Chanoy Honeymoon: Fez Travel Tour of Turkey, December 2015 – January 2016

Note – photo gallery at the bottom of this post.

After nearly four months of travelling and all the organisation and planning that that entails, I was about ready to hand over responsibility to someone else. After all, a holiday can actually be quite hard work – researching and booking accommodation, transportation, planning public transport routes, figuring out where to eat, trying to learn the basics of a new language…it can be quite stressful! For that reason, we joined a Fez Travel seven day Turkey Classics tour, where all we had to do was follow instructions about what time to get up and be ready for the day’s activities – everything else was taken care of for us!

Cagman (pronounced Charman) our guide, and Erim our minibus driver, took our small group of twelve tourists around some of the most beautiful sights in Turkey. Here’s a brief snapshot of what we did each day:

  • Day One: Departed from Istanbul in the early morning to one of the most emotionally touching places in Turkey, the Gallipoli peninsula. We visited the WW1 battlefields of Gallipoli including the Long Pine and Chunuk Bair Memorials, ANZAC Cove, Johnston’s Jolly, original trenches and tunnels, and The Nek. Overnight in Canakkale.
  • Day Two: We visited Troy, home of the famed Trojan horse, and then toured the magnificent acropolis of Pergamum. Its impressive temples and library made Pergamum a renowned cultural and political centre in its time. Overnight in Kusadasi.
  • Day Three: We started the day with a visit to the carpet village where Turkish carpets are made by hand, and continued with a guided tour of Ephesus, the ancient city. We continued to the former Greek village of Sirince, famous for its fruit wines. Overnight in Kusadasi.
  • Day Four: The morning started with a display of locally handcrafted leather goods before heading to the magnificent white calcium terraces, known as Travertines, in Pamukkale where we also toured the ancient city of Hierapolis. Overnight in Pamukkale.
  • Day Five: We travelled the ancient Silk Road visiting Sultanhani Caravansary and the Mevlana museum in Konya along the way. Overnight in Cappadocia.
  • Day Six: We started the day with a sunrise hot-air balloon flight over the lunar landscape of Cappadocia, before visiting an underground city, a gem and mineral shop, and the Goreme Valley Open Air Museum and the fairy chimneys. Overnight in Cappadocia.
  • Day Seven: Early morning departure to the nation’s capital, Ankara, where we visited Anitkabir, mausoleum of the famed Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, before returning to Istanbul.

It was an absolutely incredible week where we saw the physical remnants of ancient history, learnt a lot about Turkish history and culture from our highly knowledgable guide, shed a few tears at Gallopoli, made snow angels for the first time, and in an absolute highlight of the whole tour, saw the otherworldly landscape of Cappadocia from the heights of a hot-air balloon.

Ephesus is an incredibly well-preserved ancient city, the Pamukkale travertines are a stunning reminder of what nature can create, and the remains of Troy are a warning against the consequences of indiscriminate fortune hunters carrying out excavations rather than trained archaeologists. The photos in the photo gallery below should give some indication of the beauty of the landscapes that we encountered and the majesty of the ancient cities we visited.

There are a few downsides to a short, intense tour like this though. Firstly, there’s a lot of early morning wake-ups – 6am starts to make sure that we get on the road for (second downside), hours of driving to get to the next destination. Days five and seven were particularly tough days, with more than eight hours spent in the minibus on each day. The number of activities planned also means that you are a little bit time-limited in certain areas – Cagman was able to allow us a designated amount of free time in each destination after he first did his tour, but if you wanted to spend more than an hour and a half at Pamukkale, you were out of luck.

You’re also hyper-aware about commissions and which stops on the tour were providing a kick-back to the tour company. The restaurants where we stopped for lunches (own expense) were generally designated tourist restaurants which served good food, but which were (I felt) overpriced for what we got when compared to restaurants we visited in Istanbul. No doubt the tour company received a commission for stopping there. There were also stops to places like the Turkish carpet workshop, the Turkish leather store, the Turkish gem store, the Turkish ceramics store, where we would receive some brief education about the creative process and be promised that there would be no ‘hard sell’, but then be led to a showroom with a dozen hovering salespeople.

However this didn’t ruin the tour, and I know why it’s done – the tour is so cheap (we paid $1600 for two people which included transport, accommodation, two meals a day, and the actual tour itself) that the company has to make some extra money up somewhere. Honestly though, I would have preferred to pay more for the tour itself and skip the hard-sell showrooms, instead spending more time in the historical sites that I did actually care about.

Finally, it’s important to note that often on a guided tour, the tour is only as enjoyable as the people that you’re travelling with. After months of travelling alone as a couple, it was really nice for K and I to have regular interaction with a fantastic group of fellow travellers who made the tour really special. With five Kiwis, four Aussies and three Indians on board our minibus, we got to know each other very well and created some strong friendships. Thanks Greg, Kim, Natalya, Angela, Janine, Chris, Lori, Sri, Neeli and Vasu for a fantastic week together and for our new friendships! I’m so glad that we had a small tight-knit group, rather than a large impersonal bus tour with over 20 travellers.

I highly recommend considering Fez Travel if you want to see a bit more of Turkey than just Istanbul. While it’s possible to travel independently around Turkey, it is difficult trying to figure out the connections between cities, not to mention the cost of travelling independently to the sites of ancient cities. Give yourself a break from the stress of making travel plans, and let Fez Travel take over for you!

Chanoy Honeymoon: Istanbul, December 2015

A week after we flew out of Istanbul, we heard news of the terrorist attacks of 12 January where 10 people were killed and more injured. I posted on Facebook not long after: “Thinking of the people of Istanbul after the latest tragedy. We were there just a week ago, and it’s a beautiful city rich with history, culture and tradition. We also joined a week-long tour around Turkey and it gave us some wonderful experiences, including a balloon flight over otherworldly Cappadocia. Our guide told us that tourism in Turkey is dropping, and the local economy is struggling as a result. Don’t let terror scare you away from visiting Istanbul – they need the support of international travellers now more than ever.”

I still believe this to be true. We can’t let terrorism stop us from visiting beautiful cities like Istanbul, Brussels, or Paris, where there’s so much on offer for foreign tourists. Consider this blog post my appeal to you world travellers – consider making Istanbul your next holiday destination for the following five reasons.

1. Istanbul is a cheap holiday destination.

Even with our dollar doing as poorly as it is, Istanbul and Turkey as a whole is still an extremely cheap holiday destination for Australians. A luxurious meal out for two people will cost you on average $20 per couple, while a doner kebab from a street stall will only cost you about $3. Buy yourself a large cup of fresh orange or pomegranate juice for $2.50 (or a bottle of water for 75 cents), and taking public transport will only cost you about $5 per day, per couple. Our Airbnb accommodation was only $55 a night, and when K got sick, we got over-the-counter Nurofen cold medicine for $4. While it’s not as cheap as going to Bali, it’s still much cheaper than many other popular holiday destinations!

2. Istanbul is a city dating back more than a millennium.

The Hagia Sophia and the Basilica Cistern (both in photos below, both sites open to foreign tourists) both date back to the time of the Roman Emperor Justinian (circa 500 AD), while the city of Istanbul / Constantinople itself dates back to 300AD. Under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, structures such as the impressively decorated Topkapi Palace and colourfully tiled Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque) were built in the 14th and 15th centuries, and city institutions such as the Grand Bazaar and Spice Markets were first conceived and built. If you’re vaguely interested in history, no matter what era, Istanbul has something to offer.

3. Istanbul is a city with amazing food.

While cheap street stalls selling doners and kebaps rule supreme in terms of square footage in the city, there’s a lot more on offer in Istanbul. We visited sit-down kebap joints like Ortaklar Iskender Kebap, cafes like Marmara Cafe, gozleme restaurants like Hala Manti ve Ev Yemekleri Salonu, and even Russian restaurants like Cagri Restaurant. Pizza and Italian is a popular ‘foreign’ cuisine here, though you will find it harder to find a good Chinese restaurant or British pub.

Who needs ‘foreign’ food though, when you have a million and one different Turkish desserts to choose from? There’s specialists like Hakki Zade where we bought a great selection of baklava, Meshur Beyoglu Cikolatacisi where we bought some excellent chocolate with the largest hazelnuts I’ve ever seen, or you could visit one of the many places around the city that sell home-made Turkish Delight (in a million and one flavours, not just rosewater!) and dondurma, Turkish pulled ice-cream.

4. Istanbul is a city of pampering and luxury.

You can’t visit Istanbul without visiting a Turkish bath, or hamam. We went to Aga Hamami as it was located conveniently close to our accommodation and was also a unisex hamam. Many hamams are single-sex only or else segregate guests so if you’re visiting Istanbul as a mixed-sex couple, make sure you find one that allows both men and women! Paying only $115 for both of us, we spent a whole afternoon at Aga Hamami and enjoyed their marble bath room, sauna, a foam bath, oil massage and facial. We lounged around in Turkish bath towels sipping apple tea and relaxing in their comfortable lounge areas.

It really is an experience to be remembered – as long as you’re not shy about showing your body! As I said on Facebook: “Nothing quite like having a topless middle-aged Turkish woman whipping your towel off you, manoeuvring you onto a marble slab and into various exposing positions while she scrubs your naked body raw, her pendulous breasts resting on your back every so often.”

5. Istanbul is a city for animal lovers.

Paranoid people will try to convince you to stay away from the thousands of stray cats and dogs around the city as they’ll believe that they have fleas. Contrary to popular opinion though, they’re all very well looked after. It wasn’t uncommon to see a cat waiting patiently by a street doner stall for the seller to throw him some scraps (which they usually do!), or a dog waiting outside a restaurant for people to give him scraps off their plate. Many people also put out bowls of water for strays on their doorsteps, some even provide dry pet food in a bowl as well. In addition to that, the city keeps a close eye on them and have a Trap Tag and Release program, where dogs are tagged, vaccinated, and desexed before being released. I’m not sure if cats are managed in the same way, but dogs certainly are!

Many of the photos in the album below are of stray cats and dogs who will come up to you looking for a treat – they’re very friendly and I never once came across an aggressive stray. Carry some dry pet food in a little plastic bag with you when you go around Istanbul, and feed some strays – you’ll make some animal friends along the way!

What do you think? Will you go and visit Istanbul?

Review: Cagri Restaurant, Istanbul Turkey

For our last meal in Istanbul, we naturally went to a Russian restaurant. Naturally. To be honest, it’s because it was the closest restaurant to our single-night-stay hotel in the Aksaray region, and we didn’t fancy going any further in the rain and snow to search for other options! Laziness, warmth and comfort won out over finding a more ‘genuine’ Turkish dining experience. Cagri Restaurant it was!

Fresh Orange Juice, 10 Turkish Lira each
Fresh Orange Juice, 10 Turkish Lira each

A week and a half after he first got sick, K was still feeling the effects of his cold and worst of all, my immune system was finally giving up and I was starting to feel it as well. A Fresh Orange Juice each to help us get the vitamins we needed to heal ourselves. This proved to be one of the final fresh orange juices we would have for a few weeks on our trip – after we left Istanbul, we headed onto the Balkans where it definitely wasn’t offered at every restaurant and street stall!

Lentil Soup, 8 Turkish Lira
Lentil Soup, 8 Turkish Lira

K continued with his trend of ordering the Lentil Soup, this one significantly more expensive than other restaurants who were charging 4-5 Lira. The higher price point certainly didn’t seem justified as the soup wasn’t any tastier than other variations – it wasn’t spicier, creamier, or thicker.

cagrirestaurant-03

At least we got these delicious freshly-baked Turkish bread rolls to go with the soup. They were wonderfully light and not doughy or heavy at all, instead almost deflating like a balloon when you pierced the wonderfully crispy crust. The liberal use of butter on top of the bread roll as a glaze definitely helped with the taste as well…

Vegetable Casserole, 23 Turkish Lira
Vegetable Casserole, 23 Turkish Lira

I wanted to stock up on my vegetables, so I ordered the Vegetable Casserole. While it was visually quite spectacular in being served on a sizzling hotplate, the vegetables themselves were less than impressive. With the exceptions of the tomatoes which were still quite raw, nearly everything else had been cooked until limp, while also suffering the indignity of being over-salted and over-oily. Not quite the healthy, hearty, vitamin-rich vegetable casserole that I’d been hoping for.

Omelette, 15 Turkish Lira
Omelette, 15 Turkish Lira

K also ordered an Omelette to finish off his meal, which was very simple with just the lightest bit of cheese inside for some extra flavour. Not the best omelette K’s ever had as it lacked that extra punch that some black pepper or chilli flakes could have provided – I’m afraid that we can cook better omelettes at home ourselves! Still, you can’t go too wrong with an omelette if you’re looking for a simple meal that won’t irritate an unsettled stomach.

I wasn’t that impressed with Cagri Restaurant, despite its relatively high rating on TripAdvisor in the top 3% of restaurants in Istanbul. This may be partially our fault – we tried to order healthier meals off the menu rather than the stereotypical heavier Russian meals available which are the restaurant’s actual specialty. While I wouldn’t actively discourage people from visiting Cagri Restaurant, I would encourage you to consider ordering a Russian dish off the menu instead of a healthier choice – a beef stroganoff perhaps?

Cagri Restaurant is located at 49 Aksaray Caddesi, Istanbul Turkey.