There had been a fair amount of debate between Scott and I on whether it would be a good idea to go ballooning and boy did we ever make the right decision.
First there was the cost (200 euro each holy crap!), then the fact that they pick you up at 4 freaking am, and finally that one of us is afraid of flights and the other of heights.
Every person we spoke to gushed about the experience so we said a couple of Hail Marys (ok, not really) and took a chance (really).
Why these people collected us at 4am is a mystery. From our hotel we were taken to a place where we were served a ridiculously enormous bang-up buffet breakfast, complete with food sculptures in amongst the dishes. And there were droves of people. Really it felt like every man and his hungry pushy cousin were there, all shoving each other out of the way so that they could be the first to get to all the food.
Who the bloody hell are all these pushy people scooping up plates of rice and soup at 4.15 freaking am, I wondered, and who can even eat at that time of the morning?! I would soon get to know them a little more intimately when I would be crammed into a basket alongside 16 of them. But my crusty cranky mood was diluted after they cleared a path between me and the coffee machine. Probably if I didn't know me, I'd have been terrified of me at that moment too.
There are multiple balloon tour operators in Cappadocia, so we went with Kapadokya Balloons who were recommended to us by our hotel. The guys in charge of manning our balloon were such fun, all joking around and playing the fool (a fact which I appreciated more after the flight than before).
There were probably about 30 to 40 minibuses parked outside the strange breakfast building. The hungry 5 thousand were divided into groups and directed to the appropriate minibus. Our friendly pilot was a chap named Andrew. I'd thought to myself how unusual it was for a Turk to be named Andrew but he soon revealed himself to be a Kiwi.
When we arrived at our baskets there was light in the sky (as opposed to being in complete darkness like when we were collected and fed) and we watched as our balloon was inflated. Nice, we got the Mercedes! I made a video of this with my cellphone.
My stomach butterflies were growing more violent and vicious by the second. They had developed acid-coated fangs and were bloodthirstily ripping and tearing their way through my delicate gizzards. I stopped caring about the hungry 5 thousand, and the earliness, and the chaos and now centered on the here-and-now and the fact that I would be climbing into a wicker basket tied to a balloon, and with nothing between me and the ground. What in the world were we thinking we are going to die on our honeymoon AAAARRRRGGGGHHHH!!! I looked over at Scott who looked calm and un-phased (does he ever not?) and tried desperately to disguise the fact that I was freaking out. Based on the photo below I was able to do this fairly successfully, but I knew that the ground staff could smell my fear.
I was expecting a violent jolt and to go catapulting off into orbit. What actually happened was a gentle, floatey, flying day-dream. I liked this! No… I loved this!
The acid-fang butterflies were extinguished by a wave of peace and calm (and probably relief). Up, across, up and away we floated. Things got smaller and smaller at a very slow un-terrifying rate and I couldn't take my eyes off of what we were above.
Andrew didn't have a lot of control over which direction we floated in, but he was in complete control of our height and the orientation of the balloon which meant that everyone in our group got a fair chance to view all directions because we were constantly being rotated.
When we eventually descended it was straight onto a flatbed trailer that the ground team had parked in the field that we came down in (they remain in constant contact with the balloon pilot to figure out where to pick us up). As we were landing, one of the team gave me and all the other ladies in the basket a little flower that he'd picked in the field we landed in.
While the balloon was being deflated and folded up we were served a glass of Cappadocian champagne, and Scott and I were given a bottle tied with a ribbon as a gift because we were the honeymoon couple! :) Right as I'd finished my drink, I was scooped up by the flower-giving balloon man and tossed onto the deflated balloon, presumably to help get the remaining air out. I was joined shortly by 3 more of the girls from our ride and it all made for a lot of hilarity and confusion and I nearly booted someone in the face.
This ballooning experience was a unique one. I felt unlike any other time in my whole life, and so did Scott. It was incomparable, magical, wonderful and the closest I will ever be to having lived a dream.
One would have thought that we'd have learnt our lesson about visiting popular tourist sites at noon but evidently we had not. I suppose one is quick to forget the crappy parts of an excursion. We'd decided to visit the open air museum of Göreme, like fools, on one of the hottest days since we'd been in Turkey, at noon.
First I should probably mention why Göreme is special and why every single visitor to Cappadocia will probably visit it before visiting anywhere else: it is central, and confirmed to be one of the oldest sites in the region. According to my Cappadocia guide it was mentioned in a book from the 7th century (called The Doings of St Heiron). The open-air museum is a closed-off region that you buy a ticket to enter and it is dense with caves, many of them churches, and nearly all lined with ancient frescoes that were painted from the 6th century onwards. That's very old, and people love old churches.
Perhaps we were still spoilt from the multitude of activities on the day before because we found this museum to be very hard work. After queuing to get in, one has to queue again to get into the individual caves and it was filled with the bad kind of tourist who are pushy and selfish.
For the first time we'd decided to get the audio guide which we shared (hoping that it would offer more satisfying explanations). Scott wasn't that into the idea but eventually agreed to it. Thanks also to the blazing unbearable heat we'd panicked and bought a cheap hat for each of us so that we wouldn't roast off our heads and faces. Between the audio guides, Scott's backpack, the cameras hanging off our necks and the stupid hats, we had become terrifying perfect tourists. (pic of me by Scott)
The audio guide was comically bad. It had a slow-talking British announcer who painfully mispronounced Cappadocia each time. I was sure that Scott was going to crack under the circumstances any moment and insist on leaving and waiting for me in the car park but he held it together very well. Scott is a highly patient person but he has his limits. We measure Scott's ability to go on in a museum in what we call his 'museum calories'. He has a limited amount of museum calories and each time someone shoves into us or we have to queue to see something, the calorie depletion rate rises rapidly. Once there are no more calories, you'd better be ready to beat it out there in a hurry or risk a crisis. Calories may be topped up with beer (in some cases), or a quiet and cool place to sit that has internet access. But not a whole lot else. I think Göreme came dangerously close to running him into a calorie deficit..
In all our sightseeing in Cappadocia so far we'd felt frustrated at the lack of information provided about what we were seeing. There are a lot of information placards that have been translated from Turkish to English (albeit poorly… Turklish?) but nearly all of them are focussed on informing us of the religious meaning behind the sites rather than the historical or geological. For example, telling me that Saint Joe is said to have passed through this valley is far less useful than explaining, for example, that people from Iran and Saudi Arabia migrated through in the xyzth century. We'd bought a little book to try and get around this and have more info, but it turned out to be fairly limited in its information and also written in Turklish. Göreme was no different in these challenges, and the information was far too vague and religiously detailed in spite of having rented the audio guide. Ok: we know where these people worship and we know where they store their food and bury their dead. But where do they actually live? There were so many churches, honestly nearly every site within the Göreme open-air museum is a church.
After leaving the open air museum we decided to walk the 3km back to our hotel instead of getting a taxi. It was very hot but a beautiful day and we loved our walk (thank goodness we had the stupid hats). We got a fantastic view of Göreme's valley and there were no other people anywhere to be found, which was blissful. We detoured on the way home and so ended up walking a fair bit longer, and got slightly lost but in the good way. Eventually we found our way back to our village, stopped for lunch and some fresh cherries and then made it back to the Hezen, where we vegetated blissfully for the rest of the day and watched the sun go down over the castle on our last night in magical Cappadocia.
Scott wears a tiny device called a FitBit. It is a detailed tracking device and tells you just how far you've walked. Thanks to this we knew that on Thursday we walked 14km, and on Friday we would hit the 14km mark for a second time. Both days were intense.
We started off our Friday with a leisurely get-ready and then broke our no-internet rule and called our dear friend Sal for her birthday. It was a good, gentle start to what would turn into a very hectic day of being tourists. We'd resolved to see and do every single thing in Istanbul this day.
Our journey began amusingly. We'd purchased tokens for the tram and promptly pushed through the turnstiles in the wrong direction and had to come back out again and buy a new set of tokens to head in the direction that we actually wanted to go.
First stop: Hagia Sophia. My travel guide for Istanbul lists this as a must-see for being 'one of the world's greatest feats of architecture' but we would happily have given it a skip had we known the mess of queues, touts, tour guides and con-artist simit salesmen that we were about to face, all in thirty-something degree blazing midday heat. By the time we made it inside we were both so agitated that we each wanted to find a separate corner somewhere, curl into a foetal position and hum something monotone. I am glad that we suffered through it though because it turned out to be spectacular.
Hagia Sophia inside is mainly one large hall. Because of the size of the building and how wide across and high up it goes, it was tricky to take pictures of. I attempted to get a panorama using the Photosynth app on my iPhone that Charles showed us (which, oddly enough, is made by Microsoft). The result was bizarre and jagged (I suppose this takes a little practise and a novice like me should not have attempted to snap this entire hall) but I love the picture that came about!
From here we walked the short distance over to the Blue Mosque. The heat had become even more intense but the crowds had thinned out. On our walk we encountered this couple wearing matching umbrella hats:
Our arrival at the Blue Mosque coincided with prayer time and so we weren't able to enter. It is amazing to see something so ancient (this one dates from 1616) still in use today, and according to Wikipedia the building has a capacity of 10 000. We peeped in to see what prayer time looked like but were forbidden from taking any photos. On the outside area there was a series of taps where people could wash their faces, hands and feet before going in to pray. The taps are really ornate and beautiful, and similar ones are installed throughout the country.
Next stop: Grand Bazaar. I have to say that I was nervous about this one and the effect that it might have on Scott's fragile tolerance for confined spaces filled with people and vendors all pushing and yelling, and shopping (especially after the chaos at Hagia Sophia). This market was an amazing thing to behold though. It is the oldest and largest market in the world. It opened in 1461, has over 4000 shops, 58 covered streets and attracts between 250 000 and 500 000 visitors per day!
We began not by shopping, but by finding a cosy coffee shop and sampling the famed Turkish coffee. Well - Scott did. I was not brave enough :) Look how pretty it was:
We decided to hit up the Spice Bazaar next. I was a complete mess by the time we got there, because like a fool I had decided to buy a mielie (corn on the cob) from one of the local street vendors and it turned out to be the stickiest messiest vegetable I have ever eaten. I have never known a mielie to be so damned sticky and messy. They cook them over an open fire and they look and smell delicious, but this is one mistake I will not be making again. The thing managed to cover me the whole way down my front, and it took me hours to get the bits out of my teeth, clothing and hair (I don't carry dental floss around with me when I go walking but I think now I will) and tainted the flavour of the freshly made Turkish delight that we tasted in the market. He was very nice about it but I'm sure Scott was even embarrassed to be seen alongside me.
The Turkish delight in Turkey is nothing like what we in the west know Turkish delight to be. It has more of a nougat-like consistency and often has whole pistachios and hazelnuts in it. We bought a few pieces thinking that they would tide us over for the rest of our time in Istanbul but they did not even make it out of the market. They come in 'cakes' of fresh made candy, and you select the flavour that you want (for example they had pomegranate, hazelnut and coconut, or regular pistachio) and tell them how much you want and they sell it to you by weight.
After the Spice Market we walked to the extremely grandiose bridge that crosses the Bosphorous River. My Wallpaper Istanbul City Guide claims that this bridge and general region has been compared to Montmartre in Paris. The odd and interesting thing about it is that even though there are tonnes of boats carrying tourists and who knows what else (cats, perhaps?) under it, there is a huge contingent of fishermen fishing down off the bridge into the water 1000 metres below. And I say fishermen in the most literal sense, because there was not single female fishing. A lot of these people were dressed as though they had stopped to cast a quick line in on the way home from their office jobs.
More walking back towards Taksim Square which is near our hotel, and on the way up the shopping walking street connecting to it, we inadvertently got caught in a gridlocked crowd of protestors, and there were millions of riot police everywhere. Amazing how it really came out of nowhere, and it was quite a panickey, scary experience. Eventually we were able to remove ourselves from it and slip into a side street where we bolted back to our hotel as quickly as we could. We still have no idea what was going on or what any of it was about, and there were really a terrifying amount of police all wearing full riot gear and brandishing large weapons that they kept their fingers on the triggers of.
Back at the hotel we were completely wiped out. We'd planned to use the hotel's jacuzzi, Turkish bath and sauna again but we collapsed in a heap and passed out. I'd call day 3 a success.
First full day in Turkey, and by now it had properly sunken in where we were which caused me to bolt out of bed with excitement really early. Scott had barely slept on any of our flights (I'd slept a whole lot) and I killed time waiting for him to wake up by writing a blog post.
Our first plan for the day had been to try out some of the Turkish coffee that we'd often heard about, supposedly guaranteed to wire you better than any other legal substance. We'd apparently miscommunicated what we were looking for when we asked the hotel porter where to find this, because when we got to where he'd directed us it turned out to be a crappy local chain called Simit Sarayi and the latte that I ordered was thimble-sized, weak and watery. But not enough to dampen my spirits! Scott got a simit (sesame seed bagel) which seems to be a local staple and the simit vendor is to Istanbul what the hot dog vendor is to New York.
We'd decided to visit Istanbul's modern art gallery as a first activity, and chose to walk there instead of using transit.
This city is not only scenic. This city is filled to bursting with free cats! Cats are everywhere! Even though they are nearly all ferrel and rather scrappy looking, they are friendly and will give you a whiskery smile and a miao when you walk by. People's reaction to the cats is interesting. In any other place I could imagine them being regarded as pests since there are so many of them and they don't belong to anyone, but Istanbulites often here stop to talk to the cats and pet them, and put out little dishes of food.
Istanbul Modern did not disappoint. It was a perfect size. We managed to make our way through every one of the exhibits without collapsing in an exhausted heap afterwards - perhaps a first. They had some fantastic installation work, lots of video pieces and they even had an elaborate work with 2 drawings and some sort of a kaleidoscope by South Africa's William Kentridge. I didn't get to look at it properly though because it was being hogged by a group of museum-visiting Turkish men.
On our way home from the museum we gave in and sat down for a predictable Starbucks coffee and a solid dose of silent people watching. I stole a shot of this Starbucks man with the cat companion who adopted him and melted down his laptop bag.
More walking back in the direction of our hotel and I was able to sneak in a little shopping. It seems that in Istanbul, you cannot go wrong with red. I have never seen more people wearing red and it always looks absolutely striking. I've been wanting a pair of red pants for a while now and was excited to pick some up from the Mango here where they had 5 styles of red pants to chose from.
On our walk back home we turned into a really peculiar part of town. We haven't been able to figure out why, but it is an entire abandoned neighbourhood and in a prime part of the city. The more we tried to get away from this ghost town, the deeper in we seemed to get and the empty buildings were peppered with dangerous looking cats and children. Eventually we got past it and found ourselves in dodgeville, and it felt like we were seasoned fresh meat being dropped into a pit of hungry hounds. The eyes and heads of every local followed us as we walked by and we were feeling quite unsafe, though we have no idea whether or not we actually were. Either way, we were definitely more conspicuous than we'd liked to have been.
The final walk out of dodgeville was up a large and very steep hill which our unfit selves were only able to make it up thanks to a dose of adenaline. Back in our hood Scott decided to take off the edge with a food item that really should never be allowed, but is to be found all over the place here: a french-fry filled hot dog.
Our hotel in Istanbul was very fancy and came with a heated indoor swimming pool, a jacuzzi, a Turkish bath hot room and a sauna. After we'd gotten home and scrubbed the city filth off, we went downstairs in our cushy robes and made use of every one of them. We rounded it all off with some lovely Stoney Brook wine that we'd brought along, freshened up and headed back out for dinner to a place recommended by Time Out Istanbul called Meze by Lemon Tree. The restaurant was tiny and only had about 8 tables. The service and food were both impeccable, and the decor was simple and beautiful with Turkish-style geometric mosaic floor tiles that I could not stop staring at.
It is rare that Scott and I visit a place that is new to both of us, and so far this has been an absolutely incredible time. We've been having the best time discovering things and places together. It has been an adjustment doing this all without using our phones or computers along the way to work things out but what we've lacked in preparedness we have more than made up for in adventure.
Turkey. I have been daydreaming about visiting Turkey for so, so long. This place has history on the scale of Rome. When I learned of Cappadocia I knew that this was somewhere I would definitely want to visit.
Scott's been planning our honeymoon for months, and is apparently very good at keeping a secret because nobody was able to get it out of him. There were four people who knew where we were going, largely for practical reasons, and I was not one of them (also for practical reasons, since it was my surprise). I had several theories (one of which turned out to be correct!) but each had a counter point as to why it couldn't be there.
This was one of our least shevelled departures to date. The plan had been to let me know by giving me the travel guides that he'd bought when we were on the plane, but it was not to be.
The letters. The thank you letters. As usual we'd overestimated our capacity for getting things done before leaving. One such thing was writing thank you notes to various people who were involved in our wedding. Since we didn't send out conventional invitations, it was important to me that the notes were personally written and not just printed off templates. I wanted to include some of the professional photographs in a few of them, and we only received those last Tuesday. What stopped me from writing the notes beforehand and getting the envelopes all ready to go, we will never know.
Hand-writing approximately sixty letters is a time consuming business. More so than I might ever have imagined, and we ran out of time to mail them. No matter, we thought… we'll stop in at a Postnet in town en-route to the airport (after this much effort we weren't going to risk having the SA Post Office disappear them). But we were late. And it was raining. And we were taking a taxi to the bus via the Postnet, and then the bus to the airport and all in Cape Town's rush hour (a little after 3pm).
There was no way that we would make it to both the Postnet and our flight on time. Crap. Ok, well, we knew there was an SA Post Office at the airport - we'd send them all registered from there. And so off we went to the airport with our little baggie of sixty hand-written thank you notes, all sealed and without stamps. What we failed to take into account was that South African government institutions will rarely work past 15h30 and so after we'd checked in (still without me knowing where we were leaving for) we set out to find the Post Office. Needless to say it was closed and we were now stuck standing in the middle of what felt like Grand Central station, on a time budget and trying to figure out what to do.
Scott knew. Scott always knows what to do.
"We'll find stamps here in the airport and send all the South African letters from in South Africa using the regular post box, and offer up a sacrifice to the postal deities to increase our odds that the letters will make it there. Then, all the international letters we'll take along and mail from Istanbul!"
I had to ask him to repeat himself. And he did - we'll send the rest from Istanbul. After months and months of saving the secret, this was how I'd learn that we were going to Turkey? I felt a fleeting flash of annoyance at him for being a jackass, but that was rapidly replaced by the best kind of excitement ever! I would learn once we were in Istanbul that we were not only going to Istanbul, but also to Cappadocia and if we felt like it, also to the south of Turkey where they have gorgeous tropical beaches.
Other than a bad landing in Johannesburg, all three of our flights were largely uneventful (though I did manage to leave one of them without my 5-year old ipod nano, which made me a little sad). After getting in to Istanbul it took about an hour and a half to actually get out of the airport, and we took the subway and trams into town. Istanbul has a great subway system, and when we were on the tram, we passed by one amazing sight after another. I felt like I was in a documentary - what were all of these incredible old buildings that we were passing?
Scott's booked us into a really nice hotel and it is in a brilliant area. After we'd dumped our bags we took out for a walk. We walked and walked and walked. We were both so exhausted, but we traipsed the streets in our area like a pair of undead lovers until late at night. Today we have plans to visit some of the recommended places listed in the Wallpaper guide and I'm expecting to have happily aching feet by tonight.
I think that my Scoddy may just have outdone himself. What a freaking lucky girl I am. It still all feels like a dream.