Travel, both work and personal, has meant a long break from blogging. So I get off to a restart with my Turkey trip factsheet.
The trip to Turkey turned out to be a solo visit, thanks to D’s lack of vacation time. At any rate, he had been to the country before and was not keen on visiting it again yet. This meant that my itinerary was shaped to some extent by my desire to stick to a large group rather than travel alone. I contacted Backpacker Co. who did a very average job of putting together the trip. The itinerary worked out well but their service could have been better. Their partner on the other side, Fez Travels, was quite efficient and came recommended by the Lonely Planet.
This is how it went –
ISTANBUL – Spent 3 days here while going and 1 day on the return. Istanbul is a fascinating city – a crossroads of sorts where the new jostles for space with the old and where the European veneer hides an Asian heart.
Tourists normally stay in the old city, close to the central Sultanahmet area which hosts the Hippodrome, the Hagia Sophia, the Topkapi Palace and the Blue Mosque. You need one day for the old city tour. I did it with a group (Plan Tours) but it is quite convenient to do it alone. There is a good tram network that stops all the sites and I noticed audio guides were available at most places.
I spent one day on a Bhosphorous Cruise (highly recommended), which was combined with a visit to Dolmabache Palace (Can be skipped if there is no time).
I went for an evening to walk around the Istikal Street in the newer parts of the city to check out the local population and tourists browse through stores stocking contemporary brands.
One evening was spared for the Turkish Hamam experience (must do) at the 500 year old Cemberlitas Haman.
An acquaintance was kind enough to meet me for dinner at The House Café in Ortakoy, located on the Bhosphorus. It is mesmerizing to sit by the Straits, taking in the wonderful Turkish food. If one wants to spend more money and check out Istanbul's hip nightlife, popular nightclub Reina, also on the banks of the Bhosphorus is the way to go.
On my way back, I spent a whole day in the Eygptian Spice market and the Grand Bazaar buying various gifts and souvenirs. Both are worth exploring just for the bustle and worth buying in, if you are upto some solid bargaining (think half price).
I stayed at Hotel Polat Demir on the first three days. The staff was friendly and it was close to a tram stop. However, the air conditioning made noises and spewed dirt on all three days of my stay. This would not be my first choice for stay. On the last day, I was at the Q-Inn and quite liked the place. It was close to the Tram stop, walking distance from the old city and the bazaars. No noisy air conditioners either. Besides I have come to realize that the old city is full of hilly ups and downs and if you are not located on flat ground, just walking around can be painful on the knees.
GALLIPOLI – Since I was on a tour from this leg onwards, I had little choice on the places to visit. Though except Gallipoli, I would have definitely visited other places.
Gallipoli is the site of the infamous landings by the British and their allies in an attempt to access Russia via the sea route, during WWI. Many Australians and New Zealanders lost their lives here and it has become an important stop for these nationalities during their Turkey visit. I realized later that many Indians had also lost their lives there. Yet, unless one is a WWI buff, the detour is quite unnecessary.
We stayed the night in Cannakale, a small little town which I might have explored had the hotel been located somewhere centrally. The Iris Hotel where I stayed was comfortable and a good place for a night’s rest.
TROY and PERGAMUM– Ignorant me did not realize till I began planning for the trip that Troy is located in Turkey. There is nothing to actually see in the site, since it is full of broken walls which are still being excavated. Yet the idea of actually standing in Troy is fascinating and you can almost see the wooden horse in the green fields that now cover the spot. Besides it is UNESCO World Heritage site
Pergamum, on the other hand, is filled with beautiful Hellenistic and Roman ruins. We spent all our time on the top of the hill (reached by a quick ride on a cable car) which covered the famous temple, library and amphitheatre. Unfortunately, we did not have the time to see the Asclepion, the famous ancient medical centre from which the serpent sign for medicine originated.
EPHESUS – This is again filled with Hellenstic and Roman ruins and is only second in importance to Pompeii given the scale of excavations. A whole town lies, right from the wash area in the front, to the streets that lead past public toilets, libraries, rumoured brothels and amphitheatre. The special entry ticket to mansions of the Roman rich men was worth it. Ephesus is simply marvelous in its scale and the crowds spoke volumes about its popularity. Our meek-voiced guide gave up trying to keep the group together and offered snippets of wisdom to anyone who cared to ask her questions. An audio tour would be a good choice here.
We also stopped at the Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the Ancient World. Only 1 pillar of the 127 original ones stands today and it is a bit difficult to imagine the scale of the original temple. A visit to the Ephesus Museum helped us get perspective on some of the ruins.
We stayed overnight at Kusadesi, a vibrant little town with a lovely promenade and brightly lit restaurant area. I was at the Ozelick Hotel, facing the promenade but quite ordinary otherwise. A lot of people also stay in Selcuk, a smaller town.
PAMUKKALE – Pamukkale has been a medical centre since ancient times, when the ill and feeble came for a dip in the thermal spring atop the hill. A series of ruins exist here as well. But the star attraction is the cotton-like calcium terraces through which hot water springs flow. The sight is quite ethereal and not something that one would see normally. Pamukkale, alongwith Cappadocia, would be on my list of ‘sights which you can see only in Turkey’. Not surprisingly, both are UNESCO WH sites
I parted ways with my group tour here and took an overnight bus to Cappadocia.
CAPPADOCIA – The region is famous for volcanic rocks that have been eroded to pillars and mounds over the centuries. Early Christian monks made their homes in these pillars, inhabiting the caves that had been formed by the erosion of the soft Tuff rock, protected by a layer of the harder Basalt.
The tours are split into Northern and Southern Cappadocia tours and you usually do one on each day. I did the Northern Cappadocia tour, which included the famous Goreme Open air museum with its beautiful frescoes from early Christianity and the Pasabag Fairy Chimneys that make you pinch yourself to see if such things indeed exist.
The Southern Cappadocia tour includes a visit to underground cities. Being slightly claustrophobic, I decided to forgo the visit. Besides I was getting a bit tired of being on my feet daily.
There were numerous treks that one can do through the valleys. The highlylight of my trip was the hot air balloon ride. It is expensive (mine cost USD 200) but a wonderful experience akin to being on a magic carpet.
I stayed at the Cappadocia Palace hotel, an old Greek house converted into a cheery little hotel. This was based in the town of Urgup. A lot of people stay in cave hotels in the town of Goreme.
Cappadocia is not known for its efficient planning and organization unlike other parts of Turkey and it is better to reconfirm everything twice and assume people will mess up things. This way you won’t end up with your baggage having been dropped off in some other hotel or you getting off in Goreme when your hotel pick up is actually at Urgup.
GENERAL NOTES –
Turkey has amazing food. Most hotel breakfast buffets have all sorts of cheese and you can just live on them. The kebabs are amazing too but better to stick to kebabs for only one meal a day since they can get quite heavy
Best time to visit is actually before and after the peak season of July, August. I went in end-Sep/early – Oct. It was rainy one day in Istanbul but otherwise the daytime temperature was usually 22 – 26 degrees C and the nights were around 15 – 18 degrees C.
Book for the Cappadocia balloon tour in advance. Or else you won’t get the first slot for which the pick up is at 5 a.m. Later slots mean you can’t see the sun rise and you get late for your day tour.
It is quite convenient to take domestic flights. Buses are good but the price differential between flights and buses should not really matter unless you are on a budget.
Souvenirs – The delectable Turkish delight made of nuts. Olive oil, apple tea and cheese are also good buys. If you are in the mood for expensive stuff, there are carpets, leather jackets and beautiful silver jewelry to be had. I saw some beautiful lace table clothes at the Cappadocia sights but unfortunately did not buy them and could not find them later on. Keep your shopping for the last day so that you are not travelling the whole of Turkey with fifteen boxes of Turkish Delight.
WiFi - Every hotel had free WiFi and that made all the diffrence to the trip. Thanks to an IPad, Skype and WiFi, staying in touch was no problem.
Turkey also has some wonderful beaches and if I had had the time or company, I would have definitely chilled out for a couple of days in one of them. Worth including in the itinerary.