Posted by inka on Oct 29, 2011 in Animals
, boutique hotels
, Travel tips
A friend of mine had a dream. He wanted to buy one of the traditional Moroccan town house, a Riyadh and convert it into a small boutique hotel. Plans of high ceilinged rooms with wooden floors and divans, silk cushions, copper and marble bathrooms, inner courtyards with rose bushes and tinkling fountains and roof terraces where you could shake hands with your neighbors because the buildings in the medians are so close together, were happily forming in his head and explained to me. His enthusiasm was contagious and given the fact that he was no stranger to the business, to could well see the dream becoming a reality.
First order of the day was of course to find a suitable Riyadh and when he asked me to come along on a house hunting expedition to Morocco, I dropped everything I was doing and packed my bags. Our first destination was Marrakesh. All this happened a few years ago, but Marrakesh had become very fashionable. There were several realtors at work and quite a few Riyadhs on the market, at prices far out of reach for his budget.
Never mind, there is more to Morocco than Marrakesh. Therefore, we hired a car and made our way to the legendary town of Fez. Morocco’s odest city, wedged between the ravines bordering the fez River, surrounded by rose colored walls, the city itself is a dream. Far more sedate than the tourist centers, Fez breathes the spirit of a philosophical life style, mixed with busy commerce of traditonla crafts like leather tanning and silver- and copper smith. Not for nothing is this the seat of the world’s oldest university and El Bali, the old town is a UNESCO world heritage site.
We stayed however in a five star hotel in the Nouvelle Ville, the modern part of Fez, with wide palm tree lined avenues, parks and shops. Sitting on our terrace, we could just see the sun setting over the Old Town in the distance, tinting the massive walls from pink to burning orange.
How to go about finding a property? At that time, Marrakesh style realtors were not in business in Fez, so, an enquiry at reception revealed, that we would have to rely on the services of an old fashioned go-between. Naturally, the receptionist had a cousin, who had a friend who knew just the guy we were looking for. An appointment was made for the next day and we looked forward to a house hunting adventure of a different kind.
We were sitting in the lobby, waiting for our ‘realtor’ to present himself. 10 o’clock came and went, 10.30 came and went, but shortly before 11, a tall young Moroccan in a flowing djellabah sailed through the revolving doors and headed straight for us. Introductions were made, hands shaken and Mohammed assured us how very proud he was, to be able to be of service. ‘Transport is waiting,’ he announced with a flourish.
We followed him out the door and stopped dead in our tracks. ‘Transport’ were two mules, decked out with pink saddles, patiently chomping at the bite and tethered to a lamp post. Seeing the expression on our faces Mohammed explained: ‘No cars in the Old Town. Only foot or mules. Sometimes even mules not allowed, too narrow,’ he giggled. Ah, of course, that made sense. Not everybody goes house hunting on horse back, or rather mule back, so we happily mounted our ‘transport’ and off we clip clopped, with Mohammed on foot, guiding my friend’s lead mule.
Then we entered through a huge gate in the city walls and found ourselves in a fairy tale world. The alleys of the medina are covered with straw mats which makes for a mysterious light. Stalls, shops, work shops everywhere. Veiled women, donkeys loaded sky high with wares, kids, dogs, cats, all shoving and jostling through the narrow alleys going about their business. Our mules luckily were well used to the pandemonium and carried us deeper and deeper into the maze.
Mohammed stopped in front of a non descript wooden door. ‘We arrive’, he proclaimed. My friend and I exchanged glances. Where was the Riyadh? Did Mohammed really understand what we were looking for?
A knock at the door. A young girl opened and we were in for one of those surprises Morocco is so famous for. A green tiled courtyard with a huge chandelier hanging from a massive iron chain. Seats and cushions everywhere, a tiny fountain tinkling away. Above gallery upon gallery of rooms, all topped by the ever present roof terrace, overlooking the entire city of Fez and, yes, the neighbor’s laundry too.
The family patriarch greeted us, tea and sweets were served and pleasantries exchanged, followed by a tour of the house. After 12, I stopped counting rooms. There were so many, some only closet sized, others far bigger on a variety of levels. Kitchens, laundry rooms, even a hamam. And a back garden with more roses. Negotiations got under way, but, in the Moroccan manner, nobody expected any decisions on the spot. More tea, more pleasantries and we were back mounting our mules to look at another two houses. But, this one was the best and far more affordable than Marrakesh.
It took my friend three return visits and the services of two attorneys, the involvement of consulates and banks, tons of paperwork, but, in the end, his dream came true. Conversion into a hotel hasn’t even begun, but Fez is a city where time has no meaning. One day, he will start. Needless to say that Mohammed has become a friend for life and will happily assist in whatever is needed in the future,
Posted by inka on Oct 28, 2011 in Istanbul sights
I have dithered a long time about having a go at a Turkish bath session. I didn’t quite fancy the idea of getting fried on a hot stone slap, then being scrubbed till my skin came off. Being shocked back into life by a douse of ice cold water and then pummeled and kneaded like a piece of dough. Not to mention possible death by suffocation from all that heat and steam. Basically I don’t like to be ‘handled’.
But, as I was walking along Divanyolu in Istanbul’s Sultanahmed district and approached the Cimberlitas Hamam, fate intervened. I ran into a friend who was just on her way in. She knew about my reluctance and made it her business to get me and try. “Come on,” she said. “We’ll do this together. It’s fun”. “No,” I pulled away, “not now. I’m on my way to…” She didn’t let me finish. “What are you?” she demanded, arms akimbo. “A chicken? And, I have to tell you, how can you write with authority abiut Turkey and Turkish culture if you don’t try such an essential part? You’ll have no credibility.” Boy, did she know how to press my buttons. An attack on my price will do the trick any time. I am not a chicken and as far as credibility goes, she did have a point. At least, I thought, I’d die in a beautiful place. “I only hope you know CPR if I start choking,” I muttered. The reply was a snort.
Down we went the 10 stone steps of one of Istanbul’s oldest and most beautiful hamams and stepped through the door to Dante’s hell. I have to say though, that I liked the lighting and the structure. Quite soothing, but not yet enough to disfuse my trepidation.
After paying our dues we made our way to the women’s section, where a jolly and very fat Turkish lady greeted us with a cheerful “Merhaba, welcome” and pressed the hamam essential into my sweaty hands. A long, wide piece of cloth, called pestemal, made of a silk and cotton mix and worn like a pareo. A pair of clogs, called nalim to avoid slipping on the wet floors and a mit for scrubbing called kese. The lady was a far cry from the traditional tellaks of Ottoman times who were young men, recruited from the non Muslim nations of the vast empire, who assisted bathers – men and women alike – with their ablutions and gave massages. I would have preferred torture to be administered by eye candy, but then, you can’t have it all, can you?
A tellak in the hamam's shop
Off came the day clothes in the changing room and wrapped in our shroud, we happily tottered along on our clogs on stilts into the first section, the warming up room. The warm air finally made me relax a little but sitting on the stone benches was not very comfortable. This has a lot to do with the fact that I have no behind to speak of and therefore no cushion provided by Mother Nature.
After about 15 minutes of getting all wamr and cozy, it was time to get down to business. The next room, the hot room was pandemonium. Through the heat and steam, I saw the dreaded stone slab, but before I coukd retreat to the safety of the warming up room, another attendant grabbed my arm, pushed me onto the slab, wrenched the mit out of my hand and started to cover me with water and soap suds, working up a lather. I was flipped over like a burger and scrubbed down as if I hadn’t had a bath in years.
There were about 10 other bathes in the room, laughing, shouting and obviously enjoying themselves. “Mandy,” I started to call out to my friend, but splah, water was poured over me to wash off all that soap and my cry for help to my friend died in my throat.
Dried off and wrapped up in my pareo, Mandy dragged me into the next room for the massage. Strong but very nimble fingrs gave me a good working over, from my shoulder blades to the back of my legs. It wasn’t so bad if I could have lain on a comfortable lounger instead of hard stone. But when the friendly torturer nearly dislocated my shoulder by pulling at my arms, I had enough. “Mandy,” I shouted, “I’m out of here. See you in the resting area.” Which is the last room, where you are allowed to recover from your treatments, sip tea and slowly find you way back to feeling human again.
Mandy, all rosy and glowing joined me. “Now, that wasn’t so bad, was it?” she grinned. “Don’t you feel great?” No, not really. On the plus side, I definitely can write with authority about my hamam experience. I can also see that it may be an acquired taste and can be an enjoyable experience for people who like that kind of treatment. No doubt, you end up very, very clean.
Personally, I don’t care for a repeat visit. Give me my fabulous power shower in the privacy of my own bathroom and the aromatherapy massages of my beauty parlor and I’ll be a happy enough bunny.
Posted by inka on Oct 27, 2011 in guest posts
, Luxury hotels
This is the second guest post by Maya Edberg. She travels to Melbourne and as she lovesggod living and interesting sites, she was in her element. Here is what she saw and did:
My Melbourne Trip
On the flight to Melbourne I kept remembering that commercial by Olivia Newton-John:
”It’s MelBURN,” she said. “Not MelBOURNE.” Fine. A tourist does not want to sound like a rube, or a deliberately dense Yankee. I landed at Melbourne Airport and the weather was just about the same as it was in New York, warm days and coolish nights, though New York’s getting cooler and Melbourne’s going to be hot in a few weeks!
Caught a taxi that took me straight to my hotel apartment at Punthill Flinders Lane, a lovely part of the city full of boutiques and markets that reminded me of Chelsea in my native Manhattan. The apartment, like so many rooms in Melbourne Hotels, was so beautifully decorated that it gave me ideas on how to decorate my own apartment. The kitchen was fully functional and there was an LCD TV with a DVD player and a work station with an internet, but I wasn’t in Melbourne to work! I wanted to see the sights!
Punthill Flinders Lane is only a walk from the Queen Victoria Markets and after a morning sprawled on that huge bed and trying to sleep off some of the jet lag, I headed down there to fill up the fridge and the larder. Bought some of the lovely Australian Chardonnay from the wine market, lamb chops, a liter of milk, cheese, breakfast cereal, a bunch of broccoli, a bag of heirloom tomatoes and other veg and a bag of lemons.
The thing about this beautiful, modernistic museum is that it has the stuffed remains of Phar Lap, Australia’s winningest racehorse. He was a handsome fellow. They also have a live bug exhibit featuring some of the truly weird, oddly beautiful and skin crawly fauna that are found nowhere else in the world. There’s also the fascinating Aboriginal Culture Centre. Like all really good museums, I couldn’t possibly see the whole thing in one day, so after buying a mini digeridoo at the Museum Shop, went back “home.”
Went to the Botanical Gardens the next day. If I thought the fauna of Australia was exotic, the flora is doubly so! Half of the time I kept murmuring to myself, “What is that?” There were flowers that looked like ginger flowers but were a beautiful jade green and huge cycads that look like palm trees but have been around since the dinosaurs. Cockatoos were everywhere, shrieking. They were beautiful, but they were loud! The natives took it in stride though!
Since I’m not much of a clothes horse, I wanted to buy gifts. Melbourne is full of little shops run by artists selling their wares. When I heard of a little store called Five Boroughs I couldn’t resist. It has a bit of New York kitsch going, including models of the Statue of Liberty that made me tear up. Ended up buying a lovely Australian made cup and saucer, anyway.
Melbourne is on Port Phillip Bay and I didn’t forget to head down to the beach the next morning. Still a bit chilly to swim for a lot of people, but some guys were there in board shorts, I think they call them, long swim trunks full of neon and day-glo design. Australian men are stunning, I must say. Did a bit of innocent flirting, then it was back to my cozy apartment! Ah, when I come back for more vacations I can’t wait to try other Melbourne hotel!
Minimalist at its best
Yes, Maya, another hotel and maybe another spot of flirting!!
Posted by inka on Oct 24, 2011 in Turkey
, Turkey Travel
A terribel earthquake hit Van in Turkey’s east on Sunday. Many dead and injured, buildings collaped and fears that the waters of Lake Van might cause a tidal wave.
I visited last summer and thinking about the poor people makes me want to weep. Here is the story of when the world was still in order:
As dramatic as the title of this story is the landscape that awaits after a long, long journey across Turkey: Lake Van in the very east of the country and Akdamar island floating in the middle.
I had just researched an article for bootsnall about lakes and their monsters and Lake Van had popped up. Given that I was already in the country, love legends, mystery and romance, my natural reaction was to go and have a look. Who knows, I might get lucky and see the Lake Van monster myself.
As always, I took the long distance coach from the Aegean Sea where I live right across to the other end. I was on the road for something like 22 hours, but Turkish coaches are very comfortable, stop every 3 or 4 hours and, as not all that many tourists use them, I get to meet the locals which always makes for great entertainment. The coach drivers, which are formally addressed as ‘captain’ are also very accommodating and will drop you where you want to go as long as your destination is along the route. My nice driver was no exception and when I told him the name of the hotel I had booked, he said: “Oh, that’s right along the way. I’ll stop for you.” And he did.
The helpful ‘captain’ of my coach
Luckily when we came close to Lake Van it was daylight again and I had a chance to see the vast expanse of Turkey’s largest lake, deep, huge and cold, rising out of the morning mist illuminated by the first rays of the sun. The lake is surrounded by Turkey’s highest mountains, with some steep drops down into the lake.
Beginning of Lake Van with the sun coming up
My hotel, the Merrit Sahmaran, was located right on the shore of the lake, that’s why I had chosen it and I couldn’t have made a better choice. A glamour granny’s dream, with luxurious rooms, a pool, a tiny gym and a spa offering 15 kinds of massages and beauty treatments, all for EUROS 55 a night for a single room. But best was the view of the lake. I went to see the manager and told him what I do and even got a reduced room rate, free transport and, best of all, a free trip to Akdamar island. It happened to be the manager’s day off and he came with me, so I not only got a private boat but a knowledgeable private guide into the bargain.
Merrit Sahmaran Hotel /Lake Van
My first question was about the monster. As I had found out during my research, much had been written about the monster, a student even had made a video about a sighting and it was mentioned that there was a statue depicting the monster somewhere in the city of Van. The first thing the manager did, when I mentioned the monster was burst out laughing. When he had calmed down, he said: “Ok, yes, the monster. I’ll call it for you. It’ll come at midnight.” In short, nobody took my quest for the monster seriously and to cut a long story short, I didn’t find the statue either. I asked many people, including the tourist office, but nobody could point me in the right direction. The statue has remained as elusive as the monster itself.
Never mind the monster, Akdamar island has a lot to offer as it is. The western side of the island is formed by a sheer lime stone cliff which rises 80m above the level of the lake. Towards the east, the island levels out and that’s where the center piece of Akdmar island is located, the Cathedral of the Holy Cross.
Cathedral of the Holy Cross
King Gagik I Artsruni of the Armenian kingdom of Vaspurakan (10th century) chose Akdamar island as one of his residences and built a square palace, parks and gardens, an elaborate system of streets an drains and the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and adjacent monastery inhabited by monks. Nothing but the cathedral remains. In 1915, during a dark period in Turkish history, the last Ottomans persecuted Armenians and in the process, the monastery on the island was razed, all monks were murdered and the cathedral was looted and fell into disarray.
During a restoration program between 2005 and 2006, the cathedral was restored and now every year a religious ceremony is held on the island which attracts thousands of visitors who come by boat.
The cathedral is unique because of its conic dome and the amazing array of elaborate bas reliefs. Our boat docked at the far side of the island and we climbed up to admire the cathedral and the spectacular views form the island’s highest point toward shore.
Docking at Akdamar island
Walking up to the cathedral
Some of the bas reliefs
And the love story? Legend has it, that an Armenian princess by the name of Tamar lived on the island. She was in love with a boy from the mainland and he swam every night across to be with her. She used to lit a light in her window to show him the way. One day her father, the king, found out and , enraged, smashed the light. The boy, who was on his way, drowned and his last words were “Akh Tamar” (Oh, Tamar), which is, always according to legend, where the name of the island came from.
They say, that on a silent night, his dying words can still be heard over the water. How is that for romance and mystery?
The best way to get to the island is from either Edremit of Gevas from where boat services run. Both towns can be reached by dolmus, the Turkish local min buses. The boats don’t run on a fixed schedule, they leave when there are enough passengers.
Ferry from Geavs to Akdamar island
Akdamar island is definitely a must see and if you can manageto visit in spring you will have the added pleasure of seeing a sea of purple because the Judas trees which are everywhere on the island will be in full bloom.
Posted by inka on Oct 23, 2011 in humor
, Turkey Travel
Any visitor to Turkey will see certain images which seem to pop up everywhere. One is that of the whirling dervishes.
Whirling dervishes of Konya
Another one of the puppets Karagöz and Hacivat.
And a third, of this turbaned man, sitting the wrong way around on his donkey.
Hoca statue in Ankara
If you want to know what Sufism and the whirling dervishes are really about, read my story in’ The Expeditioner’.
All about the charismatic puppets is explained in my post about them and Bursa.
Today it’s the turn of another Turkish original and house hold name: Nasreddin Hoca (pronounced: Hodja)
Like Karagöz and Hacivat, Nasreddin Hoca was a real person, although the actual details are somewhat vague. He was supposedly born in 1208 in Sivirhisar near Eskisehir in Central Anatolia. He was a learned man who served as a religious teacher, preacher and judge for many years in Aksheir where he is buried.
Hoca’s pranks, wisecracks, punch lines and philosophy of the indomitable spirit of the common people, who make the best of everything and hate hypocrisy have been told and expanded for centuries. A positive outlook on life and a deep rooted faith in human beings characterize Hoca and his wisdom.
Enjoy a few Hoca stories:
One day, he went out with his students riding on his donkey back to front. Asked why he sat on the animal the wrong way around he said: “As your teacher I have to ride in front of you, but then I can’t see what you are doing. Sitting back to front, I can see you all clearly”
Hoca was a poor man. One day a friend came to him and asked if he could borrow some money on credit. Hoca said: “No, I can’t lend you any money, I don’t have any. But I can give you plenty of credit, how much do you want?”
The Hoca was carrying a basket of grapes. Some children came along and asked him to give them some to taste. Hoca gave each child one grape. They complained that he hadn’t given them more. Hoca said: “Why do you want more? One grape tastes the same as a whole bunch”.
Hoca was invited to a wedding. He arrived in his ordinary clothes and was refused admittance because he looked too shabby. He went home, put on his fur lined coat and was allowed in. At the table he put the fur coat on the seat next to him and started to feed it. “Hoca, what are you doing?” cried the host. “Well,” he replied, “I’m feeding my coat seeing that it is much more revered than me”.
A man came to Hoca with a letter. “Hoca,” he said, “can you read the letter for me?” Hoca looked and replied, “No, I can’t erad the hand writing.” “What?” the man exclaimed, “You are a learned man wearing a big turban and you can’t read a simple letter?” Whereupon Hoca took off his turban, placed it on the man’s head and said:” Now you are wearing the turban. Let’s see if you can read the letter”.
Enjoy and now you know about Hoca when you see the image again.The final joke however is the ‘mausoleum’ of Hoca in Akshehir. It has no walls, just an iron gate with a padlock hanging from it. Go figure.