A Long Weekend in Istanbul

Working through the holiday season this year meant I needed to find another way to consume my remaining vacation days. We’d been looking for a long weekend in December as far back as June, and when Istanbul made the short list, Sarah scoped out a place for us to stay and some airfare. We found Istanbul to be a fascinating blend, over millenia, of Greco-Roman, Ottoman, and modern European culture and architecture. The weather disappointed us most of the trip, but there is a reason Istanbul has an off-season. That said, it was not overrun with other tourists, and that allowed us to appreciate how mobbed it must be in the high season. Continue reading A Long Weekend in Istanbul

The Grand Turxperiment

I saw the video below a while ago and have been patiently waiting for a chance to try it ever since. I saw it in the How To Cook Everything app and that spurred me on. Then, with some upcoming Thanksgiving plans in mind, I advised our gracious hostesses to give us a little time to try it out. Watch the video; it’s a good use of three minutes of your time.

So yeah, we did this, and it was great. I am polishing off a wing and some home-made stuffing (perhaps another post in the making) as I write this. I think it’s actually tastier as leftovers, but then again I think I’ve said that about every turkey dinner I’ve ever had, too. If you’re a purist insisting on a huge turkey stuffed with stuffing, this recipe is not for you — it only works for birds about 10 or 12lbs. (5.4kg). The advantage of stuffing outside the turkey — which we call dressing and might well confuse any Germans present for the feast — is that your stuffing is suddenly vegetarian-friendly.

Like all things demonstrated (to me) on the internet, it’s not as easy as it looks, but this one is really almost that easy. SDC10339We start off with a thawed turkey, still very cool, but no longer ice-encrusted, plus the biggest cutting board we have backed up by an old towel which is allowed to get bloody if it needs to, and plenty of extra surface area on the workspace. A couple of good knives, kitchen shears, and of course the devices with the recipes on them are standing by.

SDC10340I began hacking away at the spine of the bird with a good-sized boning knife, but quickly switched to the chef’s knife. I’m sure the boning knife was actually appropriate here, but the chef’s knife — particularly when cracking through bone — felt a lot more stable. Save everything you cut out if you’re going to make soup or something. That turkey spine is currently chilling out in our freezer. Following the instructions from the video and the recipe app, I cracked that bird open as widely as possible, exerting pressure on front- and backsides (or without the spine, I guess it becomes “inside” and “outside”) trying to spread everything out and take advantage of the surface area of the pan.

SDC10341We drizzled a little olive oil into our roasting pan and plopped Tom on in there.

SDC10343 I hid about 10 cloves of garlic into various turkey nooks and crannies and cut a a few slits in the skin to stuff our herb mixture (fresh chopped parsely and sage and dried thyme) in under the surface.

SDC10345Finally, we massaged a little more olive oil together with generous amounts of salt and coarsely ground pepper onto the bird, going for an equal distribution.

SDC10346Here’s what our bird looked like at the 20 minute mark, the point at which you are supposed to drop the heat from 450°F (232°C) down to 400°F (204°C), or even down to 350°F (170°C) if it looks like it’s browning “too fast.” We weren’t sure what that mean. Clearly, our bird was turning crispy and brown in places. Was this too fast? We weren’t sure, so we only dropped the heat down to 375°F (190°C)

SDC10347The bird was supposed to be done at this point (45 minutes in), but some temperature probes indicated the internal temperature wasn’t up as high as it needed to be. We let it go another 20 minutes and found lots of pink spots in places where the meat was folded over on itself — think armpits and crotch. We finally gave up and cranked the heat back up to the 400°F (204°C) mark for 10 or 15 more minutes and spread ’em.

SDC10348Finally we got the temperature readings we wanted, cut some slits into previously pink parts to check for moist whiteness and clear juices, and after letting our bird rest for a few minutes, started the carving process. That was a catastrophe, but suffice it to say that I will need more practice with that. However, the flavor, moistness of breast, and crispiness of skin all exceeded our expectations. Can’t wait for turkey sandwiches and gravy!

Cappadocia and Turkey Wrap

The guy who sold us this excursion described it as the “Hauptspeise,” versus the “Vorspeisen” we’d also been thinking about. “This is the one to go on,” he said, “if you’re interested in Turkey’s history and culture.” He was right. This was the mother lode, but not without its costs: money as well as time. It costs more than double the rest of the excursions we went on and since it’s an overnight package (with lodging and two meals a day included), you’re very likely wasting lodging and food you paid for at your resort…like we are. And we’re talking about 1200 km at a maximum of 90 km/h, which means a brutal schedule to keep and long, long hours cramped in a bus (guess where I’m writing this from).

But it’s still worth it, in my opinion.

We got started with a 6:30 a.m. pickup on Sunday morning and headed North through the Taurus Mountains. We stopped for breakfast at a rest stop on the far side of the range outside Konya, and it was like walking into a giant mouth whose teeth had never been brushed. Ever. It was clean and apparently well-maintained. But intolerably smelly (at least, to us — no one else seemed to mind or notice).

We continued into downtown Konya to visit the site of an original Islamic Dervish sect, our guide giving us details about the sultan (at the time), his advisor and that guy’s son, who started the movement. He also gave us insight about modern Turkey’s secularism — which is not as straightforward as it might at first seem. Turkey outlawed various religious sects around the time of the Atatürk revolution. What I can’t figure out is that if the government should be separate from religious organizations, why would they interfere with religious sects like the Dervish? Especially ones (such as the Dervish) whose own tenets are ones of patience and tolerance?

But whatever. Inside the “museum” — since it can’t be a mosque, officially, anymore, we saw ancient Korans (some dating back to the 7th Century), carpets, and other artifacts and works of art. Very beautiful stuff — especially the miniature Koran, said to have been handwritten with an eyelash.

We got back on the bus and headed along the Silk Road through wide, flat country, until we needed a break for lunch. It was cheap and tasty in a clean and non-smelly rest stop (with free WLAN, no less!). We began to approach the inactive volcanoes of Cappadocia. We got some panorama shots of the area, viewing the results of millions of years of eruptions of ash and lava and the resulting erosion. Finally, we retired for the night in a quaint hotel made of the same stone as these structures: tuff (Tuffstein), the volcanic ash formed into lightweight and breathable stone over time.

Dinner and breakfast at the hotel was very tasty — much better food than what we’d been getting at the resort. We got a jump on some of the rest of the tourists in the area, visiting an underground city (used for refuge in case of attack and also long-term storage of perishables, given the constant temperatures), and some ancient Orthodox churches set into these same kinds of Tuffstein structures. There are hundreds of these little churches set into the hills, some with very beautifully restored murals. No flash photography was allowed in them and also no tripods were allowed; else I might have some great shots of them here to share.

Then we got back in the bus for the same long trip back in reverse, this time with a stop at a jewelry store and pottery store and a Karavansaray — trading stop on the silk road connecting the Orient with Europe, rather like a small garrison to protect the traders from pirates and give them a sheltered place to rest — dating back to the 12th century. Once more back on the bus for the long ride back across the flat expanse of land between the volcanic hills of Cappadocia and the Taurus Mountains on our way “home” to Antalya.

We finally reached our hotel after about eleven hours of being on-the-go that day. There was a terrific wind/rain storm over night and it didn’t seem likely our afternoon flight would take off the next afternoon…but it all blew over. Here are some parting questions directed at Turkey experts:

  • Is the constant evening woodsmoke smell from wood-fired stoves from all the streetside vendors, or is that a means of heating their homes? Ugh.
  • What days constitute the weekend? Having been there for over a week, and traveling a lot of the same highway stretches on our excursions, we thought we’d be able to detect the traffic ebbs and flows. But not so much.
  • Really? No bacon or any pork at all? Not even in a 99% German resort?
  • What kind of dirty pictures must Nestle have on every single restauranteur in Turkey? I can only assume there is some kind of massive blackmail involved, because who in their right mind would choose to drink Nescafé? Can there really be no middle ground between Turkish Coffee (probably not bad, once you get a taste for the metallic aftertaste that accompanies it) and this sludge?

We got home without incident; our flights and train connections were very pleasantly boring. It’s good to be back here, despite the typical Regensburg wintry mix.

The last slide show for this trip:

Yanartaş — Stones of Fire

On Christmas Day we rented a car right at the resort (filling the tank up was bad idea — that cost almost twice as the rental contract itself!) and set off down the coast to the West and South from our resort in search of the Chimera. We can’t thank our Frommer’s Turkey 2008 author enough — her instructions were right on the money.

After about three hours in windy, hilly, sometimes scary traffic conditions straight through Antalya and out the other side, we finally made it to the mountainside turn-off described in the book. We pressed on faithfully, even as the road stopped being a real road and we were sure we were lost among roadside chickens and the odd ramshackle “pansiyon.” And we got to the Chimera “base camp.” There a friendly old man pointed enthusiastically at pictures on postcards when Sarah mentioned the Turkish name for the phenomenon of the eternal flames on the mountainside: Yanartaş.

The hike up the hill was only 1000m and was well marked — you can’t miss it. We managed to not get rained on, though you can probably tell by the pictures that it was threatening to the whole time.

After making our way back down the path to the car, we decided to scout out some dining options. But it was getting late and long since dark and we opted for a stop to the Migros supermarket in Kemer for a snack of potato chips (an American brand…so, so much better than what we can get in Germany) and an old favorite, Fanta Limón. Why did they never introduce Ruffles in Germany and why the heck did they stop distributing Fanta Limón?

We made it back in time for a light, healthy dinner at the resort. The road traffic in Antalya reminds me a lot of what I’ve seen in Puerto Vallarta and Iaşi: lanes are extremely optional and horn taps and high-beam flashes are friendly, helpful measures — not the deadly serious insults we’re used to in the U.S. and Germany.

Still, I’m glad the tour bus driver is handling the rest of our surface travel.

Posting schedule temporarily interrupted

Jetzt kommen wir zum Endspurt! We’re winding up our last three whole days in Turkey with two trips — yesterday was an all-day excursion to Kekova and Myra, and today/tomorrow we’re bussing it out of Southern Turkey toward the central region of Cappadocia. We’ve been up and ready to go before the breakfast meal starts at the hotel a few days in a row and haven’t yet had time to post the best of the neat pictures we’ve taken. By chance we stopped for a breakfast / WC-Pause at rest stop with free WLAN and the (strongest halitosis aroma ever, no charge!), so this might be all you read from us until we get back to Germany, depending on the departure schedule on Tuesday (as of yet a bit unclear).

Day 4 – Perge and Aspendos

OK, some good news (at last!). Today was about thousand percent improvement over yesterday (especially nice, because this excursion wasn’t free). Our tour group was about a quarter of the size, versus the Antalya shopping trip, and composed completely of people who wanted to be there. That was a big boost right there. By chance we had the same guide today as yesterday. He was very receptive to questions and I don’t think our group ever stumped him…except with a question about whether the aqueducts had guard posts stationed along them (good question, but not one of ours).

Our Frommer’s Turkey book gave Aspendos three stars and merely a mention to Perge. Aspendos was a pleasure and I’m really glad we did it, but we really thought the ruins of the ancient city of Perge were worth at least as many stars as the amphitheater at Aspendos.

When the bus picked us up at our hotel, it was about half full. We made one or two more stops and then were on our way to Perge. We saw the stadium outside the city wall first and then made our way in through the gate. The amount of old stone lying around on the ground, much of it ornate, was impressive. And then we got a look at the columns, many of which had been restored or at least re-inserted into modern replicas of their sockets. For me, I think the highlight of the Perge visit was passing from the Frigidarium through the Tepidarium to the Caldarium and checking out the ancient Fußbodenheizung structures underneath the floors of the baths.

We took a little break from the made-man marvels to visit a waterfall not too far away in a park area. It would have been a nice place for a picnic, but our lunch plans brought us back toward mankind’s creations near the 2000 year old amphitheater at Aspendos, so after a few minutes of admiring the waterfall and wildlife, we got back on the bus to move along. We pulled into a ramshackle village within sight of some ruins at Aspendos — not sure what those were, since we never talked about them — and sat down for lunch. It was pretty much the same deal as yesterday’s lunch: some bread, some salad-type stuff, and your choice of chicken, ground beef, or fish/vegetarian main course, followed up by fresh fruit dessert. Then, back on the bus for a two-minute ride to the theater at Aspendos.

Sarah remarked afterwards that once you gain admission to it, the theater is really yours to explore. There didn’t seem to be any restricted areas. We guessed that all they need is someone to hang around and make sure you don’t actively desecrate the place; otherwise, since you accepted the risk of climbing around mostly (but not entirely!) intact stone stairwells and bench seating, what else could go wrong? That building has been there twenty times longer than you can hope to live. The view from the top row out over the walls towards the Taurus Mountains was breathtaking. It was easy to see why this theater is still an active performance site: you can put sixteen thousand people in it and it still sounds great — we tested that a little bit, our normal speaking voices clearly audible between the top row and about half-way down. Just a little louder than normal is all you would need to project all the way from the bottom up to the top.

After hanging around there for about a half an hour, we sampled a mix of freshly squeezed and orange and pomegranate juice (yum) and got back on the bus for just one more stop to go. We made our way out to a bridge crossing a river that was built in the 1200s (and modernized more than once over time). This was not a big deal to for anyone who lives in Regensburg, and the rest of the guests didn’t seem too jazzed about it either. At that point, I think we were all just ready to get back to our respective hotels and chill out a little before dinner.

It was free and still not worth it

Today was the first of the tours (committed and prospective) that we’ve looked into. It’s part of the package offered by the tour operator through which we booked. You get one ride into Antalya (the largest city in the region) for free, but since this is billed as a shopping tour, you have to make a couple of stops before getting into town. Plus, lunch is included. How bad could it be, right? As far as the shopping part, pretty bad.

Timeless Glamour
Timeless Glamour
We left our hotel at 8:15 this morning and picked up several other tour-goers – enough to fill a big coach bus. On the ride, we heard the same spiel about why shopping in Turkey rocks out so hard: raw materials are all the same price, but Turkish labor is so inexpensive that the prices here are unbeatable. We arrived at the first shopping stop at 9:45, a very large jewelry store.

My parents’ house could have fit into this place three times and it was filled with counters and cases of ugly jewelry. Krystle vs. Alexis in a fountain ugly. Dolgin’s catalog 1982 ugly. And expensive – because even though it wasn’t to my taste, it was made of real gold and gems. I’m sure the staff had to draw straws to figure out who was going to try and pry a sale out of the two idiots walking around giggling at their merchandise (that was us). The poor sales rep tried everything – watches for Cliff in the 1000€ range, silver for me, some hot chains for Cliff, What a kerfuffle!gifts for moms (sorry, Moms – I don’t think you would have liked this stuff, though). Mercifully, we left after an hour.

After some more driving around to see a neat waterfall (killing about another hour), we hit the second shopping destination, a huge leather goods store. It was out in an area full of big-box stores and roughly shaped like a Costco, so I expected an outlet environment and could not have been more wrong.

Upon admittance, we were led into a small, Project Runwayesque room. They had a fashion show planned for us! In leather!! With Turkish pop music!!! In truth, this was pretty well done. The leather shown was all coats and mostly not to my taste, but there were some attractive and innovative pieces. That said, I sure as shazam wasn’t planning on buying any investment-quality leather goods. I got even more intimidated when we were led to the showrooms. This giant facility had gorgeous, upscale department store style (think Nordstrom or Selfridge’s) display areas just loaded with products – again in 4-digit prices. Cliff had expressed some interest in a new wallet and or a black belt (his are a little ratty), so we asked a nice sales agent where the accessories were. Stuffed in a plain, narrow corridor right before you get to the exit (like any museum gift shop) was an explosion of knock-off designer goods. After seeing how seriously they took the large goods, I was hoping they would have some nice quality small goods. Instead, it looked like the swanky store rented this spot to some joker from Canal St. After a short gawk at the PARDA and HUGO BOOS wallets, we took off.

At about 1:15, we went to eat (remember, we haven’t even made it into town yet). Lunch was pretty good, better than the hotel food so far. Finally, right before 3, we got to the Altstadt of Antalya. It’s a pretty, ancient harbor town in which I wouldn’t have minded spending a little more than two hours. Tomorrow’s tour doesn’t have a shopping portion. We’ll see…

Turkish Riviera Day 3 – “Side” trip/planning

After breakfast this morning, we met with our tour company rep and started talking about all the other neat stuff we could be doing on this trip. A lot of the options were available for less than €50 a head and included a meal or two. We were most interested in Antike Höhepunkte (Highlights of Antiquity) and Sea to Sky (a gondola trip up a mountain from sea level) and Das Erlebnis Nord-Zypern (The North Cypress Experience), and Kekova (a sunken city) but of those four, two have been cancelled due to a lack of interest or dangerous weather conditions. So we signed up for Antike Höhepunkte and a free shopping trip to Antalya. We’re not big on tourist-targeted shopping opportunities, which are apparently attractive to other visitors from Western Europe (a couple times one or both of us have been mistaken for Dutch or Belgians, so it must not be exclusively Germany sending her children abroad), but we opted to take in Antalya as part of that package. I mean hey…it’s free transportation 50 minutes to the city of Antalya and back here at the end of the day. Why not, right? If the free trip to Antalya and the Highlights go well, we might sign up for the sunken city trip. Otherwise, we might be renting a car and striking out more on our own.

After getting our package plans settled for the next couple of days, we walked out onto the main drag along the coast and hopped a dolmuş (mini-bus) headed toward Side. You wave at the bus headed toward you, he pulls over, you get in, and you hand the driver a Euro coin (don’t forget, the national currency of Turkey is the Lira, but you don’t hardly need it) per person. Then get off wherever you want. Any verbal interaction you need happens in fairly broken but usable German. Our first impressions of the road travel are that it’s much less crazy than Puerto Vallarta (nothing scary about the buses at all), so that’s encouraging.

We got off at the main bus station (if you can call it that — more like a parking lot) in Side and walked around, taking in all the ruins lying around. Along the way, we stopped in at a place which smelled good and seemed a refuge from the Turkish merchants encouraging us (in German) to buy their jeans, shoes, leather goods, jewelry, etc. I had a chicken döner and Sarah had a beef one. Fellow expats: ever heard of a beef döner? Both were great, served piping hot in freshly grilled lavash-like wraps. When we got down to the harbour area, we finally — FINALLY — found a place with a decent cup of coffee (saw the Illy sign). That’s been pretty sorely lacking for the past few days, as the coffee at the resort is awful. Still have yet to try out any Turkish coffee or tea, but we’re hoping for some of that tomorrow.

Check out these ruins from Side (OK, the first one is from our hotel room):

Possibly spoiled Turkey

I’ve made a huge mistake. Maybe.

When we came up with this travel plan, it seemed like a good idea. Let’s not be such control freaks! Pay someone else do all the research! Which is why travel agencies exist, right?

But here’s the rub: six years of planning our own travel have left us pretty exacting about our likes and dislikes. And since we never have to communicate them to anyone else, we may have forgotten to do so when we broke from routine and let someone else take the wheel.

We didn’t tell them explicitly that we like to be able to leave the hotel grounds under our own power or by using public transit. We didn’t explain that we’re more into cultural pursuits than hanging at the the hotel drinking. We didn’t stop to really consider what ‘all-inclusive’ truly includes (and whether it’s something you’d want).

And we forgot to tell the kind, patient, early-twentysomething agent helping us that we are not 60-year-old Germans.

So, oops.

If the above sounds like your thing, awesome! No judgement on my part. But it’s not really a fit for us. It looks like there’s a variety of excursions available through on-site travel agents that might be helpful and we’re going to try one tomorrow. Plus, there are cars you can rent right here at the hotel, if you want to get out there on your own. Our bus trip to Side (see-duh) today showed us that the traffic isn’t crazy, so we might keep that as an option. Or just take the bus again – it seemed pretty easy once you learn how to work.

We remain cautiously optimistic. Any stories out there of a vacation that seemed like it was a bad fit but turned out well would be much appreciated!

Turkish Riviera — first couple days

Day One

We had a nice and easy late afternoon departure fro Munich. We took a train down and though the platform was packed, and the train itself arriving from Nürnberg with a ton of passengers on it looked foreboding. But practically all of them got off in Regensburg, leaving easy seats for us and our big suitcase. Waited a few minutes for the bus in Freising, like always. But it was reallly, really cold. You know the kind where you can’t stop shivering, even after finding a heat source? That’s what this was.

We got into the airport and had a bit of a kerfuffle regarding our tickets — the TUI counter is not always the TUI counter, it would seem. It was hampered by an apparent bomb scare — we watched security shepherd everyone away from an area with red warning tape as a real German Shepherd was brought in to sniff a suspicious misplaced/ abandoned piece of luggage. But whatevs, it all got sorted out with plenty of time to spare. We were lounging comfortably at the gate when WE spotted a piece of luggage with no owner around. No one else in the immediate area seemed to know anything about it, either. I kept an eye on it and Sarah grabbed some airport staff. I don’t know about y’all, but when it comes to stuff like that, we don’t play. Die Polizei came around a couple times and when the bag’s owner returned, he got a little talking-to from the Feds.

Uneventful flight. Just a little delayed due to the weather and de-icing.

Getting off the plane in Antalya, we both remarked upon the swankiness of the airport as we collected our luggage and bought our visas (€15 a piece). We stepped out in the parking lot area and found our tour company’s stand pretty quickly, found our way to our bus and waited. And waited. And waited some more. Other passengers were getting antsy in the meantime, even berating the driver a bit. We finally got going and didn’t arrive until about 1am. We checked into our room knew right away something was wrong. It smelled terrible. It looked OK — clean, tastefully decorated. But we couldn’t spend the night in there. The clerk was happy to upgrade our room for €45 (total, not per night). But he couldn’t or wouldn’t just move us into a non-smelly room in the same price range the same night. I am pretty sure that was a scam of some sort — just not willing to fight it at 1:30am after having traveled all afternoon to get there.

Day Two

We were so tired from our late arrival on Day One, that we managed to wake up for the tail end of breakfast, but crashed out again immediately afterwards, sleeping through lunch. Eventually, we woke up and decided to explore the beach area. Here’s what we found waiting for us: