Monday, June 8, 2009

Turkey – Going Underground in Cappadocia

Today we headed to the Kaymakli underground city, a fascinating labyrinth of underground tunnels, rooms, churches and hideaways built underneath a seemingly normal and non-descript village above. Residents started tunneling into the soft tufa stone as far back as the 2nd century in order to create defensible cities underground to withstand the frequent attacks by the various empires across Asia Minor. Excavators have discovered rooms some 8 stories below the surface and have found tunnels 6 miles long connecting different underground cities. The entire city population could go underground and wait out the sieges, as the caves had storage facilities, ventilation shafts and critical access to the water table. Fires were only lit at night so as to avoid giving away their location underground. Residents would wall off entire sections underground with giant stone wheels that were rolled across small stone passageways, and many well placed booby traps would keep their would-be captors “in the dark”, so to speak! We spent the rest of our trip visiting different nature sites and fortresses in the valleys and cliffs of the Cappadocia region, exploring the many caves and bizarre stone structures. The kids seemed simply happy to run around in the outdoors and pick wildflower bouquets for Suzanne and Dee. One of our favorite and most spectacular areas was the troglodyte city. A troglodyte in this case refers to a type of religious hermit who lived in these cave structures. They often had cult-like status amongst the area residents, and it was considered good luck to have a troglodyte in your neighborhood. The “city” was set in a series of 3 connecting valleys and the caves were all wide open for exploration (save for the ones that were collapsing due to erosion). A few of the passageways went deep into the cliff, but since we had no lights, Scott and I thought it would be better to stay within sight of our families, so as not to become inadvertent troglodytes. I’m not so sure the family would be up for us spending the rest of our adventure year in a cave… On our last day, we packed up our belongings and said our goodbyes to the Andrews. We were all a bit sad and nostalgic, as we had been through so much together, and it was hard to believe our shared experience was actually coming to a close. They were on their way to meet some good friends in Greece, while we would be heading back to Spain to give Seville a try for the month of June. As hard as it was to say our goodbyes, we were excited about the possibility of seeing them sooner in Boulder. More on that later.

Turkey –Hanging with the Troglodytes in Cappadocia

It was amazing how fast time went by on the gullet trip, given how little we actually did. But it was a much-needed break, which gave us energy for exploring the lunar landscape and underground cities of Cappadocia. Cappadocia is a fascinating region in the very center of Turkey, somewhat resembling the vast open planes of Wyoming coupled with the spectacular scenery of Canyon Country in Utah. With one key difference – people have lived in the rocks here for thousands of years. The region is characterized by Tufa stone, which was formed by layers of compressed volcanic ash. Tufa is extremely soft and easy to carve, allowing residents to build cave dwellings right into the cliffs and under their homes. We pulled into the Gamirasu Cave Hotel late at night, so we didn’t have a full appreciation of the countryside. Things started out auspiciously, as the kids were carsick from the ride and complained about funny smells (we were dropped off in a very impoverished part of the village, as the van could not go down to the hotel). But the hotel turned out to be a welcome surprise and our 3-room place was built directly into a huge rock. It was well-lit and even had full internet service – for the next few days, our emails would lead with; “I am writing to you from inside a cave in the middle of Turkey”! We met Yashar, our guide for the next two days, and we embarked on a fascinating tour of this region. Of particular note was the Goreme open-air museum, a cliffside network of 4 monasteries, which each housed over 350 residents during the Byzantine era. There were a number of hidden churches built into the rock, with well-preserved frescoes dating as far back as the 9th century. The irony was not lost on the kids that although I had promised we were done with museums and churches for a while and would be out in nature, here we were in a site that was both a museum AND a church! Who could have known?... We later went to another spectacular site with Dr. Seuss-like mushroom cap rock formations. It was hard to ignore that many of these are extremely phallic in nature, but it all started to make sense when we noticed a small shack selling various herbs as “natural Viagra” nearby – talk about an effective marketing campaign! We also got a big rise at the ceramics studio in Avanos, where the kids got a chance to throw their own clay pots on a giant foot-powered potting wheel. Of course, afterwards we were paraded through their display section and there were a few tense moments as Suzanne was eyeing a $2,000 ceramic bowl (although she asserts she was never serious about it). I had no problems playing the bad cop with the dealer and we got away clean. However, I couldn’t claim the same success the following day at the artisan jewelry center. There is only so much a man can do when his lovely wife sets her mind on a fine piece of native turquoise! At the end of the day, we were taken to an historic palace - which once served as an overnight outpost on the silk route - to see a religious rite performed by real live whirling dervishes. I always thought the term “whirling dervish” was cool, but I must admit I had no idea what it meant. As I now understand, dervish is a type of monk, and they get their name by spinning in a very spiritual dance ritual, which apparently puts them in a trance-like state and brings them closer to God. The music, chanting and spinning was quite mesmerizing (I got dizzy just watching) and seemed to put Dee in trancelike state, as we caught her nodding off at the end of the ritual!

Turkey – Living the Good Life on the Nirvana 2

Scott Andrews has always been a huge sailing fan and had been lobbying hard with his family to charter a boat and do the famous “blue cruise” on the Agean. Suzanne practically grew up on the water on family vacations and was interested in doing an all-inclusive trip. Plus, I had fond memories sailing in Turkey for a day (with my friend Athar during our post college EU whirlwind trip). So we decided to go in together to rent a Turkish yacht and live large. As long as we were already this close, we might as well splurge – for who knows when we might get another opportunity?!? Today was the day we had most been looking forward to; embarking for a 5 day Agean cruise on board a Turkish Gullet (a double-masted wood yacht that resembles a schooner). We had selected a beautifully preserved 30-meter (over 90 feet!) boat called the Nirvana 2, which came with a crew of 4 and had 8 private cabins. All meals were included and we had them stock plenty of beverages to keep our thirst quenched out on the water. As we arrived in the port of Marmaris and boarded the boat, we were speechless – this boat was huge, with plenty of cushions, outdoor dining areas, and decks for serious lounging. Plus, when the kids were playing up front, we could hardly hear them. The crew immediately took care of us, providing a great meal of pasta and turkish salads and plying us with plenty of cold beers to get us in the right frame of mind. As we left the harbor, all the previous fatigue of sightseeing and traveling left us immediately and we had no trouble adapting to the 24:7 service of a full crew. while we’ve certainly had relaxing trips before, this one was over the top! Basically, our 5 days on the gullet went like this: We would awaken in the morning at leisure with a cup of coffee on the deck. The crew would lay out a huge breakfast spread (homemade bread, fresh jams, cheeses, olives, tomatoes, cucumbers) and we would eat before embarking to a new cove or inlet. There, we would anchor and swim, snorkel, sunbathe and play in the kayaks while the crew prepared lunch. The kids especially enjoyed hosting their own version of survivor and would build tribal camps at various beaches along the coves every place we anchored. After downing a few beers, we would have a big lunch and then the crew would pull anchor and head to our final cove for the day. This was then followed by more swimming, reading and exploring until tea-time at about 5 pm. After a few more hours of diving off “the plank”, racing kayaks at sunset, and several very competitive games of hearts, we’d have a late dinner and finish off the night with a few bottles of Turkish Red. It seemed that we were eating the whole time, but the food was so tasty and healthy, we always seemed to be hungry. And of course, we were never too far from “beer thirty”… I especially enjoyed the sounds of the water lapping against the boat as we shared stories and eventually drifted off to sleep. Then the process would start all over again the following morning. Ahhh…now THIS was the life! While this was certainly one of the most expensive vacations we have taken, it was perhaps the most enjoyable and relaxing. I think we are now forever spoiled!

Turkey – Ephesus and Kusadasi

We caught the morning flight to Izmir and headed out to Ephesus to explore the roman ruins of this major archeological site. This once was a thriving port town, with a covered market, palaces, library and 24,000-seat ampitheater, which had been remarkably restored. After all the sightseeing in Istanbul, however, the kids were getting a bit frustrated and they clearly needed some down-time. We had a wonderful vegetarian lunch in the small mountain town of Sirince, just a few kms outside of Ephesus. They are supposedly known for their local wines, but I found them a bit lacking. I did, however, break down and buy a dessert wine made from mulberries. As we came to learn later, it wasn't great, but it certainly did not suck. Fortunately, we were almost through with the sightseeing and everyone was ready for some serious relaxation. Our next leg of the trip brought us to Kusadasi, a scenic port town on the Agean. We stayed at the Kismet hotel, which had a Cape Cod beach feel to it. The kids collected a whole bunch of rocks down by the water and decided to set up a rock shop in the front driveway of the hotel. They then proceeded to badger every single patron who showed up at the hotel. It was fascinating to watch them work out their business model on the fly as their confidence picked up. Casey and Grace were the greeters and would not take no for an answer. The rocks were pretty ugly, so they relied on 99% charm and 1% product. Emma and the boys would handle the actual negotiation and transaction, ultimately netting the team several hard earned euros after netting out the cost goods for the display (a very dirty hotel towel). It was a great diversion, allowing the adults a chance to enjoy the waterfront view and have a nice quiet meal while the kids honed their newfound business skills. The hotel staff was great with them and did not run them off the property, in spite of their somewhat aggressive sales tactics. Made the shopkeepers in Morocco look pretty tame by comparison – at least in Morocco you could enjoy a tea during the bargaining!

Turkey – City Slickers in Istanbul

Our trip started in Istanbul, home of the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia – some of the most important historical/religious icons in the Arab world. Istanbul is an amazingly cosmopolitan and westernized city– located on the Bosphorus peninsula, it reminded us of San Francisco in many ways. With a population of 13 million, it was also quite crowded and lively –the pedestrian Istikal street at night reminded me of the crowd at a Michigan-Ohio State football game –an endless sea of people as far as we could see. We were immediately struck by the quality of the food here – delicious grilled kebabs, flavorful yogurt sauces with mint and dill, fresh tomato/cucumber salads and wonderful vegetarian dishes. I think it was probably the freshest and healthiest cuisine we have eaten all year. We awoke early to meet Khan our guide and then off we went to reconnect at the Hagia Sophia with the Andrews, who were flying in from Athens. The Hagia Sophia is the 4th largest religious structure in the world – a fascinating blend of byzantine and muslim influences. Built in the 6th century by the Byzantine Empire, it is stunning in its size and simplicity. Then we were off to the Basilica Cistern, a spectacular underground palace created to store water for the entire city during the Byzantine Empire, allowing it to withstand the many sieges upon the city. The cistern was constructed with columns of previous Greek structures and contains many interesting (and decidedly non-Byzantine) symbols to ward off evil spirits, such as a column of “evil eyes” and a giant medusa head turned on its side. While these features were never intended to be seen (the entire complex was under water), it is speculated that they were put there just in case the Byzantines were wrong in their new choice of religion. Whatever the reason, the kids seemed to enjoy it. Our last highlight was the Blue Mosque – a fully functioning religious site and the primary icon of Istanbul. While not as dramatic as the Hagia Sophia, it was worthwhile to be allowed into a mosque of this magnitude. And I guess our trip to Istanbul would not have been complete without an obligatory stop to the Grand Bazaar. Somehow, we managed to escape with our pockets lighter by only a few Euros, probably because everyone was tired from a long day and looking forward to a siesta back at the hotel. We finished our day with a huge fresh grilled fish washed down with some Efes beer and girded ourselves for a very unreasonable 5 am wakeup call the following morning.

Heading to Turkey with the Andrews Family

Thanks to the proactive planning and tireless effort of Dee Andrews in conjunction with the folks at CTC travel, we headed out on a dual family excursion to Turkey. We are so fortunate to have met the Andrews in Javea – not just because they are wonderful people and great friends, but also because they continually inspire us to take bold steps on our adventure year. It is safe to say that had we not met the Andrews, we probably would not have left Javea early, seen Morocco, or ventured to Turkey. They have given us new insights on making quick decisions without looking back, how to live comfortably with few possessions and how to stay centered in the face of uncertain times. It is rare to find someone who is on the same “wavelength” – let alone a whole family! And it has given us the chance to share new experiences and create memories with another family who completely relates to what we are going through. And to think we may even be neighbors with them someday in Boulder!

Living Large in Salamanca

We were very excited to be joined by the Andrews family – who also decided to vacate Javea early and explore Spain a bit more. We would often meet up with them in the Plaza Mayor and head out for dinner and/or drinks and ice cream. And of course, we had to search for the elusive frog, carved into the plateresque facade of the university - those who can find it without assistance are said to receive good fortune! Their children, Grace and Emma who were 7 and 10 years old, gradually warmed up to the boys over time. We weren’t so sure how it would go, since they tended to steer clear of them when we would get together in Javea. Given Salamanca was a chance for Suzanne and I to relive some of our fondest memories, we set out to find caretakers for the kids during the day who could also work with them to further their language education. Rocio was the daughter of our apartment manager and she was looking to earn some extra money during a break for school exams. She would come in the mornings and spend time with the kids reviewing Spanish before taking them out to the local parks/plazas or out for an ice cream, speaking only Spanish. Of course, Casey relished the attention, as her command of Spanish was far superior to the boys. Over time, however, Kellen began to show his stripes - he obviously learned more at XIC than we gave him credit for! Christian, on the other hand, resisted Rocio’s efforts at every turn and his progress was much slower. It was a treat to have the mornings and afternoons free to explore the museums, monasteries and cathedrals, take care of errands and have leisurely lunches - without the frustration that comes from being with kids all day long. I think by the end of 3 weeks, they started to drive Rocio crazy, but she managed to handle it all in stride. I even took the opportunity to enroll in a local school for foreigners (Letra Espana) for 2 hours a day. It was a wonderful blend of classes – everything from interpreting Spanish music, watching videos, role-playing exercises and lectures on the formation of the Spanish government. I wish I could have kept doing it longer. By this time, all of us were quite weary of the Spanish cuisine and we unabashedly frequented as many non-native restaurants as we could find – Asian, Italian and even a little Mexican (not up to par with CA standards, but still a nice change of pace). Also, during our time in Salamanca, Suzanne headed back to the states to celebrate Kim Michelson’s 40th birthday and have some much needed girl time (talking, shopping, mani/pedis, drinking, talking, talking, talking). While I was happy to see her back in her element, it wasn’t the same to be in Salamanca without her, and the kids missed her a lot. By the time she got back, we were ready to pack our bags and head to the next stop on our adventure itinerary – Turkey.

Return to the Golden Glow of Salamanca

Salamanca is a special place for Suzanne and I - we traveled here some 12 years ago and it was by far one of our favorite cities. We have wonderful memories of sitting in outdoor cafes, drinking granizadas, people-watching, or simply admiring the golden glow that radiated from the spectacularly preserved sandstone buildings around us. I must admit we weren’t sure it would live up to the romantic image from our memories, but we needn’t have worried – Salamanca was everything we remembered and more. After only a few hours in the city, I found myself thinking aloud; “how come we didn’t just move here from the get-go?” It is a warm, vibrant, beautiful and quintessentially Spanish city that always has a lot going for it. There is an energy to Salamanca that is contagious, and we felt immediately at home. We were fortunate to have found a newly remodeled apartment only a few blocks from the Plaza Mayor, considered by many to be one of the finest plazas in Spain, if not in all of Europe. Built by Philip V (he seems to be behind many of our favorite sights), the plaza is the central gathering point for Salamancans. Every evening seemed to either begin or end there and it was a real treat to see it when the lights came on at night. One of our highlights during the first week was re-discovering Chez Victor, the site of one of our top 5 meals of all time. I was amazed to see Victor himself standing in the front with his wife – just as it was yesterday. I booked a surprise reservation for Suzanne and I the following day. We had a great time and even ordered the duck again which was just as good as before. The deserts did not live up to expectations, but overall it was just like old times and we finished off the meal with a nice Pedro Jimenez sherry. Victor claimed he remembered Suzanne, saying “I always remember the pretty ones!”.