It’d be fair to say I was nervous about entering Turkey, along with everyone else who I told of my travel plans (having just been to Israel and Egypt prior). Turkey hasn’t featured positively in any news coverage in the last couple of years, and every story that does appear reconfirms the idea that it’s a dangerous and politically unstable place.
So I was surprised to find that my three weeks in Turkey went without a hitch. Not that Turkey is without its problems (particularly political problems), but for the most part, from a visitors perspective, it was a well developed, safe and fascinating country to visit – albeit one now crying out for tourists to return.
The natural landing spot for any tourist is Istanbul – a bustling cultural metropolis famed for its mosques, bazaars, markets and kebabs. And well, it did not disappoint.
First on the agenda was the ‘big’ sights of the city. No visit to Istanbul would be complete without visiting the Blue Mosque, renowned as one of the largest and most beautiful mosques in the world. Built just over 400 years ago, it’s a pretty staggering testament to the skill of the original builders who lacked any modern building techniques. The interior is similarly staggering, filled with immensely intricate detailing in various shades of blue. The Blue Mosque sits next to the similarly magnificent Hagia Sophia – a fascinating and much older structure with an interesting history, having switched from its original purpose as a Christian cathedral to a Muslim mosque in 1453, and then to a secular museum in 1931.
Both structures are amazing in their own way, though the effect is somewhat lessened by the large crowds of tourists passing through every day.
Another very cool highlight is the Basilica Cistern, a massive underground cistern built in the 6th century AD to feed the city of Constantinople. It’s a massive, old and incredible underground structure, built to hold 80,000 cubic meters of water. The whole thing is held up by ornate columns, and you make your way though the (now nearly empty) chamber on raised platforms.
There’s also a few slightly disappointing attractions. Probably one of the famous attractions – the bazaar – is now largely just a maze of shops selling cheap Chinese knockoff leather handbags and cheap t-shirts. My visions of alleyways of fragrant spices and handwoven carpets and glittering gold were sadly left unmet.
But what Istanbul might lack in markets, it certainly makes up for in food. Wow, it is a culinary delight. Every corner has a brightly lit shop filled with endless varieties of Turkish Delight and other sweet Turkish delicacies. The kebabs really are fantastic, and make every kebab I’ve had elsewhere pale in comparison. Not only that, but if you can find your way just out of the tourist areas, the meals are amazingly cheap, and always provide an endless supply of bread in case you were still hungry. And they are always, always followed up with a small glass of Turkish tea, whether you asked for it or not. I would go back there for the food in a heartbeat.
Istanbul in general is also surprisingly modern, well developed and even hip. A short trip to the Asian side of the city (so called becaause Istanbul literally straddles the stretch of water between the European and Asian continents) will take you into a very artsy, chic and hipster suburb called Moda. Similarly, the bustling Taksim street is a lengthy boulevard of high end stores and endless ice-cream vendors in traditional dress.
The real treasure of Turkey, though, sits smack dab in the middle – Cappadocia. This is a place of the most whacky and intriguing rock formations you’ve ever seen, and is probably the place you’ve seen on posters while you’ve been waiting for your sub-par Turkish kebabs in takeaway shops back home.
Basically, thousands of years of erosion and some unique geology has left behind miles of ‘fairy chimneys’, or large pinnacles of rock sticking up from the ground. Over thousands of years, the various civilisations have carved out these pinnacles to make homes and churches and other buildings, leaving behind thousands of caves. Most of these are now abandoned (and make for great exploring), while others have been turned into hotels. I stayed in a cheap cave hostel for the whole ‘cave’ experience, but unfortunately was also met with the challenges of cave life – cold and damp. You could easily spend days exploring the whole region and imagining you’re Indiana Jones.
Perhaps the most staggering of all, however, are the huge underground cities, that were carved out hundreds of years ago as a refuge. These cities go as deep as eight levels, and are a massive winding maze of narrow tunnels going deep into the earth. You’d be highly advised not to enter if you suffer from claustrophobia, but it was probably one of the most fascinating things I’ve seen on my travels so far. The cities were built to act as a refuge in case above-ground cities were attacked, so they’re fully kitted out with the spaces (such as stables and chapels and ventilation shafts) to accomodate up to 20,000 people. Amazing.
The real highlight of Cappadocia, though, was the sunrise hot air balloon ride. This is a very popular and well known ride, making me wonder if it was and overpriced tourist trap, or would actually to be worth it . But for only €60, it seemed like it was worth a shot. And wow, it absolutely was. Despite the 3.30am start and long wait in the cold, the view from the air once the first few rays of golden sunlight came through was nothing short of magical. We spent about an hour in the air, drifting across the surreal landscape, dropping low enough to scrape by trees and high enough to make the cars seem like distant specks. In the air with us were hundreds of other balloons, making for a fascinating view. If you’re ever in Turkey, I highly, highly recommend this trip.
Once I’d said goodbye to Cappodocia, I made a short one day break in a place called Pamukkale. If you’ve ever wondered what the pink and white terraces would have looked like, Pamukkale is your answer. Pamukkale is essentially a big hill covered with cascading white terraces, leftover from mineral rich water running over down the hillside for millennia. Over these terraces flows water, and you can climb up the terraces (barefoot) and bathe in pools of the the warm mineral water. From below, it seems like the surface should be slippery and dangerous (and a disastrous idea to send thousands of tourists up a day), but the surface is surprisingly grippy.
At the top is a collection of reasonably impressive Roman ruins, including a massive and semi-intact amphitheatre. Also of note is ‘Cleopatra’s Pool’ – the remnants of a Roman street that sunk down and was then covered in natural mineral water, forming a pool which you can now swim in. The idea of swimming in a pool filled with ancient Roman ruins is indeed quite tantalising, but the reality of an extremely overcrowded pool mostly filled with slightly overweight Russian tourists kind of detracts from the novelty.
Southern Turkey & the Mediterranean Coast
A truly unexpected highlight for me in Turkey was the southern coast, which sits on the Mediterranean. My visions of Turkey had included most of what I’d seen above, but definitely did not include beautiful azure blue waters and a temperate climate.
My first brief stop was the coastal town of Antalya. Perched on a cliffside and overlooking an incredible national park, it certainly made for a pretty sight. I only spent one night here, which was enough time to explore the charming old town and beautiful port, as well as enjoy one of the most scenic morning runs I’ve had on my trip (which isn’t a very high standard to beat, considering how few morning runs I’ve actually done).
My next stop, and still one of my favourite parts of my trip, was three days spent in the little village of Olympos. Nestled in the middle of a mountainous national park, it’s delightfully quiet, isolated and warm, which is just what I needed after several non stop weeks of travel. The ‘hostel’ I was in was set in an orange orchard and made up of small wooden bungalows, with hammocks and day beds dotted around the grounds. I spent three days alternately lying in a hammock, lying on the beautiful beach and lying in my private wooden bungalow. Oh, and eating. Because they served an amazing mediterranean style buffet breakfast and delicious dinner each night. And I like eating.
When I did get out, I explored the ancient Roman ruins down the road – the remnants of the city of Lycia. Out of all the ruins I’ve seen so far on my trip I actually enjoyed these the most, because they felt the most ‘authentic’. Most of them are still sitting as they have been for centuries, abandoned, discarded and half buried in the ground. Little paths through the bush take you to some surprisingly impressive ruins that, unlike most other ruins, have had little to no visible restoration work done on them. The downturn in tourism also meant that much of my time exploring I was on my own – stumbling through the bush and feeling very intrepid (until I saw a snake and panicked and ran away).
The final stop – Ephesus
Satisfied yet sad to leave Olympos, I set out again on Turkey’s fantastic intercity bus network to Ephesus. Ephesus is a huge sprawling complex of ruins, which once made up one of the most powerful cities in ancient Greece. It was quite a stretch across the country to make it to Ephesus, so my expectations were reasonably high. Unfortunately, it was ultimately (in my opinion) a bit disappointing. While it’s certainly sprawling and big, it didn’t really deliver much more on what I’d already seen from ancient ruins elsewhere in Turkey. The most famous part, seen on all the photos, is the ‘library’, a fairly impressive freestanding facade of a once monumental building. As with many ancient ruins, though, it’s largely a reconstruction.
Having had my fill of kebabs (like really, way too many kebabs) I said goodbye to Turkey and set out on a short ferry ride to country number three – Greece!