Istanbul Highlights #1


The highlights of Istanbul for a first-time visitor are:

The Hagia Sophia is a 6th-century Christian basilica, converted to a mosque by the Ottomans, now a museum. If the word awesome still had meaning, I would use it to describe the Hagia Sophia, temple of Holy Wisdom. It set the standard for Byzantine architecture, though it was 1,000 years before another cathedral surpassed its size. From the outside, it’s a red-orange mountain that seems to anchor the city to the Bosphorus shore. It’s not particularly beautiful but the air of greatness can’t be missed. On the inside, it’s vast, immense, vast and vast and filled with the light of heaven. The massive, superlative dome practically floats above the wide-open enormity below. Interior surfaces are decorated with frescos, mosaics, calligraphy and marble. Continue reading


This city literally bridges Europe and Asia, East and West. It’s known for its dramatic setting, spilling down rolling hills to water’s edge, the skyline punctuated with monumental Byzantine and Ottoman buildings. In amongst the hills and monuments, in everyday lanes of shops and homes, the people of this city dwell peacefully alongside many thousands of stray cats. The cats of any given neighborhood are loved and cared for collectively. Walking the streets, you’ll see plenty of cats, as well as water and food dishes and baskets and boxes made cozy with blankets. Cats wander freely in and out of businesses and residences, curl up on benches, snooze in shop windows, and approach passersby for pats and scratches. An old story tells that a cat saved the Prophet Muhammad from a snake, so cat fancy has deep roots in this Muslim city.

These cats are becoming famous far beyond their city. They have had their own Facebook page for years and now there is a beautiful documentary about the cats, the people who care for them and the stunning city they share.


Can you name that city? 
See below for answers.

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Street Food in Turkey – Kumpir

my homemade kumpir, topped with bulgar pilaf, pickled, spicy green beans, olives, roasted red and yellow peppers, tabbouleh salad, and tahini drizzle

my homemade kumpir, topped with bulgar pilaf, pickled, spicy green beans, olives, roasted red and yellow peppers, tabbouleh salad, and tahini drizzle

One of Turkey’s favorite street foods is kumpir, what we in the U.S. would call a loaded baked potato, dressed up a la carte, with a kaleidoscope of toppings selected according to the taste, adventuresome nature, aesthetic and upper arm strength of the imminent consumer. The combinations are endless. Some common toppings are corn, peas, hot peppers, sweet peppers, chopped greens, pickled vegetables, kisir (bulgar salad, aka Turkish tabbouleh), chopped hotdogs, mushrooms, olives, chick peas, carrots, yogurt, mayonnaise, ketchup… really, anything goes. At a typical kumpir stand, baked potatoes are split in the middle and the steaming, fluffy innards are roughly mashed with a dollop each of butter and Kaşar cheese. Then they’re yours to top with the flavors, colors and textures of your choosing. Kumpir stands are found all over Istanbul, and around the country, but the Bosphorus-front Ortaköy neighborhood in Istanbul is practically synonymous with kumpir.

Kumpir with a view in Ortakoy

Kumpir with a view in Ortakoy



Many thanks to our guest blogger Adrienne Lee! Adrienne and Robert Lee traveled on our travel agent fam trip February/March 2017. Click to read Part 1 of Adrienne’s post

Library of Celsus, Ephesus

Library of Celsus, Ephesus


We expected to visit sites like the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia and Grand Bazaar – and all were amazing. But they were only the beginning…Each of the historical sites/ruins revealed layer upon layer of civilizations past, complete with massive theaters, towering columns and even latrines. It really felt like we were walking back in history. Since none of them were very crowded we were treated to what felt like private tours. That was definitely the case at Alexandria Troas, where the site was opened up just for us; talk about VIP treatment! Robert and I had visited Ephesus in 2011 (with throngs of other tourists), so we knew what to expect. But on this visit we could see how much more of the ancient city had been excavated.

Many of the sites had added wooden walkways and they made it easier to get around – much easier than crossing uneven and sometimes rugged terrain.


The customer service was top notch throughout the trip, beginning with the Turkish Airline flight attendants. The staff at each of the hotels went out of their way to make our stays enjoyable. Our luggage was even transported from the bus to our rooms at each one. The attentive service at each restaurant was quite notable. It was helpful that everyone we met spoke English, especially since we spoke very little Turkish. Merhaba, gunaydn and tesekur ederim were about the extent of our vocabulary – and I’m sure that our pronunciation was atrocious. But we never had a problem with communication.


This trip was our introduction to the company and we were very impressed. Every detail of the trip had been planned and well thought out. The coordination was like clockwork.   We were never left waiting or wondering what to do – and there were lots of moving parts; buses, in-country flights, ferry rides, funicular, tractor-pulled trams….each one was on time. The trip kept building and each day was better than the last. Every day offered something that surpassed the day before…building up to the pièce de résistance – Dinner at the Ciragan Palace.

There were even several extra special treats like candy at the Marmara Hotel, the gift/wine basket at the Hilton, the yacht cruise on the Bosporus, the special gift on our last day.

The travel documents were detailed and even included historical information, packing tips and Turkish vocabulary.

The Saturday seminar was very informative. When we saw that there was going to be a mandatory daylong seminar, we expected it to be a typical seminar – long and boring. On the contrary, it was filled with many insights and valuable information. It also stimulated our thought processes with regard to marketing Turkey, Israel, Cuba and our own business.

Due to recent events, many people are apprehensive about visiting Turkey right now. Even our friends and associates questioned our decision to go. However, not once did we experience anything that made us feel unsafe or in danger. The presence of security personnel and metal detectors added a measure of security. We’re aware that many American travelers are fearful, and we are committed to dispelling those fears.

Turkey is a rich travel destination and we look forward to returning and sending clients to the region. We have seen quite a bit of the world and have taken many familiarization trips, but this was by far the best trip ever.

Adrienne and Robert Lee at Aphrodisias, March 2017

Adrienne and Robert Lee at Aphrodisias, March 2017


Adrienne and Robert Lee at Aphrodisias, March 2017

Adrienne and Robert Lee at Aphrodisias, March 2017

My husband and I just returned from this familiarization trip to Turkey and we can’t say enough about how much we enjoyed it. We’d visited Istanbul briefly during a pre-cruise stop in 2011, when we’d only had 3 hours to pay short visits to the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia. That whirlwind tour whetted our appetites and we knew we wanted to return to experience more of that vibrant city. We discovered the Ya’lla Tours opportunity on a Sunday in mid-December. I immediately sent an email to the Ya’lla information email address to check availability, assuming that I wouldn’t receive a response until the next business day. To my surprise, I received a response from Ronen Paldi within the hour (I had no idea that he was the company owner), explaining that there was space available and that confirmation would be dependent on the submission of certain documents. I submitted the requisite documents later that afternoon and we received confirmation within 24 hours. I was immediately impressed by the quick response.

I could use so many superlatives to describe the trip – awesome, incredible, wonderful, marvelous, and memorable – but the word that came to mind most often was WOW and that was from the first day to the last. We were “wowed” by:


I’ll admit that I’m a luxury travel sort of gal, so I was especially pleased with the quality and location of each of the hotels. I was impressed from the evening that we checked into the Marmara, to the morning we checked out of the Hilton.
The rooms were spacious and well equipped. The views of the Bosporus and Aegean Sea made each sunrise and sunset very special. The inability to adjust the temperature in most of the rooms below 75 degrees was a bit of a challenge, but we managed to offset that by opening the window to let in the cool sea air.
The least impressive of the 4 hotels was the Charisma. It was a bit “long in the tooth” – its simple décor, and plentiful (but mediocre) food gave it the ambiance of a college dormitory. But that was offset by our breathtaking view of the Aegean Sea…another WOW.

The opportunities to do site reviews of other hotels gave us good options for making recommendations to our clients. I especially enjoyed the old world charm of the Para Palace.


Turkish cuisine is world-renowned so we expected it to be very good. But it surpassed every expectation that we had. From fine dining establishments to small countryside eateries all were exquisite. Each dish featured the freshest ingredients. Many were organic and some even locally sourced. Everything was prepared to perfection.
Even those who had dietary restrictions were accommodated. For instance, we do not eat red meat but that did not create a problem. Every meal offered a delicious choice of fish or chicken. The servings were plentiful and often artfully presented. Most of the dinners included wine and beer. All of the hotels offered plentiful breakfast buffets with fresh fruit and even eggs cooked to order.

The meal of all meals was our final dinner at the Ciragan Palace, where the menu replicated what sultans dined on. It was simply exquisite. Even the china was a work
of art. Each course was presented beautifully and described in detail. We literally dined like royalty.


Our guide Ozgur Erdogan (Fred) was simply the best. From the time he met us at the airport on Saturday February 25th to the time he dropped us off on Sunday March 5th he led us, lectured us and took great care of our “flock.” He shared a wealth of information and always kept it interesting. He worked seamlessly with our bus driver to transport us to our destinations on time, even in bumper-to-bumper traffic. He handled our entrance tickets and even arranged group airport check-in when necessary. He handled unexpected events and endless requests for restroom breaks with patience and a smile. What a guy!

Many thanks to our guest blogger Adrienne Lee! Adrienne and Robert Lee traveled on our travel agent fam trip February/March 2017. Click to read Part 2 of Adrienne’s post.