As I stood in the basket of the hot air balloon at dawn in the fantastical landscape of Cappadocia, Turkey, clutching my 13-year-old daughter’s arm in terror, I realized that this is the very reason why traveling with teenagers can be such an adventure. Just as they so expertly know how to push your buttons at home, they can also push you out of your comfort zone on a trip. Sometimes way, way out.
I’m terrified of heights. My son, Liam, who decided to sleep in that morning at the Kale Konak Cave Hotel in Uchisar, also gets a little queasy when he’s too high off the ground. But my daughter, Tessa, like her father, Tom, is a daredevil.
So as the colorful balloons filled with helium on that chilly February morning, as my teeth chattered with cold and fear, she flung her arms around her father with a childlike joyful abandon I hadn’t seen in years. Ah, I thought, there she is. I knew she was still in there under that growly teen who thinks I’m a dork.
The Voyager hot air balloon ride turned out to be a gentle, magical float above valleys filled with “fairy chimneys” — tall, thin spires of stone — and ancient settlements cut into the rock. Tom, Tessa and I were just as giddy from the experience as any high we’d get from the champagne the pilots served after we landed. But honestly, for me, the real magic was that we shared the adventure together.
When Tom and I decided that we’d take our two sometimes surly teenagers along with us on a business trip to Turkey, I had a dreaded vision: the two of them stretched out on their respective beds in some charmless chain hotel in Istanbul, ordering hamburgers off the room service menu while plugged into their iPhones watching Netflix, disconnected from us and oblivious to the strange and swirling new world around them.
So the first decision I made, while it cost us financially, turned out to be one of the best: I turned down the all-expenses-paid accommodations in a five-star hotel in the modern business district offered by the organizers of the conference where I’d be speaking. Instead, I surfed the Internet until I found a small, quirky and wonderful little boutique hotel — five old townhouses really — set around a lovely courtyard and the ruins of a 15th-century hamam, or Turkish bath.
The Hotel Empress Zoe, named for a colorful grande dame of the Byzantine era immortalized in one of the breathtaking golden mosaics in the 6th-century Hagia Sophia, was right in the heart of the old city, in the Sultanahmet neighborhood. It was just a short walk up winding, cobblestone streets to the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar, the Topkapi Palace, home of the Ottoman sultans for 400 years, and that strange and swirling new world I wanted us all to see.
So close, in fact, that the sounds of the muezzin’s call to prayer at the crack of dawn every morning sounded as if it were being piped in directly from speakers in the ceiling. It sent Tessa shooting straight up out of bed every morning.
The next best decision turned out to be serendipitous: We had brought only one adapter. That meant that everyone’s gadgets — our four iPhones, two laptops and an iPad — all died slow, battery-draining deaths. And Liam and Tessa found out the hard way that Netflix isn’t available in Turkey.
That meant our teenagers had to talk to us. At least some of the time.
We felt the difference almost immediately. Arriving into Istanbul after a long Turkish Airlines flight late in the evening, we left our dead devices in the family-style room at the Empress Zoe — we shared two bedrooms, a small kitchenette and a bathroom with its own marble hamam — and wandered up the street to the Aloran Cafe and Restaurant. “Hello nice family!” the host called, and began bringing heaping plates of the most delicious meze, or appetizers, of hummus, olive oil, feta and olives, followed by lamb kebabs, rice and baskets of warm, poofy pita bread just out of the oven.
Soon, we found ourselves laughing, joking and telling stories. The kids gamely tried baklava and gooey Turkish Delight for dessert and were sent home with blue glass evil eye trinkets by our friendly waiter. “It’s nice not to have you nag about homework,” Tessa said on the way out the door. Note to self: Shut up about homework around the dinner table.
We walked the winding streets after dinner, admiring the oddly shaped gourds that had been turned into festive lamps with brightly colored lights. We ducked into a carpet shop. And, with the first of what was to become our standard drinks — apple tea for me and the kids, raki, an anise-seed-flavored liqueur for Tom — we watched as the owner tossed rug after rug into a colorful pile.
When the kids tired of the spectacle and wanted to go back to the hotel, Tom and I let them. It wasn’t far. And the beauty of traveling with teens clamoring for more independence is that they were finally old enough to have a measure of it.
We planned the trip in the same spirit. We knew we wouldn’t have much time — seven days in all — and we wanted everyone’s input so that we wouldn’t fly halfway around the world only to have the kids treat this trip as another lame attempt at Forced Family Fun.
I spread travel books and maps around the kitchen table and called up Web sites. Tessa voted for the hot air balloons of Cappadocia. Liam wanted to see Troy, but once we discovered there wasn’t a lot left of it to see, we settled on visiting the ruins of Ephesus, which date to the 10th century B.C. On the day I would be working, Tom had planned a trip to Gallipoli, where a young Mustafa Kemal battled British, Australian and New Zealand troops in World War I. And I wanted to do three things: Go to a Turkish bath. Buy spices in the spice bazaar. And see whirling dervishes.
We learned that even on a trip abroad, you can push teens only so far. They were game for a Turkish bath at the elegant Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam, built in 1556 and renovated in 2011, just across the square from the Hagia Sophia, though none of us knew quite what to expect. (The kids thought having someone scrub off all your dead skin was weird. Getting a massage on heated marble covered in bubbles was okay.)
And they patiently sat through the mesmerizing Sema worship ceremony of whirling dervishes at the 13th-century Sultanhan Caravanserai on the Silk Road between Aksaray and Konya.
But getting lost on the way to the spice bazaar after visiting the Grand Bazaar pushed them both over the edge. Getting lost, to me, can be one of the greatest pleasures of travel — you never know what you’ll discover. But they were hungry, cold and tired and had already schlepped around a lot that day. “Why do you want spices anyway? You never cook!” (I bought saffron. I’m going to use it. Watch me.)
So we got smarter. We scaled back on the sightseeing to give everyone more downtime, yes, even limited time with their anemically charged devices. We stayed in another family room at the lovely Nisanyan Houses and Hotel in the mountain village of Sirince. We got in late in the evening after a long day seeing the stunningly beautiful ruins of Ephesus. So, over a delicious meal of steak, roasted chicken and potatoes and pasta for our vegetarian daughter in the cozy dining room, we decided not to leave at the crack of dawn the next day as planned. We stayed up late playing backgammon in front of the fire in our room. And the next morning, as the kids got some rest, Tom and I took an early morning walk around the village among peacocks, roosters and one insistently loud donkey.
And we made sure seeing sights didn’t become a To Do List to slog through. When we visited the ruins of the ancient spa city of Hierapolis, we made sure we had enough time to wade in the blindingly white calcite thermal pools of Pamukkale, and to swim in the outdoor thermal Cleopatra Pool, studded with Greek and Roman columns, which, though touristy, was a lot of fun. In Cappadocia, when we finished a hike through the otherworldly Red Valley, we left plenty of time for a long lunch at the Old Greek House in Mustafapasa. And on a visit to a ceramic factory, we took our time so the kids could try their hands at the pottery wheel.
In entirely new surroundings, and more unplugged than we’d all been in years, we got to know one another in new ways. I listened in awe as my son talked at length with our guide — Sukru Seckin of Argeus Travel — about the Hittites and the Battle of Kadesh in 1274 B.C. “Where did you learn that?” I asked.
“History Channel. Playing ‘Civilization’ on the computer,” Liam shrugged. “I like reading about this stuff.”
Sitting around a low table on colorful kilim cushions eating delicious vegetable and meat pancakes called gozleme and drinking tea stuffed with fragrant, fat sage leaves at the Yavuz’un Yeri restaurant outside Ephesus, Tessa asked our guide, Yeliz Sivrikaya, about what it was like to be a woman in Turkey, reflecting on how jarring it was for her to not only put on a head scarf at mosques, but to have to put on a skirt over her leggings.
And Tessa showed off her tech savvy in somehow finding a really terrible Nicolas Cage movie, a “Ghost Rider” sequel that was filmed in Cappadocia so we could watch it on the one laptop that was charged.
One day, as we were walking toward the underground city of Kaymakli, I mentioned how much fun it was to explore new places together, that, at home, sometimes it feels like we’re all living on different planets. My daughter turned to me: “Yeah. I bet you don’t even know what my favorite color is. It’s not pink anymore.”
“How could I,” I responded, “when you spend most of your time shut up in your room?”
It’s green, I learned. And sometimes blue. Just as she had pushed me out of my comfort zone in the balloon, I realized I’d pushed her out of hers — out of her room, out of our busy routines, away from the addictive and isolating pull of the virtual and into the unpredictable unfolding of the real world. We were all connecting again. And for me, that was the best adventure.
As we packed our bags to return home, Tessa teased me that she still thought I was a dork. But perhaps a little less dorky than before.
I smiled. “I’ll take that.”
Because we had limited time to plan, limited time in the country and a lot of ground we wanted to cover, we used Argeus Travel to help us book flights and hotels and arrange tours. I can’t say enough good things about them. We loved our guides. And the agents were willing to help us work out an itinerary that fit our budget.
Istanbul: Hotel Empress Zoe
Akbiyik Caddesi 10
Rooms, including a delicious buffet breakfast from about $102 for a single to about $342 for a maisonette.
Ephesus/Sirince: Nisanyan Houses Hotel
Rooms for two, all include home-cooked breakfast, in the main Inn runs about $125, cottages about $160 and rooms in the houses like the Tower House where we stayed, where our floor was heated, and had a big fireplace and a balcony run about $193.
Cappadocia: Kale Konak
Kale Sokak 9, Uchisar
Some of the beautifully decorated rooms are carved into the rocks, and run about $91 for a single in the off season to about $170 for a suite in the high season from March to November. Breakfast is included. Dinner reservations recommended. Outdoor terrace restaurant offers sweeping views of the Pigeon Valley and fairy chimneys below.
Istanbul: Aloran Cafe
Cankurtaran Mah. Akbiyik Cad. Adliye Sok. 11
Open 8 a.m. to midnight, entrees are fairly inexpensive, ranging from around $10 to $19. We liked the Testy Kebab, the Turkish ravioli and the fresh bread.
Ephesus: Yavuz’un Yeri
Ataturk Mah. Yedi Uyuyanlar Mevki, Selcuk
Reasonably priced. We sat on carpets and kilim cushions outside around a wood-burning stove. Try the gozleme, then head back to the kitchen and watch the women who sit on the floor making them and baking them over a fire.
Cappadocia: The Old
Sahin Caddessi, Mustafapasa, 50420 Urgup
Sample the tasty Ottoman-style menu in a 250-year-old house. Set menus from around $13 to $17.
Hagia Sophia Square, Sultanahmet
The Christian church-turned mosque-turned-museum is open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the winter, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the summer. Tickets are around $11. Make sure you see the Viking grafitti on the second floor, as well as the stunning gold mosaics of Empress Zoe and other icons of the early Christian church.
The Spice Bazaar
Eminonu quarter of
the Fatih district
Built in 1664, and much like the slightly larger Grand Bazaar, The Spice Bazaar consists of crowded, winding warrens crammed with shops selling spices, loose tea, bins of fruits, nuts, dates, dried fruit, numerous flavors of Turkish delight — all to be sampled — lanterns, rugs, clothes, shoes and other goods. Shop owners carry saffron and say the Iranian spice is the best. Find a tea shop, order some apple tea and watch the world swirl by. 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays.
Ancient city of Ephesus
Adnan Menderes Bul, Selcuk
Tickets to the archeological site can be purchased for $12.50 at the gates of both the upper and lower entrances or online: www.muze.gov.tr/tr/purchase?t=5. Be sure to purchase a ticket for an additional $7 to see the stunning Terrace Houses, which date to the first century A.D. and are currently under excavation. Open 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. May through October, to 4:30 p.m. November through April.
Cappadocia Voyager Balloons
Muze Yolu Cad. No:36/1 Goreme
Flights always go at dawn when the winds are calmest, are a minimum of one hour, weather depending, with a certified pilot and run around $182 per person for the standard flight, with 20 to 28 people per basket or around $205 for a comfort flight, with baskets of 12 to 16 people. Voyager provided van service to and from our hotel, breakfast and champagne.
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