An Inside Look at the OLLI Educational Travel Program to Turkey

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By Cathi Cody-Hudson

It’s hard to imagine that a little over a month ago, I was immersed in the culture of a foreign country as co-lead on our UVM OLLI Educational Travel Program to Turkey. What follows are short log entries I wrote as a way to remember the exotic sights, smells, tastes, and sounds of this beautiful country.

A 10-Day Log of the OLLI Educational Travel Program to Turkey

Sunday – After a long flight, our OLLI entourage of 17 members arrived in Istanbul Saturday afternoon to meet our Turkish guide, who will accompany us for the next several days. Today we started our adventure by logging more than 10 miles on foot, from the Hippodrome, where chariot races were held in ancient times, to the Blue Mosque, where we viewed the beautiful, intricate mosaic tiles and learned of the Muslim prayer ritual. We then visited the Hagia Sophia, a church built in the 6th century, which later became a mosque, and is now a museum. After a delicious Turkish lunch at The Pudding Shop (President Clinton ate here during a visit), we toured the grounds and exhibits in the Topkapi Palace Museum. In the evening, our bus driver dropped us off at one end of Istiklai Caddesi, and we walked to the Ikinci Bahar Restaurant for a wonderful dinner of Turkish appetizers, grilled sea bass, and fresh fruit. Tomorrow it’s off to experience the exotic fragrances of the Spice Bazaar and chaotic Grand Baazar.

educational-travelMonday – We started our day by walking up a steep incline to the beautiful Suleymaniye Mosque near our hotel. Our group enjoyed the peacefulness and authentic feel as we entered the sacred building and strolled the grounds. Next, we traveled to the Spice Bazaar, where many of us purchased aromatic spices in bulk, nicely vacuum-sealed for travel back home. Then it was on to the Galata neighborhood to climb the Galata Tower, which offered an amazing 360-degree vista of Istanbul. After a leisurely lunch in small kebab shops along Istiklai Caddesi, we finished with a visit to the Grand Bazaar: a riot of color, overly attentive merchants, and a crowded maze of walkways. Our driver continues to amaze us with his adeptness at maneuvering the bus through traffic jams and narrow streets. Our guide is extremely knowledgeable and has great stories to share as we visit each new place.

educational-travelTuesday-Thursday – Tuesday started with a private boat ride along the Bosphorous River. The weather was perfect as we rode along the riverbank enjoying the view, while sipping freshly steeped Turkish tea. After a quick lunch, most of us headed to the historic Cemberlitas Hamami for a Turkish Hamam treatment, “rubbing of the skin,” as our guide affectionately calls it. We ended our day with a lecture by a local professor on the Byzantine and Ottoman time periods and the impact they made on Turkey now and into the future.

On Wednesday, we took a Turkish cooking class in a lovely kitchen flat in Istanbul. In the afternoon, we visited the Basilica Cistern, the (now) underground water supply for ancient times, and viewed an exhibit of beautiful Turkish carpets at the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts.

Thursday was an early wake-up for our flight to Izmir. Our driver gave us a tour around the beautiful port city. After a delicious lunch of kebabs and pide (Turkish version of pizza), we visited the Archeological Museum, where the stone carvings and sculptures dated back before Christ. We were treated to a flavorful dinner along the Aegean Sea, and many of us strolled the half-mile back to our hotel.

educational-travelFriday – After breakfast, we drove more than an hour northeast to Bergama and headed up the steep road to tour the Pergamon archaeological site. We rode gondola cars up the hillside for a panoramic view of the site, where we walked along rocky paths to learn about the Acropolis, the Temple of Trajan, and the steep theater seating. Our next stop brought us to Asklepieion, the ancient healing center, where the famous pharmacist Galenos taught his healing techniques. We walked along the underground tunnel leading to the sun bath and saw the theater where music and social events were held. After a brief stop at a local onyx stone factory, where we observed a stone worker in action and viewed the beautiful onyx pieces, we headed back to Izmir.

Saturday – Saturday’s itinerary started with saying goodbye to Izmir as we traveled south to the hillside site of the House of the Virgin Mary. Then we toured a Turkish carpet factory and showroom that housed beautiful wool, cotton, and silk hand-loomed carpets in all sizes and patterns. After a leisurely lunch al fresco, we journeyed to the ancient city of Ephesus and spent two hours absorbing the vastness and beauty of the Roman architectural ruins: the Celsus Library, the Temple of Hadrian, and the Great Theater, where a group of Korean visitors burst into song as we sat on the worn stone seats.

educational-travelSunday – Another early wake-up call. Sadly, we said goodbye to our excellent tour guide this morning as he departed to lead another tour. We’ll meet our new guide later today, but first, off to the Greek island of Samos via ferry. The trip took an hour-and-a-half, the weather was perfect, and we even spotted dolphins frolicking in the sea. Our guide for the day met us at the dock in Vathy (Samos Town) and led us on a brief tour of the town’s archeological museum of early BC statues, pottery, and bronze figurines. We drove to the ancient city of Pythagoria and walked along the cobbled, narrow streets. Several of us made our way down a pebble-strewn beach to cool our feet in the sea; one in our group boldly dove into the water and swam for a bit. Our next visit was to the seaside village of Kokkari, where we divided into smaller groups and feasted on a delicious Greek lunch along the water. We had time to stroll among the town’s quaint shops and cafes. Some of us bought souvenirs and gifts, while others sipped cappuccino and relaxed. On our ride back to the ferry dock, we viewed the Greek architecture of the villages we passed and the natural land forms and green space of the island. Our new Turkish guide met us back in Kusadasi and reviewed our itinerary for the next two days.

educational-travelMonday – We were happy to have an extra hour of rest in the morning before leaving for Sirince, a 45-minute drive from the hotel. Along the way, our guide pointed out ancient aqueducts and forts and identified the many varieties of vegetation and trees we passed: olive, peach, and fig, to name a few. Sirince sits atop a hill, picturesque and quaint, with shop-lined cobblestone walkways, a pretty mosque, and many little cafes. We had a lovely group lunch of Turkish “pancake” (a large, chewy, light fire-roasted flat cake filled with feta and spinach). We watched the Turkish women work the dough and roll it on a stone into a thin circle. Some of us took in a brief show of the “Whirling Dervishes,” dancers dressed in white flowing skirts and tall rectangular hats spinning and twirling in the practice of dhikr (remembrance of God). There were small shops filled with beautiful silk scarves, handmade jewelry and clothing, and local soaps and lotions for gifts to bring home. On our way back to Kusadasi, we stopped at a ceramic workshop to watch a master artisan throw and form clay into a beautiful shape. One of our group members even tried her hand at the wheel. We learned about the process from the owner and then viewed (and many bought) the finished pieces.

educational-travelTuesday – On our last full day in Turkey, we said goodbye to the seaport of Kusadasi and traveled one-and-a-half hours to the town of Tire. Here our guide led us through the town’s museum, where we viewed an old relief map of Turkey, many tombstones, statues, and other relics from centuries ago. We strolled through the town’s outdoor bazaar, with hundreds of fresh vegetable, herb, and fruit stands, as well as inexpensive clothing and household goods. The bazaar was crowded, and we had to watch out for the locals pulling carts filled with their purchased goods, lest our toes be rolled over! After an authentic lunch of Turkish meatballs and mezze appetizers, we drove up the winding hill to catch a panoramic view of the town. We headed to the Izmir airport for our flight back to Istanbul, where we relaxed and spent our last evening before departing for home.

Post Script: The 17 OLLI members who journeyed to Turkey were amazing travelers, and I so enjoyed getting to know each one. I miss our morning coffee klatches over breakfast and counting heads every time we boarded the bus to leave for another adventure. I’m grateful to have experienced the ancient history and modern culture and enlightenment of Turkey with OLLI members who have now become my friends. Looking forward to our post-trip gatherings!

cathiCathi Cody-Hudson is the director of the UVM and Vermont Osher Lifelong Learning Institute’s program.