Summer Travel: Exploring Cappadocia

Disclaimer: Today’s summer travel destination isn’t exactly the most widely recognizable corner of the world. In fact, some of you seasoned travel vets out there might be scratching your heads and searching for the nearest world map. But we’re guessing that after a few hundred words or so, we’ll have you dreaming about a trip to Cappadocia.

We’re not talking about the small town of the same name in Central Italy, but rather an ancient region of eastern Anatolia, and part of modern Nevşehir Province in Turkey. Cappadocia, pronounced something akin to Kapadokya, is distinguished by its spectacular landscape of fairy chimneys, cave dwellings and expansive underground cities.

Accessible by either bus or plane from Istanbul, Cappadocia is one of the undeniable highlights of any Turkish grand tour. The centerpiece is Göreme National Park, which was designated in 1985 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and protects rock carvings dating back to the Roman era. Another major draw is the town of Ürgüp, where you can bed down in a Flintstone-esque hotel carved right out of the rock face.

Have we captured your full attention yet? If not, check out the gallery below.

%Gallery-122858%Although human settlement in the region began in the Bronze Age, written references to Cappadocia first appear in Persian texts from the 6th century BCE. Cappadocians are also directly referenced in the New Testament as one of the tribes that received the gospel of Jesus Christ on the day of Pentecost.

In terms of architectural contribution, Cappadocia left its most significant mark during the era of Roman occupation. Prior to the acceptance of Christianity as an officially recognized religion, devotees were forced to worship in secrecy. As such, many turned to the troglodyte lifestyle, and fashioned vast underground cities complete with cavernous worship halls, intricate alters, rock-hewn pews and hand-painted frescos.

Surreal as it may sound, the underground cities of Derinkuyu and Kaymaklı wouldn’t be at all out of place in the Lord of Rings!

Both cities are entered via unassuming tunnels that gradually descend into the depths of the Earth. There are also obvious signs along the way that past residents were hostile to intrusion. Boulders could be rolled out from hidden pockets to crush bodies and seal passageway. And if you pause briefly to look above, you’ll see holes in the ceiling that not only provide ventilation, but also provide convenient openings for pouring buckets of hot oil!

Only select interior rooms and corridors are open to the public, yet it is obvious that Derinkuyu and Kaymaklı could have easily harbored thousands upon thousands of refugees. There are enormous mills and presses for making food and wine, sealed storage rooms with jar placements for safe-guarding supplies and numerous alcoves that would have allotted individual families with ample privacy for living and sleeping.

Although Christianity was eventually adopted by the empire, regional instability and the eventual arrival of the Turks were major factors in the continued occupancy of Derinkuyu and Kaymaklı. With that said, above ground settlements in Cappadocia also flourished, and applied troglodyte building techniques to the local geology.

The village of Göreme lies at the center of a vast open-air museum of truly monumental constructions. In the surrounding hills, you’ll find everything from simple cave dwellings and multi-room residential complexes to elaborately-carved monasteries and enormous churches awash with religious paintings. In order to reach some of the more remote sights, you will need to scale ladders, traverse rock bridges, scour cliff sides for handholds and perform other Indiana Jones-worthy moves.

Even where there are no obvious signs of prior human occupation, Cappadocia still manages to astound with its unique natural formations. Of particular note are the fairy chimneys, which have similar characteristics as the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah. These towering spires of rock typically have soft sedimentary bases in various states of erosion, as well as harder, less eroded protrusions at their tops. Some of the largest specimens reach heights well over one-hundred feet!

Arguably the coolest part of exploring Cappadocia is spending quality time in any of the cave dwellings that have been converted into luxurious digs. In the tourist gateway of Ürgüp, you’ll find a large number of boutique lodgings that manage to squeeze a good number of creature comforts in between hard rock walls. If you’re feeling posh, you can Jacuzzi in the middle of a cave, and then bed down on a King size mattress strewn across a stone frame.

In the winter months, many of the cave hotels come equipped with fireplaces for staying warm in light of the frequent snow drifts. In the summer months, they stay surprisingly cool, providing you with a well-ventilated refuge from the rising mercury. Modern conveniences aside, it’s not too hard to imagine why people were keen to live inside the rocks generations ago.

Cappadocia is also home to troglodyte-style bars, hookah lounges, restaurants and full-on dance clubs. At the end of a long day of sight-seeing, you can spelunk to whichever venue takes your fancy, and savor a proper Turkish meal, a bubbling water pipe or a glass of local wine. A burgeoning tourist scene of Brits, Europeans, Aussies, Kiwis and savvy North Americans ensures a lively time is had by all.

And now, here are the nitty-gritty details….

Turkish Airlines
, alongside most major carriers, connects US and Canadian cities to Istanbul. You can then either continue to Cappadocia by domestic flight, or take advantage of Turkey’s excellent long-distance bus network. Night buses withon-board stewardesses,overhead movies and reclining seats are surprisingly comfortable, very safe and all-together affordable.

So, what are you waiting for? When it comes to summer travel, you’d be hard pressed to find somewhere more exotic that Cappadocia.

** All images are the author’s own original work **

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Summer Travel: Spotlight on Istanbul

Ask most travelers to list their favorite European cities, and they’ll most likely feedback with the classics: Paris, Rome, Venice, Florence, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Munich and many others. But one destination that doesn’t always make the list is not only the largest metropolitan city proper in Europe, but also the former capital of both the Roman and Ottoman empires.

Need a hint?

We’re talking about ancient Byzantium, medieval Constantinople and modern Istanbul. Turkey’s capital city, not to mention its financial hub and cultural center, is built on both sides of the Bosphorus Strait. As such, it is the world’s only bi-continental city, located literally and figuratively at the crossroads of Europe and Asia.

Any time of year, Istanbul charms and enchants with its skyline of elegant minarets rising from the slopes of seven hills. But summertime heat awakens denizens from their winter slumber, imbuing the streets with vigorous life. Alfresco cafes brew cardamom-infused coffee, while waterside bistros serve up the fresh catch of the day.

With a material history dating back to the Byzantines, Istanbul is a veritable living museum of architectural stylings. You can easily spend a week exploring each of the city’s distinct neighborhoods, and check-off several UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the process. So, without further ado, let’s shine a much deserved spotlight on Istanbul.

%Gallery-122775%The Sultanahmet district lies at the heart of the old city, and is home to both the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. The former was built by the Byzantines during the 6th century CE, and was designated as the largest cathedral in the world for almost one thousand years. Converted into a mosque by the Ottomans, the Hagia Sophia and its crowning dome inspired similar constructions throughout the empire.

One such prominent example is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque or ‘Blue Mosque,’ which was built in the 17th century directly across from the Hagia Sophia. Rising up from the foundations of the ruined Byzantine palace, the Blue Mosque earned its moniker from the tens of thousands of ceramic tiles lining its interior. The exterior is distinguishes by its six minarets, vaulted arcades and undulating series of domed cupolas.

Together the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque serve as Istanbul’s monumental crown jewels. But this is not to say that the pair are the solitary focal point of the skyline. On the contrary, Istanbul is a sprawling panorama of delicate minarets rising up to the heavens. One of the best ways of appreciating the viewscape is to travel the city’s myriad waterways by ferry, tour boat or even local water taxi. Istanbul is simply magical just before sunset when the minarets turn dark black against a fiery sky.

Tourists in search of authentic handicrafts and tacky kitsch alike inevitably descend on the Grand Bazaar. Built in the 15th century, this covered marketplace has thousands of shops lining dozens of pedestrian throughways. Overpriced carpets and hookahs of dubious quality are peddled with vigor, but look beyond the aggressive touts to discover the genuine article. Turkish textiles are of very high quality, as are the works by resident cobblers, carvers, goldsmiths and jewelers.

If the tourist gauntlet becomes too much to handle, fret not as there are bargains to be had well beyond the walls of the Grand Bazaar. Scattered throughout the city are smaller markets of various manifestations that cater primarily to locals. The food markets are especially intoxicating to behold, complete with steaming vats of thick stews, carefully arranged piles of exotic spices, jars of pickled vegetables and rectangular trays lined with all manners of sweet, flakey and gooey pastries.

Indeed, Turkish cuisine is rich and varied, drawing ingredients and inspiration from the European, Central Asian and Middle Eastern corners of the Ottoman empire. It can be as basic as sesame-coated breads and seasoned yoghurt, or as complex as multi-course vegetable mezes and heavily-seasoned roasted kebabs. Domestic wines are surprisingly smooth and refreshing, unlike the local firewater that is anise-flavored raki.

Eating and drinking is a full-time activity in Istanbul, and reason enough to sacrifice some sightseeing in favor of restaurant-hopping. One of the most fashionable addresses to do so is Independence Avenue, a Parisian-inspired boulevard of 18th century Beaux-Arts buildings. Amidst the high-end retail shopping are some of the city’s most celebrated cafes, restaurants, bars, bistros, patisseries and confectionaries.

If you need to detox after imbibing a bit too much of the food and drink, there is no better destination than any of Istanbul’s hamam or Turkish-style bathhouses. Continuing the legacy of public bathing that dates back to the Greco-Romans, the hamam is comprised of several marbled rooms containing various hot and cold water baths. Impurities are sweated out in the saunas, and muscles and joints are loosened up in the pools of water. Attendants are also on-hand to offer therapeutic scrubs, leaving you with baby soft skin and a new appreciation for the wonders of cosmetology.

If you’re feeling a bit too squeaky clean, you can always spend the evening boozing it up along the Golden Mile. Dancing to Turkish techno with a cold lager in hand will give you some much needed perspective on the modern face of the city. Youthful, carefree and tolerant, the Golden Mile is where any remaining stereotypes of staid and conservative Istanbul quickly vanish away.

So, what are you waiting for?

Turkish Airlines, alongside most major carriers, connects US and Canadian cities to Istanbul. Accommodation is varied, and ranges from converted palaces to humble B&Bs. Summer heat and humidity can be stifling at times, but it’s a small price to pay for the opportunity to step foot in one of the world’s most fabled cities.

** All gallery images are the author’s own original work. All others were sourced from the Wikimedia Commons Project **

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Summer Travel: Planning a dive holiday

Summer travel typically evokes images of lying idly on a beach without a care in the world. But we at Gadling are always keen to buck the trend and focus on active and experiential travel. In keeping with this theme, today’s column aims to get you out into the open water with a steel cylinder of compressed air strapped to your back.

If you want to catch a glimpse of the underwater world, then all you really need is a mask, fins and a snorkel. But to truly immerse yourself in what lies below, you will need to use SCUBA gear, not to mention first undergoing some structured training. Fortunately, planning a dive holiday is fairly easy regardless of your experience level.

Intrigued? Keep on reading.

If you’re new to the sport, we’ll first outline how you can easily get certified in just a few days. We’ll also give you some suggestions on how to find a reputable dive operator, and how to go about choosing your locale. And if you’re a seasoned vet – or you’re aspiring to be – we’ll finish by outlining ways of taking your passion to the next level.The Professional Association of Diving Instructors – or PADI for short – is the world’s largest recreational diver training organization. Their introductory course, dubbed Open Water Diver, can be completed in as little as three to four days, though it is not uncommon to stretch the training out to a week. In order to earn your certification card, you will need to pass a written test, and undergo training dives in both confined and open water.

(Note that there are other highly recommendable dive organizations including NAUI and SSI, though they will not be covered in this blog).

Upon completion, your PADI card will allow you to dive anywhere in the world, with the condition that you don’t go deeper than the 60 ft threshold. Of course, if you want to experience the joys of deep diving (up to 120 ft), simply augment your training with the Advanced Open Water Diver course. There are also various specialty certifications for night diving, wreck diving, underwater hunting, cave diving and many others.

Prices for Open Water Diver courses vary considerably, but typically start at around US$400 excluding equipment rental. If you book a course in conjunction with your accommodation, you can expect significant discounts.

Operators typically rent all the necessary SCUBA gear – regulators (breathing device and hoses), buoyancy control devices (BCDs), weight belts and tanks – but you should invest in your own mask, fins and snorkel. Personal items such as wet suits and dive computers are also worth their purchase price. Dedicated underwater cameras are pricey, but waterproof camera cases for housing point-and-shoots are cheap and effective. Dive knives are not necessary, but they certainly make you look hardcore!

In terms of choosing an operator, check out PADI’s online dive shop/resort locator tool. One thing worth mentioning is that PADI distinguishes noteworthy operators with their signature ‘5 Star’ rating. The website also identifies career development centers, which are capable of training professional instructors and divemasters (more on this later).

Whether you plug in one of the fifty states, a Caribbean island or even a South Pacific atoll, you’ll quickly realize that PADI has tremendous national and international reach. Indeed, it is rare to find a corner of the world where PADI doesn’t have a presence, which means that wherever there is water, there will most likely be a dive operator.

If you want to narrow down the search a bit, consider other factors such as distance, weather, price and land-based tourist attractions. Seasoned divers often dream of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the Egyptian Red Sea and the tiny Micronesian islands of Palau. But for those of us based in North America, don’t overlook the Florida Keys, Hawaii, California, Belize, the Bay Islands (Honduras) and even Cancun.

Beyond choosing a destination, it is also important to identify your desired budget level and demand for creature comforts. A good number of Padi 5 Star facilities are located in-house at top end resorts and luxury hotels. But there are just as many smaller mom-and-pop operators that cater to independent travelers and backpackers alike.

For example, compare the dive scene in two neighboring ABC Islands (Lesser Antilles), namely Aruba and Bonaire. At the former, most travelers check into their all-inclusives, and then arrange a dive package and equipment rental through the activities center. At the latter, you can literally rent your dive equipment along with your car, and then seek out some of the smaller operators at your own pace.

Already completed your Open Water Diver course?

Interested in taking your SCUBA hobby to the next level?

One of the best ways to maximize your underwater time is to book a berth on a liveaboard. These boats are somewhat akin to floating dive centers complete with equipment storage, air compressors and a full staff of diving professionals. On these excursions, you can easily rack up four to five dives per day, and access remote dive sites that are further out to sea.

Once you complete Advanced Open Water and the subsequent Rescue Diver course – in addition to logging sixty dives – you are eligible to sit for PADI Divemaster training. This professional rating allows you to supervise recreational diving excursions, and is the pre-requisite for becoming an instructor. If you’re interested in taking this route, dive shops the world over run internship programs that off-set the cost of training.

So, what are you waiting for? With the prospect of summer travel just around the corner, make this the year that you take your first plunge in to the blue abyss.

** Images were sourced from Wikimedia Commons Project **

What I learned about earthquake preparedness

When the Great East Japan Earthquake struck on March 11th, I was working from home here in Tokyo. Having grown accustomed over the years to frequent tremors, I foolishly proceeded to ignore the early warning signs. But when the low rumble grew into intense shaking, I quickly realized that it was time to enact my exit plan.

In 20/20 hindsight, it was not a very good exit plan.

I grabbed my wallet, keys and cell phone, slipped on a comfortable sweatshirt and managed to dig out my running shoes from the closet. Before leaving the apartment, I turned off all the gas, and filled a backpack with a flashlight, batteries and a few cans of tuna. Mind you that all of this took place in just under a minute.

Once outside, I followed the crowds of startled people to a nearby park where we would in theory be safe if buildings started to collapse. Fortunately – at least for those of us in Tokyo – we were spared from the worst. Regardless, the whole encounter made me realize that earthquake preparedness is not something to be taken likely.

This is what I learned…1) Have a stockpile of emergency cash. To be clear, you should definitely keep your hard-earned money in a bank account. Stuffing piles of money underneath the mattress is best left for grandmothers, conspiracy theorists and money-launderers alike. But I can’t emphasize how important it is to have a hefty reserve of liquid cash in your wallet.

In the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake, at least in my neighborhood of Tokyo, ATMs simply froze up. What-if scenarios are beyond the scope of this blog, but the point is that having extra cash in an emergency situation is always a good thing. Lesson learned: keep a hidden envelope full of cash at home for times like these.

2) Voice over IP is a lifeline. In the minutes following the earthquake, all of the mobile networks in Japan went down. And they stayed down for a solid twenty-four hours. In a country where you can normally text message in a one-mile deep subterranean subway station, this came as a huge shock to the Japanese.

The reason was justified, namely that government and industry officials wanted to keep telecommunications networks open for use by emergency responders. Fortunately, the internet was up and running, which meant that Voice over IP services like Skype served as vital lifelines to friends and loved ones.

3) Plan for the worst, hope for the best. During my panicked flee from home, I never considered the worst case scenario. As such, there were some vital items that I left behind. For starters, I forgot my passport, which would have severely hampered my ability to catch an international flight out of Japan.

I also forgot my glasses, which is a major concern given that a) my contacts are disposable and b) my vision is only slightly sharper than your average ground mole. And while I don’t take regular prescription medicine, if I did, there is a good chance that I would have forgotten to pack that as well. Which brings me to number four.

4) Always keep a bag of emergency supplies on hand. I did a good thing by grabbing a flashlight, batteries and random cans of tuna. But I wasted valuable seconds that could have been spent escaping from the premises. There is also a long list of potentially useful items that I left behind.

What’s packed in my bag now you ask? A lot of goodies, including a first aid kit, essential toiletries, compressible sleeping bags, emergency flares, duct tape, gloves, face masks, rain gear, bottled water, plastic bags, dried snacks, utensils, Swiss Army knives, soap, hand sanitizer and iodine tablets (for purifying water, not preventing radiation sickness).

A bit on the heavy side? Definitely. Dependable in times of dire need? Absolutely.

5) Dress appropriately. To clarify, we’re not talking about fashion, but rather survival. I was smart enough to grab an extra layer, and the running shoes seemed like a good idea in the event of spreading fire. But had there been wreckage containing anything from broken glass to steel shards, I potentially could have been injured.

I have since invested in a seriously sturdy pair of steel-toed, Vibram-soled military boots, which I keep in a small nook near the front door. Next to my previously mentioned bag of emergency supplies, I keep a folded pair of work jeans and a durable Carhartt construction jacket. And although I forgot to mention this prior, there are also extra socks and underwear in my emergency bag. Always good to have a few clean pairs on hand!

Is there something that I’m missing? Most likely. Am I being overly neurotic? Always a possibility. With that said, if anyone out there has experience packing an emergency kit, please chime in and share your thoughts. And, if anyone out there has a carefully thought out escape plan for dealing with any kind of natural disaster, let us know!

Stay safe, and remember the scout motto: Be prepared!

** All photos are courtesy of the Wikicommons Media Project **

Summer Travel: A week in the Holy Land

With the summer holidays rapidly approaching, it’s safe to say that many of us are suffering from serious bouts of wanderlust. Fortunately we at Gadling have the cure, namely a heaping dose of pure, uncut travel advice. Side effects may include flight bookings, hotel reservations and the loss of a few clean passport pages.

Every year, travel experts (myself included…) seem to tout a *new* destination that somehow seemed to escape all prior notice. But today we’re here to tell you that one of the hottest summer destinations has in fact been around for a long, long time. Rather than keeping you guessing, we’ll just spill the fava beans and come right out and say it.

Geopolitics aside, Israel is an awe-inspiring place to visit.

In one tiny strip of land, you’ll find ancient cities, a mélange of cultures, stunning natural environments, rich cuisine and decent value for your dollar. Israel’s compact size also means that you can tick off a long-list of sights in a relatively short period of time. And, you’ll find that English is widely spoken, which makes independent travel very feasible.

%Gallery-122137%If you’re arriving in Israel by flight, chances are you will touchdown in Ben Gurion International Airport (TLV), just 10 miles southeast of Tel Aviv proper. In comparison to the historical hot bed that is Jerusalem, Tel Aviv is generally described as being modern, secular and progressive. It is also unapologetically bold and brash, and consequently serves as the country’s hedonistic playground.

Dubbed by National Geographic as one of the world’s ten best beach cities, Tel Aviv easily rivals any of its Mediterranean counterparts. The westward facing strip of sand ensures uninterrupted sunsets, though beach life is anything but a daytime activity. The warm, dry nights bring out droves of party people, who booze it up in chic canopy lounges and trend-setting mega-clubs.

For the more culturally-minded traveler, a visit to the adjacent city of Jaffa is an absolute must – just follow the beachside promenade south for around a mile. Home to archaeological ruins dating back to 7500 BCE, Jaffa is believed to be one of the oldest ports in the world. But the core architectural plan is largely Ottoman in design, with fortified sea walls, soaring minarets, rounded cupolas and serpentine alleyways.

You could easily spend a full-week indulging in Tel Aviv’s signature brand of fun. But no trip to Israel is complete without stepping foot in Jerusalem, sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. Truth be told, trying to capture the magnitude of Jerusalem – especially in a meager blog post – is something of an exercise in futility.

Indeed, Jerusalem hosted the court of the Israelite King David, oversaw the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and was visited during the Night Journey of the prophet Muhammad. Yet despite this monumental line of biblical succession, the old city of Jerusalem is easily accessible, surprisingly compact and conducive to exploration on foot.

On your first day in the city, start at the Western (Wailing) Wall, a remnant of the Jewish Second Temple that was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. If you continue up to the Temple Mount, you’ll see the gold-plated Dome of the Rock, an Islamic shrine built in 691 CE that is now one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks. Continue to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is built around Calvary (Golgotha), the site of Jesus’s crucifixion. Save time for sunset at the top of Mount of Olives, a historic Jewish cemetery that is referenced in both the Old and New Testaments.

On your second day in the city, grab a flashlight and head to the City of David archaeological park. The centerpiece here in the 1,700 foot-long Siloam Tunnel, a subterranean aqueduct that dates from 701 BCE. Walking through the dark while ankle-deep in water is a surreal yet memorable experience. In the afternoon, hop from cafe to cafe in the fashionable and cosmopolitan New City quarter. Also don’t miss the Israel Museum, which houses several surviving copies of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Leaving Jerusalem behind is no easy task, but Israel also presents numerous opportunities for enjoying the great outdoors. Summer heat can be intense, but there is no better place for cooling down than in the southern resort city of Eilat. Located on the shores of the Red Sea, Eilat presents opportunities for swimming, boating, SCUBA diving, camel trekking or simply lounging around without a care in the world.

Equally refreshing – but more saline – is the Dead Sea, one of the saltiest bodies of water in the world, and the lowest point on the Earth’s surface. Floating on your back without expending any energy is amongst the quintessential Middle East tourist experiences. But trust us – don’t enter if you have any open cuts. And unless you really want to feel the burn, best to hold off on shaving until after you’ve taken your dip.

The jumping off-point for the Dead Sea is the oasis town of Ein Gedi, which lies adjacent to one of Israel’s most beautiful nature reserves. Nearby you’ll also find Masada, a natural rock fort that was the site of a famous mass suicide during the First Jewish-Roman War (66–70 CE). A hot and sweaty hike to the top (bring water, and start early in the day!) brings you to the spot where almost a thousand Jews committed mass suicide in order to avoid being captured by the Romans.

We’ve just barely scratched the surface of everything that lies waiting for you to discover in the Holy Land. But even if you don’t have much time to spare, a one-week jaunt really is enough time to explore a fairly decent swathe of Israel. So check your preconceived notions at the door, and get ready for some truly life-changing travel.

** All photos are the blogger’s original work **

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