After a mellow time in Italy, we looked forward to going back to Turkey. The last time we were in Istanbul was during my father’s 60th birthday celebration where my family went on a cruise in the Mediterranean. We had fond memories of Istanbul, including the time Vivek, Richa and I almost missed the ship as we got distracted with all the goodies in the Grand Bazaar. Although we did a bit of sightseeing during our previous time, we felt we didn’t do the place justice. My brother mentioned that he enjoyed taking the cruise as it was akin to tasting tapas – you figure out what you enjoyed the most, and could then go back for more. So here we were. Although we hoped to spend a majority of our time in Istanbul, we also talked about going to other places to get a more holistic feel of the landscape and the culture. Capadoccia and Pamukkale, though touristy, were top candidates and we opted for the cascading white limestone pools of Pamukkale.
We had a short stopover in Istanbul for a single night between our flights from Italy to Denizli, the only town close to Pamukkale that had a large airport. We spent the night in the airport hotel and the rest of the day waiting for our flight, grabbing coffee, updating our blogs and catching up. The flight was a short 45 minute affair, in the evening, followed by the shuttle to Pamukkale, which was a slightly lengthier effort of about an hour and a half. Throughout our trip, though not always successful, we tried to be on top of our research regarding where we were going, where we would stay and how we would get around. We had booked a hotel in Pamukkale, which included a round trip to the hotel. Once we arrived, we were told that the hotel we booked was not in a decent state (i.e. was still being constructed), and accordingly they said that they would put us up in one of their sister hotels, apparently better and more popular of the two anyway. Although a bit frustrated, we didn’t have much of a choice in the matter. The rooms were very basic, and had much room for improvement, but the courtyard and surrounding areas were a welcome distraction. The staff was also very welcoming and tried to put us at ease to the best of their abilities. We were a 15-20 minute walk away from the lower entrance to the limestone deposits, but it was fairly late when we came into the sleepy town. Aside from the additional embellishment of what we were told by the staff, we didn’t actually know how far the site was. Since there wasn’t much to do, we had dinner and decided on an early morning hike to the cloudy hills of Pamukkale.
Early the next morning, we got our first glimpse of the sizable limestone cotton-candy structure that we were planning on climbing. On our stroll to the site, we walked up hill in a residential area with 1.5 meter walls, passed running children, restaurants and small shops selling basic groceries and snacks. Our arrival into town was during pomegranate season. Aside from a large tractor carrying the pomegranate shells, peeking through someone’s ajar wrought iron gate, we saw four women sitting on short square stools around a large round vessel, tapping the pomegranates with stained wooden spoons. A giant mound of pomegranate shells sat in a wheelbarrow next to them. We also saw a disputed acquisition of pomegranates that hung outside one lady’s wall, but that several children claimed as their own.
Being a UNESCO site, no shoes were allowed on the limestone of the Pamukkale basins. Although it was chilly, the sky was clear and the sun was strong. We knew about this, and carried a bag with us so we were prepared. At first, the sensation of stepping on the rippled limestone was odd. It looked a lot softer, smoother and warmer than it was. It was basically pretty looking pumice stone with a constant flow of water running over it. So by the end of our slow and cautious trek up and down the slope, our feet were cold, wrinkly, and had been uncalloused and smoothened. Looking at it up close, we learned that not all the cascading was natural. There was some definite human intervention to ensure the pools were abundant and tourist-ready.
The formations are terraced at regular intervals in order to slow down the water flow and allow for the build-up of the snow-white limestone. This also allowed for the flowing water to create infinity-pools all the way at the top of the hill. The waters in the pool were murky, but the murkiness was caused by a fine white powder which was then filled-in with the reflections of the clear blue sky to lend these pools the most amazing blue hues as striking contrasts to the white background. The sediment in the water formed a thin layer on the bottom so walking on it felt like walking on a pillow. This was a welcome relief to walking on the rest of the misleading, and not at all soft, limestone.
On top of the hill were ruins of the greco-roman city of Hierapolis and a hot-water spring. The city was built to take advantage of the hot-water spring that is the source of the entire formation. The hot-water spring is used as a thermal spa, and the waters are diverted down the side of the hill to continuously form the cotton castle. We decided that our exertions from the days walk earned us a nice dip in the hot-water spring. We put up our belongings and dipped in the warm waters of the pool that is built around the spring. The warmth was invigorating as the day had been relatively cool. The pool is perfect for wading around in, and has been made to look as though it is part of the ruins that surround it. The water in the spring is effervescent, you can actually see bubbles rising. It feels like taking a bath in a bottle of club soda. After a small bite to eat we decided to explore the ruins.
The ruins were complete with a grand promenade, an amphitheater and several other temples as well as buildings in various stages of disarray. They extended quite a ways away from the pools and made for a nice walk. The evening sunlight gilded the promenade as several couples took their wedding photos, and we awaited our turn by spending some time trying to take jumping photos. As the sun touched the horizon, it was time for us to return to the hotel. The artificial lights came on as we made our way down the series of pools back into town. We had some excellent Pide and called it a night , exhausted from the days excursion. The next day we had to catch our flight, bound for a week of basking in Istanbul’s glory.
Istanbul was a foreign but familiar place. On our travels, we met a girl, also backpacking who had spent a lot of time in Istanbul. Based on her advice, we had booked an Airbnb in Beyoglu near Taksim Square. We knew that in the following week, we had to get our fixes of coffee, Turkish cuisine, crafts and culture. Even though we were looking forward to going out, the kitchen in the apartment was welcome (and intentional). Our first outing was not to sight-see, but to a farmer’s market near the apartment. The market was in a residential area, in a lane between people’s homes. Probably due to the prospect of rain and heat, the lane was covered with plastic awnings, giving the market a very cozy feel. The produce was so fresh, and ridiculously abundant. We found everything from sewing thread, jeans, and giant cabbages to fish with their gills flipped to ensure the buyer’s confidence in their freshness. We came away with figs, peaches, a new pair of $4 pants (that I now know would last me over a year), sewing thread, and colorful cotton yarn to add to my growing Tunisian crochet blanket.
To get our fill on history and architecture, we went back to all the famous spots in Istanbul. Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque were as beautiful as I remembered. We spent quite a bit of time inside each, taking pictures and looking at other people being as inspired as we were. We stopped for freshly roasted chestnuts and corn, had some coffee with Hagia Sofia in the background. In the midst of taking in all the sights and sounds, we tried to keep up to date on our postcard rituals as well. Outside the Blue Mosque, we sat under a tree and wrote out several post cards from Turkey and Morocco. There was a post office nearby and we mailed them out to friends near and far. We wrapped the day up across the bridge where many ended their day in the hopes of catching a fish or two.
We had bought Burek from a small coffee shop on our last visit and tried our best to find it before we went to the touristy Grand Bazaar. Although we didn’t find exactly that, we did go to hole in the wall restaurants over the next few days, that spoke little English, assuring us that they were more authentic than the places around Grand Bazaar. Pointing at delicious-looking items helped, and we were fed – a little too much – in no time. The Bazaar took up much of our time, due to my incessant photo-taking and the need to buy tokens, that would fit in our worn and heavy back-packs, for our family that we were due to see in just a couple of days. We spent a good few hours tasting, picking and haggling over Turkish delight. Vivek, who is terribly unpleasant at shopping complexes in general, was uncharacteristically at home in the Turkish Delight and Baklava shop, especially with the Turkish hospitality to sample any and all varieties, accompanied by a cup or two of piping hot kafa . We walked away with 15 boxes filled with turkish delight and baklava, silver earrings, scarves and of course, Turkish coffee. On our way back, we stopped by the smaller, but equally eclectic, Spice bazaar. As it was with Grand Bazaar, there was still much to be desired but alas, our backpacks were already too full.
On our last day, we went by Gulhane Park, a large greenspace in the old city with flower gardens and walking paths that made for a peaceful stroll. This was a welcome change from the bustling streets and markets of this ancient city. Our next stop was Mumbai, for Diwali. We couldn’t remember the last time we were in India for this festival and were excited for the food, fireworks and family time.