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Why Turkey?

For pictures and a slide show, go to the above link.

Why Turkey? That's always the first response from someone when they hear that you are going to Turkey. Hidden in that simple question are a host of other questions, such as:

'Isn't Turkey a dangerous country, particularly for Americans?',
'Isn't the food really strange and the water not drinkable?', and
'What is there to see and do in Turkey?'

So--why did we decide to go to Turkey? Simply, the reasons we chose to see Turkey are its place in world history and in the world today. If any place is the cradle of civilization, it must be Turkey. In Turkey, they speak not of civilization, but of civilizations! Civilizations arose, spread, subsided, and were replaced by others time after time with influences from the East, West, North, or South. Today, Turkey seems to be very much a westward looking nation, but one with deep roots in Asia and Islam. Turkey really is a bridge between the East and the West.

Is Turkey dangerous? Well, I was a little nervous about earthquakes, but no more so than when I am in San Francisco. Is the food strange? No, but it is really good. Roasted meats, lots of, cheese, fresh, crisp vegetables, and sweets. Is the water safe to drink? Well, no. Everyone drinks bottled water and getting it is no problem. What is there to see and do in Turkey? Plenty--just follow the links below to get an idea of a few of the things we did.

The best first response to the 'Why Turkey?' question is 'Why not Turkey?'

Istanbul
The tour starts in Istanbul. We arrived a day early to get acclimated and met a few of our tour partners at the hotel. While arriving a day early helps, nothing can prepare you for the carpet salesman in the tourist areas. Aggressive, never discouraged, always there--but in a friendly totally non threatening way. You get used to it--and it's only in the Istanbul touristy areas.


The first great sight to behold is the Blue Mosque. Built between 1606 and 1616 by Sultan Ahmet, it was built by the Sultan to rival the great Hagia Sofia, not far away. The name comes from the blue Izmir tile that ring the gallery, but honestly, it's not that blue inside. The Blue Mosque is an active Mosque today, and faithful can be found praying there.

And then there's Hagia Sofia!! Although the Blue Mosque is very impressive, was built over a millennium after Hagia Sofia, and was supposed to be Hagia Sofia's rival, it falls short of that goal. There are few rivals of Hagia Sofia in the world! Built between 532 and 537 by the Byzantine emperor Justinium, it was the greatest church in Christendom for nearly 1000 years, until the Muslims captured Istanbul, in 1453 and made it a Mosque. It later became a museum when Turkey became a republic in 1923. It is gigantic inside. The huge dome seems to be supported only by the walls. The Duomo in Florence and St. Peters in Rome were partly inspired by Hagia Sofia (and built over 900 years later), and they could probably be said to rival it, but certainly don't surpass it.

The markets of Istanbul--in fact of all of Turkey--are fascinating. We of course went to the covered Bazaar, which is expansive, fun, and crowded with tourists seeking mostly tourist souvenirs. Just outside the Bazaar, though, are the everyday markets that the locals use. Think of your local strip mall, multiply by 10, and then put all the shops and their wares out on the impossibly crowded street. Hardware, clothes, food, baskets, spices, furniture ...everything needed if you live in Istanbul. I enjoyed just wondering the streets and getting lost among all the people, just like I do in Chinatown in San Francisco.

In contrast to the markets of old Istanbul, there are the 'markets' of the more modern Istanbul. We spent a few hours on Istiklal Caddesi, the pedestrian only more 'trendy' shopping street. Everything one needs is there, also, but more 'fashionable' and chic. It was fun and quite a contrast to the old markets--I have been on streets identical to Istiklal in Dublin and Stockholm.

Maybe the site most westerners know about in Istanbul is Topkapi Palace. Topkapi was the residence of the Sultan and his family from 1453 until 1839 when Dolambache Palace became their residence. Topkapi is not a single building but many, many buildings, all built around court yards and gardens. Part of the design was intended to keep the Sultan secluded from the people. The Harem has over 300 rooms and was the family quarters. We were told that not as much debauchery went on there as legend has it, but it still was an interesting site to see and hear about. The room colors and decorations are amazing.

Another highlight of seeing Istanbul was our cruise along the Bosphorus. The Bosphorus Straits slices through Istanbul, connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, and separates Europe from Asia. Just being on the Bosphorus, like seeing Hagia Sofia, sent tingles up and down my spine. These are places that in my younger days I dreamed of visiting, but I never really thought I would.

I wasn't ready to leave Istanbul when we had to move on. Fortunately, we did fly back to Istanbul after the tour to catch our flight home. There was a neat surprise for us on our return, which I will tell you about later. For now, it's time to take the overnight train to Ankara.

Ankara and Cappadocia
We took the overnight train from Istanbul to Ankara, the capital of Turkey. Sleeping on the train was fun for most of us, but for some it was a restless night.

Ankara, which is pretty much right in the center of Turkey, was selected as the capital when Turkey became a republic as one way of distancing the new republic from the old politics associated with Istanbul. Basically, the city was designed as a capital, so very little of Ankara is more than 80 years old. Interestingly enough, though, it is the home of the Anatolian Civilizations Museum, which houses some of the most ancient artifacts that have been uncovered anywhere. It also is the home of the Ataturk Mausoleum. We saw both of those sights and then set sail for Cappadocia.

Cappadocia is a region of Turkey, that is to the east and south of Ankara. The landscape reminds me quite a bit of the badlands of North and South Dakota in the United States. The soil is mostly volcanic tufa and is very soft. Differential weathering and erosion of the soft tufa and the intermingled harder rocks leads to the interesting 'fairy chimneys' that populate the region. It's a great place for hiking, which we did on a couple of occasions. Also spread throughout the region and among the fairy chimneys are orchards and vineyards which are cared for by the locals.

Churches in caves and underground cities are the other things that Cappadocia is noted for. We visited Goreme which is a grouping of several churches that were hollowed out of the soft rock in the early Christian days. 'Hollowed out' is actually a very misleading term. They are actually like very small cathedrals. There are frescoes nearly two thousand years old on the walls and ceilings! Unfortunately, pictures inside were not allowed--though I guess it is fortunate for the preservation of the ancient art work. Apparently these churches were built in these caves in this very remote and rugged region before Christianity became The Religion of the Byzantine Empire, in order for the faithful to escape persecution.

Likewise, underground cities were dug out of the earth to provide protection in times of strife and invasion. Turkey has always been a crossroads between east and west, which means that invading armies from both directions frequented the area. We saw Kaymakli, a city of seven underground layers. Everything needed to live for at least several months was available-kitchens, privies, bed-rooms, dining areas (with stone tables and benches), etc. The passageways could be closed with large stone wheels (which look like stone grinding wheels such as at a grist mill).

Maybe the best part of our stay in Cappadocia was the time we spent in the villages of Mustafapasha (2 nights) and Guzelyurt (1 night). (I must say, though, that best is in relation to 'great' being everything else.) We walked around Mustafapasha with Suleymanie, our host at the B&B. We talked with the villagers, watched them at work cutting wood and kindling and building the local library. Our B&B was named the Old Greek House--this is in reference to the 'pre-republic' days when the area was populated mainly by Greeks. After independence was achieved, the Greeks were re-settled to Greece and Turks settled back into Mustafapasha. They said that there are yearly friendly visits today between the residents of Mustafapasha and the Greeks and their descendants who were displaced.

The high point of our stay in Guzelyurt was the opportunity to spend several hours with a local Iman. We went to the mosque, which was actually built as a church-the Church of St. Gregory of Nazianzus--around 385 AD ('modernized' in 1896). The Iman patiently answered our questions for several hours and recited from the Koran at our request. I certainly learned more about Islam in that time than I thought possible. Actually, though, the most interesting thing to me was the revelation that the Iman, and all Imans in Turkey, are civil servants!! Yes, they are appointed by the government. Also, he said, that for the Friday noon message to his people, the government provides suggestions for the topics to be discussed! At first this seemed strange to me since Turkey is very proud and vocal about it being a secular republic. While this doesn't seem like separation of mosque and state, my take on it is that perhaps the government 'controlling' the mosque assures that the reverse does not happen. But as they say, what do I know?

Before leaving Cappadocia, we had lunch at the home of a lovely women and her family in Uchisan. She was a friend of our guide, Lali. Lunch was bulgar wheat cooked and seasoned perfectly, bread, a tomato and cucumber salad (a staple of most meals), and bottled water. Sounds plain, and I guess it was, but it was quite delicious, filling, and appreciated. We spent about an hour after lunch asking her about her daily life, the recent marriage of her daughter, etc. As we left, she showed us some of her handmade arts and crafts that she sold. Of course, we just about bought her out. The same thing occurred a couple of other times on our trip. Seems like a good deal for both of us to me-we get about as close to the real people as one can expect on a tour, and they make some needed cash by selling us some genuine Turkish hand crafts.

After seeing the big cities of Istanbul and Ankara and the very rural Cappadocia, it was now time to go over the Tauraus mountains to the medium sized towns and resorts to the south.

To the Mediterranean
The sites and the scenery changed rather dramatically as we headed south toward the 'Middle' Sea. We travel through mostly agricultural land on the way to our first stop, Konya. Tan, our assistant guide, tells us that this land is farmed cooperatively. The farmers live in nearby villages and help one another in planting and harvesting. The village may buy or rent a tractor, for instance, that everyone uses. The unfortunate thing is that each family owns only a very small plot (it looked like maybe an acre more or less) so the plot could barely support even a small family-hence a lot of the younger people go else where, mostly Europe, for work. Tan also said that in the east the farming was different. There, the land is owned by a few and is held in large acreage. The people working the land are then more like Serfs, in Tan's words.

We stayed in Konya for one night. The major site here is the Mevlana Museum, a former 'lodge' of the Whirling Dervishes. Mevlana, or Rumi as he was born, was a 13th century mystic who has followers even today. The museum is filled with artifacts and decorations associated with and tells the story of the Whirling Dervishes. Mevlana is also buried there. Traffic in Konya, a modern university city, is a real mixture of animal drawn carts, three wheeled bike/trucks, and cars.

The drive from Konya to Antalya once again showed us the great variety of Turkey. Most of the trip is through the Taurus mountains. These do not seem at first to be very high mountains, but they begin rising from about a mile above sea level and reach to over 12,000 feet.

Antalya is a Mediterranean resort city and tourist center. We stayed in the old section of the city dating to Roman and Ottoman times. We were supposed to take a day-long sail on the Mediterranean, but the high winds and heavy sea kept us from doing that. While disappointing, we were well compensated by a visit to the Aspendos area where we got a preview of the extensive Roman ruins we were to see later. Antalya is interesting for its resort-like sea front area and ancient center core that is surrounded by a quite modern city.

Our time on the Mediterranean was too short, but there were more exciting sites and adventures to come.

To the Aegean Sea
Leaving Antalya, we still had a few more days before reaching the Aegean Sea to the west. Our major stop on the way was at Pamukkale where we had our own hot spring spa at the hotel. Pamukkale is famous for the cotton candy-like mineral deposits cascading down a mountain side. We walked in the warm water on the cliffs one chilly morning, but most exciting was the swim in the warm mineral spring among the fallen Greek and Roman columns and other ruins.

This area is also famous for the nearby Greek/Roman-site of Hierapolis. This was a 'health spa' in ancient times because of the warm springs. Lali told us that this is one of the most extensive and well preserved burial sites too, which we saw, casting some doubt on the health enhancing effects of the springs.

Not far from Pamukkale is the ancient Greek/Byzantine site of Afrodisias. This is one of Turkey's finest archaeological sites. There is evidence of settlement in the area dating from the Early Bronze Age. The Temple to Aphrodite was built in the 8th century BC and the city became a destination for early pilgrims. As the Byzantines took over, they transformed some of the buildings to their own use and style. Most of what we see today is of Byzantine origin. There is a museum on the site that holds many of the fine sculptures that have been found at Afrodisias.

After Pamukkale we drove on to Kusadasi which is a resort on the Aegean. Part of this journey is also through Turkish mountains. We had two great stops on the journey. One was at the tent of a Nomadic family and the other was at the typical Turkish market town of Korkuteli.

We spent about an hour with the Nomads. It was a most interesting hour. They (an extended family of at least 3 generations) truly are nomadic in that they live in a goat hair tent and move twice a year. They make extra money from the tourists by selling their handmade goat hair socks--our group cleaned out the supply, I think. Their everyday life, though, does not seem that different from that of the family we visited earlier on the trip in a town outside of Mustafapasha. Finally, our host said that her goal is to have a permanent, solid home in the nearby village.

We stopped in Korkuteli to buy a picnic lunch at the market. The brief stay here and the shopping was a great experience. Just like Istanbul, there was very little needed for daily living that was not available in the market.

Around the Aegean city of Kusadasi we explored another fantastic site, Ephesus. Ephesus is said to be the best preserved classical city in the Eastern Mediterranean.