Now, I know a lot of folk who have been to Turkey for a holiday, but I will bet that none will have experienced as much of its history as I have in the two weeks that I visited in late September/early October. I seemed to have spent most of my time in museums or historically preserved sites, which provided some fascinating insight. From the Old-Constantine quarter of Istanbul to the ancient pillars and theatres of Ephesus and Aspendos. The Lycian necropolis near Kale Castle, the Neolithic archeological digs at Cataloyuk, and the ruins of the ancient city of Troy. One thing was clear, despite the rulers and conquerors that have called that land home, the current occupancy believes that the ‘Land of the Turks’ is a land that should celebrate its history, not subvert or hide it anymore.
As a starting point, I landed at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, and made use of the Metro system to navigate my way to my hotel. Mosque domes and minarets dominate the skyline in Istanbul, and no matter where you are, you are never far from the presence of these shrines to Islam, and although they look similar at first glance, each seems to have a character and a history of its own. I packed my kit into a water-resistant 90 litre holdall/backpack, and my trusty black backpack, both by The North Face. The larger pack which I call, the Blue Beast, because of its colour and its size, does hold a lot, but as a result its bullishly heavy to carry. The metro was easy enough to use, but I did look like Atlas, carrying the world on his shoulders, and got some odd looks from the locals. I also managed to lose my cap and my water bottle in transit from the airport to my hotel. Great start eh? Never mind, the hotel was nice at least. The air-con worked, there was complimentary tea and coffee and there was free WiFi. I had a freshen up and chilled for a while, but then I went out to explore the area.
I went down to the waterfront. There were many little restaurants and vendors selling fish or corn on the cob. I opted for a place that had people in but one that looked friendly enough. Sure enough, I found a place and ordered an Iskender Kebab. It was delicious. Next I tried to find somewhere I could get a drink. I found a place near the hotel that had a varied selection of music, and a tattooed barmaid with a shaved head. They spoke very little English but were friendly enough. I had a few in there and decided to get a snap of the Galata Tower before I headed back to the hotel.
The next day, still annoyed at losing so much stuff on the first day, I noticed there were a couple of outdoor hobby shops nearby. Alas, it was a Sunday, and they were closed. They had probably been closed for the days since Ramadan, and were likely open the day after. So I didn’t replace the items I’d lost, I just headed out to take a few pictures before I had to check out and make my way to the next rendezvous. I crossed the Galata Bridge to the start of the old quarter. I took shots of the fishermen on the bridge and the spires of the mosques I could see, including Fatih Mosque. I went to the next hotel, and found it following the instructions I was given. It was near Gulhane Metro stop and a short walk from there. The Blue Beast was digging into the pits of my arms, but I made it. It appeared that my G Adventures group was going to be a small one. Just five names on the list, and mostly male names. This promised to be very different to what I had been used to.
I dropped my stuff off and immediately went back out again. Heading for the mosque on the top of the hill, I headed uphill. I saw a sign for the Grand Bazaar going a different way, but I continued on towards the minarets I could see. As it turned out, it was the Suleymaniye Mosque that I found. There were a few tourists there, but not that many really. The Suleymaniye Mosque was built for Sultan Suleiman the First, whose mausoleum resides in the graveyard next door. The stone of this mosque was very bright in comparison to some of the others I visited, and with it being on the hill, it offered a great view of the city as a whole.
After the mosque, I attempted to get to the Grand Bazaar, but rather than head back the way I came and follow the sign, I went around the side to explore a little bit. The heat from the sun was pretty intense, so I bought a couple of bottles of water and found a little park area in the shade. Following my nose, it appeared I was around the back of Istanbul University, and there was another park area nearby, but this was much more active. I eventually came upon the Grand Bazaar, but a sign said it was closed for four days. I stopped for lunch at a place, and had a mixed meat doner wrap and shepherd’s salad. It was lovely, but I had to move on. I caught the metro back towards my hotel, but stopped at Sultanahmet Park, which is the area where the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque are situated. The Blue Mosque looked very picturesque with its palm trees in the grounds around it. As this was the middle of the afternoon, there were quite a number of tourists visiting, but it didn’t take long to get in and around it. The Blue Mosque or the Sultan Ahmed Mosque as its also known, is comparatively quite new. The stone is darker, and the blue slate domes are what give it its name. The Hagia Sophia is actually more of a museum than a mosque, and it sits opposite the Blue Mosque at the other side of the park. Originally a church built for Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, it was later converted into a mosque where the original mosiacs were plastered over. However, the mosiacs have been restored where possible and both elements of when it was a church and a mosque are on to show to the general public. It was quite interesting to see where changes to the architecture had been made, and the trappings of both church and mosque on display.
I only had a short amount of time left before having to meet the rest of the group, so I walked back to the hotel via Gulhane Park. Still no one had moved in to my room, so I wasn’t sure if I’d have a room to myself for the entire trip. I met with the other three people though and with our guide. The three were all friends from Sydney, Australia. Our guide was a Turkish national, but spent time studying in Germany, which was incidentally where our missing group member was from.
Anyway, we went for a meal, and then walked down to the Galata Bridge to somewhere we could get beer and smoke a water pipe. We seemed to get on okay though, and didn’t stay out too late, which was lucky, because I met my room buddy for the trip at 3am in the morning when he loudly banged the door open and dropped his bags.
The next day we got better acquainted, but he was a little shy to say the least. In any case, we met the others and had an Orientation Walk of Istanbul, which was basically pointing out the places I’d been to the day before, with a couple of exceptions. This time, the Grand Bazaar was actually open, but it was a bit of a disappointment to be honest. Its essentially a modern mall of shops, no different to one you’d find anywhere else. Oddly reminiscent of the lower floor for the Pearl Market in Beijing, I suppose, on reflection. The Spice Market was much more exotic, which is where we headed next, after a brief detour through some back alley workshops to the room, our guide called ‘Narnia’ – a hidden space in the city, few people get to see.
After lunch we had to get our things from the hotel and join our driver on the road to Ankara, Turkey’s Capital. We got there in time for the evening, so we checked in, went for dinner and then stayed out at a local bar taking in the ambiance once more.
The next day we had an early start because we headed to Civilization Museum of Ankara, which was an optional activity, but our guide said it would a lot of context which would be very helpful for the rest of the trip. The exhibits were numerous and interesting, and gave a background to the ancient civilizations which inhabited Turkey. Hettites, Lycians, Phrygians, Urarians, Romans, etc. have all made Anatolia their home at one point or another, and each brought with them, their own customs, traditions and artifacts.
Following the museum, we went to the Mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey, which was quite a contrast to the Civilization Museum. Firstly, you get feeling that Ataturk is a much loved national hero among his people, not unlike how the Chinese revere Mao Tse Tung, and its shown in just the layout of the plaza. Our guide explained that everything about the design of the place was meticulously planned, for example, the path was made of different widths of stone slabs, to demonstrate that one should walk with a focus on where they’re going, or they may fall.
The path led to a wide open plaza with a building set at the top of some steps off to the right, which housed the stone sarcophagus of Ataturk, although his body was not within it, it was below in a sealed vault. The other building ran from one side, underneath the plaza and was a museum comprised of a number of chambers. One chamber housed the trappings of his office, the next was all about his military life and the campaigns he fought in. Each were well maintained and carefully attended. The last one was of his personal library, which was fascinating.
We left there just short of midday and had a stop for lunch before we hit the road again. Our next stop was at a salt lake, which seemed a bit of a tourist trap to be honest, but the soap did leave your hands feeling quite nice afterwards. The blue sky contrasting with the whiteness of the salt lake made for a nice picture though. It reminded me of the trip, I didn’t take to South America, which would have included a couple of days on the Uyuni Salt Flats.
Our last stop before the Capital, was Derinkuyu Underground City. The weather was beginning to turn windy and cold when we arrived, so we all brought hoodies to wear, but inside the caves underground, the temperature remained as warm as it had been all day. We had speculated amongst ourselves how narrow and confined the tunnels were going to be, as a couple of us had previously been to the Cu Chi Tunnels in Vietnam, which personally, I found quite claustrophobic. It was worry for nothing as it happened, because although the tunnels were low, but never so low that you had to crawl, and the tunnels were well ventilated as well. The tunnels were like burrows really. They had round stones to seal off the pathways when invaders attacked, and bottle-necks so that they could defend against attackers one-at-a-time.
When we returned to the surface it had begun to rain, but it wasn’t long before we got to Goreme, and our home for the next few days.
In the evening we went to a local’s home for dinner. The family cooked us a lovely meal which we all enjoyed sitting on cushions on the floor. There was light soup to start and gozleme, salad and other things. To drink we had ayran, which was a salty milk drink I’d not had before, which was initially quite sour, but you got used to it. There was baklava and turkish tea to finish. It was a big meal. We then got to ask questions of our hosts, and of our driver, who we had only been able to communicate with in the few phrases of Turkish our guide had taught us.
Our itinerary allowed for a number of optional activities for us to consider doing, and the only thing people weren’t overly keen on was the horse riding. I guess there is ample opportunity for the Australians to do this back home, and I’m not really proficient as a rider. What we did do was quite a lot. Goreme was a small town in the Cappadocian hills, which had been formed of a numerous volcanic layers, which formed a plateau, eroded by the elements over thousands of years. The landscape has a number of unique formations as a result, and on our first few stops the next morning, this is what we saw.
The Goreme Open Air Museum is a site which has some unique buildings, chapel or churches mostly, and some rooms within the valley. There are little holes in the rocks for housing birds, and other holes for storage for the people who lived there hundreds of years ago. Following that we saw a formation they called ‘Uchisar Castle’, then the ‘Fairy Chimneys’, which are unique by the fact they are eroded to points, but have a harder layer of rock on top which erodes more slowly, giving the appearance of chimneys. After lunch we had a brief stop to sample local wines from the region, but the rest of the afternoon was ours to explore the nearby town. In the evening, we attended a ritual performance of the Whirling Dervishes and went on to enjoy a traditional Turkish Night of food and dancing, which was surreal to say the least. We rounded it off at a trip to the local nightclub ‘Fatboys’, until about 1am in the morning, and despite the club being empty we still had a good time.
The next day was to be a big one as well, we started off with a hike through Goreme Valley. Despite having a cold, which manifested itself as a coughing fit whenever I did anything strenuous, and not to mention the mild hangover, I did quite well. I reckoned it to be approximately 12km all in all. The first part was maneouvring through the valley floor, but the detour we took caused us to take a route uphill and downhill, but we made it. David even found some apples growing on a tree to help us find the energy. We went to another spot which had the basalt columns, but I think we were all agreed that we had had enough of them for today.
After lunch, we went to a potter’s workshop to have a demonstration in how replicas of Hettite Jugs were made, and to see some of his other work. He was a friendly enough man, and two of the guys volunteered to have a go at making a pot out of wet clay. Next we returned to the hotel to get a change of clothes before we headed off for a Turkish Bath. This was an new experience. It began with a 15 minute sauna to moisten and open the pores of the skin, then we lay on a slab while a guy lathered us, scrubbed us and massaged us to within an inch of our lives, periodically being rinsed off in between. A quick shower and relax in the hot tub, and then downstairs for a Swedish massage. It was relaxing once it was it over and I did feel really clean, but it was rigorous and it felt like someone had poked me in the back with a stick.
The evening was ours again, and we found a nice but expensive restaurant behind the place we went for lunch earlier in the day. We didn’t stay out too late though because we had a very early start in the morning to go ballooning. We had to be up and ready to go for 4:45am, as we needed to get registered with the company before we were packed off in a numbered van. We were put with a group of elderly North Americans, but they were in high spirits. Before too long we took to the skies with around another 150 hot air balloons as the dawn rose above Cappadocia. We initially were quite low, but eventually rose to around 800 metres above the ground. The trip took just over an hour, and we landed onto a small flatbed trailer, which must have taken quite bit of a practice to get right. Each of us enjoyed a small flute of champagne, as was tradition, according to our pilot and then we were dropped off at our hotel in time for ‘second breakfast’ before we checked out.
Our next destination was Konya, and we got there for midday. We had a quick stop at the Sultanhani Caravanserai, which was where visiting traders would be required to stay at overnight in medieval times if they were visiting or trading in the city. It was just a preserved building, not much to it, but it was intact and gave you a good idea of how it worked. We continued on to the middle of the city and visited the Mevlana Museum, which was the resting place of the Persian who brought the Dervish movement to Anatolia. There were lots of exhibits inside, and they were well preserved and explained.
After lunch we headed to a homestay in a village outside of the main city. We had a walk around the village with the man who’s home we were staying in. It was a typical rural village for the most part, with hills nearby where goats seemed to run free. We went to the local mosque and had chance to meet the Imam and ask questions, and we were treated to another lovely home-cooked meal before heading off to sleep in separate rooms for a change. I got up early to catch the dawn and explore the hills before we had breakfast and continued on a journey to Antalya.
Before we got to Antalya, we stopped off at a couple of places of interest. The first stop was Aspendos, which featured a beautifully preserved Roman theatre, as well as part of an aqueduct and other ruins nearby. Then we visited the Neolithic site, Catalhoyuk, which consisted of a couple of open digs, a replication of what a neolithic home would have looked like, and an exhibition hall, explaining all about it. We had seen some of the artifacts from the site in the Civilization museum in Ankara, so we had already seen much of what had been found, but it was nice to see the lay of the land in context. The second dig site was quite interesting as it showed how the dwellings were built over one another. From there we progressed to Antalya.
Antalya was as much like a Mediterranean seaside town as you might expect. It had a charming old town, a beach, and quite a few bars and restaurants. When we got there I left the others to enjoy the beach and I explored the old town for a while. In the evening we had a big night out at a bar with a large outside area, and it was a good job we had a late start the next day because I don’t think we stopped drinking until 3am.
We drove to Demre for lunch, which was famous for its association with Saint Nicholas. It was said that he would drop bags of gold coins down the chimneys of poor girls who couldn’t afford a dowry, and afterwards we boarded a boat which was to be our accommodation for the night. It was quite small, so it was lucky we only had a small group really. But it had a bar, and it made regular stops for us to swim and enjoy the scenery. Our second stop was the island of Kekova, which had ruins of a greek settlement along its shoreline. The boat had panels which allowed us to view through the bottom, to see the rest of the sunken city below the water. The sun was starting to set when we pulled into the harbour allowing us access to Simena Castle. We were rapidly losing light at this point though so we raced to the top. There were so many steps though, and I was the last up to the top, but it was worth it to catch the sunset. We attempted to descend to the necropolis nearby to see more of the Lycian tombs, but the mosquitoes attacked us with fervour, and so we departed back for the boat.
Overnight we slept under the stars, and under clear skies the constellations were bright and clear. The next day we headed back to the mainland and continued westward to the town of Kas. Kas was a pleasant little town with a harbour at the bottom of the hill. I spent the afternoon with the German guy, and we visited the Roman theatre and the Lycian Tombs in the town, before we had lunch and then went somewhere for a coffee. It was the first time I had had chance to try and traditional Turkish coffee, and although it was nice, I won’t be rushing to have another – far too bitter for my taste.
In the evening, we went to a fish restaurant for dinner. Our waiter was fluent in Turkish, German and English, it was quite impressive to see him switch between languages as he spoke to me, the German guy, and our Turkish driver. One of the Australians didn’t make it to dinner, and he’d been quite green-looking all day, but the rest of us continued onto a rooftop bar after dinner called ‘Queen’s Club’, and they played a lot of dance hits from the nineties. It wasn’t particularly busy though, and so we called it a night after midnight.
The next day we headed for Pamukkale, for the ancient city of Hieropolis and its famous hot springs. It was a impressive site. Though mostly sparse ruins, you could clearly see features and could imagine what they would have looked like. There was a necropolis near the start before the city gates and the baths close to that. There was a temple, stadium and another theatre. Then beyond that were the pools. In order to preserve the site, the water flow is controlled so that the white rock doesn’t lose its colour, but we were allowed to walk on it, barefoot. The water was warm and it was quite pleasant to walk on for the most part.
After the hot pools we continued on our journey to Selcuk, our stop for the night. We checked in to the hotel and then met up for our orientation walk of the town with our guide. Though small, Selcuk had lots of options for us it seemed, and knowing we had a long day the next day, we had dinner and then opted for an early night.
The next day we had an early start, so at 7:45 we climbed into the van and travelled to the ruins of the ancient city of Ephesus. Its quite easy to see why Ephesus is so popular with tourists, it has so many well kept examples of Greco-Roman architecture, including the Temple of Artemis, Library of Celsus and the Church of the Virgin Mary. The city had been rebuilt a few times due to an earthquake and an invasion by the Cimmerians.
There is an exhibit inside Ephesus that displays the terraced houses where the wealthy had lived during the Roman period. Its comes at an additional cost, but it is worth it, as the mosiacs and murals are very well preserved.
Following our trip to Ephesus, the rest of the afternoon was ours, but we all stuck together and visited the Ephesus Museum, which had two amazing statues of Artemis, as well as many interesting artifacts from the site.
Afterwards we visited St John’s Basilica and Selcuk Castle, as they were both close by, and then went by public transport to the village of Sirence where we indulged in some wine tasting and admired the view of the valley. Sirence’s wine was much sweeter than normal wines, so I bought a bottle of black mulberry wine as a souvenir. Our guide had invited us to come out to Kusadasi in the evening, as he was meeting a friend and so we went along to join them. After a little dinner we hit the bars and eventually a club. We had a great time, and the DJ played most of our requested, but it was probably a mistake we didn’t leave until 4am.
It was thirteenth day and we were all mostly tired and hungover. We pulled into a petrol station for a toilet break, and as our guide and driver had a conversation in the van, the rest of us made our way out of the van with the German in the lead. He was crossing the forecourt to a small building with two doors with signs above designating male and female, and we followed. As we got closer, I felt something amiss. It was odd that the toilets were on the opposite side of the forecourt, and there were a few men about looking at us. Before I could go in, the German came running out of the male toilet shaking his arms. The Aussie girl asked, “What it is? Is it really gross in there?” It took him a moment to relax, but he replied, “No, its a mosque!” We spun on our heels and marched back towards the station shop, laughing at ourselves.
We got back on the bus and headed towards the town of Ayvalik. Our accommodation for the night was to be an old Ottoman Mansion. We got there in time for lunch, and had a walk around the town before having the rest of the afternoon as free time. I think we were all a little tired from the night before, so we spent the afternoon lounging before going to the supermarket and getting supplies for a dinner we prepared and cooked ourselves as a group. It was a lovely evening on the patio roof, but none of us were up for staying up late, so we headed shortly after.
The next day we had an hour-long drive to Canakkale, and on the way we visited Troy. As you get into Troy, you are greeted by a giant wooden horse, as featured in Homer’s Odyssey, but the legend aside, it was a settlement, that became a fortress for its important strategic value on the peninsula. There was evidence of a ramp inside the walls, which meant that they would have used chariots. There were pieces of the former temple of Athena and then lot of different types of walls constructed through the ages. Not much is left intact, except for the sanctuary area for people to practice their religions and the theatre and baths that were built by the Romans when they conquered the city.
In the afternoon we checked into our hotel in Canakkale and went to see the ‘Wooden Horse of Troy’ used in the 2004 Brad Pitt film, which now sits in Canakkale’s harbour. From the harbour you could see across to the Gallipoli peninsula, which is where we were visiting the next day. For the rest of the day though, we just explored the town, and in the evening, we went to a pub for pub grub and beer.
The next day was another really early start, and we were up before the sunrise. We had to cross to the peninsula by ferry and drive to the national park. We visited several of Gallipoli’s most notable landmarks and grave sites, including ANZAC Cove, Sphinx Hill, Lone Pine Cemetary, The Cemetary of the 57th Turkish Regiment and the New Zealand Memorial. It was particularly special given this year was the centenary of the Battle of Gallipoli, when allied forces attempted to smash the Turkish peninsula and send naval warships through the Dardanelle Straits in an attempt to take Istanbul and effectively end the Turkish involvement in the Great War. After an initial attempt to send warships up through the Dardanelles was thwarted, a plan was drawn up to invade the strategic landing points and destroy the gun emplacements. The ANZACs landed a little off course of their intended target and faced a steep climb met by Turkish resistance. Gaining little ground, they held on for reinforcements, but they never came. Despite allies claiming ground on one of the northern beaches, they didn’t come to the rescue of the ANZACs. Months into this failed incursion the order was finally given to withdraw, but it has gone down in history of one of the worst military disasters on record.
Despite this there was an endearing respect between the Turks and the people of Australia and New Zealand. There was an amnesty agreed on both sides for them to bury their dead during the siege, and in 1934 Ataturk wrote to the families of the dead ANZACs to say that they lie on friendly soil as brothers of the Turkish people.
It was very moving to walk amongst the many gravestones and read the tributes. Following this sombre experience, we had a long drive back to Istanbul, and our last night together. The German, who had spent little time in Istanbul was keen to visit a couple of places in the afternoon, but we hit traffic and only got back at 5:30 in the afternoon, when most things were closed for the day. I tried checking in, but was told I couldn’t check in until 30 hours before my flight, it was then that I realized I had one more full day in Istanbul. Therefore I booked myself into another hotel.
We went for our last meal together at a place near Taksim Square. We had all head the news by now that there had been a bombing in a train station in Ankara. The news had reached home as well and I had several people send me Facebook messages asking if I was ok. Near the square, there was a large group of people chanting in protest, and a water cannon was present. Needless to say, we avoided the area from that point and walked away. Taking several back streets we ended up at a restaurant overlooking a plaza, we gave our driver a tip during the day, and this time we gave our guide his tip, as well as our small change for his ‘change for change’ programme. He said that travelling with us didn’t feel like work, which was very kind of him to say so.
After the meal we took a cab back to our hotel. We split up after saying our goodbyes, and the Aussies went to get some last minute souvenirs. The German also had an early flight home so I called it a night for his sake.
The next day I got up and had breakfast, and then returned to my room to plan my last day. I checked out and stored my bag at the hotel and took a walk. My plan was to visit the Basilica Cistern, as this was a place a friend of mine recommended. It was a good place to visit because the weather was wet and it felt quite cold, and the Cistern was mostly underground. The Cistern consisted of numerous stone columns holding up the roof of what was an ancient water store. The Roman’s believed that keeping fish in the water was a good way to tell if the water was drinkable or not, and to this day, there are giant carp in the water. A couple of unusual exhibits include a couple of large column plinths, carved to resemble Medusa heads.
From there I walked to the Istanbul Archeological Museum, and despite the queue to get in, it was well worth the trouble. The exhibits included artifacts from all over Anatolia, as well as exhibits from neighbouring countries. There were some complete mosaics from Mesopotamia, Assyria sculptures, relics from Egypt and sarcophagi from the people and tribes who have called Eurasia their home over the centuries.
There were three halls of exhibits, and it was a lot to get round, and near to the Museum was the Topkapi Palace Museum. I opted out of visiting it though as it was getting to mid afternoon and I’d not had any lunch. After lunch I had a walk through Gulhane Park to see the view of the Golden Horn at the bottom, but as the rain was easing off a little, I decided I should collect my bags and check in to my new hotel.
It was quite a walk with heavy bags, but the hotel was lovely, and it had the nicest shower I’d had for the entire trip. I just spent the evening relaxing, only going out for a meal and a few drinks before I took the night air in Sultanahmet Square.
The next day I checked out and reflected on the trip on the way home. This was the fifth G Adventures trip I’d taken since 2012. Turkey was much more a place of history than I expected, but a place of contrasts too. I think I would have enjoyed it slightly more with a larger group, and potentially more in the high season, but it was a lot of fun. The highlight for me was hiking and ballooning in Goreme, but I liked Istanbul as well.