Turkey: Outside Istanbul

Most meaningful experience: Traveling the town of Ephesus to see how magnificent the Roman Empire must have been and hanging out with friends.

Top tips:

  • Watch the sunrise over Cappadocia during a hot air balloon trip.
  • Explore the hidden dwellings and walkways of the Kaymaklı Underground City.
  • Admire the Byzantine artwork in the rock-cut churches of the Goreme Open Air Museum.
  • Discover the innovative architecture in the ancient city of Ephesus.

Stepping into the Turkish Airlines lounge at the end of my week-long adventure in Turkey perfectly reflected my initial expectations of the country. I’d just been hoping for a nice coffee and a kebab but what I encountered was much more sophisticated and classy than I imagined. Both combined European beauty with Asian service and style, with just a touch of Western influence to round it all out.

The lounge was designed with half-spherical arches that hinted at a mosque (albeit without any religious inscriptions), with clear security cabinets where you could store your luggage. There was a large library with billiard tables and a theatre playing Michael Jackson live in concert, as well as a nine-screen television playing sports from around the world.

In addition to a pide bar where chefs were busy pummeling fresh dough, you could help yourself to a range of salads, sushi and soup, together with a dessert bar boasting any European or Asian delight you could imagine. There were a range of drinks in the cabinets, as well as a Turkish coffee bar (just imagine coffee on steroids!) The bar was hidden behind a small bamboo forest garden designed with feng shui principles, providing the perfect setting for me to reflect on the past week and a country I am absolutely enamored by.

I’d decided on a whim to take a short vacation from Dubai when my meetings had been pushed back a week and join a couple of friends on their Turkish tour. It included flights, in-country transport and expert tour guides, resulting in one of the most enjoyable vacations of my life. Sometimes its nice when EVERYTHING is planned for and you just tag along. And sometimes its nice to plan nothing. See my post called “Travel Without a Plan”.

Hot air ballooning in Cappadocia

We began our trip in Cappadocia, which is famed for its underground dwellings and unique rock formations, which are best view from the air during hot air balloon rides. As my hometown of Greenville, South Carolina hosts one of the largest hot air balloon races in the United States, I knew what to expect and was looking forward to enjoying the scenery.

We started the day at 3:30AM and were up in the air by 6AM, with the hot air balloon moving at a snail’s pace as it crawled across the tops of the caves. It offered fantastic views, which were particularly impressive as the day’s first rays illuminated the landscape and cave dwellings below.

After our hot air balloon ride, we returned to the Germerse cave hotel, which had been built into the side of a mountain as part of a small village. There was no need for central heating due to the volcanic rock and stone that provided coolness or warmth, depending on the season – a great place to host the Bachelor or Bachelorette TV show in my opinion.

Later in the day we participated in a pottery making class (which I was terrible at) and discovered that it takes almost four years of training for potters to hone their skills. We then visited the Keslik Monastery that’s renowned for its religious frescoes, which are hidden behind a very thin layer of smoke.

Our guide shared with us some Turkish cultural insights throughout the afternoon, with it tradition that local men present a piece of pottery to their future bride’s father to show he is able to earn a living. She also explained that when being introduced to a potential future husband, a woman may fill his coffee with salt if she doesn’t like him (or with sugar if she does), with a man expected to smile and drink the salt in the hope that she may reconsider.

Exploring Cappadocia’s underground cities

The following day started with a bit of a sleep in, followed by a visit to one of the coolest sites I’ve ever seen – the Kaymaklı Underground City. This elaborate labyrinth of tunnels and caves nestles six floors beneath the ground and was built much like a maze to protect the residents from outside attackers. The inside dwellings were designed to meet life’s necessities – ventilated shafts that allow good air to come in and bad air to go out, a central kitchen and storage area for meat, as well as an area to make wine (which appeared to be essential in those days). The city had to accommodate nearly 5000 people, which is quite a lot of food when living underground!

There were stone wheels weighing up to 600 tons and needing 20 people to move them that were designed to blocked pathways and create walls to trap enemies. It reminded me of something out of the video game ‘Dig Dug’ – one could keep digging and let the villain run into a rock or fall through a hidden trap. Of course, the one question I had was, “How long did it take to dig this?” Answer: “They had plenty of time from the 4th century to 13th century. But an average person could dig about 1.2 meters per day with little hand tools.”

In the afternoon, we visited the famous Goreme Open Air Museum to see some the most impressive examples of Byzantine art in Cappadocia. Its rock-cut churches are decorated with beautifully preserved frescoes and paintings that date to the 13th century, with the dwellings designed to lodge about 600 people (and their camels) who were fleeing persecution. Most interesting were the dining areas, which consisted of a long rock table and a place for the wine to be made, as well as pictures of the “Last Supper”.

Not far from the Goreme Open Air Museum was the Tokali Church, which just recently was used by the Greek Orthodox Church for their annual Christmas celebration. It would have been an amazing site to see a live service performed in this rustic church, which overlooked a small valley and village that been abandoned during “the handover.”

As we walked back towards the car, we noticed dogs and cats wandering through the streets and it reminded me of the dogs who had chased me back to the hotel just that morning as I’d attempted to go for a run. I’d asked the bus driver about them and he’d explained that I shouldn’t be afraid and that nobody really owned them. They just rotated between houses and everyone took care of them. I liked this idea of pet sharing!

Our tour finished with a visit to Mustafapaşa (Sinasos), an old Greek town that was clustered with houses built by Christian mercenaries who once traveled between Europe and Turkey. At the time, Cappadocia was a burgeoning center of trade, but after WWI, Turkish Christians were sent to Greece and Muslim Greeks were sent back to Turkey. The houses were abandoned and Turkey became a predominantly Muslim country.

Exploring the ancient city of Ephesus

That night we flew to Izmir and drove along the coast to a hotel positioned close to the biggest water park in Europe. The following day’s adventures began at the Virgin Mary’s home, although there is some debate as to whether this was actually the place of her final dwelling or not. It was positioned atop a mountain in a lush green forest, creating a tranquil and somewhat mystical aura.

After driving back down the mountain, we arrived at the day’s main attraction, Ephesus, which must have been a sight to see centuries ago. It once stood as the fourth largest city in the world and it’s only in the last 60 years that it’s been excavated. Everything from the roads and walkways to the theatre and the massive library were magnificent.

There were seven houses seemingly intertwined with one other, each of which had running water, heated flooring, colored tiles and painted walls. The inner heating and running water systems were brilliantly designed for such an era – even today our homes don’t have heated floors! Greek icons like Socrates and Zeus were painted on the walls and with excavations ongoing, I’d be excited to visit again in 50 years to see what else has been uncovered.

I asked how all of these monuments were created, but with all the books and scrolls burned in the library, there are no remaining traces of Ephesus’ construction. We do know that the Romans fled to the top of a mountain after malaria struck and it’s here that we finished our trip, wandering the ruins of a small chapel where the Apostle John is said to have died. What must great information of history, architecture, and philosophy must have been lost!

Traveling around Turkey was a great experience and thanks to Michelle for setting it up!

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