ISTANBUL | TURKEY
Cavemen are real, cities can exist under the ground, and troglodyte is a real word that means something and not just a slur to be hurled at Monaghan people. More on these revelations later.
Istanbul is a city that has had many badass names in it’s lifetime including Constantinople and Byzantium. It’s fitting that such a chameleon- like city would have one foot in two different regions, famously crossing the border between Europe on one side of the Bosporus Strait and Asia on the other. I was staying in the city’s old district known as Sultanahmet, handy as it is home to many of Istanbul’s most interesting monuments such as the Hagia Sofia, Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace, in fact they are all literally right beside each other like they arrived off the back of a truck and people were too lazy to move them to where they were supposed to go.
Istanbul and Turkey in general are sometimes lazily classified as being middle eastern, and to an outsider it probably seems the closest approximation. The city and country are however true crossroads of cultures and this is exemplified best in the museum of the Topkapi Palace. This royal residence was the home of the Ottoman sultans along with their grand viziers and other essential employees such as their harem. Located at the arse-end of the Hagia Sofia it is as sprawling and ornate as you’d expect. The highlight of any visit is a trip into the museum – and your imagination. Here, presented completely straight faced, are the most important relics in human history. Wonder at the Staff of Moses! Behold the Sword of David! And …I shit you not…the Holy f’ing Grail. Treasure hunters and archaeologists of the world pack up we’re done here. I’m not sure how the Ottomans confirmed the provenance of these items but I’m glad someone finally rounded them up in one place. Stuff like hair from Mohammad’s beard I can understand that MAYBE there might be something to that, after all the world is already stuffed with christian saintly body parts (including foreskins!) but as someone who already questions the historical accuracy of some of the stuff in the bible this comes across as a bit carnival like. How many limbs did Padre Pio have anyway? Was he an octopus? I left here with many questions.
Just outside the medieval “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” is a courtyard with a gruesome history. Here, just inside the palace gates the Ottoman’s reputedly staked the head of Vlad “The Impaler” Tepes on a pike. They then promptly lost Dracula’s head, denting my faith in the same inventory skills that supposedly catalogued the holy grail and staff of Moses. On the bright side the trees here can supposedly eat people. If you feel you are slipping into a hallucination by reading this stuff imagine how I felt learning it on the spot.
The Hagia Sofia was, for one thousands years, the largest building in civilisation. Similar to the career of Prince it began as a church, then a mosque, then a museum, and lately I hear it has reverted to a mosque again. Inside the cavernous enclosure is a strange mixture of ancient Christian iconography mixed with Islamic art. Surrounding the central plaza are enormous shields bearing the names of the prophet, his relations and martyrs. It is a masterpiece of byzantine design and it’s features and sheer scale changed the face of architecture forever. Also it was in an Assassin’s Creed game which is as good as it gets.
Across the other side of Sultanahmet square sits the Blue Mosque, famous for it’s six sharp minarets it has become a symbol of the city. It functioned as the imperial Ottoman mosque since the 17th century and at times is open to non muslim visitors. I was lucky enough to be at the mosque randomly as it opened. Like all mosques you are required to take off your shows before entering but thankfully it wins bonus points over the Hagia Sofia for having comfortable carpet. Carpet is cheaper than tiles no doubt but considering the floor space here it still must have cost of fortune. Regardless, the courtyard outside is a great place to sit in the shadows and get some respite from the midday sun, all the while feeling like you’re in an Agatha Christie mystery novel.
If you’re mad for a bit of shopping the Grand Bazaar is easily reached from Sultanahmet at the Kapalicarsi tram stop. It’s probably the world’s first shopping centre and you can find anything here from a beautiful hanging lantern to a deadly knife for that special someone in your life. And magic lamps. Lots of magic lamps, they really lean into the Aladdin vibe in some of these places. I’m not complaining, I’m willing to rub anything if I can get a bit of money out of it.
A great stroll can be had by crossing the bridge over to the Galata neighbourhood. You can’t miss the Galata Tower as it dominates the skyline, and it offers great views back across the Golden Horn towards the striking minarets in Sultanahmet. The bridge is lined with fishermen which is another departure from city scenes back home. No one would go fishing in Dublin’s Liffey unless they had a fetish for shopping trolleys or plastic bags.
Despite being surrounded by stunning sights and immersed in history (albeit some of it blatantly made-up: I’m looking at you Topkapi Museum) some of my favourite memories of Istanbul was the food and drink. On the flip side my greatest regret was not going to a belly dance show, but let’s focus on the positives. If you have done any travel in the region you will be already familiar with the god-tier shawarma but have you heard of the testi kebab? Not to be confused with a testicle kebab, which costs extra, it is a stew cooked in a clay pot which is brought to you while still on fire before being cracked open by a machete style knife. Rarely am I intimidated by an item of food afraid that it might cook me but it happened regularly in Turkey. I calmed my nerves by downing a few Efes Dark‘s afterwards. Normally I would say I’d walk back to Istanbul for another one of those frothy bad boys but my brother has been there recently and he says they’ve been discontinued. Between this and Covid-19 we truly are in the darkest timeline.
Leaving Istanbul behind I headed into Turkey’s central Anatolia region to one of the most bizarre places I had ever been. The main transport hub here is Kayseri and from here you can get local minibuses to the smaller villages dotted around. I was staying in a small town called Goreme to live out the Fred Flintstone fantasy I never knew I had of sleeping in a cave hotel.
Cappadocia’s unique geology is often described as “fairytale” like. It is a volcanic plateau dotted with eye boggling topography of rutted valleys and towering rock formations called “fairy chimneys” or “hoodoos”. These honeycombed rocks have, over the centuries, become home, literally, to people eking out a caveman like existence in the arid region. Not only are entire towns fully hewn or partially hewn into the rock but entire cities such as Derinkuyu and Kaymakli are carved entirely underground several stories deep.
Having checked in to my surprisingly snug cave room (yes the hotels are literal caves, it’s not for the claustrophobic) I rented a bicycle as the area is very easy to get around. Normally there would be an otherworldly town or valley around every corner. It is especially popular as a hot air ballooning spot. They take off first thing in the morning right at sunrise so….screw that. Normally I don’t do sunrises, this is despite the obvious availability of Turkish coffee something that had turned me into a caffeine riddled junkie since Jordan. While exploring the real life Bedrock I found the most rewarding part was feeding my growing testi kebab obsession. The way I began to approach mealtimes was as an opportunity for further testi kebabs and I was not leaving the table with a belly full of regrets.
Just outside Goreme town is an open air museum. On the face of it it looks like many of the other cave dwellings in the area except this one is a little different. It is a series of monastic sites with rock hewn churches dug deep into the ground, each containing their brilliantly preserved frescoes. One goes by the ominous monikor of the Dark Church simply because it has no windows, surely they’re all dark if they are inside caves? By this stage the unholy combination of the Turkish coffee and testi kebab breakfast had me scouting the dim corridors and alleyways for the dark toilets.
The real jaw droppers are the fairy chimneys themselves which line several valleys in and around town. Each valley is clearly marked on the town maps and are quite handy to get to, usually you can spot them easily from afar as these formations are surprisingly enormous. Hiking paths meander through each valley allowing you the chance to get up close and personal with the formations in places such as “Rose Valley” and “Love Valley” names which tested much better with family tourist agencies than “Giant Stone Cock Valley”. Seriously the skyscraping phallic monstrosities here are a sight to behold but as I’ve always said it’s not the size of the fairy chimney but what you do with it, something insecure men all over the world will be nodding their heads in agreement with.
Cappadocia was an important pass through the famous caravan serai trade routes on the silk road. It’s not hard to imagine ancient nomads and traders sheltering in these networks of troglodyte dwellings to and from their journeys in the far east. It is a surreal landscape of cartoonishly outrageous cave homes and stunning fairytale like mountains and valleys, like if the Brothers Grimm dropped a LOT of acid. Or viagra.
On that note I headed home for a refueling stop to pack my gear for Africa, a continent spanning overland trip beginning in Cape Town and eventually ending in Marrakech. I was advised at the very beginning that it would be the best of times and the worst of times. Never a truer word was spoken.