It’s 2018, I’m in my thirties and I still haven’t visited half the places in the world I’d like to. I don’t have a bucket list but deep down I guess I do have an ever-evolving ‘what’s next’ list that always has a couple of things on it.
Turkey has never been on that list, but when a family holiday to the Greek Island, Syros was locked in, a second ‘European’ destination had to be decided upon and I rather flippantly suggested a country I knew very little about. We booked a flight to Istanbul and invested in a Lonely Planet guidebook.
We didn’t know many people who had been, and hadn’t received any stand-out advice. We had only 7 days to play with… and since we both prefer to get off the beaten track I knew I had to find something extra special to do, because I didn’t think the city would satisfy us.
The map of Turkey in the travel guide was overwhelming. It’s a big ole country, with something for everyone (golden beaches, ruins and monuments, Aegean olive groves, desert landscapes, alpine pastures) but certainly not the option to do it all in a week. I had to choose one region, so I chose Cappadocia and once I started researching it – my heart was set.
Our travel agent quoted us 1,000+ dollars to fly from Istanbul to Nevşehir return & I choked on my disappointed tears. I was busy wrapping up my work, but in a desperate last attempt managed to find return flights for both of us for AUD300 on this website and we were back in business. With the extreme difference in pricing, we were not confident we actually had flights but were willing to take the risk.
My Turkish tale is borne from the friendliness, hospitality & spirituality of a people that resonated with me on the deepest level.
We arrived at our boutique hotel in Beyoglu to the warmest welcome from a Turkish gentleman, the Hotel Manager, Murat. The owners had decided we must be GRAND ADVENTURERS from our social media and were very excited to meet us. He gave us some Efes beers to enjoy on the terrace and later took us to a restaurant in the next street which was owned by an old friend of his. Here we tried lovingly prepared authentic meze and the delightfully potent aniseed infused drink, raki. The raki & first course were complimentary. This first day was our introduction to undeniable Turkish generosity. Our included traditional breakfast consisted of fresh kitchen garden produce – cherry tomatoes, cheese, cold meats, baked eggs with paprika and the best bread of our lives and we ate this under the unwavering gaze of the resident cat, Pera.
The following day, we caught a taxi to the other airport (Sabiha Gökçen Intl) and flew the 1.5hrs to Nevşehir. We had only booked one night at a hotel in Göreme because we were not sure what to expect & didn’t want to be locked in for the duration. We arrived to our dreamy cave dwelling & knew immediately we didn’t want to stay anywhere else. They extended our stay for a bargain price, made reliable dining & sightseeing recommendations, and helped us arrange a rental car. They also gave us a book (Call of the Wild – Jack London) at the end of our stay, despite our offers to pay for it.
Google had pre-informed me of the famous hot air balloons of Cappadocia. Every sunrise, weather permitting, hundreds of balloons fly over Göreme and the nearby valleys. We were not willing to pay the outrageous price for a ride, so we aimed to find the best locations to view the visual spectacular instead. Do not sleep in. This is worth getting up early for, I guarantee it.
We spent our days hiking through the surreal ‘fairy chimney’ rock formations, searching for hidden Byzantine frescos in rock-cut churches, eating the delicious local specialties, exploring nearby towns, being taught how to traditionally make pottery using clay from the Red River, learning about the regions ancient history and drinking wine on rooftop terraces at sunset. In Göreme, we also visited a Hamam for a traditional Turkish peeling and soap massage. This was one of the most luxurious experiences of my life. Caleb also had a traditional Turkish shave which was worth much more than the 10TL he paid. We didn’t want to leave, but were excited for a couple of nights in Istanbul & we’d managed to book at Peradays again!
Turkey was having an election, and because of this we’d been warned to carry our travel documents on us at all times. People were rallying in the square, women in scarves were singing joyfully, children danced beneath giant Turkish flags. The atmosphere was electric. Beyoglu’s nightlife is exhilarating. Drinking cay, gathering together and eating well is a time-honoured ritual and the heart of Turkish culture. The streets are buzzing with families, groups of friends, shoppers & buskers.
Catching the funicular is a novel way to get about Beyoglu – using public transport in Istanbul is quite easy. We had to get the Metro to the airport upon leaving, because the elections caused insane traffic delays, and despite it being unplanned & a tight timeframe, we managed just fine.
If you enjoy people-watching, the Galata Bridge is a true delight. People from all walks of life are fishing along it (professional fishermen, bus drivers, shop owners, husbands & wives, restaurant owners) There are tourists, tea and bagel salespeople. It’s fun to walk across, stop to have a chat and watch the crazy, busy ferries on the Golden Horn.
And then there are the cats. So many feral cats… so much love for them, and so much beauty surrounding them. There is a stunning Youtube Red documentary about stray cats in Istanbul which every animal / travel lover must watch. Kedi. It perfectly encompasses the spirit of the city, the people and of course the cats and the relationship between all three.
Predictably, we checked out the noisy, labyrinthine and colourful Grand Bazaar and fragrant Spice Bazaar, & it is well worth it to do so. Here are a few of my favourite moments. 1. Witnessing prayer time, when all the Muslim bazaar stall owners / workers gather in the bazaar to pray together. It was very moving, the beautiful sense of community, faith & acceptance. 2. I had the pleasure of meeting two generations of fine antique / vintage watch dealers in the old Bazaar. They were so passionate & knowledgable. 3. Smelling the giddy scent of high quality Anatolian rose oil. It requires about 250,000 rose petals to distill 5 ml of rose oil! I bought some, as well as a hand blown glass bottle which the shop owner had forgotten to charge for. He said “it’s your luck!” And I got the feeling he knew the luck would come back to him some day soon because of his goodwill.
Lonely Planet phrases it’s description of Istanbul perfectly, “…this marvellous metropolis is an exercise in sensory seduction like no other. “
I can’t wait to go back for more!
My key Turkey travel tips:
- bring copies of your passport
- carry toilet paper & hand sanitiser
- dress conservatively. Cover chest / shoulders / legs and bring a scarf for mosque visits.
- research & be sensitive to the cultural differences & respectful of Turkish nationalism
- my fave dishes: bulgur soup, gozleme, imam bayildi (or anything with aubergine), chicken slow-cooked in a terracotta pot, stuffed vine leaves and fish. Fish is wonderful in Turkey.
- drink bottled water only