Turkey in Asia

I never expected to be able visit Turkey. Although everyone I knew that had been loved it, they all said how they thought it was too inaccessible for me. You see, I can’t walk much because of my disabilities, and generally use a wheelchair scooter to get around if we don’t have our car handy. I have travel with disabilities down to a science – I do my research, rent a car (or drive our own), figure it out, adjust my day. So how could I travel to Turkey, where the buildings are so ancient that accessibility isn’t really an option? I saw photos, I heard stories and travel tales, I tasted fresh Turkish delight and made gozleme. I hung evil eyes (gifts from loved ones), and read voraciously. Turkey? It was my Mt. Everest.

And then.

Turkish Airlines asked the most influential travel bloggers (including yours truly) from the White House Travel Bloggers Summit to visit Turkey. I asked if they could help make it accessible. Gizem Salcigi White of Turkish Airlines worked hard to make it so – she arranged for a wheelchair for me and found some university students, Sezer and Kadir, to help me get around Istanbul. YES!! I was so excited – I could visit a place that I dearly wanted to explore, but never thought I could. Having disabilities can be difficult, especially for travel. Venice? Probably not an option. Turkey? NOW an option!

The two guys that helped make Istanbul accessible to me.

Kadir and Sezer, two university students that helped make Istanbul accessible to me. 

And so I went – flying from Chicago to Istanbul was effortless. Airport handicap access is not the same the world over, but I had no issues. In fact, in Turkey, Turkish Air has these amazing trucks that lift up to the plane and then drop down and take you to the airport – all in your wheelchair. Genius.

At first, handicap accessibility was easy. I can do up to a flight of steps, so walking a few steps up into the bus that took us into Istanbul was no problem. Our hotel (the Renaissance Bosphorus) was completely accessible. I began to wonder if I had made much ado about nothing.

Cruising on the Bosphorus.

Aboard a cruise on the Bosphorus

Once in Istanbul, all of the travel writers split into groups and then went out to discover different aspects of the city. My trusty wheelchair was stowed in the back of the bus, and my university friends were ready and handy. We went to the Turkish Airlines campus, exploring training for the airline (including heading inside an enormous flight simulator), and the HUGE hangars in which airplanes are repaired. Mostly accessible, thanks to my wheelchair and Sezer and Kadir.

At the Turkish Airlines training center, Istanbul.

At the Turkish Airlines training center

Visiting the Blue Mosque gave me a glimpse into accessibility and ancient buildings. The wheelchair could only go so far – the rest I had to walk. I held tightly onto Kadir’s arm as I climbed the steps into the Blue Mosque, wandered around inside on the soft carpets, and then headed out again, in a daze from the beauty and history of it. Sezer had taken the chair back around to the entrance and was waiting for me.

Steps into the Blue Mosque.

Steps into the Blue Mosque

Heading into the Blue Mosque.

Heading into the Blue Mosque

Inside the Blue Mosque, Istanbul.

Inside the Blue Mosque with Kadir

A visit to the Hagia Sofia… same thing. You can’t really make millennia-old buildings accessible, although there are some concessions (a shorter line to get in, sort of ramps to get over the door steps). I felt a bit stymied (and in a great deal of pain), but enjoyed the time with my new friends, who pushed without complaint and sought new ways to show me parts of these gorgeous buildings. We laughed, explored, and figured it out as best we could. In the back of my mind, I was becoming more and more stressed about actually seeing anything in Istanbul. It’s too ancient, too inaccessible, too crowded.

crazy sidewalks in Istanbul.

Crazy sidewalks in Istanbul – these ancient marble slates were the GOOD sidewalks!

And then it truly became more difficult. Crowds. Traffic. Steep, winding cobblestone roads. I sat in my wheelchair for a long time while my fellow travel writers went down a hill to an incredible arts museum and learned to do traditional Turkish marble painting. It was hot, and I looked at the wares for sale across the street, eyed some of the many Istanbul cats roaming the streets, people watched, and started to feel sorry for myself. It isn’t fun to wait, in the sun, while you’d rather be doing something else and you feel your disabilities acutely. Tears may or may not have entered the picture. 

getting into ancient buildings in Istanbul.

getting into ancient buildings in Istanbul.

Watching cats in Istanbul

Watching cats in Istanbul

The long steep pathway to a traditional crafts museum in Istanbul.

The long steep pathway to a traditional crafts museum in Istanbul – you can’t even see the door from here

And then Sezer left the museum and came up to keep me company. He showed me photos – of his friends, his beautiful mother, his home. I learned that many Istanbulites escape the city as often as they can, to go home to relax and visit family. I learned that family is extremely important in Turkish culture. I learned about what life is like for a university student in Istanbul, far from home (in Sezer’s case, beautiful Antalya). We laughed, played word games, shared stories, and sat in the sun together, enjoying each other’s company. All of a sudden, being in a wheelchair wasn’t so horrible. I was having a great time, instead of missing things I’d wanted to see and experience.

It dawned on me…that instead of seeing the sights of Istanbul (or sitting outside of the sights of Istanbul, if they were too ancient), I was here to learn about the people of Istanbul. That instead of wandering through millennia of history, I could find glimpses of now. Instead of learning about a building (i.e., Topkapi Palace – extraordinarily beautiful, but NOT accessible), I could learn about a person, family, culture. If you know me, you know I love to talk with and learn about people. Why didn’t I realize this earlier, instead of being sad about not seeing the main attractions? The change in me was immediate.

I sparked with joy.

Instead of a tour of Istanbul, I was on a people tour. Here’s how it went…

We next headed down an extremely rough cobblestone street and down a hill (one thing that Sezer and Kadir did was pretend to be Fast and Furious drivers. I didn’t fear for my life, much, but it was a great deal of fun once I got over being scared. Istanbul is hilly!). My travel writer friends headed into a beautiful pottery shop, and learned about making traditional Turkish pottery. I climbed the few steps in, and then waited while our group went downstairs to see traditional moonstone pottery. I found a newspaper with a new kind of game, like Sudoku (with famous people!), and chatted with a local. Learning about Turkish culture and talking with people? CHECK.

The next day, we visited Topkapi Palace. While some of Topkapi is somewhat accessible, most of it isn’t. For me, there was a long, restful period of time sitting around the fountain inside the grounds – peaceful and relaxing. I talked with the guys, with fellow tourists, with girls duckfacing for selfies. We then had lunch at the amazing Istanbul360, known for its views.

At Istanbul 360

At Istanbul 360 – what a view!

Afterward, instead of heading off to explore and photograph Taksim, Galata, and other famous areas of Istanbul, Kadir and Sezer played Fast and Furious again, taking me down a very (very!) steep street (yes, some walking was involved, as the wheelchair would never have made it all the way on the street and sidewalk).

Sidewalks in Istanbul.

Sidewalks in Istanbul. Yes, we headed down this steep road in a wheelchair…

The steep road down to the lemonade cafe.

The steep road down to the lemonade cafe.

Down, down, down the hill in Istanbul.

Down, down, down the hill in Istanbul

Destination? A lovely lemonade café, with a side journey to a bookstore (it’s the academic in me, I can’t pass one without going in) and an art supply store to pick up a notebook for our daughter.

a bookstore in Istanbul

An academic can always find a bookstore or two…

Bookstore in Istanbul

We made it to the lemonade café… and I discovered an entirely local, completely beautiful aspect of Istanbul I never knew existed. Shady trees in between the tall buildings, people playing chess, a professor holding forth to his class at the next table, couples on dates, groups of friends. THIS is also the real Istanbul, as much as the tourist attractions are. We ordered crisp, tart lemonades, and talked school mascots, friends, family, what they were studying in university, and more. We whiled away a few hours, and I thought: today, I discovered a tree in a bathroom, a secret garden, new friends with a wicked sense of humor, and a slice of life in Istanbul. It was glorious.

At the lemonade cafe in Istanbul

Kadir, Sezer, and I sipping lemonade

Look what message I saw on the board at the lemonade cafe in Istanbul!

Look what message I saw on the board at the lemonade cafe in Istanbul!

At the lemonade cafe, Istanbul.

At the lemonade cafe – what an oasis of calm! 

At the lemonade cafe, Istanbul

At the lemonade cafe, Istanbul.

A simple change in perspective can truly change your journey.

 

Evil eyes in Turkey

When our group went to the Spice Market, I was told that it was not accessible. Sezer and I rolled across the empty square, seeing a wedding party and a very smart way to handle the great amounts of trash in Istanbul (hint: it looks like a TARDIS). While I didn’t see the spices inside the market, I did see men on tiny stools having coffee, discussed trash with the trash guy, bought plenty of Turkish delight, discovered and discussed how many Syrian refugees are living in Istanbul, and had freshly roasted corn on the cob with Sezer, who loves old cars and showed me one of his favorites, parked near to where we munched on our corn. It was a different side of Istanbul than I’d expected to discover – one where you see real life, not just tourist stuff.

Turkish delight in Istanbul.

Turkish delight in Istanbul

An open square near the Spice Market, Istanbul

An open square near the Spice Market

Happy wedding! Istanbul

Lovely wedding couple 

TARDIS trash machine in Istanbul

The TARDIS-like underground trash containers in Istanbul

Sezer and I with fresh roasted corn in Istanbul

Sezer and I with fresh roasted corn

Vintage cars in Istanbul

Vintage cars in Istanbul

Sezer is a cowboy, a James Dean, a renegade who will go far, but whose thoughts are never far from his home in Antalya. Kadir? He’s a sensitive, thoughtful guy, very smart and talented (he can bowl backward!), with a strong grip that helped me up many a staircase and a ready smile to encourage me.

Sezer and I in Istanbul.

Sezer and I

Kadir in the Hagia Sofia

Kadir in the Hagia Sofia

My fellow travel writer friends helped when I needed it, lent arms and shoulders, and gave hugs. A loving and friendly face in a stressful situation is a wonderful thing – even better when you are longtime friends and colleagues. Like when you’re an expat and you find a box of Cheerios and your heart gives a leap? Yes. My friends made my heart happy, with their care and love.

My people tour of Turkey didn’t end in Istanbul.

When we flew to Izmir and Kusadasi, to visit Ephesus, the House of the Mother Mary, and the Basilica of St. John (and later, Pamukkale), I spent most of my waiting time with Can (pronounced John), a funny guy with a wry smile and a very caring nature. I hacked his internet while we waited atop Pamukkale (because I am addicted to Instagram and wanted to share it); laughed at signs at the marketplace at the end of visiting Ephesus; learned of his job in tourism and how he tries to help travelers with disabilities.

Can and I in Sirince

Can and I in Sirince

Laughing at Ephesus

Laughing at Ephesus. No genuine fake watches were bought.

Handicap gate to Pamukkale

Handicap gate to Pamukkale

A lovely table atop Pamukkale, where we rested in the shade

A lovely table atop Pamukkale, where we rested in the shade and instagrammed the heck out of the lovely area

When I waited outside of the ruins of the Basilica of St. John, I sat and talked with a man and his father – they ran the gift shop directly across the street. I learned that they each practice Islam very differently, but that understanding goes across generations, and is humble and kind.

new friends near the ruins of the Basilica of St John, Turkey

New friends

While I waited in Sirince, after a glorious lunch at Sirince Artemis, I talked with the woman who ran the beverage shop. She was surprised when I asked for a cold hot chocolate and then made me one after we figured out the language difficulties, and then she made fresh hot donuts for me (I think she wanted me to have something hot that day).

Fresh donuts in Sirince, Turkey

Fresh donuts for me! Thank you!

We visited a local cooperative and learned about traditional Turkish rug weaving. While our group climbed the stairs to see the amazing showroom and museum, I sat in the main weaving room under a tinted portrait of Ataturk, watching the women and girls weave in peace, chatting softly amongst themselves and showing far greater skill and talent than I had ever imagined.

Ataturk

Weaving course in Turkey

Weaving Turkish carpets

I rested and watched her artistry

When we stayed at the Hotel Kismet in Kusadasi, one of the staff very kindly took me down the hill in a golf cart, so I could swim in the Aegean as often as I could. For a mermaid such as I, this was more than welcome – it was life-giving and soul-nourishing. I know he was busy, and I appreciated his efforts.

Catching a golf cart ride down to the Aegean at the Hotel Kismet, Kusadasi.

See how happy I am? BIG THANKS to this kind man for helping me to get to the sea!

When my friends boarded the Turkish Airlines flight back to Istanbul the regular way (walking across the tarmac, climbing the stairs), I talked with the guy who ran those genius accessible boarding trucks, learning about how things work at smaller airports – and who solicitously made sure I got to my seat ok.

Accessible airports in Turkey

I love seeing signs like this! It means WAY less pain for me.

Loading trucks for accessible travel with Turkish airlines

Loading truck for people with disabilities. You go on the back gate in your wheelchair, it rises up to the top. You drive to the airplane, and then get right up next to the plane. Voila – VERY accessible boarding! Thank you, Turkish Airlines.

Did I miss seeing the attractions? Yes. But I learned so much more about Turkey than I realized – about the people who live there and care about their country, who pine for their homes while they are in the city, and who daily practice kindness and generosity to strangers. While some ancient structures may be inaccessible, people with disabilities can definitely visit Turkey – if they change their mindset on how to experience place, as I did. You won’t be able to see everything, but you will be able to experience more than you ever thought possible.

Me and my shadow- accessible Turkey

Can and I and our shadows on some pretty flat marble in Pamukkale

 

And the famous Turkish hospitality? It runs more deeply than I could have imagined, and made me fall in love with this venerable culture and country, which welcomed me with open arms.

 

Accessible Istanbul.

#WidenYourWorld - accessible travel in Turkey

#WidenYourWorld – accessible travel in Turkey is possible!

 

 

Note: This article was originally published at Wandering Educators.

A place of peace, serenity, and hope. I felt all of these – and a gentle wash of kindness – as I ventured up the path toward the House of the Virgin Mary, or Mother Mary (Meryem Ana), located just a few miles away from the busyness of the ruins at Ephesus, Turkey.

It was a hot day in spring, and we had a very important stop before exploring Ephesus. We were visiting a place of pilgrimage for many global religions – that of the House of Mother Mary.

Visiting the House of the Mother Mary

History has it that when Jesus was on the cross, he tasked his apostle John with taking care of his mother. St. John and Mary relocated to this area, John to spread Christianity, and Mary to spend her last days. John is honored by a basilica over his burial site near Ephesus, the ruins of which you can also visit. Mary lived in a small stone cottage, far up on a mountainside. The structure of this building dates to around the 6 century AD, but the foundations date to around 1AD. It has been restored in the last century.

Visiting the House of the Mother Mary

Educational signs, teaching about Mother Mary

Located on Mt. Koressos/Bülbül Dağı (Nightingale Mountain) near Selçuk, Ephesus, and Şirince, Meryem Ana is reached by driving up a narrow winding road. Park, and breathe a sigh of relief for being here at this quiet, historical outpost. Then wander to the outdoor café, where you can rest under beautiful shade trees and have a Turkish coffee – and perhaps a simit stuffed with chocolate, if you’re lucky.

Relaxing at the cafe, at the House of the Mother Mary, Turkey

Snacks at the cafe (including delicious Turkish coffee)

Cafe at the House of the Virgin Mary.

There are both indoor and outdoor tables at the cafe

Refreshed, we made our way up the stone path, through shady trees and blue skies. There was an open area to the left, in which you could look down and see the ruins of a baptismal cistern. We next came upon a small, outdoor chapel with benches. Then a statue of Mother Mary and some large educational signs amidst a beautiful, lush garden on each side of the path.

Pool of Wishes at the House of the Mother Mary, Turkey

Remains of the baptismal cistern

Educational signs at the House of the Mother Mary, Turkey

Educational signs

Statue of Mother Mary at the House of Mother Mary, Turkey

Statue of Mother Mary

Small groups of people wandered up the path, taking their time, enjoying the gardens. At the top, everyone stopped and paused to take in the very small building that is the house of Mother Mary, now a chapel. Our guide, who told us much about Mother Mary, reminded us to take no photos inside, and that the chapel was still in use as a place of prayer.

Looking at this small building, with arched doorways and windows, ironwork on the windows, shaded by tall trees, you’d never guess it as a place of pilgrimage for both Christians and Muslims (Mary, mother of one of the great prophets, is known as Isa Peygamber to Muslims). We approached the open door, and saw a small room within.

Window of the House of Mother Mary, Turkey

Once we stepped inside, though, something was markedly different about the house. The very air changed; it was noticeably still and peaceful, and sounds seemed to fade away. 

A few older, local women kneeled on small benches on the sides of the main room. Their kerchief-covered heads bowed in prayer, they reminded us of the holiness of this place. With quiet, deliberate steps, I walked forward, my footfalls softened and silenced by thick Turkish carpets. Moving slowly through an archway to the main altar, located in the smaller room where Mother Mary slept, I glanced around at the walls, the ceiling, the light streaming in from the windows. I wished I had my camera, but I was also grateful that I didn’t – for no camera can capture the utter peacefulness of these two rooms, the immenseness of millenia of belief, the stone walls holding stories no writer could ever tell as well. At the front, before the altar featuring a statue Mary surrounded by candles, I bowed my own head and paused to soak it all in, and gave thanks for this place.

I exited the house through a small, arched doorway. Once outside, everything seemed clearer, somehow. A few steps more and visitors can light a thin, white candle and place it in sand in large, iron boxes, saying a few words. Stopping to reflect here, I thought about all of the shrines, mosques, and cathedrals I’ve seen around the world. None of them were as peaceful as this small building, perched on a dusty mountain, in view of the Aegean. I like to think that Mother Mary loved being here – loved the view, the landscape, and the people – as I did. This love seeped down into the very rocks of the mountain, I think. We could feel it.

Lighting candles at the House of Mother Mary, Turkey

But the place wasn’t done with me yet. After turning a corner and heading down a few stairs, I came upon a few surprises.

First was a series of three natural springs, which were located in nooks in a tall stone wall. The springs are said to bring health, love, and wealth, so fill your bottle and drink, if you’d like.

Just past the springs is the Wall of Wishes, where I saw thousands of wishes tied to large, rectangular hangings on the wall. I didn’t look closely, because I think wishes are personal, but I was taken aback at the great quantity of them. Just imagine the power of these wishes, carefully tied by pilgrims from all over the world. It’s a startling and important reminder of the power of hope, and of belief.

Wall of Wishes, House of Mother Mary, Turkey

Wall of wishes

Wall of Wishes, House of Mother Mary, Turkey

 

Note: Our guide, a local, told us the story of the fire of 2006. It was an enormous forest fire, spreading rapidly across the mountains, burning all those dry trees and scrub in its path. She said that they all worked hard to stop the forest fire from reaching Mother Mary’s house, but it was a close call. The fire, which burned 1,200 hectares, stopped just 3 feet short of the house.

 

For more information:

http://www.meryemana.info/

http://www.kultur.gov.tr/EN,39846/house-of-virgin-mary.html

 

Tips for visiting the House of Mother Mary

Do not walk to Meryem Ana – the road is narrow, winding, and there are cars and buses utilizing it. Hire a taxi, drive your rental car, or take a bus tour there, for safety. You can also take a bus from Kusadasi for Sunday Mass – be sure to reserve your space on the bus; check the official website above for more information. You’ll know you are on the right path when you pass a very large statue of Mother Mary, guiding the way. There is parking here, so you can hop out and take photos.

Statue of Mother Mary, guiding the way to her house. Turkey

While most of the path is wheelchair accessible, there are a few steps in the walkway up to the house, as well as a steep ramp. Upon exiting the house and descending to the springs, there are a dozen or so stone steps.

There is a souvenir shop at the entrance, across from the café.

The entire area is very clean (including the bathrooms) – the caretakers work hard on this, as you can see. I didn’t see anything out of place here.

Cleaning supplies, House of the Mother Mary, Turkey

Fun bathroom sign at the House of the Mother Mary, Turkey

 

 

 

This article was originally published at: https://www.wanderingeducators.com/best/traveling/visiting-house-mother-mary.html

Note: I was part of a group of White House Travel Bloggers that Turkish Airlines flew in to experience Turkey (thank you, eternally!). Stay tuned for more posts about this special country I’d love for you to explore  – and check out our The Best of Turkey – an A-Z Guide for inspiration from travel writers around the world.

 

Jessie Voigts has a PhD in International Education, has lived and worked in Japan and London, and traveled around the world. She’s published six books about travel and intercultural learning, with more on the way. Jessie is constantly looking for ways to increase intercultural understanding, and is passionate sharing the world through her site, Wandering Educators. She founded and directs the Youth Travel Blogging Mentorship Program, teaching teens all around the world, and is co-founder of Writing Walking Women.

 

All photos courtesy and copyright Wandering Educators

tripe soupTripe Soup

My husband and I were wondering through the Beyoğlu district of Istanbul, a few streets from the now infamous Taksim Sqaure. The multi-colored flags strung diagonally across the intersections and alleys waved calmly with the Bosphurous breeze. We came to this part of town on a tip from a friend. We were hunting for street food.
We started with Simit, a bagel-like round of crispy bread topped with sesame. I had mine plain, while my husband had his stuffed with sheep cheese and tomato. These can be sold two ways, soft or chewy to a crisp. I prefer the softer round. The bitter dough and the crunch of the sesame seeds that always get caught in my teeth are truly addictive.

Rows and rows of lemons caught my eye next. There were stacks of perfectly oval muscle shells nestled inside of the lemon rows. Midye dolma, street food style muscles, are served steamed and stuffed with spiced rice and lemon. We stood at the high top table near the cart and kept nodding at the man preparing the muscles in a “keep em’ coming” kind of way. The muscles were sweet and had a fresh thickness to them. The rice had been browned with spices, something like red pepper, thyme, and paprika. We ate about a dozen and ambled onto out next stop.

My sweet tooth kicked in right as the coffee was being poured. A long stretch of thick black brew, no sugar because it was for my husband. However, the tempting frosty square served on the plate with the coffee was all mine. Türk lokumu, or Turkish delight, are soft gelled squares flavored with fruits, flowers and nuts. This one was particularly indulgent with rose water and pistachio. I grabbed a few pieces to go, wrapped in pastry paper, and headed on with the sweetest morsel of candy still lingering in my mouth.

The next food adventure was the most triumphant and trying snack of the trip. “This place is famous! Many people will come here when the bars close” was the advice. What is it famous for? Tripe soup, işkembe çorbası, is a famed Turkish hang-over cure. We took a sharp left down a side street into the small opening of the café. There were four tables, an odd number of chairs, and a few TV’s playing live soccer. Two men sat, hovering over their bowls, in the corner by the window. Before we could sit down, a man with a stained white coat waved us to the back of the shop. His smile seemed to say that he was truly enjoying himself. We hesitated but followed his waving arms.

As our eyes rounded the corner, I realized that he wanted to show us the “behind the scenes” of his small restaurant. There was one large cutting board with minced pieces of grey and pink meat and a large vat built into the counter. The smell was overwhelming; at first it was pungent, like a cheese shop. But, as I stood there longer, it turned more sour and acidic. He grabbed a giant pair of tongs and dipped and swirled the soup in the vat, searching, stirring, searching. All of a sudden, the tongs pulled up the whole, giant, simmering stomach. My eyes widened into saucers, I was nervous.

Two bowls sat in front of us. We were face to face, trembling, having a showdown with the thickening yellow soup. A bowl full of bowels, if you will. Turkish food had not failed me yet, I was up for the adventure. How many times would I be sitting here? How many times do you get such a warm welcome from the cook yourself? How many times do you get to truly eat what the locals eat? We dug in. The texture was lovely, silky, reminiscent of lentil soup. But the smell was ripened, I couldn’t get past the achingly sour aftertaste. We tried and tried to add garlic and hot sauce, to finish a bowl, to be humble travelers. Even though our bowls were not empty, the risk was worth the reward of such a vivid memory.

After we politely put our spoons down and handed over the cash, I was ready for a cab back to our room. In the back of the cab, my stomach was still churning. My husband was laughing at my colorless cheeks. I didn’t want our snack-filled night to end like this. Until I smiled and remembered the handful of türk lokumu still safely tucked away in my pocket.

About the Author: Natalie Cowart earned her BA in Creative Writing from the Florida State University. She currently writes and teaches in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter our next Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

 

BalloonCappadociaMaybe you never should have trusted a hot air balloon company whose name translates as Balloon Balloons. Maybe you should have backed out when the sunrise tour became the brunch tour. “Everybody in the basket,” the mustached Turk claps his hands. You and your best friend beeline for the balloon, trying to get a “window” seat. You congratulate yourselves on a successful mission and then wind punches the balloon in the gut and the basket starts to tip towards Earth. All available Turkish men grab on, trying to right the ship, but there’s no stopping it. “Everybody out” claps the mustache again, “Out, out, get out!”

You jump out of harms way as the balloon collapses on the sand, knocks over the basket and spreads primary colors across the pink landscape. The Turks work tirelessly, igniting the enormous rocket flame, begging the balloon to inflate. Men walk inside, pushing nylon canvas up to help it catch hot air. Others walk the perimeter, spreading out kinks and keeping the nylon from snagging on the wild terrain.

Lonely Planet tells you ancient volcanic eruptions created Cappadocia: layers of ash mud and lava formed soft rocks and centuries of rain and wind erosion carved those rocks into isolated pillars with hard tops and soft bottoms. These formations, called “fairy chimneys,” are pinnacle-shaped geologic wonders (on UNESCO’s World Heritage List) that brought you to Göreme National Park in the first place. You confirm this with an attractive Australian whose face helps pass time and ease nervousness as other companies enjoy successful lift-offs, balloon after balloon. Finally, hot air fills enough of your balloon to right the basket and the mustache claps his hands, “Everybody in.”

Only two people fill the corner pocket while four are expected to fill the central ones. So you sprint for the corner and win. Another successful mission! And you’re next to the Australian – double win! You peer into the balloon, watch the flame blast upward, feel the heat on your scalp. You inspect the carabineers and question Middle Eastern safety regulations. But before you ask, another gust of wind repositions the basket and everyone lets out a little scream. “Is this safe?” you ask the mustache. More wind and the balloon dives towards the Earth. The mustache screams “Everybody out” again and you jump to safety, again.

The Turks choose a new launch and third time’s a charm so what the heck, you’re already here. You eat an energy bar and continue flirting with the Australian while they drag the basket down the hill. You are on vacation, why are you worried about whether you signed a waiver or whether death and dismemberment is part of your lousy health insurance? You decide death won’t be so bad in this implausible landscape next to a dashing hunk and your best friend. Plus, the new launch is working and the balloon is righting itself, the only soft curve against a horizon of jagged edges.

You don’t wait for the hand-clapping Turk. You claim the corner pocket and once the basket’s full you feel magical. This is it. You can feel it. The basket lifts off and you decide that no, this probably isn’t safe. However, it’s far smoother than expected. As the balloon swiftly rises above the absurdly phenomenal landscape, the pilot says, “Don’t worry, I’ve been doing this for fifteen years.”

And you certainly hope that’s true because the wind is strong and you’re leaving the valley in a hurry. You snap pictures of other hot air balloons soaring over hoodoos, rising from the red and white canyon like quills on a sun burnt porcupine. You capture what you can but soon you’re over farmland. It doesn’t matter though, because you’re floating in a big wicker basket under a giant rainbow balloon and that is awesome. You also haven’t died yet, which is pretty awesome too. The pilot radios your location to the ground crew and you spot a pickup truck with a trailer racing across the green palate.

The balloon descends with ease but after some back-and-forth radio traffic you realize the pilot and crew are up to something. Indeed, you are correct. The pilot plans to land on the trailer attached to the moving pickup truck. You appreciate Turkish efficiency but start to worry you have jinxed yourself about not having died yet and there is so much left to explore. But that’s a silly way to spend your last moments. So, you pull out your camera and document the impressive feat because, no matter the outcome, you hope someone else can witness this moment: these few seconds, when you’re both floating in a balloon and riding in a trailer, when your basket hovers while the truck scoots under, when you feel like you are between worlds.

 

About the Author: Whitney Mackman runs, writes, and adventures in New Orleans. Her work has been published online and in print. In a past life, she was a very awkward giraffe or a three-legged labrador. She dreams of living in a tree house and mountain biking all over the world.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter our next Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

kars_kalesi2If someone asks you where one person can find mysticism, a secret place of peace in a land of snow, where you can find modern and old blend together just say her or him to go to Kars.

The city of snow. The city of meadows as far as the eye can see.
Kars is where my mother and father were born. It is a border city. It is the forgotten pearl of the east. I was four years old when I first go to Kars. I don’t remember much. But I remember a feel ing of happiness and freedom when I ran at the meadows, I remember an old but awesome castle, lots of gaggles.

After years when I took my first step at Kars the first sign of being in another land was the air. An exquisite smell of grass and heaven when there is not snow, the smell of snow. If you go to Kars first smell the air and take a deep breath. You will know the difference, believe me.

You must first explore the city center. You will see lots of local shops. They sell famous local cheese, honey, butter and other local products like sunflower seed, herbs, spices. You must eat goose. Believe me it is nothing like the meats you eat before. And of course you must eat kete (pastry).

There are historical places all over the Kars. The stone made houses and wide neat streets welcomes you in Kars. There are mosques, old education places named külliye, old government buildings. And there is huge castle on a high hill. Going to castle is a little hard if you don’t like to walk on the upright roads. But the result is wonderful when you reached the castle. You can see almost the whole city. Not just the city the mountains around the city, the meadows, the fields. It is a view everyone must see.

I suggest you to go Ani on the second day if you go to Kars. It takes half of the day. Ani is a remainder of an old city. You can see houses, religious places, libraries and the most awesome thing is you can see the old commercial road, The Silk Road. You can walk on that road, you can dream that city full of people. Some of them just shopping, some carrying some product with carriages. You can draw a city full of life, full of activity. You must see Ani, you must see the Aras river there.

Then you must go to Cildir Lake. It is a beautiful lake. There is not much buildings or cafes or hotels around. But here there are a few restaurants. You can eat yellow fish. It is Cildir Lake’s special fish.

With the skiing facilities and its beautiful nature Sarikamis is another beauty of Kars. You must go there and see the skiing center. Breathe the air.

I can tell Kars with pages but it doesn’t describe the being there. I can tell the gaggles but you must see the local people stopping their cars on the empty roads for gaggles to pass, you must talk to people, you must see how hospitable they are.

Go and see the pearl of the East. The city of snow… You can live a fairytale like holiday.

About the Author: Safak Suekinci from Turkey

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter our next Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

 

Istanbul is probably not on the forefront of many peoples mind when it comes to a Christmas vacation destination, but give this post a read and I might just convince you otherwise.

 

 

Despite not celebrating the Christmas holiday  itself, Istanbul is still more than alive for the festive period. There’ll be decorations, Christmas trees and lights aplenty all along the streets – the city looks incredible lit up and you’ll really be able to feel the atmosphere all around you. While the locals may be fixed on New Years, there’ll be plenty of organised Christmas activities by the active ex-pat community.

Of course, Christmas isn’t Christmas without the religious celebration and the largest Catholic Church in Istanbul, San Antuan is the place to be for Christmas mass.

For the inevitable last minute gift shopping, look no further than the Grand Bazaar. Don’t forget to brush up on your bargaining skills beforehand – practically everything is for negotiation. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the 60 odd streets and throngs of people, so make a plan ahead of arriving to avoid a stressful experience. The top buys here are the carpets, scarves and jewelry.

 

Grand Bazaar
By Marc Tarlock , via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Years eve is a big Western celebration or rather a good excuse for a wild party and Istanbul is a unique place to experience the ringing of the New Year. Clubs & bars in Beyoğlu will be in full swing and you won’t have to look hard to find a great place to join in with a rendition of Auld Lang Syne. Don’t miss out the super street party in the Nişantası district!

What better way to recover those delicate post New Year heads, than a trip to the Hamam, or Turkish bath. The absolute best way to experience the Hamam, is to ask for the traditional style bath where you’ll be treated like a king. For an authentic experience, visit the Kasimpasa district where the Grand Hammam is located – built in 1533, it’s like stepping back through time!

 

 

Speaking of stepping back in time, the history of Istanbul, Constantinople, Byzantium stretches far far back in time and just by simply walking around you’ll spot ancient architecture, ruins and museums aplenty. A great way to see a lot in a short time for cheap – go on a walking tour of the city. Check out your hotel lobby, Trip Advisor or notice boards at tourist destinations and you’ll most certainly find a walking tour brochure. It’s also a good chance to meet up with fellow tourists and travelers.

A 7km walk along the ancient city walls is to appreciate how resilient and how formidable this great city was through the ages. Download the online English guide so you know what’s what on the walk.

 

If you’re looking to take a break from walking around, a leisurely afternoon cruise on the Bosphorous river is a must. While floating along the waterway that divides Europe and Asia, you’ll pass by the old Palaces which remain as magnificent as they once were. You won’t have to look very hard for them due to their imposing position on the banks of the Bosphorous, but do take in the Dolmahache Palace, and the exquisite Ciragan Palace – which is now a world famous luxurious hotel. I can see why!

 

Ciragan Palace

 

One of the truly unique experiences of a holiday to Istanbul is a daytrip to the Princes Islands. This group of 9 islands have banned motorised transport so they are very tranquil in contrast to the bustling city. The favoured way to get around is on horse drawn carriages and it’s a relaxing tour around the amazing Victorian architecture.

Visiting Turkey is a wonderful opportunity to partake in some authentic hookah smoking. Take a visit to Yeniçeriler Caddesi and look around for the plumes of smoke rising from the cafes. While you’re at it, you can try the Turkish tea, the national drink and served everywhere. It’s the simple pleasures in life!

 

Nargile
By Travel-Turkey , via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For food, you are really spoiled for choice. Obviously you’ve got the famous Turkish Delight, which you can buy fresh almost anywhere. I recommend trying out the different flavours, especially Pistachio. Walking around, you’ll see little Doner places dotted everywhere. It’s a cheap and filling snack but there’s so much more.

 

By TheMightyQuill, via Wikimedia Commons

 

If you’re into fish – try the local favourite Balik-Ekmek, which is a fried fish sandwich. It’s much much better than it sounds! Kumpir is one my personal favourites, it’s simply baked potato with a variety of fillings, but so so good.

For desert, you won’t miss the many Turkish ice cream vendors along the streets. They’re often up to tricks and showing off their ice cream magic to curious crowds. Far from home at Christmas, you might be surprised to find that roast chestnuts are a common and welcome winter treat at a lot of street corners in Istanbul. For a few lira, you’ll have delicious hand warmers.

 

Turkish Ice-Cream Vendors
Shoestring , via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So there you have it, a million different reasons to visit Istanbul this winter vacation. If you’re reading travel websites, it’s likely you didn’t need much of a push anyway!

Have you been to Turkey recently? What was your experience, have you got any tips or must-sees not on our list? Let us know in the comments below!

 

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Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling FestivalTurkey is a very popular tourist destination and flights are easy to arrange from almost any airport in the UK. Although much of the accommodation is all-inclusive and booked as a package it is perfectly simple to make your own arrangements, booking flights and accommodation separately. You can make some substantial savings this way and you can also choose which airport to travel from, something not always possible if you are part of a package deal.

By choosing an airport handy to where you live you can include the convenience of leaving your car so it is ready for you when you get back – no one likes facing a long cramped coach journey after a relaxing holiday, so having a service such as meet and greet from Gatwick airport parking or Heathrow parking waiting for you is a great bonus.

If you are heading to a holiday location near Edirne (which is on the European side of the Sea of Marmara just a few miles from the border with Greece) you should try and catch the Kirkpinar oil-wrestling tournament, which is definitely something you are unlikely to have encountered before. According to the Guinness Book of Records, it is the longest running sports competition in the world, having been going since 1346! Dates vary so you should make sure when it is to take place before you book, but it is generally held in late June.

In the West, Edirne was once called by the Greek name of Adrianople and the style of wrestling is known as Graeco-Roman. It might be less spectacular than some modern styles – fans of WWE and Smackdown! might find it a little tame, for example – but its antiquity is impressive and the skills displayed are all the more extraordinary because the contestants are covered in oil. It’s like wrestling with a bar of soap!

Contestants wear leather trousers which reach the knee and their bodies are totally smothered in oil. Bouts take place in a field, a reminder of the origin of the sport – it is, after all, a fight and the arena is a battlefield, no matter how stylised the moves have become today. The idea is to pin your opponent to the ground, so that his shoulders are flat or to lift him in the air; either move results in victory.

Oil wrestling can be dated back to as early as 2650 BC in ancient Egypt, Assyria and Babylon. A bronze statuette excavated at a temple at Chafadji clearly shows two wrestlers with olive oil vessels in their hands. It is likely that there was also once a religious element to this ritual. The Egyptian example comes from the tomb of Ptahhoteb of the fifth dynasty, near Saqqara, the possible burial site of Alexander the great. Since Kirkpinar has been going since 1346, it is very likely that someone who watched it in the 1440s was Vlad Dracula, later called the Impaler, who was a political prisoner of the Turks at Edirne during that decade.

It is not often that a holiday event can take you back into the stream of history as much as the oil-wrestling at Edirne can. It is undoubtedly huge fun to watch but the more imaginative viewer will hear the voices of antiquity shouting from the crowd and you will really feel the age of the continent beneath your feet as you enjoy the spectacle.

 About the Author Nicole Bailey, traveller by nature who, when not chained to her desk, can be found exploring new places, learning different cultures and escaping the humdrum of the  9 to 5.

 

When I arrived in Goreme, for the first time, it was high summer.

Nestled in the Anatolian heartland, Goreme was a traditional farming community like any other in Turkey except for its spectacular landscape. The arid countryside, already aged and yellowed over thousands of years, glared harshly under the heat of the day. My head spun with the swirls of red, orange and ochre reflected off the surreal cone shaped peribaca. These spiky pinnacles looked like carefully thought out sculptures but were actually the result of volcanic activity and time. The cooled molten lava had eroded under the weight of fierce winter snows and wind. What was left was softer stone called tufa, which has been painstakingly carved away by the villagers for centuries. They used the peribaca as homes, stables, churches and depots right up until the last quarter of the 20th century. Now thousands of visitors are drawn to the region of Cappadocia every year, fascinated by the seeming impossibility of this imposing and solid geological reality, whimsically known in English as ‘fairy chimneys’.

That first time, I lived in a small pension, helping out in exchange for room and board. It was the season of the Gulf War, and while tourists were scarce I was rarely alone. I spent my mornings visiting with the women and my afternoons visiting with the men. The rest of the time I stayed in the courtyard and learnt Turkish from the pension owner’s daughter.

When I visited with the women I sat inside their homes and knitted. I was a good village girl, learning the arts of the hearth. Sitting cross-legged on the floor I listened to my elders and helped out with the children who often solemnly circled us while chanting a simple Turkish song. The women didn’t judge me on my clothes or my job, but on how well I listened and how well I shared. We only had a mutual vocabulary of about thirty words, but with mime and hand gestures we managed to convey enough to decide we were friends. They liked to dress me up to look like them, in baggy legged şalvar pants, a saggy homemade cardigan and hand edged scarf over my hair. In turn I put their hair up in high ponytails and we often laughed until we fell over when we saw the results. Then everyone would pick up a spoon and eat from the same plate until we were full.

When I visited with the men we went riding. On horseback I was fierce and wild, galloping along narrow winding paths beside tilled fields and cantering back up through the twisting valleys to hunt for young apples and green walnuts. The mottled canopy of shade provided by the trees was a cool relief from the unremitting dry heat of the day, and I felt exhilarated. We’d always stop in a particular gorge, dismount and race to a wall of sheer white rock at the narrowest point. Then it was a battle to collect as many stones as possible and throw them at the walnuts hiding in the branches above. When I learnt to open the walnuts by cracking two of them in my hand I felt invincible. I was city born and bred, and it was such a joy to throw, stoop and slowly eat my fill. The men were more impatient and someone, usually one the youngest, would always jump up into the branches of the tree and sing and dance along their lengths to shake free more of the tasty harvest.

Back then I was a fairly solitary person, often shy and confused about who I was, so at times the constant company could be wearing. If I wasn’t with the men or with the women, and could shake free from the pension owner’ daughter, my favourite place to go was a ridge up behind the main street of the village. At certain times there was an absolute silence and a stillness to the landscape that stretched above the village paths and floated out to the horizon and beyond. This echoed inside me and I felt calm and safe.

Far away I could just make out a local woman, her donkey loaded with kindling, following a track down to her home. Behind her, in the glittering rolling hills and smudges of purple in the valleys I could see that autumn had come. The leaves shimmered barely red, barely silver. For me though, it was like spring because at that moment I realised I had a peace of mind and happiness I had never experienced before. I was free of self doubt and questioning and was just enjoying the moment. It was Göreme,Turkey,  with its unique land and people that let me understand I could be that good girl and that risk taker and still be at one with myself. I had found freedom.

About the Author: Lisa Morrow: I was born in Sydney, Australia, and grew up on the leafy lower North Shore. I hitchhiked through the UK, travelled in Europe and arrived in Turkey just as the Gulf War was starting. In Turkey I worked as an English teacher at universities in Istanbul and in central Anatolia. I have written about my experiences as a blue-eyed foreigner living in a largely non-Western Turkish town.

Lisa Morrow first came to Turkey in 1990, and over the course of more than 20 years has come to know the culture and its people well. She has visited and travelled throughout the country many times, and also lived in various cities and towns. She now resides permanently in Istanbul. A sociologist and writer, she loves the mix of old and new in Istanbul and has captured this in her collection of essays called Inside Out In Istanbul
In particular she is fascinated with the way traditional culture, such as kına gecesi and hamam rituals, mix and re-form in this modern metropolis, creating a new form of culture that is as wonderful as it is at times strange to the foreign eye. She writes with the desire to introduce the genuine and dynamic nature of Turkish culture and people to the world, well beyond tourist stereotypes. It is a timely addition to writing about Istanbul a well known city with hidden depths.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Excerpt from Kına Gecesi‘, one of the stories in

Inside Out In Istanbul

“We began dancing in a group and if the group thought one person was a good dancer they circled around her, ululating and clapping encouragement, while she performed for them. At other times the women would pair off and dance together, mimicking each others’ shoulder rolls, hip drops and shimmies, each time challenging the other to more and more difficult moves. At times they wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Western video clip. After struggling at the village kına gecesi, I had taken belly dance lessons when I went back to Australia. This time I didn’t need to stop and rest all the time and when I found myself in the centre of a circle of women, all clapping me and urging me to dance I didn’t stop. I had a lot of fun.

However, the main part of the night came later, when it was time to acknowledge the bride. Hale was wearing a beautiful strapless satin gown, teetering around on incredibly high shoes that she kept showing off to all her friends. She was led to the centre of the biggest room and sat on a chair. The lights were dimmed but we could see that her face was completely covered by a red veil, hand stitched with sequins. A woman held a basket containing little sachets of henna above Hale’s head, moving it in a slow circle. A group of women came into the room, carrying small, lit candles and began to walk slowly around her, singing a traditional song heard in villages, towns and cities throughout Turkey. I couldn’t catch all the words, but the chorus implores the bride not to cry, she is getting married and leaving her mother and father forever, and she will never live in her village again. “Don’t cry my bride, don’t cry!” The whole purpose of the exercise, though, is for the bride to cry, to show everyone how much she will miss her parents. It was strange seeing such a modern young woman participating in this, and quite emotional when the veil was lifted to show her tears.

The next stage was to show the sacrifice. A ball of henna was placed in the palm of each of Hale’s hands, then covered with white cloth and tied with a length of red ribbon. Finally, a red fabric flower was attached to each piece of ribbon. In villages intricate patterns are made with the henna, and the bride’s hands completely bound, which means her mother has to help her with everything (and I do mean everything), but in the cities they are far more practical. Finally, the basket of henna was offered around the room. Everyone took a sachet and some women put henna on their own hands. That done, the lights came back on and the dancing resumed. By ten o’clock I was ready to drop and luckily everyone had to work the next day. We all piled back in to the car and the bank manager kindly dropped me home.”

Boys-on ferry-writing-contest

This is an entry in the We Said Go Travel Writing Contest written by Lisa Morrow from Australia who lives now in Istanbul. Thanks for your entry Lisa!

Riding an Istanbul ferry as it slowly crosses the Bosphorus is like being suspended in time. While the journey is short, I am instantly taken back to my childhood, to endless days, freedom and adventure. I feel sadly nostalgic for the past but excited too because I feel I am travelling with early explorers to an unknown land. My journey begins from the safety of the European side of Istanbul but we are heading for Asia and the unknown lands beyond. Sitting on a narrow wooden bench seat running along the outside of the boat I hear foreign voices all around me. The faces are unfamiliar too, but now and then someone turns to me with a look that seems to say ‘It’s alright. You’re with us now’. I am slowly lulled into comfort by the sway of the ferry but before I can slip into a daydream a man appears, loudly calling out strange words. One by one the people to my left pull their legs back from where they have been resting on the side of the boat and I do the same. My heart beats faster as the man approaches but calms when I see he is only selling tea, coffee and orange juice. I buy nothing but others do, managing to drink two teas and smoke the same number of cigarettes in the ten minutes left of the journey.

Even now, living permanently in Istanbul, my heart still lifts when I see the minarets of the Haghia Sophia and the Blue Mosque come into view. They stand guard over Saray Burnu, the home of Topkapi Palace and innumerable sultans, scandals and sorrows. Although winter has come to the city, with creeping cold and grey skies, the outside benches are packed with Istanbul residents. They can’t smoke any more so they munch on simit, sour dough rings covered in sesame seeds much beloved by Turks young and old. It is a popular sport to throw stray crumbs into the air, and a signal for the local seagulls, huge ugly white birds with scowling red eyes, to swoop down from the sky and follow in line with the vessel. Teenage boys compete to see who has the better aim while the seagulls fly as close to us as possible to fight for a prize.

 

Boys-on ferry-writing-contest

 

These same birds roost in the tree behind my apartment and wake me every morning. Their cries and squawks of discontent are in response to the first call to prayer around five or six o’clock in the morning. I’m too lazy to get out of bed and look, but I like to imagine them moving in unison, a solemn, feathered version of A Chorus Line taking place just outside my window.

There are mosques everywhere in Istanbul, waking up the seagulls. My favourite was designed by Mimar Sinan in 1580 at the request of Şemsi Paşa, a vizier to three Ottoman sultans. The unofficial name of the mosque is Kuşkanmaz Camii, meaning the mosque on which birds do not land. Legend has it they don’t stand or build nests on the mosque out of respect, and I prefer this to the more mundane reason that the wind off the Bosphorus prevents them from landing. There is quite a history to this little place, and the gazi, the former soldier who shows us around tells me most of it. He demonstrates how the marble columns set on either side of the mihrab, or prayer niche, are used to test whether the building has been damaged after an earthquake. If they can’t be turned the foundations have moved. He confirms that the piece of cloth in a picture frame set high on the wall is from the Kaaba inMecca. Its cloth cover is changed every year and pieces of the old one distributed as much revered gifts. He tells me much more about the mosque, but in the end I learn his history. Along with other young Turkish men he fought inKorea during the Cold War. I hadn’t knownTurkey had taken part and I listen to his stories of horror and death with sadness in my heart. Yet he is happy to tell me, and regularly nudges me with an order to “Anlat!”, to translate what he is saying, so my friends can understand too.

 

Mosque-writing-contest

 

At last I farewell him and watch fondly as he joins his friends sitting in the courtyard. Like many old men in Turkey they spend all day passing judgment over the passing crowds and exchanging memories. Old as they are, when they all smile and wave me on my way, I can see the carefree boys they once were, and imagine them eating simit and feeding the seagulls flying over the Bosphorus, dreaming of their next big adventure.

 About the Author: Elizabeth (Lisa) Morrow: I am a sociologist, English teacher and writer. After many years travelling back and forth from Australia to Turkey, I decided to make Istanbul my permanent home three years ago. I now write stories about Istanbul so that others can better understand this place I love. http://www.facebook.com/Goreme1990