surprised if you had more leeway in a shrine than in a typical museum, though obviously I don't know how the conversation went.

4th-6th September: Antalya ^

Antalya has a lot more to offer for the average tourist. After a six hour coach journey, we had the afternoon to ourselves, with no group activities planned. Along with a fellow traveller on the Intrepid tour group (I have absolutely no sense of direction, so always try to tag along with somebody else if possible), I headed to one of the reasons I wanted to go on this trip in the first place: the Antalya Archaeological Museum.

My father had told me this was among the best museums in Turkey, and it didn't disappoint. There is a stupendous collection of sarcophagi, my favourite featuring a chronological series following the twelve labours of Hercules (I adore the old tongue-in-cheek TV series, so even without my longstanding interest in mythology, Hercules gets my attention). I particularly liked the way the sculpture connects all twelve into a developing narrative: first you see a beardless Hercules slay the Nemean lion, then later he's wearing the lion skin as a cloak, steadily sprouting a manly set of whiskers as you continue to walk around the four sides of the sarcophagus.

The best aspect of the museum is probably its comprehensive information panels. The translation to English is perfect, and they are both actually informative and helpful in adding to enjoyment of accompanying exhibits. The Hall of Gods was another highlight, although the lighting relied upon motion sensors, which got a little annoying: you had to dance around in front of the statues to finish reading the captions.

For some reason, after all that hard work the museum put into ancient history, it gives up once you get to the ethnographic section. Suddenly the information panels disappear, meaning you've got no idea what you're looking at or its importance. Given that there is so much else to see, this isn't a big problem, but it's a shame the standard drops at the end.

Antalya itself has plenty of history in its architecture, centred in the old Kaleici district, where our hotel was located. I had a great time on the second day just meandering past the cluster of buildings, listening to a podcast on Byzantine history. My girlfriend headed off to a waterfall instead, which apparently was well worth the trip, but as I'm more interested in history than natural wonders anyway, I thought I'd save the cash.

6th-9th September: Kaş & Kayakoy ^

Kaş was next up on the tour, our starting point for a beautiful boat trip. September can be variable in terms of weather, but we were lucky that it stayed clear for our time at sea. Food was included, which was handy: the tasty meal involved one of the very few things I can cook, köfte. Our boat stopped at regular points, allowing for some swimming, as well as a bit of sight seeing, led by our personable tour guide. The longest pause was at a fishing village you can only reach by boat (but on all the tourist routes): very pretty place, with fabulous ice cream. Xanthos, the local group Intrepid used for the boat tour, seem to be a good company, so if they're always up to that standard, I can recommend them.

The UNESCO World Heritage site of Kayaköy followed, which proved to be a revealing personal experience for me. We were told the name literally means 'ghost village', which is confusing. While 'köy' definitely translates as 'village', I know someone called Kaya: it means 'rock', not 'ghost'. Unless I misheard, and they said 'the ghost village of Kayaköy', rather than claiming that was its actual name.

Either way, the reason it's referred to as the 'ghost village' is due to the fact the entire population was moved to Greece during the early part of the 20th century. The idea was to effect a 'population exchange' between Turkey and Greece, with 'Turks' moving to Turkey and 'Greeks' moving to Greece. Theoretically you can see what they were thinking, but in practice, it involved uprooting people from their homes, their friends and their livelihood due to quirks of religion. These people may have lived there for centuries: they certainly didn't care about arbitrary borders.

Kayaköy was one of the failures. There were many more Turks of 'Greek' ancestry relocated to Greece than in the other direction. Even when there were Turks to replace the Greeks, they weren't always able to flourish in a new environment. Hence why Kayaköy was abandoned: there was nobody to take over from the previous inhabitants. Shells of buildings dot the landscape, along with derelict churches, a few of which still retain some of their decoration, but mostly it looks as if the area was a casualty of war.

The reason this was personal for me is that I'd known my grandfather used to live in Crete. I also knew that he'd moved to Istanbul after the Ottoman Empire collapsed, almost taking Turkey with it (and probably would have, if it wasn't for Ataturk: as a result, you'll see his face everywhere you go in Turkey). What I didn't realise until going to Kayaköy was that this meant he was in fact part of that population exchange. Asking my aunt and father later on, they told me that my grandfather's family had been in Crete for a couple of hundred years prior to that. So, somewhere in a graveyard in Crete are the bones of my ancestors, which is a weird thought.

Kayaköy was also our base to visit Ölüdeniz, the most unpleasantly touristy part of the whole trip. I don't have a problem with tourists, as that's exactly what I was doing: Intrepid is a tour group, after all. However, I don't much enjoy the chavvy brand of tourist which is unfortunately one of Britain's major exports, on show in force at Ölüdeniz. My girlfriend and I decided to head off for another boat trip, as the first one had been so good, but it was overrun by chavs.

One lady in particular epitomised that kind of tourism. In the middle of Ramadan, a religious festival based on abstinence, she was proudly displaying her breast implants to the Turkish crew. Not satisfied with baring all whilst sunbathing, she later took to lounging around the ship, still topless. If you want to get a tan on your chest, fine, but a smidgeon of cultural sensitivity wouldn't go amiss.

Speaking of the Turkish crew, there was an entertaining character on board, looking to take photographs and sell them back to tourists. I'm not sure how much money he makes doing that, as most people have their own cameras, but he does at least have a gimmick. Ramos sports a full beard and long hair, wears a sash, a three-cornered hat and a bandana. Remind you of anyone? Ramos insists he came up with the idea long before the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, but it's a pretty blatant Jack Sparrow outfit. Most amusing of all, he has a t-shirt with a picture of himself on it, grinning happily with thumbs up.

9th-12th September: Selçuk & Pamukkale ^

There was flooding during that week, so our bus to Selçuk was a little delayed. Once it finally got going, it took us four and a half hours to reach our destination: it's indicative of how much travelling this tour involved that it seemed like a short journey. The main purpose of going to Selçuk was its proximity to Ephesus, a major Roman ruin. It is also the namesake of Efes Pilsen, my father's beer of choice.

When you've been to Pompeii, it is tough for any other ruin to live up to expectations, but Ephesus does have plenty of intriguing things to see. The remains of a library and the theatre are two of the highlights, with various interesting sculptures, gates and columns dotted around the site.

The Ephesus Museum back in Selçuk is something you should make sure to check out in order to get the full picture. The highlight comes in the form of two large statues of Artemis from her temple, once counted among the original Seven Wonders of the World. I had also hoped to check out the archaeological library mentioned in my guidebook, but annoyingly it was closed to the public: apparently students from the University of California had taken it over until the 14th September. Bleh. I had a quick whiz around St John's Basilica instead, which I wouldn't have paid for, but as I could get in with my Müze Card anyway, I thought I might as well.

Another tourist stop when in Selçuk is the short bus trip to Sirince. Like Kayaköy, this was subjected to a population exchange, but in Sirince's case, the transplant was successful. The Greeks who settled there came from a wine-making region in Greece, and found the land around Sirince well-suited to apply their cultivation skills. Hence why Sirince is now famous for its wines, especially the many fruit wines, which is what the tourists head off to drink. If you wanted to, it would be pretty easy to get roaring drunk, as there are streets full of shops, all offering a free tasting. There isn't a whole lot of point in shopping around, however (unless you're on an extended 'tasting'), as the price for any bottle of fruit wine appears to be set at 10 TL.

Pamukkale was our final stop before heading back to Istanbul, and it was what my girlfriend had been waiting for. As I mentioned, she's a big fan of natural wonders (as described on the Pamukkale website, it is home to a rare chemical process), so was excited to see the white travertines. I hadn't been too thrilled by the prospect, but must admit it was fun to walk up them barefoot, especially paddling through the pools squishing the soft minerals between your toes.

The travertines themselves are fragile, and easily damaged by human sweat and the dirt from footwear. That is why you have to take your shoes off before heading up the slope (there is a broad path you are allowed to use, but only barefoot). There has already been serious damage, due to the tourist boom some years ago: hotels were once built directly on top of the travertines. All those tourists bathing and walking in their shoes on the travertines discoloured the rock. This has since been stopped and the hotels pulled down.

Or rather, it is something the authorities are trying to stop. There wasn't much security, which could do with being beefed up. You are supposed to stick to the path, which our Intrepid tour group did, but many others didn't. I'm not quite sure why, but Russians appear to be very bad at this (at least I assume Russian: may have misplaced the language). They took no notice of the frequent signs or angry whistles of the guards, caring only about posing for pictures. It got worse later on at night, when the guards couldn't see, with these idiots crunching down the travertines in their shoes. It's frustrating that there are always a few people more than happy to ruin it for everyone else.

I was more interested in the Roman ruins at the top of the travertines, Hierapolis. Not only does this boast a fine museum (if small), it also has the best Roman theatre I've ever seen, easily superior to the example at Ephesus, with even the stage fairly well preserved. That theatre also boasts an incredible view: if we had time, I would have liked to have sat there much longer. One of many reasons I'm keen to return at some point in the future.

13th-16th September: Istanbul ^

Istanbul holds plenty of memories for me, especially the area my grandparents used to live. Sadly they both passed away several years ago, my grandmother following her husband, meaning I can no longer look forward to their boisterous welcome. My grandfather's shop, where his broad smile and sparkling humour brightened the street for decades, is in the process of being redeveloped. I haven't been back since he died, so it was sad to see that shopfront transformed into a characterless, empty flat.

Nevertheless, my aunt still lives nearby (literally: her flat is in the block next door), and she was very happy to see my girlfriend and I. It has been at least eight years since I last saw my aunt, and she's never met my girlfriend before, so was full of Turkish hospitality. Linguistically that made for an unusual experience, as I was speaking to my aunt and uncle in German, who would occasionally clarify between themselves in Turkish, which I would then translate into English for my gf.

The women who had joined us on the Intrepid trip hadn't entirely dispersed by this point, so we were able to have a get-together on the top floor of the Blue Hills Hotel. We got through some of our wine from Sirince, staying well away from the somewhat sparse safety precautions. Instead of a fence, there is currently a string stretched along the roof edge, which doesn't exactly inspire confidence.

It was lovely to spend some more time with the Aussies: my second Intrepid tour has definitely made me want to go with the company again somewhere else. This was undoubtedly the best tour group I've ever been with, and they really added to the experience. Hopefully we'll all be able to keep in touch. However, I remain less than eager to return to Australia (I've been once before, but only for a couple of days), despite their repeated attempts to reassure us it wasn't that dangerous. At least in England, you can be pretty certain that it is only other people who might hurt you, as opposed to the majority of the wildlife. ;)

The next day my gf and I moved over to my parents' flat, which has a similarly grand view (although annoyingly, the chap across the street somehow got planning permission for an extra storey, which has partially obscured what used to be an amazing panorama). It's located above my aunt, so she was on hand to help us settle in. Having family in Turkey is a major advantage!

My gf's second introduction to Istanbul began with the Blue Mosque, which while worth visiting in its own right (especially as it's free), we went to because the guidebook recommended it as a comparison for our next stop, Hagia Sophia. This was of particular interest to us both due to all the Byzantine reading we'd been doing. It is a hefty 20 TL to get in (if you don't have a Müze Kart), and at present armoured in several layers of scaffolding.

That detracts from the spectacle of the dome, and also means certain of the mosaics aren't fully visible, which is annoying. However, the upper galleries continue to boast all their treasures, though you'll have to wait for the crowds to thin out for a decent view. Although there is impressive artwork on display, I'm not sure I'd pay 20 TL if I didn't have the Museum Card.

I have been to Topkapı Palace many times, but was newly excited by the excellent book I'd been reading, Inside the Seraglio by John Freely. I'd forgotten just how busy it gets. The courtyards were rammed with tour groups for much of the day, resulting in long queues for popular exhibits like the treasury. Aggravatingly, numerous sections were closed, including my favourite, the weapons room. It is also very expensive, as on top of your 20 TL, you have to pay another 20 TL for the Harem (even with a Müze Kart). Nevertheless, there is plenty to see, from sacred preserved footprints through to jewel encrusted thrones, along with beautiful views of the Bosphorus.

Rather better value can be found at the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. For 10 TL, you have access to a tremendous range of ancient history, easily comparable to the exhibits on display at Antalya. The highlight is a section devoted to finds from the Royal Acropolis of Sidon (in modern-day Lebanon), especially the so-called Alexander Sarcophagus. This recreates scenes from the life of Alexander the Great, with some of the original paintwork still clinging to the stone. My favourite, however, was a sarcophagus featuring a pair of sphinxes above battling centaurs: the design seemed almost art deco, centuries before it came into vogue. I guess unsurprising, as the inspiration had to come from somewhere.

I'd also recommend the Basilica Cistern (known in Turkish as the 'sunken palace', Yerebatan Sarayı), though your 10 TL (3 TL with a Müze Kart) does not get you quite as much this time. The cistern is a subterranean reservoir, filled with columns brought from all over the city, meaning there is considerable diversity. Best-known are the two columns placed atop rotated medusa heads, which has generated numerous theories: perhaps a means of showing Byzantine dominance over pagan gods, or simply a practical method for further elevating pillars. More randomly, there are a large number of carp swimming in the shallow waters, clamouring for breadcrumbs.

If you have a spare 8 TL (again, I had my Museum Card, which covered it), you could also check out the Great Palace Mosaic Museum, showcasing remains of an old Byzantine palace floor. It is comparatively small, but possesses a glorious collection of Byzantine mosaics. The attraction is that not only are these mosaics well-crafted, but they are still in relatively good condition, remaining sufficiently intact that a large continuous section spreads across most of the museum.

We finished off our stay in Istanbul – and by extension, our time in Turkey - with a visit to the Galata Tower (10 TL, Müze Card again not valid). The only reason to take the lift up this historical monument is the view across the city, as the insides are distinctly modern. There is a cafe and apparently a cultural show on certain nights too, but we didn't have the financial resources or time to take advantage.

I hope to bring my girlfriend to my parents' holiday home in Bodrum at some point in the future, where I'll also have the opportunity to properly explore the history. That will have to wait, however: Spain is a more likely prospect, given that we're both still job-hunting. My personal preference is to finally make it out to America for a BJJ training trip (I'd love to go visit some of my fellow bloggers), but that's going to require a lot more funds.


  1. Jan: I so enjoyed your tour of Turkey, you went to so many places we also visited, even the same restaurant where you did you belly dancing.
    I loved your style of writing - and wished we had crossed paths in Turkey.
    We had a marvellous time there and especially because of the generosity of your family.
    Cheers. Liz Byrd

  2. Thanks, Liz!

    Yes, my father said your tour was similar. I'm glad you had a good time as well: hopefully I'll be back in the not-too-distant future. :)

  3. Thanks for a great post - - - what an amazing trip. I've never had much affinity for tour-guided travel, but I may have to check out an Intrepid Traveler tour at some point.

  4. Cheers - yeah, Intrepid are good, and tend to generate a friendly group atmosphere. You don't feel like one of those mass tours where everybody is herded through at high speed, checking off the main sights so they can say they've 'done' that country.

    Lots of choice, too: Imaginative Traveller is the other one we've used in the past, equally good.