As has been the case for our vacations in the past couple of years, we'll stumble on cheap last minute tickets to a destination that is on our to visit list and then go with a few days notice. Istanbul and Western Turkey has been on our list for a while, and despite it being winter (and hence cold and rainy), when we found tickets to Istanbul from San Francisco for $700 departing in a week, we snapped them up, hoping that our luck with the weather in off-season travel would hold. This time around, however, our luck with the weather was not so good and it rained throughout the first 7 days of our trip.
Despite not knowing any Turkish, our interactions with the Turkish people were very positive and people were very helpful when we asked for directions. On the public bus to Bergama, because the person we asked for directions had to get off at an earlier stop, he went out of his way to ask another person on the bus to bring us to our motel, and that person walked us right to the door of the motel. The main negative was the perpetual cigarette smoke in restaurants and other enclosed areas; we've been pretty spoilt in the US where smoking is generally banned in indoor places. The food lived up to its reputation, and everything we tried based on our Turkish friend's recommendation was very good, especially the meatballs in the famous Sultanahmet meatball restaurant. Turkey was more expensive than we anticipated, mainly because the individual sights and museums were costly and there was no combined pass for them; we felt very nickel and dimed as a result.
We spent our first 6 days in Istanbul and visited most major and minor tourist attractions. In line with our experience in Ireland, we found Rick Steve's guide superior to the other guidebooks for pointing out the more interesting sights, as well as being up to date and generally interesting to read. The weather in Istanbul was pretty bad when we were there and our umbrellas were frequently used. Our last day in Turkey was also spent in Istanbul and that was our only sunny day in Istanbul.
We are normally frugal travellers, but this time we "splurged" and stayed in Hotel Sultan Hill. It was well worth the extra expense because it was well maintained, the staff was very helpful and friendly, our room had a great view of the Blue Mosque, and the breakfast was ample. Because it was cold, and also because we are not party people, we stayed indoors every night except for the first when we went around taking night photos.
We particularly enjoyed visiting the Hagia Sophia (amazing what the Byzantiums managed to build in the 6th Century), the Rustem Pasa Mosque (a small intimate mosque with fabulous Iznik tiles), walking across and under the Galata Bridge to watch the fishermen, and the Kariye Muzesi (Chora Church Museum - great mosiacs). Our Bosphorus cruise day was literally a washout, and at the end of the cruise in Anadolu Kavagi (Asia), we were overwhelmed by the restaurant touts competing for the scant number of tourists in low season. As expected, I did not enjoy the shopping experiences in the Grand Bazaar or the Spice Market because of the touts and the crowds, but Serene enjoyed walking around the Spice Market. We sampled ample amounts of Turkish food, drank lots of Turkish tea (we tried and did not like Turkish coffee), and Serene really enjoyed the sweets from Ali Muhhidin Haci Bekir, which has been in business since 1777 and supposedly invented Turkish Delight.
Our two favourite museums in Istanbul are the Chora Church Museum for its mosaics and the Archaeological Museum because we like looking at old historical artifacts.
Because it was raining heavily on the day we visited the archaelogical museum, we waited out the weather by spending our time imitating the posters of sculptures in the museum without the benefit of a tripod or good lighting; all but the last three black and white photos in this gallery are my attempts at replication them. The sarcophagi from Sidon were the most impressive artifacts in the museum.
The Chora Church museum is a little out of the way from the other sights in Istanbul but is well worth the side trip. The mosaics are richly detailed and we thoroughly enjoyed looking at them. Serene also enjoyed playing with the resident cats who are very friendly to visitors.
We flew to Denizli from Istanbul and then took a cab to Pamukkale to see both Hierapolis, which was founded as a thermal spa in the 2nd century BC, and also the travertines. The travertines are formed from the calcium carbonate deposited by the hot springs that the thermal spas of Hierapolis were built to contain. It again rained heavily while we were out in Hierapolis, but the weather started to turn in the afternoon and by the time we started walking in the warm water flowing over the travertines, the sun came out for the first time in a week. This change in weather proved to be the start of a spell of good weather we enjoyed over the next few days. We had fun wading in the warm water flowing over the travertines, and also admired the patterns of the calcium deposits on the travertines. Within 30 minutes, however, the sun went back behind the clouds and the rain started again.
The next day, we hired a cab to bring us to Aphrodisias, which is named after Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. One benefit of visiting in the off-season is that we can occasionally get wonderful places like Aphrodisias almost completely to yourself. One disadvantage is that we had to pay for costly cabs to get to these sites because the regular tourist buses don't operate in the winter. We only encountered one tour group the entire time we spent in Aphrodisias, and they only spent an hour or so around the site. We enjoyed walking around the site and reading the signs, particularly the impressive stadium that had a seating capacity of 30,000 and a length of 270 meters.
After Aphrodisias, we took a bus from Pamukkale to Selchuk where we visited the remains of Ephesus early the next day. We went early enough to beat the numerous tour groups visiting Ephesus and we had the Library of Celsus (125 AD) to ourselves for 15 minutes or so before the tour groups started arriving. Apart from the library, we also enjoyed wandering along the Sacred Way through Ephesus and also marvelling at the size of the theatre, which with a seating capacity of 44,000, is believed to be the largest outdoor theatre in the ancient world.
When travelling, our philosophy is to pay entrance fees and other costs for these experiences since it's a small fraction of the cost it takes to get to those places; we prefer saving on food and accomodation costs rather than saving on these experiences. And so we coughed up the extra money for the entrance fee to enter the Terrace Houses in Ephesus, which are houses occupied by upper class families in the Roman/Byzantium era; these houses were occupied from 1st century AD to 7th century AD. After visiting the houses, we thought it was well worth the money to see the archaeologists at work reconstructing shattered marble panels, as well as the houses with their mosaics and murals.
After we were done with Ephesus, we walked back to town and stopped by the Temple of Artemis to see its sole remaining column. The Temple of Artemis was completed around 550 BC and is one of the seven wonders of the ancient world mentioned by Herodotus; it was destroyed by a mob in 401 AD. We had a great lunch in Selchuk at the restaurant Amazon.
From Selchuk, we took a bus to Bergama, which was the capital of the Kingdom of Pergamom during the Hellenistic period (323 - 146 BC). Pergamom was where parchment (pergamenum) was perfected. The acropolis of Pergamom has a great setting on the hilltop overlooking the city, and the theatre is built into the hill and has similarly good views. Being elevated, it was very windy when we were there and Serene took a great photo of my wool hat's ear flaps flying back in the wind while I was standing near the edge of the hill overlooking the theatre.
Apart from the acropolis in Bergama, we also went to the Red Basilica and the Asclepion. The Red Basilica is not worth the entrance fee because you are not allowed to enter the basilica, and so you get the exact same view of the basilica by walking outside the complex. The Asclepion was a Temple of Asclepius, the god of healing, and we wandered around the tunnels and temples and also debated whether we dared to drink from the sacred well. After Bergama, we returned to Izmir where we stayed a night before flying back to Istanbul.