Hooked on Turkey: This country has everything I need to be happy.
First, there is Istanbul. I fell in love with the place as a child. That may be because I loved reading stories about flying carpets, Sinbad the Sailor, Aladdin’s lamp and other characters that ignited my imagination. It’s only natural that Istanbul was the first foreign city I visited as an adult. And I’ve been coming back ever since. To the forest of minarets looming above the Golden Horn, to sunsets in the gardens that sprawl between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, where I like to sit on a bench and tuck into gözlemes (pastry with filling) bought from a street vendor, watermelon and hot tea served in a tulip-shaped glass. These local flowers were transplanted to European gardens by the Turks, as the Ottoman sultans were the first tulip aficionados.
I come back to Istanbul for its Grand Bazaar. I never have to buy anything, but just walking through the world’s oldest and largest market takes me on a journey back in time. There is a maze of 64 lanes and 4,000 shops, with more than 25,000 workers, all under cover. I come back the café next to the entrance to the Grand Bazaar, housed in a former madrasa, where I always take a break after a strenuous bout of sightseeing. Sitting in the shade of plane trees and smoking an apple-flavored hookah, watch men mulling over backgammon. I come back for the evenings spent wandering along the Galata Bridge and Istiklal Avenue, where you’ll find the best hangouts in the city. And finally, because of Eminönü, a harborside district where delicious fish kebabs are served from traditional boats and where you can set off for a cruise down the Bosporus all the way to the Black Sea. Once there, you can try fried calamari and Efes beer in a coastal village. And later, you can go to the Prince Islands and spend a night under the stars on one of their wild beaches.
I come back for the mornings in hotels whose rooftops offer sweeping views of the Sultan Ahmed district and the Marmara Sea, and where sitting over a coffee – a Turkish invention (the first coffee shop was opened in Istanbul) – I try to farewell the city.
I can’t get this central region of Turkey out of my mind. I can’t stop thinking about its outlandish landscapes carved into volcanic rock. This is like a world of make believe where nothing seems real. I spend my nights in rock-hewn hotels that resemble mammoth mushrooms or wigwams, make evening trips to the bakery in Göreme, the regional capital, and gorge myself on bread straight from the oven before wandering aimlessly around the town, which comes to life after dark.
Even the museums are strange. One in Göreme protects a site where monks carved dozens of churches into the rock as if each wanted to have a private place for prayer and contemplation.
Or take the underground cities of Derinkuyu and Kaymakli, where people found shelter from invaders centuries ago. There are many things to see in the area – virtually every trekking route is an opportunity to revel in the marvels of nature.
Cappadocia probably has the most scenic routes in the world. The landscapes change as if in a kaleidoscope. The trails cross stone cities and gorges whose walls seem to be made of whipped cream. The Ihlara Valley resembles a crack in the Earth from above, but you can walk along the bottom through thickets of trees beside a babbling brook. The area is full of volcanoes, emerald lakes, vineyards with grapes used to make excellent wine, and artisan shops. And although Cappadocia means “land of beautiful horses”, what I really want to do is take a balloon flight early in the morning. I’ve put this attraction aside to give myself a reason to come back.
Turkey has two of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The first is the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus near Izmir. This is one of the best preserved ancient cities in the world. Saint Paul once preached here. Legend has it that this is where the Virgin Mary spent her last days. Only a heap of rubble has remained of the second wonder – the Mausoleum of the Persian satrap Maussollos in Halicarnassus (now Bodrum). But Turkey has so many historic monuments that one holiday is not enough to see them all.
One of them is the city of Pergamon, once home to the second largest library in the world after the Library of Alexandria. You can see the famous Pergamon Altar of Zeus in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. There is also Didim, with the ruins of the Temple of Apollo, Aspendos with its magnificent, superbly preserved theatre, and the picturesque limestone pools in Pamukkale with the ruins of the city of Hierapolis as a backdrop.
Turkey is also home to the ancient city of Troy, the tombs of the Lycian kings at Dalyan and the mysterious Nemrut Dagi, where the heads of gods are carved out of rocks on a mountain slope. This is also where you will find the ruins of Göbekli Tepe, the world’s oldest place of worship.
Turkey is a land of natural wonders, antiquities, amazing beaches and excellent cuisine.
I don’t need to convince anyone that the Turkish cuisine is excellent. In its heyday, the Ottoman Empire straddled Europe, Asia and Africa. This contributed to a wealth of flavors and aromas. Ingredients are what make every good national cuisine and Turkey is a genuine Eldorado in this respect. Turkey has an abundance of plant and animal species. You can confirm this for yourself by visiting any marketplace. I guarantee your senses will be overwhelmed by the riot of colors, aromas and flavors. Turkey is obviously the birthplace of the kebab. The pinnacle of their endless variations is the Adana kebab, hailed as the tastiest in the world. Carnivores will certainly be partial to köfte – meat balls coated in breadcrumbs with vegetables and sauce. Lahmacun – another fast food – is Turkey’s take on pizza. This dish consists of dough topped with mincemeat, onions, chopped parsley and pilaf.
I will never forget tasting hot halva for the first time in a restaurant in Adana. This sweet is the traditional Turkish gift offered to people who have passed milestones in their lives, e.g. child births, deaths and pilgrimages. I became addicted to Turkish delight – one of the world’s oldest confections. This is jelly stuffed with pistachio nuts and was revered by Ottoman sultans and officials.
Mark Twain dreamt of visiting a hamam, or Turkish bath, during his cruise to Europe. He described his experiences in The Innocents Abroad. Twain did not exactly fall into good hands, so you would be well advised to do some research before you go. A hamam is two hours of pure pleasure that leave your skin as smooth as velvet. And be prepared for some serious sunbathing, as Turkey offers thousands of pristine beaches along the Mediterranean, Marmara, Aegean and Black seas.
And once you’ve had enough of sunbathing, you can take a blue cruise along the coast, fly a paraglider, or go to a seaside disco and dance until the early morning. As the holidays are too short to explore everything Turkey has to offer, you need to savor the country in steps. And come back time and time again.
Turkey Travel Guide
What To See
- Polonezkoy: Adampol, a village with a large Polish population near Istanbul. Traditionally, a Pole is appointed the head of the community.
- Topkapi Palace: Former fairy-tale like palace of the sultan.
- Grand Bazaar: The largest market in the capital selling literally everything there is.
- Bosphorus: A cruise on the Bosphorus river is a must during a visit to Istanbul. Be careful and don’t pay for it in advance!
Where To Sleep
- Asmali Konak Hotel: Best price for a central location. From EUR 38 per night. Küçükayasofya Mah. Mustafa Paşa Sok. No: 25, Sultanahmet, Istanbul, Fatih, 34400 Istanbul, Turkey.
- Hotel Inter Istanbul: Perfect for a family stay. Mithatpaşa Cad. Büyük Haydar Efendi Sok. No:29 Beyazit, Fatih, 34130 Istanbul, Turkey.
- Garden House Istanbul: A romantic hotel for a city break. Küçük Ayasofya Mah. Şehit Mehmet Paşa Sok. No:11/13 Sultanahmet, Fatih, 34400 Istanbul, Turkey.
- Four Seasons Hotel: Five-star luxurious hotel for the most discerning guests. Tevkifhane Sok., No:1, Sultanahmet, Fatih, 34110 Istanbul, Turkey.
- Ritz Carlton: The best views and excellent standard of the Club Level rooms. Süzer Plaza, Elmadağ / Şişli, 34367 Istanbul, Turkey.
Where To Eat
- Nuteras: A kitchen on the roof of the building. Meşrutiyet Caddesi No.67, Tepebaşı, Beyoğlu, 34000 Istanbul, Turkey.
- Hamdi: Traditional flavors in an elegant setting. Tahmis Caddesi Kalçın Sokak No: 17 Eminönü, Istanbul, Turkey.