Turkey – Balloons & Kebaps

August 20, 2019 – August 26, 2019

With all of the chaos and uncertainty in the world now, I’m choosing to take a walk down memory lane. One of my goals for 2020 was to finish out my posts of our travels. So, let me tell you about that time we went to Turkey.

This trip was almost over before it even began. Flights were already ridiculously expensive because in August, all of Europe goes on holiday. We got an email that our flight was cancelled a few weeks before we were to depart. Since we had non-refundable hotels, we ended up having to buy much more expensive flights and extending our trip a bit. It all worked out okay in the end, but I was upset about not getting to spend as much time in Amsterdam as I wanted to before we moved home. It was starting to hit me that my days left with my friends, doing yoga with my favorite teachers, and exploring the city I had come to think of as home were numbered.

Cappadocia / Goreme

A few years ago, I had never heard of Cappadocia. Now, it has become a very popular tourist destination because of the hot air balloons that lift off every morning (weather permitting) and sail through the morning air. We had several friends tell us this was a must see place, so we tacked it on to the front end our trip to Istanbul. Since moving to Europe, we had both wanted to visit Istanbul, but there were varying stages of safeness in the city during our time abroad. I was skeptical to travel there at first, but my experience there was nothing but amazing.

Because of the flight sitch, we had a really long overnight layover in Istanbul. We slept in a hotel connected to the airport, which was little more than a pod. Because we were flying locally, we could just roll into our terminal with ease the next morning. The first leg of our journey started in the Cappadocia region of Turkey. We arrived into the very small Nevsehir airport in the afternoon. Our hotel had arranged a transfer for us, but we had to wait for another flight to get in before we could shuttle away. The first leg of the trip consisted of a lot of sitting, waiting. Finally, we headed towards the Sultan Caves Hotel. I would encourage you to look up this hotel on Instagram, because it is super ‘Grammable. A cute hotel overlooking the city, with amazing views of the fairy chimneys, we were excited upon our arrival.

We didn’t have much planned for our trip, except for the hot air balloon that we had booked several weeks earlier. The concierge hooked us up with some fun things to do upon our arrival. To settle into the city, we decided to do an ATV tour through the Love Valley, Rose Valley, and some other beautiful places.

Tyler and I shared an ATV, and I immediately showed him what’s up. I spent a few years in my teens driving ATVs through my friend’s family farm in Nolensville, so I was a natural. Some of the other people in our tour were not as quick to catch on, and I started passing them to get to the front of the line. As soon as we made it to our first stop of the tour, it started raining.

Because of the rain, we didn’t stay too long to look at all of the volcanic rock formations, and we made our way straight to Love Valley. The Love Valley is special. A valley of several fairy chimneys in a phallic shape. What is a fairy chimney, you may wonder? These strange rock formations were formed millions of years ago when volcanic eruptions rained ash over Turkey. The ash hardened into a tough, porous rock that was covered by a layer of basalt. Erosion over millions of years wore the softer material down into long columns of rock that had a mushroom cap at the top. And that’s how you make a fairy chimney.

At each ATV stop, our guide, who spoke very little English, would line our ATVs up in a row. At this particular stop, the front vehicle was very close to the cliff. When we disembarked to our next location, the guide expertly maneuvered his vehicle in a swift 180 turn. The ATV behind him was not as graceful and legit almost plummeted down the gorge. Tyler and I were 3rd in line and had a front row seat to the action. Our guide ran to the ATV and stopped it just as they were nearing the edge.

Tyler took over driving at this stop, and really tested the limits. He sped through crazy turns and really picked up the speed. We stopped along another mountainside to admire the scenery. We stayed here for a while before visiting some pigeon houses. Apparently, pigeon droppings were like gold because they could be used as fertilizer. The people in the area built houses for the pigeons so they would live there and drop their droppings. Very interesting.

We made it back to the hotel just as it started to downpour for the night. Because it was so rainy, we decided to eat dinner at the hotel. The food was aight.

The next morning, we woke up bright and early, no, really… BRIGHT AND EARLY. A 4am wakeup call from my alarm was rough. Our driver collected us and transported us down into the town for breakfast. At the balloon office, we were informed that the weather conditions were too windy to fly and we had to wait 30 minutes. Apparently, the balloons are super regulated and there is an aviation website that monitors conditions and gives the go-ahead for flights. Upon planning a trip to Cappadocia, all of the travel websites recommend at least a 3 nights stay because the balloons can only go into the air about 1/3 of the days. We looked outside, and it was not looking promising. All of the sudden, one of the Italians next to me started yelling “Verde! Verde!” meaning Green, and it was go time. A cheer erupted through the passengers and we hopped into the van to race to the balloon site. The balloon company had workers who were already filling up the massive balloons. We approached the takeoff site and saw about 100 balloons frantically filling up for takeoff.

Watching the balloons fill with air is exciting. It takes about 7 people per balloon and they just pump fire and fans into the ballon as it starts to inflate. Eventually, the balloon rises on its own and the crew flips over the basket. We climbed a ladder into our basket section. Our pilot explained the safety features and the landing position (a simple squat) and told us to not fall out. After that, we were off!

We slowly started lifting up in the air and heading towards the Love Valley. I was surprised by how smooth the ride was. At first, we didn’t go very high, we were just gliding along through the peaks of the Love Valley. We started to pick up height as we crossed over to the Red Valley. There were so many balloons all around us as we lifted up. It was incredible to see all of the different ones. Although we didn’t get to see the sunrise from the balloon as planned, I think it may have been even better because there was enough daylight to see our surroundings. We took in the views and were in awe.

Poulat, our pilot was such an expert, we didn’t even need the landing position. He effortlessly plopped us down on the bed of a truck. We climbed out of the basket to a breakfast of champagne and strawberries. This was one of the most incredible experiences I have ever had.

The day before, we had booked a day tour thinking we would have time for a nap after our balloon ride. Because of the delay, there was no time for a nap, only time for an amazing breakfast.

The Green Tour took us to several stops throughout Cappadocia. Our first stop was the Selime Monastery. This ancient rock-cut church on the side of the mountain looked like a village. We saw the chapel, church, cathedral, winery, place where the animals lived, and the concert hall. There were also pigeon houses here too.

Next stop was the Ihlara Valley where we walked around the Melendiz River. There were SO MANY steps to get down to the canyon, and it was a 3km hike to our lunch spot. Although the scenery was legit, the river was super muddy from the rain the day before, and it wasn’t that pretty. I could have skipped this part of the tour. Our guide was super speed walker and left the group in the dust, but we kept up with him and made it to the break spot on these little huts over the river. We watched ducks swim by as we drank a soda.

Our guide then took us to this church that was in the rocks. We climbed so many stairs to see a little church. I wasn’t sure why the churches were in such hard places to get to, but our guide suggested it might be that the higher up you were, the closer to God. This whole stop on the trip was underwhelming, including lunch.

Our next stop was at Derinkuyu, an underground city. It’s thought that the people didn’t actually live underground, but they used it for hiding, or storage since there were passageways from peoples houses down to the underground. The people dug 8 floors down and had a series of vents that reached down for air circulation as well as to drop supplies down. We only explored about 5% of the area and could only go down to the 4th floor. It’s insane how big of an underground system these ancient people developed. Some of the tunnels were so small that we had to stoop over, I think people were much shorter back then. Luckily we had a guide, because it would be very easy to get lost.

Our next tour stop was a jewelry store to see how onyx and turquoise were made. Turquoise was originally called Turk Quarts because it originated in Turkey. It’s brightest blue when young, and when antiqued it turns into a lighter blue with brown speckles (aka more expensive). This stop was cool for a few minutes, but one of our tour mates was haggling for a piece of jewelry for a long time, so we waited in the van.

Little did we know, the next stop was across the street and we could’ve just walked. Instead, we waited for the group to go to Pigeon Valley. A place where the pigeons lived. You could see all of the fairy chimneys and houses set into caves. This was definitely my favorite stop of the tour.

Finally, we went back to our hotel and were exhausted from the 4am wake up. But we weren’t too exhausted to have a drink on the roof top.

For dinner, we ate at a place called Top Deck, and the food was amazing: Mezze platter, spinach and cheese rolls, spicy chicken, and lamb rolls. All of it was incredible, especially the raki (or liquor) we ended the meal with. Cappadocia is not known for its night life, probably because everyone there has to wake up at 4am, so we went to bed after dinner.

The next morning started with a 4:45am wake up call to go balloon gazing and sunrise spotting. Luckily this time, the balloons were not delayed, so Tyler and I headed to the viewing area at our hotel to see the spectacular balloon flights. The rooftop area at the hotel was already crowded with influencers dressed in their best, with full faces of makeup to get the perfect shot.

I was more interested in watching the balloons preparing for takeoff in the valley below. One by one they started to glide into the air. As more balloons took off, more people showed up on the viewing deck. There was kind of a system for whose turn it was to take pictures, but no one really followed it. Two girls stood at the front for about 45 minutes hogging the whole area. But then they offered to get a few shots of Tyler and I, and I forgave them.

It was amazing to just sit and watch the sunrise and balloons, but it was all over by about 6:30am so we went back to bed for a few hours. I’m glad that we had two mornings in Cappadocia, because it’s rare that you get two mornings in a row that the balloons can fly. I really enjoyed taking the balloon flight and also looking at the balloons from below.

Our flight to Istanbul wasn’t until the afternoon, so we had some time to kill during the day. We ate lunch at a place called Turkish Ravioli and had some incredible ravioli with tzatziki sauce. Turkish food is some of my favorite.

Cappadocia is such a sleepy little town, so we had already walked up and down every street. We spent our time after lunch by the pool and then did a Turkish bath. What an interesting and different experience that was! We were instructed to sit in the sauna for the first 10 minutes. Tyler kept putting more water on the coals to increase the heat, so we were super sweaty when the time was up. Then we got out and both laid down on a large hot stone that was covered by a towel. We each had a person who poured water over us in a pitcher, and then they started exfoliating from head to toe, paying special attention to the feet and back. We were rinsed again with a pitcher of water. The next step was soaping. The bathers put a towel in soapy water, made the towel into a balloon by swinging them, and then crashed the soapy suds onto us. It took like 6 towels of soap on each side for the bath, which was followed by a massage, including a head massage/hair wash. To rinse off, we sat on a bench by a faucet and were splashed with a pan of hot water and cold water simultaneously which resulted in warm water. I’ve never felt so clean.

This bath was very relaxing and unlike any other spa experience I have had. Even after this, we still had some time to kill and sat at the bar on our hotel rooftop for a while. I was still in awe of how beautiful and different the landscape was – unlike anything I have seen before. Finally, it was time to head to the airport and take a short flight back to Istanbul. We landed kind of late at night and the city was pretty far from the airport, so it was late by the time we got to the Nabu Karokay hotel. Our hotel was in a hip part of town that was still bustling with nightlife, and we still went out for a drink anyway.

Istanbul

Turkish breakfast ranks highly on my list of favorite food experiences. We didn’t have much time before catching our 10:45am free walking tour, so we popped into a cute little place right by our hotel called Kemankes Cafe. The breakfast was amazing and included eggs, breads, cheeses, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, jams, honey, tahini, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten some other delicious things.

Because Turkey is outside of the EU, we couldn’t use data on our phones and had to rely upon the downloaded maps to get around. There was a tram right outside of our hotel, so we thought we would just hop on that to get to the historical district where the tour started. We couldn’t figure out how to get tickets and we were quickly approaching the walking tour start time. Instead, we hailed a cab and sat in traffic on our way to the meeting point. We did not make it to the start of the tour, but just joined about 15 minutes in. Unfortunately, the tour was a bit boring. It’s usually so hit or miss on these free walking tours. But we did see a lot of cats so that was cool.

The whole tour was basically just an advertisement for other things to do in the city. The first stop on the tour was Hagia Sophia, a church that was later converted into a mosque. When it was converted, all of the Christian mosaics were covered with plaster, but not destroyed. In the 1930s, it became a museum and work was started to restore the mosaics, which is still ongoing today.

Our next stop was the Topkapi palace, but we only got to see the gardens. Here we learned about the two sides of Istanbul – the European side and the Asian side. From our vantage point, we could look across the river and see the Asian side. Istanbul’s population is about 15 million, 2/3 of people live on the European side, and about 1/3 on the Asian lands. This makes Istanbul the 4th largest city in the world, and you could really it was huge. It was kind of hard to get around the city as well. There are 3 bridges that connect the two sides and also many ferries travel across the river.

Here are some pictures from the walking tour.

As you can probably imagine, Turkey in August is sweltering. We were so sweaty, especially since we had become accustomed to the mild Amsterdam summers. After the walking tour, we were in need of a drink, and chose Panorama 360 for some good views and cocktails. We could see the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque perfectly from our vantage point.

Since the walking tour only took us around to the outside of places, after we were hydrated, we decided to go inside of the Hagia Sophia. There was a long line, but if you were paying by credit card, you could skip to the front, and of course we did that. Inside of the Hagia Sophia, it was interesting to see all of the mosaics that had been restored, but it was also super crowded and under construction. I probably would say I liked it better from the outside.

Next, we popped over to the Blue Mosque, which was also under construction. Here, you had to cover your legs from the knee up, cover your shoulders, and women had to cover their heads to enter. Luckily, I knew this in advance and brought a scarf to wrap around my head and shoulders. My skirt was long enough to meet the requirements as well. Tyler had to borrow a wrap because his shorts were too short. There was a long line to get in, and you had to remove your shoes and carry them with you in a plastic bag – luckily we both had socks on.

I really enjoyed the inside of this mosque. There were ornate ceilings and stained glass windows. I grabbed a pamphlet on Islam to learn more about the religion, which was fascinating.

After the mosques, we headed on to the Grand Bazaar which was up some steep streets. I had no idea how hilly Istanbul was! All of the walking was great for the kitty game. There were cats around every corner. Also a ton of huge dogs, which we learned had tags in their ears if they had been captured and spayed or neutered.

The Grand Bazaar was similar to the Marrakech markets, but different because it was indoors, and you had to walk through a metal detector to enter. It also sold lots of newer things like Nike shoes, designer handbags, sunglasses as well as souvenirs and rugs. There were no prices on anything, the seller just made it up based on what he thought you could pay. You had to haggle. It was pretty much chaos. I enjoyed walking through the rows of stuff, but I did not enjoy getting accosted by all of the merchants.

We made a detour after seeing the bazaar to another mosque, the Suleymaniye Mosque, which was my favorite mosque that we visited. It is set up on top of a hill and has a great view of the Golden Horn. The outside of the mosque is majestic with the domes and minirets. We thought it was already closed for the day, but they were letting visitors in during prayer time. We removed our shoes and walked in. The men were praying in the front of the mosque, and the women and children were in a small section at the back which I found interesting. It felt very peaceful inside.

After experiencing the peaceful mosque, we mixed it up again and went downhill to the spice bazaar, which apparently the locals will visit instead of the Grand Bazaar. Prices are set here, so it is not a haggle situation. There were lots of sweets and spices, and I loved looking through the different flavors of teas, love potions, turmeric, ottoman spices. I liked this market best even though it was super crowded.

After a full day of sightseeing, we were starving and went to the Old Ottoman restaurant for an early dinner. I ordered some cheesy, eggplant, yogurt, lamb dish that was seriously amazing, while Tyler got some chicken and raki. There were other tables who got these clay pots that the servers had to whack open to get the chicken out. It was entertaining to watch. I enjoyed our meal here from the food, to the service, to the ambiance.

As it grew dark, it started to cool down to a manageable temperature, so we walked all the way across one of the bridges back to the Karakoy area where our hotel was. It was really cool to see the city lit up, but it smelled super fishy as you walked across the bridge. There were like 50 people at any given time fishing off the bridge. I’m not sure if anyone really caught much, if they did we didn’t see it. We popped back into our hotel to shower before hitting the nightlife scene.

Tyler is known for putting extensive research into bars that he wants to visit while we travel. Unfortunately, I didn’t write the name of this one down, but after doing some research when we got home. I think it was called Flekk, it was for sure in the Firuzaga neighborhood, which was straight up some hills from our hotel. When we arrived, we thought it was closed because the lights were off, but actually the power in the whole area was off! They assured us they could still take customers, so we had cocktails by candlelight. The cocktails were delicious, and a street cat wandered into the restaurant and sat by me the whole time, which I loved. Because of the power outage, this area of town wasn’t really happening, so we headed back downhill towards our hotel and the Karakoy neighborhood, which was LIT.

Tyler pets a street cat part I

There were so many cool bars, we walked around the streets a bit deciding where to park our butts. We heard some live music and found a table in the action. It was so lively. The staff were trying to fill up the last of the tables, so they were trying to persuade everyone who walked by to stop for a drink. Even though every song was in Turkish, the crowd was really into it because the singer was so charismatic. The table next to us was full of drunk Turkish men and one of the guys kept going on stage to take the mic and sing with the band. All of the sudden 4 big guys in black shirts rolled up and busted the outdoor party. Apparently the decibel level of the music was too high and the club had to pay a fine. It was crazy. Another crazy thing about this bar was that even though it was after midnight, there were young children walking around by themselves trying to sell us homemade goods like headbands. Very odd. It was really fun to sit and watch the band, and the club really started to get hopping around 2am when a group of Italians took the stage. We decided to go to bed.

Because Day 1 of our stay in Istanbul was so jam packed, we saw a lot of shit. On our second day, we relaxed our pace a bit. At the recommendation of a friend, we walked to Van Kahvalti Evi for Turkish breakfast. I got the breakfast for 1 because Tyler isn’t much of a breakfast person, and he was saving himself for a doner kabob place he had found. It was really hot inside the restaurant and luckily we sat outside on a little courtyard patio where there was a breeze. Breakfast consisted of this amazing milky butter and honey, cheeses, breads, olives, tomatoes, cucumber, jams, tahini, and a sausage egg mix. I cannot forget to mention the best all you can drink tea. I need to find a way to recreate this at home!

After breakfast, we meandered around the Taksim Square area of town. This part of town was mostly shopping, an of course had lots of kitties and puppies everywhere. I got a street juice that was only pomegranate and it was so tart it was hard to drink. I was hoping it would have some magic healing powers because I wasn’t feeling great. Spoiler alert, it didn’t. We stopped by the place Tyler had his heart set on for doner, but it was closed. And he was bummed.

Tyler pets a street cat part II

Instead, we headed to the water to catch a 2.5 hour boat tour of the Bosporus area, which cuts Istanbul in two and heads to the Black Sea. The ride was only 12 Lira, which is cheap AF, but it was also really crowded. In hindsight this was not a good idea. Everyone ran once the gates opened to get a seat on the boat. We went to a shady spot in the front, but ended up going to the top once the boat started moving. It was cool to see all of the big houses lining the shores, but we were on the wrong side of the boat both times. We passed under 3 bridges before turning around to head back. On the way back, I stood along the rails in the shade and had a much better view. I liked being on a boat, but would have picked a better tour if I had a do-over.

Post boat, we went back up the hill toward the Galata tower and had some rooftop drinks at a place called Snog. We had good views of the tower, the mosque, the Hagia Sophia, and the water. You could see everything. We only stayed for a drink because we had a fancy dinner to get ready for. Tyler likes to look at the list of top 100 restaurants in the world when we travel to see if we can make it to any of them. We visited Mika in Istanbul.

We wanted to get to the restaurant in time to see the sunset which was supposed to be amazing, but we didn’t make it in time. The views were amazing from the top floor of the restaurant. The food was also delicious, but it took too long in between each course. With the wine pairings, we were a little toasted by the end of the dinner, and so full. The hotel had a nice little rooftop bar that we sat out and enjoyed our last wine pairing from dinner outside with a view of the historic peninsula before heading back to the Karakoy.

On our 3rd day in Istanbul, we set an even slower pace.

We decided to head to the Asian side for lunch at Ciya, which was featured on Chef’s Table. We boarded a 20 minute ferry across the clear blue waters. Ciya is an authentic, cafeteria style restaurant where you can scoop out our own cold mezze plates and order from the hot plates of the day. You can also order some kebaps from the sister restaurant next door. Of course we got way too much food, but it was delicious. I especially enjoyed the zucchini fritters with yogurt sauce, stuffed eggplant, tzatziki and tabbouleh. The restaurant is definitely worth the ferry trip. We decided to walk around the Asian area which was pretty similar, with lots of markets and restaurants. I was disappointed to see less cats though. After walking around for a bit, we went back on the ferry and headed to the spice bazaar again to get a Turkish towel.

We also visited the Cistern Basilica, which is the underground water source of Istanbul. It is, like most of the other things in the city, under construction, so there was no water in it. Normally, the water runs downhill from a place about 20 km outside of the city, and back in the day to test the water quality, they used to have fish in the water and if the fish were alive, then the water must be safe to drink. I enjoyed walking around underground because it was cooler temperatures. There was also some cool architecture. There are like 12 rows of 28 columns holding up the roof and some of the columns have fun designs – like medusa heads.

Next up on our list of activities was a Whirling Dervish show. We got to the theater a bit early and had some time to read up on what we were actually going to see, which was interesting. The process of becoming a Whirling Dervish is intense, and the men have to go into 40 days of solitude with little food and sleep. They must practice these religious rituals constantly. We went into the circular room that had a stage in the middle with seats surrounding it and a place for the band. There were words on the wall that explained what was going on. The first 20 minutes was chanting and singing and instruments, then the dervishes came in dressed in big white shirts and fez hats. They twirled around on the spot, and sometimes moved in circles. It felt very spiritual.

Post show, we grabbed some food at Mukellef Krakoy. The restaurant was at the top of the 7 story hotel, and the elevator wasn’t working properly, so we walked to the top. The views of the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque were really pretty from up here. We got a mix of hot and cold mezze that ended up being super delicious and also cheap. I really liked the fried cheese filo and octopus. Of course, we had to wash it all down with some raki.

Tyler pets a street cat part III

On our last morning in Istanbul, we took a cab to the Rumeli area to check out an area we hadn’t visited yet. The cab ride was cheap, and we went straight to Rumeli Kale for breakfast overlooking the water. Of course, it was once again a huge breakfast and we sat there for a while trying to eat as much as we could. Didn’t even put a dent in it. We walked along the water back towards our hotel afterwards just taking in all of the scenery and spotting as many kitties as we could.

favorite chonky street cat of the whole trip. he lived on this chair outside of starbucks and always welcomed a pat.

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