Sunday, 26 April 2009

The Göreme Open-Air Museum

The Göreme Open-Air Museum, located about 2km out of town (the road sign says 1km, but that’s a lie!) is well worth a visit. It is open every day from 8am to 5.30pm, and it’s a good idea to make the effort to get there early (perhaps you could visit on the day when you have already got up early to see the hot-air balloons – see separate posting on Göreme, Cappadocia), as it gets extremely crowded, especially during the summer months.

The museum consists of a number of rock chapels dating from the 10th to the 13th centuries – the Byzantine and Seljuk periods. Many of these house amazing frescoes.

One of the highlights is Karalik (Dark) Church, which, because it gets very little light from the outside, has some of the best preserved frescoes with the brightest colours. The walls are richly decorated with scenes related to the lives of Mary and Jesus, as well as views from the Old Testament. The pictures in the main apse were painted using the fresco technique where the colour is applied directly on to wet plaster, very rare in Cappadocian churches, and you can still see the fingerprints of the artists on the faces of Jesus, Mary, and John the Baptist.

The Elmali (Apple) Church and the Chapels of St. Barbara and St. Basil all have original decoration consisting of geometric designs and crosses, painted in red ochre directly on to the rock. They all date from the mid 11th century and are highly unusual.

A visit to the museum will take a good 2 to 3 hours, but, as you leave, be careful not to miss the Tokali (Buckled) Church. It is part of the museum, but outside the confines of it. The frescoes inside are amongst the best in the area. It is the oldest known rock-cut church in the region, and is made up of 4 sections: the Old Church with one nave; the New Church; the Lower Church under the Old Church; and the Parecclesion to the north of the New Church. Today the Old Church, built in the 10th century, acts as the entrance to the New Church and there are incredible frescoes telling the story of Jesus on panels on the vaulted ceiling. In the New Church, the story of Jesus is told again, this time in chronological order, in mainly bright red and blue colours. There are also scenes from the life of St. Basil, portraits of some saints, and pictures of the miracles of Jesus. The overall effect is stunning.

After visiting the Open-Air Museum, it is worth making an extra trek to visit the El Nazar Church, despite it being off the beaten track and having a separate entry charge.

TOP TIP – set out early in the day and wear good walking shoes.

The History and Adventure Tour - Göreme

This day-long tour is bookable through the Heritage Travel Company run by the Kelebek Hotel (http://www.kelebekhotel.com/) (see separate posting on Göreme, Cappadocia), and is an ideal way to experience the diversity of the Cappadocia region in just one day.

Your day begins early with a meeting with your guide. Having spoken to many tourists, I can vouch for the quality of all of the guides. Ours, Mustafa, was excellent – his in-depth knowledge really added to the day’s enjoyment. Your transport will be a new and comfortable air-conditioned minibus and your group will consist of a maximum of 12 people.

Your first stop of the day will be at a panoramic viewpoint just outside the town of Göreme. While you are taking in the stunning landscape, your guide will give you a really interesting talk on the history of the Cappadocia region.

From there, you will be taken to visit Kaymaklı, the widest of Cappadocia’s underground cities. There are over 100 subterranean cities in the area, of which 37 are open to the public. Kaymaklı is 8 levels deep, although only 4 levels have been excavated. It is not an easy visit – there is a lot of walking bent double, going both down through the levels and back up again, but it is absolutely fascinating and well worth the effort. Like the other underground cities, Kaymaklı was a place of refuge for Christians before the Arab invasion, giving shelter to 15,000 people. The air supply was drawn through ventilating chimneys, and huge millstones were used to block entrances to prevent the enemy gaining access. It was an amazing feat of engineering, and during your visit you can marvel at bedrooms, living quarters, kitchens, a church, a meeting hall, storage rooms, wine presses, and some of the 30km of passages. You are able to get a real sense of people living in cities such as this one for months on end.

Your next stop will be at the Kocabeğ Winery at Uçhisar. It is a pleasant enough visit, and you are welcome to try the wines. For me, though, several years working in the wine trade, as well as our years spent living in France, have spoiled me for good wine, and I’m afraid Turkish wine just doesn’t cut the mustard.

You will then be taken to Honey Valley and given time to wander amongst the unbelievable rock formations, making the most of the myriad photo opportunities. You will be shown the cave dwelling where a monk lived a solitary life for 40 years in the 12th century. Unfortunately, 21st century visitors have used this holy place as a toilet, and the resulting stench makes the visit a quick one!

Next stop is lunch, which is taken in a cave restaurant along with many other tour groups. The atmosphere is rather touristy, but the food is good and convivial company and interesting conversation more than make up for the slightly tacky surroundings!

After lunch, you will visit a pottery in Avanos, a small town on the Red River, so-called as it is the source of the local red clay from which the pottery is made. The visit is very interesting; you will see the whole process from beginning to end and one of your group will invariably be invited to re-enact the Demi Moore pottery wheel scene from ‘Ghost’, to much hilarity all round! Seeing the ladies in the workshop hand-painting the intricate designs by eye will be a highlight. There is no pressure to buy, although the on-site shop is vast, and several of our party did succumb.

From the pottery, you will be taken to Imagination Valley, where there are many and varied rock formations, which, given the right light, and if you squint a bit, could be said to resemble a camel, a snail, a dinosaur, or, even, Elvis Presley!

A couple of what Mustafa, our guide, called ‘Japanese stops’ (off the bus, take a picture, back on the bus!) will follow, before you get to the highlight of the whole day – a sunset trek through Rose Valley. Your minibus will drop you off at the top of a deep valley and you will walk for a couple of hours before meeting up with the transport again and being taken back to your hotel. The drop down on to the valley floor is very steep and slippery in places, but, once you get the knack of staying upright, it’s quite exhilarating. The walk along the bottom of the valley takes you through a simply stunning landscape with a photo opportunity around every bend.

All in all, an excellent day out!

TOP TIP – wear sensible shoes – the underground city and the trek would be nigh on impossible in flip-flops!!

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Göreme – Gateway to Cappadocia

Any tour around Turkey should include a stay in the stunningly beautiful Cappadocia region, and the town of Göreme is a great place to base yourself to see the area.

Cappadocia boasts an incredible landscape: the region’s soft volcanic rock has been sculpted into tens of thousands of pillars and strangely-shaped columns by many centuries of wind, snow, rain, and erosion. The pliable rock has been further changed by human hands, resulting in an amazing variety of cave houses, churches, and underground cities.

The Cappadocia region was discovered by Europeans at the beginning of the 18th century. In 1744, Paul Lucas, sponsored by Louis XIV of France, declared that he had seen pyramid-shaped strange houses that had charming doors, stairs, and large windows to illuminate the rooms. He said that these ‘fairy chimneys’, as he dubbed them, reminded him of hooded priests and the rocks over them resembled the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus. Fifty years later, when Lucas resumed his research in Cappadocia, he defined these ‘fairy chimneys’ as graveyards belonging to Caesarea (modern-day Kayseri). Lucas’s fantastic description was reacted to with both suspicion and interest in the west. Texier, who arrived in Cappadocia in 1833, stated that ‘nature had never showed itself to a foreigner’s eyes so extraordinarily’. In 1838, the English traveller, Ainsworth, described what he saw: “Turning up a glen which led inland from the river, we found ourselves suddenly lost in a forest of cones and pillars of rock that rose around us in interminable confusion, like the ruins of some great and ancient city. At times, these rude pinnacles of rock balanced huge unformed masses upon their pointed summits, but still more frequently the same strangely supported masses assumed fantastic shapes and forms. At one moment, it suggested the idea of a lion and at another of a bird and again of a crocodile or a fish.”

When we arrived almost two centuries later, the area had obviously well-documented, and we had seen many pictures of the bizarre landscape, but nothing had prepared us for our first sight of the rock formations – it was truly awe-inspiring!

Göreme itself is an attractive little town in the centre of Cappadocia. It is an unsurpassed example of the harmony of man and nature. People still live in the rock houses or use them as storerooms, displaying an immense reverence for this volcanic earth and history. Not only are there rock houses, but also rock restaurants and hotels which all visitors find amazing. The natural boundaries of the town are formed by the high rocks surrounding it and the fairy chimneys within; it’s a place that offers unbelievable natural treasures.

Göreme serves as a bus transportation hub with coaches arriving from and departing for all other popular destinations in Turkey on a frequent basis. It is easy to book onward travel through any of the agents operating out of the offices around the bus station. If you arrive in Göreme by bus, as we did, and, indeed, as most visitors do, then your first port of call should be the tourist information office in the middle of the bus station. If you haven’t arranged accommodation in advance, then it can be organised from here. If you have, as in our case, the tourist office staff will phone your hotel who will send a vehicle down to the bus station to collect you and your luggage and transport you there. Nowhere is very far from the town centre, but Göreme is very hilly, so you may be grateful for a lift up to your hotel!

There are many hotels and guesthouses to suit all budgets in Göreme. We stayed at the Kelebek Hotel, which I can heartily recommend. We pre-booked on-line (http://www.kelebekhotel.com/), and you are able to choose the room you wish to stay in in advance. We chose a regular arched room in the hotel. The rooms in the fairy chimneys sounded romantic, but we decided that the extra cost couldn’t be justified. I think we made the right decision: we heard other people during our stay complain that these rooms were quite cramped and very hot. Our room was extremely comfortable with a modern en-suite bathroom. You probably won’t spend much time in your room, anyway; the public areas of the hotel are very pleasant – the terrace overlooking the town furnished with Turkish day beds strewn with plush cushions is an ideal place to while away a few hours.

Breakfast in the Kelebek Hotel is extremely good – an expansive buffet of fresh & dried fruit, warm crusty bread, cheeses, cooked meats, eggs, cereals, honey, jam, and delicious cheese pancakes – plenty to keep you going all day! As for dinner, we didn’t eat in the hotel as the menu appeared to be quite limited and rather expensive, and, besides, the choice of eating places in town was incredible. We ate somewhere different every night and it was all good and very reasonably priced. There was a particularly good meze restaurant where we had a sun-dried tomato, pomegranate molasses, and mint salad which was an absolute taste sensation (I’ve since tried to recreate it at home with limited success!). I would also recommend the Dibek restaurant for typically Turkish food served in an authentic setting. You usually need to book in advance (the only place in town where you do), but it’s worth making the effort.

Göreme and the Kelebek Hotel offers a really relaxing, get-away-from-it-all break with some fantastic trekking in the surrounding area. The hotel also offers the best day tours available locally (see separate posting).

TOP TIP – take earplugs with you if you don’t want to be woken up at 5.30am by the roar of hot-air balloons flying over the town. They are a magnificent sight and well-worth getting up to photograph one morning, but you may not want to hear them every day!!

Friday, 17 April 2009

Coach Travel in Turkey

Inter-city bus services in Turkey are frequent and reliable, but would I recommend them? The answer is yes ………. and no! I would wholeheartedly endorse taking the bus during the day, but, for me, the night services should be avoided at all costs. This opinion is based on several pleasant journeys made during daylight hours and two never-to-be-repeated nightmare overnight trips!

There are countless bus companies in Turkey, and, on the whole, the vehicles are modern and very comfortable. They are always clean and well-maintained with large, spotless windows (they are washed at every refreshment stop) giving great panoramic views of the surrounding countryside.

Invariably there is a ‘host’ service (it was a man every time we travelled) bringing tea, coffee, soft drinks, water, cakes, and freshen-up towels at regular intervals. In addition, the coaches stop regularly, giving passengers the opportunity to stretch their legs.

The only negative to day-time bus travel in Turkey is the really strong perfume which is pumped into the bus at regular intervals, supposedly to freshen the air, but which has the opposite effect and leaves passengers coughing and spluttering! This situation is worsened if you are seated towards the front of the bus as, although all services are totally non-smoking for passengers, as far as the driver is concerned, he is allowed to smoke and usually does – like a chimney!!

Travelling by bus at night in Turkey is, for me, all negative! The seats which are so comfortable during the day suddenly become terribly uncomfortable, offering no opportunity to sleep. The buses are too warm and too noisy, not only because of the passengers, but also because the radio is invariably left on. Frequent stops to allow people to get on and off, as well as regulation rest breaks, mean that the lights are on more often than not. All of this makes for very long and tiresome nights! Having said all of this, I’m sure that some younger travellers would highly recommend overnight bus travel as a way to save on accommodation costs – we’re probably just too old!

TOP TIP – use the daylight services – leave the overnight trips well alone!!

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Konya – Home of Mevlâna


The Muslim holy city of Konya is well worth an overnight stop if you are planning a tour around Turkey.

If, like us, you arrive in town by train (see separate posting), or by bus, don’t do what we did and walk in to town! Both the gar (railway station) and the otogar (bus station) are quite a way out of the centre and the walk, particularly on a hot day with luggage, is not easy. My advice would be to take a taxi.

Don’t worry if you haven’t any accommodation booked. We tried to book on-line before travelling to Konya, but could only find expensive options, so we winged it, and had no problems finding a room, even in August. Just ask the taxi driver to drop you off close to the Mevlâna Museum, and you will have many choices of hotel close by.

We stayed at the Hotel Yaşin, and paid only 60TL for a double en-suite room with breakfast. It was very clean, very comfortable, and the couple who ran the place were very helpful, organising a taxi to the otogar for us when we left.

Konya is a modern, lively city. I think we were there on the busiest day of the year for weddings and circumcisions. Everywhere we turned, we saw either a bride and groom in their marriage finery, or a small boy dressed in the distinctive costume which signifies his sunnet (Turkish for circumcision). This was accompanied by the constant cacophony of car horns as convoys of revellers drove through the streets. However, Konya is also probably the most conservative city in Turkey. There are very few uncovered women and hardly any shorts-wearers, despite the heat. My advice is to cover up with loose, cotton clothing so as not to draw attention to yourself or to offend local sensibilities.

Konya is the home of the Whirling Dervishes, a religious order founded by the sufi (Muslim sage), Mevlâna in the 13th century. The dervishes still whirl and, if you are in Konya on a Saturday evening in the summer, you can enjoy a free outdoor performance of their ritual dance in the grounds of the Mevlâna Museum. We weren’t aware of this, and arrived in the city on a Sunday!

The Mevlâna Museum itself is a highlight of any visit to Konya, and a bargain at only 2TL per person to get in. However, it is extremely busy in season, and I would recommend getting there early in the day (the Turks are renowned for not getting going until after lunch!). It opens at 8.30am every day except Monday when it is closed all day.

You may be surprised, as we were, at the number of tuk-tuk type vehicles to be seen on the modern city streets. These mini-trucks have been adapted to carry many, many family members, as well as produce and the odd sheep! They are a colourful sight!

There are many superb restaurants in the centre of Konya, none of which serve alcohol. If you want a beer, you will need to go out of town – there is a row of licensed cafés and bars on the road leading to the otogar. However, I think you should forego the alcohol and try one of the central restaurants. I can particularly recommend the Rose Garden Restaurant which overlooks the rose garden of the Mevlâna Museum and serves good food at reasonable prices.

When leaving Konya, it is very easy to buy onward bus tickets from any of the agents on the street opposite the museum.

TOP TIP – dress conservatively!

Olüdeniz – Holiday Heaven or Holiday Hell?


Olüdeniz (Dead Sea in Turkish) on the Turquoise Coast of southern Turkey is billed as ‘one of the most beautiful beaches’, and ‘the most photogenic spot’ in the whole of the country. Indeed, before visiting the place, my guide book informed me that, ‘this wondrous place can be reached only by a precipitous mountain road’, thus conjuring up images of a perfect secluded beauty spot.

The reality is very different! The village of Olüdeniz is indeed accessed by a steep road, descending in long curves from the bustling, predominantly English resort town of Hisarönü (see separate posting), but it is hardly remote or difficult to get to. In season, a shuttle bus runs every few minutes from the aforementioned Hisarönü or the slightly further afield town of Fethiye, depositing thousands of sun-seekers and bathers at the entrance to Olüdeniz lagoon.

Before entering the lagoon area itself, you are bombarded with tacky souvenirs shops, as well as loads of hustlers trying to lure you on to one of the many daily cruise boats waiting to cast off. You have to pay an entrance fee to gain access to the ‘area of outstanding beauty’ and, once you’ve parted with your lira, you have quite a long walk along paved and decked walkways to the lagoon. Once there, you have to pay a not inconsiderable sum for the use of a sun-bed (extra if you want an umbrella), which will be very close to the sun-bed on either side, as well as the ones in front of and behind you! If you haven’t had the foresight to take your own refreshments, then the cost of food and drink during the day could well be a shock to the system! If, by the time you arrive, all of the available sun-beds around the lagoon have been taken, and you end up spending the day sunning yourself by the Mediterranean instead, then you will find actually getting in to the sea rather difficult! By the water’s edge there are lots of very slippery, green, slime-covered rocks which you have to negotiate in order to reach sea which you can swim in.

We visited in August and, despite the exquisite turquoise appearance of the water and the cloudless azure sky, the hordes of people present made it nigh on impossible to get a sense of it as ‘the most beautiful beach in Turkey’. It was noisy, incredibly crowded, litter-strewn, and generally unpleasant!

TOP TIP – if you are going to visit, do it out of season!!

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Kayakoy - Ghost Village


Kayaköy (rock village in Turkish) is an abandoned Greek village situated 4 km from the resort town of Hisarönü, near Fethiye in southern Turkey. If you are in the area, it is well worth a visit. It can be reached by an hourly dolmuş service from Fethiye, which calls at Hisarönü en route.

The village is located in the Kaya Valley, which for centuries was occupied by both Turks and Greeks. They lived side by side, the Turks involved in agriculture and animal husbandry on the plains, whilst the Greeks lived in the houses on the slopes, earning a living from craft and trade.

After the Turkish War of Independence, in 1923, there was a population exchange between Greece and Turkey. The Greek people living in Kayaköy (which they called Levissi) were forced to migrate to Greece, to be replaced by the Turkish immigrants from Thrace who had shared the same fate.

The evacuation took place on June 30th, 1923. The Greeks went, leaving behind 2 large churches, 14 chapels, 2 schools, 2 fountains, 2 windmills, and about 1000 houses, all of which had outdoor toilets and running water, obtained from cisterns which collected rain. It was a large and attractive village. The houses had been built in line with the slope of the land so that they did not block the light or the view of each other. The houses were one or two storey depending on the lie of the land and became more spacious the higher up the slopes they were.

Following the evacuation, the Turks from Thrace who came to replace the Greeks in Kayaköy found the village not to their liking and chose not to settle there. The result is the ‘ghost village’ which we see today. The floors, ceilings, window frames, and doors, all of which were made of wood, have all been looted for firewood. The roofs were flat and made of compressed earth. Over the years, these have rotted away. What are left are empty shells, but with evocative traces of paint, wall decoration, fireplaces, shelves, and, even, curtain rails!

The whole place is incredibly atmospheric. The experience of walking through the village is quite eerie, the silence broken only by the sound of an occasional goat’s bell. You sometimes catch a glimpse of one of these sure-footed creatures trotting between the houses. A wonderful way to spend an afternoon!!

TOP TIP – Don’t visit Kayaköy on a trip organised by a tour operator. Those that do find that their coach will pull in to the car park at the foot of the village and allow them to take pictures for 5 minutes before moving on to the next stop. Instead, make your way there independently which allows you to wander to your heart’s content. (Remember to take plenty of water with you on a hot day!)

TOP TIP 2 – The dolmuş will drop you off outside Muzzy’s place, where you can pick up a free plan and history of the village and where you can have a delicious lunch and even avail yourself of their swimming pool. (Don’t go on a Monday – this is the day for organised tour groups and lunch is a set buffet.)
Check out http://www.kayakoy.net/ for further information.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Taking the Train from Istanbul to Konya

We began our trip around Turkey last summer with a train journey from Istanbul to Konya. As a method of travel, if you are not in a rush, I would certainly recommend it! It costs 45TL (about £19) per person, based on 2 people sharing a 2-berth cabin, and it leaves Istanbul at 7.20 every evening, arriving in Konya at 8.20 the following morning. However, there are invariably delays during the night, so don’t expect to arrive on time.

Tickets can be purchased from the international ticket office in Sirkeci station (on the European side of Istanbul) up to 30 days before departure.

Your train to Konya leaves from Haydarpaşa station on the Asian side of Istanbul, accessible by ferry from Eminönü on the European side. The station itself provides an impressive departure point for your journey. Completed in 1908, it was paid for by Kaiser Wilhelm II as a gift to his Ottoman ally, Abdül Hamit II.

I suggest that you treat your journey as an extension of your holiday, and get into the spirit of it from the off. Arrive early – your train will be in and waiting for you an hour before your scheduled departure time. Your carriage steward will show you to your cabin, and you can make yourself comfortable. The cabins are well-equipped with comfortable seats, which become your bunk beds at night, as well as a small sink (towel & soap provided), a spacious fridge (stocked with water, fruit drinks, and cakes!), and a pull-out table. There are showers and toilet facilities at either end of the carriage.

We had taken a well-chilled bottle of white & some nibbles with us which we enjoyed before departure, whilst watching the train fill up with Turkish families with their countless parcels, bags, and children!

Once underway, we went to find the restaurant car & enjoyed a very pleasant, reasonably-priced meal as we trundled through the city suburbs. Darkness descended quickly, so we didn’t get to see much, but we still enjoyed sitting there sipping our post-dinner coffee.

I am not the best sleeper in strange surroundings so I can’t say that I had a particularly restful night, but the beds were comfortable enough, and I enjoyed opening the curtains at 3am & seeing the biggest, most star-laden sky I had seen since leaving our home in France the previous year! We were both up early & so witnessed a spectacular sunrise before taking advantage of the restaurant car again for a 7TL breakfast.

We then proceeded at a very sedate pace indeed & arrived in Konya 3 hours later than scheduled, but at least it gave us an opportunity to see more of the Turkish countryside than we had anticipated!

TOP TIP: Don’t use the train if you have deadlines to meet, but if you haven’t & you want a very civilised, comfortable journey, then it comes highly recommended!