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Turkey for Christmas!

Updated: Jan 20, 2022

(December 19 - 29, 2021)

We decided to spend the winter holidays in Turkey this year! We left on Sunday, coincidentally the day after Amsterdam announced its lockdown, so the airport was a complete and total nightmare, with multi-hour long lines at every single counter, but thanks to airport wide delays, we made the flight. We flew direct to Kayseri airport where we picked up a rental car. This was a very interesting time to be traveling to Turkey as the Turkish lira is going through extreme inflation and instability. Although the situation is devastating for the locals we felt completely safe on the trip and got to have some very interesting and compelling conversations with the people there.

We (Nick) decided to rent a car to give us more flexibility in the area. He is someone who truly enjoys transportation logistics (not shocking to those who know him). He half jokes that one of his favorite things about this trip was the challenge-but-ability to travel around and plan this trip without any assistance from a professional. In the end it was intimidating but easy to navigate once there ... that being said I didn't do any of the planning or driving! (All this bop-ing around without pre-arranging rides would 100% NOT have been possible pre-google maps!)

We were staying in the town of Goreme, about an hour drive from Kayseri at the Kelebek Special Cave Hotel. Our room was located in a cave carved inside a chimney shaped rock formation known as a "fairy chimney," and filled with Turkish rugs, a fireplace and a big cozy bed. The region is full of cave dwellings, as the soil is mainly comprised of a soft volcanic ash. Our room was in fact carved during the 8th century by early Christians hiding from their Roman persecutors. The drive on our way in the night before was very dark and we woke up the next morning before the sunrise for a hot air balloon tour, so it wasn't until we were in the sky that we got to see the breathtaking views of the region!

We ascended with around 100 other hot air balloons rising from the plains of Anatolia. (Photo at the top is a panorama view from the hot air balloon) As the hot air fills the balloons they look like colorful giant glowing Christmas ornaments all across the valley illuminated against the dark dawn sky. Once we were up in the air the sun began to come out and I could realize just how enchanting the region is. We were surrounded by copious clusters of fairy chimneys and mountains with entire faces carved out for ancient cities that now look like giant honeycombs.

We booked our tour with Royal Air Balloons, and would highly recommend the company. We had a very engaging tour guide named Tolga and felt extremely safe during the entire process. The company picked us up before and dropped us off after, right at our hotel and was easy to book and work with.

Once back at the hotel we enjoyed their amazing breakfast spread and took a quick nap before heading out to explore.

Our first stop was at the Goreme Open Air Museum this was a great place to start as it was a wonderful introduction to understanding the history of the area. It is an ancient Byzantine monastic settlement (and current UNESCO World Heritage site) that consists of rock-carved churches decorated inside with frescoes. There are hiking paths all over the sight and lots of caves to choose from; but we followed a path laid out by our trusty lonely planet book with Nick narrating aloud the different cave's uses and the different church fresco meanings and history. It is well worth having some sort of guide book (even printed from online) with you as there isn't much signage and lots of fascinating history. All the caves look the same from the outside but are not created equal on the inside!

Just to set-the-scene more accurately: the picture to the right is inside one of the caves behind me in the photo above (the smallest & highest cave - three caves from the left edge of the photo). Nick snuck the picture to the right (pictures weren't allowed inside the churches) so I was obviously extremely anxious when I caught him breaking the rules, but also happy now to have the picture! This particular church does cost extra to go inside as it is the most famous with the most colorful artwork. Created in the 11th century, the fresco is incredibly well preserved due to the lack of windows, allowing for less light damage over the years, also the reason it is aptly called the "Dark Church."

After about an hour at the open air museum we headed to Pasabagi Valley. This valley is home to three basalt rock formations (fairy chimneys) that are often pictured on Cappadocia travel brochures. This area too was once inhabited by Monks and you can climb around on the rocks to see the monk's quarters and a chapel with more iconoclastic paintings

For dinner we booked a cooking class at Cappadocia Home Cooking. The cooking class was in the small town of Ayvali, about 3o minute drive from Goreme, in the 200+ years old traditional stone arch home of a wonderful family. We were greeted with very a warm welcome and sat down on the sofa for a few cups of tea and friendly conversation getting to know one another. We were the only people in this evenings cooking class so the experience could not have been more special. Tolga runs the cooking class with help from his wife, mother, and son. Getting to speak with them about Turkish culture, current politics, and even their religion was really something special and unexpected for me. I learned all about Ataturk, and the great pride Tolga has for his nation, his business, and family reminded me of my father. This shocked me in the most wonderful way, and was the most beautiful reminder of the unexpected similarities we can share across continents and customs. We stayed quite late chatting and when we promised to return we were blessed with prayers for children from grandma before heading back to our cave.

Tuesday morning we slept in before driving to the Zelve Open Air Museum. We almost skipped it thinking we'd covered our bases the day before, thank goodness we didn't! It was completely enchanting and magical in a very Fred Flintstone sort of way!

From here we drove through the Deverent Valley, also known as "Imagination Valley" because the rock formations are rumored to look like cloud animals ... I didn't see any animals but it was a very easy stop on our way to the small old town of Ürgüp. In Ürgüp we had lunch at Ziggy Cafe, and visited the souvenir shop (obviously!) below the restaurant that is run by the owners charming and charismatic husband.

After lunch we headed to Uçhisar Castle. The castle can be seen from miles away as you are driving towards it and inversely, once at the top the panoramic views over Cappadocia are incredible. Getting up to the top of the castle you enter the volcanic rock through one of the many tunnels the mountain is riddle with and wind your way up. For centuries it was used as a fortress and refuge for the village people when enemy armies overtook the surrounding plains.

On our way back to the car we were "invited" into Farouk’s Rug Shop to warm up and drink a cup of tea. Nick didn't necessarily feel like this was the kind welcoming gesture I took it for, and after some painful (for me) haggling we walked away with a beautiful Turkish rug. (For half the price of ones we later saw in Istanbul - thank you very much!! @Nick) That afternoon we booked ourselves a traditional Turkish bath and scrub in the hamam at the Kelebek hotel. A hamam, Turkish bath, is a very old tradition that takes place in a public (although in this case private) bath house with different temperature rooms that you first warm up in and then are washed and massaged by an attendant using very soap-y olive oil soap.

Relaxed and happy we walked over to dinner at Seten, located next-door in the sister hotel to ours, the Sultan Hotel. Nick had the testi kebab, which is a classic Anatolian dish prepared and served in a clay jug that is lit on fire and cracked open at your table! (The food was delicious but the funniest part was when they used the hand sanitizer to aid them in lighting the clay pot on fire!)

The next morning we had breakfast at the hotel and got to watch the hot air balloons from the ground, which was a spectacular sight! After breakfast and a million photos we headed to the Ihlara Valley for a snowy hike in the beautiful canyon. The hiking trail follows the Melindiz River and there was a beautiful dusting of snow covering the ground and glistening in the trees. We stumbled upon a traditional tea house with tents and tables set up alongside the river, where we stopped to enjoy some fresh squeezed pomegranate juice and hot tea.

After the hike we headed to see Derinkuyu Underground City. This is a gigantic ancient multi-level cave and tunnel structure that once formed an underground city large enough for as many as 20,000 people along with their livestock and food! It was formed by Christians in the Byzantine era, to protect themselves and hid from Arabian Muslims during the Arab-Byzantine wars taking place between 780–1180 AD. It was continued to be used for thousands of years and even as late as the early 20th century! As incredible and fascinating as the structure is I must admit I did NOT enjoy being inside of it. Once you commit to going in you must go through the entire route, due to the tight passageways. (Do not go in if you are at all claustrophobic!) Thankfully only about 5% of the structure is viewable, but that still means once you enter you walk 5 floors below the ground in narrow passageways sometimes unable to stand fully upright. It felt somewhere between "Star Wars" and "Honey I Shrunk the Kids" stuck inside an ant colony!

On Thursday we went to see the Rose Valley then checked out small town of Avanos on our way to the airport to catch a plane to Istanbul. The car return and airplane boarding process where a bit of cluster but the flight itself was very easy. Once in Istanbul we took a cab to the Empress Zoe Hotel, located in the center of the old town, Sultanahmet area.

In the morning we walked less than 5 minutes to the Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia), debatably the most iconic site in Istanbul. The Byzantine structure was originally built as a cathedral in 537 AD by Roman Emperor Justinian I, then it was converted to a mosque in 1453 when the Ottoman Empire conquered the city. In the 20th century it was converted a museum and is presently, once again, a Muslim mosque. Thankfully, it is still open for visitors and the years of history and differing religions can still be seen on the walls and ceilings of the structure, although some of the Christian artwork is slightly obscured with strips of fabric and large wooden muslim medallions have been added. Across from the Hagia Sophia is another impressive mosque, the Blue Mosque. The Blue Mosque has six tall and slim minarets (the most of any built at the time) and the interior is adorned with Blue Iznik tiles giving it, its unofficial name.

After the two mosques we tried to go see the Basilica Cistern (featured in James Bond and Dan Brown's book and movie Inferno) however it was unfortunately closed for restorations. Luckily while this is the most famous and largest cistern in Istanbul, there are hundreds of ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city. So we walked over to another one open for visitors, the Serefiye Cistern. Inside the Serefiye Cistern (which is now kept with little water) there is a neat light-show and brief video explaining the history. These underground water reservoirs are much more beautiful than you'd ever expect supported by gorgeous marble columns, most of which were recycled from ruins of even older Roman buildings and temples.

The cistern happened to be located just around the corner from the Grand Bazaar (Old Bazaar), our next stop. While I was a little disappointed by the merchandise being sold in the Grand Bazaar (more counterfeit purses than Turkish antiques) the Bazaar itself is spectacular. The long hallways have domed ceilings covered in beautiful Islamic tiles. There is a constant state of noise and hustle and bustle except during the call to prayer, when everything goes silent except for the muezzin's voice and hundreds of people stop what they are doing, roll out their prayer mats and begin to pray. I didn't want to ogle at the people but I must admit the drastic change in the environment that happened in a matter of moments was very impressive and somewhat spiritual even for myself. Inside the bazaar we weaved around the labyrinth of hallways to find the beautiful courtyard know as Zincirli Han. Where we had delicious kebabs and pomegranate juice for lunch at Gul-Ebru Kantin.

After the Bazaar we walked over to the Topkapi Palace, to see the very impressive palace, gardens, armory and jewels! The vast complex was the Imperial residence of the Ottoman sultans for almost 400 years and offers a fascinating history of what life was like for them. Highlights include: the Sultan's gold and jewel-laden throne, an 86 carat diamond, a dagger with emeralds the size of golf balls, the architecture, courtyards, and haram. The haram costs extra (or is included if you get an Istanbul museum pass) and is well worth it. The haram is separated from the rest of the palace, because all the women in the Sultan's court living there were strictly separated and confined to this area, they were guarded by black eunuch slaves - whose rooms we entered through. The rooms are beautiful and elaborately decorated with Islamic tiles, gilded furniture and calligraphy reciting verses from the Koran. The hamam has large marble bathtubs and gold accents, even gold faucets with hot and cold water!

The sky was setting up for a spectacular sunset so we went in search of a roof terrace and found one with a great view of both the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque at the Seven Hills restaurant. After drinks we headed to a cab stand to find a ride to dinner. We met a somewhat grumpy driver who didn't really want to take us because of all the traffic but also didn't speak English so relented and agreed. I was nervous it was going to be an awkward ride but once inside the cab we started using our phones to translate what we were saying to each other and the ride turned out to be one of the most interesting experiences of the trip. Being able to communicate and even joke with this man from a completely different religion, culture, and language made me realize how much we now take technology for granted but how mind-blowing it can still be! We arrived for dinner at Eleos, a very hip Greek restaurant that almost feels like a speakeasy as you enter what looks to be an apartment building and wind up a spiral staircase to a rooftop terrace filled with a young vivacious crowd. The food was a phenomenal blend of Greek and Turkish with great service and multiple gifted dishes from the house!

Saturday morning we headed over to the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, located next to the Topkapi palace. It is really more like three museums than one : the Museum of the Ancient Orient, the Archaeology Museum and the Tiled Pavilion. Filled with hundreds of elaborate sarcophagi, blue and yellow panels from the Ishtar Gate in ancient Babylon, and rooms covered in beautiful colorful Islamic tiles.

We decided to pick up traditional Turkish street food for lunch. I wanted to try a simit for lunch, mostly because of the cute trolly they are sold out of, it is basically just a sesame covered mini baguette in the shape of a donut. Nick opted to try lahmacun, which is basically Turkish pizza. After our respective picks, we headed over to the Bosporus river for a cruise along the water. We selected a random boat that was selling tickets for 20 Turkish lira which at the time was about $1 USD. In hindsight we probably would have preferred to do a little more research and planning for a slightly more upscale boat, we got a little conned as we were one of the first on but they didn't leave the port until we were packed in like sardines.

None the less the sun was shining and as we sailed down the golden horn we got to see several different Ottoman palaces, beautiful homes, the Asian and European side of the city as well as The Maiden's Tower. Maidens Tower is a small light house/tower on a little island at the southern entrance to the Bosphorus that has been there since medieval Byzantine period! After dinner (not worth recommending) we went to the Harabbe Cafe Hookah Lounge. Nick's description was "the smoke billowed and swirled past a wood fire place in a cozy bohemian lounge that was reminiscent of Ricks Cafe American in Casablanca." HA!

On Sunday morning we booked treatments at the MOST INCREDIBLE hamam that was recommended to us by a friend the : Ayasofya Hamami. This is a 16th century bath house that was commissioned by one of the Sultan's wives for the religious community of the Hagia Sophia at the time, it has recently been exceptionally renovated and is operated by a tourist company. The hamam is very traditional and is classically separated into two symmetrical sections one for men and the other for women. In the woman's section I was greeted with smiles in the gorgeous 40 ft ceiling resting room, filled with daybeds in wooden alcoves, tea lights, and plush pillows. I was shown to my own personal changing room before being taken into the hot room to begin my treatments. While this hamam is considerably more expensive than some of the other hamams in the area, if you want to experience a Turkish bath at all on your trip it is entirely worth it and there are multiple different packages and price levels you can choose from.

For lunch we went to Sultanahmet Koftecisi for köfte (lamb meatballs) and white bean salad. I can't say that I was blow away by any means but this was definitely the authentic and famous place to go and try them. After lunch we went over to the Misir Carsisi (Spice Market) which has similar architecture to the Grand Bazaar but is a lot smaller, filled with less junk, and a lot less people! I bought some jasmine flower tea that "blooms" when you poor hot water on it. From here we walked over to the Suleiman Mosque that had beautiful views over the city. We had dinner at Fish Home Ahhir Kapi, we were seated in the "Ahirkapi Balikcisi" side and would request that again. We had our own cozy room with a large fireplace. We started with a traditional Turkish meze platter and then shared a delicious whole grilled fish.

On our last full day we woke up early and took the ferry across the Bosphorus to the "Asian Side" of the river to see the vegetable market. If you have a sunny day and you don't feel like taking the full Bosphorus river cruise I would recommend at least doing this, the ride was beautiful and helped me understand the geography of the city better. Istanbul is uniquely located on two sides of the river, on two continents, Europe and Asia. While the European side has most of the tourist attractions and historical sights, the city was actually founded on the Asian side and there are many of the most expensive homes on the waterfront there. Once we got back to the European side we tried a famous fish sandwich that is being sold from boats under the Galata Bridge. Rick Steves was really pushing it on one of his podcasts, but it did not sit very well with Nick nor I and we both got terrible stomach aches. We tried to walk it off and headed to the (once) Jewish quarter called Balat; famed for its colorful wooden houses and a bit reminiscent of San Francisco.

Our last meal was another delicious whole grilled fish at Balikci Sabahattin and my last purchase was a super cool purse made out of Turkish rug scraps. We ended the night very early in preparation for our very early wake up call and flight back to Amsterdam.

Tips (we learned the hard way)

  • Buy the museum passes (we bought both the Cappadocia Museum pass and the Istanbul pass but should have just bough the entire Turkey Museum Pass) - the passes includes all the major museums and churches and it saves you almost 50% on separate tickets. Also, depending on where you are, some of the ticket lines were incredibly long, so it can save you a lot of time!

  • Renting a car: A) In Cappadocia we really enjoyed having a rental car, it gave us flexibility and we covered a lot of ground and it was easy to drive (easy for me to navigate with google maps). That being said they are used to tourists there and most hotels and activities are equipped to help with transportation. B) Istanbul: You do not need or want a car. Traffic is terrible and cabs are readily available and weren't expensive.

  • 1.5 hour Bosphorus Cruise is more than enough (we were told that the 6 hour one is a bit of a tourist trap and includes being dropped off on an island far away and left to shop at tourist shops for a few hours)

  • Ladies keep a scarf in your purse - need to cover your head to enter the mosques

TV Shows, Books & Movies

  • Lonely Planet Turkey - If you want to plan your trip all on your own, this has great itineraries and recommendations. I would also recommend bringing it to the sights with you as it makes everything more interesting (Don't worry about it making you look like a tourist, you already will and there is no way around it!)

  • Inferno Movie with Tom Hanks - I enjoyed the book (read it a few years ago and didn't have time to re-read before the trip) but the movie is fun to watch before you go or on the flight over as it has a lot of scenes around Istanbul that will get you excited!

  • James Bond - From Russia With Love -Not that James Bond needs an introduction from me but the film has a lot of beautiful shots all around 1960's Istanbul.

  • James Bond - The World Is Not Enough - I admittedly haven't seen this one but Nick tells me the villain's hideout is in the Maiden's Tower

  • Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown Istanbul (season 6/episode 8)


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