Two whole weeks in the land of the 'Crescent Moon', and I still can't say I got enough of it. A lot of friends gave me the obvious, "But why Turkey?", and each time, pleasantly, I had a different reason to point out why. And why not. Turkey has so much variety to offer, that it's perfect for travellers who are not sure whether they want to do a cultural high dive or a historical stakeout, shop in the comforts of the present globalisation or just thrive/bask in the culinary glory of a new place. As for the "Is it safe?" concerns, I was only pleasantly surprised to have it turn out as nothing but another stereotype.
Turkey is home to some of the most beautiful diversities you'd come across, much like our very own India. Witness to about 13 civilisations in its longstanding existence of centuries, Turkey offers a beautiful collaboration of all these civilisations in terms of their respective influences, all co-existing in a rather striking balance. I had my eyes set on taking a taste of this country myself ever since I spent few hours at the airport here in between connecting flights last year, and after two months of planning and one week of convincing my wife, there I was. The country of stories, spices and dual continents among many other things to its credit.
The Culture Gully: Istanbul
Immediately the first thing that catches your eyes when you land in Istanbul is the whole vibe there. The city gets as nostalgic or as modern to your liking, depending upon which part of the city you decide to navigate through. Narrow lanes with a bold palette of colour out there on display via the shops. Each curve takes you to a new lane that reflects the proud potpourri of culture they've been a part of. The people are warm, super-friendly and happy to help you out with direction. English-speaking people were easy to find, though it would be a handy to pick up on few conversational phrases in Turkish.
We stayed in Arch Palace Hotel, Goreme, which I booked through AirBnB, and while we took easy the first day and stuck to just nice strolls around the city, we explored a lot of activities and tourist spots for the second leg of Istanbul for when we were on our way back from other cities. I got a lot of candid pictures whilst on my impromptu walks around, and the eye-catching street walls were definitely my favourite on the list. While you're there, invest in a Tourist pass (they're three variants, depending upon your budget) that saves you a ton of time, money and last minute worry.
Set in Stone: Cappadocia
The magical springs: Pammukale
The touristy delight: Bodrum
In terms of landmark spots, the first things we ticked off our list were the breathtaking Aya Sofia and Blue Mosque. The detailed mosaic work at the Blue Mosque immediately puts you in awe of things around. The lights hanging from the dome only add to the charm. The whole area shared by both these mosques is a great option to spend your evening, surrounded by the flowers, the lighting decoration on the mosques and the majestic sunset.
After enjoying this sight, we headed for the Grand Bazaar, which is another crowd puller for all the shopping lovers. Panic and awe creep up in confusion a the first sight, for this is one of the largest covered markets in the world with over 4,000 shops and a daily visitor toll of up to 4,00,000. My tips? Have enough time on your hand, know what you definitely want and bargain well. And if you're bored of all that shopping, there are couple of interesting jewellery workshops in the market where you can sit with the experts and get behind making some exotic jewellery for yourself.
Basilica Cistern and Topkapi Palace was next on our list the following day. While the former was an underground cistern that was simply breathtaking with its sheer beauty. Worth ALL. THE. HYPE. Topkapi Palace was a great insight into the royal lives of the Ottoman empire. The gardens looked like they belonged here forever and the delicate tile work in the interiors inspiring.
To get a full view around, this time we shifted gears to Taksim Square and actually found a gem while arranging our accommodation here. Our AirBnB host had a 100-year old house which still relies on its architecture and not AC/fan to keep it cool for the visitors as well as the host. Shopping was high on our list here, for us as well as our friends' list passed on to us quite generously. But that didn't deter us from visiting Dolmabahce Palace and Galata Towers.
There are not too many words of praise I have for the view and vibe around Galata Towers, except for it's something that you take with you forever. The sunbathed lanes around with street music and live performances around and the view of the Bosphorus bridge from the tower showcasing the alter personalities of the city in one glimpse - the perfect Yin-Yang in place.
Once ignored destination by mainstream tourists, Cappadocia has had its history rewritten over time and gained quite a popularity among tourists, backpackers or family. Apart from the surreal view, thanks to the two volcano eruptions ages ago that spewed out lava everywhere around, what's left now is a handful of breathtaking valleys with these unique rock formations. If that's not enough to get you there, worry not. Cappadocia also happens to have one of the most amazing hot balloon ride spots giving you a once-in-a-lifetime view of the valleys around. The ride lasts a little less than an hour and ends with a rewarding glass of complimentary champagne. No complaints here!
Once you're done taking your flight for the day, unwind in one of the cave restaurants for a unique experience. Or, if you're the restless kinds like me, explore the small towns around each of which sings an artful story. For our first day here, we took the safe but enjoyable GREEN tour that came with a guide and a thorough tour of the city, the now-dormant volcanoes, which are responsible for the rock formations around and Ihlara Valley Canon, which also happens to be the second largest canon in the world after Great Canyon in US. Making friends on the way came as a blessing and we found great friends in Mohammed from Palestine, who was an ardent Bollywood fan and Cherry, who despite being a stranger, took great length of efforts to help us get a local SIM card and even insisted to sponsor our dinner.
The second day, after our hot balloon ride, we picked up the other popular tour of the three (there are Red, Blue, Green Tour available) which was Red Tour (Dervent Valley) and explored Avanos Town, Mushroom Valley and Fantasy Valley. For those who are interested, there are some great photography tours available too. The locals here live an art-driven lifestyle and survive (or should I say thrive) without any industry or tourism domination. From lead-free colours to hand painting with silk brushes, this was quite an insight into the parallel world of artistry that is seldom seen.
Next and much awaited was Pammukale and its magical hot springs. This was easily the place we spent most of our time, and if given a chance, would happily do it again. We made Denizli our home for those two days and the springs (which were just a minibus away), our cafe for day long. The water at the springs is supposed to be high in minerals and good for your skin.
On its own, the ancient ruins and the travertine steps make Pammukale look like nothing else, which is probably why it also enjoys the status of a UNESCO world heritage site. Literally translating to 'Cotton Castle', Pammukale is the your ultimate bathtub of everything hot and magical, where you can have your tete-a-tete with Greek-Roman history (the ruins of Hierapolis).
A quick minibus and 140 TL later, we found ourselves in Bodrum early morning from Pammukale. Tanned and tired, we were happy we had picked up an accommodation (Parkim Ayaz Hotel) that covered our meals too. After food and chilling at the beach, we finally started our Bodrum tour- which can arguably be the most entertaining leg of this whole trip. The place has a lot to offer for shopping lovers and boasts of numerous stores that stock a wide range of fakes for all international brands. Pick your favourite, and pick it out well, and once you've set your heart on something, remember to bargain well.
Once your shopping pangs are well fed, head for a boat tour around the Bodrum beach. With unlimited food and a mere 70 TL per ticket, this is a steal. This was followed by an ambitious attempt at covering a lot in the same day, so we went to Black Island (where Cleopatra supposedly hid for three years), Meteor Bay (a popular tourist site where a meteor crashed) and then Bagla Bay for some snorkelling time. Proud at all that we achieved in a day, we decided to call it a day with a good swim in the Camel Island.
Bodrum has a number of clubs too to keep the tourists entertained once they're done with their touristy errands. I had the privilege to enjoy a Friday night at Club Moss (entry ticket just for 40 TL), where i had a good time with relaxed crowd and pleasing Turkish folk music. A win win, I say!
Overall, I loved every bit of these two weeks and I'd admit, I am already planning another trip sometime soon. I still missed out on couple of things due to time constraints like a trip to hamam, Bosphorus Sea Tour, Aspendos, and watching dervishes among others. But more than anything, I came back with not just gifts, good photographs and some healthy dose of tan, but an experience that can only be best described as extraordinary.