Imagine being able to see rock formations so unusual they’re known as Fairy Chimneys, visit an entire stone city 20 floors underground, sail on the sparkling blue waters of the Mediterranean, and explore one of the oldest and most cosmopolitan cities in the world, all in one country.
This is what you’ll discover in Turkey. And it’s just the beginning.
There are ancient Roman cities, ancient cliff-side tombs, tantalising cuisine, and some of the most glorious Islamic architecture to be found anywhere. My husband and I had no idea what to expect prior to visiting Turkey, but any minor misgivings we did have disappeared as soon as we arrived. Turkey is easy to love. Here are a few reasons why.
The historic capital
Istanbul engrosses you. This crowded metropolis of 14 million people has a unique character and aliveness that comes from having been at a cultural crossroads for millennia.
It is the Grand Potentate of cities and whispers of the ages. People have been living here for nearly 8000 years, making it one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the world. Here are some spots I enjoyed:
Sultanahmet Camii – we arrive very early at the Blue Mosque and enter a huge, silent, and serene space. It is overwhelming in its beauty, and comparable to any of the grand temples and cathedrals of the world. I stand awed, slowly taking in the spacious whole, and the gorgeous details as light streams in through the many stained glass windows. It is glorious.
Topkapi Palace – surely one of the grandest and most beautiful of all the world’s palaces. This massive walled complex containing many buildings was the home of the Ottoman sultans for 400 years. At its peak, 4000 people lived in this city within a city. From the exquisite tile work and rich décor to the jewellery and silver collections, Topkapi is now an extraordinary museum showcasing the wealth and lifestyle of the Ottoman rulers.
The Basilica Cistern – we descend into the eerie golden darkness of an underground reservoir built 1500 years ago. As our eyes adjust to the light we see a cavernous space, soaring columns, and a rich orange light, all of which is reflected in the water. The whole effect is startlingly beautiful. And in a corner of this spectacular and unusual space is the kind of chance to ‘play tourist’ that we seldom take, but on this day we are inspired! We are offered the opportunity to dress-up as an Ottoman Sultan and his Sultana. How could we resist?
Ayasofya – is cavernous and dark. It was built 1500 years ago as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral in what was then Christian Constantinople. Unfortunately funding for restoration is a political football. I am disappointed with the dusty floor-to-ceiling scaffolding filling half the space, and the overall feeling of grimy neglect, but there are exquisite stained glass windows, and pockets of glowing beauty hidden in the dingy gloom.
The Grand Bazaar – nothing can erase the feeling of other times, other lifestyles. It is the oldest, and one of the largest, covered markets in the world with over 4000 shops. It is steeped in stories. It is a small town, and a rabbit warren that invites you to explore its grand colonnaded spaces, endless streets, and narrow hidden alleyways.
The Spice Market – is crowded and alive. From the jewel hues of the Turkish delight and dried fruit to the rich aromas of the spices, the gorgeous ceramics and traditional lamps, the Spice Market is a feast for the senses.
The heart of the city is the Golden Horn, an inlet from the Bosphorus Strait, and Galata Bridge that spans it. We amble across the bridge watching the fishermen and the crowds. Walking back we catch the sunset, its light reflecting off the windows of the domed mosques and turning the waters of the Golden Horn golden. It is iconic Istanbul.
The endless coastline
In Fethiye we take a day cruise, stopping in three different places.
We swim and snorkel in the crystal clear water, and I see schools of tiny fish, silver with a flash of blue, hundreds of them swimming in formation, turning together as if they are one being.
Energy seeps away and resting happens: deep resting in the warm sun surrounded by this blue-water world.
The otherworldly landscapes
Early morning darkness; the balloons are spread on the ground. One by one the burners are lit, creating a golden glow. As hot air fills each balloon it slowly expands and becomes upright. We lift off, so gently I hardly realize we are airborne. We glide silently up as the sun rises over a surreal landscape. We float over the land with its plateaus and valleys and strange rock formations. We soar above, and then drift alongside the tops of the Fairy Chimneys.
It is magical; the sunrise, the coloured balloons, the astonishing landscape.
Cappadocia, in central Turkey, is an area covered with a volcanic rock known as tuff. Discovering that tuff is soft enough to carve, thousands of years ago people began carving dwellings in the rock, both in the cones and chimneys that dot the landscape, and underground. The entire area is riddled with tunnels and hand-hewn caves many floors deep.
We walk forever downwards in the dark winding tunnels of Derinkuyu, an underground city. Some of the tunnels are barely wider than we are, some so low we have to bend over to get through. Lighting is dim and sporadic. This ancient city is 200 feet deep with living quarters, storerooms, stables, and temples. At one time it sheltered as many as 20,000 people hidden underground. It is a whole different secret world.
And in the Goreme Open Air Museum, a medieval monastic settlement carved into the chimneys and cones of tuff, there are some exquisite fully-restored Byzantine frescoes.
I hope, by now, I’ve convinced you that Turkey is an amazing country with much to offer.
Istanbul is one of the world’s great cities.
The landscapes of Pamukkale and Cappadocia are unique and incomparable.
The sun and azure seas of the Mediterranean make it the perfect place to explore the coast, and the country is filled from east to west with antiquities.
Whatever trepidation we had about visiting Turkey due to the current world political climate, vanished when we found a beautiful, safe, diverse country, and wonderful, friendly people.
Ready to experience the same rush of adoration for this country? Check out our range of small group adventures in Turkey.
(Images all c/o Alison Armstrong at alisonanddon.com – except for Pamukkale image c/o Intrepid Travel.)