9 day trip

Jaisalmer and Jaipur- Of sandy sunsets and unsung saviors

After return to our stay,  we hopped on to the car ride we’d booked shared with a tourist from China, one from Australia, a senior couple from Calcutta. An hour later we dropped off only to ride camels to finally get to the Sand dunes.

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Once there, we alternately walked around and sat awhile in the sand, well-aware of how scary the beautiful landscape could get in the summer or even for someone by themselves unfamiliar with the vagaries of the desert. IMG_9514One of the most memorable parts of our experience while waiting for the sunset- was sharing segments of oranges between the couple, the driver and us, sitting on the sand, chatting about life, weather, food just watching the endless expanse of the desert. IMG_6581

After the sunset, we were taken to a resort and treated to a cultural music and dance performance and a meal. This seems like a popular option in any of the sand dune tourist “packages” offered in Jaisalmer. The highlight of the evening, however, was just making our way back to the jeep and looking up for a second, only to see the more dramatic celestial performance of the millions of stars clearly piercing the pitch darkness of the sky. IMG_6656

Unfortunately, we couldn’t spend more time there since we had to catch the midnight train to Jaipur. However, a good night’s rest was not to be. We were rudely jostled awake before 5 in the morning by well-behaved toddlers and the most inconsiderate adults who plonked a group of 7 in seats booked for 4. Luckily every journey has to end and after sharing our breakfast of trusty theplas with the kids we reached Jaipur just after noon.

Exhausted from the lack of sleep on the train we decided to spend the afternoon at our comfortable hostel with a nap to catch up on rest. It was early evening when we decided to ride to Jal Mahal after picking up our bike passing by the unmistakable Hawa Mahal beautifully lit up. IMG_6688

By the time we got to Jal Mahal, it was dusk and parking was disallowed at that time so we decided to return the next day instead. On the way back, stopped at a very crowded “MM Khan hotel” which is a restaurant that seemed a local favourite from people of all social and economic classes. Despite having their hands full both literally and figuratively, the staff were attentive and kind and the food was cheap and undeniably delectable for both vegetarian and non-vegetarian options.

The next morning, now well-rested, we made our way to the Amer Fort. We first stopped at the majestic Shree Narsingh Devji Mandir just because we saw it on our way. A quick exploration of the temple and we made our way to the Fort. IMG_6717

As we got there, we realized it’d be yet another place packed with crowds even as we snaked our way to the parking space. We were also grateful we were on a bike since the cars were struggling a whole lot more.

Despite the hefty entry fees for the Amer Fort, and its vastness, we were perhaps saturated with architecture that alternately reminded us of our relatively recent trips to Gujarat and Turkey plus the crowds got on our nerves after a while and we decided to make our way out.IMG_6787

We picked a few snacks on our way back for ourselves and made our way a second time around to Jal Mahal.IMG_6963

We stumbled upon a nook around the lake that seemed to be a favourite of the birds and settled into watching them and the little kittens around.There happened to be 2 tribal ladies selling something while seated on the parapet. One of them angrily chided a young man who tried to litter plastic into the lakeshore.IMG_6893

Seeing the kittens hungry, since we had nothing but the snacks we had bought, we fed it to them and their very wild and suspicious mother. The tribal woman exclaimed at how kind it was, chiding the previous couple seated there who refused to share their food despite the pitiful wails of the kittens. She very wisely said “Children are children whether they are human/animals…how can one ever not help them when they whimper”.  While she smoked a bidi and most likely had no formal education, she was the most discerning and enlightened person we’d met in a while.

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I asked her consent and embraced her only to have her elderly friend also insisting on a hug. They profusely blessed both of us and insisted we come again and see them though I don’t think they could get an idea of how far we lived when we tried to explain we were from Bangalore. True human connection is a rare find and we really hope to get an opportunity to meet them again. Meanwhile, if you see the 2 tribal ladies by the side of Jal Mahal do give them our love.

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9 day trip

Jaisalmer : Of getting lost in the desert and finding our way to food!

A very kind auto driver had been arranged by our Airbnb host to pick us up from the Railway station at an ungodly hour. Even as we dragged our luggage across the alleys of Jaisalmer in the dark, I knew it’d be my favourite of the places in Rajasthan and I was right.

A quick nap and we were ready to start our day with breakfast at our stay itself.

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This, was effortlessly our view from our stay.

In the morning light, the old city of Jaisalmer woo-ed us some more and we couldn’t help grinning at the sheer beauty of every structure around us- the intricate craftsmanship in the uniformly brown buildings lent themselves to being admired endlessly.IMG_5702

We ordered breakfast as per the host’s recommendation and gobbled up our 2 plates of delicious Dal Pakwan with some tea- it was our favourite dish of the trip. It was also Christmas and it received one vote from us to be part of Christmas meals going forward.IMG_9416

Reaching Jaisalmer at midnight seemed to set just the right mood to visit the ghost town of Kuldhara. We hadn’t learnt our lesson with maps yet and were yet again lost – this time in the desert!IMG_5736

It would have made for a fun horror story of its own. However, it was also hauntingly beautiful and the barren landscape had its own kind of magic. We happened upon a herd of wild camel and deer which was somehow a surreal experience when by ourselves in an unfamiliar landscape looking on in awe at these creatures unshackled from human need.

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Thanks to Anand’s skills of retracing routes being better than mine, we finally made it to the dusty site of Kuldhara. It’s often referred to as a ghost city or a haunted town due to the intrigue around why people from an entire village deserted it seemingly overnight. The reasons theorized are

  • An earthquake leading to panic/destruction of property
  • Unreasonably severe taxation by a minister and his cruelty to the villagers
  • Water just drying up causing the inhabitants to move away- this we heard from a guide in Gujarat still happens to this day.
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The mystery around the town comes from the fact that there are said to be “hauntings” and ghost sightings when anyone ever tried to inhabit the place again. However, currently, it’s only afflicted by the influx of tourists wandering around the place hoping for one of the ghosts to flit by.

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The deserted town of Kuldhara

We ambled around the ruins imagining the lives and times of the village people who once had their homes there and how hard it must have been for them to leave it all behind and disappear/move to another place- depending on the version you’d want to believe.

By now the desert heat and time we’d spent getting lost, led us to be ravenous, and the one icecream we each had in Kuldhara wasn’t enough any more. In the very first restaurant we saw along with rotis we ordered ker sangri which sounded unique to us and we quite enjoyed the exotic looking vegetable. The hotel staff on my request enthusiastically even showed us the “raw” vegetable and explained its pre-processing and cooking. Later on the trip, we even picked a bottle of ker sangri pickle for ourselves on our way back from Rajasthan.IMG_9447

Just after the meal we then promptly ran out of fuel. Thanks to some support by an auto-rickshaw driver pushing our bike with his foot as he drove by its side, we made it to the nearby fuel pump. We then made our way to Bada Bagh(big garden) which I think is a strange name to give to a group of cenotaphs from the 16th century.

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The memorials are referred to as chattris(umbrellas) due to the shape of the yellow sandstone structures. Stone slabs in some of them describe the person the memorial is dedicated to in a language long lost. We were lucky to also be there in time for the sunset and see the structure slowly glowing in the warm orange of dusk till it was gently enveloped by the inky winter evening.IMG_5896

Making our way to the town of Jaisalmer we “escaped” the Tibetan restaurant we first entered, thanks to the desperate waiting customers who let us know they’d been waiting for over an hour. Thankfully the next place -though lit up in suspiciously blue lights- had food we enjoyed with not much wait despite a very large Bengali family having just made a significantly large order just as we were seated.

The next morning we decided to indulge in street-fare of dal pakwan, kachori, cutlet, jalebi and tea that made up our yummy breakfast.

The Jaisalmer Palace is right in the center of the Jaisalmer fort where we were staying and we had to ofcourse give it a look. It was relatively less crowded we had a good time enjoying the filigree work and remnants of the lives and times of royalty in Jaisalmer.

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Jaisalmer Palace

It was relatively less crowded we had a good time enjoying the filigree work and remnants of the lives and times of royalty in Jaisalmer.

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Jaisalmer Palace

Baa-ri Haveli , a 450 year old heritage home was next on our list and was a joy to enjoy the colorful space with every nook and cranny filled with local art and quirky household items.

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Baa-ri haveli

Next was Patwon ki Haveli. The Haveli itself was interesting and also full of knick-knacks everything from attire to utensils but the crowd from Christmas vacations having all landed in Rajasthan at the same time made it hard to really enjoy it.IMG_6341IMG_6376IMG_6380IMG_6388

We also went in front of Nathmal-ki-Haveli but the crowds were a turn off. and considering how much we liked Jaisalmer we decided it was perhaps meant for our next trip.

Incidentally there was an eclipse on that day, so the temples had delayed opening times due to their eclipse-specific ceremonies that needed to be done. So after passing by it several times, we found the Jain temples in Jaisalmer fort finally open in all its glory. The detailed ceilings of the structure in yellow sandstone are utterly hypnotising and it’s easy to imagine the cool interiors providing respite from the unforgiving heat of the scorched desert land.

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Chandraprabhu Jain temple
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9 day trip

Udaipur, Jodhpur: Of grand palaces and grander sunsets

We ended our heritage walk at the Ambrai Ghat which was the most spacious and well maintained of the ghats we’d been to in Udaipur and afforded a view of the Jag Mandir, City Palace and Shiv Niwas. We’ve every single time in the past had a very good experience with heritage walks but we wouldn’t recommend this one. Hopefully, you can find a better one.IMG_4880

After a yummy lunch at a modest restaurant just opposite our place of stay, we headed to what’s referred to as the City palace also on the lake Pichola. This palace is the largest in Rajasthan and named after Maharana Udai Singh who the city also gets its name from. The term palace is misleading if it gets you to imagine a single structure. This one comprises of 11 palaces within built over 400 years by different rulers each with its own adornments with everything from paintings to ornamental tiles and mirrors. One aspect of the palaces in Rajasthan we’d notice over time is that the exteriors are kept very simple while the interiors are ostentatious.

The images below are in no particular order but more to be enjoyed as a snapshot of what the palace has to offer.

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Manak Mahal: was used as a space for an audience with the rulers and therefore has a raised recess lined with mirror work.

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Bhim Vilas : having miniature paintings from mythological stories of Radha-Krishna with paintings of scenes from royal celebrations and processions.

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These colours were a favourite despite the grandeur of the other spaces

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Sheesh Mahal: a crowd favourite is a whole room made of mirrors up to the ceiling providing for a trippy experience.IMG_4952

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Bada Mahal

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Mor Chowk: with glass mosaics of, as the name indicates, peacocks representing the Indian seasons with glass mosaics in green, gold and blue.

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After enjoying that kaleidoscopic experience in the City palace,w e headed to the nearby Saheliyon ki Bari which we’d recommend for a visit more as a garden than for its historical significance. IMG_5008It was made especially for the queen’s 48 maids and understandably provided respite from the searing Rajasthan heat. IMG_5013A personal favourite was the lotus pond but the fountains in them sure could do with some maintenance.

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One doesn’t think of lush green mountains when thinking of Rajasthan but we made our way through the snaking roads over the verdant Aravalli range of mountains to the Sajjangarh Palace.

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The palace is also referred to as the Monsoon palace since it was used by the king to watch the approaching monsoon clouds over the Aravalli hills. Continuing our sunset chasing experience track in Rajasthan we found a vantage point among the other tourists and did just that.

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Unreal winter sunsets everywhere in Rajasthan.

We decided to spend the later part of our evening at Shilgram Mela a cultural fair for artisans from all over the country. While enjoying the colours, fabrics, handicrafts as we strolled around, we made good work of the variety of local snacks available: sweets made of freshly ground sesame seeds, several of pure milk and butter, rabdi, onion pakodas and corn. IMG_9372IMG_5088We were also treated to dance performances from different states and tribes of India, even managing to get a seat despite the crowds, and cheered the artists on. A round of conversation and egg burji from a local vendor and we headed back to our stay for the night.

 

Early the next morning, we headed to a café by the Lake Pichola for a slow breakfast. The voices of the musicians by the street evocatively singing “Padharo humare des…” in the distance reach to our ears as we silently watch everything that makes up Udaipur- the palaces, the narrow lanes, the music, the ghats and the still waters of the lake standing witness to it all.

In a fun contrast, we then made our way through the city to the extremely dusty bus that would take us to Jodhpur. With nothing much else to do, the heat within the bus from the warm mid-day sun lulled us into sleep. On intermittently awakening, we’d see endless open-air stores selling large slabs of marble of every shade under the sun(quite literally) and at one instance a store selling Kadaknath black chicken promising the very best of health.

By the time we reached our homestay in the blue city, it was evening and we hurried to get ready for the reception of the wedding that had in fact set off this whole trip. We were warmly welcomed by my friend who I was meeting after a whole 12 years and his lovely bride and family.

We quickly realized that autos in Jodhpur are not only sell-your-soul expensive to hire but were also very hard to come by- especially where we were staying in the “old city” and trying to return after an event at 10PM. We managed one after significant effort but were glad we had hired a bike for the next day.

Early the next morning, we realised our stay also had a charming mosaic floored terrace that provided a view of the Mehrangarh Fort and the entire old city of Jodhpur. IMG20191223073015A quick breakfast and then we headed to the beautifully moving, traditional Sikh wedding ceremony with us dressed at our Sikh-est best. An elaborate lunch and a quick nap later, we got to the Mehrangarh fort.IMG_5181

The 15th century Mehrangarh fort seems to have disturbing beginnings – from being built by forcefully displacing a hermit- Cheeria Nathji – the ‘lord of birds’ on a hill that was then called Bakurcheeria(the mountain of birds); to burying a “volunteer” Raja Ram Meghwal on the site for good luck; to having handprints of women who immolated themselves as per the horrific practice of Sati.

In our blissful ignorance of this distressing background at the time of our visit, this fort named after the sun (Mihir) was a favourite. The all exteriors in reddish-brown with intricate work, the paintings, the stained glass, the palanquins, elephant howdahs in the museums were all fun to discover as we strolled into each new corner.

Within the 4 large gates, some built for more commemorative purposes were the palaces

Moti Mahal

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Phool Mahal

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Sheesha Mahal

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As it was close to sunset we rushed to the Chamunda Devi temple within the fort that yielded an expansive view of the blue city bathed in the orange of the setting sun. We just about had a view of the sun quickly disappearing into the horizon.

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But what for a moment, will take your breath away amidst the arid terrain of Rajasthan, bathed in the colours of the ocean, a city dyed in blue.

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9 day trip

Udaipur: Of strolling around the old city of lakes

Rajasthan has been on our joint lists for a while now, so after an early morning flight in late December we reached Udaipur from Bangalore to our stay in the old city on the first floor of a charming 70-year-old home. Since it was already 3pm we just about managed to find a restaurant a short walk away, that was open but forgettable. After picking up our rental bike and being in the City of lakes, it was only apt that our very first stop was the Fateh Sagar Lake.

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It turned out to be just the right spot to enjoy an evening walk and our first pretty sunset in Rajasthan while munching on chana chaat and corn with the locals.

Just a little ahead was the Maharana Pratap Park which boasted of a museum and a sound and light show. Curious, we bought tickets for both. The museum had an interesting set of paintings of kings and ministers of the era but an overarching theme was the Battle of Haldighati- whether it was the large model of the battleground or blow by blow accounts of how the battle came about.IMG_4749 You couldn’t but feel like you were immersed into the history of the place with Maharana Pratap and his famous horse Chetak who met their end during the battle against King Akbar. In addition to the museum itself, the park is a calm, green space to wander around and towards evening affords a lovely view of the Fateh Sagar Lake from atop the hillock.IMG_4750

Now well-informed of the history of the place, we were eager to witness the sound and light show. If you remember one thing from this entire post it should be this- DO NOT spend your time or money at this show. It was easily the worst performance we’d ever seen and we are quite tolerant in general. It was pretty much a pre-recorded audio file playing snippets from the history of the city with lights focusing on bewilderingly random parts of the really small fort ruin and a single plant in the lawn(!) in front of the audience.

Just to recover, we decided to treat ourselves to dinner at a restaurant that seemed to have regal furniture custom made for someone at least thrice the size of the average person. A quick meal and walk around the old city later, we called it a day.

Early the next morning we were all enthused to visit the Karni Mata mandir more to experience the sunrise from the hilltop – however, we were up for another surprise when we completely lost our way despite following maps and were presented with a maze of narrow alleys and lanes. Each of the very few people outdoors at that time seemed to lead us into an entirely different labyrinth. After quite some time of going in circles, it was a Muslim family getting their kids ready for school who were able to give us the right directions to the temple. Much later we finally also saw a board with directions to the temple but also that it would only open at 9AM so the sunrise was pretty much out of the question.IMG_4770

However, it was to our delight that we happened upon the pond Dudh Talai with almost no one around but us and the chirping birds flitting about the lake. We also joined the locals on their morning walk next door at the Lake Pichola for a jaunt of our own.IMG_4794

We had a heritage walk planned in the morning, so quickly went to a small stall that and wolfed down hot parathas and joined the group at the entrance of the Jagadish Temple from the 1600s with intricate hand-carved stonework dedicated to Lord Krishna. IMG_4808Entrance to the temple requires a climb up 32 steps- so this may not be the best place for folks with knee aches.

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After our time in Uttarakhand, Udaipur seemed to have plenty of Ghats mostly around the freshwater Lake Pichola that was built by a banjara(tribal) in the 14th century. Artificial lakes in cities are not new, but in this case, the city was intentionally built around the lake by Maharana Udai Singh who was impressed by it. All around the lake are hotels catering to both higher-end and budget travellers- the Lake Palace is one of the former and is built into the island of Jag Niwas within the Lake Pichola.

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We first headed to the Gangaur Ghat, named after the festival celebrated even today representing the Goddess Parvati’s return from her maternal home to her husband Lord Shiva. Today it’s celebrated by fasting- by both married and unmarried women for 18 days praying for the longevity of their husbands and to be blessed with a good husband respectively. It’s mind-boggling the number of festivals in several parts of India dedicated to just this noble cause! IMG_4823The festival celebrations also include processions of women decked up in their very best carrying idols of Gan(Shiva) and Gaur(Parvati) to be immersed in the Lake Pichola.

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While wandering around the old city on foot you’d pass through the Chandpole bridge one way or another. It lends itself to vantage views of the Lake Pichola and its surroundings.

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Our next stop was the Hanuman Ghat that seemed to be a favourite of photographers instructing couples on how to pose for the most candid images for their pre-wedding shoots.

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Udaipur is known for its miniature paintings made with colours from stones occurring in nature. The artwork is visibly demanding due to the level of perfection in such minute detail. If you plan your time accordingly you can even sign up for a class for everything from a few hours to a few weeks to learn to paint it too.

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9 day trip

Tips for Turkey travel!

Note: These tips are as per 2019 September but there’s no reason many of them will not be relevant for whenever you’d plan your travel to Turkey. We hope you learn from our goof ups and make fewer of yours! 😉

Food :

  •  Food, in general, is significantly less spicy than Indian food – salt content is low and if lucky lemon is the only added seasoning on the table. That being said- please eat the local food – it was very healthy and irrespective of how picky you are, you’re missing out on an experience if you choose not to enjoy different flavours and cuisines.If you’re vegetarian learn the word for vegetarian in Turkish(it sounds similar to the English word). Vegan food is a little harder but vegetarian options are available.
  • For some inexplicable reason, water was never served at restaurants we visited. The only options were bottled water which we hated purchasing but it seemed like the only option. Even at the Airbnbs, there was no equivalent to a water purifier so we literally had to buy drinking water in bottles for our entire time there.

Internet connectivity:

There are a few options you have which you can pick based on your connectivity needs

  • If it’s very important to have your phone calls on your personal number active – you may want to enable international roaming on your number before you leave your home country to be sure.
  • If you’re ok with just internet being available on your phone + you’ve multiple devices for which you need connectivity, you can buy a pocket hotspot. We have not done a thorough price/quality comparison but we found this very convenient- especially their chat support to pick up and drop the device at the airport.
  • If you’d need to make local phone calls in addition to having internet connectivity, and you don’t have too many devices to connect you can purchase a local SIM at the airport. As of today, Turkcell is an operator said to have the most coverage in Turkey.
  • Understandably price may also be a consideration for your choice, so you may want to compare options based on your expected usage ,price and duration of stay to help take the final decision. Also just carry one good power bank at least for any travel in general.

Communication

  • Spend time learning a few basic words to help you in Turkey.  We simply installed a random free “learn Turkish” app and spent our long flight incoming flight learning the words and testing each other on them.
  • Considering how kind the local people are, you’ll be glad you at least learnt the word for Thank you-teşekkür ederim. Other words that are important are those for the restroom, sorry, help, how much, no, yes, hospital, words based on your food preferences etc. Install a translation app like google translate just to be sure.
  •  If you’ve food allergies or health conditions, please don’t depend on your memory/pronunciation/availability of internet connectivity/your phone battery.  Just print it out clearly in complete sentences and show it at every relevant place.
  • We had the best moments during our trip in short conversations with people from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh who made a living in Turkey and who were so glad to see someone from a familiar part of the world. You will feel the same too. If you’ve a longer chat with the locals or them,  a general rule (in life) is to avoid conversations on politics and religion- especially in a foreign land. But otherwise, be kind, indulge them and yourselves for an opportunity to open your eyes and hearts to lives other than your own.

Clothing:

  • Always carry a scarf – works great for the sun and for entrance to mosques and tombs where you’d need to cover your head.
  • In general dress on the more conservative side so you can have a flexible itinerary and visit any of the stunning mosques and tombs. Conservative = cover elbows and knees, shoulders at the very least.

Getting around:

  • When commuting between cities take the bus instead of the flights.  The airports are also frequently very far from the actual “touristy” places which means in addition to the price of the flight you’ll be wasting both time and money for the cabs/buses from the airports to your destination. We learnt this the hard way actually choosing to lose our money on our flight booking since the bus from the airport to the tourist place would cost us more than the cost of the flight itself!

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    Free snacks and drinks in our bus!
  • The overnight buses between locations are very convenient- they serve snacks and drinks including water and have pitstops almost every 2 hours even in the overnight bus and stop at large supermarkets with clean paid restrooms. So restroom-worry is not a problem. However, bus booking is not available online at all. So you just need to walk up to the first tour agent you see in each stop- all town centers have them- and they can book it for you.
  • There is a LOT of walking everywhere we went in Turkey- whether it’s the immense Topkapi palace, the Ilhara valley or the ruins of Ephesus. Just wear the best walking shoes you can have and your feet will thank you.

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    So much to explore!
  • If you still decide to take a local flight, do note that connecting buses may not be available at odd timings (for ex: 3am in the morning). Just reach out to your Airbnb/hotel reception and ask them for options. They’d typically connect you to a paid cab/shuttle service that will get you to the airport on time.
  • Metrokart – is used for bus and tram in Istanbul ONLY. Always make sure you have around at least 40 lira in the card. You will need it immediately as you land to take the bus from the airport to your stay. You can purchase it at vending machines just as you step out of the airport building towards the bus stand.
  • Museumcard is a prepaid card for entry tickets to most tourist places but not all. The Museumcard we purchased cost 375 lira.  However, if you know your itinerary well I’d recommend going through the 2-3 options for Museumcards to pick the one that meets your itinerary. In our case, we had spent a little more on the card than we had had time to cover with our itinerary but were glad it allowed us the convenience of not having to carry cash/change at every place+ allowed mental budgeting of the entry ticket expenses in advance. You can purchase it at most places that accept the card ie., tourist places. We picked ours at Hagia Sophia.

Scams

Like any popular tourist place, the ones in Turkey too have scams. While we avoided most we were still victims of two:

  • An older gentleman looking a little down on his luck walked up to us while we were seated at a street-side restaurant selling almonds in packets of around a kilogram. Since almonds were in almost every market and we had decided to buy some anyway, we decided to buy it from him. Since we had a lot of our day left, we only tasted them when we returned to our stay that evening. They had completely gone bad though there were no signs on the exterior. Lesson: Do not buy other than from the legitimate stores- if not, find where locals are headed.
  • We purchased a bus ticket from Denizli (near Ephesus) to Pamukkale. The agent mentioned that we’d have to change buses at a point and charged us for the change too. However, on getting off the first bus, the second bus claimed we had to pay him explicitly again the amount we had already paid for the connecting bus. This was clearly not a one-off instance since there was another family that had been scammed in the same way who also were then forced to pay again and take the bus since the other option would have been to figure out your way. Not sure how to avoid this, but well maybe double check your payment receipt and keep some extra cash in hand.
  • Another scam was when we visited a restaurant and (thankfully) ordered just one dish. The owner had a whole 3 different menus with 3 different prices and of course billed you for the highest price among the menus despite your insistence that you remember seeing a different one. This happened once- but was quite a turn off.
  • Mercifully, we weren’t too impacted but there are more possible scams and we’d recommend you search online for “Turkey tourist scams” before your trip just to be a little more alert and avoid ruining your experience here.

Stay 

  • If you have mobility issues or are not physically strong, do run a check with your Airbnb in case you’d need to carry your luggage up and down the stairs. A lot of places we stayed on the trip had narrow stairs- we were quite prepared for it but one of our co-travellers hurt their back just before the trip which made it quite a challenge for them.

Miscellaneous

  • Cats and cats- There were innumerable cats everywhere we went in Turkey. They’re sweet and used to being pampered by people. However, they don’t often approach you themselves. If you’re a cat lover it’s heaven. Leave the dogs alone though, the few we saw very extremely fluffy but didn’t seem used to being petted and therefore could snap at you in fear.IMG_4098
9 day trip

Istanbul- Of miniature paintings and monumental palaces

Wandering around the Grand Bazaar area,  we came across the 16th century Beyazit Camiisi (mosque). Like many structures in Istanbul, this too was built after the destruction of the earlier Fatih mosque due to an earthquake.IMG_4426 On entering the mosque we had flashbacks of the Hagia Sophia and as it turned out, this was indeed patterned like a smaller scale version of it. That’s not to say it’s any less impressive.

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I’ll never get over the beauty of the stained glass and lamps in the structures in Istanbul

A little distance away we then reached the mausoleum of Sultan Mahmut II, it also includes 2 other Sultans and their close family members. Of interest wrt the Sultan is that he had gotten built a warship which was the largest in the world for quite a while. IMG_4456Also notable was his role in the abolishment of a corrupt military corps that both extorted money from the state and dictated government policy. Beside the structure is a relatively small graveyard with other prominent members of the court and families.IMG_4457

As the day drew to a close, we were drawn back to the waters of the Bosphorus- just because it seemed like such a microcosm of Istanbul and we daresay Turkey. People of all shapes, sizes and attires, tourists, street-side food vendors, children having a ball of a time, all in the backdrop of the calm waters and squawking seagulls.IMG_4476

Our personal favourite of the street side food was the Dolma not in the least due to the cheery sellers who even fed Anand a free Dolma since we shared a few words with them and complimented their pictures on our camera.

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We decided to have a meal by one of the sea-side restaurants overlooking the Bosphorus. We incidentally had an Afghani waiter who, on knowing we were from India, cheered up and admitted he was a major Salman Khan fan! We tucked into our meal of grilled fish, babaganoush and bread, particularly unhappy that the next day would be our last day in Istanbul, for now.

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We’d chosen our only “fancy” stay for our last night in Turkey just to end the trip on a high.

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Mesihpaşa Camii

We slept deeply and woke up fully refreshed to tackle our breakfast in a relaxed manner at the hotel’s buffet.

Well refreshed, we checked out and leaving our luggage at the reception, headed to the Dolmabahce Palace. It was the 19th-century residence of the Sultan to suit more his more contemporary style, taste and needs after their stay at the much older Topkapi palace. It is also more recently known for being the residence of the founder of the Republic of Turkey- Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and housed him to the last days of his life.IMG_4495 Once we got there, we were first welcomed by a very long queue of visitors. It didn’t faze us but we realised that the “palace” spanned an area of 11 acres and we just wouldn’t be able to enjoy it at leisure and catch our flight that afternoon. We, therefore, decided to just go around the exteriors of the palace and admire it from afar.

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We instead decided to wander around the Spice bazaar and stumbled into a miniature calligraphy /art exhibition. The signboard was instantly evocative of my attempt at reading the book “My name is Red” centred around miniaturists and therefore piqued my curiosity.IMG_4557

However, there was much more to it. The same building was a heritage structure with so much colour and art that we wished to just get lost in the space. IMG_4553We wandered from room to room gasping at its beauty and pointing at every wonderous corner that was crafted so meticulously.

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After all our wandering and wondering, however, it was finally time for us to leave.

If we got an opportunity to visit Turkey again, in addition to the blue waters of Fethiye, we’d definitely want to spend a few more days just in Istanbul- we’d warmed up to the city, a city that, for us, glistens with its generous, kind and very good-looking people, enjoys its food, embraces colours, rebuilds its structures and societies despite earth-shattering tragedies, and celebrates its traditional arts- we’d just be a bit more wary of the pickle juice the next time!

Hoşça kal! (Stay well)

 

9 day trip

Istanbul- Of sunken palaces and splendid bazaars

We woke up the next morning to the sounds of seagulls by our window. Stumbling out of bed we got ready and went to have breakfast on the terrace of the Airbnb that yielded a beautiful view of the waters of the Bosphorus. A brilliant breakfast later we were all set to tackle the day.

We then decided to visit the one place we were curious about- the Basilica Cistern. Cisterns are water storage spaces and this one was used to both store and filter water. The name of the cistern is believed to have originated because before the cistern, there was a Basilica in the same spot from the 3rd or 4th century. 336 marble pillars procured from other buildings hold up the cistern roofs. The cistern fell into disuse till it was discovered in the 16th century when a traveller realised residents used buckets to still get water through holes in their floors and even managed to fish from it! 2 pillars with Medusa heads in upside down and right side up are popular sights within the cistern and are said to be placed that way to negate the mythical effects of gazing upon her face and being turned to stone. She is one of the most memorable of the few characters I remember from school level reading– her hair made of snakes possibly made up for an evocative image.

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Like many historical structures around the world, this one too was built with slaves, over 7000 of them. One of the towers has engravings of Hen’s eyes(no idea why) and tears – believed to be a tribute to the lives lost during the construction of the cistern. Water in the cistern is said to have been brought from the Belgrad forest which is a whole 19kms away from the cistern. Walking through the cistern feels very special- the lighting and the endless pillars gives you a sense of having entered a magical underworld.IMG_4375

Soon after we walked into the bustle of the Grand Bazaar to pick a few souvenirs for folks at home- we aren’t big buyers but still picked up some handmade soaps and sweets. The lamps were just magical but also a bit over our budget. The tiles and bowls make for brilliant souvenirs too. IMG_4388I find Arabic calligraphy stunning, and it was just our luck that we managed to meet a gentleman who was offering it- we got our names written which to me was a more precious find than most others. Even if you don’t intend to buy anything, the Grand Bazaar is quite a wonderful, colourful and interesting space to wander around. Its endless turns and enjoy beautiful works – whether food, carpets, lamps or fabric give you something to admire at every step.

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We, however, ended up more interested in the more “local” market at Eminonu. It reminded us of Avenue road in Bangalore where you can find everything you can think of- from cutlery, fabric, food, furniture, hardware.

 

We got lost at one point and tried to ask for directions from 2 storekeepers in our terrible Turkish – just as we almost gave up- the guy knitted his eyebrows and asked “India?”, while we nodded he burst out laughing and continued in Hindi asking us why we were struggling with Turkish instead. As it turned out, he was from Bangladesh.  To perfect strangers, with all of us far away from our homes, his instant offer of tea and a seat at his store made us our hearts fill with gratitude – for good people everywhere we go.

Up next : Istanbul- Of miniature paintings and monumental palaces

9 day trip

Istanbul: Of swirling dervishes and the winding Bosphorus

Early the next morning we had a small bus pick us up to the airport and then to Istanbul. It genuinely felt like a return to a place so familiar. It’s amazing how quickly our definition of home can change.

Once we settled into the Airbnb, the only thing we had on the “agenda” that day was the ceremony of the swirling dervishes. There was a mismatch in the timings on the online booking vs the timings on flyers in our hotel for the same place so we first decided to drop in-in person to put our mind at ease. Once that was done, having covered the “main” places in the first part of the trip, we decided to just wander around the city. Passing by the cats, the offers for pictures in traditional attire, restaurants, markets strolled around the streets to reach Eminonu.

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The cats of Istanbul are a sight for sore eyes..

A boat ride on the Bosphorus is considered a must-do in Istanbul, but at first-glance seemed way over budget. Every single option online or via flyers in the hotels had options promising belly dancing, dinner and a long almost overnight ride. If that’s what you’re looking for you’ll find that easily. But we weren’t interested in spending as much nor did the experiences particularly interest us. To our surprise, right at Eminonu there was a gentleman simply calling out to passersby about the boat ride for a price of just 20TL! Mildly suspicious, we still decided to have a go at it. It was just enough for what we were looking for. IMG_4200There was modest seating on a passenger boat and it takes you for a ride of over an hour passing by all the landmarks on either sides of the Bosphorus. There are beautiful homes of the rich and famous by the riverside in addition to historic monuments.

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Just look at the gorgeous skyline!

It seemed to be a popular activity to throw food at the seagulls who enthusiastically swooped in to grab at it just before it fell to the water. It also gave us a bit of breathing space on the trip to zone out and do nothing but watch the city, the seagulls and the ripples in the water.

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Once we got off the boat we realized we were starving, and quickly decided that our supper would be any street food that looked appetizing. The fish sandwiches made on a swaying boat seemed like quite the tourist favourite but I was afraid it’d make me too full to enjoy much else.

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Balik ekmek(fish sandwiches) being prepared on a rocking boat.

However, we couldn’t but try the Midye Dolmasi (Mussels stuffed with rice). Served with a  generous slice of lemon it was a fun peppery snack.

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Midye Dolmasi (Mussels stuffed with rice)

The spice made us crave something to drink and there were young boys walking in between the tables selling drinks one of which looked like a fresh watermelon juice. We bought a glass of it looking forward to a refreshing sip only to realise we had bought pickle juice!! Though it had the opposite effect of quenching our thirst it made for a memorable moment as we then tried to decide which of the pickle we liked the best- cabbage, gherkins etc.

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Beware of the pickle juice!

Wandering further we entered the Spice Bazaar, only to be faced with endless arrays of amazing pickles, sweets, spices, dry fruits, and treats. It’s quite a challenge to pass some of them by, but we decided on some sweets that would survive our journey in various flavours. At one store, the Turkish boy teased the young Pakistani one telling us that he was our enemy! The poor guy was embarrassed but kept quiet. I couldn’t but disagree and assure him that he was in fact family- just a little distance away from us in India! Many smiles were smiled as he filled bags with dry fruits for us and bid us a shy goodbye.

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How can anyone pick just one of these!

The pickle juice quickly made us crave some sweets, and we first tackled the Kunefe made of vermicelli and pistachios. This was more fun for the performance that accompanied its making, with a lot of quick movements and taps on the special vessel used to prepare the dish.

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A piping hot serving of Kunefe

Amongst the vast array of sweets available, we also tried the Tulumba -a firm and sweet fried dough, which was a fun little treat.

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Tulumbas, anyone?

We then made our way to watch the performance/ceremony of the Swirling dervishes. I’ve liked what little I’ve read of Rumi and have been intrigued by Sufism for a while so after being there in his homeland during his birthday we couldn’t but help wanting to view the ceremony of the swirling dervishes which have become synonymous with the image of Sufism in popular culture. There are several shows available to book online and you’ll possibly also find flyers with your hotels too. We picked this one in case you wanted a reference. While we had no complaints we can’t really comment on whether it’s the best/most authentic/accurately priced because we don’t have a comparative barometer.

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With all the glimpses of it in Indian music videos, it’s easy to forget that at its core it is a religious ceremony- so our advice would be to not go expecting to be entertained. This mismatch in expectations led to a few members of the audience falling asleep and a few walking out of the hall.

Before the performance, we had time to regard a display of Sufi artefacts from attire to musical instruments to writings of Rumi.  The sounds of the ceremony itself- both the voices of the priests and the music very easily lulls you to a comfortable, numb state of mind and even sleep. It’s quite entrancing to see the dervishes twirling almost endlessly and seemingly without any strain but there is much more to the ceremony before and after. For us, we were glad we tried it because it was definitely a memorable and educative experience.

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We aren’t allowed to take pictures during the ceremony but this was the impressive stage.

After the performance we took the tram (our now favourite means of commute) back to Eminonu just to spend more time by the Bosphorus, people watching. Not very hungry by now, fresh cobs of corn and warm chestnuts made up the rest of our supper before we headed back to the Airbnb looking forward to the last 2 days we had in Istanbul.IMG_4338

Up next : Istanbul- Of sunken palaces and splendid bazaars

9 day trip

Pamukkale : The cotton castle of Turkey

The next morning after a generous breakfast replete with homemade jams of oranges and plums, the loveliest grapes, olives, cheese, eggs and cakes we made our way to the bus station for our bus to Denizli in a bus booked the previous evening.

The bus itself was such a delight with in-bus entertainment of Turkish movies, series and video games that we enjoyed for a bit. Even in such short a ride, we had a wide selection of snacks and drinks included in the price. IMG_8818There was a bit of confusion about tickets the connecting bus to Pamukkale but we finally got there.

After a relaxed lunch and some rest, we decided to head out to the thermal springs that were just a few meters away from our hotel. No matter how many pictures of it you may have seen it continues to be stunning in person.IMG_3897 The sheer expanse of white feels like exactly what heaven would like it- a world where everything is pristine and perfect. The description of the limestone formed over centuries by calcium-rich springs does no justice to what it visually looks like.IMG_3963 The calcium carbonate itself has solidified into travertine which makes up the slippery white surface today.IMG_8932

It’s no surprise that it’s a World Heritage site and one can only hope it stays as wonderful it is for the times to come. It was used as a spa since the 2nd century BC and you can still take a dip now but subject to the crowds it may/may not be permitted in future.

Note :

  • We found recommendations online to visit it at 4pm which worked out beautifully for us.
  • Also, we entered at the gate to the thermal springs which honestly is where you’d want to spend more time.
  • The third recommendation is to dress in layers so you could get into the pools with your swimwear in case it is not crowded + not too chilly.
  • You’re not allowed to wear footwear on the area with the springs so carry the right baggage to put your footwear into.
  • Also, it’s very slippery so tread with care.
  • Some areas are closed for access simply because they’re still recovering from idiot humans. Don’t be one more.
  • The Museum itself closes early so do check the time.

 

Once off the travertine terraces, a short walk takes you to the Museum and further away to the evocatively named Cleopatra pool. While we were wondering if we wanted to take a dip, there was a small tap (for lack of a better word) where you could have a drink of the healing water from the hot-spring there too. We even thought it’d maybe be a good place to fill up our water bottles. However, for the sake of all that’s good and holy- do not drink that water!! It tastes terrible and the closest equivalent was when I’d unintentionally had a taste of a mix of diluted hydrochloric acid and sulphuric acid when pipetting it in Chemistry lab almost 20 years ago! Nevertheless, there were several tourists enjoying their time in the clear looking water so if that’s your jam go ahead. Just don’t drink the water.IMG_3975

Note: Entrance to the Cleopatra pool is paid over and above the entrance to the travertine terraces and you’ve to pay extra to take a dip.

A walk uphill later we reached the theatre in Hierapolis. We first reached the Theater which was admittedly impressive despite seeing theatres in Ephesus, since this had a seating capacity of 15000 and a 5ft high stage.IMG_8918

There are supposed to be more ruins between the theater and the travertine terraces but, despite trying, we couldn’t find anything other than a few crumbling remains though and wanted to be back in time to see the sunset.IMG_4020 What a sight it was over the white expanse of the cotton castle (translation of the word Pamukkale). It will remain one of the most unique sunset views we had ever witnessed. We truly felt blessed and lucky to have been able to experience it in this lifetime.IMG_4092

An overpriced meal at a Korean restaurant later we went right to sleep since we’d to take an early morning flight to Istanbul the next day.

Up next : Istanbul: Of swirling dervishes and the winding Bosphorus

 

 

9 day trip

Ephesus: Of tricking giants and dramatic sibling rivalry

The Agora had a temple of Isis(The goddess of magic and healing) in the middle of it with and along with the Roman Basilica was used mostly for business and meetings. There is supposedly an inscription of the legend of Odysseus escaping the giant Polyphemus on the temple. It too is mostly left to the imagination today except for long pillars still propped up giving us a peek into its structure.IMG_3617

The “Water palace” was simply a fountain so large while also being connected to a storage cistern that it earned the name- it’s believed to have had statues of sea creatures, the emperor and river gods around it. The other one around is the Pollio fountain which was a relatively complex bit of water distribution for the time bringing water from 3 sources through aqueducts and distributing it to various other fountains via baked clay pipes. The Trajan fountain – a decent part of it still standing was in the honour of Emperor Trajan.IMG_3670

The Odeon was the first “small” theatre we passed with a capacity of 1500 spectators then used for both concerts and meetings. IMG_3629It’s only small in comparison to what’s arguably the most memorable of sights in Ephesus, the Great Theater that could have an audience of 25000. It’s easy to imagine everything from gladiator fights to dramatic performances held with great aplomb.IMG_3784

Prytaneion was the hall that had a flame perpetually kept burning indicating the heart of Ephesus. This also had statues of Artemis which like many relics here are housed in the archaeological museum.IMG_3734

There are several temples built in the name of emperors

  • The Domitian Temple – dedicated first to the unpopular Domitian and once he was killed to his father Vespasian
  • Memmuis monument -in memory of Dictator Sulla defeating the Romans to free the people of high taxes
  • Temple of Hadrian -dedicated to emperor Hadrian who had a fondness for Greek literature, a colourful set of romantic interests and a keen skill for administration.

The Hercules gate was a popular spot for tourists mostly because of the relative popularity of the character. In this one, he is seen with the skin of the Nemean lion who couldn’t be killed due to its thick skin. Legend has it that Heracles killed it thrusting his arm down its throat and choking it- not a pleasant image for sure.

The terrace houses were quite a treat giving us a view into the structures that in addition to having beautiful mosaic floors and art of the walls, had heating via clay pipes beneath the floors and through the walls! Admittedly only available to the rich, it still showcases a view of luxury that makes you yearn for a glimpse into the lives of the people that lived there.IMG_3712

Octogan was a tomb believed to be of Arsinoe the sister of Cleopatra. In a tale of long drawn sibling rivalry, after dethroning Cleopatra she was taken captive by Caesar who forgave her and let her take sanctuary in Ephesus but at a later time, Cleopatra finally had her revenge when Mark Anthony, at her behest, is said to have executed Arsinoe on the steps of the temple where she was then buried.

Celsus Library– was built by the son of governor Celsus housing his grave – it’s one of the most photogenic spots of the ruins. The entrance of the library has statues indicating the attributes of Celsus with the Goddesses of wisdom, knowledge, intelligence and Valor.IMG_3745

After all the theatres, tombs, temples and fountains – on one hand, you can’t but help imagine the grandeur of the time but on the other, it’s also a cue to remember that even the greatest of achievements, symbols of fame and fortune fall to ruin sooner or later.

While I was exhausted with the walking and the heat of the day and decided to go in for a nap, Anand decided he had it in him to go to the other historically significant spots in Selcuk.

First on the list was the 14th century Isa Bey mosque named after its founder and sponsor. While the current basilica of St.John was used as a mosque for a bit during his reign, an earthquake destroying it possibly prompted the construction of this mosque with ancient stones and materials from other churches. IMG_3845Its location between the temple of Artemis and the Basilica of St.John is also believed to be symbolic linking periods in the history of the town. IMG_3841The architecture is said to have been inspired by Islamic styles like those of the Zengid and Mamulk realms. The current version is a renovation in the 20th century.IMG_3822

The display of ancient gravestones engraved with scriptures along with the names of the deceased seemed to silently symbolise the past watching over the present.

St.John’s Basilica : It is believed that St John was one of Christ’s closest disciples and during the later part of the first century moved to Ephesus with Mother Mary to avoid persecution. It is understood that the tomb of St John was surrounded by a small church back in the 4th century that was rebuilt by the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century with much grander proportions, therefore, including monograms of the emperor and his wife Theodora. IMG_3869With Arab raids and gradual decline, it fell into ruins was then revived by converting it into a mosque by the Seljuk Aydinoglu clan, again destroyed by the Mongol army, further pillaged for materials until it was recently restored. Despite restoration, the sight of the 6 domes in cruciform shape held up by massive pillars is mostly left to the imagination since what’s now left are crumbling columns, ruined walls and rubble hinting at the past.IMG_3874

Legend: has it that St. John was simply asleep and his breath moved the ash around him to form his tomb. This legend led to believers travelling far and wide to collect the ash to cure ailments, calm storms and even induce births! It is considered to be a miracle that his body was never recovered.

Note: Keep in mind that the visiting hours for the basilica change based on whether it’s summer or winter so run a check before you make your plans.

Next, the Byzantine castle itself was closed for visitors by 5pm but the Ayasaluk hill’s surroundings still allowed for a stroll around it. While there are mostly ruins today one would have to imagine the city that surrounded the citadel and the bustling life in it back in the day.

 

Later that evening after a stroll in the neighborhood of our Airbnb, we walked into a street-side restaurant run by a cheerful older couple. We had a lovely dinner with the company of several of the neighbourhood cats and kittens that very much felt like home since the owners even let us feed the curious cats any leftovers. IMG_8803Watching the kittens roll around being silly and the lovely older lady’s gurgling laughter cheering them on was the perfect end to a day spent exploring the past to end it with a dollop of joy in the present.

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The ubiquitous tea is there to enjoy everywhere in Turkey, our favourite was the apple tea.

 

Up next : Pamukkale : The cotton castle of Turkey