Sunday, July 29, 2012

Our Return to the Promised Land

I had one of those unforgettable existential moments soon after we arrived in France -- a flash of clarity so pure that my life raced in front of my eyes and I was in harmony with all. Those experiences are a blessing, come without warning and leave me with such a sense of peace.

We had arrived in Chamonix, alfresco mecca extraordinaire. The quintessential sports town, even more so than Grindelwald in terms of outward appearance, it is the Moab or Vail or Tahoe of France. Every other retail space houses an outdoor outfitter -- Northface, Marmot, Billabong Columbia, Quechua, Quicksilver – and most of those walking through town were dressed for mountain pursuits.

We checked into one of those nondescript across-from-the-train-station hotels, the Langley-Gustavia, with indoor-outdoor carpet in hallways pervaded by the distinctive smell of the particular disinfectant used in all French hotels. Okay, not the most romantic start to our return to France, but we were surrounded by the French Alps and weren’t complaining. I’d thought when we’d entered Switzerland eight days prior that I’d be back to loosening that sluggish American jaw of mine with the language of kings but we heard not a word of French in the Grindelwald valley since it was square in the middle of the German-speaking Berner Oberland. So I was thrilled when, despite the pedestrian nature of our accommodations, I was once again hearing the dulcet tones of le français.

For our first dinner back in The Promised Land, we found a little restaurant around the corner called La Flambée. The menu was filled was mouth-wateringly familiar choices. There were at least dozen items on the menu I could have selected – poulet a la crème avec champignons, la salade forestière and la raclette à l’ancienne -- but settled on a few of my favorites: soupe à l’oignon, une salade de chèvre chaud and un pichet of crisp Haute-Savoie white wine. As the waitress came to take our order, the wistful strains of Joni Mitchell’s classic, Both Sides Now, filled the chalet bistro. The friendly French of our serveuse, the comfortable ease with which we responded and the backdrop of the timeless lyrics filled me with a serenity that whispered, all that has happened in your life has brought you to this satisfying moment. While I’ve had my share of disappointments, anxieties and struggles, all that flickered past in that instant were the triumphs, the joys and the contentment of my life: “It’s life’s illusions I recall...” The accumulation of every step I’d ever taken and every decision I’d ever made had brought me to sitting across from Joe having a cozy dinner in the boundless Chamonix valley. If I’d changed any of the details of my life along the way, this particular crystalline moment might never have happened. Perhaps it’s the optimist in me, perhaps it’s simply that I relish my life, or perhaps it’s that my now mature self (read: old) looks back and remembers only the good things about clouds, love and life. Reflection is vital, it’s all-important sometimes, but all we really have is the present of the Buddhists – the clarity of the here and now. For me, at that moment, my present included being back in France, my private promised land, for the balance of our year, having dinner with Joe and all was right in my world.

Pictures of our adventures:

Thursday, July 26, 2012

On Language

Is it possible to overstate the importance of language in forging friendships across borders? I don’t think so.

The trip from Grindelwald to Chamonix required five different trains and one bus. As the crow flies, the distance isn’t that far, but getting through the Alps can be a multi-legged, many-houred proposition. On one of the middle trains, we watched as a Japanese couple took their places across from a Swiss gentleman in the seats diagonal to ours. While helping them with their luggage, he began a conversation in Japanese. The look of pure, unadulterated joy on the couple’s faces lit up the train. They were on their own, so far from home, and the serendipity of having selected seats next to someone who spoke their language was priceless. Animated conversation among the fast friends continued for the half hour the Swiss gentleman was seated across from them. He pointed out features of the surrounding peaks as our train proceeded down the valley. They laughed and smiled together, heads nodding and smiles widening as I imagined the talk turning to families, travel and Japan. As the train slowed for the gentleman’s stop, they exchanged cards and with hands at their sides, gave each other the quick bows of goodbye. It was a heartening and heartwarming scene.

During our stay in Grindelwald, we met a couple that lived outside Dresden in the former East Germany who spoke passable English. They told us that nowadays, all schoolchildren are taught English from an early age but that they hadn’t taken it up until they were adults; Russian had been the requirement when they were growing up. It took me aback at first, but then I understood that of course that’s the language they were taught. The subjugators demanded that the subjugated learn their language – a sweeping power play, most certainly.

Language is such a delicate art. We’ve been amused on occasion by the charming use of English by some of the people we’ve encountered. I overheard an Italian traveler in Rome triumphantly exclaim, “The bull has already entered in the china store,” and our guide in Dubrovnik, after she asked us if we were familiar with an anecdote she’d shared about St. Blaize asked, “Is that bell not ringing?” Such endearing errors highlight the delicate nature of language and translations but should never inhibit us from giving another language our best efforts. Learning foreign languages has always helped me listen to English so much more carefully and pay close attention to all the expressions and constructions that might be a bit difficult for non-native speakers to understand.

Ah, languages – we’ll soon be back in the land of the quintessential romance language – my beloved French. I may at times speak it like a bull that’s entered the china store, but le français has always helped keep my bell ringing.

Pictures of our adventures:

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Alpine Mountain High

When we arrived in Grindelwald, we called home and were greeted with my Dad’s familiar refrain: “Where in the world are you these days?” We let him know we were high in the mountains of Switzerland for just over a week and thought, “Are we crazy to have come to this country for a full eight days – where bleeding money is the principal pastime of tourists?” Even thinking about sticking to a budget in Switzerland was a fool’s errand, but we were anxious to hike and so there we were. The Swiss franc (no, Switzerland is not and never has been on the euro), currently valued at just over a dollar, is stronger than ever. Prices were jaw-droppingly high (a good 30% more than in the rest of Europe) but at a certain point, we decided to just eat and drink less and go with the exchange-rate flow rather than obsess about our expenditures and ruin our stay. Because access to many of the most beautiful, hiking trails required an initial ascent in a cable car or gondola, we purchased six-day unlimited transportation passes for the price of a hotel room for two weeks in Greece. Determined to get our money’s worth, we were out and about every day taking every chairlift, train and ascension contrivance covered by our pass to explore the Grindelwald valley fully.

More than comfortable with traversing mountain landscapes on gondolas and chair lifts for skiing, doing so across the green countryside of summer was a completely new experience. As in winter, we departed each morning with our trusty trail map in hand, charted our course and then rather than skiing down the slopes, hiked from the top of one lift across and over the terrain to the base of the next. We explored both sides of the valley including a trip up the Grindelwald First cable car to a lateral path along a ridge that brought us up to the Bachalpsee, a lovely alpine lake well above the tree line. Trekking across the high meadows crisscrossed every hundred yards or so by gushing streams of melted snow so reminded me of walking the fells in the Lake District in England. The rugged, rocky landscape combined sharp crags with rolling slopes of thick, tufted grass pitted with hollows such that twisting an ankle in a sudden soft spot was always a fear. Our scenic lift rides took us to the mountain villages of Wengen, Mürren and Lauterbrunnen where endless trails were within constant sight of waterfalls and earshot of the thunder of summer avalanches. We took a particularly dramatic hike along the narrow edge of a mountain ravine that overlooked the glacier below. After an hour’s ascent, the weather changed in the blink of an eye and with thunder rumbling in the distance, we immediately turned on our heels and did an about-face. The rain was torrential and not having donned any foul weather gear, within minutes we were soaked by a drenching squall. Water ran down our legs and into our hiking boots, turning our socks into sodden sponges. We squished and squeaked our way back to the trailhead and just as we made it to the gondola hut, the lightening flashed above us. It was petrifying to have our trek over the glacier thwarted by a thunderstorm but it taught us an enduring lesson – when dealing with the outdoors, Mother Nature always wins.

We reveled daily in the summer side of the Grindelwald playground. The gondolas and cable cars are the same as those that operate in winter and as always, we searched for opportune trails, but our hiking boots were a lot less painful than our ski boots and our essential trekking sticks replaced our winter ski poles. The outdoor entrepreneurs have turned what was previously a four-month ski season into a year-round outdoor wonderland and we couldn’t have been happier that they had. On one evening trip deep into the valley for an authentic Swiss cheese fondue at a restaurant recommended by our hotel proprietor, we found ourselves looking over the spot where the Wetterhorn lift, the world’s first aerial cable car, started operating in 1908. A replica of the original wooden cabin now stands next to the Hotel Wetterhorn where the original lower station of the lift once stood and shuttled skiers and climbers towards the summit. Sadly, the Wetterhorn lift functioning ceased when World War I broke out and its operation has never resumed.

The flagship excursion of a trip to Grindelwald is the 11,400-foot ascent to the Jungfraujoch, the permanently snowed in saddle between the Mönch and Jungfrau peaks. We decided to forego yet a few more meals to pay the supplement for this amazing train ride. The cog railway climbs rapidly from the Kleine Scheidegg pass before plunging into the mountain face of solid rock and continuing for seven long miles inside the Eiger and Mönch before eventually emerging at the highest train station in Europe. What makes the claustrophobic journey all the more incredible is that work on this breathtaking engineering marvel was initiated so long ago -- in the late 1800s – and lasted for 16 years. As dark as it was in the train tunnel, when we emerged the light was dazzling. The brilliant summer sun reflecting off every snow-covered surface around us was blinding. Once we donned our sunglasses and our eyesight was restored, we realized that we were not alone; it appeared that the entire populations of India, Pakistan and Japan were there with us at 12,000 feet above sea level. As we’d learned from our hotel owner, Switzerland is the foreign country pictured most often as a backdrop in Bollywood blockbusters such that as a vacation destination it has become the stuff of dreams for Indians and Pakistanis. Specially packaged excursions shuttle entire families to the Bernese Oberland region for the complete movie experience, including lunch at the “Bollywood” restaurant at the top of the Jungfraujoch. In a similar manner, the area is a popular destination for packaged tours from Japan. The Grindelwald area of the Swiss Alps is a huge draw for Japanese tourists, many of whom make the pilgrimage to mountains they know from the children's classic, Heidi, and the beloved musical, The Sound of Music. One Japanese woman I spoke to shared with me, “They’re always marketing the romantic image of Switzerland wherever you go. Television ads talk about the clean Swiss air and travel agent windows are filled with pictures of snow-covered peaks and edelweiss.” The advertising must work and someone is making an awful lot of money judging by the hundreds of Japanese with whom we shared the trains. Often the only non-Asian in the rail cars, we were astounded when information about upcoming stops was announced in German, English and then in Japanese.
In an effort to flee the stifling crowds at the Jungfraujoch station to view the magnificent vistas with a touch of solitude, we hiked close to an hour up and across the vast glacial snowfields to the Mönchjoch mountain hut. We’d left temperatures in the high 70s in Grindelwald but despite the brilliant sun, once we set off across the plateau, the icy winds whipping through the pass brought the numbers down into the 40s. The views across the Aletsch Glacier, at 15 miles the longest river of ice in the Alps, were incredible and we just couldn’t believe the views we were experiencing. What magnificence, what grandeur, what oh-my-goodness splendor. Much-appreciated, belly-warming soup and tea helped thaw our chilly selves such that we were able to head back across the snow to Bollywood central and up the elevator that took us to the Sphinx weather observation tower and panoramic terrace. We were indeed on top of the world.

Every evening after strenuous daily hikes, we were happy to return to the Hotel Lauberhorn and our cozy duvets in our room with a view. Our hosts and their staff were always so generous with recommendations for our outdoor excursions for the following day; we were living with native resident experts on the entire valley. One evening, we opted into a very reasonably priced BBQ they cooked and served on the outdoor patio and every morning, we were greeted with a superb morning meal. The hotel served some of the freshest, most scrumptious breakfasts we had on our journey: homemade muesli thick with fresh fruits, crusty whole wheat breads and croissants served with sweet butter and homemade jams, rich coffee and an endless variety of loose leaf teas and a nice selection of Swiss cheeses presented on a thick plank of cedar.

After eight days in Switzerland, we really did hate to leave, but since our wallets had thinned considerably and my beloved France, still in the Alps, was our next destination, we once again hit the rails and waved goodbye to Grindelwald.

Pictures of our adventures:

Thursday, July 19, 2012

I Did Go Back (and Up and Down) Again

In life-before-our-Gap-Year, there were weeks of days that passed by and I can’t recall the particulars of even a single one – not one tiny detail, not one single image. But the memory of the day I hiked from Grindelwald, Switzerland to the Kleine Scheidegg pass as a solo backpacker in July 1977 is as crystal clear as the blue sky under which I made the 14-mile round-trip trek. It was my first real hike ever and I can conjure up every detail. I remember what I wore (clumsy shoes that stood in for hiking boots, blue knee socks, cotton navy shorts and a flowered blouse I’d made), what I ate (yogurt, cheese and a hunk of bread), what I heard (the bleating of goats and the clanking of cowbells), what I saw (the most beautiful valley and dramatic snow-covered peaks) and most of all, how I felt (exhilarated). I’d spent a mere ten hours in the Grindelwald valley 35 years ago, yet the memory was indelibly vivid for each and every one of my senses. When Joe and I undertook the very same hike as a duo, I was elated to find that the often-distorting lens of nostalgia had neither magnified the location’s beauty nor exaggerated the thrill of accomplishment.

What a difference a day makes. Sweltering in the upper 80s heat when we left chaotic Turkey, we were soon shivering in the cold drizzle of pastoral Switzerland with temperatures in the 50s. The blistering sun of the Mediterranean and the recurring calls to prayer were now behind us -- no more olives, no more eggplant and no more southern warmth. We were in the land of bread, cheese, muesli and brisk but polite demeanors -- talk about contrasts! Flying from and to countries not part of the European Union meant suffering through interminable lines after arriving in Basel and the dour officials at passport control. Is a genetic inability to smile a job requirement for becoming a border control officer – especially in Switzerland? (Although we encountered them just once, the passport officials in Turkey managed to sneak in an unsanctioned grin as they inspected our paperwork.) After an uneventful train ride to Interlaken where we transferred to the red, wooden-benched cog railway that carried us well up into the valley, we arrived in Grindelwald in thick fog and mood-dampening rain. I saw a pair of 20-something backpackers arrive on the train with us and wondered if their soon-to-be-made memories of the village and the surrounding mountains would be as indelible as mine. Would they return some years in the distant future, as I have, to relive them?

Beni, extreme sports aficionado and owner, with his equally enthusiastic about the outdoors wife Connie, of the Hotel Lauberhorn, picked us up at the tourist office and drove us in his van about a mile out of town to our home for the next eight days. The conditions were so dismal and the cloud cover so thick, that we could have been in Kentucky for all we knew with nary an Alp in sight. We were so thoroughly exhausted after our long day of traveling and temporarily dismayed by the weather that we just crashed and slept like babies under our fluffy Swiss duvets.

The sun woke us up the next morning and we nearly fell out of our platform bed when we turned and saw the spectacular north face of the Eiger staring in at us through the sliding glass doors of our room. This magnificent peak had been hiding behind the clouds on our arrival but now filled the view from our little chalet dorm. Until that startling morning moment, the sightlines from our room in the Hotel Bel Soggiorno Taormina, Sicily over Mount Etna in the distance had topped our list of most beautiful views, but the snow-topped Eiger peering into our bedroom immediately bumped the Hotel Lauberhorn up into the top slot. The mountain’s rugged magnitude was not only magnificent but humbling as well as we sat in awe on our little balcony.

There was little time for relaxation in Grindelwald. Our hotel owners were off to hang glide and mountain bike for the day and we were determined to start hiking in earnest to prepare for the six-day Tour du Mont Blanc we would undertake the following week. My reconstituted Kleine Scheidegg hike of 1977, the centerpiece of our visit to Switzerland and this time to be experienced with Joe, was a perfect replica of what I’d remembered for oh-so-many years. We first made our way down to the base of the valley in Grund, crossed the bridge over the pale green chalky river that thundered down towards Interlaken and then started the 4,000-foot relentless climb up, up and then further up to the pass (the Swiss don’t believe in switchbacks, preferring to head straight up to the destination at hand).

There’s hiking and then there’s “wow” hiking, where each and every view is followed by an exclamation of awe. From the tiniest little flower to the rugged vistas of the encircling mountains, our ascent to the Kleine Scheidegg was without a doubt, “wow” hiking at its best and I had to remind myself to breathe and to just put one foot in front of the other as we took in the scenery. An abundance of Alpine wildflower fields filled with a riot of colors -- yellow buttercups, purple asters, pink campions and blue gentians – embellished the way. How does nature manage to paint the landscape so perfectly, I though, with just the right mix of delicate and vivid colors? As we followed the trail across farm after farm, the only sounds on the winds were the deep clangs from the huge Swiss bells hung on the necks of munching cows (it’s astounding how much racket they make when all they’re doing is eating) and the wind chime tinkles of the little bells dangling from bearded goats. Unlike being taken through a perfectly orchestrated pastiche of a distant paradise at Disneyworld’s Epcot, this mountain paradise was very real with all the sights, sounds and smells that go along with the reality of Switzerland. We were in an Alpine wonderland and it was glorious. At long last and when my lungs were just about to give up on working so hard, patches of snow and fields of ice from which ice-cold streams sprouted crossed our path, signaling our final approach to the crest. The hike was billed as a four-hour trek, but we’d made it to the Kleine Scheidegg ridge about a half hour earlier than we’d expected. There we were at the snow line, looking straight up at the big boy triumvirate, all commanding attention in an imposing row: the Eiger (13,025 feet), the Mönch (13,448 feet) and the Jungfrau (13,642 feet). Wow!

After devouring some wursts on the terrace looking over the western-facing side of the pass across the chasm to the village of Mürren suspended precipitously on a mountain terrace, we started our three-hour descent down to Grindelwald. Practically crawling by the time we arrived back at the Hotel Lauberhorn, we had yet to resolve the debate about which had been more difficult: going up or coming down. The ascent was a killer for our aerobic capacity but the descent wreaked havoc on our knees and our thighs. While I’d hardly been in great hiking shape at 21 in 1977, I was, after all, just a kid with 21-year-old lungs and 21-year-old muscles and no matter what shape I was in at 56, my body parts were 56-years-old with plenty of years of wear and tear. At the end of our trek, we were feeling every single step we’d taken and were so exhausted and sore that we couldn’t imagine why anyone would ever want to do anything but sleep. I lay in bed unable to move as the result of having realized a dream that had lain dormant for 35 years; I fell asleep immediately and slept about as soundly as I ever had.

There are no words to describe the reality of reanimating a place that existed for so long as a cherished memory, having it come alive once again, and sharing it with my beloved. Yes, time can so often warp memory but in the case of my Grindelwald hike, it certainly had not. I had fallen in love with the valley on my very first date 35 years ago and now that I had returned, I loved her all the more. Yes, I had gone back and yes, it was better than ever.

Pictures of our adventures:

Friday, July 13, 2012

Our Ephesian Revelations

The concluding leg of our journey to Turkey took us via the previously-unknown-to-us, Pegasus Airlines (Joe said fine, as long as its name isn’t Icarus), to the spanking new Izmir airport. Our final destination was Ephesus, the archeological site about an hour further south along the Aegean coast of Asia Minor. We were aware that it housed the ruins of the 550 BC Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, but beyond that, we knew little of what we were about to find.

We arrived at our hotel in Kusadasi, a few miles outside Ephesus, just in time for dinner. As genuine and serene as the Kelebek Hotel in Cappadocia was, the Hotel Tatlises was not: it was the epitome of factory tourism at its worst. Our check-in coincided with that of the passengers of no fewer than six air-conditioned coaches, which pulled up and disgorged waves of international tourists, each bus representing a different country. Needless to say, check-in took forever. The place was evidently successful catering to and luring travelers looking for a bargain basement deal and for good reason. There was an enormous patio the size of a football field on which meals were served and we joined the crowds for the endless dinner buffet once we learned that our evening meal was included in our room rate. We enjoyed decent Turkish food but suffered through bad ‘80s music (who can enjoy stuffed grape leaves and baklava while listening to a Muzak version of “Get Outta My Dreams and Into My Car?”) while sitting on stained white-on-white faux-satin slipcovered banquet chairs. It was like being at a wedding with no bride, no groom and not a soul we knew.

Our one unfortunate night of impersonal, mass-produced travel behind us, we proceeded to Ephesus, where we had much to learn. We’d done some reading overnight and discovered that the ancient Greek city and then prosperous Roman metropolis had a population of well over 250,000 in the 1st century BC, thereby making it one of the largest cities in the Mediterranean universe. On our way to the site, without warning, the language light bulb over my head went on. Ephesus. The Ephesians. St. Paul. St. Paul’s letterto the Ephesians – now I get it! Now I know where we are! While finally connecting the language derivation dots of Ephesus to its inhabitants was hardly genius, I was genuinely excited by the revelation. (A linguistic breakthrough may not make Joe’s day the way it does mine, but when he discovers a new connection technology-wise – and sometimes it’s very literally a connection, like each time the Monster Cable Electric Powerstrip he’s lugged along with us works in each new country -- he’s a very happy camper.)

Back to our day as part of a small tour group... Our first stop was the Virgin Mary’sHouse, a Roman Catholic shrine on Mount Koressos, which overlooks what remains of Ephesus. The house was discovered in the 1800s when archeologists followed the directed visions of a Roman Catholic nun. Ever since, a steady flow of pilgrims files through the small two-room stone dwelling and chapel every day in the belief that the mother of Jesus was taken there by Saint John (who may have written his gospels there) and lived with him until her Assumption into heaven. It was a sweet little house and a touching story, but my skepticism about this particular vision quest weighed heavily.

It’s difficult to capture our wide-eyed level of surprise at seeing the Ephesus ruins. Unlike so many other sites we’d visited, this one was easily accessible, comprehensive and colossal. It didn’t take much imagination to recreate the city and envision it as it had been at the height of its past glory. We truly had no idea that Ephesus had such historical significance, that it covered so many acres and that it would be so grand.

Our little tour group was a mixed bag of English speakers led by a spirited Turkish guide. He pointed out and identified all the local flora as we made our way through the site -- mulberry, apricot, pistachio and almond trees – and we got to sample some of their ripe fruit. One of our tour compatriots was a lovely young Japanese woman named Hata, who stuck close to the guide and repeated the final few syllables of everything he said in a high-pitched voice with an excited, upward lilt: apricots, theater, BC, Romans, aqueduct! Perhaps this was to clarify his utterances in her mind and I don’t think she even realized she was doing it, but it helped us remember the details of his explanations and gave our group a few giggles as well.

The day’s temperatures intensified, progressing to that uniquely white, dry heat of the Mediterranean midday that washes out color to dull shades of green, gray and brown. We continued on, stopping under the shade of olive trees whenever they were available, to see the remains of various temples, public baths, the 24,000-seat amphitheater, fountains, brothels, public toilets (a fascinating side-by-side with no privacy marble bleacher system with modern, running water drainage canals underneath – just pay your fee, lift your toga and go in comfort) and the magnificent Celsus library. Built by the son to honor his father, Roman Senator Tiberius Julius Celsus, among the earliest men of purely Greek origin to hold an important position in the Roman Empire, the massive public library was the centerpiece of Ephesus. It stored 12,000 scrolls and served as a monumental tomb for Celsus whose final resting place is a sarcophagus beneath the main entrance. The building’s interior and all it held were destroyed by fire in a devastating earthquake that struck Ephesus in 262 AD and only the stunning, reconstructed facade now remains. We were fascinated to find out that Ephesus, currently several miles from the coast, had originally been a seaside harbor. Hundreds of years of silting by the Cayster River had filled the waterfront and slowly pushed the shoreline away from the city and out into the sea.

On the other side of what is now the modern town was the only sight we had anticipated: one of the famous Seven Wonders – the Temple to the Goddess Artemis. In its day, the temple was considered the most beautiful structure in the world, sheathed in glowing white marble with 127 graceful pillars that nobly rose 60 feet high and thrust its massive red-tiled roof towards the sky. But all that is left of the ancient beauty are a few clumps of stone and scattered piles of rubble and debris on a swampy plot of land. Our guide declared it not the 7th Wonder of the Ancient World, but rather the 7th Disappointment – and unfortunately, he was right.

Although happy to make the Hotel Tatlises and the bad ‘80s chart toppers distant memories, leaving Turkey was more difficult than we’d anticipated. Getting to know the country and its delightful, funny people was truly a revelation; Turkey had indeed grown on us. We’d never been able to squeeze seeing a whirling dervish ritual into our schedule, so once again, we pulled out our file of places-to-go-back-to and added Turkey to the growing list.

Pictures of our adventures:

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Wild West, Turkey Style

Twenty years ago a travel book club friend mentioned her recent trip to Cappadocia and described the marvels of its fairy chimneys. Once she clarified for me what a fairy chimney was, I mentally added it to my list of must-see places.

Our early morning flight from Istanbul on Turkish Airlines (which miraculously managed to feed us breakfast and serve us coffee on a quick 50-minute flight) arrived in central Anatolia at the thoroughly modern airport at Neveshir set on a vast, arid plain ringed by distant mountains. We had landed in the middle of nowhere. The airport transfer van took us across the lowland to the east with nothing to see for miles until the green of the vineyards started to appear.

“Look, grapes!” I exclaimed, “There must be wine.”

Joe, ever the optimist, replied without a beat, “Or jelly.”

We soon reached two-lane country roads where we slowed behind horse-drawn Cappadocian produce carts and passed farmers tilling spacious farms with mule-drawn wooden rudders. Like the rustic scene of a Millet painting, sturdy, sun-burned farming women in heavy babushkas covering their heads and outfitted with long, stifling woolen skirts wielded hoes in the scorched fields. It was difficult to believe that the rural scenes we were witnessing were actually taking place in the twenty-first century.

Continuing our drive through the sprawling, nondescript terrain, we at long last reached the flat-topped mesas and sinuous valleys we’d first seen on the horizon. In an approach reminiscent of the somewhat unremarkable move towards the south rim of the Grand Canyon, with the scraggly olive trees of Turkey standing in for Arizona’s scrub pines, the earth suddenly opened up and the extraordinary landscape miraculously appeared. We’d reached the heart of Cappadocia and there they were in front of us: forests of dreamy, delicate fairy chimneys sprouting across acres of moonscaped terrain tucked into curvy, sandstone cliff faces. The tall, thin, stone columns, some like elongated teepees and others textbook phallic formations, are the vestiges of volcanic eruptions whose lava flows the elements sculpted into eerie, pointed creations. Four thousand years ago, ancient Hittites chiseled homes into the gigantic anthills that look as though they might crumble to the touch but are actually hardened, solid cones of stone. The original inhabitants paved the way for future residents: Byzantine Christians seeking refuge from persecution first by pagan Romans and then marauding Muslims, cave-dwelling hippies in the 1960s and today’s chic boutique hotels. Gazing at the fascinating structures in their surreal setting, I kept waiting for oversized desert insects to crawl from the pointed tops. Surely the creator of the Flintstones took a trip to Cappadocia for visual and atmospheric inspiration because there we were, smack in the middle of the Turkish Town of Bedrock. I continually fought the urge to break into song: “’s a page right out of his-to-ry.”

Our accommodations in the busting frontier town of Göreme were in one of the aforementioned cave dwellings turned boutique inns, the beautiful and accommodating Kelebek Hotel, set high along a ridge and dug dramatically into the volcanic rock. It was a lovely all-stone property with rock-hewn archways and cozy panoramic porches covered with soft Turkish carpets and strewn with overstuffed pillows for making ourselves comfortable as we surveyed the valleys. We spent two relaxing evenings on the unique loggias enjoying the troglodyte lifestyle sipping crisp Cappadocian white wine while gazing over the otherworldly rock formations.

We hiked the scenic Red Canyon just outside Göreme and the following day, through the distant Ilhara Valley. Ancient dwellings called pigeon houses – traditionally used to collect bird droppings to be used as fertilizer -- and carved directly into the walls of the canyon riddled the sheer rock faces. The remnants of medieval monastic settlements and tiny, frescoed, vault-ceilinged chapels cut into the base of towering cliffs lined the tranquil, green valley from the 11th century days when Christians hid and practiced their faith in the difficult-to-discover gorges. Simple but effective giant stone wheels that could easily be rolled into place as a last line of defense to shun attackers peeked out beside the entryways. At the end of our valley hike, we enjoyed a simple outdoor lunch at a brookside restaurant that included a delicious bowl of white lentil soup (our third version of this scrumptious potage), eggplant and tomato stew and plain yogurt drizzled with honey for dessert. Turkish yogurt is a bit sour -- mouth-puckeringly sour, in fact – and while refreshing, is not quite up to par with the thick, creamy version we enjoyed daily in Greece.

Beneath Cappadocia’s Star Wars-like landscape is an intricate network of subterranean cities. The local Christians used them to hide from the ever-present hostile forces; they went underground, in quite a literal sense. Each of the subterranean systems housed up to 10,000 people at a time and the largest yet discovered are ten levels deep, with tight passageways connecting the floors like so many hamster burrows. We stooped down and squeezed through the narrow tunnels, fighting waves of claustrophobia with every step and saw smoke-blackened kitchens, handy indentations for storing spices, undulating ventilation shafts masquerading as wells and chambers near the top for housing farm animals. They were extraordinary labyrinths dug to respond to frightening times and we gratefully breathed the fresh air and deep sighs of relief when we finally resurfaced.

Cappadocia was the Wild West, Turkey style. Its landscape and spirit were so evocative of the American Southwest – places like Mexican Hat in Utah with its funny rock formations and the deeply spiritual Canyon de Chelly in the Navajo Nation in Arizona. There were towering buttes and squat mesas, horses, dust and the unmistakable feeling of a border town. I had a powerful urge to saddle up and head for the hills and had we more than just two nights in captivating Cappadocia, we just might have done so.

Pictures of our adventures:

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Istanbul: The Sights

Any reservations we had about Istanbul evaporated after several revealing days of taking in the city’s sights. They were beautiful and exotic and we enjoyed each one.

First up on our agenda was a casual luncheon cruise on the Bosporus for a magnificent view of the city from sea level and an afternoon heading up to and back from the Black Sea. The day was sweltering as we were transported to our little excursion boat in a so-called “air-conditioned” van that would have been cooler had we rolled down all the windows. As we’d already learned back at the Princess Diana, Turkish AC has no resemblance to the icicle-producing jets of cold air we’re used to. It merely circulates the hot air with the goal of making you think you’re cooler as the sweat continues to trickle. Simply put, Turkish air conditioning is what is commonly known as a fan.

Our boat ride underway, the Bosporus breeze lowered the temperatures and we enjoyed a tasty paper-plated lunch of kebabs and rice and were kept company by dozens of graceful dolphins that played in our wake. The broad, critical waterway slices transcontinental Istanbul, which straddles both Europe and Asia, in two. One-third of the population lives on the larger, eastern, Asian side but the western piece is home to the bulk of the population and is the city’s cultural heart. After an hour and a half of cruising north past sumptuous palaces followed by wooden mansions and the Selimiye Barracks (where Florence Nightingale worked during the Crimean War), we disembarked in the harbor of a nondescript little fishing village, climbed up the steep hill behind it and gazed out over the vast, storied Black Sea. And all at once it hit me: we had landed on the eastern shore of the Bosporus and were now in Asia! Our gap year has taken us not only to Europe but to Africa and Asia as well.

The following day, not having done adequate Istanbul homework to venture forth effectively on our own, we joined a small tour group to take in the city’s highlights. We found ourselves under the guidance of Tahir, a delightful young man from the area, and part of a remarkable cultural stew: a French-speaking woman from Quebec who ran a relief organization in Nairobi, Kenya and lived there with her 16-year-old daughter; her husband, originally from Saskatchewan, who headed up a refugee agency in Khartoum, Sudan; a woman from Bangalore, India in town for a regional meeting of the World Economic Forum; and, a young Filipino couple who worked in Dubai. We were an impromptu set of international visitors ready for a few days in Istanbul.

Sightseers know the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, built in the early 1600s, as the Blue Mosque, so named for its exquisite interior blue tiles. With its six minarets and perfect cascade of domes, it is a magnificent piece of architecture. We passed by the ablution fountains outside the courtyard, I draped the requisite scarf over my head and we then slipped off our shoes before stepping barefoot onto the plush Turkish carpet along with the scores of other visitors. Despite the crowds, the cavernous chamber was hushed and the delicate morning light that streamed through the pastel stained glass windows added to the tranquility of the space. Every available surface was embellished with hand-painted blue, green and red tiles in graceful, flowery patterns. No human or animal images were in evidence since Islam forbids prayer in front of such since to do so would be a bit too close to idol worship. I’ve found the mosques we’ve visited generally more peaceful and conducive to contemplation than the many churches we’ve seen. They are lofty, light-filled places of prayer with no distracting statues of Saint Sebastian punctured by arrows, frescoes of bleeding, beheaded martyrs or dark paintings of souls condemned to the fires of eternal damnation.

Our next stop was the neighboring Topkapi Palace, sprawling residence of Ottoman sultans, their mothers, sisters, wives and concubines in the harem and the bejeweled, golden-hilted dagger made famous by the 1964 caper film (Topkapi) starring Peter Ustinov and Melina Mercouri. Much of the palace’s enclosed space is dedicated to the presentation of priceless treasures and Islamic artifacts sitting on sumptuous velvet cushions behind thick vitrines. Just as in Croatia, where myriad macabre Catholic relics were displayed -- shards of saints’ bones and clips of their nails housed in hollow gold coffers in the shape of arms and feet -- so the sacred relics of Islam’s holy messengers were presented. Treasures such as a hair of Mohammed’s beard, a tooth, his sword and his cloak were similarly preserved in gilded and argentine receptacles. And I wondered in Istanbul as I had in Croatia about the authenticity of all these religious artifacts: who vouches for the provenance of such things? The sultan robes on display were close replicas of the priests’ vestments we’d also seen in Croatia: royal regalia of gilded thread and the finest embroidery. Was it any wonder that citizens and kings (like those of France in centuries past) became so wary of the “bedecked like royalty” clergy? In Croatia, each room of the convent treasury was vigilantly guarded by a genial, habited nun who we were told would have no problem physically pouncing on us should we attempt to take pictures or touch anything inappropriately. In the Topkapi Palace, armed guards from the Turkish military replaced the smiling sisters but I’m not sure with whom I’d rather tangle.

What is it that compels people to buy funny hats and ridiculous shirts on vacation and to actually wear them as if they were attractive? Perhaps its make them feel like locals but in reality they stick out like sore thumbs. Over the course of our travels we’ve seen so many tourists, especially bands of merry men off cruise ships, in silly looking sailor caps and black-and-white striped sailor shirts or cheap straw panamas with coordinating ribbons. They wear their new attire enthusiastically for the length of the holiday, but I’m certain that once home, it is relegated to the already existing piles of discarded accouterments from previous excursions. I imagined their lucky children and grandchildren as they picked through the heaps of discarded bonnets and chemises with delight as they prepared for Halloween and other dress-up occasions.

As we wandered the Topkapi Palace, I spied a troupe of several dozen weathered older women draped in black and wearing navy and white baseball caps atop their headscarves. Well, that’s a unique look, I thought, and while happy to see that the women were out and about, wondered, given their hats, if they could possibly be off one of the massive cruise ships docked in the Bosporus. Tahir told me when I asked that they were actually peasant women from rural Turkey enjoying their first trip to see the top cultural and religious sights of Istanbul, paid for by a charitable foundation. Wow, I thought, their particular baseball caps are not silly at all and I was certain that once back on their farms, the women would continue to wear them proudly.

Around the corner from the palace, monumental Hagia Sofia (Holy Wisdom) rises at the end of what was the ancient Roman hippodrome. In the reverse of what took place in Cordoba where the victorious Catholic monarchs mutilated the mosque by dropping a basilica into the middle of the Islamic mezquita, the triumphant Ottoman Empire defaced the cathedral by turning it into a mosque. In both cases, the buildings should have been left alone, but alas, such is not the behavior of conquerors. In 360 Hagia Sofia was dedicated as the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Constantinople, for a short time in the 13th century was a Roman Catholic Cathedral, was first transformed into a mosque in 1453 and finally was secularized as a museum in 1935. The echoing interior is a massive example of Byzantine architecture and was the largest cathedral in the world for nearly a thousand years until Sevilla’s cathedral was built.

Lying beneath Istanbul are hundreds of dark cisterns that stored water for the emperors from the city’s days as Constantinople. En route to the Grand Bazaar, we left the 90-degree temperatures of the streets to descend to the refreshingly cool depths of the grandest of them all: the Basilica Cistern, so called because it lay beneath a grand Byzantine public square (the original meaning of the word). Sometimes called the Sunken Palace because that’s exactly what it appears to be, the cistern covers almost two and a half subterranean acres and includes a procession of 336 marble columns. The symmetry and grandeur of the deep, cavernous structure, illuminated by atmospheric lighting, are really quite extraordinary. We walked along the raised wooden platforms, watched the slowly moving, ghostly carp silently guarding the waters and felt and heard the drip-drip-drip of moisture from the vaulted ceiling. In addition to being a welcome relief from the aboveground heat, visiting the cistern was an eerie, entirely unexpected and fascinating stop on our guided itinerary.

There are more than 3,000 shops in Istanbul’s celebrated Grand Bazaar. While merchants are indeed anxious to make a sale, shoppers are not subjected to undue pressure à la Morocco. A retailer may ask you once if you’d like to see some beautiful belts or shawls or carpets but then smile and let you go on your way when you shake your head and say, “No thanks.” The covered marketplace was considerably more modern than I expected and while many of the stalls were tiny niches overflowing with merchandise, others were bright, roomy showrooms with plenty of space for displaying their wares.

Our stay in Istanbul ended with another van-with-two-drivers transfer to the airport. One of our chauffeurs was a young man who, when we told him we were American, enthusiastically shared that he’d always wanted to go to the US – out west to Texas and to Dallas, specifically. He was a big fan of the late ‘70s television show and wanted to see the ranches and the horses and wear cowboy boots and a cowboy hat like JR Ewing. We wished him well in his quest to reach Dallas as he dropped us at the terminal and then headed for our hour-long flight to Cappadocia – Turkey’s particular version of the American West.

Pictures of our adventures: