I traveled in Turkey from 26th April to 12th May,2013. Starting in Istanbul, I went to Selcuk,Cappadocia,Gaziantep,Nemrut Dagi, Sanliurfa and back to Istanbul. Traveled on a relativelysmall budget, but still did all the touristy things like balloon rides, day tours and shopping. So this is a brief account of my trip.
Why Turkey? That’s a question I always got from people, the answer is Turkey has the most varied and diverse sights you could see in a single country(except maybe India). You have the Byzantine monuments of Istanbul like Ayasofya, the Ottoman mosques and palaces, in Western Turkey you get to see Greek and Roman cities all intact, then you have Cappadocia, which has amazing rock formations on limestone and some really awe-inspiring cave towns and castle,straight out of Flintstones. Moving further east, you get to see atmospheric old islamic towns and cities and some pre historic stuff too. And the landscape? It’s always spectacular, huge grasslands, snowy peaks,meadows..and the food? Nothing short of fabulous, even to my tastebuds which are used to spicy and heavy food. And I haven’t even covered the mediterranean coastline of Turkey, 13 civilisations have existed in Turkey, and all of them have a significant impact on the culture, and you can see it all!! So that’s why Turkey.
Just a look at why turkey..
How did I travel? I did not go unprepared at at all, I was armed with maps, audioguides and all the basic information I needed. I also knew which place would get me the best exchange rate, I had my rooms/dorms prebooked, had an itinerary in place,although it was pretty flexible. I traveled by overnight buses, ate food at localish places(am a vegetarian,and vegetarian food was quite abundant everywhere) and traveled in towns and cities mostly by foot,and taking the occasional ferry or bus in places like Istanbul. I did take a couple of guided tours, places which were difficult to reach,or where tours offered an economical option, but most of my traveling was solo. Travel between place to place was by overnight buses.
Where did I stay? I had all my places prebooked from booking.com and the likes, I stayed in dormitories in touristy palces like Istanbul and Cappadocia, in smaller places like Urfa or Kahta I took single rooms. Dorms cost me about 10 Euros while rooms came for about 15 Euros. I liked my stay in dorms more because I got to meet a lot of people and the facilities were pretty good too.
Where all did I go? The most important question. I landed in Istanbul, stayed for about 4 days, went to Selcuk,visited the ruins of several Greek-Ionian cities: Ephesus, Afrodisias, Priene,Miletos and Didyma. Then I proceeded towards Cappadocia, whose landscape was straight out of Flintstone’s. From Cappadocia I went eastwards to Gaziantep,then further to Nemrut Dagi basing myself at Adiyaman. The next stop was Sanliurfa,did a half day trip to Harran. Got a flight to Istanbul, spent a few hours shopping and left for India. So here we go.
The flight to Istanbul was quite a good one, passing over the high mountain ranges of Iran and East Turkey, also got an aerial view of Van lake and the monastery island in the lake. Arrived in Istanbul and took a metro followed by a tram into the old city of Sultanahmet. I fell in love instantly with the massive Blue Mosque and Ayasofya. Istanbul’s weather was at it’s, clear skies,crisp cool weather and a constant gentle breeze. Spent a evening exploring the Blue mosque,Hippodrome and it’s surroundings. The Blue mosque’s interiors was the most brilliant thing I had ever seen, with mosaics all over and lights hanging down from the dome. The whole Hippodrome area was bursting with spring flowers(although tulips had just ended their bloom) and the fountains and the flowers and buildings made a winning combination. It was very exciting to watch the mosques being lit up,coinciding with the Muezzin’s prayer call.
The next 4 days in Istanbul were filled with excitement and new experiences and sights, there was tremendous diversity among all sights. The Ottoman islamic architecture of the Topkapi palace had some real beautiful tile work in the Harem section and the palace was set among the most beautiful surroundings, among gardens and trees. The Eminou dock area was filled with locals, plenty of street food and the whole area was bursting with energy. The Sulemaniye mosque was drop dead gorgeous, the whole mosque exuded some kind of serenity with it’s grey-brown bricks which were glowing in the evening light. It had a huge courtyard and some really amazing interiors. And there were so few people, that enhanced the experience even more.
Then we had the Byzantine era monuments which were even more exciting. I really have no words for the Ayasofya, the light seeping in through small windows and the marble tiles had a distinct medieval touch, and that was despite the huge number of crowds. The Basilica Cistern was a gem, an underground Cistern that had felt like a cave but had the most amazing architecture and was beautifully lit. The Chora (Kariye) church was worth the bus ride, the mosaics were simply stunning,all of them of a religious flavor and very well preserved. No one will believe they are atleast a 1000 years old. The Valens Aqueduct was an attractive structure too. The Archaeology museum too was amazing, I am not really a fan of museums, but this one blew me away. The Sarcophagi section was the best.
Another feature of Istanbul was the Bosporus, the river like strait running in between the city, dividing the city into 2 continents. I took a ferry to Asia(Asian Istanbul) in the evening, and I got fabulous views of the mosques, more exciting than visiting the mosques themselves. The minarets, the golden sky, the clouds and the breeze, and a cup of apple tea. And then you see the mosques light up one by one. On another day I took a ferry down the Bosporus, the journey was filled with views of Ottoman palaces, mansions, pink jura forests on either sides of the Bosporus. While returning back to Istanbul I visited several places on the coast like tulip rich Emirgan park, turks love to picnic a lot, had some street food( Gozleme, a turkish paratha) and some nice Turkish pistachio ice-cream. The walls and watch towers of the Rumeli fortress were very very medieval, and it was fun to watch ships pass under the Bosporus bridge, the neighborhood of Ortakoy was very lively, with several vendors selling kumpir, a huge baked potato topped with salads, mayonnaise, olives, sauces,couscous and what not.
Evenings were always special in Istanbul, the Galata neighborhood was absolutely picture perfect at sunset. Cobbled streets, a little sunlight creeping in, the Galata tower, turkish music being played everywhere, bands performing on the street..the views from the Galata tower were totally worth it.
Selcuk and the Aegean region:
Turkey isn’t all about Istanbul, infact most parts of Turkey are rewarding, no place is overrated. Arrived into the quaint town of Selcuk, which is a base for visiting the ancient Ionian(Greek) city of Ephesus. The scenery was perfect here, pine trees, mountains. And ruins nicely nestled among these environs. Among all the ruins, the Library of Celsius was truly a masterpiece. The theater was huge. The reason why Ephesus stands out among all other ruins is because Ephesus has some beautifully preserved villas from it’s heyday. They were terraced houses decorated with mosaic,a good peep into how people lived in those times. The town of Selcuk too was a delight, it houses the only surviving column of the Temple of Artemis, it has amazing Fort, the Ayasoluk Fort and an old surviving church, the St.John’s Basilica. A very picturesque town with farmlands and history strewn all over. And it was a “real” town,not a tourist one, so you get to see Turkish men spending hours at Kiraathanesi’s, or tea houses and you get to taste plenty of local food at great prices too.
My obsession with Greek ancient cities did not end here, I further visited the city of Priene, a city beautifully perched up on a hill among pine forests, the city of Miletos which had the most gorgeous theater I had seen, and city of Didyma which had gigantic temple dedicated to the Goddess of Apollo. A guide made these visits more worthwhile, got to know the cultural differences between Greeks and Romans, and also more about the modern turks.
Another gem was the city of Afrodisias set in the most beautiful locations with gorgeous mountain scenery and the entire area was carpeted with wildflowers. Totally worth the pain I took getting there(changing 3 buses). Even after visiting so many ruins, Afrodisias excited me with its stadium, long and huge , well preserved, mountains at the backdrop, perfect late afternoon light and no people around!! Cant beat that, unlike Ephesus where I had to share the space with thousands of others.
Now cappadocia lived upto it’s name, amazing landscape steeped in history and offering a variety of experiences. The rock shapes,gorges, caves, valleys were exactly like I had expected. Hiking in the Rose valley and Pigeon valley was a pleasure, the balloon ride gave some really nice views, what stood out was the view the extinct volcano at sunrise.
Just to brief about Cappadocia, it’s an area in Central Turkey with a moon like landscape formed by limestone and volcanic eruptions. The rock shapes were conducive to build cave houses and these were built by Hittites and early christians escaping Roman rule.
The Ihlara valley or the Green valley was another delight, a huge gorge with a river and forests,cave churches with some amazing paintings, and a river restaurant,literally in the middle of a river. The entire landscape was very “Anatolian”, plateau covered with grass, with tall snow covered mountains at the horizon. The cave town of Zelve was the best example of it’s kind. Sunsets at the Uchisar castle and Cavusin church were some of the best experiences, and the Uchisar castle looked very “Flintstony” and the sunsets were the most gorgrous sunsets I’ve seen. And paintings inside the Goreme open air museum were something to be seen.
Another experience was the “whirling dervish” show at an old caravanserai,the Sarihan Caravanserai. A caravanserai is like an inn or a “vishramgruha”, these were built on the silk roads to cater to merchants. The caravanserai looked beautiful at night, lighted courtyards, arches..and clear skies and stars and cold winds, the atmosphere couldn’t have been better. The dervish ceremony was kind of soothing, turkish instrumental music being played, the whirling dervishes actions were quite repetitive, but gripping nevertheless. After the ceremony, we were served “kahve”, which was almost like our kashmiri kahva.
So I spent 4 days in this magical region of Cappadocia, it was quite an active holiday, a different cultural experience in Turkey. The food was good too, gozlemes, borek, boregis, manti..plenty of variety in every meal. Now I needed to explore something even more exotic in Turkey,so I headed out tot he south east(ofcourse it was preplanned).
South East turkey:
Now South east turkey is another turkey inside turkey,a different geographic,cultural and socioeconomic zone. Very islamic and conservative in nature, it contrasts with western turkey. However it houses some very very interesting sites and promises some good experiences for a traveler.
So I started with Gaziantep, a city famous for it’s food,bazaars, and most lately the Zeugma museum. Breakfast was really well done, pastry stuffed with cheese and spinach and baklava, the eternal turkish sweet. Met a gentleman who was fluent in english, and really helpful, he showed me around the old city and gave me a map too. The baazars were a polished version of our bazars in the old parts of Indian cities, bu ofcourse they looked very historic, no dirty “modern” construction, all of it was tasteful restoration of old buildings. Walked through the cheese,chilli,olive, spice markets, I was really happy I visited this place.
But the best was yet to come, the Zuegma mosaic museum.A beautiful museum..huge huge mosaics restored from the ancient Roman city of Zeugma, these were uncovered a few years back. They were so well done you wont even think they are mosaics, the theme was mostly Roman life and their gods and heroes and their homes and palaces and gardens. Spent hours gazing at these mosaics. Then headed off to Kahta.
Nothing much to write about the town of Kahta, but it’s the best base for the Nemrut Dagi, a site of Colossal statues built on top of a remote mountain. Left for Nemrut Dagi at an ungodly hour of 3 am and had to do a small trek up the mountain, and was so glad to see the sun’s first rays fall on the statues. The statues were literally glittering like gold on the early morning rays. These were built by a megalomaniac king, who loved himself so much that he had his own statues constructed with Greek and Persian gods. So I realized Megalomanaics do the world good in the long run.
It seemed the entire area around Nemrut Dagi was still in the olden times since it’s heyday, small villages, huge mountains, even the bridges used were the ones built by Romans and Seljuk turks. There plenty of historic sites, gorges, bridges in the area..and then we had breakfast at a small kurdish village, and they actually served us whole wheat thick rotis, unlike elsewhere in turkey where bread was eaten. So it was a great morning, a beautiful sunrise, great historic sites, amazing landscapes and food. Then I headed towards the holy town of Sanliurfa.
Sanliurfa occupies a special place in the history of Abrahamic religions, it houses Prophet Abraham’s cave. The town is popular with Turkish tourists. Visiting Urfa(as they call it) was like stepping back in time, people with traditional attire all around, bazaars looking very “oriental, very little modern construction, narrow alleys, mosques, homes with courtyards..very middle eastern in nature.
The owner of my guest house was a nice man, he showed me around the city, told me a lot about kurdish culture and people, his views on people from various nationalities were quite amusing. Lunch and dinners in Urfa were always at the guest house since everything available outside was meat rich. I had delicious couscous, tshakshuka, bulgur soup and several vegetable based preparations. The main centre of attraction in Urfa was the Balikigol, a sacred fish pond which was next to a gorgeous mosque complex. A whole evening passed admiring this old historic city.
Now this was the point in the trip I felt I had had enough, I needed a break from traveling. So I abandoned my plans to go to Halfeti,a beautiful riverside town, because getting there involved changing 2 buses. Instead I went to the neighboring prehistoric ruins of Harran, a town that’s been inhabited since the last 10,000 years or so. The remains of the old university were very impressive, but rest of the town, it’s mud brick houses did not really excite me, the atmosphere was a little like an islamic version of Rajasthan’s desert towns. Later, an evening was spent at the hamam getting massaged, scrubed,cleaned on a marble bed and then finishing off plates(well just 2) of Katmer, a local delicacy which is fried pastry stuffed with cheese and immersed in rich sugar syrup. And then I got lost in the maze of Urfa’s lanes,and it was raining hard, so it was kind of a panic situation. But ultimately found my way back.
Took a flight back to Istanbul early in the morning, and spent hours shopping. Most of it was food shopping, loads of Turkish delight, baklava from Karakoy Gulluoglu, dry fruits, spices, cheese( the cheese was brilliant), olives, apple tea..spent almost 3 times of what I had budgeted for shopping. I also bought some paintings, tiles and the mandatory “I love Istanbul” tees. Can’t think of many places where I would shop so much without any indifference. Gorged on my favorite Mado’s ice cream(pistachio and strawberry flavors), had a Falafel roll and a plate of pomegranate flavored Gavurdag salad,repacked all the shopping and headed off to the airport.
Thus ended my Turkey trip…left Turkey, but Turkey still hasn’t left me..it probably never will. Every day was exciting, there were so many places to be seen, so much food to be tried, so many photo ops wherever I went. So I would heartily recommend everyone to go to Turkey atleast once in their lives, especially Istanbul. Hope you enjoyed reading my trip account ,and hope you make plans to visit Turkey some time soon!!