Gaziantep: A City on the Brink

This morning it finally arrived in the mail. It took nearly 2 weeks to arrive from Turkey, but menengiç is worth the wait.

Menengiç?! you’re probably wondering, is a popular drink in Eastern Turkey that tastes like coffee and pistachio.  In reality, the thick, rich drink is made of roasted, crushed terebinth berries and milk. You can buy a jar of the paste-like menengiç online – it’s very hard to find outside of the region where it originated – even in Turkish grocery stores it’s almost never available.

 

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To ‘brew’ 2 servings of drink, all you need to do is mix 1 cup of milk with 1-1/2 tsp. of menengiç. Stir over medium heat until dissolved and fragrant, making sure the milk doesn’t come to a boil. Serve with sugar, as needed. Don’t swirl or stir to keep the mixture from settling. You’ll want the sediment of the berries to settle to the bottom.

 

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Softer and fruitier than Turkish coffee, menengiç may still be an acquired taste, but to me, it smells and tastes of Gaziantep, or as the locals call it – Antep.

 

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Living as an expat in Turkey was one of the most bizarre and rewarding years of my life. Moving to a country where I knew no one, and only familiar with what I’d seen and read online. The terrain was completely alien – desert-like. A language with few similarities, and few who spoke my own language around the city.

Situated only a few miles from the Syrian border in Southeast Turkey, Gaziantep has a very unique cross-section of cultures and has rich and beloved traditions. Just up the road from the ancient ruins of Antioch, Antep holds ancient roots itself as one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world.

 

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A Bronze Age citadel lies in the center of the city. In its shadow, the famed copper bazaar, and one of my favorite hideaways around town, Tütün Hanı. Wandering through the labyrinth of copper and metalwork stalls within the smoky stone walls of the copper bazaar, the Tütün Hanı café is just beyond a bold stone archway, almost hidden amongst the metal goods and the buzz of locals and tourists filling the halls, looking for a deal.

The 18th century open air bazaar has been host to tobacco merchants and coppersmiths for centuries, among other vendors. The open square in the center of the winding halls of the bazaar is where the waiters of Tütün Hanı bring out nargile (hookah), hot Turkish tea and menengiç to those lounging on the pillows and Turkish carpets under the central tent.

Remove your shoes before stepping in, order a menengiç and an apple nargile and enjoy the sweltering Turkish day in the shadow of the cool stone walls.

 

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I have fond memories of lounging around Tütün Hanı for hours, shopping for copper trinkets in the bazaar and Antep as a whole. Hopping on the dolmuş (shared taxi/mini bus) to get around town, picking up the language and customs, befriending other expats and making new local friends with whom I’d go out to the ‘communist bar’ as the locals referred to it (one of the only bars in the conservative Muslim city). Drinking Efes beer and playing backgammon for hours in the chilly evenings.  Listening to live Kurdish folk music at the tea garden down the hill from my apartment.  Eating giant meals of kebab, lahmacun (lamb and herb-covered flatbread), nohut durum (flatbread filled with crushed chickpeas, herbs and spicy peppers), mercemek soup, and always with a giant glass of ayran (a salty yogurt drink). I think it’s safe to say that I quickly adapted to the way of Antep-life. I left my vegetarian ways when I moved to Turkey, and never looked back.

 

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Istanbul straddles Europe and Asia. It’s a modern metropolitan city, displaying its long and eventful history with pride. Across the country, over 5 years after I left the quiet desert city, Gaziantep is now struggling to keep the peace. Nearly 2 dozen ISIL members were arrested in Antep late last year. The city is feeling a cultural shift due to the massive influx of Syrian refugees. And nearly 2 years after I left, there was a bus bombing in the same region of the city I had lived not so long ago. It’s tragic to hear about a bombing anywhere in the world. It’s surreal to learn of one that happened in a neighborhood you knew so well.

Antep has weathered a great deal in its many centuries of existence. And while it’s on the brink of very heavy political and cultural events, the city will persevere. It will be challenged as it has been in the past, but the Turks are a strong culture with ancient traditions that I don’t foresee going anywhere, anytime soon.  I’m proud to have been able to become a part of Antep, even though it was only for a short amount of time. I’ll never forget the history, the food, the kindness of the locals, and the beauty of the culture. One day, I’d love to make my way back to that fabulously exotic part of the world!

 

Playa del Carmen Travel Guide

If you’re looking for a beachy Caribbean getaway at a reasonable price, consider booking a trip to Playa del Carmen on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.  As a resort town that has overtaken what was once a small fishing village, Playa has a lot to offer, no matter the type of trip you’re looking for.  I’ve put a few ideas together for different types of vacations and activities in and around Playa for anyone, from thrill-seekers to beachfront Caribbean loungers!

I made the trip during April, and let me tell ya, that is the absolute perfect time to go! It’s warm enough to wear your summer gear, but the heat and humidity aren’t sweltering. No matter when you actually decide to book your tickets, here are some recommendations to help plan your dream vacay:

The Adventurer

If you’re looking for some spectacular views, outdoor excitement, or something new to throw you out of your comfort zone, the Yucatan has what you’re looking for!  Explore the lush forests by taking a zip line tour through the Mayan Jungle. While waiting to fly through the trees from platform to platform, be sure to look around – on a sunny, clear day, you can see for miles above the ancient trees.

 

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The cenotes are a must-see natural wonder that are really worth taking in. Cenotes are underground, water-filled caves. With this explanation, it sounds like something out of a horror film, but as a common natural feature throughout this part of the world, Mexican tour companies have lit the caves and have transformed a terrifying idea into a beautiful adventure destination for people to enjoy. Many tour companies will allow you to repel from high above the tree tops to the water’s edge where you can climb into the crystal clear waters for a dip in the ancient and beautiful abyss.  I really wish I had a photo to share, but the ole’ GoPro battery died before I made it into the chilly water. Doh!

While we’re on the topic of water, definitely try to make some time for sailing. (The day after the cenote adventure, after a full night of charging, the GoPro was back in action and ready for a sail!) Renting a boat is very reasonably priced, so be sure to pick up a few beers, bring your sunglasses, and hold on tight, or you’ll end up filming yourself slipping off the side of the boat after hitting the perfect wave just right…..thus the shot below of my feet flying up….

It’s kinda tough to be too embarrassed in Mexico. Worth it!

 

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The Family-Friendly Adventure

Tulum is a site that is sure to wow travelers of all ages! The coastal Mayan ruins won’t fail to impress. And then there’s that drop off of over 40 feet to the Caribbean Sea. Beeeautiful!  The local guides will tell you all about the ancient city’s history, with a moderate amount of walking (all of the major sites are within a very short radius, with paths leading to views of the sea that extend a bit further). The site is very well preserved, has an incredible history and provides breathtaking views.  If you’re lucky, you may even see some of the huge lizards that call the cliffs home.

Be sure to bring plenty of sunscreen and wear those swimsuits. There are stairs from the ruins leading down to a small beach where you can cool off in the brilliant blue waters of the Caribbean.

 

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The Party Animal

One of my fondest memories of Playa is a day dedicated to doing nothing.  I woke up, spent the early morning lounging around in the hammock on the front porch of our villa, listening to the waves of the sea just over the trees.

As the day warmed up, we strolled down to the beachfront chairs with grass umbrellas. Soaking in the sun, I was very busy slurping down boozy frozen drinks from about 10:00am (best way to start a sunny sandy day!). As the alcohol started to kick in around lunch time, after the steel drum band kicked off their set, and after a few refreshing cool-down dips in the sea, we walked up to the food hut just behind our beach chairs. The smell of freshly grilled fish and steak kebabs were killing me, so it was finally time to indulge. And oh boy, was it good!

The rest of the day kept this tempo. Water. Sun. Sand. Delicious fresh fare. Bottomless boozy refreshments. This is the perfect way to prepare for a night out in the downtown area. Just be sure to put on plenty of sunscreen before drifting away on your nap in the sun….

 

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While all-inclusive resorts can be a worry-free paradise, keep in mind that you’re paying for your food, drinks, and other perks available during the stay; so if you want to take advantage of day trips and other activities around the area, an all-inclusive may not be for you. Instead, think about staying at Riviera Maya Suites. We had a fantastic experience there. You can get a very affordably priced grass-roof villa with hammocks on the porch. You’ll feel like you’re hidden deep inside of the Mayan Jungle, but you’re really only a 10 minute stroll to the beach. It’s cheaper than the all-inclusive resorts and you won’t feel as guilty taking a day trip zip-lining through the jungle, exploring ancient ruins or enjoying the city’s nightlife. And the tacos! Get out and eat some tacos people! So. Good.

Red Rock Canyon: Just Around the Corner in Vegas’s Backyard

There’s nothing quite like Las Vegas; that, I have to admit. But, the strip get’s real old real quick. To shake up your itinerary, there’s a natural gem less than 20 miles away from the strip I recently checked out that’s worth a visit: Red Rock Canyon. If you’re looking for a break from the casinos and gluttony of the strip, this is the breath of fresh air to revitalize you.

 

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A few weeks ago, I was sent to Vegas for work, and it was my first time in town over 21, and it turns out I have very mixed feelings about Vegas. On one hand, I love the idea of a place set up to be a playground for adults. Anything goes. Indulgence. A town built to promote hedonism. Eat, drink, gamble and be married (in a little chapel by an Elvis impersonator – as the mood struck the couple I saw doing just that…).

 

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On the other hand, the massive hotels that charge guests on an a la carte basis is the tip of the rip-off iceberg in town. Want internet? That will be $20 per day. Want to hit the gym to work off those extra boozing calories from last night? Oh, that will be another $25 per day. Restaurants are ultra expensive for mediocre quality, in many cases.

Gaudy. Greedy. Grimey. Burnt out. Girls for sale. Male strippers as a long-standing joke novelty.

This is the city that truly never sleeps. A giant never-ending bachelor/bachelorette party.

Sure, it’s fun…in small doses. It’s also these qualities that make the desert even more refreshing.

 

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No matter your level of love or disdain for Sin City, if you find yourself needing a freeing, budget-friendly escape from town, Red Rock Canyon is a day trip worth the $7 entry fee (per car).

We were lucky enough to pay a visit over President’s Day weekend – and because of the National Holiday, entry was free!

It’s an easy 30 minute drive from the strip, and is nature’s playground with no shortage of breathtaking views, desert flora and fauna and some pretty brilliant sunbathing spots (or sun napping in my case – holy sunburn batman!).

 

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What are some fun activities to take advantage of at Red Rock Canyon?

  • Hiking
  • Photography
  • Rock climbing
  • Sunbathing
  • Picnicking
  • An easy stroll, taking in the views

But don’t expect to share your adventure on Twitter or Instagram right away, there’s absolutely no service out there….and it’s so refreshing!

No cell service. No problem.

 

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The rocks are a popular spot for climbers from near and far; and since there are many different types of formations, the park is perfect for all skill levels. As we walked along the bright red rocks, we saw experienced climbers, working their way up very large, very sheer rock faces. We also came across an instructor working with some small kids who were able to fly up the rock walls.  What a cool thing to learn as a kid!

 

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I love how un-guided this park is. In a world where we are led along by instructional signs to tell us where to go,  following the railings, relying on our smartphones to tell us where to go and the most efficient way of getting there, it’s really quite refreshing to just get lost and figure it out without any guidance. In the canyon, there are trails, but they can be hard to follow. People can navigate their own route in many cases to get to the highest point, or to get to a ledge that looks like it might hold an astounding view. You can make an afternoon out of it, or easily stay the entire day enjoying the views, sunshine, lizards, and just getting out into nature.

A true day of play that you can’t find anywhere in the city of Vegas, and it only requires a set of wheels and $7.

 

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My Top 3 recommendations if you’re planning a trip to Red Rock Canyon:

  1. Take a picnic or some snacks.  When you’re having your ‘Into the Wild’ moment, it’s easy to walk further and further out (and further away from your car…) where you’re sure to end up hungry.
  2. Wear good shoes.  You might just intend to stroll around and take some photos. You’ll regret not wearing sturdier shoes to go exploring once you see how magnificent the canyon really is.
  3. Take some sunscreen. I’m happy I did, even in early February.

Since the East Coast has been bombarded by extreme winter weather lately, my trip to Vegas was definitely a blast, but Red Rock’s sunny 80F days were absolutely the cherry on top of my trip to Nevada. Next time you’re around the strip and need an escape from your escape, get out to Red Rock Canyon, for sure!

 

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New York for a New Year

The snow is coming down outside, and I’m happy to say that I decided to take a relaxing snow day off. Dinner is in the slow cooker and it’s starting to smell super cozy in here.

This weather has worked out well, because I could use a recovery day from the long weekend trip I just took to NYC with the BF. The day after the ball dropped in Times Square, we made our way from Northern Virginia to Brooklyn, aka, my old stomping ground.

I hadn’t been back since I moved away about 5 years ago. It feels like my time in New York was during a previous lifetime, and so you can imagine I had a few Twilight Zone-like moments going back.

And in perfect tourist fashion, we decided to eat and drink our way through Brooklyn and Manhattan. Despite the especially overcrowded trains and unrelenting snow and rain, we managed to stumble upon some really fantastic spots I want to share.

When I was living in Brooklyn, one of my favorite spots was Sunny’s Bar out in the Red Hook part of town. I love that the neighborhood feels abandoned at night – an old neighborhood full of shipping warehouses and modern businesses trying to embrace the industrial, historical persona. The bar is right on the waterfront, looking out onto the New York Bay, the statue of liberty glowing in the distance. Once you step inside the dimly lit bar, you’ll feel like you’re stepping back in time; a time capsule full of tchotchkes and memorabilia that adorn the walls, collected through the bar’s 100+ year history.  No frills. No pretension. And, there’s even a bluegrass/folk jam in the back room each month! It’s one of my favorite bars on the planet; a time-warped American treasure, in my opinion.

Our first full day in New York turned out to be full of snow and rain. Due to the ‘pain in the ass’ weather, we could only do so much walking around Manhattan – visiting the quaint cafes and boutiques of SoHo, the overly hip shopping hot spots and tattoo parlors (in our case) of the Lower East Side – so we decided to take our touring inside. I’ve been to the New York Tenement Museum at least 3-4 times, and it never fails to impress! And lucky for us, they had recently opened a new exhibit in their Orchard Street property. My family first came to the States through Ellis Island, and lived in the Lower East Side before it was a fashionable place to live. That’s why I love this museum. It gives a very interesting perspective into what it was like to be an immigrant coming to and living in America during various periods throughout history.

After the museum, the weather was turning colder and we needed some fuel, so we dodged into Freemans. Tucked away in a Lower East Side alley, the restaurant has a tavern-like feel to it. Taxidermy rules the decor and the food is rustic and traditional. And don’t you dare overlook that cocktail menu – it’s a good one!

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With full stomachs and a new appreciation for infused scotch (who knew that was a thing?!) and rye, we met up with my cousins and proceeded to drink ourselves stupid. Thankfully, Sunday’s breakfast was the perfect remedy.

We decided to grab breakfast in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn at Diner. The name is an understatement for this fantastically hip restaurant which operates out of a 1920s era train car. The menu consists of simple and beautifully prepared dishes, and happens to be scribbled on the paper table cover by the waiter.  It’s classic New York. It’s friendly. It’s most definitely worth the trip.

While I much prefer to visit New York than live there, I love the personality of the city. I love that it’s steeped in culture, history and a pride in preserving those treasures.  I also love that it’s January 7th, 2015, and I’ve already made one spectacular trip this year. Cheers to NYC and many more travel adventures that are sure to come in the remaining 358 days!

Dharamsala: The Arrival of His Holiness the Dalai Lama

A few years ago when I was still in school, I was lucky enough to be a part of a religious studies trip to India.  As one of the most culturally enlightening experiences of my life so far, this snapshot takes me back, down the rabbit hole to Dharamsala – headquarters of the Tibetan government in exile. 

Our group had been spending time studying Tibetan Buddhism in the city. On this particular morning, I woke up late for the day’s lecture and meditation. The antimalarial pills were causing me to have restless, vivid technicolor dreams that would have made even Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey jealous; but, they made the next morning a challenge, dropping me back into reality to re-gather my sanity. I dressed quickly and began to make my way to the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. The morning smelled of fresh mountain air and burning pine. Fog was giving way to rain. I followed the narrow streets filled with scooters and looked ahead toward the half finished buildings that seemed to have been given up on years before.  Along the way, I came across 2 more latecomers. This was so out of the ordinary – usually our little group was early for lessons. Today, something was different.  Maybe the 3 of us were all taking the Mefloquine pills on the same day – leaving us on the same ledge between our ‘enlightened selves’ we heard so much about here and psychiatric problems that may accompany the prescription.

The morning felt damp and as we came closer to the library.  The streets became packed with locals; monks and nuns were wearing their traditional saffron orange and paprika red robes. Unsure of the occasion, we started asking people in the crowd what all the fuss was about so early in the morning. Turns out, the masses were patiently waiting for His Holiness the Dalai Lama to return to Dharamsala – gathering along the streets in hopes that they may catch a glimpse and to welcome their leader home.

 

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Lessons could wait. This was much more culturally intriguing than meditation and lectures.   Once the motorcade had passed, we agreed to re-join our peers; but, how often do you get an opportunity to see the Dalai Lama? We found a clear spot around a bend where we chose to wait. Just as we were getting settled, our professor was spotted rushing down the street. He’d seen us, looking relieved to have found his missing responsibilities running around the city alone.

He wouldn’t have it. Allowing three students out of his group to wait around for what might be hours for the arrival of His Holiness while the others were studying and going about the day’s lessons. So, off we went. We walked along the crowded street, through the colorful robes and umbrellas. The drizzle had started to fill the air as we were led back to the library.

 

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As we walked, the dedicated onlookers began to cheer. The motorcade sped through the winding streets and there he was in the backseat of a black car; a hand waving from the orange and red robes, as excited people were waving back from the street. It all happened so suddenly. It seemed rather unimpressive and unbelievable all at once. We’d just watched a few cars pass, carrying an important man. But, this man was the topic of months of study, the leader of Buddhist belief, an internationally recognized and revered figure. He was more than just a big shot.

We followed the professor back to our mates, now finished with the day’s formal education. We followed silently, reflecting on the scene of what had just taken place. The group was waiting in front of the Temple of the Oracle. Those who had just finished the morning’s meditation were quiet and hazy-eyed. We all took a quiet walk through the temple to wait out the rain that had started to fall harder. Gilded Buddha sculptures filled the warm, fragrant, red-walled room. A massive metal gong sat at the front.

After the short detour, our group wandered through the rainy streets, not interested in waiting any longer.  The morning had been eventful for all of us in one way or another and it was finally time for food.  There were few restaurants in the city.  The best was up a set of tremendously narrow stairs to Khanna Nirvana. The restaurant and community center felt like an Eastern tree house that always smelled of incense and tea. The windows led the eye out toward snow-capped mountains and a lush, green, fog-filled valley below.  We all gathered around one of the low tables, surrounded by pillows that remedy the butt-numbing raised wood booths.  The masala chai and oatmeal made up for the dampness of the day. The cafe was buzzing with locals, tourists and expats. We sat in a circle, sharing stories of the morning’s adventures as our jealous mates shared the lessons of their morning’s religious lectures.

Wasting no time after the meal, the group prepared for an afternoon that would make all of the meditation practice and cultural preparation clear. We arrived at the Main Temple of His Holiness the Dalai Lama where he was to hold a prayer service for the victims of the recent Chinese earthquake of the Sichuan Province.

At the temple, I seated myself on the cool marble floor, completing the line of 5 people in my row. The monks and nuns in his service were arranging attendees in an organized fashion, zig-zagging around to makes sure everyone was organized.  His Holiness’ seat was adjacent to mine, looking out onto a mass of people who had come to pray with him. The mantras soon began. Bread was passed around by monks and nuns, and we sat for hours, as he inspired people with selflessness and prayers for recovery of the Chinese – the same country who had displaced his own people. There were no translators. There were no screens displaying the service; only an old microphone and speaker to broadcast his prayers. When the chanting began we joined. When he delivered prayers, we sat in silence with our legs crossed, practicing our meditations to overcome the discomfort of the marble floor.

I sat, in and out of the haze of meditative prayer, offerings and chanting. My thoughts wandered. The afternoon became a blur. Some attendees of the service became emotional; upset, I’m assuming, over the tragedy that had taken place in China. Perhaps they knew someone from the area. Perhaps they just felt powerless in such a heartbreaking situation. His followers were as selfless a people as I’d ever seen. They wanted to help others – they truly, honestly wanted to help for the sake of improving another human’s situation. Seeing this passion and dedication to one’s beliefs made me think back on my day steeped in the Dalai Lama’s presence and prayer. The only emotion I can recall was melancholy. Maybe one day I would feel the same for the human condition and be in a position to help. Maybe one day.

Halfeti: A Village Above and Below the Euphrates River

On the drive to the village of Halfeti, from the city of Gaziantep where I was living, the morning air was warm and breezy as the car wound through the Turkish countryside. It was early May.  Pistachio and olive groves popped up here and there along the road. Red poppies grew wild, in full bloom. Stone arches every few miles, remnants of the Roman empire.

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The car began to descend toward the Euphrates River, or Fırat as it is known in Turkey.  The winding road narrowed and the icy turquoise water came into view. Cliffs rose from the water.  Ancient ruins of homes long uninhabited were carved into the stone cliffs. The car quickly slowed as we rounded a corner.  A child stood fearlessly on the edge of the road; behind her, a sheer drop to the ancient water below.  She shared a friendly smile with the foreign faces that drove past.

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The old Citroën we were in slowly rolled into the village of Yeni Halfeti (translated as ‘New’ Halfeti).  The old city and its inhabitants had re-located to higher ground along the steep grade of the river due to the construction of the Birecik Dam in the late 90s. The old village was one of many to be flooded, forcing the inhabitants to abandon their homes and built new ones up the hill; creating a new life as their old one was lost to the Fırat.

We parked the car along one of the side streets, and made our way down to the river where we found a waterfront cafe that was open and serving breakfast. We found our way onto the floating, covered dock, and seated ourselves in the shade. The morning hadn’t quite worn off and the village wasn’t yet up and about. Drinking Turkish tea, I sat on the edge of the dock, letting my feet dangle into the river, admiring the trees and roofs still visible under the milky blue surface.

Looking further down river, a minaret rose from the water, the mosque that holds it up disappeared with the rest of the old village. A minaret that has become one of the most identifiable symbols of the village.

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Since business was slow, and we were obviously tourists to the town, the owner of the cafe came out to greet us and to proudly make his recommendations of what to see nearby. Conveniently, he had an employee with a boat which, for a reasonable price, was able to take us around to show off these sites. Once we cleared every crumb of our traditional Turkish breakfast of local cheeses, freshly baked bread, olives, cucumber and tomato salad, eggs and tea, the young man who would be our tour guide had arrived at the dock with his prized toy – a rickety motor boat that I wasn’t sure would survive the day.

We bought some beers from the kind cafe owner, placed them in the young man’s cooler, piled into the small boat and off we went.

The river was calm near Halfeti. My Turkish friends, our guide and I rode upriver in what felt like slow motion. We couldn’t help but pull the boat over about half way to Rumkale – one of the destinations recommended by the cafe owner – to explore some of the ancient cave houses carved into the steep hills.  Observing them from a distance wasn’t enough. They smelled stale and there was evidence of fires built long ago inside the dusty rock walls.

Carrying on upriver, the imposing Roman fortress of Rumkale came into view high above the water, dominating the peninsula on which it was built, created by a wide turn made by the Fırat.

Ibrahim, our guide, tied the boat to the small floating dock on the Eastern side of the castle as we all cautiously climbed the worn steps to the fortress. The top of the seemingly never-ending hill was grassy and overgrown.  We explored the crumbling ruins of the Church of St. Nerses, built in or around the 12th century.

After loafing around in a nearby man-made cave, drinking the beers we brought from the cafe, in preparation for the trip back down to the boat, we sat on the edge of the grassy ledge and looked out onto the bend of the technicolor river that flowed through the ancient and untouched land that protects it.

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Back into the boat, we crept our way back toward the cafe dock where we started off the day’s adventure. The thought crossed my mind that one of the enormous ancient fish of the Fırat could have gobbled up the little boat and its passengers in 1 bite should it like; moving so slowly, we were no competition.

Burnt from the Anatolian sun, and exhausted from the climb and exploration, our group, including our beloved Ibrahim and the cafe owner, enjoyed locally caught fish, beef kebab and rakı (an anise-flavored liquor – a favorite among Turks).

For hours, we lazed about on the dock, enjoying the late-afternoon breeze. Few patrons visited the cafe that Tuesday afternoon. As the sun began to set, over the steep hills, we all lined up at the edge of the dock, rakı in hand, dangling our feet into the chilly water as I had that same morning. The perfect way to round out a beautifully adventurous day before a star-filled drive back to the city.

Paris: A Snapshot of St. Germain & Montparnasse

My first experience with Paris was in dead of winter. I don’t remember it as a sunny, grand, open city as I was expecting, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I arrived there in February, by train. Studying in London at the time, I decided to take a weekend holiday, meeting an old friend whom I hadn’t seen in years. I highly recommend arriving in Paris by train. Emerging from the Channel Tunnel, hints of French countryside come into view; villages and natural, ancient beauty soon grow into the landscape of the approaching city.

My friend had arrived earlier that day. After meeting up with her and getting settled into our hotel rooms in the neighborhood of Montparnasse, the sun was setting and it was time to venture out into the cold, damp, Parisian evening.

The dim orange glow from the streetlights felt calming and comforting on the rainy winter night.  As the rain began to fall harder, we quickly made our way into La Rotonde; a local watering hole enjoyed by greats like Hemmingway and Fitzgerald, and the brasserie still has the perfect old world Parisian charm.

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Located on a busy street in central Paris, La Rotonde feels so cut off from the city outside, with the mid-window curtains blocking the car lights and passers-by; the red walls were lined with red velvet curtains, oil paintings and warm lighting.  After two glasses of red wine, the smell of beef and butter stood out more and made the Onglet de bœuf sauce aux 2 poivres et frites all the better when it arrived.

We sat in silence as we ate our meals, and as the plates were cleared began to catch one another up on our lives. I ordered another glass of wine.

My cheeks felt warm and my stomach content.We paid the bill, gathered our coats and made for the door.

The rain had calmed to a mist as we strolled down the Boulevard du Montparnasse, taking a left onto Boulevard Saint-Michel.  The walk in the cold night was ideal after the wine and such a rich meal. We passed restaurants new and old, all buzzing with locals and tourists alike.

We finally came to the river. Notre Dame, across the river Sienne, dominated the landscape.

Crossing the busy street, alive with night owls, we walked down the old stone stairs onto the walkways along the river.  I looked out on the water, the old city and Notre Dame with the busy streets up above. Down there, it was easy to imagine Hugo’s Paris. Ancient sewer pipes that had been sealed long ago, scenes from Les Miserables and Hunchback of Notre Dame came into clear view in my mind.

Making our way along the walkway and up another set of stairs, we crossed the street, now further away from the imposing cathedral. We wandered up to a covered cafe as the rain was starting to fall again. We sat against the old building, at a small table under the awning. Sipping wine, we watched the river flow through the rain. People rushed by to get out of the rain, and we spoke about who knows what anymore. I remember feeling warm in the cold night. Old friends, wonderful wine, a lovely city, and simple pleasures like this that i’ll never forget.

Paris’ bewitching reputation truly does hold true.

“To err is human. To loaf is Parisian.” -Victor Hugo