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Monday, January 11, 2010


Chris and I {*escaped*} for the holidays this year--- to Turkey! I’ve been waiting years to feast my eyes on the delights of said country, an appeal growing from endless stories of culture and intrigue that oozed out of the once-great Ottoman Empire. Our hometown of Gjirokastёr was built out of the Ottoman reign—Turkish style houses, pashas and mosques, hamams and hans and teccas... Albania’s history has been drastically shaped by the Turks who ruled from afar, janissaries that controlled the masses, Byzantine churches desecrated and family names changed to Muslim ones. Even our local oligarch, Ali Pasha of Tepelene (now immortalized on every bottle of Tepelene Water), whose son was given control of Gjirokastёr’s kalaja, was in cahoots with the Turkish sultans. And the epic hero Skanderbag (or Turkish Skanderbej) who rose in the ranks of the Ottoman military, eventually turned his back and fought to liberate Albania, stopping the Ottomans from spreading power further into Italy…

Anyway, Chris and I emptied and tidied our house, stuffed our bags, and hopped on a furgon to the Greek border. Once on the other side (freedom! vacation officially begins!) we stuck out our thumbs and stitched our way across the northern mountains to Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city. Greece feels like eye candy to me— endless rows of baklava shops, windows brimming with mystery pastries, over-the-top cafes with flashy signs and incomprehensible letters. I’m both excited and disappointed by the “advanced” level of development, overwhelmed by the cost of goods on the European market, disgusted by the inevitability of Albania’s growth pattern…

Chris samples skanikopita but I'm only interested in that beautiful baklava behind him....

Thessaloniki is full of Christmas cheer in December, lots of twinkling light and santas, even a life size nativity scene! We bought our bus tickets for Istanbul—overnight 10 hours—and briskly walked circles around town to keep warm. We were lucky enough to stumble upon some outdoor party (grand opening of something I think) where they gave out free hot drinks and cookies; we tried hard to look anonymous as we hovered near the heaters...

Street party? =free food, drinks, music, and heat!

Nativity scenes and festive streets in Thessaloniki

Arriving in Istanbul (not Constantinople) in the early hours, totally disoriented, hungry, and cold, we sought refuge in the nearest breakfast börek shop for a cup of tea. The restaurant, a chain that rivals store counts with Starbucks, also housed an internet café several flights up, so we were able to skype our friend and hostess. We planned to stay a few nights with Besana, an Albanian friend from Gjirokastёr, who is getting her master’s degree there.

Early morning chill at Taksim! (Fresh off the bus)

Findikli Molla Celebi camii, in Bektas, overlooking the bridge and Golden Horn

Besana put us up in her tiny apartment (small but super convenient location in Taksim, the central square) and spent 3 days guiding us around town, drinking samovars full of Turkish tea** at a café overlooking the Bosporus; wandering past the Aya Sophia, New Mosque, and Blue Mosque; riding the ferry over to the Anatolian side of town, sampling the city’s best baklava shops and food stalls (including kumpir, a popular meal consisting of a giant baked potato stuffed with cheese and topped with a vast array of veggies and fixins’); smoking nargile at a madresa-turned-café spot...

Wandering the streets near Bektas

Ordering kumpir, a filling vegetarian lunch

Men washing their feet outside the New Mosque

Ferry ride across the Borphorous

One of our many, many baklava stops

Smoking nargile at the madresa

**what we learned about Turkish tea: Samovars (introduced by Russia) are commonly used to boil water in a pot on the bottom and then pour into a second pot (filled with black tea grown in Eastern Turkey, near the Black Sea) that sits above it. A small amount of concentrated brew from the top pot is poured into a small tulip-shaped glass, then hot water is added from the bottom pot, and served with one or two sugar cubes (not packets, but yes sometimes individually wrapped cubes). To order an “open” cup is to have less tea and more water.

Proper Turkish tea party, inside Gulhane Park

Sultan Ahmet caddesi tram road, lined with restaurants and shops

Blue Mosque lit up at night

We booked another overnight bus to Konya to visit the Mevlani mecca, hometown of Sufism’s founder Mevlani Rumi. I had contacted a couchsurfer to host us; and from that stay we met also a French couple who are on a year’s journey, walking from Paris to Israel. From the Otogar (bus station) Chris and I rode the tram away from town, toward his apartment by the university. Our host, Marcus, is an Austrian exchange student studying organic agriculture, and is part of Europe’s Erasmus program. His roommate, Ferit, is half Turkish, half Austrian, also studying organic agriculture, and recently inherited his family’s olive grove on the Marmara coast. We totally hit it off with the guys, and were invited to visit the farm for New Year’s for a party. Since we originally wanted to come volunteer on a farm (through and were turned away because lack of availability, this was a stroke of good luck!

Linear tram connecting the city to the University, 40 km away

We stayed 2 nights in Konya, wandering the modest size town, 45 minutes away by tram. Apparently the outer city has grown into completely reckless sprawl, clusters of enormous concrete apartment buildings lining the tram. Staring out the windows as the developments flew by, our mouths gaping in horror, we discussed the somewhat orderly organization with spaces for future parks and potential trees. For now it lays barren, nothing but skyscrapers and mosques. No shops, no amenities…just apartments.

View of the bizarre city sprawl from Marcus and Ferit's balcony

Inside the actual town Chris and I visited the Mevlani mosque, and several others, seeking shelter from the late afternoon chill. We typically sat in the back, me hiding underneath my hijab, quietly reading or writing in my journal while Chris filled his book with sketches. We toured the enormous indoor fruit & veggie pazar, sampling white stringy cheese that resembles hair, dried mulberries and apples, and conversing with the cheery shop owners. Turkish people strike me as incredibly friendly (even more than Albanians?), always asking where we come from and happy to hand out a small morsel of their goods. Several people invited us in for a cup of tea, and chuckled happily when we spoke the few Turkish words and phrases we had learned.

Konya's gorgeous and almost overwhelming fruit n veggie pazar

Mevlani camii (no pictures were allowed inside, a shame because it was exquisitely decorated, I promise)

An elaborately decorated mihrab inside one of Konya's many cammis

Inside Konya's tile museum, full of beautiful pottery and tiles

Shops throughout Turkey are absolutely spilling with barrels of dried fruits, nuts, spices, bulgar, etc.

And then a trip to the Hamam! Although this is now a touristy thing to do, local people traditionally (some still do) congregated at the neighborhood bathhouse for a wash and scrub, truly an invigorating experience. This hamam sees few tourists, so I was led by a woman through a maze of steamy rooms, as she instructed me (by pointing and demanding, but no English spoken) to Wash here! Lay down! Turn over! I anticipated being embarrassed to strip down in a public space, but as it turned out the few other women sharing the fountains in the bath were not intimidating, and barely noticed my presence. And truthfully, these women were so rotund, with strata of fat rolls they sat meticulously washing, like an ancient Greek painting, it was kind of comforting to have them around. As my lady scrubbed my skin with her special mitt, layers of grey goop dripped off, akin to eraser rubbings. Admittedly, at this point I hadn’t showered in almost a week, causing a transition to cleanliness so drastic I felt like I transformed into a human again. Who knows what I was before… (stinky hippie!)

From Konya we bought bus tickets (the buses are pricier than Albania but really comfortable) to Cappadocia… more to come!

Sufi headstones outside the Mevlani Mosque-- they have sufi hats!

Turkish man takes a break in the pazar, another good use of an oil canister

Street salep-seller, a hot drink made from ground orchid roots

1 comment:

Arlene said...

Courtney, your photos are exquisite.