Ottoman Houses

Trip Start Sep 12, 2005
Trip End Dec 12, 2005

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Wednesday, October 12, 2005

What an enchanting place!

Martin and I caught a late morning bus to Safranbolu, east of Istanbul. Travelling by bus is the way to go in Turkey as buses are clean, comfortable, travel to almost anywhere and are very inexpensive - we paid about $18 CDN each for a six hour trip!

Bus depots or "otogars" are never in the centre of towns here; rather, they're some distance out and they transport passengers to and from the bus by mini-bus or "servis". It's a very efficient system. We had made arrangements for a servis to pick us up at our hotel and take us to the bus depot and we were glad we had! What a confusing place! The depot was three levels and there are literally hundreds of different bus companies and signage all over the place! As we were boarding our bus, a couple of men starting laughing and joking with us about heaven knows what, but they found it pretty funny! We just laughed along - even if they were being insulting, how could we ever know? (And why would we care?)

The bus had two drivers who switched off and a bus boy who checked tickets, served us water (though few people drank because of Ramazan) and offered us lemon-scented hand cleanser a couple of times during the trip. (Many restaurants also provide hand cleanser after a meal.) The bus attendant also straightened seat backs, pulled back curtains and picked up any garbage once passengers disembarked. Both the drivers and the bus attendant were very professionally dressed in white shirts, dress pants and ties, but what I noticed most were the bus boys' eyes! They were the most amazing colour of turquoise!

Along the way, the landscape became quite hilly, even mountainous and some of it was heavily forested. We noticed large forests and timber cuts, though it looked like there had been significant effort at reforestation/timber management. The highways, for the most part, were very good and our drivers were careful and competent. (Martin noted that they drove particularly slow though wet sections because they didn't want to get the bus dirty.) Most of the roads were two-lane; near Sanfranbolu we encountered some road construction where they were twinning the highway. No doubt the road tolls that we passed through contributed funds for road maintenance/improvement. Not surprisingly, we did notice quite a bit of garbage along the roadsides. At a couple of our stops, salesmen boarded to bus, trying to sell everything from wallets to candy - for consumption, of course, after dark!

We certainly haven't hear much "English" music here, much to our relief actually! The Turkish music is so exotic and interesting - they way the sing, the different instruments, etc. We're hoping to buy some Turkish music to take home if we can ever find someone to give us some advice!

We had not thought to bring along any food with us, didn't buy any en route, so sufficed with the bits of Turkish delight I had in my backpack. We tried to be discrete about sneaking the odd morsel, since most of the rest of the passengers were fasting. (Normally I understand that they provide tea and cake on bus trips.) Just before our trip concluded, the bus boy performed his final task - spraying the aisle of the bus with cherry-scented deodorizer - it just about made me gag!

Upon arriving in Safranbolu, we caught a servis that we shouldn't have taken and ended up at a bus stop trying to catch a bus to the old part of town where we wanted to stay. Being late in the day, people were heading home to eat and there was not a bus to be had. After waiting patiently (actually I waited kind of impatiently) for three-quarters of an hour, I convinced Martin that we should grab a taxi. Within five minutes we were at our destination - if we'd have known how close it was, we would have opted for a taxi much sooner! C'est la vie!

Safranbolu (population 33,000) is named for the saffron flower that is grown here, from which saffron is harvested. We were tempted to buy some, but at $8 US a gram, it was still mighty expensive! (Saffron comes from the stamens of the plant's flower and it's very labour-intensive to harvest - it takes about 100 flowers to make one gram.) The old part of town, Çarsi (pronounced "char-shee"), a world heritage site, is famous for its Ottoman houses, many of which are now hotels. These two - three storey historic dwellings date from the 16th - 18th centuries and are made of wood and have the upper storey jutting out over the lower part of the house. Their timber frames were filled with adobe and then plastered with a mixture of mud and straw, and often painted with whitewash so that the exterior was typically brown and white. Rooms were decorated with built-in niches and cupboards and many had fine plaster fireplaces and elaborate ceilings. In addition, many of the old houses are furnished with heavy, old furniture, copper and metalware and beautiful carpets and kilims. Our hotel, located near the centre of town, was no exception - it was stunning. It is traditional to remove your footwear in Turkish homes; in our hotel they had blue plastic bags that we wore over our shoes each time we went up to our room! (Many Turks tromp the backs of their shoes down so they can slip them off easily.)

And it's not just the old houses that make Çarsi so memorable; it's the narrow, winding cobblestone streets, the people who have lived there for centuries going about their business cobbling shoes, making harnesses or hammered pots, as well as all the other buildings that have been relatively untouched. It's like stepping into the past. Superstition seems to abound; everywhere we turn we see eye-like symbols to ward off evil eye.

Our guidebook indicated that the breakfast at our hotel was quite something and they weren't wrong. A typical Turkish breakfast consists of cucumber, tomatoes, cheese, bread, hard-boiled eggs, olives and coffee/tea. Not only were we served these items but many other as well: peppers, cherry jam (with pits), fresh honey, some sort of sausage (not pork, mind you!), hot milk and walnuts! The women working at our hotel occupied their morning shelling walnuts. (While we were eating the front desk staff/servers spent much of their time chasing away the cats that seemed to live there.)

It was recommended to us by other travellers that we visit the hamam - or public bath - at Çarsi. (It was also one of the baths recommended in our guidebook.) Unfortunately, we decided to go there just at dusk and the whole place was deserted! (Everyone was eating of course.) There was only Martin and myself (though we were in separate areas - men and women never bathe together here) and a bunch of Americans who were travelling on Turkey by motorcycle. (The Americans had been told to go ahead and start and someone would be along after they had eaten to organize them, so Martin and I joined them. And a good thing, too, because they were clueless - obviously they had done no reading - so it was Martin leading a pack of ten men and me with four women.) Firstly, we removed our clothes, left them in a locker and donned a piece of cloth (the American women called them "tablecloths" because they were made from chequered fabric), then entered the steam room to soak up the steam and washed by pouring water over us from little bowls that we filled at the tap. Eventually, a young women showed up and proceeded to wash us, individually, with a rough type of mitt that exfoliated dead skin. Lying on a slab of marble naked as the day you were born in front of several other people kind of gets rid of your inhibitions in a hurry! I think each one of us lost about a pound of skin (whoever thought you could be that dirty!). Then it was back for a rinse, a massage by the young women's mother (at least I think we figured out they were mother and daughter), another rinse and then we were wrapped in big Turkish towels and sent on our way. (Martin got served tea afterwards, but I guess our group wasn't big enough to warrant making it. I can tell you we were both plenty thirsty after spending a couple of hours in there!) It was an interesting experience, but something I don't think I'd make a habit of! (Martin had been warned that the masseurs in the men's bath could be a bit rough, but he got one of the more gentle guys.)

Though there weren't many choices of restaurants in Çarsi (and the menus were often limited because of Ramazan), we found one place that served the most delicious (and I mean delicious!) Safranbolu pide (Turkish pizza) stuffed with ground lamb, spinach and onions. It was hot, moist and ever-so-tender! I could have eaten it for breakfast, lunch and supper (though I only had it twice). I think Martin and I are going to eat our way across Turkey! So much for losing weight after Germany! (The first night we arrived we ate at our hotel, but I'm sure they just went to a nearby restaurant to get out food - and then charged us double!)

Something else that's in abundance here are candy stores selling different types of Turkish delight as well as nougat with walnuts - a local delicacy. We had to try it, of course!

We certainly found that people don't speak much English here. It's off the beaten tourist trail - most of those who come to stay here are Turks and apparently the hostels attract lots of young Koreans and Japanese, but not some many English-speakers. As we have only managed to learn a few simple words/phrases, such as "merhaba" (hello), "bir tane bira, lütfen" (one beer please) and "tesekkur" (thank you), we were often pulling out our Lonely Planet to consult the language section. Somehow, we managed to do just fine as is often the case when you're travelling if you just persevere, have some patience and keep your sense of humour!
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