Monday, June 21, 2010

Monday, June 21, 2010 - No comments

Road Trip Chronicles #5: Safranbolu

It was only fitting that an evening rain greeted us as we pulled into Safranbolu. A little drizzle - or, better yet, a proper downpour - is a crucial ingredient to that cozy Black Sea ambience I'd been looking forward to this whole trip. I first experienced (and it is an experience) Safranbolu in 2004, and no town has ever enchanted me more, before or since. (I know, I know, I say that about every place I visit - but I really mean it this time!)

Arriving via the grim steel town of Karabuk, Safranbolu catches you by surprise - a storybook treasure nestled in a perfectly green valley. In the 18th and 19th centuries, wealthy families - mostly artisans - built gorgeous mansions of sun-dried mud bricks and wood. The houses in the main town, sheltered by the mountains, were used as winter homes, and most families had a second summer residence further up the hill In Baglar where the humidity is less and the breeze is...breezy. There are over a thousand well-preserved konaks (mansions) dotting the hills and the valley, and the town's charm has earned itself the honour of being a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We found ourselves a cozy restored mansion-turned-hotel (complete with room key-chains in the shape of Safranbolu's wooden houses) and after some delicious manti (like tortellini with garlic yogurt sauce) for supper, we settled in for the night. (Sitting here writing in the sweltering Antalya summer heat, it is hard to believe that just a few weeks ago we were actually grateful that our hotel turned the heat on at night!) I went to sleep anticipating a day of being wooed and delighted by this little town, and I was definitely not disappointed. Sometimes I had to remind myself that we weren't walking through an elaborate movie set, and that the people strolling the narrow streets, plying their wares and offering their tasty treats were real people with real lives behind real doors, not just actors following scripts meant to charm our socks off. But with the artisans still creating much as they did in Ottoman times, the gingerbread-houses gracing the hillsides and the friendlier-than-should-be-legal characters we encountered around every corner, sometimes the line between fact and fairytale was justifiably blurred.

One of our first encounters of the day was with the firinci (baker). I stopped to snap a few shots of him taking his (pleasingly sesame seed-less) simits out of the oven, and he responded with enough samples to keep us full til lunch.

We were the first customers to enter Nuriye Abla's shop that morning, meaning that whatever we bought would bring her extra blessings. Not ones to shortchange anyone in the area of abundance, we stocked up big time on gorgeous wooden candle holders and bowls - perfect sizes (and prices!) to bring home as gifts. She insisted that we stop in and see her husband in his workshop where he makes everything they sell. "Look for the guy with the huge belly!" she said. We found him without any trouble at all. :) I loved the way his workshop smelled just like my grandpa's, and was especially intrigued by the lanterns he makes by poking holes in hollowed out squashes!

The nearby "ironworkers market" also gave us many tempting treasures to look at... (One can never have too many pretty Turkish coffee cezves, right? You never know, I might need to make ten cups at once one day!)

One of the refreshing parts about being in Safranbolu was the fact that they served some local specialties that were different than your standard Turkish fare. Instead of the usual doner and kebaps, there were things like yogurt and walnut covered pasta and meat-filled grape leaf wraps (as opposed to the rice-and-spice variety we have down here.) My favourite culinary experience, though, was the tray of Turkish coffee we were served when we needed a caffeine fix partway through the day. Not only did we each get our own cezve full of coffee, but there were rose petals and Turkish delight on the tray, and little thimbles-full of blackberry juice, and our water glasses had coffee beans floating in them!

One of the distinct features of Safranbolu is its old kervan sarayi - a resting place for camels and camel-riders as they made their way along the Silk Road that ran all the way through Central Asia from China. This one has been converted into an elegant hotel, but I could still imagine it full of stinky animals and jolly-with-wine men.

In the courtyard of one of the mosques sits this ancient sun dial. As we stopped to glance at it, a little old man who could only be described as "spry" leapt up and began to explain its workings and features. He was so excited, you'd have thought he was the one that designed it!

I was way excited when we stumbled upon a little gallery where a new photo exhibition was opening that afternoon. The name of the collection was "They Were Young Once, Too" and it highlighted crinkly-faced residents from the local nursing home. I loved getting to talk to the photographer and see how much he'd gleaned from these wizened old souls as he worked to capture the fiesty spirits and the tall tales that live on inside of those withered bodies. Highlight of the event: meeting the kaymakam (a local governmental official) and receiving a "marriage proposal by proxy" as he offered me my pick of the town. I shall never complain of a shortage of options.... :)

One of the most fascinating parts of the day was our visit to the Kaymakam House Museum - an old mansion where the rooms come to life with (slightly creepy) mannequins acting out scenes of the everyday world of an Ottoman official's family. It was fun to see the fancy costumes they would wear for wedding parties and the low cushions used for sitting and dining. For the sake of modesty, there were grates on all the windows so that the women could look outside without being visible from the street. My favourite bit was how between the selamlik (men's quarters) and the haremlik (women's quarters) there were spinning shelves built into the walls that allowed the women to serve the men the food without being seen. Oh, and who could forget the bathtub that sits inside a cupboard in the wall?

Apparently it was also customary for the most luxurious of the homes to have indoor pools - not for swimming, but for the purpose of cooling the rooms and "making a pleasant sound."

One more town to add to the list of "one day I'd like to spend a month or two here....." I'm going to need a very long life.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Sunday, June 06, 2010 - No comments

Road Trip Chronicles, Chapter Four: Afyon

Imagine you had a beloved friend that you hadn't seen in years. Once or twice you'd passed by her house on the bus, but time never allowed you to stop in for tea, and so you were left to press your nose against the window and imagine what it would be like to see her, to hear her voice, to listen to her heart....

That pretty much sums up the relationship I have with the town of Afyon. The first time I encountered her, she both frightened and intrigued me. But once I'd spent a week in her presence, she won my heart. And I've been dreaming of her ever since. I returned once a few years ago, but just for a day, and all that did was whet my appetite for more. Every time I take the bus home from Istanbul, it makes a stop at the Afyon station, and it's always torture to be so close and not be able to pop in and see my dear friend. But this road trip afforded me a long-awaited opportunity, and even though it was just for a few hours, I was out-of-my-tree excited to roam those colourful streets again. The town boasts a huge, imposing fortress set on the top of a massive rock. In its shadow is just about the most delightful Old Quarter you'll find anywhere in the country, with twisty streets and wooden Ottoman-era houses in a rainbow of colours. While at first glance, the place has an air of indifference, I have experienced in the past those precious moments where a smile, a cup of tea and a dictionary are all you need to form a friendship, if only for a day. And those streets are ever extending an invitation: "Come explore me, come hear my stories, come find out what's behind my shuttered windows and bolted doors." And I, for one, am happy to oblige!

Afyon's true name is "Afyonkarahisar," which means "Black Fortress of Opium." Poppies grow like crazy on the plains surrounding the town, and a third of the world's legally grown opium is grown here. But among Turks, Afyon is not known so much for its opium as for its kaymak - a thick, clotted cream. An inset in the Lonely Planet chapter on the town, entitled "Cream From Contented Cows" tells the story:

"Afyon's opium farmers rarely use the drug themselves, but they use every other part of the plant. The poppy seeds are sprinkled on bread and pastries, the tender leaves are good in salads and the leftover opium plants are fed to the cattle. The cattle become very contented and produce rich cream in abundance."

And rich it is. My favourite way to enjoy kaymak is in Turkish Delight. I always grab a sample at the bus station when passing through, and this time I tasted an amazing new (to me) variety - kaymak lokum rolled in coconut with Nutella inside - seriously amazing. I kinda finished off the bag before we'd even made it out of town...

The first time I visited this town, a violent, ethnic-hatred-inspired riot took place right outside our hotel within the first few minutes of our arrival. What a welcome! I remember watching from an upstairs window, feeling confused, intrigued, and a bit afraid.....thought likely not as much as I should have been. In the days that followed, we tried to sort out what had happened, but being that we couldn't speak any Turkish, we couldn't make out anything from the newspapers, and no one we asked was at all eager to talk about it.

Now, seven years later, with more background on the history of the city and a much deeper understanding of the situation in the nation, I was able to put some pieces together. Back in 1922, during the War of Independence, Ataturk and his army defeated the Greeks there in a battle that turned out to be a decisive turning point in the war. The Turkish Republic was born just a few months later, and Afyon has a proud place in history as a result. Approaching the town, we saw several war-memorials and a giant statue of Ataturk looming on a mountaintop. The spirit that forged the Republic is alive and strong today, and with it, it seems, comes the intolerance of those who are different that characterized the end of the Ottoman Empire and the birth of the nation of the Turks. Such a conservative and fiercely nationalistic city has no sympathy for the minority group that lives in the eastern half of this country, nor for their grievances or their prisoners. Slogans we saw (and can now understand) scrawled on walls around town echoed the hatred I saw on the street that day, and the sense I got as we wandered about is that this is not a place that embraces outsiders easily, if at all.

We arrived in the evening and collapsed in our ghetto little hotel room, and after a good night's rest, were ready to take on the town. Our hotel didn't include breakfast, so we grabbed some apples and peanut butter from the cooler and then set off in search of tea. As if in keeping with the town's inhospitable facade, we walked and walked and couldn't find a single place to drink tea! (Trying to find a tea shop in any Turkish town ought to be like trying to find a Starbucks in Seattle, so this came as an odd surprise.) Finally we came across a pide (pizza-ish dish) place and asked if they had fresh tea, which they did. We enjoyed a few cups as we brushed up on our Afyon history (courtesy of the Lonely Planet) and then got ready to hit the town. And we were humbly surprised when, because we were his first customers of the day, the owner wouldn't let us pay for our tea! Okay, phew, we were still in Turkey after all!

Feeling less like unwelcome guests and with a much happier taste in our mouths, off we went to the Old Quarter. Now THERE is a place that makes my heart come alive! Besides the fact that it brings up all sorts of great memories of the friends with whom I first discovered it, around every corner is photo after photo just waiting to be taken. We spent a few hours roaming the streets, me never tiring of trying to shoot the same old staircases from a fresh angle, always trying to coax the hidden beauty out of the cracked walls and crooked old doors. Perhaps the current inhabitants are more aware of the drafty windows and the mold and the cockroaches, but when I look at those old houses, I see them for glory I know they still possess, and I am enchanted.

We came across a couple of interesting scenes during our wandering - almost as if they had been staged and were just waiting for someone to show up and appreciate them. (Pick me, pick me!) The first was the "kececi" - the maker of felt. The whole street was strewn with sheep's wool, and the guy was more than happy to show off his various felt creations. This one is a sort of coat to keep shepherds warm when they are out in the hills, and it doubles as a blanket to keep the sheep warm when they are giving birth. (At least I think that's what he said...accent was kinda tricky, and I am not up on my shepherd vocab!)

The town was apparently the second most important dervish centre in the Ottoman Empire (next to Konya, which we saw later on our trip) and the Mevlevihane Mosque boasted an impressive little whirling dervish museum. Members of this mystical sect of Islam studied and lived in these quarters, and the museum showed various scenes of them eating, praying, copying the Qu'ran and performing the mysterious worship-dance for which they are famous.

It must have been kite-making week at the local school or something, cuz everywhere we went there were kids running up streets and down hills trying to get their colourful creations airborne. I sat watching these two kids in particular, impressed with their determination to get theirs to fly. I was was especially drawn to the old man in the shadows, watching him as he watched them, filled with nostalgia and memories of his childhood, and probably wishing his knees were stronger so he could go run with them, too.

Afyon, once more you have drawn me into your mystery, capturing my imagination and yet still holding me at arm's length. You've afforded me shy glimpses of your beauty, but your pride demands that you keep me at a distance. I long to know your true heart, and to share with you mine. Perhaps when we've had more time together, you'll get up the courage to open your doors....

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Tuesday, June 01, 2010 - No comments

Road Trip Chronicles, Chapter Three: Izmir and Samos

Next stop, Izmir. Known back in the day as Smyrna, Izmir has been called "home" by Hittites, Romans, Greeks, and everyone in between. In more recent history, it was the site of much bloodshed and tragedy during the War of Independence and subsequent population exchange between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s, and it is now proudly known as the most secular and westernized city in Turkey. (Seriously, I barely saw a covered head there!)

My days in Izmir were a flurry of happy reunions with treasured friends, a suitcase full of gifts from home (thanks, Ma!), Iskender (yum!) and IKEA (the car came home a good bit fuller than it was when we started...) and a good refilling of the soul.

Wedged in the middle of it all came a visa run - a necessary evil that I can't complain too much about, cuz it always means a new adventure. A friend and her sweet baby came along with me on the early morning ferry ride to Samos, a Greek Island an hour off the Turkish coast. By the time we had been on the ferry five minutes, one of the guys working on board had set his heart on our sweet blond baby as a perfect candidate for a besik kertmesi - a "cradle engagement" - with his little boy. All in fun, of course. Her daddy woulda never gone for it! :)

We had about six hours on the island, and were grateful for cooler weather in which to explore and take pictures of all the quintessentially Greek homes and alleyways. Highlight for me: ham and pineapple pizza! (Visa runs are always a big excuse to eat pork!) We also checked out an old Greek Orthodox church, and its colourful graveyard, and enjoyed the peace and the presence there. Amazing the difference you can feel in the air just crossing the border!

Here's a coupla shots from our little Greek Island getaway:

We carried the baby in the baby carriage all the way down this loooong staircase - what were we thinking?

Tuesday, June 01, 2010 - No comments

Road Trip Chronicles, Chapter Two: Selcuk

So, off we went. First stop: Selcuk. Selcuk is most famously known for being the home of Ephesus. Seeing as we'd already been there done that several times (and stood in awe, don't worry!) we opted out of the sightseeing and went to connect with the friend we'd come to see. He owns a nice little carpet shop (as anyone who's anyone here does!) and I got some fun shots in there. We spent the night in a pansiyon I've stayed in a couple of times before. It is an old restored house and I am particularly fond of its cozy little courtyard, so my coffee and my journal and I had a "moment" there, as per tradition. Nothing huge to say about Selcuk, as it was just a stopover this time around, but I will tell you that the other thing it is famous for is its storks. They seem to have adopted every old Roman pillar (of which there are surprisingly many) as their own and have nests all over town. Rumour has it that if one nests on your roof, it brings good look to all in your home. Probably leaves little presents in your courtyard, too. So, there you go.