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Istanbul not Constantinople

After not posting a blog in several months, with Kiran breathing down my neck, and having already returned to Southern California, I suppose it’s time to resume our posts.

Istanbul: We visited (occupied) Istanbul at the end of our Turkey adventure sometime in mid-June. As you may know, Istanbul was renamed from Constantinople once it was finally conquered by Mehmed II in 1453 after hundreds of years of attacks on the city, marking the end of the Roman Empire and the start of the rise of Istanbul and much of the Muslim world as we know it today. Kiran and I spent a week there several months ago, and it certainly met and exceeded our expectations. We should say that we think you probably shouldn’t go to Turkey without going to Istanbul; however, Kiran and I think the rest of Turkey was as incredible or even more incredible than Istanbul itself, so definitely see more of Turkey than Istanbul if you ever visit the country (and see our former posts for pictures/insights) and if you’re thinking about going to Turkey THEN GO!!!

The Blue Mosque was built in the 1600s (1609-1616), and Kiran and I would invariably visit it several times per day in some form shape or another, as it lies in the center of the Old City.
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It’s as beautiful at night as it is at day
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Inside and out
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We’d even see the Blue Mosque from our near-daily rooftop lunch perch at Doy-Doy restaurant (which we highly recommend).

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The Blue Mosque was designed using Hagia Sophia as a template, the Greek Orthodox church on which construction was first started in 537 A.D. The architectural similarities between Hagia Sophia and the Blue Moque are obvious, but Kiran and I think Hagia Sophia is even just a little bit more beautiful than the Blue Mosque, especially considering it is so old (and under repair).

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Most of the interior has been re-made over the years, since Hagia Sophia is nearly 1500 years old and it was converted from a church into a mosque many centuries ago.

There are so many different layers to the church/mosque. Here you can some of the older Christian iconography under the arches to the left. Under the right arch represents the Muslim “cover-up” of Christian artwork.

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But even much of the current Islamic decor is merely a shoddy modern paint job meant to represent what the beautiful original Islamic artwork/tile work looked like underneath. For example:

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And again, below the Islamic tile work you see the Christian artwork. Here’s a mosaic of Jesus dating back to 1261. Hagia Sophia is certainly an interesting religious mash-up.
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Hagia Sophia was built by Justinian I, who, along with 7,000 slaves, also built the Basilica Cistern, an ancient Roman structure that provided water to Istanbul nearly 1500 years ago. The cistern still stands today, and in writing this blog entry, I learned that it was used in the filming of the 1963 James Bond film “From Russia with Love.”

IMG_4022 I stole the photo below from WIKI to better show it

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We visited the Istanbul Mosaic Museum, also built around the same time period.

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Switching gears, we’re from Los Angeles where ALL the buildings are less than 100 years and everyone loves to shop. Old habits die hard, so we eventually had to do some shopping too – here’s the Spice Bazaar.
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And we went to the Grand Bazaar four or fives times, I think we lost count. This is one of the 18 gates.

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And when they say ‘Grand’ they really mean it. Over 550 years old, the Bazaar consists of 67 covered roads, over 3000 shops, and it employs nearly 30,000 people. Somehow, there are still no toilet facilities for tourists!?!

We especially liked the lamps, but since we have to carry around for months anything we buy, the only thing we purchased was cologne, which turned out to be fake, and I’ve since thrown it away.
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The inner Bazaar is closed on Sundays, but we went anyway as we had a secret mission. Kiran sweet-talked one of the shop owners on the perimeter to let us onto the roof so she could see where a chase scene was filmed for a more recent James Bond flick.
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If you’ve seen the movie then this should look familiar. And we consider ourselves pretty lucky since tourists generally don’t get to see this view of the Bazaar.

Another unique/non-touristy activity we enjoyed was having dinner with one of the legends in my fraternity, Phi Gamma Delta (FIJI). Say what you want about fraternities, but it’s pretty cool to be halfway around the world and get invited to dinner by some guy who has no idea who you are but knows only that you lived in the same house 20 years apart.
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Earlier in the week, we were in Taksim Square, home to some of the violent rioting and killing that occurred just a week or two before we arrived.
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We were there when most of the people had dispersed and only a few people where standing in silent protest.
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So I did some protesting of my own.
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I heard there was a ‘peaceful’ protest planned one Friday night so of course I dragged Kiran there. It started on Istiklal Avenue
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And emptied into Taksim Square. By the time we arrived the place was packed!
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It got a little crazy actually. People had some posters that blamed the problems in Turkey on the US and the CIA and it’s support of Prime Minister Erdogan.
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We eventually ‘bugged out,’ and I saw on the news later that night that the government brought out the water cannons and tear gas about an hour after we left.

Perhaps our favorite part of Istanbul started on our first night as Kiran was enjoying her favorite new drink, a mojito WITH a sparkler. Um, non-alcoholic of course.

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Some guy walked up to us and and asked Kiran if he had ever worked with her in Pakistan. She of course said no, and we found out the guy worked for the State Department. He’s worked in every place you would never want to go, and we and his now fiance eventually became friends and spent most of our time in Instanbul together.

See, even diplomats can be silly and have fun.

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Lastly, we loved seeing our new favorite international meteorologist Mari Ramos on TV in Turkey. But Mari, you gotta mix up the outfits once in a while!

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Cappadocia – a different planet?

After our lazy vacation along the mediterrean coast, Scott and I were recharged and ready to explore the unknown in Turkey! Our next stop was the historical region of Cappadocia, a land that…well… we didn’t know anything about and were simply mezmerized by.

To give a very brief history, Cappadocia is located in the very center of Turkey and has the craziest terrain that I have ever seen. Basically, volanic eruptions occurred millions of years ago, resulting in white ash, mud and lava spewing all over a plateau, creating mounds of sedimentary rock. After years and years of weathering as well as a river that once cut through the mounds/mountains/whatever you call it, you get something that looks like this:
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crazy right? yup. here’s more:
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INSANE! what are these things? When you see it in person, you just think that you are on another planet. Which only makes it fitting that George Lucas filmed a scene from Star Wars here! More on that later =)

Okay, it get’s even crazier. PEOPLE LIVED HERE. In caves. There were kitchens, dining rooms and even wineries. They also cut churches out of rock.
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Oh and yes, at times they lived UNDERGROUND. I’m talking 60 meters underground with sophisicated defense systems, air vents and tunnel connections. I see remnants of buildings, temples, cities, etc in every country we visit that were built hundreds and hundreds of years ago and I just am in awe of human intellect.

Feel free to call us the flintstones from now on because we stayed in a “cave hotel” which was really cool! This was our hotel:
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And this was the view from our hotel:
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We stayed in Goreme, around the corner from their open-air museum. This place was great because it gave you an authentic representation of what life was like in the 10th, 11th and 12th century.

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We saw preserved frescos
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And um, yeah preserved skeletons…?

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Cappadocia is full of hiking trails. We often went for long hikes, just exploring the valleys and plateaus all around us. Our minds couldn’t comprehend the crazy nature all around us!
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One day Scott and I did our usual routine – rent a scooter and explore the town.
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Our first stop was Derinkuyu, the largest underground city in Cappadocia. This city went down as far as 13 levels and housed over 20,000 Christians that were hiding from Roman persecution in the 5th century.
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Now, I will admit that I am slightly claustrophobic. It isn’t so much being in a small place, it is the fear of feeling/being trapped. If there is an exit available to me then I don’t panic. But In order to see this city, we had to go far underground. To make things worse, the exit and entrance was one very confined tunnel and I had to follow a line of mass tourists that took their sweet time getting through. Nonetheless, I was determined put aside my fears and went in…
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Boy was that a mistake! I got through it but I will admit that I had minor panic attacks going through the tunnels. Finally when we were 5 stories underground and tourists were shouting at each other in a confined room, I panicked completely had to get of of there ASAP. I felt bad depriving Scott of real time to explore Derinkuyu, but he did a great job of supporting me the whole way through. Even though the experience was terrifying, I don’t regret doing it at all.

We then drove to Ilhara Valley, one of the most beautiful valleys in the Cappadocia region. You can spend a whole day exploring beautiful nature entrapped in this Valley.
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While the day started out beautiful and sunny, the weather turned nasty in our time at Ilhara. Before we knew it, we were taking shelter in a rock-cut church to avoid a massive downpour.
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It finally stopped raining for 20 minutes and we took the window of opportunity to hike out of the valley quickly. We didn’t even have jackets and knew we would have a miserable 1.5 hour drive home if it was raining the whole time! We spent 20 minutes driving around in the pouring rain going to markets and asking if they had large trash bags. They had never even heard of such a thing.

So, we decided to outrun the clouds. Scott rode as fast as he could and soon enough the grey clouds were behind us and we dried off eventually.
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It felt good to be back in the sun.
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We took different roads coming back and ended up at the location where a scene from Star Wars was filmed. Don’t ask me which episode… Maybe episode 3?
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Scott was driving down a dirt road and we noticed a big “rock” in the middle of the road. Turns out it was a tortoise trying to cross. Scott decided to help it by picking it up and placing it on the road divider. The turtle promptly, turned around, got back on the dirt road and even walked around Scott’s bike to make a point. Apparently he was doing just fine on his own.
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We ended our time in Cappadocia with a bang – a hot air balloon ride! Neither of us had done it and were a little terrified, but it is one of the most memorable things I have done on this trip:
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There are multiple hot air balloon companies in Cappadocia that offer rides at sunrise. I have never seen so many balloons in the air at the same time. I still can’t decide if it was the balloons that impressed me more or the terrain. What I do know is that the combination is something you only see in Turkey…

I learned quickly that Turkey is brimming with rich history in any city you visit. I would like to return to Turkey and visit a few more cities because if they are anything like the Cappadocia region, they are definitely worth the visit.
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Sailing the Mediterranean in Turkey

When Scott and I were in Jordan, we met a lot of great people. People that, like us, were traveling extensively and Turkey kept on coming up in conversations. We heard constant rave reviews of many cities aside from (but still including) Istanbul. Our plan was always to get to the country somehow from Greece but only visit Istanbul for one week. In a matter of 7 days in Jordan, all of that changed. Suddenly, we had a 3-week Turkey itinerary in the future. I guess that is the fun in having an open summer, you can just plan as you go and make decisions on the spot!

That was Turkey for us – one great decision after another.

We entered the country via ferry from Rhodes into Fethiye. Fethiye is a lovely port town where French, Dutch and English retirees spend their summers, either on their boats or in a purchased home. The population is so foreign that the ATMs spit out Euros, Pounds in addition to Turkish Lira.

If you take one look at this town, you can’t blame anyone for settling here:
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Our guesthouse was along the waterfront and this was the awesome view from our room:
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Being a port town, the highlight of this town is the Fish Market. In the evenings you can go to a courtyard of restaurants. The center of the square houses freezers where local fisherman will sell you the fresh seafood they recently caught. You select whatever fresh fish, squid, prawns, etc that is on display and you pay the fisherman directly. Then you point to the restaurant you want to eat at. The fisherman will clean your seafood and take it to the restaurant for you.
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For about $3/per person, any restaurant will grill your seafood and along with tons of salad and garlic bread. Yummmm. It was so delicious I forgot to take a picture!

Fethiye historically is known for being the beginning of the Lycian way, a 510km footpath of the ancient civilization that once ruled Turkey (I think around 1250BC). Scott and I hiked up the small mountains that backdrop the city and saw very old Lycian tombs.
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(You can spot the tomb in the top right)
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Of course we experienced a typical night of kebabs, shisha and Turkish delight tastings!
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Fethiye also was the starting point of our 4 day cruise along the Mediterranean Coast. Commonly referred to as “The Blue Cruise” the boat sails east, visiting many islands, bays and small towns, that are along the way to the final destination of Demre.

This was our boat!
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It was literally our vacation from a vacation. For four days, we didn’t have to worry about planning activities, transportation, meals, etc. We just swam and ate when we were told to and relaxed the rest of the time.

So that is exactly what we did. We swam
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explored
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and relaxed
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and swam
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and explored
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and relaxed
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….and swam some more
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explored
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and relaxed
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and relaxed
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and relaxed…okay we slept a lot
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We had a great group of shipmates on board which only made the trip a lot better. We got to know each other as we visited beautiful towns, ruins and sunset points
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Once we arrived in Demre, we drove on high cliffs along the coast for about one hour and it felt like we were back on highway 1 again. The views were simply breathtaking.

We finished our 4 day excursion in Olympos, an important Lycian town settled along one of the most beautiful beaches in Turkey. Olympos, now only survived by ruins, dated back to at least the 2nd century BC. I believe it also is the end of the Lycian way. At night you can see “eternal” flames spitting out of Mount Olympos due to Methane pockets. But we were only visiting for the day since we had to take an overnight bus to Cappadocia.
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The Cappadocia post is forthcoming and I guarantee it will be one of our most fascinating posts. If you haven’t heard of it, it is worth a two minute google!