A Magical Christmas in Mardin – the edge of Mesopotamia

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At the edge of Southeastern Turkey lies an oasis of diversity and culture, smack-dab in the middle of where many of the oldest cities and civilizations first began.  Hardly anyone outside of Turkey seems to know that this gem even exists – and even those who do are wary of visiting because it is only about 20 miles from the Syrian border.  Let me assure you – Mardin is perfectly safe, full of some of the kindest people I have ever encountered, and stunningly beautiful.

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The architecture of Mardin is very unique.  There is a mix of several Middle Eastern influences as well as a local flair for building everything out of sandstone, which is abundant in the area.  The yellowish-brown structures look all the more stunning contrasted against the bright blue skies.

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Every part of the city offers a different perspective of its own beauty, like a strange sort of kaleidoscope.  The locals know how to take advantage of this with its many rooftop cafes and restaurants and shops in the old tunnels below.

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On the subject of food and coffee, Mardin has both in spades.  Mardin is a true melting pot for all kinds of cultures and ethnic groups, with particularly large groups of Kurdish and Assyrian people.  The people of Mardin are truly proud of their diversity and love to share their local specialties that have been preserved over thousands of years.  There are several Assyrian restaurants which serve delicious mezzes and wine (some of the finest I have ever tasted in Turkey), cafes serving Arabic-style mırra coffee, and all kinds of regional dishes that have developed through the cultural exchange that has taken place in Mardin over the centuries.

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Mardin proper has much to offer any traveler, but there are also many fascinating smaller towns and villages nearby worth a day trip.  Because Mardin is a little off the beaten path, it can be difficult to find an organized tour.  Since I am able to speak Turkish fairly well these days, I managed to negotiate a private tour with a cab driver for a good price.  He took us to Midyat and Hasankeyf, both well worth the visit.

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Hasankeyf, right on the banks of the Tigris River, is considered to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world; it is over 10,000 years old.  Due to its vulnerable position near many borders and along the Silk Road, Hasankeyf has changed hands among many different civilizations throughout history.  Sadly, due to the development of a hydroelectric dam, it may not be around much longer.

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Historically, the area of Hasankeyf has been valued for its caves, where people have been living for several millennia.  People still live in the caves of Hasankeyf today, with a few modern amenities (note the windows and the power lines).

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Efforts to remove some of the historic architecture to preserve it are under way.

Midyat looks much like Mardin, but with one key difference: the population is mostly Christian rather than Muslim (unusual for Turkey) and is home to many ancient and beautiful monasteries that are still active today.

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I was truly blown away by Mardin.  I have no idea how it took me four years to get there.  Very few tourists from outside of Turkey even know about it – but they should!  The architecture is stunning and one-of-a-kind, the people are some of the friendliest I have ever encountered, the food and wine are amazing, and there is just so much history and culture here to discover.  I hope to see more people adding Mardin (and Turkey!) to their bucket lists in 2019.

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A Cold Christmas in Kars

IMG_1953.JPGTurkey is so many things.

I can’t really think of any other way to say it.  It always surprises me.

One of our goals for this school year has been to explore more of the places in Turkey that are off the beaten path, particularly in the Eastern part of the country.

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A “Charlie Brown” Christmas tree spotted on the sidewalk.

We are fortunate that our school gives us a couple of days off to celebrate Christmas, in spite of the fact that school is still in session for students.  It is a difficult time to be so far away from home and family, and I’m always grateful for the time to get away and reflect and try to celebrate in my own way.

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We toyed with the idea of going abroad to really experience the Christmas atmosphere,  but after having visited Belgium and Germany and making an unexpected trip back to the States all within a couple of weeks, I was feeling pretty tired and burnt out.   We decided it was a good time to stay here and explore something new in Turkey.  We settled on Kars because it is known for being cold and snowy, which at least gave us a little dose of the Christmas spirit.

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We were thrilled to see a skyline full of snowy mountains and a healthy layer of snow on the ground when we landed at the airport in Kars.  Better yet, it was a short 15-minute ride to our hotel from there, so we lost no time getting started on our short adventure.

Our taxi driver – a former Istanbulite – pointed out that much of the architecture in Kars was left over from a brief period in the 19th century when it was occupied by Russia.  Turkey is well-known for it’s hodgepodge fusion of cultures, but I knew right away that Kars was going to take it to a new level.

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The remnants of Russian architecture throughout the city were indeed fascinating and it was nice to see that the buildings were still in use and were not just being left to rot.  One of the most interesting examples of the Imperialist style was Fethiye Mosque, which at one time was an Orthodox church.

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You can see what it looked like as a church here.

Kars was also once the medieval capital of Armenia and a few examples of that architecture can be found there as well.  One of the hallmark symbols of the city is a 10th-century church which is also now a mosque.

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One of the highlights of Kars for me was climbing up to the top of Kars castle.  The castle itself is not particularly interesting, but the views of the city from the top are incredible and admission is free.

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After walking around all day in the snow, I was pleased to find an abundance of cool cafes and even more pleased to discover a new type of Turkish coffee called menengiç kahvesi, which is  made from a type of wild pistachio.  Unfortunately, it does not have any caffeine in it, but the taste more than made up for that.

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I was totally charmed by our first adventure in Eastern Turkey and cannot wait to experience more.

Decking the Halls

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I am FINALLY feeling better after two weeks of being completely miserable with a nasty virus.  Once I started feeling human, my Christmas spirit kicked in almost immediately and I had to start celebrating.

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I made plans with friends to check out a Christmas Festival in Istanbul, even though the weather was about as un-Christmas-y (that’s a word, no?) as it gets.  It may as well have been spring.

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This was actually made out of gingerbread.

It was so cool to see people from all over the world coming together to celebrate Christmas in a place where the Christmas spirit just isn’t most of the time.  There were little stands run by people from Spain, France, Syria, Thailand…you name it.  There were Christmas cookies, handmade decorations, mulled wine, and all kinds of delicious food.

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I came home with quite a few treasures, including some homemade cranberry liquor and some great hot sauce, but by far my favorite purchase of the day was this set of hand-painted ornaments.  They are painted with a traditional Turkish tulip pattern and I am hoping to keep them forever so I can always have a little piece of Turkey with me at Christmas, no matter where I may be.

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Of course, my day would not have been complete without turning up the Bing Crosby and decorating the lojman.

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Wishing a happy holiday season to all.

À Bruxelles

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Our time in Brussels was short, but sweet.  I was immediately struck by the Christmas decorations, which were much more elaborate than any of the other cities we visited in Belgium.  Lights everywhere!  My favorite part was watching all of the shop owners stepping outside to decorate their windows.

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Since I was still feeling terrible and our time was limited, I had only one thing on my list: The Magritte Museum.

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I got really into Magritte’s art and the Surrealist movement in general when I was in college taking a French Lit course.  I love the playful juxtapositions and philosophical suggestions in his work.

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The exhibition was well worth the 2 Euro fee and I was surprised at how reasonably priced the gift shop was.  I left that museum with a noticeable spring in my step, in spite of my cold.

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We ended our last night in Brussels (and the last night of our trip) by strolling the streets looking at all the Christmas lights and hopping in and out of cafes, where my husband continued to sample Belgium beer and I tried to soothe my sore throat with hot tea.  I’m afraid I didn’t do Brussels much justice, but that just gives me a reason to go back.  Perhaps next time I’ll even bump into Stromae.

Bruges: A Magical Gingerbread Village

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After a seemingly interminable term, the fall break finally came and we took off to Belgium to catch some fall foliage and binge on waffles and chocolate.  I had seen many a magical photo of Bruges before arriving, but the photos really don’t do it justice.

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As if the charming alleyways, canals, and bright red trees weren’t enough, the whole town was also preparing for the holiday season with lights and Christmas displays.  It was so refreshing to be surrounded by holiday spirit!

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Bruges is a fairly small town, but it’s bigger than it looks and there is certainly no shortage of things to do!  We signed up for a free walking tour through Legends of Bruges and were not disappointed.  It’s one thing to wander through a city, but it is so much more meaningful when you can learn about its history and culture.  We had also considered doing the foodie tour because it sounded awesome, but unfortunately, I came down with a nasty cold while we were there and simply didn’t have the energy to do more than one tour.

20171121_123428 (2).jpgOf course, it wouldn’t be a proper trip without sampling some of the local cuisine.  We tasted chocolate in every city we visited in Belgium, but this particular shop was our favorite.

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We also did a little pub hopping to taste some of the many excellent beers Belgium has to offer.  My personal favorite was the cherry-flavored beer that they only serve around Christmas.

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Another highlight of Bruges was the Frietmuseum, a museum dedicated to the history of fries (but don’t call them French fries while you’re there!).  It was such a fun and interesting museum.

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I had hoped to accomplish a bit more in Bruges, including climbing the Belfry (Belfort) to get a better view of the city, but my illness really slowed me down.  Still, I managed to squeeze in one last canal tour before we left.

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In spite of feeling terrible for most of our time there, I really enjoyed Bruges – and I couldn’t imagine being there any other time of year.  The colorful leaves and Christmas lights definitely set the tone for the rest of our trip and made me feel excited for Christmas in a way that I haven’t since becoming an expat.

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A Georgian Christmas

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We had a few days off for Christmas this year and decided to spend them in Georgia, a tiny country neighboring Turkey to the Northeast.  We had been meaning to visit for the longest time and Christmas seemed like the perfect opportunity.

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One interesting thing about Georgia is that they celebrate Christmas on January 7th rather than December 25th since the majority of the population is Orthodox Christian.  It kind of made it the perfect destination since the city was filled with the anticipation of Christmas, but everything was still open since it wasn’t officially the holiday yet for them.

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We knew we’d made the right choice as soon as we marched up to Passport Control AND WERE EACH HANDED FREE BOTTLES OF WINE.  No, I am not kidding.  What a welcome.  We were also struck by all of the beautiful Christmas lights throughout the city.

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Tbilisi is a remarkably eclectic city that is constantly juxtaposing the old with the new. Modernity effortlessly mingles with ancient traditions, something that can’t be said for many places.  There is an air of seediness as the streets are filled with beggars, casinos, and strip clubs, but there is also an air of welcome and safety.  The people are very friendly and happy to help strangers.  People look out for each other.

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I was totally charmed by this mysterious city and determined to learn more.  I signed up for the Free Walking Tour and it did not disappoint!  Nothing beats walking around the city for a few hours with a local, learning about history, culture, and all the best places to eat.  It is a must for anyone visiting the city.

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One of the most interesting parts of the tour for me was going inside an Orthodox church.  Instead of the rows of seats and stained glass windows, there is almost no lighting and absolutely no seating.  The walls are painted with religious scenes and dimly lit by candlelight.

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The country is one of the most religious in the world, with over 90% of the population identifying as believers according to our guide.  It’s an interesting statistic when you consider that the country was once part of the Soviet Union, which banned religion entirely.  Tbilisi was very fortunate, however, that when the Soviets took power, none of their churches were destroyed, which was not always the case.  Instead, they were preserved and put to use as storage buildings until the USSR collapsed in 1991.

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I was also stunned by our next stop, the beautiful Peace Bridge, which represents the peaceful connection between the past and the future.  It serves a symbol of hope for people that have endured a lot of war.

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Once across the bridge, you can take the cable car up to Narikala Fortress, which offers stunning views of the old part of the city.

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At the top of the fortress stands Kartlis Deda, The Mother of Georgia, watching over the city.  In one hand she holds a glass of wine; in the other, she holds a sword.  This is meant as both an invitation to strangers who come in peace and a warning for their enemies.
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Fun fact:  there are absolutely no guards or safety regulations at the fortress, so you can climb all the way up to the top at your own peril!

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The bent Georgian cross, representing Saint Nino

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One of our final stops on the tour took us back down and through the historic district to a hidden waterfall, which is often frozen in winter!

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In addition to a fascinating history and culture, Georgia is also home to some spectacular food and wine.  After trying it, I really don’t know why it isn’t a bigger speck on the foodie radar.  Everything I ate there was delicious, from spicy herbed potatoes to a variety of savory breads and pastries.  My personal favorite was a dish called khinkali, which consisted of big, delicious dumplings with various soupy fillings.  They were seriously incredible.  I need the recipe ASAP.

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Now about the wine.  I don’t even know if I can properly describe it.  Georgia has a vibrant wine culture that has been around for centuries, as the region is abundant with grapes. Interestingly, the Georgians have their own method for making wine, which is quite different than that of the Europeans.  The grapes are put in a giant clay pot, buried underground, and then fermented and filtered.

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It’s sweet, smooth, cheap, delicious, and EVERYWHERE.  Nearly every Georgian has their own family wine recipe and makes it themselves.  Needless to say, we got to sample several varieties and tried to take advantage of the good prices and generous baggage allowance we had (thanks, Turkish Airlines!).

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Even Wendy’s sells wine in Georgia.  Also, Bailey’s Frosties.

Even as I’m sitting back home writing this, I can’t fully wrap my head around Georgia.  It’s so curious, confusing, and alluring all at the same time.  As is often the case when I’m traveling these days, I feel the need to go back to get a better feel for the place.  I would love to see more of the Caucasus Mountains and the Georgian countryside.  Perhaps in warmer weather.

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If nothing else, I hope I can give a voice to this overlooked little country.  It’s affordable, beautiful, interesting, and there’s plenty of wine to go around.  It’s perfect for those who want something a little off the beaten path.

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Nothing in the world can replace Christmas at home with family, but when that’s thousands of miles away, Georgia is a pretty good alternative.

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Merry (belated) Christmas!

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It’s been a calm day of recovery from a whirlwind trip to Georgia.  We stayed in our pajamas, drank lots of coffee, watched Elf, and opened some presents under our little tree, thanks to our amazing friends and family!  Traveling is great, but I’m definitely a Christmas at home kind of girl.

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Merry Christmas, everybody!