Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Years may come, (many years are still ahead) years may go, (many years have passed)

The village of Şirince around the corner, down the hill and tumbling into the valley from our cottages, with all of 650 inhabitants, was irresistably calling us to come explore, and after a leisurely awakening and breakfast, Colleen and I headed out down the steep rock pathways to see what we could see.

I should tell you, the name is pronounced "she-RIN-jay"; the little tail on the s of Şirince makes a "sh" sound (the Turkish c with a tail goes "ch" as in Selçuk, the next nearest town).

Most of the houses are 19th century or earlier, the streets cobblestone, flowers pouring over the walls and in the cracks, the overall effect being a humble, charming historical village. Originally named Cirkince, which means "kind of ugly" by the nimbys who lived there (freed Roman slaves who weren't looking for company) the name of this little village was changed to Şirince much, much later in the 1920s , which translates to "kind of pretty". Much better press and very pretty, in my opinion.

With its beauty, the village is a destination for tour buses, which spill out their passengers in a swarm, but after a bit they get back on the bus and leave again, leaving the cunning little shops and roadside sellers with their handicrafts and goods for just the few of us not bound to a schedule. Lovely.

Colleen and I wandered through the town, browsing and delighting in the sights, the wonderful old wood and stone architecture.

At the far end of town we saw some horses tethered to a tree and decided that an idyllic ride through the Turkish hills and countryside beyond would be just the thing.

For a surprisingly modest fee we were set up with horses and a guide, who spoke almost no English but had a 10K race shirt and a nice smile. He matched Colleen up with a particularly short and gentle palamino, nearly a pony, and initially insisted on leading them by a halter rope attached to his horse.

I, on the other hand, was on my own with the most hard-mouthed horse I've ever had the fortune to sit astride. Not a bad horse, just not terribly steerable, with hands, voice, thighs, or any other means that I could discover. Not that I'm any real sort of horsewoman, but I've ridden since I was a child and do know which end is up. This horse was at least willing to follow the others so we went with that.

The ride was wonderful, out away from the town for about half an hour on a hard dirt path out in the sun. At one point a particularly large snake slid away from us, not startling the horses in the least; apparently it was a common sight to them. There were views to bluish hills, the Aegean Sea just visible beyond, and we were surrounded by waving fields of poppies and wildflowers, the peach and olive trees for which the area is famous, we rode, lulled by the rhythmic sound of our mount's hooves.

When we turned around the ride went from leisurely to thundering, either by plan after we demonstrated basic horse competance or because the horses were happy to be heading back home. My horse had a choppy fast stride to go with her hard mouth, and I kicked her into a canter as often as possible since posting that fast to save my bum constant whapping against the saddle during her trot was a challenge. The stirrups were too long to stand like a jockey.

Colleen, of course, said riding her horse was a dream. As I was the one to talk her into the ride in the first place, I suppose it was fair that I was the one to be bounced around, worried and even a bit scared. The funny thing was, the more I was trying to put inappropriate and rather morbid thoughts of spinal injuries and brain damage out of my mind, the more I was grinning. You can't call it bravado as I've now 'fessed the truth to you.

I had shoved my camera into a front jeans pocket, foolishly thinking that would be secure. The bouncing popped it out and under my long shirt, much to my dismay, but by some stroke of luck it got caught up in the fabric long enough for me to hold the reins and pommel with one hand and dig underneath to grab it before it flew out and fell to what would undoubtedly have been a disastrous landing.

Also, Mike is convinced that I am death to cameras and I didn't want to give him any more ammunition for that discussion. It cannot be denied that sliding down a sand dune in Jordan with the camera dragging from a wrist strap, the lens cap lost and sand doing incalculable damage was not my greatest camera owning moment. I would like to think that I've learned and moved on.

Colleen was absolutely radiant after the ride. I was more in the "relieved" (but glad we did it) department. Gave my horse a pat and told it thanks.

Back in town, we nosed through the numerous roadside stalls, picked up a flower crown for Bethy to wear in her hair

and some handmade soaps that smelled heavenly

and found a little place to pick up lunch for the rest of the family still back at Nisanyan up the hill. Actually, we ordered and Colleen waited for it to be grilled up while I went looking for a dress for Bethy. I never did find the particular dress, but somehow I ended up doing some wine tasting. (It wasn't my fault! There were fellows everywhere inviting me in to sample the wares. What's a girl on vacation to do?)

Şirince is known for wines, mostly fruit wines, and after trying and suffering though some stuff that was not my idea of tasty, (the food was so good I can hardly believe that the wines are created for any purpose other than tourism, but perhaps it's a matter of developing a taste for them...?) I settled on what I considered a relatively drinkable red to bring back. Backpack stuffed, we huffed our way back up the hill, past goats and cats, following the snail signs

to the hotel and our cottages. At one point we had to wedge ourselves past a tractor that was blocking the narrow stone walkway, passing bags over and then corkscrewing ourselves through the miniscule gap between ancient tractor and stone wall. Village time, no one in a hurry.

Later, Mike wanted to go explore the town, and, not looking an opportunity to spend quality hubby time sans kids in the mouth, I went happily with him. Somehow, both times we managed to miss the tour buses dumping their tourist loads and had the town to ourselves.

Mike led the way up and down every single road in town, often followed by dogs, some stray, some not, all looking for love and pathetically grateful for pats and a kind word.

There were flamboyant roosters, children throwing rocks (not at us), kicking a soccer ball (definitely at us...they thought that was hilarious), women wearing their bright head scarves sitting in groups chatting, and men sitting in their groups, smoking and talking and not worrying about us in the least. Mass marketing was a million miles away.

Women yelling at their kids sounded like especially fierce chickens, and all around was the hard to define but very tangible feeling of a small, vibrantly alive community. Brushed by tourism, and profiting from it, but not affected by it so much. No, not so much.

It felt...honest. I hope they are wise and continue to preserve their little village as it is.

Nighttime view of Şirince

Monday, June 28, 2010

It's the simple things in life, like when and where...

After two flights, the first on a plane amusingly named "BATMAN" (yes, of course I checked out the pilot---what do I look like? How dumb would that have been if the Dark Knight was the one flying us and we didn't notice?) and two more turkey sandwiches, we were met in Izmir and driven down the coast along the Aegean Sea, past groves upon groves of olives and past villages, up a winding road, then a gravel and dirt road, and finally our destination, 2 of the cottages at Nisanyan House.

Built and run by "Turkey's most feared hotel critic," who one acquaintance of ours referred to as a bastard, though I think he meant it in an admiring sort of way. Here's the man. (below) He seems a fiercely intellectual but welcoming sort of fellow. And his place...oh, his place...

Nevzat, our friend and travel agent, had given Nisanyan House his highest recommendation, particularly for the breakfasts, and we were looking forward to it. Described as a "luxury farm," none of us quite had a clear idea of exactly what that meant.

What it meant was:

Tucked away at the top of a valley were these rustic (in a good way) cottages of stone and wood, looking as though they were a hundred years old, with white curtains blowing in the breeze, little beds and minimal, charming furnishings. To get to them you had to enter a gate, meander a ways though an extensive and well-planned garden of, among other things, lillies and lavender and rosemary, peach and olive and almond trees, alive with frogs and dragonflies thanks to the water features, overlooking scenes like this one:

a place to explore, to relax, to dream.

Gorgeous, freshly cooked breakfasts every morning on the veranda, with the sound of donkeys braying and the nonstop singing of birds,

and friends to be made. Not only did Thomas and Bethy figure out that the two ladies in the kitchen house would welcome them at any time, give them treats (a favorite was strawberries liberally dusted with powdered sugar) between meals and keep them readily supplied with little cups of apple tea,

but they also found the hutch of ducklings

wandered a trickling stream lined with white birches, a real novelty for desert children, chased chickens, chased and caught what must have been the world's slowest frogs. (Frogs that I had to go threaten once because their amorous and constant croaking was awfully persistant. They shut up right away and gave us a good long time without their chorus, thankfully.)

We all befrended this tiny, black-and-white and heavily pregnant cat Bethy named 'Snowy Night'.

Here you see Thomas communing with the sweet feline on the veranda, which was a blissful place to relax on cushions, reading a book, play a game of chess or backgammon, write, talk, or not talk. It was all good.

More often than not, if we were there long enough, lovely edibles would magically make an appearance to further our enjoyment.

That veranda, with the view, where you could lazily watch someone walking the steep trails across the way with a dog, or driving a tractor, or donkeys swishing their tails far away, was also an excellent place to enjoy this in the evenings:

This being Raki.

Raki is an anise-flavored alcohol, the Turkish version of Ouzo. You're supposed to add water to either of these alcoholic spirits to drink them, turning the clear liquid swirly and then opaquely white. Believe it or not, this reaction has a name, the Ouzo Effect. (If you don't believe me, feel free to Google it.)

We, however, drink it straight, not knowing any better at first, and then enjoying the macho-esque factor of doing so, and the admiration garnered from the locals for it. Within three days of being in Turkey I'd bought Mike a T-shirt that says, unabashedly,


I forget the question'

He enjoyed wearing it quite a bit, not unlike supporting your favorite sports team.

Good, straighforward fun, and an effective way to counteract all that amazing clean country air.

So, glass of Raki, handknitted wrap, stars overhead going on forever, those were some lovely nights.

The layout of our cottage was two rooms, with an open porch between where the children would leave their found treasures...oranges right off the tree and pinecones were big with Bethy and Thomas.

Also between the two rooms was a hammam bathroom, which in this case translated into a domed room with marble open shower in the center, greenery outside windows.

Staying at Nisanyan was all the good things I associate with camping...and none of the bad. Colleen and Pat's cottage was as charming as ours, and there was a white marble swimming pool in another quiet nook in the hillside that the kids braved despite its cold spring water. The throughtful, whimsical details really made for an amazing stay. I took so many photographs it's not funny.

Best of all, this gem is in a perfect location to set out from for day trips, which is exactly what we did for the next week.

But more on that next time...

Friday, June 25, 2010

99 luftballons auf ihrem weg zum horizont..

As promised, we staggered out into a predawn morning while the sun contemplated coming up, not seeming to make much progress toward that goal. It was cold, and we were extra bundled up in many layers, double socks and pants, hats, scarves, and mittens, having been told that at altitude it would be even colder.

Bethy, tired but game, in her TurkCell snail hat and new woollen mittens, Jamilla the Camel under her arm

When I first suggested hot air ballooning over the fairytale landscape of Cappadocia, only Bethy seemed willing to go with me. As far as heights go, I'm not great at climbing up on a ladder or countertop, but have no fear of flying, go figure. The idea, once voiced, settled and took shape, Colleen decided that she would brave her fear of heights, and Mike decided, beautifully within the scope of our Universal Directive, that even though it was expensive ($720 for the four of us), this was a not-to-be-missed, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

I've been in one small plane, and one helicopter, and both times made liberal use of the airsickness bag...or bags, but grinned like crazy between heaves and had a great time anyway. Though Mike isn't convinced that I'm capable of flying in a small craft without losing any and all contents of my stomach,I stipulate that both of the previous times I had no need for those humiliating bags until I tried to take photographs with a manual focus lens, and that I never felt nervous. Flying while looking through that thing and trying to focus...well, yes. Undesired result. Great photos though.

This time I had a plan. Not a great plan, but a plan. Nice little point and shoot camera, and put it away or hand it to the spousal unit should nausea rear it's ugly little head.

Then pray.

In a valley the blowers were roaring, like the screams of a determined battle charge from a thousand throats, the dark shapes of uncountable hot air balloons rising and swelling as they filled.

Hot coffee, some thoughtfully provided carbohydrates, a last bathroom run, and we were shuttled over to our basket beneath the giant blue sphere that was going to pull us up into the sky.

I ate lightly.

We clambered, (some of us less than gracefully) into our section, assisted by the crew and stood aligned, not terribly unlike sardines, careful of elbows and our basket-mates, the sensible of us making sure our camera wrist straps were on. Mike and I were both making mental bets on the fellow with the extremely expensive camera he insisted on dangling out over many, many feet of nothing but straight down.

A quick practice of landing proceedure (crouching all the way down, facing inward, bracing your back against the wicker of the basket and, need I say, holding on) after which the pilot deemed us safe and ordered our balloon aloft.

A long blast of the burner, warming all of us, the long ropes were gathered in and suddenly, smoothly, we were airborne.

There was a long moment of unuttered anxiety during the first few moments of flight when we headed toward some especially tall poplar trees and comparing notes afterwards, none of us thought we had enough of an angle to clear them, but clear them we did, soaring up, floating without effort or care, the roads becoming ribbons, our chase car below, heading slowly out to meet us wherever it was we came down.

The landscape of Cappadocia below us, the sun joyfully rising, bright balloons everywhere as if some great god were throwing a party...

It was, in a word, magnificent.

And not a hint of, nor a thought given to, airsickness. Far too busy being overwhelmed, Colleen and I dizzy with trying to figure where to point our cameras next, to capture the majesty of the balloons over the haunting landscape.

There really is no word to describe the sensation of being up in the sky like that. Not only were we floating; but thanks to our roguish pilot, (a charming pirate if I ever met one in his incongruous Oakland A's baseball cap), we were laughing at his continual joking, which relieved any residual tensions left among the passengers.

He flew the balloon straight at a fairy chimney, only pulling up at the last possible moment with ease, pointing out the ones that had no caps "because hot air balloons with less skillful pilots had crashed into them," and kept up a narrative of what we were seeing below us. The altimeter beeped quietly at regular intervals, and the winds gently caressed our basket which never so much as swung an inch from being perfectly, reassuringly level.

Bethy alternated between looking down through a rectangular opening at foot level to watch the landscape slide by beneath us and stretching up to see the horizon all around us over the lip of the basket. Literally on cloud 9.

With the sun, the long tongues of flame from the burner, and the merriment as we snapped photos and exclaimed over the splendid sights, it was more than warm enough for everyone. Grins and wonderment on every face, we surrendered to the charm of balloon travel. Each flight, we were told, is different, utterly dependant on the whims of the winds and the weather as to where it flies, how long it goes, and where it ends up. Fatalistic, and somehow romantic to surrender that way.

Our flight was a full hour and a half of exquisite, of amazing, of wonderful.

But all good things must, as they say, come to an end. Our chase 4x4 vehicles had kept in radio contact and found a nice flat spot for us to land. We descended, passengers assuming the position as instructed. Several feet up we hovered, thanks to the skill of our pilot and his team on the ground who took hold of the ropes and pulled with all their might, guiding and settling the basket perfectly into its trailer, with 2 inches of clearance to spare on each side.

We watched the parachute deploy from the top, the men on the ground directing the some 9 storeys of balloon fabric to the ground as it deflated, working like dancers in a carefully choreographed production so that everything from ropes to silks ended up just so.

Safely disembarked, gifted with a personalized certificate of flight and round of applause from the crew and our fellow fliers for each of us, we enjoyed the traditional champagne toast, which when mixed with cherry juice -another tradition -is not at all a bad way to greet the morning, rounding out one of the loveliest, most thrilling experiences I have ever had.

Which is saying quite a bit.