Turkey: From East to West

Friends and Fellow Travelers,

I am currently wrapping up my 150 days traveling in North Africa and the Middle East. I’m ending my time in the region in Turkey! Turkey is a modern, secular nation with a long and interesting history from ancient times, to the great Ottoman Empire, to the current Republic. It also has a very diverse landscape and plenty of natural wonders for outdoor enthusiasts. I started in Istanbul and then traveled to Goereme in Central Anatolia to hike in the bizarre and stunning Cappadocia region. From there it was on to the powdery-white, calcite cliffs of Pamukkale before turning south to Turkey’s most southern stretch of Mediterranean – Antalya and the Turquoise coast. After Antalya, I traveled up the Aegean coastline with stops at Bodrum and Selcuk to see two of the Wonders of the Ancient World – The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus and Ephesus. Then I hopped on an overnight bus to the Black Sea to visit the stunning Ottoman town of Safranbolu and the mountain Monastery of Sumela at Trabzon. I continued east to Kars, located on the formerly disputed border with Armenia, to explore the ghost city of ancient Ani. Then it was back to Istanbul to celebrate Ramadan (or Ramazan as they spell it in Turkey) before heading back to Seattle.

Sunset over Sultanahmet. Istanbul.
Sunset over Sultanahmet. Istanbul.

Turkey is one of those places that is unique to itself. It’s not Middle Eastern. It’s not European. It’s not part of the Caucasus. It is something unto itself. Even with all the modernization (Istanbul feels quite European these days), cultural traditions are still strong, especially in the eastern part of the country.

The following are a few highlights from my month long travels:

Istanbul: Something Old, Something New

Once the capital city of the Roman Empire, Istanbul (known also as Constantinople until the forming of the Turkish Republic in 1923) is Turkey’s capital city and home to 17 million people. Spanning two continents, Asia and Europe, Istanbul is a city that is true mix of East and West. Divided by the Bosphorus, the river is the locals’ lifeblood – along with Turkish coffee, sesame bread rolls, Turkish Delight and hammams.

As Turkey has grown into a modern nation, so has Istanbul evolved and changed. It’s a modern city with an excellent metro system, a vibrant nightlife, a serious coffee culture, international cuisine, and a pride in keeping their city safe and friendly to visitors. Istanbul is a must on any Turkey itinerary. I enjoyed a week in this great city, barely scratching the surface. There’s so much to see and do.

Explore its legendary sites – the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace. Sail along the Bosphorus. Bargain hard at the Grand Bazaar, or venture a few streets away to see where the goods are made. Play backgammon or share a coffee with locals. Enjoy some of the best Islamic and Ottoman architecture, visiting Istanbul’s great mosques. Take in the lights and celebratory atmosphere during Ramazan. Try the smorgasbord of pastries drizzled in honey, pistachio, and more honey. Travel through 4,000 years of history at the jam-packed Archaeology Museum. Enjoy a local music show. There is something for every kind of traveler in Istanbul.

The Blue Mosque, Sultanahmet, Istanbul.
The Blue Mosque, Sultanahmet, Istanbul.
Street vendors along the Bosphorus. Turks love their street food. Most popular are corn on the cobb, roasted chestnuts, and sesame rolls. Istanbul.
Street vendors along the Bosphorus. Turks love their street food. Most popular are corn on the cobb, roasted chestnuts, and sesame rolls. Istanbul.
Istanbul is a shopper's paradise with handicrafts from all over the country sold at the Grand Bazaar. Istanbul.
Istanbul is a shopper’s paradise with handicrafts from all over the country sold at the Grand Bazaar. Istanbul.

 

The Moon-like Landscape of Cappadocia

Turkey’s Cappadocia region is one of my favorite parts of the country. Resulting from volcanic activity, erosion and weathering, Cappadocia is a landscape that seems like it belongs on the Moon rather than in central Turkey. Honeycombed free-standing rock structures, fields of conical shaped granite pillars, rippling ridges with bands of pink, red and yellow stone – Cappadocia is fantastical. It’s worth spending at least a couple days exploring the surroundding area. Basing yourself in a central location, such as Goereme, travelers don’t actually need a car to reach most of the hiking. The paths are accessible, either a short walk from town or a short taxi ride. I spent a few days hiking through this beautiful landscape. One of my biggest highlights in Goereme was the dawn hot air balloon ride, it provides an unique perspective on these unusual land formations.

Sunrise balloon ride over Cappadocia.
Sunrise balloon ride over Cappadocia.
Hiking Red and Rose Valley. Cappadocia.
Hiking Red and Rose Valley. Cappadocia.
Cappadocia from above.
Cappadocia from above.

Antalya: Turkey’s Turquoise Coast

One of Turkey’s most beautiful stretches of Aegean coast line, Antalya makes an excellent home base for exploring the Turquoise Coast. Often termed the Turkish Rivera, Antalya is a wonderfully preserved old city with cobbled laneways, beautifully restored Ottoman houses, a Roman period harbor and cliff top cafes that offer stunning views of the rugged, tree-covered mountains dropping straight into the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean. It was a lovely town to spend a few days soaking up the Aegean lifestyle.

Antalya's old town.
Antalya’s old town.
An elderly woman selling flowers in Antalya.
An elderly woman selling flowers in Antalya.

Bodrum: Picturesque Aegean

There are two types of travelers that visit Bodrum – those who are looking to check off another 7 Wonders of the Ancient World (as determined by the Greeks), and those who come to enjoy the partying, fun-in-the-sun lifestyle. Bodrum strikes a good balance of lively Aegean town without feeling overly touristy. White-washed buildings, a busy harbor, an imposing castle, trendy bars, tasty seafood , artsy markets and shops – Bodrum has much to offer travelers. It is also the location of the famous Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, one of the Greek’s 7 Wonders of the Ancient World. Like most of these ancient wonders, not much is left but a big pit and a few broken pillars. During the crusades, the mausoleum was taken apart stone by stone by the Knights Hospitallar to build St. Peter’s Castle. After a visit to the original site of the mausoleum, head to the castle to see all the bits and pieces of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus. Look halfway up one of the strong towers, the shape of a worn sphinx can clearly be made out. Bases of columns and reliefs depicting rams and warriors are scattered throughout the castle. In addition to being the remains of the famous mausoleum, the castle also houses fascinating and well displayed exhibits from interesting shipwrecks in the area. Most notably, archaeologists found the only scarab ever located depicting the cartouche of Queen Nefertiti.

Bodrum harbor and castle.
Bodrum harbor and castle.

Ephesus: Walk in the Footsteps of Famous Romans

One of the best preserved and most extensive Roman cities located outside of Italy, Ephesus is a fascinating place to spend the day. It’s easy to imagine greats like Julius Caesar, Marc Anthony, Pompey and others walking these wide stone boulevards. Celsus’ Library is always a sight to marvel, and the terraced houses provided an interesting view into what an affluent Roman townhouse looked like.

Unfortunately, the majority of the day you and your 10,000 traveler friends get a real-time experience of how congested this city was at its zenith. From about 9:30am-3pm the site is literally mobbed by groups from cruise ships. To avoid these site choking crowds, visit Ephesus from 8am-9am or after 5pm. The morning light is beautiful, but the late afternoon and early evening is best for enjoying the site without the endless crush of large groups.

To visit another ancient wonder, stay in Selcuk (the best place to stay for visiting Ephesus) and visit the Temple of Artemis.

Celsus' Library, one of the highlights of a visit to Ephesus. The Library has one of the largest collections of manuscripts in the world.
Celsus’ Library, one of the highlights of a visit to Ephesus. The Library has one of the largest collections of manuscripts in the world.

Safranbolu: Exploring the mountain hamlets of the Black Sea

A gorgeous stretch of coast, Turkey’s Black Sea is a mountainous region with high alpine lakes, jagged forest-blanketed mountains that drop directly to the sea edge, and quaint Ottoman-era towns. Safranbolu is one of the best preserved Ottoman town’s in Turkey. The town is built in layers up the sides of small ridges. Besides being known for its architectural excellence, it also has some of the best Turkish Delight in the entire country.

Safranbolu.
Safranbolu.
Safranbolu produces some of the best Turkish Delight in the country.
Safranbolu produces some of the best Turkish Delight in the country.
With dozens of shops vying for the title of the Best Turkish Delight, you can sample almost every type of Turkish Delight and decide which is your favorite to take home or give as gifts.
With dozens of shops vying for the title of the Best Turkish Delight, you can sample almost every type of Turkish Delight and decide which is your favorite to take home or give as gifts.

Mist, Mountains and the Sumela Monastery

Located about an hour from Trabzon (the largest port town on Turkey’s Black Sea), Sumela Monastery is a Greek Orthodox monastery tucked away in the crook of a mountain gorge. Wrapped in mist and rain most of the time (be sure to bring your Goretex and umbrella), the monks knew how to pick an impressive location. Even more impressively, they were able to build this monastery high up on the sheer mountain side (deterring would be attackers). A bit of a trek from Trabzon, it is worth the effort to make the two dolmus connections (not as hard as it may seem, the dolmus’ run frequently), to see this spectacular monastery.

Sumela Monastery.
Sumela Monastery.

Kars: Treasures of Ani

Ani, the once great ancient Armenian capital, is now a sprawling ghost town. The shells of massive churches, foundations of buildings, broken columns, and old water systems are scattered about the high plains near Kars. Located on the formerly disputed border with Armenia, Kars and Ani are now receiving more visitors since the area is peaceful and stable. Ani is a surreal and beautiful place to spend a few hours, especially early in the morning when the soft golden light brings out the vibrant, greens, yellows, blues and reds of the rolling hills, grasslands, and the towering ruins of Ani. Kars is a place where people live close to the land. It’s the breadbasket of Turkey. I had the unique opportunity to spend the day in one of these villages seeing how local women made cheese, talking with beekeepers (who make some of the best honey in Turkey), learning traditional bread-making, getting a lesson in traditional mud and straw roof construction, and visiting a larger scale cheese-making farm (14 different kinds of cheeses are made in the region).

 

One of the earliest mosques at Ani, overlooking a gorge. This ravine forms a natural boundary for the ancient town.
One of the earliest mosques at Ani, overlooking a gorge. This ravine forms a natural boundary for the ancient town.
A local woman spends her morning making cheese in a sheepskin.
A local woman spends her morning making cheese in a sheepskin.
The high plains around Kars are often regarded as the breadbasket of Turkey, famed for its production of wheat, cheese and honey.
The high plains around Kars are often regarded as the breadbasket of Turkey, famed for its production of wheat, cheese and honey.

Turkey is a very diverse country with a long, rich history and a modern-mindset that this looking to build a strong future. It is a place travelers can either visit the different regions to experience this diversity that Turkey has to offer — in a two or three week trip enjoying the modern, cosmopolitan city of Istanbul, the arid central Turkey, the beautiful coastline of the Aegean and the mountainous Black Sea, or even reaching the high plain of the East. Or travelers can go deep into one region. There is a tremendous amount to see, do and experience in each region (the West, central Anatolia, the East, the Southeast and the Norther region). With a modern, efficient, comfortable and extensive bus and train system, as well as plenty of domestic flights, it’s easy to travel throughout Turkey. I encourage travelers to add Turkey to the top of their travel wishlist and come experience the Turks’ legendary hospitality.

See you #OnAdventure in Turkey! Until then have many wonderful travels.

– Genevieve

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