A Few Days In

The Turkey Diary: Happy Birthday to Me in Istanbul, Ephesus, Cappadocia

by Stephanie March
Stephanie and the boys are ready for action in Turkey. All photos by Stephanie March.

Stephanie March spent a birthday week in and around Istanbul, Ephesus, and Cappadocia. Of course it was incredible.

ISTANBUL – Greetings from the Bosphorus. It has been a lovely first day marked by a long flight (two hours waiting on the tarmac plus ten flying), a good seat mate from Turkey with lots of good tips, a few minor passenger/flight attendant altercations, and the added bonus of flying with Alan Alda, which I think reflected well on all of us somehow.

Istanbul is huge (16 million huge) and a pleasing pastiche of Ottoman, ugly '60s, and interesting modern architecture nestled up and down the Bosphorus. It is a cosmopolitan city of cocktails, ruins, and museums, and an aquatic super highway of boat traffic up and down the strait that I am this very minute watching from my moonlit balcony at Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at the Bosphorus. In short, the hotel kicks ass.

I'm traveling with Chris and Kevin, two of my dearest friends and excellent travelers. Every year we attack a new country together, and it's sublime. After a poolside repast and refreshing dip in the pool, I retired to my room for a nap. Three hours later, we met in the lobby and make our way to 360, the rooftop bar close to the old town center for drinks. It was an extremely arduous evening of shuttling back and forth between both Four Seasons hotels (there's another location in the Sultanahmet neighborhood) for meze and rum-based beverages. Turkey is not really a wine place, so we have to make do with Cheesecake Factory-type bar menus at the local hot spots. Pink Tears, a vodka, pomegranate, and lemon concoction, was a favorite.

The fellas are fantastic travel companions, the type of people who will steal an extra hour to hit the Modern Art Museum and an extra half hour on top of that for a drink at the museum cafe. I have been turning on the roaming on my iPhone to research such things as the five tenants of Islam (worthy), which movies Jean Reno has been in (worthy, but not practical), and Delta's in-flight entertainment for the return trip (stupid). We have a big day of palaces, mosques, and markets tomorrow with our guide, Bulent, and I am so excited.

Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque.
Hagia Sofia
The Hagia Sofia.

The Four Seasons in the old town center where we had drinks is smack — and I mean SMACK — dab in the middle of Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque. We dined through two calls to prayer and a gorgeous sunset. It was like time travel. But lest you think this place is too conservative, I am also watching a booze cruise sail past the hotel jamming J-Lo on the sound system with a coordinating light show on the dance floor. I can actually hear the clapping from my balcony.

This is not the Middle East, it's not Europe, it's not new York or the Greek Islands, or Alexander the Great. It's all of them at the same time. The weather is& hot but not oppressive, and the first Bosphorus Bridge (which I can see from my room) is lit up like Christmas. I like it a lot. I am swaddled in first-class travel which, frankly, makes a huge difference in a big city.

More tomorrow after I have done at least one thing of real cultural value. And had some raki.


My eyes are sticking to my eyelids. It was a very big day.

We met in the lobby at 6:30 a.m. for our 8:30 flight to Izmir for our one-hour drive to Ephesus for our seven-hour tour. I have a pretty consistent schedule on trips like this. Day 1: Getting there. Day 2: Being there. Day 3: Getting there catches up to you. The third day is always the worst: the jet lag, the sleeplessness, the diet. The pictures are good, but the girl is not pretty. I have never chugged so much canned Lipton tea in my whole life.

Here's what I learned today:

1. Ephesus is a sun-broiled ghost town from another millennium. Way back then, its residents enjoyed running water, radiant heating and cooling, and a fully operational sewage system.

2. The theater at Ephesus sat 25,000 people and needed no microphones, as its superior architecture amplified all sound from a sweet spot at the center of the stage.

3. In ancient times, doctors were held in high esteem, and they, in turn, worshipped the goddess Hygeia. Those guys washed their hands.

4. Musicians were employed in the public latrines to play over all sorts of unpleasant sounds. (Genius.)

5. A thriving Jewish population practiced their faith unmolested, as evidenced by the honorary menorah carved into the ancient library.

6. Their sundials still work.

7. I can extrapolate from the above that Western "civilization" could have learned a thing or two from the ancients. The Dark Ages were marked by a bunch of unwashed Jesus freaks using the ruins as quarries as they forgot how to read.

8. Sunscreen, a hat, and a parasol are only good for three hours.

Everyone should, at some point in their lives, travel with Chris and Kevin. Get this: They are Harvard-educated doctors who dress like models, engage the guide with all manner of interesting questions, and will, for hours on end, carry your giant purse AND the water AND the guidebook. When they are done with that, they buy you refreshments and help you rate the outfits of other tourists. When they are done with that, they whip out the iPad for group Scrabble. They have been sent to earth from Travel Heaven.

If you think you might make the earlier flight back to Istanbul, you should not do that. You should instead wade into the Aegean Sea. Alas, we learned this too late and spent two useless hours at the Izmir airport.

If you think you left your phone in the hotel and wish you had had it for all the picture-taking opportunities throughout the day, you are wrong. That accounts for the photo of the raki and Pringles I took at the airport upon discovery of the phone — at 6 p.m. Too late for the agora. Just in time for getting blitzed on anise liquor after a day of tromping through Anatolia.


It's my birthday!!

So fun. Today I shopped, swam, and went to a club. Istanbul 101. Chris and Kevin treated me like a princess, and I only hope the next time we have an opportunity to buy a rug or ceramics or textiles together I can repay the favor with as much enthusiasm.

All we did today was tromp around the Grand Bazaar, drink tea, and haggle for stuff. If you want a designer knockoff, you can get it, no problem. But if you want antique gold, carpets, or leather, that's another story. It gets more particular. The prices are fair, not a steal. Less than in the United States. More than you want. (Thanks, debt crises.)

Buying carpets
ladies working

I saw antique bracelets that I will think about forever, but the price of gold is high, no matter where you are. I had to resist. I got a great leather bag instead, and I feel like a queen.

We went clubbing tonight at Reina along with 1,000 other people. It was totally fun but offered very little in the way of dancing, as everyone was sandwiched in little enclaves by tables and there was no room to move. Chris could not bust out his signature steps, and the three of us had to make our own dance party on the balcony of the club. Major traffic (?!) at 2 a.m. concluded our festivities. Took hours to get to our Four Seasons paradise.

Time for bed (it's past 3 a.m.) and I haven't really slept in five days.

Yay travel. Yay dancing. Yay shopping. Yay sleep.

If you ever need to detox, a Turkish hammam is an excellent place to do it. After touring, flying, haggling, drinking, and dancing my body needed a little rejuvenating. The fellas left this morning, which was a total letdown, and I had the day to myself. By "day," I mean I got out of bed at noon.

My first trip was to the Istanbul Modern, where the art is extremely provocative and the guards are very strict. I tried to take a photo of a painting, and I thought they were going to kick me out. There are some really talented Turkish artists, all of whom appear to be under 40. And, boy, do they love a video installation; the entire lower level was given over to an exhibit called Paradise Lost. The short film of a mountain lion tearing up a motel room is a standout, as is the photo essay of sex dolls dressed like religious penitents. The museum has a great terrace cafe where I read my guidebook and had lunch. The only drawback was the ginormous cruise ship parked right in front of the museum blocking the whole view of the Bosphorus. Move, dammit.

After a few hours at the museum I took a taxi (taksi) to the Cemberlitas Hamam in the old town. It was constructed in the 16th century and the architecture is incredible. At its core there is a huge marble wet room — round with a giant domed ceiling and carved basins, drains, and steps around the perimeter. There is a small room through a dark arch that contains two deep plunge pools. The ceiling has star-shaped skylights, and between the lighting, the steam, and the flesh, it's pretty sexy. You can see why they segregate the men and women.

After a few confusing exchanges with the ladies' attendant, I figured out where the locker room was and dutifully stripped down. You are issued a hamam towel (which is more like a short, thick, cotton sheet than a regular towel), an exfoliating mitt, and tokens for each treatment you buy. You hand in the tokens as you progress from room to room. It works like this: You strip to your undies (men go naked) and go into the main bathing room, where a huge octagonal marble slab in the middle slopes gently down towards you. You put your hamam towel on any spot you like on the slab and take a little rest.

It's pretty steamy in there, and there are two or three strong old gals (topless or in very athletic two-piece suits) who are going to scrub you down. When your turn is up, they tap you on the shoulder and arrange you face-down on your towel. Then they take the exfoliating towel and buckets and buckets of warm water from the taps along the wall and SCRUB you down. Then they soap you up like it's a super car wash. Rinse, repeat. The towel functions like a damp paper towel under a cutting board: You don't slide around too much.

The last step is a vigorous hair washing. The nice lady leads you to one of the marble basins along the perimeter and sits you on a step. You close your eyes and gallons of water and a mysterious coconut shampoo later, you're done. After that, it's the hot or medium plunge followed by a short wait in the ante-room to the hamam waiting to be called for your 20-minute oil massage. The massage is in a group room and is very energetic. You shower in the stall next door and you're done. Wearing your towel and plastic shoes, you can enjoy tea and fresh-squeezed juice in the lounge or you can change and leave. Naturally, I chose refreshments. 

It's fabulous. More workhorse than a spa but you cannot beat that setting. I wish I could do it every week.

Now I am watching the second giant Turkish wedding in 24 hours on the hotel terrace and having some very average meze. Side note: If you have a nut allergy, do not come to Turkey. You will die. They practically put walnuts in the toothpaste. 

I really miss the guys, and I know Chris would have much preferred the centerpieces from tonight's wedding. He really hated yesterday's. Also we could crash this one. Last night we got back too late for that.

Tomorrow is Cappadocia and the caves.


Today my guide luck ran out. It had to happen sooner or later, but I was so annoyed. I spent a lot of the day surreptitiously emailing and messaging my travel agent trying to adjust tomorrow's itinerary as a result. Having to get internet passwords from a random cafe via the guide you are trying to shake is so lame.

He was not dangerous or scary, but he was touchy-feely, had a lot of dopey, practiced guide jokes, and was vaguely misogynistic.

I quickly realized there are four awesome things to do in Cappadocia, and the rest is filler. "My aunt makes the most amazing ceramics, not like other touristic places. Come. Let me show you." I was getting a lot of that. Um, fuck no. Take me to the underground cave city.

That said, he was actually quite knowledgeable and I learned a lot today. I had to earn it, but I got it. I visited cave monasteries dating back 2,000 years. Seriously, they are in caves carved into pumice stone that rise in weird ridges to about five stories. I was in one frescoed church that has been virtually untouched since 1100 AD. Due to the darkness of the caves and dry climate, nearly every picture is intact. Abandon your notions of faded colors and smoky outlines: These frescoes were intense and detailed with sandal straps and fingernails and eyeballs and turquoise robes. It was technicolor breathtaking. Lapis lazuli all over the walls. The guard in the church was distracted by his tea when I took a photo (no flash, of course).

Then I went to an underground cave city dating to the Hittites (1200 BC) where up to 5,000 people lived in underground fortresses during raids. They had supplies for five months. It was like a lava rock beehive with layer upon layer of rooms — wine press rooms, food storage, amphora storage, giant Indiana Jones-type stones ready to roll at a moment's notice to keep out invaders. Crazy. And claustrophobic. I would have surrendered as a Persian slave instead.

After seeing the big three, I ditched my guide and went back to Museum Hotel. I am sitting on the terrace having dinner. There is a harpist, white-gloved waiters, a fire pit, and white tablecloths. Oh and me. Just me. I am the only person dining here. I wish someone else was here to see it, but that might ruin the weird hilariousness of it all.

Hot air balloon ride tomorrow and then I fly to Istanbul to catch my morning flight. Cappadocia is like visiting Tatooine, and I am so glad I saw it. And now I want to leave.

I started this morning sooo early with a 4:45 a.m. pick-up at my hotel for a hot air balloon ride over Cappadocia with Voyager Balloons. It was superlative.

It's a very popular activity, and I counted 35 to 40 other balloons while we were aloft. I thought I might be the only American in a ginormous group of Japanese tourists, but I ended up in a basket of 13 Brazilians, Italians, Aussies, and a gorgeous girl from Japanese television with her cameraman. I think they were shooting a travel special for Japanese TV. I was told she dates the world's most famous Formula One driver. She is half-American, or at least I assume so from her perfect English. I thought it was in very poor taste to show up so goddamn early looking that good. She is obviously completely irresponsible.

Anyway, we fly for an hour or so, and it's magical and silent and you can see shepherds herding their flocks (and hear their bells) from nearly 400 meters in the air. When we reached about 1000 meters (this is how they count them, remember), the teeniest alarm went off on the pilot's gauge, and we chattered nervously waiting for him to do something other than bang it with his fist. Then it stopped, and we resumed our mad picture-taking, which really does NOT do the whole thing justice.

Scenes from the Harem

After that, back in a plane, back in a car, back in Istanbul, my old friend. And the Four Seasons, which is better for my time-pressed sightseeing and works out to be almost exactly the cost of my refunded day in Cappadocia.

I spent three hours in the Grand Bazaar sucking down free tea and looking at textiles. Then I visited Rüstem Pasha Mosque (a gem of a mosque that I like to think of as the Ste. Chapelle of Istanbul — but you can see for yourself in this video), walked the Galata Bridge, and touched the Bosphorus. I have to tag every body of water I meet. It's a thing (re: OCD).

I ate at Karaköy Lokantasi, a chic Turkish brasserie covered in turquoise tile, and drained my raki. The restaurants near the hotel are marginal (think Times Square), so maybe one drink on the hotel terrace and then pack for my homecoming.

Let's recap what I've learned:

1. Turks are great, and the good ones are some of the most generous, hospitable people you'll encounter.

2. Where East meets West will never not be interesting.

3. The Mediterranean diet is good for you but a bit short on Thai food.

4. If locals see you trying your hardest to ask questions, get directions, say thank you in their language, they WILL help you.

5. Even if I was paid in euros, the Four Seasons would be pricey. Damn you, dollar.

I really want to come back to Turkey. Like, a lot. I'd do the same thing as before but cut one day off the Cappadocia leg and add two or three more. I want to go swimming in the Aegean.

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