Day 5: Pamukkale/Antalya
Waking early, we piled in to the bus, now our second home. We were all getting accustomed to the schedule, time change and bus travel; our seats were now staked out and we had the routine down. The morning welcomed us to a quick stop atop the Necropolis, where we were able to see the sunrise behind the towering marble columns and stone archways perched atop a mountain overlooking the unearthly Pamakkule, which means “Cotton castle”. This refers to the snow white limestone cascade travertine that has flowed over the mountainside, depositing minerals from natural hot springs. The Romans built a spa here, a place to heal in the calcium-rich water. Due to pollution and many hotels redirecting water over the years, the cascade is in the process of being restored, and while you can no longer swim in its beautiful cascading pools, they may one day open it up partially for us to enjoy. Nonetheless, it was an amazing site, and one can imagine why the Romans chose this spot.

On to Antalya, a beautiful town where we visited the excellent Antalya Archeological Museum, home to a vast collection of artifacts, marble statuary and other collectibles from the many rich cities in the area. Also, they have an impressive display of sarcophagi, the more heavily decorated ones based upon the wealth of the person inside. Later that afternoon, we stopped by a little place Yesim recommended, and ate a delicious lunch of fresh caught trout overlooking a winding river. After dining, we traveled to Aspendos, an incredibly well-preserved Roman theatre located just outside the city. Restored in the 11th century by the Celçik Turks, the theatre is still in use today for Summer concerts and music festivals—don’t miss this if you are in Turkey during the Summer months.

The next stop was my personal favorite: Pergé. Boasting an amazing set of ruins, the site is only 10% uncovered, with many wonderful things yet to be discovered. Once a city of 300,000. Pergé was a sprawling city with one notable feature: a huge marble pool running down the center of the main thoroughfare, the water source being located in the hillside at the end of the city against the mountains. Water cascaded down the mountain, out from below a marble statue and flowed through the enormous long pool the entire length of the city. We passed between two Hellenistic-Roman Gate Towers, round structures still partially intact and towering above the city. On the way out, we were able to see the enormous stadium, site of many races and athletic events. This is a site that in coming years will only get better as more and more is discovered and unearthed. Dinner and overnight at the Club Falcon, a very urban business-type hotel, situated on a cliff top overlooking the sea, and we were on to Central Turkey to the Konya/Capadoccia region.

Day 6 & 7: Antalya/Konya/Capadocia
Before leaving the Falcon Hotel, I snuck away to peer over the cliffside to the ocean below. It was early, the sun was just coming up and we had a long drive ahead of us that day. We hit the road, passing acres and acres of farm land, winding rivers and small villages. As we started to climb into the Taurus Mountains, the landscape changed; pastures gave way to rugged rocky peaks, snow-capped ridges and craggy rivers. Villages appeared here and there along the way, set into small depressions between the hills and nestled in the pine forests. Yesim described the sacred Cedar trees, and how they had been used for burial and religious purposes for years. On the mineral-rich steppes we began to see large herds of sheep and goats, shepherds standing by with their herding dogs on full alert for any escapees. We also passed a band of nomads, easy to spot with their goatskin and canvas tents, vestiges of a disappearing people that roamed this area for millennia.

Arriving in Konya, we visited the mausoleum of Mevlana, the famous poet and teacher that laid the foundation for the Whirling Dervishes, a spiritual movement addressing Allah, but transcending religion to be focused as humanists. The mausoleum was a very somber, haunting place filled with devout worshippers and moody lighting. A reed flute was playing, symbolic of the Dervishes’ whirling spiritual delirium, something we would be experiencing soon.

Next, we stopped at the Karatay Theological school, where there are amazing blue tiles on display, as well as numerous gilded, hand-wrought copies of the Koran. I was continually fascinated by the sheer volume of artwork and design in Turkish Muslim culture: everything was decorated, painted or tiles, but not in the heavy, baroque styles of the West.

Traveling towards Capadocia, we began to see giant stone fortresses along side the road. Yesim described these as caravans, stopping points along the Silk Road, connecting Turkey all the way to China. Traders and travelers could stop and rest, refuel their camels and rest up for the next leg of their journey. Spaced every 25 km, the caravans were the exact distance apart that a camel can travel in a day. We stopped to visit one of the most intact, famous caravans: the Sultan Han Caravanserai, an important inn along the way. It is an imposing structure, with high walls and arched rooms for bathing, bathroom, and sleep. Outside, we were greeted (as usual) by children who wanted to sell us little trinkets, but if you said no, they more often than not just gave you something anyway. We took pictures, gave them candy and pens, and they ran around like kids do, excited and happy to be interacting with tourists.

Capadocia
Later that afternoon, we arrived at the amazing Hotel Burcu, a former monastery with soaring ceilings and arched, stone rooms. This was clearly a special occaision: FLO-USA had local FLO representatives on hand to offer us drinks, and there was a flute player set up to entertain us as we checked in, as well as a woman in traditional dress handing out Turkish Delight. At dinner, we were treated to a very special meal, including the regional specialty: Testi Kebap, a mouth-watering tandoori lamb cooked in-ground for 8 hours. Yesim had called ahead, and arranged for this with the FLO-USA office. Dinner was like a show, with wine and waiters scurrying to clear out plates as fast as we could eat. When the Kebap was presented, it was wheeled in on a cart, having been cooked in a terra-cotta pot all day. The pot was capped with bread, and the manager made a great show of breaking the pot open and allowing the juices, meat and veggies inside to run out on to a large plate. This was then sliced up and served, and it was absolutely delicious.

Dinner was followed by a trip to a Caravan where the local Whirling Dervishes practiced their art. Arms and faces aloft, the Dervishes spin to represent all that is created by God. All is round, spinning and whirling through the Universe, and they follow this path to spiritual ecstacy. We were participants in this special spiritual event, as it is not performed as a show; you are invited to attend. The Dervishes ceremony is interesting: the musicians walk out first, bowing to a red-dyed sheepskin (representative of Rumi), and seat themselves along the far wall. The dancers come next, lead by the local Dervish master. They go through a ritual bowing process, each walking carefully up to the sheepskin, bowing and moving in a circular position to bow to each other as the next approaches and performs his bowing. After a few rounds of this, they start to whirl; it is hard to describe, and unfortunately I was not allowed to photograph this amazing event. The whirling is very rhythmic, in time with the music and the ever-haunting reed flute. Amazingly, they do all of this with their eyes closed. The event was hypnotic— I found myself closing my eyes, still aware of my surroundings but closed off visually. In total, the event was almost 1-1/2 hours, but it felt like mere minutes. Afterwards, we were treated with apple tea and sat in some of the side rooms of the caravan, warming up under heat lamps and talking about the event we had just participated in.

It was hard to imagine topping such an unforgettable day and night. The following morning however, we took a short bus ride out to one of the most spectacular environments in central Turkey: Capadocia. Here, the landscape rules, with rocky cliffs and towering sandstone pillars left after centuries of erosion and wind. Rocks appeared to be balancing precariously on top of stone pillars, these formations known as “Fairy Chimneys”. Many had been carved out, as the inner stone is very soft, encased in the harder outer skin. It was like Utah meets Stonehenge, with caves, windows and entire buildings created by hollowing out the rocks. As we explored one particular area, a hot-air balloon rose out from behind a nearby set of fairy Chimmneys, lending a surreal look to this unusual place. Even the local Police station was carved out of stone!

We then traveled to the carved-rock chapels of Goereme, a series of domed rooms, painted with frescoes depicting early Christians. Hiding from persecution by the Arabs, many of these Christian art works are very well preserved, the colors unbleached due to their location inside the dark volcanic rock.

Next, we descended into the subterranean towns of Kaymakli, one of the underground cities created to hide early locals from invaders. Deep wells provided water, and tall chimneys ventilation and exits for smoke. Wine presses, oil storage, livestock pens, cooking-places and elaborate churches were carved out of the soft volcanic rock so that the inhabitants could live for extended periods underground until it was safe to return to their above-ground dwellings. These cities descend 8 stories, and were connected as far as 5 km away by tunnel. The area has over 200 such cities underground (essentially the entire region!), although only a small fraction have been mapped and are open to the public.

Many in our group were excited about this next stop: a visit to one of the premiere carpet shops in Turkey. The English-speaking proprietor took our group through the process from harvesting the silk form moth cocoons to spinning it into thread to creating the rugs themselves. As he described each step, we were able to see local women working the looms; two older women were set off to one side, working on the highest form of this interesting art: silk-on-silk carpets. These were smaller pieces, probably no more than 24 inches across, but would take up to one year to finish! This is the highest form of the art: other women of all ages were working on other carpets, with lower knot count and thicker threads, but easily as beautiful. We were give an excellent 101 in the history, tradition and techniques used to create these specialized carpets. After a delicious lunch of Turkish pizza, we were treated to a show, with the employees rolling out hundreds of carpets, each one more impressive than the next. Regionally, each area has its own style, colors and patterns; the women who create the carpets usually don’t design them, but take a pre-made regional pattern and execute it in wool, cotton or silk. This level of carpet making is a dying art; most younger women would rather move to the big cities to pursue other more modern pastimes, and carpets of this quality are slowly going away.

Our last stop of the day was to the Elma Art Center, a local art center with traditional and modern works in silver, gold, turquoise, onyx, marble and all manner of gemstones. Here we witnessed the local stone-master craft a lump of ugly rock into a beautiful onyx vase. Once inside the main facility, I was astounded by the craftsmanship and delicate filigree designs in silver and gold, a traditional art form dating back centuries.

As a finalé to this wonderful location, Yesim arranged for us to go to a special dinner in an underground restaurant, with a specialized traditional dance show. We saw men and women in traditional costume, reenacting the wedding rituals and dance common in recent past, and still practiced in more rural parts of eastern Turkey. At various points in the show, audience members were drawn up on the main follow to participate; after a prospective “bride” was brought in on a pony (!), I was tapped to act as a suitor for the wedding party, trying to impress my prospective bride with my strength (I DID do more pushups than the other guy…). Everyone was involved: there were dance trains going all around the space, outside to dance around a huge fire pit and back in for more of the show. We saw men dueling with short swords, sparks flying as they clashed their swords while spinning at an alarming rate. To wrap up the night, the room went dark; a glowing neon cylinder descended from the roof, revealing a silk-covered belly dancer who began her famous moves. A few men from various tables were once again brought out to learn to belly dance, and entertain the rest of the audience. I think it was the 70+ year old Japanese tourist who stole the show: he was just doing his own thing, interpreting the belly dancers moves in his own special way. It was hilarious, fun and exciting for all.

More in the next installment where we will travel to Ankara, Bursa, and back to out last stop, Istanbul.