Every so often you just don’t feel it. You do all the things you’re supposed to do, see all the great stuff you’re supposed to see, but something is just missing.
Now that I have placated (I hope) the food readers (the food posts are by far more popular than anything else I write), I’d like to take a moment to explain the ebbs and flows of travel and expectation. For those of you who have been following along, when we arrived in Istanbul, we did the standard tourist stuff and stayed in the popular tourist neighborhood. We saw the big three – the Blue Mosque (really quite impressive), Hagia Sophia (good and interesting but a little messy) and Topkapi Palace (a fascinating look at the Sultans’ life). We tolerated the Grand Bazaar, but loved the Spice Market, which is basically the Grand Bazaar for spices. It has a jillion indistinguishable spice shops, but I had the time of my life once I picked my shop and started buying. As it turned out, my spice guy is a Turk who was born in Germany and lived in Japan for eleven years. Who knew? I am now the proud owner of lots of spice.)
Still, Istanbul felt like it was missing something, or more accurately, we were missing something. All those places are just fine, but they’re packed with tourists, especially in the summer, and after a few days of being hounded by touts and jostling with a small city of touring Europeans, you’d be forgiven if you just threw your hands up and raced to the airport.
We needed to shake things up.
We decided to get out of town for a bit and explore some of the other famous regions in Turkey. We booked a tour that would take us to Cappadoccia (where you can stay in a cave), Pamukkale (a place full of natural hot springs and a very cool old Roman ruin), and Ephesus (once the third largest city in the Roman empire after Rome and Alexandria). We’d get out and about and expand our sense of the country. What could go wrong?
That little expedition reminded me why travel can be so much fun and so ridiculous.
We took a balloon ride over Cappadoccia, which was exhilarating, although for a moment there I thought I might need an adult undergarment.
Later that day, we explored caves that had been used for churches by Christians, and we visited an underground city that had eleven levels that was carved out of lava rock. The city was constructed so Christians could flee the Romans, and later the Persians. People will go to a heck of a lot of trouble in order to pray. There, we had those fine meals at Fatima’s restaurant, Shirahne.
So far, so good. After our second day touring Cappadocia, were scheduled to take a night bus to Pamukkale. These buses are supposed to be quite nice. “Like an airplane seat,” someone said. Oh, it was like an airplane seat alright – a Cessna. This ride was just wrong from the beginning. Imagine our surprise when we discovered that the overnight bus had no bathroom. Amazingly there was wifi, but the password didn’t work. There were American movies at each seat, but they were dubbed into Turkish. Janine was convinced that she could crack the code that would play the movies in English, but she never did (and I suspect it’s because they’re just in Turkish). We couldn’t tilt our seats back because the couple behind us had a baby bassinet on their laps. Sleep was impossible because the bus stopped every hour, ostensibly to use the bathroom, but I think the driver just wanted to smoke. (You haven’t lived until you’ve spent time in a Turkish truck stop, though.) Sometimes the bus stopped for two minutes, sometimes twenty. Repeated attempts to communicate with the bus attendant proved fruitless.
After ten thrilling hours, the bus spat us out in the bustling metropolis of Denizli at about six the next morning. I should note that these package tours involve a certain amount of magical activity. When you get off your bus, you hope against hope that some guy will be standing there with a sign with your name on it. If you’re lucky, then they take you to some place where there’s a reservation, a room, another useful conveyance, or some other proof that wheels are turning in logical and useful ways.
Sure enough, someone was at the bus to collect us to take us on another shorter bus ride to the town of Pamukkale, where we arrived at what could charitably called a backpacker’s flophouse. If you were feeling uncharitable, you might just call it a hellhole. For eight bucks we were able to attempt to take a short nap, shower, and leave our bags behind lock and key for the day before heading off for our tour. As ever, however, you get what you pay for.
Janine and I have stayed in scarier places, but not since the early Clinton Administration. I remember the time we stayed at a guest house in Kuala Lumpur in 1994. The room was a plywood and chicken wire cage. This was better, but not by a whole lot. The plaster walls were sloughing off matter like a leper. At first glance, the shower appeared to have a checkboard design. A second glance revealed the black sections to just be mildew. The room had an indescribable odor. It was a mix of mold and old food with maybe a bit of ripened socks thrown in for good measure. We slept in our clothes. The thing is, and this can’t be discounted, the people who ran the hellhole flophouse were really, really nice. They made us feel warm and welcome, despite the scandalous conditions. I liked them. Anyway, we were so tired that the conditions didn’t much matter. We used the checkerboard shower, changed clothes, rested a bit, then dubiously set out for our day of sightseeing, wondering why we would give up our nice, comfortable lives in one of the nicest cities in the fully developed world for backpackers’ hovels and moldy showers. Have we lost what little mind we had left?
We needn’t have wondered. Pamukkale was fascinating and beautiful. We wandered around the hot springs, which turn the hillsides white from the calcium content in the water, and from which they harvest travertine for tile.
The Hieropolis is a very well restored look at Roman life almost two thousand years ago. And we had a great time hanging out with other folks on the tour. Half of the fun of traveling is the people you meet along the way. Ben from Australia is in the middle of long trip, as is Shanti from Colorado. We compared notes about our journeys, and reminded each other how lucky we are to be able to do things a little differently. Melvin from Goa, India, reported that he slept well on the night bus, which reminds me that everyone’s experience is different. Either that or he’s narcoleptic.
That evening, we were deposited onto a train platform (I’m not joking – our minibus drove RIGHT ONTO the platform where the people were standing) for the train to Ephesus. After a day of touring Capadoccia followed by a night bus, a day of touring Pamukkale, and another five hours on a train, we finally arrived at a fancy, shmancy boutique hotel with a good shower, an actual bathtub (the first one we’d seen in Europe), and a glorious view of the sea.
Things were looking up.
After touring Ephesus and another blissful night at the hotel, we returned to Istanbul and repositioned ourselves across the river in the Beyoglu section of town. There we started to find the Istanbul that we had been looking for. That’s where most of the cafes and meyhanes and cocktail bars are. If we had more time we would have taken a cruise of the Bosphorous, wandered the junk shops and alleys in the Galatasaray neighborhood, poked through some art galleries, taken a ferry across to the part of the city that sits on the Asian continent, and eaten at more meyhanes, among many, many other things.
Sometimes it takes a little extra effort to find the essence of a place, but there are so many variables that go into your experience. If you give me a decent bed and a good meal and you smile every once in a while, I’m happy. If you put me in a neighborhood where real life is going on, I’m even happier. As we were hitting our stride it was time to move on, but better late than never.
Did I like Istanbul? Yes, eventually.
Would I go back? You betcha.