Hi everyone! As you might know, 2012 was the Year of Important Milestones for my family, being my 21st and my sister’s 16th birthdays. We had been blessed with some amazing presents (hello Nook!) when out of the blue, my parents dropped a bombshell:
We were going on our first ever family vacation.
In addition to that, the trip was our actual birthday present. After much deliberation, it came down to two destinations: Australia and Turkey. Given that Australia was in the midst of summer in December, we chose to go to Turkey with Chan’s World Holidays, with its sweet, sweet winter. Living in perpetually sunny Singapore meant that our only taste of snow was at Snow City, with its thick coats and dirty faux snow. Lovely, but it just increased our longing for the actual thing.
Fast-forward to 22 December, a record day for Changi Airport. Bags packed, last minute checks done.
It was five hours before our flight, when a call came. It was an SIA representative.
Bad news: we were going to miss our flight to Istanbul.
Great news: we could choose to be compensated with a flight to Rome, then onto Istanbul.
Bad news: we were going to be six hours behind on our tour.
Great news: we were going to Rome! Rome! ROMA, ITALIA! *cue hysterical screaming*
It was the quickest decision I ever made.
We hopped on our plane to Rome (a thirteen hour flight that actually flew over Istanbul as I tracked our flight progress), then got into a freakishly small plane to Istanbul. Now, I’ve never been on such a small plane, and every turn and swerve made me pray for my life.
Plus, this being my first time on a non-SIA flight made me appreciate SIA so much more. SIA has great meals, non-stop entertainment and flight attendants coming every once in a while to check on our comfort and offer us travel packs, snacks and drinks. We were in economy on both flights, and it was a shock to discover that not all airlines delivered such service.
On the way, we were treated to such gorgeous views.
The above picture looks like a charcoal drawing. Gosh, the world really is beautiful. :3
And then we were in Istanbul! We were lucky enough to be on a private tour, sort of. It was only our family of five, and a young family. Plus, our tour guide and driver were really nice and catered to our every need, promising to make up what we had missed on the tour on the last day back in Istanbul.
Check out the cobblestone street. It looks so peaceful, unlike my expectations of an overcrowded street leading up to some major tourist attractions.
Jet lagged after almost a day of travel, our first trip was to the Blue Mosque, which was near both the Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace.
The Blue Mosque did not have a blue exterior, instead it was known for the blue tiles decorating its interior. Before entering the mosque, all visitors had to be respectfully dressed and remove their boots. Plastic bag dispensers were helpfully placed near the entrances to facilitate the removal of boots.
After a lot of hopping around the place, we were finally in the Blue Mosque. It was a bit odd to step inside and be blinded by camera flashes instead of the views of people praying, but we quickly got used to it.
On the way to the Hagia Sophia, which is only a short walk away.
The streets in Istanbul look so peaceful. I love their architecture, as well as mesh of historical places with modern buildings, which makes one wonder if the beauty is somehow diminished. But nope, all these historical places are beautifully and lovingly preserved.
The second day started with a lovely ferry trip to the Asian side of Istanbul, minibus and all. Istanbul happens to be the only city located in both Europe and Asia, so I feel like I can mark off both continents off my ‘have been to’ list, mwahaha.
Refreshed from twelve hours of sleep, we were greeted by some lovely, lovely sahlep. Oh sahlep. You are the embodiment of what a perfect winter should be like. I’ve tried making some sahlep from powdered mixes, but somehow I’m missing the thick consistency and the creamy taste.
Our next stop was to the Grand Mosque in Bursa, the fourth largest city in Turkey. I didn’t grab any photos of its exterior (bummer!) but here’s a photo of the interior.
Near it is a small building that actually happens to be the entrance to the top floor of a shopping center! That floor has a diverse selection of scarves, which meant loads of practice of my haggling skills, which were sadly unused ever since my trip to Shanghai in 2010.
What I remember most about Bursa is the huge, HUGE open shopping center below the Floor of Scarves. They sell everything there, from winter coats to meat and cheese. Mmmm, cheese.
The photo below depicts some sweet, scrumptious chestnuts in honey, which we bought from a roadside cafe. They are so delicious. I grabbed a packet to bring home, and the chestnuts shattered, which meant a lot of straining to get to the good bits. There were also chestnuts in chocolate, which weren’t as delicious, but hey. Chestnuts and chocolates, two of my favourite things.
Christmas in Turkey! We went to the House of the Virgin Mary near Selcuk, where patrons were praying within.
The house was small and cozy, made entirely of stones, and there were guards placed within. Surprisingly, there weren’t a lot of tourists and our visit was short and sweet.
I thought of getting some holy water as a present, but sadly had forgotten to bring along water containers.
Before that, we had gone to our first ever fashion show at POPÜLER Leather in Izmir, a leather factory selling mostly jackets.
There, the models showed off the season’s offerings on the runway. The prices were pretty steep even after the discount, but the jackets were really well made. Despite what the manager (owner?) said, these jackets aren’t really suited for Singapore weather. As autumn and winter coats however, they’re absolutely warm, comfortable and fashionable.
Stopped by a Turkish delights specialty store on the way. Check out the selection of lokum. Yum.
Back to Ephesus, high up in the mountains just near the House of the Virgin Mary. Ephesus was an ancient Greek city, and despite knowing that Greece is near Turkey, I hadn’t thought that there would be any ancient Greek artifacts of historical locations in Turkey.
Fun fact: Troy (and the Trojan Horse) is in Turkey.
Ephesus is famed for the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Our tour guide gave us a pretty good overview of the whole place, though I was constantly distracted by the view. Standing in the middle of ruins, it’s quite hard to grasp that humans used to live here, and these are the ruins of their cities. It’s quite mind-boggling to think of our modern cities becoming ruins in the future.
We went to the Library of Celsus, which was built to store 12,000 scrolls and serve as a monumental tomb for Celsus. His sarcophagus is located beneath the library.
We were whisked off to the Cotton Castle at Pamukkale (‘cotton castle’), a UNESCO World Heritage Site made of travertines, terraces of carbonate minerals left by the flowing water. This results in white banks of sediment, which remain white through constant maintenance and sprays of water by the staff.
On our quest for hot spring water across the sharp bank, we were met by local dogs just chilling about the area. Such sights of local dogs and cats roaming around are common in Turkey. All of them are tagged and are quite well fed and taken care of by the locals.
Short break: Have a photo of dessert at one of our hotels.
The fourth day brings us to the Pamukkale Natural Park and the Ancient City of Hierapolis, an ancient Greco-Roman city which is now another UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We didn’t see any ruins there, though Google tells me there are many, and were instead greeted by what looks like an oasis.
Next, it’s off to the Sultanhani Caravanserai in Konya, a hotel where 13th century traders and travellers parked their goods laden caravans and popped in for a good rest.
The architecture of the buildings and structures really is beautiful. One striking feature was the huge knee high steps which locals climbed to get to the other stories. These stairs are built outside the buildings, and they have no support railings. The brave could climb a couple sets of such stairs to take a picture on the roof of such a building, which I got to only halfway before feeling the vertigo.
Let’s talk about food. What every hotel buffet fare has are slices of cold cheese and meat, which were somewhat bland, and baskets of rolls and bread, among a selection of other yummy food. This was accompanied by sweet jams and strong tea, coffee and fruit juices.
Every meal consisted of soup, meat and maybe some rice, and dessert. The Turkish street food is one to look for, with every region having their own specialty drinks, meals and desserts.
A common type of dessert is the rice pudding, a creamy, chewy confection sprinkled with ground cinnamon on top. The brown piece off to the side reminds me of baklava, as it is soaked in syrup. The white piece is halva, a soft, dense nutty concoction that brings nougats to mind.
The photo below happens to be a Turkish delicacy made of thick, dense, creamy, slightly sour yoghurt with honey and opium seeds. Sold at at one of the roadside stops in the city of Dinar, I wanted to try it but the opium seeds gave me pause.
This dessert is accompanied by freshly squeezed orange and pomegranate juice. Bah, I’m salivating at the thought.
And now, my favourite ever day in Turkey! Okay, this is a lie, as every day in Turkey is my favourite. Favourite experience, perhaps.
Day Five brings us to Cappadocia, which is known for its rocky terrain, its rock formations, rock churches, rock valleys… but most of all…
Hot air balloons.
Whoo hoo! Look at what met us on our trip to the hot air balloon site. We went with Royal Balloons, where we were picked up in a shuttle from our hotel before dawn, treated to breakfast and driven to the hot air balloon site by our pilot.
Our balloon was small, with only four passengers and the captain. There, we got to see the crew in action as they inflated the balloon. Our ride was accompanied by a verbal tour of the place and the mechanics of controlling such a balloon by the sharp-eyed, ever vigilant pilot.
Things we learnt:
- The direction of the balloon is guided by the air currents.
- Only the descent and ascent of the balloon can be manually controlled.
- -2 degrees Celcius really isn’t that cold when you’re bundled in two warm jackets. You might look like a black marshmallow, but at least you’re not freezing.
We were treated to such views as the one below. It’s a magical, peaceful feeling, being up in the air, floating around and watching the world pass by. One hour is the perfect duration to watch the sun rise; had it been longer than that, my legs might have given out.
I’m just going to let you soak in the view for a while.
Cappadocia has so much to offer. We went to the Underground City of Kaymakli after sunset, which was about 4 in the evening. We were the last tour group to stop there, and let me tell you: it’s one of the most exhilarating, creepiest things to experience.
Don’t get me wrong, the underground city is really well lit, and the whole place was fascinating. I loved learning that it’s said to have existed since the Hittite period, and it was supposedly built to escape from conquering Romans. The whole mechanics was fascinating, and learning the science behind the creations of such rooms and how they safeguarded and sustained themselves while underground for months was fascinating.
But being in a cave in the dark of night? Still creepy.
Next, we went to the Valley of the Birds and Uchisar Castle, where we captured amazing views such as the ones below. Cappadocia seems made for photo-taking.
This happens to be a rock structure that coincidentally happens to be in the form of a camel.
“Why is it caged?” The Mama asked. “Is it to stop the camel from running away?”
The tour guide looked at her blankly. “They don’t want people to touch it.”
“Awww, how lovely. What’s the significance of placing evil eyes on the tree?” I asked.
The tour guide looked at me blankly. “It’s a way to display and sell their wares.”
Off to the Turkish carpet factory! Being a family owned business, the owner guided us along the creation of the carpets. All carpets are handmade, with each taking months to complete.
Here he is, showing us how silk threads are harvested.
Lunch brings us this delightful photo of baklava. The restaurant is located in a cave built in a hill.
On our way to Ankara, Turkey’s capital, we stopped by a salt lake.
In Ankara, we went to the Ataturk Mausoleum, the final resting place of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk aka the “Father of Modern Turkey”. The mausoleum features a mix of different architectural styles from various Anatolian civilizations. Now this is one museum which I have to go back to. There’s so much history, and I simply have to grab a book of Ataturk’s speeches.
Guards on duty stand within the clear glass structure if the weather is too cold; otherwise they stand on the golden square in front, nearer to the main entrance.
And then it’s off to Bolu! Bolu brings us our first sight and touch of snow. Throughout our trip, despite the cold, it wasn’t snowing. (Apparently it snowed a couple of weeks after our stay.)
Here’s a snowman crafted by the staff or some hotel patrons. He really doesn’t look like a stereotypical snowman, but hey! People who don’t live in snowy areas shouldn’t judge.
The picture below depicts The Papa and Bb Pots leaving their literal marks in inches of snow.
We’re back in Istanbul! This time, we’re off to the Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia, Hippodrome of Constantinople and the Grand Bazaar.
The Hippodrome is located in the middle of an open park, and people walk by it without any fanfare. There were no tourists when I went; it’s quite odd how it’s overlooked.
Anyway, back to the Topkapi Palace, once the seat of the Ottoman Empire and the primary residence of Ottoman Sultans for four hundred years. We had learnt more about the history of the Ottoman Empire (amongst other history lessons) back in Ankara, and I’m absolutely impressed by its reach and influence.
Full of history (which doesn’t need to be said at this point), the Topkapi Palace boasts galleries of priceless artifacts and gorgeous views. The below picture depicts a pretty, but otherwise normal bush.
Until you look closer, that is. Look at those pissed off faces, haha!
Bonus photo of a couple of tourists posing inside a hollowed out tree.
The Hagia Sophia! We were supposed to go here on our first day; with the six hours delay, our tour guide crammed in this visit on our last touristy day in Istanbul. And I’m glad he did so, because this is one of the places that you have to go to when you go to Turkey.
The Hagia Sophia was a church for approximately nine hundred years, until it was converted into a mosque in 1453 as Constantinople (Istanbul then) was conquered by the Ottoman Turks. It stayed as a mosque until the 1930s, when it was converted into a museum. The significance of its history is painted into the wall, literally.
We went to the Grand Bazaar next. I don’t have any photos of the place, as it was a whirlwind couple of hours of browsing and shopping.
“I’m going to let you off for a couple of hours to go to the Grand Bazaar. Is that enough?” the tour guide asked. I wanted to ask for more time, but didn’t get the sense that bargaining would start this early.
The Grand Bazaar is another must go. I studied how to bargain for better prices, but of course theory is not enough. Surrounded by pro marketers and shopkeepers, I should have known I was going to be outbid, outbargained and outhaggled. It was one of the best experiences; I simply must come back. *crazy look*
And now… it’s our last day in Turkey. Our flight was in the afternoon, so we grabbed a quick breakfast and roamed the streets for a while.
These cats! A mother-child duo, they accompanied us along our walk. While convincing them to come back to our hotel, they were distracted by a preening pigeon on a ledge. Pfft.
I’m not sure if it’s Turkey, the history, the lovely company or the fact that it was our first holiday. But I definitely can’t wait to be back. If I hadn’t fallen in love with Turkey, I sure had by the time the trip ended.
While we were unable to fully appreciate the utter brilliance of Turkey due to the packed nature of the tour, as a scintilliating taste of Turkey, it’s definitely whetted our appetite for more. A return trip sometime soon is definitely in the works.
Here’s leaving you with a picture of some fabulously huge Turkish ice cream.
All images are copyrighted, and taken during my trip to Turkey in December 2012.