Lake Van, Akdamar Island and Van Castle: Day 7 of Our Black Sea/Eastern Turkey Road Trip with Kids

We planned in advance for Day 7 to be our slightly lazier day of the trip. No getting up and rushing off to sightsee or travel to the next location and short time periods in the car. I am taking Turkish and my classes are online. I missed one on our trip as we were getting up and heading off to Ani, but on Day 7, I was able to take the class from my hotel room. So I had my class and then we went down to breakfast.

The Doubletree in Van was the only hotel that had a buffet. They had barriers up in front of the food and staff served what you wanted. Staff also brought you your beverage and a bread basket. It seemed a good compromise between Covid precautions and catering to a range of tastes. We were happy for a break from the traditional Turkish breakfast (which us adults enjoy, but the kids don’t). They had hard boiled eggs, sausages, cheeses, salads, fruits, cereals, dry fruits, yogurt, soup, Turkish items, juice, tea, coffee, and a bread basket.

We also attempted the playground at the hotel after breakfast, but it was a fail. There was a stray adolescent dog hanging out. He seemed very sweet and playful, but was way too friendly and jumpy. He kept chasing the kids trying to play. Our policy with stray dogs is we don’t touch them no matter how cute they look. He knocked down one of the kids, so we bailed and went inside for some chilling.

Around 11:30, we headed over to the ferry dock in Gevaş, which was a 30 minute drive from our hotel. The ferry system to get to Akdamar Island is an interesting one. There is no schedule and they simply leave when there are enough people. We weren’t sure how this would work given it was a low tourist time period. Park in front of the building and to the left is a covered, outside sitting area and the ticket counter. The man working it told us it was a minimum of 10 people to go and kids were free. Huh. This could take a while.

The red roof on the left is the ticket area for the ferry

We asked how much tickets were and they were only 20 lira each. That’s about $2.50. So we asked if we could just buy 10 tickets and go. This took some back and forth given our language barrier. Finally, he said a private charter was 250 tl. This was a bit of a rip off, as 10 tickets was 200 tl. But I guess their point was 10 was the minimum, and they could have a lot more people. This was only about $35, so we decided to go for it so we didn’t have to wait forever. I’d read online some people waiting 2 hours!

The boat ride was 30 minutes across Lake Van to Adkamar Island. This island is best known for the Church of the Holy Cross. It is 1100 years old and Armenian. It is very pretty and very photographic. I gather in spring the trees bloom and it is gorgeous. It’s also pretty in snow from the pictures I saw. We were not there at a particularly photogenic time, but it was still nice!

The church is from the 10th century, has exterior bas-relief carvings and friezes showing Biblical scenes, and is pretty tiny (only 49 x 39 feet). Inside there are frescoes. The church has been restored and occasionally has services.

The island has a few view points, a small cafe with coffee and tea and water and a few packaged snacks, and a small gift shop. There are also bathrooms. The island is 25 tl, but free with the MuseKart. Half the island (the upper half) is off limits. It only takes about an hour to see the island, which was how long our private boat stayed.

When we got there, we discovered there is a second ferry that comes from another town. That one had lots of people, so clearly we went to the less popular one! Best I could tell from the boat direction and the map, this was the more popular one. For us, the closer one was better as it cut down on driving.

The boat ride was very pretty and gave us a nice view of the towns along the lake and the mountains (some volcanic) in the distance. Lake Van is very blue and has a higher salinity than sea water! It is so alkaline locals don’t need soap to wash clothes in it! It is 7 times larger than Lake Geneva and might be as deep at 1,312 feet! There are mountains surrounding it. The highest one is 13,313 feet!

This area used to be part of the Urartian civilization (same time period and enemies of the better known Assyrians). Here is a 10 minute video on YouTube about them. Van is also known for its breakfast, which includes clotted cream (I ate a lot of this at the hotel breakfast!), and the Van Cat, which has one blue eye and one amber and is fascinated by water. We did not see any of the cats, unfortunately.

We brought a packed lunch and ate on the boat, which was a good choice as there were no easy restaurant choices. From the ferry dock, we drove back past our hotel and then onward to Van Castle (about 15 mins past our hotel into town). It is located right in Van.

Figuring out where to park was challenging as the instructions on GoogleMaps were not very clear and the castle grounds are huge. This is the parking lot. You’ll most likely drive counter clockwise around the castle grounds, including go through a local neighborhood area. There are some small signs with “kalesi” on them pointing the way. Park and pay admission. It is 10 tl or your MuseKart gets you in.

Once in, there is a long walk through the grounds and up the hill. The path is cobblestone and it is not stroller friendly at all. Once at the top, there are rocky areas to climb with great views of the lake and countryside. Lots of rock scrambling and sheer drop offs, so keep a close eye on kids!

There is a park near the castle grounds (opposite side from parking) with a playground. We were there mid afternoon and the small parking area at the park was full and it was very crowded. We did not visit, but it looked nice. There is also a Van Museum and an Urartu Museum near the castle area. They get good reviews, though we did not go as we were limiting inside time due to Covid. Museums typically close at 5 and are often closed on Mondays, so check hours.

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