After two months in Turkey, it was past time to head north. We were losing the summer and still had more to see. We thought we should head straight to Croatia so we could enjoy the beaches while it was still warm. After a lot of research, we found that the overland options would be expensive and time-consuming… but the flights were pricey too. We started looking at major cities in neighboring countries that had easy ground transportation to the coast. Winner: Sarajevo.
Since it was a morning flight, we decided to save some money on accommodation and sleep at Ataturk International. The tone was set for the journey when a man, who had been standing too close for most of the tram ride, reached back for a little pinch before rushing out the door at his stop. I had heard from several unaccompanied female travelers of having multiple similar incidents in Istanbul, but I hadn’t had any problems. It’s nice to have a husband who looks intimidating. Unfortunately, Tony’s presence didn’t deter the creep and it happened so fast that he was out of sight before I could shout and shame him. Besides the icky feeling that comes from something like that, I was more upset that after two months of coming to love a place, the actions of some anonymous perv would be my very last memory of Istanbul and Turkey.
At the airport, we used some carabiners to attach our packs to each other, and pushed some plush chairs together at a deserted cafe. I’m pretty sure these chairs are specifically engineered to be usable only for sitting bolt upright. I found an uncomfortable position that allowed me to lay flat, but required my neck to be twisted at a funny angle and my legs to dangle over the side. A few hours of fitful unconsciousness followed. I don’t think we can exactly recommend this cost-saving strategy.
Finally, dawn came and we are able to check into our flight. We have always been able to take our bags with us in the cabin as carryon luggage, but according to the Bosnia & Hercegovina Airlines website, they would be too big. But the woman at the desk didn’t bat an eye and said checking the bags would not be necessary. A bright moment at the end of an otherwise all-around bad night. We trekked to our gate which ended up being somewhere in a nearly deserted section of the terminal. Nearly deserted, except for our fellow passengers whose size and number of carryon items far exceeded our own. Then I grumpily paid $4 for a Lipton teabag and some hot water. We didn’t actually board the plane from our gate; we boarded a shuttle bus which took us to our plane. Our aging, twin propeller engine, rear loading plane. Interesting.
The inside smelled of stale cigarettes and was about as comfortable as an old school bus with half the leg room. The tiny overhead compartments might have served well as glove boxes, but there was no way our packs were going in. We put them on the floor under our feet, which did nothing to enhance the comfort level. But somehow our attitudes changed, despite the tram groping, the airport slumber party, and sketchy plane. We found a cheap flight! To a new country that we didn’t expect to visit! Even through the plane’s dirty windows, Istanbul looked beautiful and mysterious from above in the morning fog. It would be another scorching day there, and we were headed for the Bosnian mountains.
After a few hours, the plane passed the border from Serbia to Bosnia, and a group of ladies behind us began singing. They continued until the city came into view. We landed smoothly. It was a smaller airport than we expected, and there were no other planes in sight. Before the exit hatch was even opened, the B&H maintenance crew drug out a ladder, popped open the engine cover and began pouring in fluids. We googled the airline out of curiosity later, and found that not only was B&H on the verge of financial collapse, but that we had ridden on its one and only plane. Good things to know once you’re safely at your destination!
We got a cab and headed for the city center. The bullet holes sprayed across almost every building we passed reminded me that I was only a little girl during the years that the video clips of fire and explosions and misery in Sarajevo filled the evening news. I’m sure I never dreamed I’d actually walk down those same streets one day.
Here are some pictures we wanted to share that didn’t relate to any particular story.
So we thought we’d leave all the food for one post. Brace yourselves.
Our first impressions of Turkish cuisine were good. But after several days in country, we felt like we were waiting for something to happen. Waiting to find the perfect dish or the right type of restaurant, or maybe just trying to identify some flavor profiles that made Turkish food Turkish. Maybe we were expecting the food to be spicy or saucy or… something.
Turns out Turkish food is really simple. Meat. Fresh vegetables. Maybe an egg. Done to perfection and, with a few exceptions, without a lot of sauces or fuss. The meat is always grilled to perfection and if you don’t like eggplant, you probably haven’t had patlıcan that came out of a Turkish kitchen. It’s a fertile country that doesn’t import much food, so eating fresh, seasonal, and local is the default.
Let’s start with breakfast. The standard Turkish breakfast includes bread, hard-cooked eggs, fruit, cheese, olives, garlicky sliced sausage, tomato and cucumber. If you’re lucky, there will also be plain yogurt, honey, nuts, dried fruit, and various sweet and savory pastries. It took a while to get used to vegetables for breakfast, but it definitely helps keep your daily consumption at a healthy level.
Gözleme – a flaky pastry that’s stuffed with savory things like cheese and spinach, or sweet things like honey and banana or Nutella. Somewhere between a flour tortilla and an egg-heavy French crepe.
Menemen varies from place to place. It’s basically scrambled eggs with onion, peppers and tomatoes, but soupy because the tomatoes usually make up at least half of the contents. It’s served in the little pan it’s cooked in and is filling and delicious.
Ok, breakfast is over. How about a mid-morning snack of the most delicious peaches, oranges, lemons, berries, melons you’ve ever had? Practically a religious experience. A glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice costs less than a can of cola. Treat yo’ self.
If you are hiking in Cappadocia, you might come around a bend and find people selling every kind of dried fruit imaginable.
And now for lunch. Actually, you probably started breakfast late and are still so stuffed that you skip lunch and hold out for dinner. So let’s ease in with some starters.
Lavaş. Comes fresh from the oven all puffed up like a balloon. Crispy on bottom, chewy on top, best with liberal amounts of butter.
Lentil soup. Consistently simple and delicious from coast to coast.
Lahmacun, a crispy flatbread baked with minced meat. Köfte güveç, meatballs baked in a clay dish.
Dolma refers to any sort of food-stuffed-in-food. In this case, the dolmas are grape leaves stuffed with ground lamb, rice and tomato sauce.
The inescapable döner kebap. Our favorite places incorporated bell peppers and carrots into the stack.
As the man expertly slices off the perfectly roasted bits from the rotating meat log, you try to not remember what the raw drippy mess looked like at 8 o’clock in the morning.
Pide. It’s translated as “Turkish pizza” on most menus, which is a fair enough comparison, although tomato sauce rarely enters into the equation and cheese is only present half the time. This one has eggs and veggies.
Balık ekmek – freshly caught fish, grilled and served with a bit of salad on a baguette.
Pilav and grilled köfte… usually called “Turkish meatballs” on the menu, but they’re a lot closer to mini burger patties.
Testi kebap – stew baked in a clay pot.
What’s available to add some kick to all those dishes? A few options.
First, açili esme. I think it’s fair to call this a sort of pureed salsa, because it’s full of roasted red peppers, tomatoes, onion and herbs. It ranges from totally mild to genuinely hot.
Sumac is always on the table alongside the salt and pepper. It’s the dried fruit of the sumac plant ground into a tangy, salty, slightly bitter spice.
What are you washing all this down with?
How about slightly fermented watery yogurt drink? Our introduction to Ayran came from our friend Brooks who needed his fix just before we hiked around the deserted cave city of Zelve. Tony’s first reaction was “I could think of nothing better on a hot Turkish afternoon than this sweaty cup of cottage cheese juice.” But soon enough, addiction set in and we shared one with almost every meal. Because most Turkish food tends to lack sauces, Ayran is a perfect pairing. Most bufes will bring you a a single-serving container with a straw to jam through the foil top. Some classier places have a fountain that constantly keeps it frothy.
Şalgam – You might have seen this on the menu and tried it out of curiosity. You wouldn’t really like it, but you’d continue to sip away, trying to identify all the strange flavors. Then you’d go to Wikipedia later that day and learn that, “although the Turkish word şalgam literally means “turnip”, şalgam is actually made with the juice of red carrot pickles, salted, spiced, and flavoured with aromatic turnip (çelem) fermented in barrels with the addition of ground bulgur.” You might even buy it again, but would learn your lesson the second time.
Made it through all that? Now on to dessert. The options are many.
We’ve already gone into extensive detail about dondurma ice cream.
Antep fıstıklı– pistachios everywhere. Back home, these are expensive. Here, they go in almost every dessert.
Locum, Turkish Delight. Like our friend Kelley, our knowledge of the stuff began and ended with a certain C. S. Lewis tale. It’s soft and gummy, sometimes a plain sugary gel and other times stuffed with chopped nuts or flavored with rosewater. A dusting of powdered sugar or coconut flakes keep them from sticking together.
Not done yet. You’ll need a caffeine infusion to stay awake while you digest.
Turkish coffee. Sweet, sludgy, delicious Turkish coffee.
And, of course, çay. Strong black tea.
With as much sugar as you care to add.
For the the perfect late night snack head for the ıslak vendors at Taksim Square. “Wet burgers” are small and slathered in tomato sauce that soaks both the burger and the white bun. It hangs out in a steamy little sauna box until you order it. They are wonderful, delicious little inventions that are not filling enough to make you regret eating a drippy burger, and cheap enough that you’ll probably grab a second one a couple vendors over once the first one is gone. But judge not, for they’re Anthony Bourdain approved.
Hey, remember Sean and McKinze? We may have mentioned them once in passing. Here are the four of us back in Georgia:
Well, they were headed back to the States, but first they were traveling around Turkey for a few weeks. We met up with them in Istanbul and they invited us to go with them to Olympos, a.k.a. backpacker’s paradise. We had considered going there ourselves, but decided to skip it and head straight to Istanbul from Eğirdir (but not before a brief stop in Pamukkale).
But we had such a good time with Sean and McKinze in Istanbul, that the day after they left, we booked tickets for Olympos on the wonderfully cheap Pegasus Air and reserved a bungalow at the same pension. But we didn’t tell them, and they just assumed that it wasn’t possible for us to join them. We got there the day before they were scheduled to arrive and used the extra time to listen to the cicadas and teach ourselves how to play backgammon. Then we positioned ourself at a table near reception to casually say hello to them when they arrived on the afternoon dolmuş.
Olympos is not a real town. It’s a series of dozens of backpacker pensions — sprawling compounds of wooden bungalows, “tree houses” (sounds better than shacks-on-stilts), hammocks and gazebos — built along a gravel road about an hour south of Antalya. If you walk a little further down the road, it passes through some Roman ruins, and then deposits you on the beach. Since there’s no actual town, all of the pensions include breakfast and all-you-can-eat dinner in the price of accommodation. We had some of the best meals ever there, and dinner itself was a highlight of each day.
As usual, our friends had great ideas (and initiative!) to get us off our hammocks and we had some incredible days together.
We went sea kayaking one afternoon and saw a sea turtle on the way to the cove, and then snorkeled off the beach before returning. The water in this part of the Mediterranean is really warm and clean. The area we were in isn’t really known for underwater beauty, in fact, it probably looks pretty barren compared to tropical reefs, but it was still so much fun diving after the little fish and looking for shrimp and barnacles on the rocks. Is there a more fun and relaxing way to enjoy the outdoors than snorkeling? I submit that there is not.
As a life-long Midwesterner who hadn’t done much traveling before, Olympos was the very first time that I swam in salt water (not counting wading in the Black Sea). I thought the vastness of the sea would be terrifying, but I was completely at ease floating in the crystal clear waters, letting the little fish nibble my feet, and gazing at the bottom far below.
The night after we kayaked, I didn’t sleep well because it felt like I had micro-shattered every millimeter of bone in my arms. But the pain was gone by morning and we embarked on what the four of us called “The Pleasure Cruise.” For a stunningly cheap price, we spent a whole day on a boat that took us out to an uninhabited island. A big local family had reserved the rest of the spots and took control of the sound system, which cranked out Turkish party music all day. (Go load that link on another tab if you want a soundtrack to the rest of this blog post.) The ladies would spontaneously break out into dance circles.
The captain would take the boat from beach to beach, drop anchor, and we would all jump off the boat and swim until it was time to move along to the next place. We had freshly caught fish for lunch, and tea and watermelon in the afternoon, all included in the price. We saw dolphins and another sea turtle. The Pleasure Cruise was a difficult ordeal, but we drew from an inner strength and managed to soldier on.
On our final day, we rented some cushy beach chairs and paid way too much money for a waiter to bring us Diet Coke. It was a little bit of a sad day, because we were about to part ways and we didn’t know when we’d be together again.
Sean and McKinze (of “Sean and McKinze” fame… we’ve mentioned them about eighty times so far in our Georgia posts) had finished up their Peace Corps service and were on their way to make their new home in Portland, Oregon… via Turkey, New York City and Iowa. We planned to meet up with them again in Istanbul for a few days.
We cruised the Bosphorus and shared a sugar wafer the size of a manhole cover from a snack seller.
We laughed at funny English phrases on peoples’ clothing.
We ate impossibly cheap balık ekmek (literally, “fish bread”) on the Galata Bridge.
We visited the carpets and manuscripts and carvings at the mysteriously un-airconditioned Museum of Islamic and Turkish Art.
We found a great view of the Blue Mosque, which came with expensive drinks.
We shared baklava.
We walked up and down the hills of Galata…
…and the side streets of Istiklal…
…and caught our breath in mosques…
…and ignored the touts at the Grand Bazaar…
…and wandered all the places in between.
We also enjoyed an long and incredibly relaxing Turkish bath – ladies and gentlemen separately and photography not allowed. Just imagine steamy, centuries-old rooms, with only a few shafts of light filtering in through small circular openings in the ceiling; hot marble slabs; mounds of bubbles; and unlimited bowls of hot and cold water to pour over your head. It was one of those rare places where the official advertising photos matched real life– as long as you swapped out the supermodels in tiny towels for large, topless bath attendants.
Sean and McKinze are great travel partners. They’re flexible and laid back, but also goal oriented planners. Whatever they suggested, we said “yes,” and we were always glad we did.
One night, we were wandering around Sultanahmet after dinner with Micah and Steph, some of our favorite fellow travelers we’ve met so far. (Go visit their blog, especially if you love great photography.) Some music caught our ear and we followed it to a stage where there was some sort of folk dance event.
We began to casually watch for a few minutes, and intended to start walking again, when a girl with silver medallions in her hair caught my eye. And then a boy with a black, shaggy headdress darted through the crowd. I managed to surpress a shriek of excitement, but still got a little bouncy and clap-happy. Micah and Steph were probably a little alarmed at my sudden enthusiasm. (If you know me well, you know that I don’t get genuinely giddy over very many things. Except maybe small, cuddly animals. And free food. And making Excel spreadsheets.)
Only a few weeks earlier, we were treated to a fantastic evening of Georgian folk dance in Akhaltsikhe. Could it be?? A whole troupe of Kartvelians in Istanbul? And we just happened to run into them??
I waited impatiently for the Ukranians and Romanians and Hungarians and other groups to complete their routines. They were all good, and entertaining even to those who might be less than enthusiastic about dance. Most teams were made up of adults or older teens. When the Georgians finally took the stage for the last performance for the evening, it was obvious that they were much younger than the other represented countries.
Since I don’t have much experience describing dance, here is what EasternArtists.com says about Georgian folk dancing:
“Georgian dance is generally characterized by the graceful floating gait of the female dancers. With bodies erect and leaning very slightly forward, the women create lovely formations and turns in an appearance that has been said to form the illusion of ice skating along the floor. The hand, arm and head movements are flowing and gentle while traveling in this quick floating manner.
The most characteristic element of the male Georgian dance is the acrobatic, or gymnastic movements including knee spins, aerial cartwheels, splits and kicks and many other such feats. But the most amazing to most viewers is the fast and varied manner of dancing on the knuckles of the toes. The dancers wear soft soled boots and often jump continually on the toe knuckle, with the body straight and strong, the arms in a very heroic posture, the men often shout or proudly stare as they do this spectacular feat.”
We weren’t surprised when the little soldiers and fair maidens floated and twirled and leaped and kicked with more skill, precision, vigor and heart than their predecessors. The crowd yelled and clapped more loudly for the Georgians than they had for anyone else, and you could see on the dancers’ faces that they were so happy and proud in that moment.
The crowd started to filter away, and I noticed the white and red Georgian flag heading up the sidewalk, with the dancers all in a row behind it. I thought they were probably headed back to their hotel and was still so excited to have made another Georgia memory (in Istanbul!) that I decided it wouldn’t be too creepy to follow them. Our hostel was in the same direction, and we were headed that way, anyway.
When we caught up to the group, I said hello to one of the girls. I told her how much I enjoyed their performance and asked if they were from Georgia. (Not the most brilliant of questions, but I was having a fangirl moment.) She said, yes, they were from Batumi, and that they had made the finals. Tomorrow night, they would dance again at the same stage. I promised that I would be there to see it.
Then I noticed that one of the chaperones kept glancing at us nervously. Walking a large group of children through a major world city late at night was probably not her idea of a good time, and me following them with a deranged smile wasn’t helping. Tony was very relieved when I agreed to turn around.
The following evening, we returned to the park and the place was packed. Our Georgian team took the stage and repeated their great performance, and the crowd seemed to respond even more loudly. A man standing in the middle of the seating area kept standing up and waving the white flag with red crosses. The people behind him weren’t happy and eventually convinced him to at least sit down. But his flag kept waving.
We stayed to see the results of the competition, and it was difficult to know what was going on since the emcee was speaking only in Turkish. Suddenly, I realized that there were a lot more Georgian children at the wings. It was another Georgian dance team. TWO teams had made it into the finals; one from Batumi and one from Tbilisi.
The second team also brought the house down, and a section of the crowd was cheering, “SA-KART-VE-LO! SA-KART-VE-LO!” The man with the flag went nuts along with them.
The emcee called the eight finalist teams to the stage. Some sort of local celebrity and a beauty queen joined him and they began handing out the awards. It was really apparent how young the Georgian teams were when they were standing with the other countries. In a fairytale moment, the two teams were awarded first and second place, and they all looked ready to burst with joy. I couldn’t help but be proud of them, too.