Lovely Antakya wasn't nearly as hot as Antalya, which suprised me a bit as it's inland. I had been in Antakya twice before. The first was in 2001 when we spent the summer in Ankara for Mom's research. The second was in 2007, when I took the bus from Istanbul to meet Mom there so she could help me through the Syria border so I could spend Christmas with her and William in Aleppo (see http://travelingmouse.com/story%20pages/syria_christmas.html for more).
We arrived and took a service bus into town to the old otogar. For some reason they keep making new otogars for all towns and cities which are on average of 6km from the city. From the old otogar we found many hotels, which all seemed overpriced at first, but we eventually settled on the Divan hotel. It had airconditioning, but there were no rooms with double beds left, so we went for lunch while the guy took our stuff up the stairs and pushed the beds together. We had lovely pizza and slightly cold fries and felt better. Overnight buses leave one quite hungry. Returning to the hotel we basked in the airconditioning before venturing out to the internet and then the market. We found more slushies and some pancake things and then bread with pepper and cheese on it. The market area is awesome and has everything. We found the Habibi Neccar Cami. Habibi Neccar was from Antakya but was a christian or something and is buried in the mosque with two saints. I'm a little confused about the story, but the mosque is very impressive.
Feeling we should eat dinner we found the best iskender place in Turkey. I had been there in 2007, but none of use could remember the name, just the general location. I remembered what the upstairs looked like, so I went upstairs in a couple of resturants (which confused the waiters greatly) before finding the one we had been to. The Iskender was superb, although some of the old photos on the wall were missing - apparently they were stolen. And then it was time to sleep in a stationary bed yay!
The next day we ate a breakfast of pastries from little shops on our walk to St. Peter's church - the first cathedral and the place where christians were first called christian. And by going on a pilgramage there one also gets a plenary indulgance. It's a pretty amazing place. Back to the center we shared some Kunefe, the famous dessert of Antakya. It's made of very thin hair like wheat noodles with cheese layered on the inside, baked and then drenched in syrup. Maybe it sounds weird, but warm and fresh from the oven it's amazing.
Mom and William's friend and fellow couchsurfer Koray met us with his car at the PTT (post office) and took us around. We went to a place called the Anadolu House for lunch. The resturant is in a restored old Antakya house, and Koray ordered a selection of traditional dishes. We had wild thyme salad, olive salad, hummos, ali nazik (a bed of eggplant cream with meat on top), an eggplant salad, a very spicy paste of red peppers and walnuts and I think that's all. It was absolutely amazing. Koray had gotten married a few days before, and had only gotten back from his honeymoon the night before. He works at the university and is also the founder of the Antakya youth center. He was great to talk to and knows a lot about Antakya. After lunch he took us to the salkıev (hidden house) cafe. We tried a very strange neon pink drink called haytali. It's made from rose oil as well as sugar water and has sort of tapioca cubes and ice cream in it. It's refreshing, but at the same time a little strange. We sat until 4 with Koray, and could have sat and talked longer, but it was time for our next visit.
We went back to the hotel, collected our stuff, and were picked up by Mihriban Teyze. Mihriban is my friend Ömür's aunt, and Ömür told us we should go visit. The family lives in the old part of Antakya around a courtyard, where all the cousins and more distantly related relatives live. When we arrived we were taken out into the courtyard for tea. Melik, Mihriban Teyze's son was playing a game with three of his cousins. Mihriban Teyze's cousin and her two grown daughters were staying at the house while theirs had work done on it. Ömür's mom and her grandfather also lived in the house. Tea of course was not just the drink. There was pepper bread made by Mihriban Teyze, some cookies from the nearby town of Salmandağ, and some from Syria. Relatives, hearing that we were visiting, kept dropping by to say hi, getting up, and being replaced by more relatives. One was Erdem, who lives in Bahrain with his family, and learned English from the American soldiers at the base there.
After many cups of tea and cookies, we went up the hill to another relative's house to have coffee. We sat in her courtyard and she served Turkish coffee. There was an orange tree and some other kind of fruit tree and a couple of turtles, which we looked for but couldn't find. After a full evening of Turkish, we were shown the upstairs flat, helped to take the dust covers off, an fell into bed.
The next day I awoke late, it seemed had everyone else. We had breakfast around noon. To get freshly baked bread the family doesn't even have to leave the house - they just call the bakery accross the street, which delivers. Breakfast was fantastic, and included a Syrian specialty which one of the women named TNT. It's eggplant stuffed with hot peppers and perhaps pickled a little. Mark loved it. I thought it was good, but maybe a bit too spicy for breakfast. As we were finishing Cemile and Hatice, Ömür's younger sisters arrived from Istanbul.
Soon after, Erdem came over, and we walked to the minibus which took us to Samandağ. We thought we were going to meet Ömer's mother, and so were a bit surprised when we got out at a resturant. Erdem talked to one of the guys and then we got into his car. Turns out he was Erdem's uncle. Erdem's uncle took us to the school where Ömür's mom is principle. We had some tea, and at Mark's request visited a kindergarden class. Then we got back in the car and she got into another car and we drove out to see the titus tunnel. First there's an archway over the river. Samandağ apparently had a problem with flooding, so the emporer Vespasian started and his son Titus finished a tunel that would control water flow. The water today is almost non-existant, especially in summer, so we could walk through the tunel. It was a bit dark, but really amazing. The best part though was the cradle cave or Beşikli Mağara. It's a cave with three or four arches at the front, and completely filled with rock-cut graves. Sadly everything has been stolen so there's nothing left inside the graves. The place is absolutely fantastic, and yet it's not in the lonely planet, even though it's just a few meters up the path.
A bit muddy, we returned to the cars. It had been Erdem and his uncle's first time visiting the site as well. We went a few hundred meters down the road and then stopped at a resturant where Ömür's mom ordered us balik ekmek (fish sandwich), which turned out to be amazing, and far more exciting than the stuff in Istanbul. Back on the road again they had to go get petrol, so we stoped at the side of the road, watched a very full tractor go by, as well as a guy on a donkey, watched the lizards Mark found, ate a bunch of grapes we stole and waited. Soon they were back and we continued up into the hills. The view over Samandağ, the mountains and the sea was stunning. Our next stop was the Moses tree in the village of Hıdırbey. The tree is around 1500 years old. It is supposedly on the spot where Moses visited with Khid (the green man). The tree is hollow, and supposedly at one point there was a little market set up inside it. The inside has many strings tied as this is supposed to grant a wish. We had a glass of tea in the shade of the tree and then continued on. At this point Erdem's uncle needed to return, and so we crowded into the backseat of the other car.
Somehow we missed the turnoff to the last Armenian village in Turkey, and continued on to another village that had a church that had never been finished. It was dated 1134, but didn't look that old, but perhaps it was. Ömür's mom said that because it was built on stone instead of soil it wasn't damaged in an earthquake like so many of the other buildings of area. The sun was setting and it was quickly getting dark. We continued along, going down now. The man driving the car, another relative whose name I have sadly forgotten dropped us off at the main road. After eating very fresh fried dough soaked in syrup and getting very sticky we managed to find a minibus with space which took us back to Antakya. When we got there Cemile and Hatice were waiting for us with the car. We went back only to go to Erdem's family's house for coffee. And soon after we arrived so did many other family members. Soon we left, exhausted from the wonderful day.