One night in Istanbul, we sat down to eat dinner. The tables were half full. We had a few questions for our waiter, and he responded in an extremely agitated manner, nearly shouting his suggestions at us. I was a little dismayed at this and forgot what I had originally wanted. I pointed to the words yoğurtlu kebab on the menu, even though I didn’t know what it was.
A large family arrived and the waiter, now in a frenzy, barked orders at the bus boy to push some tables together. More people arrived and the place was quickly full. The waiter continued to rush around, gesture wildly and alarm the other diners. Totally. Out. Of. His. Mind. We thought it was probably a bad decision to eat here and wondered if it was too late to bail.
Then I noticed that the big family had all been served their food, but were just sitting there staring at it. The flat screen t.v. on the wall (an unfortunate “necessity” in all but the swankiest of places) was displaying a countdown, and the children fidgeted as the numbers ticked away.
Then we remembered that Ramazan had begun the night before. (Ramadan is called Ramazan in Turkish and a few other languages.) We had gazed at the Blue Mosque’s special kandil lights that welcomed the season of Ramazan, sampled impossibly sweet pastries at a special artisans’ exhibition, and watched the crowds of families socializing at Sultanahmet Square.
The waiter’s behavior made total sense now. We imagined how calm we’d be if we hadn’t had even a drop of water since sunrise but still had to suffer the July heat, go to work, smell the food being prepared, and serve guests at one of the busiest times of the year.
The minaret across the street blared the sunset prayer, the countdown on the t.v. hit zero, and the family drew their hands down across their faces and began to enjoy their iftar. Our food arrived and the yoğurtlu kebap, a dish of grilled flat bread and chicken smothered in creamy yogurt and savory tomato sauce, became one of my favorite Turkish dishes. The waiter disappeared for a while, and when he returned, he was composed and smiling.
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Galata Tower, Istanbul — As seen from the table at a tiny street-side kebab shop.
You may have heard that Istanbul is home to a cat or three. Most of the cats that crossed our path through Turkey looked very… unfortunate.
But the ones in Istanbul seem pretty healthy and manage to navigate the rooftops, alleys and crowded streets in their own self-assured way.
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Every now and then, we’ll post a single photo on this theme.
First up: Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul. 500 years old. Over 11,000 square feet of carpeting. All of which needs to be vacuumed. A lot.
We knew in advance that it was going to be packed and blazing hot. We knew that the actual travertines were now off-limits to protect them from millions of dirty footsteps. We knew that they places you can actually wade through were made from the springs being re-routed to concrete structures, which will look like their naturally-formed calcite counterparts in time, but are glaringly artificial for now.
We knew that while swimming around and banging our shins on the sunken ruins of the ancient Temple of Apollo at the top, we’d be surrounded by a restaurant that pumps out dance beats and charges the equivalent of $3.50 for a can of Coke.
But since we knew all these things, we set our expectations low and went in cheerfully, fully expecting to open our wallets and swelter as we climbed the hill with a horde of overworked Speedos to collectively worship at the Church of Mass Tourism. It was everything we expected to be… and we’re really glad we went. A Turkish man asked to take a picture with Tony, and then insisted on taking our photo while I wore his cowboy hat. It was a great day of people watching and splashing around one of the more unique places on the planet.
Fact – Turks love ice cream. Every McDonalds and Burger King that I saw in Turkey had dedicated little walk-up windows where the only thing you could order was soft serve ice cream. But really, I have no idea how fast food soft serve made its way into the country that invented dondurma.
Our first experience with dondurma was at Lake Eğirdir. One night after dinner, we happened to walk by a guy on the sidewalk who was spooning batter into a waffle iron set up on a small folding table. This hipster was actually hand-rolling ice cream cones. So I was already sold on the cone before we even knew about the wonderful thing that is Turkish ice cream.
So let me tell you about the wonderful thing that is Turkish Ice Cream. It’s made with goat milk, orchid flour, and mastic, which makes it thick and chewy. Sometimes it’s so thick that they just go ahead and eat it with a fork and knife. It’s usually seen on the streets being sold by a guy wearing a little vest and cap ensemble. The scoop is on the end of a long metal pole used to churn it like butter and pull it like taffy. Tourists will hear them hitting the little bells over-head and be enticed by the display, then get punked for a good five minutes while the guy in the vest serves them a cone on the end of the stick, then flips it upside down or pulls the ice cream back leaving an empty cone in your hand. Its fun for little kids. Big kids like Alicia sometimes just want their ice cream and refuse to play along.
But in Eğirdir there were no theatrics to delay your ice cream acquisition. Just two brothers, one sitting under a bug zapper and making cones on the sidewalk and the other in the shack with a scoop in his hand. Two lira for two scoops and a free dip in the chocolate sauce.
The ruins of Sagalossos rest high on Akdağ (“white mountain”) in the Taurus mountain range. At one point in its history, it was sacked by Alexander the Great. Like a lot of ancient places in Turkey, people decided to stop living here after one too many earthquakes. The site only began to be excavated in 1990 and as more sections are uncovered, it is expected to be larger than Ephesus.
One day, during our leisurely two weeks in Egirdir, we decided to visit it.
Turkish and Belgian archaeologists work here during the summer months. We came across two different groups of them, and they happily showed us the nails and bits of glass they were scraping from the soil, and told us what they were learning about the particular site they were working on. We thought they might be annoyed to stop and speak with us, but they were excited to have visitors who bothered to leave the path and come say hello to them. They also reminded us to watch out for snakes and scorpions.
The site is so full of artifacts and still has so much left to be discovered that it’s nearly impossible to walk across the ground without crunching bits of centuries-old pottery. Some of the ruins have been re-assembled, but most of the carved stones lay in orderly rows in the grass, like a giant’s puzzle pieces, waiting for the day when they will rise again.
We spent that whole day with the McLellands, a lovely couple from Glasgow who have already done the whole world travel thing and gave us lots of good tips for Asia and Oceania. We had lunch with them and another fellow traveler who knew a lot about Turkey told us all of his adventures working in the tropical fruit industry. He taught us some interesting things, including a useful bit of body language from that part of the world: the up-nod + tongue click combo. It means “no” and explained a confusing encounter we had with a local the previous week.
It was decision time. Where do we go next? Tony had a design job to work on and we needed a while to just catch our breath and live someplace without worrying about what we “ought” to be doing or seeing.
We examined our last several weeks of travel and realized a few things. First, we’re really happy when we’re in proximity to large bodies of water, like when we were in the Black Sea coast cities of Batumi and Trabzon. Second, the blazing Turkish summer is so much easier to bear when the air is dry like in Cappadocia. Third, we really enjoyed being in places where you can walk down the street in peace without being seen as a big walking dollar (or lira) sign, like we could everywhere in Georgia.
So we checked a map and looked for a big lake in the mountains, and then picked a small town on one of those lakes. Lake Eğirdir, here we come. The dreaded night bus wasn’t too bad since we reached our destination by 2 a.m. and Ibrahim, our pension owner, met us at the bus stop. It’s always interesting coming into a place in the dark and waking up to a whole new world. From the first peek out the window in the morning, we knew: great decision.
We explained to Ibrahim that we’d like to stay a while, and told him what our budget was. Ibrahim and his family own Charly’s Pension, but they also own a few other guest houses next to it, and only a few days before had purchased a worn-out pension on the same street. He said we were welcome to stay in a private room for the price we wanted, as long as we didn’t mind that the building had seen better days (renovations hadn’t begun yet).
The front door opened by pulling on a string attached to a bit of wood, and if the string broke, you could always just reach through the broken glass and open the latch from inside. We thought this was excellent. For one thing, it was a great sign that neighborhood crime was pretty nonexistent. For another, it meant we were far, far away from the slick and soulless tourism machine. (I’m sure if you were to go there today, there would be a proper latch!)
We stood on the white tiled roof and agreed that this was surely the best view in town. Even the hotel halfway up the mountain didn’t have a 360 degree view like this. We shook hands, and Ibrahim had someone put a table and chairs and a wardrobe in our room. It felt so good to unpack.
We spent the next two weeks having long breakfasts at Charly’s, swimming in the lake and watching its colors change with the passing clouds, wandering through the streets and markets, reading books, gorging ourself on impossibly delicious fruit, and just generally having time to sit and be.
We had “our” restaurants, particularly the cheap one over the otogar and the almost-as-cheap one across from the Atatürk statue (every town in Turkey has one). We had “our” ice cream guys and “our” grocery store and “our” family of red-necked grebes that we watched dive for little silver fish. We made sun tea on the roof and took entirely too many photos of flowers and sunsets.
This summer, Eğirdir was beseiged by an insurgency of midges that came in greater numbers than usual and stayed for far longer than expected. They didn’t bite, but they did make walking outside at dusk interesting.
One night, we had a campfire on the beach with fellow travelers Naomi and Patrick from Brighton and Robert from Hamburg (hello there, if you’re reading!). Another day, we went to explore the ruined city of Sagalossos. But other than that, our days were satisfyingly ordinary.
We could have done a lot of other things in Eğirdir. We could have filled every day with something fun and exciting. We could have gone windsurfing or sailing or canoeing or mountain biking or fishing. We could have even hiked in the footsteps of an apostle on the St. Paul Trail. But we didn’t. And it was great.