Istanbul and Cappadocia, Turkey

Turkey was my first venture into the Arab world and it was as vibrant as expected.

I aim to celebrate each birthday in a different part of the world and this year was not any different – I celebrated my last year in my 20s in Turkey!

Istanbul has the buzz and hustle of most big cities across the world. I thoroughly enjoyed visiting the bazaars – I love markets. I usually hate crowds but I can abide the madness of a good market, I am after all a true Lagosian. Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is apparently one of the biggest covered markets in the world. It is crammed full of stalls, merchants, their wares, shoppers and tourists. The Grand Bazaar has on offer a wide variety of things and I was especially taken over by the spices and teas! Everyauthentic market always has an abundance of merchants feverishly calling out for you, and it’s no different when at the Grand Bazaar. The only thing is the soliciting for customers turns weird when it happens to be three Black women (me and my friends) who are the buyers. The sellers, all men (I don’t recall seeing any female sellers) kept calling us various female African-American celebrities – from “Beyonce” to “Rihanna” 🥴. It’s getting old (was the same in Greece too).

 

Something I highly recommend experiencing whilst in Istanbul is to take the 45min (about, there is a fast boat and a much slower one. We took the faster option) boat ride to Buyukada Island. It is the largest of the 9 Prince’s Islands. Its a serene dream! It has no cars except working vehicles like trucks, and I only saw a couple of those. The main mode of moving around especially for tourists is by horse and carriage. The houses are huge and terraced. There is greenery everywhere. It looked like what I imagine a Caribbean Island to be. Some people find the Island depressing and indeed it is an Island that feels trapped in time but I found it to be a respite from the bustle of Istanbul main land.

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We also visited the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. The Hagia Sophia started out as a Greek Orthodox cathedral AD 537 and at that time was an architectural feat! The Blue Mosque seemed to be undergoing some sort of renovation when we went in May, 2019 but I still found it worth seeing. Especially memorable was me and my friend trying to sneak in with what is considered inappropriate clothing and being caught swiftly by one of the guards who yelled “dress problem!” I suppose we wouldn’t have gotten far anyways even if we made it into the mosque. Thankfully, there is a place nearby to rent long skirts and scarves for free. A more sensible approach is to plan ahead and wear a long skirt/trousers and bring a scarf along. That way you avoid having to wear borrowed, possibly rarely washed, oversized garments 🤷🏾‍♀️.

On one of the evenings in Istanbul we went on a boat cruise. It had belly dancers and whirling dervishes and a very fun MC. My advice with this is to pay more to go on a classier cruise. Ours, though fun, was a bit over-packed and the food could have been better. We saw other nicer and quieter boats pass by and wished we’d paid a bit more to go on one of those.

Also, we had a Turkish bath at one of the oldest Hammams in the city and felt like new people afterwards! There are several things you really must do whilst in Turkey such as having delicious Turkish delights and visiting bazaars, another must-do is having a Turkish bath, it is purely mandatory. This is the one we went to, which I highly recommend.

CAPPADOCIA

The highlight of my time in Turkey was in Cappadocia. Cappadocia is a semi-arid region in Turkey which is about half an hours flight from Istanbul. It felt like being on Mars… with scores hot air balloons (instead of space ships) floating around. For most people, Cappadocia would fit on their ‘World’s Remarkable Places’ list. Jutting out of the ground all over Cappadocia are conical natural rock/sand formations. It does make you feel like you have left planet earth.

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There are various tours of Cappadocia and there is quite a lot to see from sprawling underground cities that hid thousands of refugees to churches carved into rocks. The popular tours are named after colours and I went on the Green Tour which is a day tour starting at 9am and ending at 6pm. You are picked up and dropped off at your hotel. On this tour I went to the Goreme Open Air Museum, Pigeon Valley, a Turkish Jewellery shop (featuring the most beautiful precious and semi-precious stones), a gift shop (which I am sure the tour company struck some sort of deal with which meant they dropped scores of tourists at the shop everyday as an ‘opportunity to try Turkish sweets’) and Ihlara Valley. I actually spent most of my birthday trekking though the Ihlara Valley, which is the second largest canyon in the world. The trek ended in a restaurant selling not great food, but the outdoor seating by a long stream in the depths of the valley made it bearable.

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Cappadocia is very famous for its cave hotels and we stayed in one of them. Again, it was quite the experience, being shrouded around by cool rock walls in the belly of the caves (ok, I exaggerate, not really the belly of the caves like the photo above of me in one of the many underground cities, more like at the precipice of a cave…)but I found it quite calming and grounding.

Istanbul and especially, Cappadocia were a delight and Cappadocia really did feel like an outer-worldly experience. Turkey is truly a city offering many worlds; it straddles both Asia and Europe,  Christianity and Islam. It’s spices and teas are reminiscent of the east and empires long gone. It truly is an exquisite ride on a pendulum that swings in many directions.

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Budapest, Hungary – The City of Baths

Budapest is definitely the most unlikely city I have visited so far. By unlikely, I mean it was never on my “top ten” list of places to go and it seems not to be on the list of many people as my sister’s exclamation of “what are you doing in Budapest??”when I sent pictures to my siblings whatsapp group, shows.

The Danube

In short, Budapest was not planned. My friend and I had some other destination we wanted to visit, but the cost of accommodation and flights put us off. Just when we were about to pause on travelling at all, Budapest happened.

Heroes Square (Hosok Tere)

Kossuth Lajos ter


We were in Budapest in the middle of June – the heat was debilitating. However, thanks to the many baths and spas that Budapest is famous for – cooling off was never far away.

The first thing that struck me about Budapest was how manageable the crowd was. For a capital city, it didn’t feel as overwhelming as London but still managed to feel exciting. The people were also very polite, from strangers on the road to hotel staff.

Budapest isn’t the cheapest city I have been to but it is definitely not expensive either. It took me a while to get used to the conversion rate, for some reason, and truly understand the value of things but I can say it was a moderately affordable city. For me, Bogota, is the cheapest city I’ve been to where I would go on a 45mins Uber ride and pay less than £10!

Baths

Gellerts


We had the opportunity to visit 2 thermal baths whilst in Budapest – Gellerts and Szechenyi. Gellerts bath is elegant whilst Szechenyi is hip. Szechenyi was full of young people in their early twenties whilst Gellerts was more family friendly. Szechenyi was bigger and had glum, wet changing stalls that seemed to go on forever, my friend likened it them to prison cells and I don’t disagree, Gellerts, on the other hand is smaller and it’s changing stalls bore little similarities to a penitentiary. I won’t suggest one over the other as they were both fun and relaxing just with different vibes. Szechenyi’ yellow buldings is especially picturesque.
Jewish District

Budapest’s Jewish district is the soul of the city and you immediately feel a shift in vibe when you get there. The second biggest synagogue in the world, and the largest in Europe, is located here and so are several boutique restaurants and street art. Where the street art is, is usually where the most passion in a city lies – at least this is what I believe.

Cuisine

In relation to cuisine, I will say as a legit foodie, who has eaten food from different cultures, that the Hungarian delicacies did not disappoint. My favourite was this pancake stuffed with chicken soaked in a paprika stew. Typical of how I relate to international foods, I do not remember the name but I hope the description is crisp enough to help you find it if you ever go to Hungary. Goulash was also a staple in most restaurants we went to and is definitely something to eat in Hungary.

I can recommend 3 restaurants in order of amazingness which must not be missed if you’re in Budapest:

Bobyglar – this restaurant fell into our laps as we wondered away from Hosok Tere, a square with statues of important figures in Hungary’s history. It’s similar in structure, and its location centrally at a big crossroads, to Trafalgar Square in London. Of course, it was nowhere near as chaotic as Trafalgar Square but it was still beautiful and full of history.

Anyways, we wandered away from this monument and staggered hungrily into the hobbit-home-looking building to find a nicely furnished restaurant which had an outside seating area that we immediately settled into. The staff were top-notch and I will give not just the delicious food 5 stars, but also the service we received.

Cafe New York – Tagged the most beautiful cafe in the world, this is an absolute must-visit. I have never been to a restaurant that opulent and extravagant, let alone a cafe that exquisite. You might actually be intimidated by the setting and assume your pocket won’t survive the visit. For a place as beautiful as a palace, the Cafe is unbelievably affordable. It’s also a great place for taking unrivalled photos.

Mazel Tov – Tucked in the Jewish district is this Israeli restaurant which has sections outdoors whilst their indoor area is covered with clear canopies. It is teeming with greenery so that even when you are inside, you feel like you are outside. The food was was delightful – I had a sharwama that tasted authentic, fresh and delicious. To make the already charming atmosphere more special, there was live music by this guy with a guitar who sang heart-wrenching love songs all night.

Budapest is a truly beautiful city! The wide streets, yellow trams, Jewish district and Moorish architecture made Budapest feel idyllic and like a cross breed between Portugal, San Francisco and Tel Aviv (none of which I’ve been to, but Pinterest pictures tell you a lot).

Budapest is not very diverse, in the sense that non-White people are a rarity, so my friend and I were stared at quite a bit, but we have become used to this as we often find ourselves in situations where we stand out. If you’ve travelled through most countries in Europe as a Black person, you won’t find the stares in Budapest shocking. In fact, the stares were milder than I have experienced in other countries such as in areas of Greece or the South of Italy were I almost stopped traffic.
Budapest was an unexpected trip that has now become an unforgettable experience.