Sunday, May 28, 2006
Last week my friend Dave wrote a guest blog while he was staying at the Riyad el Cadi in Marrakesh, where Roland and I stayed last December. I was so happy that the proprietors made them feel welcome and treated them extra nice when they used my name. Whenever I find a really great place-- especially one a bit off-the-beaten track-- I love to recommend it to my friends. Then I'm always a little anxious about how they'll find it. (I mean you never want to be responsible for sending someone someplace that they hate, like when I told Ken and Tony about Bangkok and they called whining about what a dump the Oriental Hotel was.
The place I probably recommend the most-- and hopefully we'll soon see a guest blog from my pal Tim from there-- is the Esbelli in Cappadocia. I started traveling to Turkey in 1969 when I was driving to India. I was struck by the natural and manmade beauty of the country and by the friendliness and culture of the people. I lingered longer than I planned-- especially once I had figured out that Istanbul's Blue Mosque District was no more representative of Turkey than Times Square is representative of the U.S. And I keep going back. A real crossroads, Turkey is easy to tack on to other trips-- like to Greece, Italy, Egypt, Israel, Spain, anywhere in Eastern Europe... And I've been to just about every nook and cranny-- from the Black Sea Coast to Anatlya to the Aegean to Lake Van and all through the central Anatolian highlands. Cappadocia is relatively new for me. What a mistake I almost made! "Too touristy," I used to think. (I almost missed the Taj Mahal with the same stupid thoughts.)
In September 2004 we had spent some time in good old Istanbul-- one of my favorite cities in the world-- and I'll write about that another time. It's an hour flight from Istanbul to Kayseri. It was painless enough and cost around $75. Suha, the proprietor of Esbelli Evi had arranged for a pick-up at the airport for the 30 mile drive to Urgup. Urgup is an uninteresting town incredibly well-located in the midst of one of the most fascinating places on earth. And the hotel, just a short walk north of town is amazing. And hard to think of as a hotel. It's Suha and his mother's home, a conglomeration of homes carved into the soft tufa stone. It's partially above ground with terraces and stunning views and partially kind of cave-like. There are 10 guest rooms and some cozy, charming common rooms (with a computer or two and a library's worth of books) beautifully decorated with hardwood floors, local textiles. The best part is Suha's genuine old world hospitality; you feel like you're a guest in someone's very comfortable, very welcoming home. People get there and don't want to leave. He gave Roland and I an amazing and very large 2 bedroom suite and I think it was less than $100 a night and included a sumptuous breakfast. (A comparison: in Istanbul we stayed at the 4 Seasons, which had just been voted the Best Hotel in Europe. We loved it; but we loved the Esbelli more.)
There aren't any special restaurants in Urgup but Suha turned us on to an old Greek farm in Mustafapasha (fka Sinassos), about 20 minutes south of Urgup, called, appropriately enough, the Old Greek House. It's a large family home with lots of rooms for guest to eat in. Let me just say that in the dozen times I've been to Turkey-- a country whose cuisine I absolutely love-- the Old Greek House served the best food I ever ate in the country. And we ate there almost every day. It is so off the beaten path that God only knows how anyone finds it. We drove around looking for quite a while before we found it down a dirt road. Suha had called ahead and ordered our food each time we ate there. Everything is prepared specially for the guests. This is beyond homemade and if you eat everything on your plate, they instantly fill the plate up again. We had course after course of the most delicious fresh food and I don't think it ever cost us $10 (for both of us!)
OK, so I told you about the most incredible hotel and the most wonderful restaurant, both pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Why would anyone go to Cappodocia? The 2 main reasons: history and geography and the way they interacted. You can feel you're in the Bible one minute and in a fairy land that beats anything Hollywood has ever created the next. People flip out the first time they see Cappadocia's "fairy chimneys," which are caps of hard rock on a cone-shaped shaft of the softer tufa stone. It looks like something you'd expect at Disneyland.
In every direction from Urgup we found unique and fascinating things to see-- from underground cities, several stories deep, where people sought safety from the aggressive Hittites, to ancient churches the earliest Christians built into the sides of steep, inaccessible mountains. No matter how long you stay, there's never enough time. We rented a car, which made it a lot easier-- and made complete sense since we planned to drive south from Cappadocia to the Mediterranean Coast. It isn't easy to pick a few sites to see because everything is so unique and special. I totally recommend the ancient long-abandoned monasteries built into the sides of the Zelve Valley, the tiny churches built into what is now called the Goreme Open Air Museum, and either the Kaymakli or Derinkuyu underground cities. We would drive to our destination early every morning and then hike all day. I love all parts of Turkey but if you can only visit one place outside of Istanbul, it should probably be Cappadocia.
Friday, May 19, 2006
I just got a letter from an old friend, Dave, who is visiting Morocco with 2 other mutual friends, Jo and Cindy. It's the first time in Morocco for each of them. He wrote to me from the Riyad El Cadi, the fantastic townhouse in Marrakesh where Roland and I stayed last December. Dave said it was ok to turn his letter into a blog.
I'm writing this to you under the lemon trees in the central courtyard of the riyad el cadi. As I type, the electrifying moan of the afternoon call to prayer is starting to swell across the medina. We arrived last night after a flight from Amsterdam. I am staying in your room, the Piscine, and Josephine and Cindy are in the Maison Bleu.
Thanks so much for recommending this place. It's absolutely lovely. And they light up when we mention "Howie".
Here's a little excerpt from of my diary. The longer entry spent a lot of time describing our arrival on the edge of the Jamaa El Fna and the walk to the Riyad -- a scene you know well enough, so I'll spare you that bit and cut to early this morning...
As I have for the last week, I slept like an old dog. Me, who's used to three or four hours at a time, sleeping for six and seven. Very odd. What's surprising here is that you're in the middle of this incredibly dense neighborhood that stretches out at least a couple of miles in every direction from you and at night it's just dead silent. I had a crazy dream about being caught up in some very intense religous mystery (along the lines of the Da Vinci Code I think -- although i haven't read it) chasing people through all these little corridors and stairways, being warned to stop asking questions by some people and pulled into dark doorways by others who would confide some mysterious bit of secret information. I woke up quite disoriented to the sound of the morning call to prayer at 5, followed by a really amazing concert of bird calls of every description. Needless to say, it took me a while to feel like i was really awake and really here.
At breakfast this morning a fellow named Hassan from the hotel spent about a half an hour with us talking about what we wanted to see and do, and then marking routes and destinations on the impossibly complicated map of the old city -- the Medina. A bit later we set out on our way, deciding to go visit an antique-dealing friend of Hassan's who he said was not more than 3 minutes walk up the alley. Within a minute and a half we were totally lost. I can't really describe the scene, and I know that sooner or later you just get used to it and start to get your bearings, but at first it's just sort of mind-blowing, Turn a corner and you're in the middle of a little vegetable market where a man is selling red onions, a woman has two little piles of apricots, a moped is honking its way through the busy crowd, an old old man is leading a donkey pulling a cart full of animal hides and then another man more or less pulls you into his doorway to show you his blanket factory. Before you know it, he's led you down a dark, dark corridor and into a ramshackle room where ten or twelve men are working on looms, weaving these incredibly vibrant colored yarns into blankets and rugs. And the guy is offering you tea and talking about America and saying "you are welcome here" and about how he'll make a special price for you. It's at once stunningly beautiful, squalid, intimidating, annoying, funny and seemingly so damned authentic that the modern cynic in you can't possibly believe that it could possibly be authentic at all. I think this is the thing that, in my first day here, has suprised me the most. You travel around a bit and you start to believe that every place is more or less the same. London is not that different from Los Angeles... Amsterdam... Chicago... even China which in a lot of ways really blew my mind. What's surprising is how much alike they all seem to be. You begin to expect to be able to feel more or less at home anywhere. Then there's this place which makes you realize that the world is still a lot bigger than you are. Today, wandering through the maze of markets, it made me feel quite naive. And that, in turn, made me feel vulnerable, and for a second, a little uneasy. And then again, everyone is remarkably friendly and funny. A man in a shop asked me if Josephine and Cindy were my two wives. I laughed and he laughed and he told me I must be a Berber and that he'd give me 12,000 dirhams for the pair of them and we both laughed some more. I guess the Berber are the butt of a lot of jokes here. A few minutes later, in another stall, Josephine was considering buying some old tins. She pulled me in to talk to the seller who was asking 400 dirhams and he asked me to tell him my price. When I said she would pay 200 for them, he looked and me and said I must be Berber. I said, "Berber? Why? Because I'm cheap?" To which he replied, "Cheap! Yes." And laughed.
Yesterday I had to abandon the girls and retreat to the Riyad after I couldn't absorb any more shopping. A couple of hours later they returned with a tale of Josephine nearly getting into it with a passive agressive t-shirt seller who, after apparently some time spent chatting, offering tea and showing the goods, felt that her price was insulting. He said something along the lines of "Are you a little crazy in the head?" and at some point put the shirts in a bag and threw them at her telling her, "Fine! Just take them American. Just take them for nothing." I sort of wish I'd seen it and then again I'm really glad I wasn't there.
Today I think we're headed to some gardens and a supermarket.
Oh, and we had a wonderful dinner at El Fassia last night.
Anyway, thanks again Howie. We feel a little like you're here with us.
UPDATE: 36 HOURS IN MARRAKESH-- TOO EXPRESS
Today's NY Times is right about one thing: Marrakesh is cool. Their vision of why... kind of superficial. Hey, but superficial people have a right to discover cool places too (and destroy them for everyone else).