We left Mersin smelling of cow and headed for Antakya (Hatay). On the map this doesn’t look like one of the best places in Turkey to go right now, but from what we had read we found it hard to resist; at least just for one night.
We had a Couchsurf arranged as well, which meant a free place to stay for the night. When we arrived in the centre we had five hours to kill before it was time to meet our host. But with our huge bags our first concern was to loose them so we can wander around.
At almost the exact time we realised we needed help, a guy arrived asking if he could assist us. True Turkish style. He said his friend owned a café where we could store the bags. One small catch though; it involved getting into a car with his friend who would drive us. It was a huge risk and probably a very stupid thing to do in hindsight, but we said ‘never again’ to each other and got in.
He stuck true to his word and within fifteen minutes all three of us were zooming on his scooter towards ‘old town’. Still a bit nervous and unsure of the genuineness of this strange man, we pulled up to ‘Sister Barbara’s house’.
Sister Barbara is a German Catholic who moved to Antakya forty years ago during a pilgrimage journey to see Mother Teresa. On her way, she came across this town and stopped her journey short. According to her, she realised the mix of faiths and cultures that settle and travel through this part of the world. Therefore it seemed a perfect place to open her ‘house of trust’.
Here people of all faiths, or of no faith, come to play music, pray, share stories or stay the night. Her idea is just to have a place of trust, where people can relax and feel safe. After our nervous start to Antakya which happened all so fast, we suddenly were captured by this beautiful city; the ‘city of peace’.
When we left Sister Barbara’s we continued to stroll around the old town, a narrow maze of historical stone houses and winding streets. You can easily get lost in here, but it is absolutely stunning so you wouldn’t mind if you did.
After finding our way out of old town it was time to go to our Couchsurf. We picked up our bags and hailed a minibus to ‘Kirikhan’. The bus drove an hour and thirty minutes out of central Hatay and we started to wonder whether Couchsurfing this far out would be worthwhile. And rightly so! We were met by our host, a middle aged woman fluent in English, and her 7 year old daughter who immediately began tugging John’s beard and talking incessantly with an American twang.
They lived in an apartment block no where near Hatay town or anywhere of much interest. Not that we would of had much time to explore – we were immediately given the role of babysitters and spent the rest of the evening and night playing with the young girl, always referred to as “darling” or “princess”.
“Princess” was extremely demanding and never refused anything by her mother. As a result we were up past 11pm playing Barbies and being poked and prodded. John turned out to have an amazing imagination, turning girl Barbies into boys and zombies.
The next morning we were awoken by her majesty and our plans of leaving to explore the beautiful city were shattered. Our host had other plans for us: we were to make pancakes for princess, play and then teach her students English whilst she went out and left us confused and overwhelmed. Although we appreciated her agreement to host us, we had not signed up or agreed to such work and were frustrated as a result. Nevertheless, by late afternoon we were released of our duties and back on the bus to Hatay! Luckily our schedule is flexible so we could afford to extend our stay in the centre. We found a gorgeous guesthouse in the heart of old town and set about exploring.
After four days in Hatay, feasting on the best kebabs and local desserts, it was time to delve further East. Next stop: Gaziantep, a city renowned for its pistachios and world famous baklavas. This foodie haven had been on top of our list ever since we first planned our trip! After about five hours in a stuffy bus with no A/C we finally reached the big vibrant city of Gaziantep.
This time our Couchsurfing experience was utterly different from the onset. We were warmly received despite a 30 minute delay on our behalf, and treated to a delicious home-cooked dinner. Our host was typically Turkish with his outstanding hospitality, giving us a full tour of Gaziantep; an atmospheric city brimming with pistachios. Every where we looked, people, young and old were grazing on pistachios.
Although we heard that this town was the ‘king’ of pistachios, we were yet to see what all the fuss was about. Our first treat, that Devran kindly gave us, was the regional famous milkshake called the ‘Atom’. Turns out it was a very fitting name as it really did blow us away!
The sudden burst of flavoursome pistachio mixed with honey, strawberry, banana and yoghurt was truly one of the best things we have ever tasted. It was so thick with pistachios that we could bearly sip it through our straws. Now we realise what the pistachio obsession is all about and why Gaziantep is the home of pistachios. And what’s more, we’re in luck – it’s pistachio season!
After an intense day of exploring we settled down for a feast of local delicacies, the highlight being, of course, the baklavas. The freshness of the pistachio nuts was undeniable and we were both instantly hooked!
We left Gaziantep with full bellies, feeling refreshed and touched by the hospitality we received. Next stop – the ‘prophet city’ – Urfa.
Let us know what you think of our journey so far. See below for more photos of Hatay and Gaziantep or visit our Flickr.