Bucket list trip: Turkey

If you had told me I’d be getting on a hot air balloon over the golden fairy chimneys of Cappadocia this year, I wouldn’t have believed you. Turkey was a dream, and dreams have a way of seeming far away, belonging to the distant future; to more prominent travel writers, perhaps.

But sometime in September, I got an email from Juliana Tan of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, inviting myself and other Asian media on a trip to Istanbul and Cappadocia. I tried to delay replying for as many minutes as I could bear, so as not to sound like someone who had just won the lotto. And just like that, three weeks later, I was off.

Early morning takeoff over Cappadocia

The 12-hour flight from Manila to Istanbul felt like nothing on Turkish Airlines’ business class. I reclined to sleep on my seat-bed after their chef made me dinner — the striking flavor of their in-house tea a teaser of what was to come. Next thing I knew, I was being woken up for breakfast, with only a couple hours of journey left. At the airport, we were met by a representative of Amaze by Neon, which took care of all our tours.

Hello, Istanbul!

I was told Istanbul is often used merely as a transit point, whether to Europe or other tourist attractions in Turkey, and I think that’s a shame. Istanbul is a literal mix of East and West, with many people commuting daily from their homes on the Asian side of Turkey, taking a 10 to 20-minute cruise across the Bosphorous river, to their jobs on the European side.

A Turkish bagel vendor demonstrating my work-life balance aspirations.

This mixture shows up in their architecture as well, with Middle Eastern and European buildings pressed up against each other along cobblestone streets — a good number of them splashed with vivid murals and graffiti. You’ll have fragrant spice and tea markets right next to roadside cafes, with locals talking over thick, sugarless Turkish coffee.

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Many cities I’ve been to like to boast having a cosmopolitan vibe, but Turkey’s goes way back in history. The famous Hagia Sophia museum itself is the only building where you will find Islamic medallions right next to mosaics of Catholic religious icons, having been both a Greek Orthodox Christian basilica and later an imperial mosque.

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Inside the Hagia Sophia

I guess that’s what drew me to Turkey. Even from photos I could tell it looked like no other place, because it had been and continues to be so many things at the same time. It’s a feast on all levels — culturally, visually, historically, gastronomically. Fast forward to today, Istanbul continues to be very open and diverse, without losing its distinct melting-pot identity.

Safe ba ang Turkey?

Safe ba pumunta sa Turkey ngayon?” a concerned tita asked a few days before my trip, well-aware of the country’s post-coup political climate. “Eh saan ba safe ngayon?” I shrugged. After Turkey, I was headed to Bali for a month, where a deadly volcano was acting up. And I live in the Philippines, which probably has the bloodiest international image of the three at the moment.

We completed our trip in peace. But if you ask the Turkish locals themselves, they will insist on one thing: “The people are still the same. The real Turkey is still the same.”

Every now and then, they might make disapproving comments about their politics. “My brother went to school there,” one of our Turkish companions said, pointing out a military academy to me as we cruised along the Bosphorous on a private luxury motor yacht. “They shut it down after the coup. Such a waste.”

“Do you think they’ll ever open it again?” I asked.

“Not with this government,” she answered after a pause. “They’re full of… grudge.”

No one denies that the country has indeed recently suffered losses. But life on the streets continues to be free and vibrant, filled with interesting things to discover.

Artsy districts and soulful creators

Our first luxury boutique hotel, the Tomtom Suites, was situated near the interesting and artsy district of Çukurcuma, filled with quaint paper, jewelry and antique furniture shops. We even got to meet a few interesting creators, such as opera singer and interior designer Oytun Berktan, who, aside from being easy on the eyes, told us something that resounded with me. He shared that he doesn’t label himself by his professions, as he finds this limiting. He views the skills and talents he has as his toys, which he picks up to create and make a living. And when he’s done, they don’t have to follow him or his identity around. He goes back to being what each person really is — something you can never define or put into words. Something you just are. Something with all the room for possibility.

There are few travel experiences I love more than cities with countless nooks and crannies, filled with people who take pride in what they do.

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Oytun Berktan struck a few poses for us outside his shop.
How I cured my jet lag at Tomtom Suites.


Another must-visit in Istanbul — whether you’re looking for one-of-a kind accessories, want to admire the mosque’s architecture, or simply wish to have a beer by the river at sunset — is the Ortaköy neighborhood. “It was one of my favorite places to hang out in when I was living here,” Aygen of Turkish Airlines shared. She’s Turkish but has been living in different parts of the globe, currently residing in Singapore. At one point, she left us to meet up with friends she hadn’t seen in ages.

The neighborhood of Ortaköy

Both our male tour guides (we had one for Istanbul, and another for Cappadocia) were very charming, but also very married. One of them showed us pictures of his wife. “She’s 100-percent Turkish,” he said proudly. He also told us that at Turkish weddings, they like to invite as many people as possible. “You just stand there, smiling and shaking everybody’s hand even though you have no idea who they are.”

“So it’s very easy to crash a Turkish wedding,” I guessed, to which he laughed heartily.

Golden Cappadocia

On day two, we touched down on Kayseri Erkilet Airport and were shortly greeted by the golden landscape of Cappadocia — the stretch of fairy chimneys, caves, cliffs and crevices shaped by volcanic activity. We got a glimpse of how early settlers used these caves: from carving homes for pigeons to collect fertilizer, to creating churches in the 9th Century A.D., with dark caverns at the Zelve Open Air Museum painted with frescoes as colorful and detailed as the ones you’d find in a modern chapel. Most impressive to me was the Underground City of Özkonak, where we descended into a labyrinth of tunnels several floors deep, where each family had their own room (so as to prevent the spread of disease), and had devised strategic paths to escape even deeper underground when they were under attack. It’s interesting when you think people actually lived this way and found means to make it sustainable and comfortable, and even had the engineering to keep their quarters well-ventilated.

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Wandering the labyrinth of the Underground City of Özkonak
Lots of interesting shops in Turkey
At the Red Valley. We waited for sunset to bring out the gold of the landscape.

Our hotel in Cappadocia, Ariana Lodge, was nestled in one such rock formation, with some rooms situated in actual caves, so it gave you a bit of that experience — albeit with butler service, high threadcount sheets, and a gorgeous view of the hot air balloons rising every morning at 6 a.m. — a warm reminder of the time we ourselves woke up at the crack of dawn to go up.

View of Cappadocia from Ariana Lodge


One thing the uninitiated should know about hot air balloon rides: the pilots can’t actually control which direction the wind blows the balloons. They can only change altitude accordingly. But you forget to worry about this as soon as you’re cruising through the magical landscape of Göreme, getting both a bird’s eye view and an up-close experience of the spectacular rock formations. After a smooth landing, we ended the high over glasses of champagne, followed by a sumptuous breakfast spread back at the hotel.


Oh you know, just casually ticking this off my bucket list ❤

Kaleidoscopic experiences

A typical Turkish table, I learned — whether at a luxury hotel or at a regular dining table at home — is always generously and colorfully spread with many different appetizers, from sweet, fresh vegetables and cold cuts, to various kinds of cheese and bread. You have to remind yourself to save room for the main course.

The kaleidoscopic nature of their dining experience seems to translate to everything else they do. Over glasses of tea, we were presented with a mesmerizing selection of Turkish carpets, each one a completely different visual experience from the last. We learned it can take anywhere between several months to more than a year to create a carpet, with 80 percent of the revenue rightfully going to the one woman who created it.

Turkish carpets
Rolls of Turkish delight at the Spice Market
Turkish ceramics
Baklava galore

Sadly, while I had all the appreciation in the world for such gorgeous, intricate work, I knew I couldn’t possibly maintain a carpet at this point in my life. In the words of a German-Serbian friend I made in Bali, “Maybe someday when I start to build an actual home. I currently live like a gypsy.” But I was sure I wanted to take home a piece of Turkey with me, so I bought a small, leather shoulder bag from the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, covered in their traditional handiwork. It had the rich beauty and detail of their carpets and ceramics, except it was portable and was sure to be put to good use on my following trips.


Marvels of architecture and engineering

The sightseeing continued with trips to the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and the Underground Cistern, which showcased the engineering marvels that solved Turkey’s water supply problems in the 6th century. And at dusk, a short yacht ride through the Bosphorous spared us from traffic on the way to the Hotel Les Ottomans, whose ornate and theatrical interiors were the epitome of opulence done right.

At the Blue Mosque
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Hotel Les Ottomans

Small Luxury Hotels of the World prides itself on finding independently owned luxury establishments around the globe, each of them offering guests unique and spirited experiences — no generic hotel chains. Changing hotels during press trips is usually an inconvenience, but on this adventure we actually looked forward to each one, because they all had such different character.

We ended the trip accordingly — with an indulgent Turkish bath (hamam) at Hotel Les Ottomans. The warm bowls of water gently poured on our heads washed away any weariness we had from all the walking. They then gave our entire bodies a good scrubbing, before covering us in soft mounds of foam and kneading our tired muscles. It was just what we needed before boarding our 12-hour-flights back to our respective countries, hoping to soon be back for more.

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Visit Small Luxury Hotels of the World (www.slh.com), Turkish Airlines (www.turkishairlines.com), and Amaze by Neon (www.amazebyneon.com).

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For more photos and travel stories, visit instagram.com/catedeleon.

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Originally published in The Philippine Star SUPREME (10 June 2017)


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