Wednesday, May 15, 2024
HometravelThe delight of Turkish culture and hospitality

The delight of Turkish culture and hospitality

TURKEY – “Can I offer you some tea?” This is the delightful question that greets me everywhere I go in Turkey, and I say yes every time.

Served in a small glass, the crimson tea packs a punch – not just of flavour, but also Turkish hospitality.

Locals tell me the tea is served in a glass called ince belli, pronounced in-je beh-le. With a sleek silhouette, it is shaped like a tulip, the national flower.

The tulip motif, painted in vibrant colours, also appears on the saucer.

Throughout my six-day trip in Turkey, I am in quest of the tulip. I spy it hand-sewn on scarves, woven on curtains in restaurants and decorating city streets in bright bursts of violet and yellow.

While the tulip signifies a collective cultural identity of the Turks, to me, it also symbolises the resilience and hope the locals retain in the wake of the devastating earthquake in February.

I notice their optimism and quiet smiles when the natural disaster is mentioned, a show of their unshaken faith that the country will recover. 

I am geared up for spring and expect comfortable and breezy 15 deg C weather, but the temperature dips well below 8 deg C some days. My nose turns pink from the cold, but it is nothing a glass of hot Turkish tea cannot fix. 

1. Turkish tulips: A sea of colour

I am on tenterhooks as our van turns into Emirgan Park. I am here in early April for the Istanbul Tulip Festival, but locals say the colder weather at this time means the tulips may not be in full bloom.

Tulips, I learn, grow in specific temperatures. They blossom in cold weather, but if it gets too chilly, the buds and flowers may be destroyed.

But it turns out that the tulips have bloomed exquisitely. I am beyond thrilled at the sight of vibrant petals peeking out from the lush green of the park, which spans more than 190ha.

I notice that some tulips are paired with the mildly fragrant grape hyacinth, which resembles a small bunch of grapes when admired up close.

My favourite is the Lily-Flowered Tulip, characterised by its sharper petals. Horticulturists from Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay, who are also on the trip, tell me they plan to incorporate these unique blooms in the Tulipmania floral display back home.

This is the first time tulips that originated from Turkey are being featured in the annual display.

While most people look to Holland for its famous tulip fields, not many know that tulips are native to Eastern Turkey.

Catch a glimpse of Turkish tulips at Tulipmania: Origins Of The Tulip (str.sg/ioZ7) at Gardens by the Bay until May 21. Admission fees for local residents are $12 for adults and $8 for senior citizens and children.

Tips

Time your visit to Emirgan Park in April and in early May if you want to enjoy tulips. Wild daisies, violets and roses are beautiful sights for visitors in other months.

It is a good idea to start the day with the park, as the walking will work up an appetite for lunch. Admission is free.

2. Grand Bazaar: The magic of carpet shopping

When I step into the Grand Bazaar, what first catches my attention is the rich aroma of cinnamon and cumin, rather than the maze of shops. I realise the scent is wafting from a small spice shop.

I am tempted to enter the shop and perhaps get a hot cup of salep, a Turkish beverage made from the tuberous roots of orchids. It is sweetened with sugar and dotted with cinnamon powder. But, having just had lunch, I decide to explore more of the bazaar first.

The shops here sell traditional Turkish sweets, leather goods, souvenirs, carpets and kilim rugs.

I enter a shop when a small carpet, the size of a doormat, in the window catches my eye.

I am greeted by the owner, Mr Mustafa Baser, who is 46 and has been in the trade for almost 30 years.

I start a conversation about carpets and his eyes light up as he delves into the details of carpet-weaving.

Depending on the size of a carpet, a textile worker can take up to four months to complete the piece. These handmade carpets are double-knotted and woven centimetre by centimetre, he says.

I express interest in buying a small carpet and he shows me his collection, but he also graciously encourages me to look at other shops before buying. I explore other shops, but find myself thinking of the carpet in his window. 

I head back, and he welcomes me with hot tea and Turkish delights. We chat more – for almost an hour – and he tells me about his childhood and proudly shows me photos of his young daughters.

He says he hopes his son, who is 23, will take over the business soon.

I end up parting with 2,600 Turkish lira (S$180) for a small handwoven carpet in hues of maroon, amber and cerulean – and I leave with one of my best Turkish experiences.

Tips

With around 4,000 shops and 11 main entrance gates in the Grand Bazaar, it is easy to get overwhelmed.

If you prefer to leave from the same gate you entered, take a photo of the gate and get directions from a shopkeeper if you are lost. The friendly locals are more than happy to help.

Bargaining is common practice in Turkey. Do not be afraid to haggle, but do so politely. It is also a good idea to get a sense of the average price of an item you are eyeing from various shops before buying it. 

3. Spend a night in a cave

Ditch the commercial hotels and stay in a cave hotel instead, when you travel to Cappadocia in central Turkey.

Cave hotels are carved out of and around the magnificent landscape of caves and rock formations.

I stay in Elika Cave Suites (www.elikacavesuites.com) in the small town of Ortahisar in Cappadocia.

My room is majestic, with a dome-like ceiling. The design not only emulates the shape of a cave, but is also an architectural style adored by the locals because of its regality.

Unlike a cave, the room is anything but dark and dull. It is enchanting, and I spot multiple tulip motifs on the furniture and carpets, and even carved in stone. At night, I feel like I am resting inside a museum piece.

There are 26 cave rooms and nine stone rooms at the hotel. Each room has a different layout as the space of the room follows the unique structure of the cave. All are luxurious and I leave the hotel excited at the prospect of returning one day.

Tips

Rates are around $220 a night for a deluxe cave room in June. A private pool suite, which includes a patio, is around $875 a night.

Book your suite at least two months in advance, especially if you are planning on visiting in spring (March to May) and autumn (September to November). These are the peak seasons for tourism in Cappadocia, so expect some crowds.

4. A traditional Turkish bath

When in Turkey, do as the Turks do and experience a hammam. It is a traditional Turkish bath which includes a whole body scrub-down that lets you unwind and leaves you rejuvenated.

I visit the hammam at my hotel in Cappadocia, and I am guided to take a quick shower before my experience begins.

Then I spend five minutes in a sauna, which feels exceptionally relaxing as the breeze this morning is chilly. I move to a steam room and relax for another five minutes.

I am led to the hammam bath area, which is large and ornate as it boasts onyx marble walls and a high ceiling.

I strip down and lie on a warm marble slab called a gobektasi, which is big enough for three people to experience hammam in togetherness.

Traditionally, male and female bathers are separated in different areas, but the woman attending to me tells me both genders share the same area at this hammam. I am thankful I am the only customer this morning.

She pours warm water on me and scrubs me down with a kese, a rough mitten used for exfoliation. She does so for about 20 minutes, and then uses a large, foam-filled cloth and covers me with bubbles for a sudsy massage.

The massage is so relaxing, I almost fall asleep. After about 45 minutes of hammam, she rinses me with warm water and I am on my way. 

At 950 Turkish lira, it is the most expensive bath I have ever taken, but the experience is so sumptuous and tranquil, I feel like a whole new person.

Tips

I book my Hammam experience at the reception of Elika Cave Suites (str.sg/ioZB) on a Thursday night, and am lucky to have a reservation confirmed for Friday morning. But it is a good idea to book a slot at least three days in advance.

5. Get hands-on with pottery

Ten minutes. That is how long it takes a master potter to turn a pile of clay into a traditional Turkish vase.

I meet the 55-year-old potter at Kapadokya Seramik in Cappadocia, a workshop where guests can try Turkish-style pottery.

He is shy, and gives his name only as Ali. He tells me through an interpreter that he learnt how to make pottery from his grandfather when he was 11 and has continued the craft for 44 years now.

In Turkey, a lot of traditional earthenware is made locally, with elaborate floral patterns, including hand-painted tulip designs. Most of the pottery also incorporates spirals, some in an arabesque pattern.

After Ali shows off his craft, I sit at the potter’s wheel and attempt to create a piece of my own.

At first, I am unsure of how to work a traditional kick-wheel, but Ali patiently guides me through the process. He explains that most potters in Turkey prefer the traditional kick-wheel to an electric wheel as it gives them better control.

I enjoy the process, and make a simple bowl with a scalloped edge with his help. After giving pottery-making a go, visitors are then invited for a tour of the workshop’s handmade ceramic collection. You can buy vases, bowls and even sinks. 

Tips

My pottery experience is on the house, but visitors can call +90-384-511-4450 or e-mail erginozderin@hotmail.com for a quote. You can also contact Kapadokya Seramik via its site’s contact form (str.sg/ioZ2).

Parties as large as 10 can be accommodated, and it is recommended to book your experience at least a month in advance.

6. Explore the caves and chimneys of Cappadocia

If you fancy a hike, the Zelve Open Air Museum is a must-do in Cappadocia. Once a Turkish village with 15 cave churches and mosques, the Zelve Valley is now a museum and a Unesco World Heritage site.

Chimneys and valleys cover the area in what feels like a never-ending landscape.

The air is fresh and crisp, and even though it is windy, the weather in early April is perfect.

As I make my way through the Zelve, I am struck by the views and the charm and warmth of the locals. Some are here to hike, and they smile and make way for me as I navigate the difficult terrain.

I also enjoy my visit to the Devrent Valley in Cappadocia. The place is filled with stunning natural rock formations that are so defined, they almost look like man-made sculptures. Spot a rock formation that looks like a camel and another that resembles a tall bundle of mushrooms.

Tips

A ticket to enter the Zelve Open Air Museum costs 150 Turkish lira. If you plan on visiting in summer, wear long pants as the plants and thorns scattered throughout the valley can be sharp.

Put on your best pair of walking shoes when exploring the caves and chimneys of Cappadocia, as the terrain is sometimes steep.


A journey that lingers in the memory

The hospitality of the Turkish people is what sticks with me throughout the trip, and the encounters linger in my mind.

My only regret is not eating more kebab and kunefe, a Turkish dessert with a cheese filling. It is sweet yet balanced, with a nutty kick of pistachio.

I sip tea as I pen this, and wish I can be whisked back to my conversations with the locals, over a tulip-shaped glass of Turkish tea.

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Getting there

I take an 11-hour direct flight from Singapore to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines (www.turkishairlines.com).

It is then a journey of one hour and 20 minutes from Istanbul to Nevsehir, a city in Cappadocia, on a domestic Turkish Airlines flight.

The writer and executive photojournalist Desmond Wee were hosted by Gardens by the Bay, the Republic of Turkey Ministry of Culture and Tourism and Turkish Airlines, on a trip organised by the Embassy of the Republic of Turkey in Singapore.

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