12 July 2013

Turkey & Croatia :: The Details (Part II)

Where did I last leave you? Oh, right: Istanbul, my favorite city in the world. (Second to Seattle, of course). Splitting our time in Istanbul, Amos and I decided to head to Cappadocia (as spelled in English) or Kapadokya (as spelled in Turkish). I like the Turkish spelling better because it is phonetically closer to the pronunciation and easy enough on English speakers. Kap-a-do-kya. That's how I'm going to refer to the region, though I fear being one of those people who pronounces Paris "Par-ee" when speaking to other Americans over unlimited salad & breadsticks at an Olive Garden. (Because we all know those people, and those people are the worst.)

Ahem. Kapadokya is a region in central Turkey where the geological structures -- soft rock covered by a hard exterior of volcanic sediment -- have eroded to create fantastic towers and shapes in the desert. It is also a land full of houses built into caves, and these houses have been used by everyone from the Hittites and Persians to the early Christians, who used them as hiding spots before Christianity was an accepted religion. The more archeological work is done, the more Turkey seems as likely as Macedonia for the birthplace of civilization.

The Kapadokya region is bordered by several small towns strung together by two lane highways. Given that the sights are spread out and it can be logistically challenging, we used a guide service for this part of our trip. We booked a 3-day, 2-night package through Euphrates Tours. It just made things so easy: we didn't have to coordinate a thing.

We caught a 6:55AM flight out of Atatürk airport, and from the Sultanahmet district, it was an easy 30 minute cab ride (our hotel's free airport shuttle was one way only). Istanbul has notoriously terrible traffic, and it was nice to miss it by leaving early. We flew Turkish Airlines, easy-peasy, and touched down in Ürgüp, the largest city of the Kapadokya area, by 8am. We met our driver, piled into a (thankfully) air-conditioned bus, and drove an hour into Göreme, a town much closer to all the sights. We met up with our tour group and headed off, all before 10AM. It was incredible to realize we had been in cosmopolitan Istanbul only hours before. It felt like ages ago, in a good way. I love it when that happens on vacation.

Honestly, I'm not a huge tour group fan. It's rare that I feel like the amount of information you get from the guide is worth the awkwardness of having to be an active listen on tour. Using a book, you can skip the boring parts and spend more time on things you find interesting and not worry about offending. In a tour group, you always have to be consciences of other people, stay together, make small talk. You could do a private tour... with all the guide's attention on you... the entire time... and, wow... doesn't that make you sweat a bit just thinking of it? BUT, for this area of the world, a guiding service was totally worth it. All the sights are quite spread out, guidebooks are a bit hard to find, and the cities' economies run on tourism, so we were supporting well-paying local jobs.

My father's worst nightmare.

We stayed at the Gamirasu Cave Hotel in the little village of Ayvali -- and this is where a tour guiding company really knows their stuff -- a hotel I would have passed by, thinking it too remote. It was lovely: quiet and secluded, with an amazing pool and places to lounge. We were so tired from the long days sightseeing in the blasting heat that the isolated location didn't bother us in the slightest. We did have to eat dinner there, but the food was delicious and the prices affordable enough it didn't bother. I would recommend that hotel, even if you don't book a full tour.

Kapadokya was completely interesting and historical, and I enjoyed it very, very much. That said, I feel no need to go back. Amos and I saw everything we could want -- we even splurged on a hot air balloon ride (totally worth it) -- we have lovely memories and photos from our stay. It's not like Istanbul, where the vibrancy would make compelling return trips, or like the Canadian BC countryside, where my soul can unwind and relax (and thus I return). This was a one-time place, and there is nothing wrong with that.

On the third day, we flew out of Kayseri, another small town in Kapaokya (and there was some confusion on my part for the open-jaw-ness of our ticket. Double check, people! Always.) Let me say this about Turkish Air: I had low expectations, but it was a fantastic airline. Planes were new, flying was easy, food was delicious. It was real sandwiches on real baguettes with real mozzarella cheese and real and fresh tomatoes with mint yogurt on the side. You can tell a country takes its food seriously when airplane food and continental breakfasts are something to write home about. I mean, come on. Respect.

From Kapadokya, we went back to Istanbul for 2 days, then on to Croatia. On the map, these places are not that far apart, but we discovered it is quite difficult to get between the two. Our original flight, via Bucharest, was changed several times until we ended up on a plane flying back to Frankfurt, then back down to Dubrovnik. (And people complain about the airport hub system...). We left Istanbul at 5:45AM, almost missed our flight (the airport is surprisingly busy that early), but we were in Dubrovnik by 2PM. It was annoying, but, you know, perspective. It wasn't that bad.

We planned to spend 6 days total in Croatia, just around the Dalmatia Coast. For a two week vacation, we moved pretty slow. Amos and I have discovered that's how we prefer to travel. We like to stay in a place long enough to not be rushed, to try a couple restaurants, to get coffee lazily and without hurry, to walk all around and enjoy a bit more of the vibe. It also maximizes our time on the ground and not 'in transit,' where even when things go right, it can be a pain. We stayed put in Dubrovnik for 3 days and then spent 48 hours on the island of Korčula (pronounced Kor-chu-la), the supposed birthplace of Marco Polo.

Hotels in Dubrovnik are expensive. It's a city still bound by medieval walls, and, while charming, it has no place for large buildings. Apartments are easy to rent and way more affordable. Many residents rent out their places during high season and leave for the more modern (and more convenient for everyday living) suburbs.

We rented a charming one bedroom apartment for 80€ a night. It had an amazing view of Old Town Dubrovnik, a balcony, a basic kitchen, a washing machine, and about 400 stairs between us and the city. I went in cocky -- we're in good shape! -- and ended up so sweaty each time we finally made it back to the apartment. It ended up that we would pack everything we needed for the entire day before leaving in the morning, and it did impede us from ever "popping in" for a quick stop. But it got us out of the (at times) claustrophobic Old Town, and you forgot alllll about the steps when you sat on the balcony with a glass of chilled wine.

The view from our balcony.

Dubrovnik was beautiful, one of the prettiest places I've ever seen. It was so interesting to see a city where the walls built in the 1500s had protected the city from artillery shells in the 1990s. Yugoslavia was a place I knew little about, and I loved being in an area where the crossroads of Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Islam tied it historically back to Turkey, where we just were, and mainland Europe, a culture closer to my own.

[Also, a confidential to American history teachers: MAYBE YOU SHOULD MENTION THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE AT LEAST ONCE. Um, at one point 1 in 3 people lived under the empire and it was not touched on at all for me. Like, ever.]

The obvious downside to Dubrovnik was the crowds. Two words: cruise ships. At least two were docked at any given time, and it often rose to three or four. Old Town is home to 2,000 locals, at best, and it can face upwards of 9,000 cruise ship tourists in a single day. (Greater Dubrovnik has a population of 50,000). With that many people in town for only a number of hours, the city just can't handle it. All space is devoted solely to tourism: restaurants for tourists, kitschy knick-knack shops for tourists... the crowds are daunting. When you looked down Stradun, the main street of Old Town, it is constantly packed with tour guides raising up paddles as masses follow behind them, full of fanny packs and white tennis shoes. There's nothing terribly wrong with cruise ship tourism, I guess, but it rather kills a towns spirit when it seemingly is the town. We found the food overpriced and mediocre, with no need to worry about repeat business. (After one lunch, I asked Amos how is hamburger was. His reply: "My beer was good." So... yeah). We hit the couple tourist sights early or late to avoid the queues. With all of this, it was nice to steal away up the hill to our apartment each night.

Not that it was all bad or unenjoyable. We found wonderful swimming just outside the city gates, where we could jump into salty, clear water from rocks that supported the city walls as they rose from the ocean. It felt as 'off the beaten path' as you could find because you had to wind around outside the city gates for a while and persist past a few almost-dead-ends. This hiddenness made it.

We were jumping off of rocks to swim because there is almost no sand in Croatia. The lack of sediment gives it the bright, clear blue waters (bluest waters in the world! Visible from space!). We would walk around, get hot, jump into the sea, walk home. We spent an afternoon at a fancy beach club, renting chairs and being high class. It was an kind of fun and classy experience, but it turns out that Amos and I prefer free rocks.

We stumbled upon an older couple when we first found our hidden swimming spot. The woman, well into her 60s, was in the water, and after awhile, I realized she was in her underwear. It seemed her and her husband had found the spot on accident and jumped in despite their lack of swimsuits. We gave them a wide berth (the spot was almost empty), but the lightheartedness was contagious. It was sweet how, when they were done, he held up a scarf so she could have some privacy to get dressed. You just knew it was out of character for them: she was probably a teacher and he was probably an office worker, and when they returned back to their normal lives, they would look at each other and laugh about their secret almost-skinny-dip, that time they got crazy while on the Dalmatia Coast.

(Did I just project that whole story onto two strangers? YES I DID.)

Rick Steve's pamphlet on Dubrovnik seems to suggest that you would like to spend 3 to 4 days in the city. I would beg to differ, and Amos and I were ready to move on by the end of Day 2. We stayed on, eating watermelon gelato and jumping into the water, but were happy when our time was up and we caught the shuttle bus to Korčula. We had booked a tiny studio apartment near the city for 50€, and while the accommodation was only okay inside, it was right across from the water and had a little patio where we enjoyed fig newtons and views of Korčula's Old Town. It was here that we discovered that you don't order a bottle of wine at dinner; you order the house wine. It comes in a liter sized glass carafe, and it is both delicious and cheap. In case you don't realize, a liter is a lot of wine, as Amos can attest to my giggling halfway through dinner. We didn't finish the wine, and since it cost us about $12, we didn't feel too bad about it either.

We spent a quick 2 days in Korčula, renting bikes and wine tasting and swimming in Lombardia (a small town about 10km away). We read books on the patio, walked around Old Town, tried out various little beaches. Again, I found the food only okay, but the ambience was fantastic. It was a quieter, less crowded version of Dubrovnik. We stumbled upon a winery where they made Grk, a dry white wine produced only in Lombardia. The grapes are all different sizes on the vine and this makes them inefficient for large commercial wineries. The first cultivation of these grapes was with the ancient Greeks, hence the name. These grapes are a bit wild, and the process hasn't changed much in hundreds and hundreds of years; this particular winery had been in the family for over 300. A young guy was tending the shop when we stopped in. We did some tasting, bought a bottle, and then he casually showed us where all the wine was bottled. I now know that corks come in bags of 1,000 and that you can print professional wine labels off a home computer. The bottle is on our wine rack, next to a jar of fig jam, waiting for when we are sick of Nagoya and wishing we were back in a land where people believe in swimming in the ocean, instead of just using it for industry (ahem).

On our second to last day, we caught the bus back to Dubrovnik, and stayed at the swanky Hotel Lapad, in the modern part of the city. We got a killer deal on it from an online booking company, and enjoyed walking around that neighborhood, especially the part where we drank wine while sitting on a cafe's outdoor glider swings. The next day, our plane didn't leave until 3PM, so we laid by the pool in the morning and killed time before heading back to the airport via taxi (it's a 35 minute drive). Further proof of the good luck we had on this trip: Mike's suitcase broke, but on the last day, and we were able to use up the end of both our Croatian kuna and Euros at the airport cafe, buying a beer and a juice for the exact rate. I had it calculated down to the cent, and, seeing my neurosis skill at combining two currencies and exchange rates into one purchase, the attendant offered me a job. If I have trouble finding work when we return to Seattle, I know there's always a place for me at the Dubrovnik airport. (Tucking that away in my back pocket).

We flew back through, yup, you guessed it, the Frankfurt airport. Seeing at this was the third time, we treated ourselves to "A Taste of Germany," complete with 3 types of sausages, a pretzel, sauerkraut, mustard, and 2 hefeweizens. We had to make the best of our crazy flights, and my mother always taught me that the last day of vacation counts, even if it is spent travelling. So... large beers!

We caught the red eye home through Tokyo and arrived in Nagoya safe and sound. If this ends up being our last big trip while we are abroad, I can easily say we made it count. And that? It feels pretty good.

Resources & Budget:

We had a budget of $185 per person, per day, based on -- who else? -- Rick Steve's advice for traveling Europe. It assumed $150 for a hotel, split between two people; free breakfast at the hotel, $15 lunch, $5 snack, $25 dinner, $65 for entertainment & transportation, which includes all museums, sightseeing, souvenirs, cabs, &c. This did not include our flights, except for the one in and out of Kapadokya.

We found it exactly right for cosmopolitan Istanbul, too little when using a guiding service in Central Anatolia, and too generous for the laid back coastline. We never felt like we were "on" a budget -- we didn't deny ourselves much -- but it was nice to have it in mind and keep a gentle eye on expenses. (Obviously you could do it much cheaper, if you were of the hostel & grocery store picnic mentality. We all know how, at the right time in your life, those trips are a blast.)

Resources I found helpful while planning:

- Istanbul by Rick Steves, paperback book
- Dubrovnik Snapshot by Rick Steves, iPad edition

Blog Posts & News Articles:
- The (not so) Starving (new media) Artists Guide to Istanbul Survival Guide for the Kadiköy & Moda neighborhoods
- Iconic Itineraries: Nine Perfect Days in Turkey, published by Conde Nast Traveler
Cappadocia Guide: Turkey's Kingdom of Caves, by John Gimlette, published by The Telegraph 
Hither & Thither Travelogue of Croatia & Montenegro (August 2008). INCREDIBLY helpful.
- The Coastal Delights of Croatia, published by Rick Steves on his blog.

Other Resources:
Dubrovnik Apartment Source, for accommodations
- Korcula Explorer, for accommodations & travel information


  1. Thank you so much for these posts (I & II). I very much enjoyed the writing, the stories, the advice and the fabulous pictures. I can tell that it was truly a memorable trip. Can't wait to read about your next adventure!

  2. Your trip sounds amazing! I also have found Rick Steve's advice to be pretty helpful while traveling--also love that you wrote mostly about food (as I would too!)

  3. Your trip looks amazing! I hadn't thought of visiting Turkey and now I might be adding it to the list!


Feel free to leave a comment, unless you're a troll or a bully, in which case I will delete you so fast...

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...