Monday, October 1, 2012

Splendid Turkey

When my friend and I started planning a 10-day trip to Turkey, friends gushed about nearly every destination we were considering. Once I arrived, I understood why. People were extremely nice to us (as in over the top, give you anything you ask for nice). One hotel owner arranged for two express mail legs to help me retrieve my laptop power cord and another gave me his SIM card so that I could take a phone call for an interview (or offered to drive me to the town nearby where they were sold). I am deeply grateful to the people who made our trip so memorable, from the waiter who taught us a card game to the friends of my travel companion who took us to lovely local places for dinner and drinks on our last night. So now it's my turn to highly recommend a trip to Turkey.

It was hard to decide where to go within Turkey, as many destinations offer appealing combinations of scenery, history, and culture. We ended up dividing our trip into three days visiting ruins and the beach on the central Agean coast, three days in Cappadocia--an area of fascinating landscapes and early Christian history--and of course, Istanbul.

Library of Celsus, Ephesus
Izmir, Ephesus, and Çeşme - We flew into the lovely, modern airport at Izmir to visit the coast and Ephesus. The ruins are Ephesus are well preserved and definitely worth a visit. They are also the major tourist draw on the Agean coast, so be prepared for tourist and cruise ship throngs. Çeşme might have had this atmosphere too a week earlier, but when we arrived students were going back to school and the town felt perfectly like a resort area in the off season (with still-warm breezes and water). The Çeşme peninsula has several towns and even more beaches. We visited Altinkum (golden) and Ilica beaches and found good food and views everywhere we visited.

Cappadocia “fairy chimney” ancient dwellings
Busy ballooning morning
Cappadocia - Cappadocia has dramatic scenery with funky carved churches, underground cities, and hot air ballooning. In the beautiful tourist hub town of Göreme, many of the “cave” hotels are built into the valley walls and offer scenic views of the town. There are several valley walks around Göreme and the nearby hilltop town of Uçhisar. We visited the Göreme Open Air Museum, which contains cave dwellings and carved churches, and Uçhisar Castle, commanding a splendid view over the surrounding area. We also ventured to one of the underground cities, where thousands of people could defend themselves, living in the warren. It’s difficult to imagine what life must have felt (and smelled) like in these corridors. Taking a balloon ride was a highlight of the visit.

Hagia Sofia interior, Istanbul

Istanbul - The city is even more beautiful and interesting than I imagined. It is also huge and has a sophisticated transportation network and pretty bad traffic. The main tourist sites are concentrated in a small, walkable area of the city. I would recommend seeking out dining options outside of the Sultanahmed tourist center. The basic tourist sites easily fill several days (Hagia Sofia, Blue Mosque, Grand bazaar, Topkapi Palace, Roman cistern, Spice market, Bosphorus cruise, Galata Tower) and are beautiful and fascinating as one might expect, but we were occasionally overwhelmed by the crowds. I was surprised by how safe, clean, and organized the bazaars felt. We visited the hammam at Cağaloğlu, which was nicely restorative, but it seems its renown has undermined the need for service quality. On my last day, I visited Adalar, or the Prince’s Islands. The boat ride out showed me the extent of the city beyond the tourist center and made me want to explore the everyday Istanbul further. 

Practical information:
  • Turkey’s currency is the Turkish lira, but hotel prices are often calculated and charged in euro.
  • Several airlines fly a wide variety of domestic routes. We took three domestic flights with Pegasus and were pleasantly surprised to find online bookings easy, limited hidden costs (visible before you click to purchase; don’t bother to pay to select your seats), and good service on a low-cost carrier. They even let you check 15 kg of luggage. Other domestic carriers include Atlasjet, Onurair, Sun Express, and Turkish Airlines
  • Our bus experiences were very positive, with on-time departures and great prices. 
  • During high season in Istanbul, book lodging in advance. There are many small hotels, but many book up weeks in advance and you won’t want to wander around with your baggage to inquire as the museums and architecture beckon. 
  • Room rates generally include wifi access and breakfast. The quality of the buffet options ranges, but all seem to offer tomatoes, cucumbers, cheese, bread, boiled eggs, and olives. 
Friends recommended Bodrum and Pamukkule to us, but we didn’t have time to make it to either place. If you’ve been to them, please share! 

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