We weren’t expecting Turkish food to be so varied, and so good. Neither of us have much experience with Turkish food, it’s not something we have a lot of in San Francisco- or at least not that we know of or frequent. We knew it would be good, healthy, and fresh – or so we’d heard, but our expectations were absolutely exceeded. Some of you will love this post loaded with photos of food. Others may roll your eyes and imagine us doing the thing where no one can touch the food until someone properly snaps a cell phone photo. Yes. We did that. A lot.
We don’t have photos of every meal, or every restaurant cat (or dog). And I can’t tell you what each dish was, but overall the food was fantastic. Were there awkward moments when we stumbled through a menu with no English translation with the help of Google translate – yes, many! Did we have waiters bring us English language menus that seemed to have no relation to the Turkish menu? Yes. There was some pointing at other table’s food. We muddled through and enjoyed a lot of good meals.
Most of the restaurant dining we did was outside, or by large open windows, but always, always, in the shade. It wasn’t too hot anywhere yet, but I am notoriously sun adverse.
Our one complaint about Turkish dining is the cigarette smokers. Before we pick a table we carefully judge the prevailing wind direction and eyeball the other diners – who’s got cigarette packs on the table, who’s almost done eating and therefore likely to light up? We come from San Francisco which has some of the strictest rules in the world – no smoking at outside tables, no smoking near doors or windows – and it’s lovely to be able to live your life rarely inhaling secondhand smoke. In Turkey you are closer to a smoker than a cat at all times and you will usually be inhaling someone’s smoke. If no one is smoking near you right now, just wait a few minutes. Someone will light up.
We rented an apartment in Bodrum and cooked for ourselves for five nights, so no food photos from that town. We also had an apartment in Datça, with minimal cooking facilities though, so we had breakfast and lunch in, and dinner out.
One thing we fantasized about during the long months of stay at home pandemic were hotel breakfasts. Remember that one, we’d say, in Kuala Lumpur? Or that one in Sweden with the fish? We like our breakfasts. A hotel breakfast buffet done well is a travel memory created.
Turkish breakfasts are huge. Loads of greens and veggies and olives, breads and cheeses, fruit, eggs in spicy tomato sauce. Dried fruit, nuts, yogurt, and as many cups of çay (black tea) as you can handle. And coffee of course, Turkish coffee.
I hope this trip down food memory lane was as fun for you to browse as it was for us to eat. Any restaurant choosing squabbles we may have had are forgotten. Any long treks up and down streets considering and rejecting places to eat only helped sharpen our appetites. To all the restaurant cats I didn’t manage to share meals with, I’m sorry. I did my best.
Like many tourists/travelers, we really enjoy visiting places that are not so clearly tourist attractions. Selçuk is one of those, the town nearest to Ephesus, a 10th century BC settlement. What, you ask? Ephesus is obviously a big attraction, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015, with impressive ruins and ongoing archeological work. How is that not a tourist place? All right, it is. But these days many of the visitors seem to arrive for the day, bused in off a cruise ship.
The town of Selçuk is charming. Some of the cruise ship buses do stop at the Archeological Museum in town, where you can view the most impressive treasures uncovered at Ephesus, but the town itself is a lovely, relaxed, and friendly place and once again we felt like the only non Turkish tourists in town.
The trick to having this site to ourselves was actually setting an alarm clock (something we rarely do these days), arranging for a quick 7:30 am breakfast at our hotel, and being in a pre arranged taxi at 8:00. The taxi dropped us at the upper gate, and with our tickets already bought at the museum the day before, the Selçuk Pass, good at four sites and well worth the price, we waltzed right in to an empty experience. Empty for about an hour, then a few others started to arrive.
About two 1/2 hours later as we headed to the lower gate to walk the 3 km back into town, the cruise ship buses had started to arrive. Perfect timing.
Selçuk has a neighborhood charm we hadn’t experienced yet in Turkey, having only been to big cities before this stop. After returning from an outing earlier than expected, our innkeeper was out running an errand and not there to let us in. Seeing our plight, a neighbor quickly walked over with the innkeepers number already dialed on his cell phone to help us out.
We slept through it our first night, but on our second we heard the drummer who walks the town beating their drum to wake residents for their “sahur” meal, the first meal of the day eaten before observing the fast of Ramadan. And that night we saw dozens of tables set up in the street so neighbors could share iftar, the meal that breaks the fast.
The white storks are referred to as pilgrim birds in Turkey, and one man told us you can set your calendar for the date of their return in March each year. The 15th, he claimed. Always the 15th.
Our host dropped us off for a lovely walk around Şirince. Although its main street is mostly catering to day trippers, once you walk above town it’s rural rhythms quickly reveal themselves and a frequently running mini bus took us back to town.
On our last morning with one final site on our Selçuk museum pass, and an 11:45 am bus to catch, we walked up above our hotel to the Castle and the Basilica of St. John – a 6th century site which is the believed burial location of John the Apostle. Once again arriving early we had the site to ourselves – well, us and quite a few cats enjoying their breakfast, provided by one of the groundskeepers.
We considered staying longer in Selçuk, but the coast and swimming beckoned. After some holiday traffic induced bus stress, and some luck with a bus connection, we made it to Bodrum to enjoy the holiday ending Ramadan, the three-day Ramadan Bayram, also known as Eid al-Fitr. More on Bodrum in our next post.
As we enter our second week in Turkey, we have finally adjusted to the time zone, food, and some of the customs of Turkish life; even the complex and nuanced lives of the ubiquitous street cats.
Meanwhile the world changes faster everyday. Just as it seems we were looking the worst of the pandemic in the rear view mirror, here comes Putin’s invasion! And now a geopolitical, migration and energy crisis is gripping Europe and rippling through the world. The future is always uncertain, but it feels especially daunting heading into the summer of 2022.
The truth about extended travels is that it is hard sometimes, a fact that travel bloggers and instagramers don’t always highlight between the pretty pictures. For us, returning to the US for a month was a mixed blessing. It was so nice to see friends and family, but at the same time, it brought a bit of angst, especially to me, as I have to fight my strong urge to settle down again. I believe nesting is a basic human instinct, especially as you age…. Luckily, Cheryl is more happy go lucky and able to take the long view better than me, which is one of the reasons our life together works so well -:)
San Francisco was at its finest in April, and after our travels, the fruits of vast prosperity, including high quality food, water, parks, and services really stood out in my mind. Not to mention the spectacular scenery, good weather, and tolerant attitudes. It really is hard to beat. But the very purpose of our extended travels is to break us out of our comfort zone, so we pressed on to Istanbul for the next leg of our adventure. San Francisco, we always miss you:
We have flown coach the past two transatlantic legs (via TAP), but we managed to use miles for two non-stop business class tickets on Turkish Airways for the 13 hour SFO to Istanbul journey; a worthy investment for the comfort of this 6’-5” carcass. It’s also nice to fly the flagship carrier of any country you are visiting as a bit of the cultural experience can start earlier (even if that culture includes talking loudly while everyone else is trying to sleep-;).
The service and comfort on the flight was great; but regardless, the 10 hour time shift was pretty harsh! We had forgotten the luxury of the previous 7 months of travel in just a few European time zones, and never trotting around a busy foreign city half zombie like…most of you know the feeling.
Luckily, a friend and infrastructure colleague in the Bay Area connected us with a local American who has taught and is an administrator at Bachesir Univeristy (BAU) for over 20 years, and is married locally with a child. He gave us a fantastic tour of some of the less touristed neighborhoods, including his home in Kadiköy, a more livable and somewhat hipster neighborhood on the Asian side of the Bosporus. There is no better way to stay awake then to have an energetic local share his local knowledge and insight over 5 miles up and down the hills. Thanks Sean!
We also landed in Istanbul at the height of Ramadan, which meant locals were out by the thousands (tens of thousands) visiting the city’s beautiful sights and passing the daily fast with family and feasts after sunset. Major holidays are always a mixed blessing when traveling. They can mean that lodging and (especially) transport can be at its limits, but you also get the joy and insight of seeing unique traditions unfold.
We stayed in the heart of tourist Istanbul of Sultanahmet. Although convenient to the big sites, touts and overpriced restaurants abounded, and it often felt like we were not getting the Istanbul experience we craved. However, it also turned out to be a major destination for local tourists to see the tulips in Gulane Park, or, for the more devout to visit The Hagia Sofia or Blue Mosque.
Our hotel also suffered from online ratings bloat, as was ranked near #1 on most booking sites. Just as a “top pick” rating in Lonely Planet used to inflate prices, the hotel did not suit our independent travelers nature. Some people love being doted on night and day, with freebies and gifts, but as long term travelers, we definitely stray towards independence and found it all a bit tedious. And poor Cheryl had to listen to my jet-lagged rants on all the poor design elements and annoyances of the hotel!
If you are staying more than a day or two in Istanbul, then I recommend staying across the Golden Horn in Karaköy or Beşiktaş, or even on the Asian side as the Marmaray raíl can get you to the key sites in 10-15 minutes (or scenic ferries). This is where we will stay when we go back, and I think we will go back. So much still to see.
Istanbul is truly unique, and a teeming blend of cultures set on an ancient backdrop. The city is fast paced and hectic, but we enjoyed just diving into the stream of humanity and going with the flow.
The public transit is also pretty good, but was very crowded, especially the very useful T1 tram line. Make sure to buy an Istanbul transit card at a major metro or Marmaray rail terminal first and charge it with 50 or 100 Lira. Recharging is easier than buying a card.
We had to ask for help using the quirky machines that sell the plastic cards and often seem to be out of service. But there are always genuinely helpful people all around in Turkey. Just ask. Even if they speak no English, they will still go out of their way to try to help. By the way, you can use one card for multiple people, by tagging them through the turnstiles first. There are turnstiles for the trams as well, as they used a platform pay zone system. Amazingly, we saw no fare dodging anywhere, even when it would be easy at low boarding tram stops.
The trams are also nice new Bombardier built rolling stock, and everything is clean and safe, as is most of the City. The new Marmaray Rail system is an extensive system that runs deep under the Bosporus, and is a crucial link for the mega region of 22 million. The new airport lacks rail service and is way out there, so we took a taxi for about $20 and an hour ride, although there are bus options. Apparently rail is planned, although given Turkey’s financial crisis, it may be an unlikely priority give the distance and cost.
So after 5 nights in Istanbul, we had to figure out our next move: East towards Ankara and Cappadocia, or down the Aegean coat. As often happens in just in time travels, the transport situation pushed us towards a decision.
Turkey has been building a backbone high speed rail network, and it is quite successful, but unfortunately so reasonably priced ($3.50 for 4 1/2 hour trip!) and in demand, that all the trains to Ankara and the east were booked out for 2-3 weeks! Doh!
We thought about flying to Cappadocia, but didn’t want to burn the carbon for our convenience, nor face another hour plus trip back out to the airport in traffic. However, a fast ferry to Bandirma and convenient train connection to Izmir still had tickets. So the lesscarmorelife choice was clear. The slow way to Izmir!
Izmir is a cosmopolitan city on the Aegean that is the heart of liberal and secular Turkey. We really enjoyed our three days there, and did what we love to do in cities…walked though neighborhoods, wandering and exploring, all served by great tram and ferry links.
And again our next move was influenced by transport during the end of Ramadan, and a bit of fate pushing back. Our hotel was walking distance to and from the Basmane train station, and trains continued south, so this was the logical choice; however, we did consider the holiday crowds and thought that renting a car in (as was recommended by many) Izmir could make sense, especially as our flight out of Turkey is from Izmir in 3 weeks.
Luckily, the Budget site in Europe would not take our credit cards on booking. (also a problem on the Turkish rail site, so we have had to book at stations). So no car for now and we were off to Selçuk by train for a few days.
One of our mantras is that we see what we see, and don’t fret about what we don’t see. You may see more renting a car or flying, but will you experience more?
And Selçuk was a lovely big town of about 30 thousand, where we stayed in a very homey and neighborhood located guest house. Selçuk is one of the gateways to Esephus, but as most people visit by cruise ship shore excursion from Kundasi, Selçuk is more of a travelers town, with a very local and relaxed vibe. More on our visit to follow in the next post.
So we are now in Bodrum, a big coastal city that heaves with summer visitors and is quite busy during the Ramadan holiday, but most locals think the weather and water is a bit too cool to swim yet, the beaches are just nicely populated. Sweet. We have a comfortable apartment for 5 days, and are mixing swimming and sightseeing with laundry, sewing, cooking, and blogging -:)
We were ready for the cats of Istanbul, having watched the fantastic documentary from 2016, Kedi, about the cats and the peoples relationship to the many, many, many cats.
Did that stop me from being bowled over with enthusiasm for each and every cat I saw? No. I’m sure Rich got tired of hearing me announce ‘kitty’ every time I spied a cat. But he is a good sport. Even when I assured him that the cats won’t jump up on the chairs at the restaurant – right before a cat did just that to get access to his lap.
It warms my heart to see how so many people care for the cats, and stop to give a scratch behind the ears if possible, and how many little cat houses and bowls of cat food dot the urban landscape.
It wasn’t just cats that caught our attention over our five days in Istanbul. The tulip festival was also a delight to see.
There is much more to see and do in Istanbul than we managed to squeeze in, so I hope we’ll be back again sometime. The ten hour time change was tough – we hadn’t had a shift like that in quite a while and we both felt it pretty acutely. We were lucky to have a friend of a friend to meet up with, and made new friends thanks to a charming kitty at a charming restaurant. Hopefully Rich will time to write more about Istanbul, there were a lot things to appreciate from an urbanist transportation point of view.