Of Kitsch and Kin (Salzburg and Turkey)

April 2011

Ted and I recently got back from a 16-day trip to Salzburg, Istanbul, and southwest Turkey, with a couple of days in Munich at the beginning and end. We hadn’t been to any of those places before, other than Munich. Here are our thoughts.

Additional photos are available here.

Salzburg

Salzburg spent centuries as an independent province, ruled by a Prince-Archbishop who was essentially an absolute ruler. Its wealth was based on its being located almost literally on top of a salt mine (“Salzburg” means “salt mountain”) and later, a gold mine. Perhaps because its wealth was based on selling its assets,rather than trade, it’s never been particularly welcoming to outsiders. Over the years, the city has kicked out its Jews, its Protestants, and Mozart, and it doesn’t seem to have lost its insular character.

After the fall of Napoleon, the city became part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the mid-19th Century, the city fathers had the bright idea of reinventing Salzburg as a tourist destination, which was pretty far-sighted for the time. By the 1890s, they had built a funicular to their hilltop castle, and the Salzburg Music festival (started in the 1920s) and refurbished Mozart sites have proven durable tourist draws. The whole place functions as sort of an Alpine Disneyland – every hotelier will offer you a “Salzburg card” offering discounted or free access to a designated list of “tourist attractions.” You can visit the salt mine, take a ride on the “dancing boats,” take a bus tour of the Sound of Music film locations, or even visit Berchtesgaden, just over the German border.

But the real E-ticket ride is Hellbrun, a hunting lodge/pleasure palace built just outside the city by a 17th Century Archbishop. The grounds include a plethora of trick fountains where the Archbishop amused himself by soaking his helpless guests (while he, of course, remained dry) – a dubious entertainment replicated by modern tour guides. The gardens also feature spinning mermaids, rocking dragons, scandalously-tongued demons and hyperactive villagers – Small World on acid.

In the 17th Century, the fountains and mechanical figurines were powered solely by hydraulics, not electricity. What might those clever artisans have achieved had they devoted that ingenuity towards making labor-saving machines rather than Prince’s toys.

Autocracies and progress don’t mix.

Istanbul

After the artificiality of Salzburg, it was something of a relief to arrive in Istanbul, which is certainly a real city. As recently as the 1950s, Istanbul had a population of barely over a million. Today, it’s 12 million, with growth fueled both by population inflows and geographic expansion – the city has absorbed a number of formerly independent fishing villages on either side of the Bosporus.

We stayed in Sultanahmet, the historic district, which turned out to be a good thing, since most of the historic sites were located within walking distance of our hotel. Traffic is awful, so it takes a while to get around no matter what kind of transportation you use.

Together with our friends Mike and Trine, who were visiting Istanbul at the same time, we hired a guide for the first two days. That turned out to be a good decision too, not only because he could (legally) cut the lines, but also because he was very well-informed. Being a guide is a professional service in Turkey – it takes at least a year of study (including a six-month training course) to pass the licensing exam. Hakan, a graduate of Northwestern, spoke excellent English, even though, as it turned out English was only the third of his five languages.

We began our trip with the Aya Sofya, which was built in the 6th Century as the “Hagia Sophia” (church of Holy Wisdom). When Mehmet conquered the city, he repurposed the church as a mosque and covered over the mosaics that depicted human figures. The mihrab, or prayer niche, is off-center, to correct for the fact that Christian altars are oriented towards Jerusalem while mihrabs are directed towards Mecca. hIn the 1930s, the Aya Sofya was converted to a museum, and it is no longer used for religious services. Subsequently, the government began the long, painstaking project of removing the plaster from the Byzantine mosaics, so now many of them can be seen, once again, as they were in the Christian era.

Upstairs, one of the mosaics, done by an unknown artist in the 10th or 11th Century, depicts a compassionate-looking Mary trying to convince Jesus not to condemn too many people to eternal hellfire – a couple of centuries before the “humanistic” depiction of Biblical figures was supposedly “invented” by Italian artists. Did one of the Crusaders sacking Constantinople send back a sketch to his cousin back in Italy? Possibly – Sienese and Florentine Madonnas show clear Byzantine influence. More likely, it’s another demonstration of how artistic change, even revolutionary change, rarely occurs just once.

Here’s a photo of the compassionate Mary, followed by with another more “traditional” Byzantine mosaic.

The Blue Mosque, just across the road, uses a multiple-dome structure to create a sense of internal lightness and space that the medieval cathedral builders strove in vain to achieve. Later in the day, we heard the Blue Mosque muezzin call to prayer – a very strange sound to ears tuned to Western scales. These days, the muezzins no longer have to climb the scary-looking minarets – they stay inside and benefit from modern amplification. But the centuries-old chants themselves remain the same.

The Blue Mosque

The next day, we visited the Topkapi Palace, whose Treasure House includes a selection of diamonds, rubies, emeralds and other precious gems that rivals the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London (alas, no photos permitted). To my surprise, the diamond dagger which features in the movie Topkapi actually exists, and is on display. The harem was rather more extensive than I had supposed (nearly 1,000 people lived there, including children). Most poignant was the “Gilded Cage,” the apartments of the Crown Prince and presumptive heir. The Sultanate did not follow primogeniture; when a Sultan died, the first son to seize the crown (usually by killing off all his brothers) was the next Sultan. As a result, the sons of the Sultans were often kept in a form of protective custody within the palace walls – not a recipe for enlightened government.The rooms are, however, beautifully decorated, including some outstanding stained glass:

The Galata Tower, in the “new” section of the city, offers a fine view.  In the 17th Century, a young man built a flying machine based on the sketches of Leonardo da Vinci.  He took off from the Tower, and according to eyewitnesses successfully crossed the Bosporus, a distance of about 6 kilometers – the world’s first successful flight.  The Sultan at first wanted to reward him, but later thought better of it and exiled the unfortunate young man to Algeria.

Autocracies and progress don’t mix.

Ephesus

We flew from Istanbul to Izmir (formerly Smyrna) and drove down to Alaçati, on the Çeşme Peninsula.

From there, we took a day trip to Ephesus, which was described in the guidebooks as Roman ruins “second only to Pompeii.”  Having seen Pompeii, I would reverse the order.

Pompeii was a prosperous town, but Ephesus was a city.  At its peak, in the 2nd Century AD,  the city had a  quarter of a million inhabitants, making it the 3rd or 4th largest city in the Roman Empire (and larger than many Western European cities would be from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance).  Only about 20% of the city has been excavated, but you can still get a sense of how large it was.

Ephesus

Ephesus was settled as an Ionian (Greek) colony in the 6th Century BC.  The Temple of Artemis, just outside the city, was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (today, all that’s left of the temple is a single column, sitting in what is now a marsh).   This “Artemis” was not the huntress Diana of the Romans, but the ancient multi-breasted fertility goddess of the Eastern Mediterranean.

The city was a crossroads of the ancient world. Antony and Cleopatra hung out there. Public buildings in bear the names or imprints of Roman emperors Domitian, Trajan and Nero, as well as local consuls (the library of Celsus, shown above) and freed slaves made good.  St. Paul spent time there (although he was run out of town because of his disparagement of the still-popular Artemis). And the Apostle John is believed to have died there, along with (according to legend) the Virgin Mary. The attribution of a 1st Century house, 6 km up the hill, to Mary is probably apocryphal, but the site has been visited by three Popes (not to mention the Virgin Mary Taxi Service) and is now a Christian pilgrimage site.  It seems oddly appropriate that a shrine to Mary would exist not far from a place where an ancient goddess was held in special esteem.

In the late Roman period, the harbor silted up, and the city went into a long and ultimately fatal decline. In the 6th Century, the remaining citizens retreated to a nearby hilltop, where they built a citadel and a basilica dedicated to Saint John.  The basilica is now a ruin, although you can still see the immersion pool used for baptism (rather different from the baptismal founts in Western European churches).  Eventually, the city fell into the hands of the Seljuk Turks, “Seljuk” being derived from the Turkish name for Saint John – Aya Soluk.

Çeşme Peninsula

We spent the remaining three days exploring the Çeşme Peninsula.  Çeşme was once an important Ottoman naval port, but these days it’s mostly a summer resort area, with a tiny year-round population. Its coastline is still relatively unspoiled, although the number of construction cranes suggests this will not last for long.

We have visited many lovely small hotels with the help of TripAdvisor, but never have we received such a warm welcome as that provided by Sabahat and Poshor and their helpful staff at Incirliev in Alaçati. Sabahat and Poshor have reconstructed a true Aegean stone house in the old style but with modern building techniques and conveniences. Our room, the Terrace Room, was exceptional and had all the facilities that one could want in a small hotel. The “encircled garden” with its fig tree, almond tree, mulberry tree, and citrus is a small paradise. However, the true wonder of this hotel is Sabahat, who welcomes you every morning for the wonderful breakfast (with Poshor’s scrumptious natural jams), helps plan your day, recommends the best restaurants, and meets you at the end of the day with tea and delicious cakes. Or, on occasion, Poshor might meet you in the evening for a tasting of his excellent Turkish wine collection. Both Sabahat and Poshor exemplify the character of the Turkish people we met on our trip: warm, generous, and gregarious.

For those of you who must stay connected, Incirliev offers high-quality, free Internet wifi.

The Çeşme peninsula is full of natural beauty and it is easy to drive places where there is no one within a kilometer. However, it is also a place where there is seemingly unbridled development. We were there in mid-April, and most of villages and towns were desolate and empty. It seems that the population multiplies 10 or 20-fold in summer, in which case the towns and beaches might feel like Istanbul. There are many “unowned” dogs and cats left in the streets, presumably by summer visitors since they are quite tame and friendly. They must have a source of food since they don’t seem particularly ravenous. If you are nervous about such animals, be forewarned.

There are a limited number of historic sites to visit on the Çeşme peninsula. So, it is perhaps a better place to relax, swim (in season), or wind-surf (if you are so inclined).  On one day we visited Ephesus (see above — about 100 mi, 1.5-1.75 hours driving).  Sabahat arranged a very good guide for 120 TL per day, well worth it.  Ephesus was spectacular, but I imagine that it might get hot and crowded in summer. Pergamom is a bit farther, but on worse roads … so perhaps 2.5-3 hours.  We didn’t go there.

On the peninsula, we visited the ruins of the ancient Greek village of Erythrai.  The most recognizable building was the theater, built, in the Greek manner, right up against the hillside.   This method of construction created a natural amphitheatre – you can sit at the top and hear someone speaking in a natural tone of voice at the bottom, without artificial amplification.  (The Greeks may not have had our technological expertise, but they weren’t stupid.)  Despite its age and historical interest, the site’s remote location means you have it all to yourself (at least in the spring).  From the upper rows of the theater, you can see a landscape populated only by sheep, goats, donkeys and the occasional herder, much as it was in ancient days.Mid-April is often warm and sunny, but for us it was showery, windy, sometimes stormy, and quite cool (never above 15C). The sun came out on the day we left, and the place took on a quite different, and distinctly happier, character.

Alaçati is an engaging small town with small a year-round population.  Like much of what we saw in Çeşme, Alaçati seems to be in transition from a sleepy rural village to a tourist destination. There is much (re)construction going on that is carefully controlled by the town, but construction generally stops in mid-June for the summer visitors. There are nice restaurants to be visited, but none of the elegant variety you might find in Istanbul (although such places might open during summer). If you stay at Incirliev, pay attention to Sabahat’s recommendations. On one occasion we strayed from her advice and regretted it. Sabahat recommended one fish restaurant in nearby Dalyan where the Levrek (Sea Bass) was the best I’ve had anywhere. The food in this area is truly Mediterranean: lots of fruits, vegetables and greens, careful use of spices, many herbs, lots of fish, and a little meat. Although “organic” food is not really a concept here, the food is naturally organic in a more fundamental sense. I would not be surprised to soon see Turkish food from this region appear on the “foodie” radar.

Driving in the Çeşme peninsula is quite easy. There is a 6-lane modern toll-road that traverses the peninsula. Toll is taken on exit by means of a KGS toll card which can be bought or recharged at machines prior to exiting the roadway. There was no cash lane on the toll roads on Çeşme or south from Izmir. Cash is being phased out in the entire Turkish road network. However, the tolls are not high (2 TL for ~60 km). Avis sold us a KGS card at 2X the price. Gas/diesel is expensive, but there are sufficient stations in the populated areas and (American) credit cards are generally accepted. Non-toll roads are well maintained as well (although pothole increase as population decreases). Parking is, however, not well marked and the legality of any given parking space is hard to determine. I did not try to drive in any cities. Airport car dropoff at Izmir was the easiest I’ve experienced at any airport anywhere. I called Avis, and a guy came to meet me at the (International) arrivals level.

Don’t expect to carry-on a bag weighing more than 8 kg at Izmir. This was the only such restriction on our SFO-FRA, MUC-IST, IST-ADB, ADB-MUC, MUC-ORD-SFO itinerary.

General Impressions of Turkey

We had never been to a Muslim country before, so we weren’t sure what to expect.

The streets of Istanbul are almost as crowded as those of New York City, and there are lots of children – particularly noticeable after Europe’s sclerotic urban centers.  The streets are remarkably clean, and we didn’t see any obviously homeless people or child beggars, making Istanbul a more modern-looking city than some “European” ones like Naples.

We didn’t really have a language problem in Turkey, since most people affiliated with the tourist industry spoke at some English. Turkish is a non-Indo-European language, whose closest linguistic relatives (and they’re not that close) are Finnish, Hungarian and, believe it or not, Japanese.  That means there are no cognates, except for yogurt (a Turkish word), and the occasional word “borrowed” from French or English for stuff that didn’t exist before the 19th Century.

The Ottomans used Arabic script to represent Turkish sounds. Ataturk converted to Western letters, but that doesn’t help Western tourists that much, since words often aren’t pronounced the way we’d expect.  (Parenthetically, it also means that modern Turks can’t read Ottoman documents without special study.)

Other than the language, we were struck by how similar the city was to many we have visited in Europe.  Admittedly, we were in the most “Westernized” parts of the country, and things might have been different had we visited the interior. But our general impression was how similar Turkey was to [the rest of] Europe, not how different.

Anatolia was part of the ancient Greco-Roman world, and evidences of that ancient culture were evident in the art, the architecture, public buildings like baths, even the food (of which more below). Although Turkey is 98% Muslim, it is officially a secular country – its public holiday is Sunday, not Friday. And although there were lists of clothing rules posted outside the mosques (including a request for “ladies” to wear headscarves), the only rule that seemed to be enforced was the one asking people to remove their shoes (to protect the rugs). It was less trouble getting into the Blue Mosque than St. Peter’s, which has a phalanx of “clothing police” who will actually deny entry to the improperly dressed.

Although a number of women wore headscarves, here they were mostly silk or cotton kerchiefs, not the confining garments of other parts of the Muslim world. Full burqas are rare, and worn mostly by tourists from other Muslim countries. (In fact, I saw as many burqa-wearing women in Salzburg as I did in Istanbul).

The food in general was pretty good, and quite a bit more varied then the ubiquitous “doner kebab” restaurants would suggest. The fish, in particular, was outstanding. The yogurt was thick and wonderful (probably most similar to the Greek yogurt you can sometimes find in the US). A variety of fresh-squeezed fruit juices were available – including unusual varieties like pomegranate and cherry. Turkey, it turns out, is one of the world’s leading cherry producers.

In Istanbul, a number of restaurants were presenting “Ottoman cuisine,” which was generally meat stews (beef or lamb, no pork) with fruit, gently flavored with spices – something like Moroccan cuisine, but with more subtle flavors.

The food in the Çeşme Peninsula was like a textbook version of “Mediterranean cuisine” – lots of fresh fruits and vegetables (artichokes!), wonderful nuts, and fresh local fish cooked in olive oil, with rice as the basic starch.  The sea bass at one local restaurant, picked from a display of fish that had probably been purchased from a local fisherman that morning, was served grilled with fresh local greens. It  doesn’t get much better than that.

Turkey seems to be a busting, growing nation. There is universal admiration for Kemal Ataturk, and every town has its Ataturk Bulvari much like our major (US) streets bear the name of Washington and Lincoln. The military keeps garrisons (and armed watches) in more public places that one might expect. Although there are mosques everywhere, there seems to be as much diversity in the practice of Islam in Turkey as in the practice of Christianity in the US.

Somewhat to our surprise, since Turkey is a Muslim country, alcohol was readily available. The most popular drink is “raki”, a local version of the anise-flavored liquors (Greek ouzo, French pastis, Syrian arrack) that have been drunk all over the Mediterranean for centuries.

Even more surprisingly, Turkey also has a wine industry. Since Turkish wine consumption is miniscule (about 1 liter per person per year) most Turkish wine is exported to the UK or northern European countries. But production methods are modern, and the local wine offered by many restaurants was pretty good, though it was made from unpronounceable grape varietals that aren’t even mentioned in Ted’s wine encyclopedia.

Turkey’s biggest asset, however, may be its hospitable people. Turks are naturally gregarious, more like New Yorkers than typical Europeans. It won’t take long for the person sitting next to you on a plane or train to start up a conversation. And asking for directions actually works. When we got lost trying to find our hotel in Alaçati and asked a woman sitting on her porch for help, she came out and took us herself (first stopping, of course, to put on her headscarf).

The staff at our moderately-priced hotel in Istanbul spent about 20 minutes with us on our first morning making sure we had maps, tram tokens, restaurant recommendations, and everything else we might need for a successful trip – a level of service you usually have to stay at a luxury hotel to get in the US or western Europe. The hospitality was even more pronounced in Alaçati, where our small hotel was run by a semi-retired chemical engineer and her husband. Her restaurant recommendations were outstanding (dropping her name was like magic), and when her husband discovered we liked wine, he insisted we visit his tiny cellar and try some of his finest Turkish wines.

Experiences like that are rare, and it’s a trip we won’t soon forget.

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