My first trip to Turkey was taken in 2010 before President Erdoğan took over (in 2014) and the deadly coup attempt on his life (in 2016). Both were monumental turning points in Turkey’s political history and changed the country’s landscape for, in my opinion, worse.
My memories of Turkey are very fond though. It was a country that surprised me by the sheer mysticism of its beauty, the warmth of its people, the fragrance of its food, the splendor of its history. There was no end to the wow! moments.
Turkey: The 10-day itinerary
Day 2: Izmir:
- Visit Ephesus for the ruins of Odeon, Hercules Gate, Temple of Hadrian, the Basilica of St John)
- Head to Pamucak by the Aegean Beach
Day 5: Cappadocia:
- Drive to Devrent Imagination Valley
- Visit the Zelve and Goreme Open Air Museums
- See the Pasabaglari Fairy Chimneys, Avanos, Uchisar Rock Castle
- Hike or trek to Esentepe
- Take a Hot air balloon ride to witness the grandeur of the valley below (USD 100 onwards, usually cheaper when you get there and if you can bargain)
Day 6: Cappadocia:
- Kaymakli Underground City
- Soganli Valley
- Sobesos mosaic houses
- Taskinpasa Medresesi
- Keslik Monastery
- Old Greek village Mustafapasa
Day 7: Fly from Kayseri to Istanbul; Stay in Tulip Guesthouse (Cheap, central, functional)
Day 8: Istanbul:
- Walking Tour in the Old City (See: Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Aya Sofya)
- Visit a Hamam (choices: Cagaloglu Hamam/ Çemberlitaş/ Galatasaray; but your B&B will have brochures too with discounts. They’re all comparable. USD 60 onwards for a 45-minute session and above)
Day 9: Istanbul:
- Do the Galata – Genoese Colony Walk: Galata was a Genoese colony from the 6th to 15th centuries. This walk is around the Galata Tower and covers the area where you’ll see several old churches, synagogues, hospitals, bank buildings, ancient walls, schools. It’s an interesting dip into Byzantine history.
- Shopping, people watching and nightlife: Taksim square in Istiklal Caddesi (Beyoglu)
Day 10: Istanbul:
- Bosphorus Ferry from Eminonu
- Whirling Dervishes at the Sirkeci Station
- Grand Bazaar, Spice Bazaar etc. (see shopping below)
What to eat
- Coffee: Türk kahve (Turkish coffee) though isn’t as widely consumed by locals as çay (tea)
- Asure (Ashure), a porridge-like sweet dish with 12 different ingredients
- Doner (Shaurma) a Turkish kebab, made of meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie
- Kumpir or stuffed potatoes
- Beğendi (which means the Sultan loved it) is chunks of lamb on a bed of smoky, creamed aubergine
- Gözleme (fresh-baked flatbread folded over savory ingredients – a sort of Turkish crêpe)
- Börek, a pastry filled with cheese and vegetables or meat
- Sesame covered Simit (bread)
- Turkish delight (Lokum) – Desert made of honey, roses, jasmine, and Arab herbs
- Raki, Turkey’s anise-flavored national drink distilled from grapes
What to buy
- Carved alabaster
- Books, old maps and old prints in Sahaflar Çarsisi (Old Book Bazaar) in Istanbul
- Old Istambul engravings in Taksim Square
- Nazar Bonjouk or evil eyes
- Olive oil and other handmade soaps
- Pomegranate or apple tea (Very touristy, but tastes yum nonetheless)
- Hand-knit curtains (about 35YTL to 80YTL depending on size)
- Saffron and other spices from the spice bazaar
- Old Jewelry (Demetrius of Ephesus at Şirince)
What to read
All fiction, ‘coz that’s how I roll.
Where to shop
- Grand Bazaar (Kapalicarsi): The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 covered streets and over 4,000 shops. The bazaar is like walking into a cave of Alibaba and the Forty thieves, only there are now 4000 of them now! The market is large, colorful and well stocked, yes, but are you game to bargain with 4000 enthusiastic shopkeepers all ready to pounce on you with their many wares? For the bounty hunters, there may be some killing to be made if you can bargain hard, really hard. But I beat a quick retreat. Too aggressive for my tastes.
- Old Book Bazaar (Sahaflar Çarsisi): The second-hand book market is located next to the historical Bayezid Mosque, on Fatih. The market has existed since Byzantine times and houses treasures aplenty. I loved it. A lot.
- Spice Bazaar (Mısır Çarşısı): Located in the Eminönü quarter of the Fatih district, it is the most famous covered shopping complex after the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. I went on a Saturday and it was stiflingly crowded, but the variety of spices, my, oh, my! Especially the Saffron, dry fruits and tea. Advice: Walk the length and look for the best price. And prepare to not feel too bad if cheated
- Istiklal Caddesi: Europe in Turkey. Books, music, French style bistros, high street stores. The equivalent of an Oxford Street or a cramped version of Champs De Elysees. Wide selection of food and a vibrant nightlife. Or so was in 2010.
- Bylanes: By far the best idea to do any kind of shopping. I liked Tribal Art at Sultanahmet (now closed), a couple more shops on the same street, the tiny leather and jewelry shops at Selçuk and Ürgüp. Hassle free shopping.
But no matter what, don’t forget to bargain. Bargain on everything. On your tour prices, on what you purchase from the stores, on your hotel rates, even on your Cappadocia balloon ride (we got it a deal as low as €80/ ride whereas on the internet it was listed at €160/ride).
Just bargain. They expect it.
Now a little bit on Turkey’s history. Not too much, I promise.
First, Istanbul. The name for it was Byzantium to start with, i.e. the Greek name for a city on the Bosphorus. In 306 AD, Emperor Constantine the Great made Byzantium the capital of the entire Roman Empire. From then on, the city came to be known as Constantinople. When the Ottoman Turks led by Sultan Mehmet II conquered Constantinople in 1453, the city was renamed to Istanbul. The Ottoman rule continued until the regime was defeated in WWI and Istanbul was occupied by the allies. The city’s various monuments carry marks of this volatile history. For example, Hagia Sophia started by being a Greek Orthodox Christian patriarchal cathedral, later turning into an Ottoman imperial mosque and now it’s a museum (Ayasofya Müzesi).
Second, you have to know about Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Every home, every lane has a picture of him (alongside the Turkish national flag). People revere him. He was the architect of modern Turkey. He converted the Ottoman Empire into a modern, democratic, and secular nation-state.
Third, Turkey and its neighbors. The Turks hate the Greeks. The Turks hate the EU (Although, their leaders are trying hard to get in. It could be a case of sour grapes). But coming back to the topic of Greece, after the 1919-22 Greco-Turkish War most of the Greeks were transferred to Greece under the terms of the 1923 population exchange between Greece and Turkey. As in any exodus, there were massacres on both sets of the population. And the hatred continues till date with both parties blaming the other for the bloodshed. On another note, Turkey’s treatment of Kurdish citizens has been a frequent subject of international criticism.
Fourth, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The president of Turkey since 2014. Not loved as much as feared, Erdogan has been a powerful influence on the Turkish political scene since long. He previously served as Prime Minister from 2003 to 2014 and as Mayor of Istanbul from 1994 to 1998. Erdogan’s party, AKP, is based on moderately conservative liberalism although Turkey is now considered by many as ruled by an authoritarian regime, no longer a democracy. In the 1990s, when he was still the mayor of Istanbul, Erdogan is rumored to have said, “Democracy is like a streetcar. When I arrive at my stop, I get off.” (Source: www.dw.com). When I visited Turkey in 2018, I found Istanbul more obviously Islamic than before, dirtier, disorganized, and people, in general, disgruntled.
That’s all. A short (but necessary) perspective.
What about a trip to East Europe – Croatia.
A few stories
If you ask me, people make Turkey. Warm, garrulous and inquisitive.
I want to tell you a few stories about them.
Three ringed fingers
I woke up one morning in Selcuk, under the snow leopard quilts. My eyes wandered lazily to trace the edges of the faraway castle, visible through the diaphanous curtains of the windows. I smelled freshly baked bread and salted olives. Breakfast was being readied. My heart was glad. The sun rays beamed through the breaking mist, and the müezzins called out together in a distance.
Then I got late.
I rushed to take the bus.
“A ticket to Pamukkale, please,” I panted.
“Oh yes, sorry, Good morning. Could you please give me a ticket to go to Pamukkale, please? Am I very late?”
“No, let me show you the bus.”
We stood by the stationary bus.
“So, how many husbands do you have?” the ticket guy asked.
“The rings on your fingers…”
I was wearing three rings. Just fake jewelry sorts.
“Oh, just three at this time…” I decided to flirt. I don’t know why. You go with the flow.
He smiled. “What a pity,” he said.
“There’s your bus ready to leave to Denizli,” he said pointing.
“Thank you, see you at night.”
Spring in my heart
Two guitar-strumming boys were on the dolmuş to Pamukkale with me. They chatted me up. Some company is good. No, err… their company was very good.
The spring flowers were all around me. The calcium in the Travertines sludged under my soles. I watched with amazement as miles and miles of colossal ruins at Hierapolis spread around me. I got that humbling feeling you get when you realize how small you are in the grand scheme of things. How old civilization is. How we mean nothing and should stop taking ourselves so seriously.
I was walking with them.
One of the boys had caught my fancy more than the other. Those round button eyes, that glib tongue. Did not Shakespeare say that spring is the start of all things amorous?
“Travellers are the same everywhere, eh? We are a different breed,” he told me.
“Yes, I think travel opens up your mind,” I said. “Therefore, we become alike later. We don’t start off that way.
“True that,” he said. Grinned.
My heart did a quick turn.
Into the Wine Cellar
Ephesus was another dose of history, albeit a grander one. It used to be one of the seven wonders of the world, did you know? Library of Celsus. Temple of Artemis. The Agora marketplace. Fat cats on broken columns.
The Greek village of Şirince was even better. Especially, Grandpa Jewelry (Demetrius of Ephesus’s – go only if you want to be entertained. Do not buy anything) who directed me to Grandson Wine Seller who directed me to an old Church cellar with a treasure trove of many wines.
You name the fruit, he had a bottle of wine. After several swigs and a swimming head, it was time to go in for the kill.
300 rupees, seems cheap, but when in Turkey, gotta bargain.
“Too expensive, can’t pay that much,” I said.
“It’s the cheapest price you will get.” He gave me an impish smile.
“Give something free with it then.”
“One olive oil soap free with a bottle.”
I’d learned the tricks by then. I could get more.
“Won’t do, something more,” I said.
“A tall glass of blackberry wine free.”
Yay, I won!
And more wine? Sounded good.
So, I drank with young Zaid. I was much entertained. And positively giddy, and not only with happiness.
Until the sun set on the horizon and it was time for me to go.
An Iranian family was excited to hear I was from India.
“We love India. What was that Indian movie we saw?” The mother and the father looked at one another puzzled, trying to jog the other’s memory. The children shook their legs excitedly. Shook their heads excitedly. But they couldn’t seem to remember.
“DDLJ? My Name is Khan? 3 Idiots?” I tried to help them.
“No!” The mother remembers. “Slumdog Millionaire!!”
Not Indian, my friend. Not Indian.
The carpet seller’s wish
On a tiny market street, I met Ömer, the corpulent carpet seller.
“I want an Indian or Japanese woman. They make good wives,” he told me.
“Why? What’s wrong with Turkish women?” I asked.
“They are very conservative.”
“It’s not their fault, you know,” I told him. “You change society and they will stop being conservative. I mean can you imagine sending your sister on a trip to India on her own?” Like I’d done, I meant. Just moments ago, he had professed admiration for it.
Some silence. Then,
“If Turkish men could experiment before marriage, there wouldn’t be extramarital affairs.”
The same. We are men. We are like that.
Even the pretty carpets couldn’t keep me there for long.
Later, Börek brought back some good taste. And so did the whirling dervishes.
Eyes in a trance, white umbrella skirts billowing round and round, round and round.
At Selçuk bus stop.
I ran excitedly towards someone distributing a sweet, brown, drippy treat. I was hungry, you see. I thought I could buy something from him.
“What’s that?” I asked, pointing.
“How much is it?”
Just then a rotund man came running towards us, waving his hands vigorously.
“No, no, it is free. Take it, take it. It’s for my uncle’s death anniversary” He pushed loads of them into my cupped hands.
On every lane, I saw Men playing backgammon. They gathered around in the evening, chatting aloud, playing their game, sipping their Raki or Çay. They invited me to join them, but alas I could not play.
“How much is saffron?”
“You are Indian?”
“I am Shah Rukh Khan. How are you Kareena?”
My saffron came only slightly cheaper.
In fact, there was this one day when I was up at the terrace of my B&B in Istanbul, peering through an open window of a flat opposite. An old man was sitting on the couch, wearing a beige sweater, being served Çay by his wife in a baggy salwar suit and a multi-colored scarf. A regular, cozy home. I was peeping inside their lives, mesmerized.
Perhaps he sensed I was looking at him. He turned to look up. Our eyes met.
He smiled back at me. But my mind was so fuzzy after an aggressive run through the grand bazaar an hour ago, I actually half expected him to offer to sell me the Kilim on his floor. Half price only for you.
That’s what it’s like. Overwhelming.
Say it fast
My first dinner in Turkey. Döner Kebab and Linden Tea.
I was practicing to say ‘Te shukere’.
What was it again? I couldn’t say it.
The Sukhreee, teh Shukree.
Suddenly, the long-haired chap in the table next to me piped,
“Tea Sugar in a dream”
I looked at him questioningly.
“Say it quickly, you’ll have it.”
She was not so much a guide, but a crash course of life as a Woman in Istanbul.
“I am 30. I have my share of men, a good job which pays. I meet interesting people every day. Live and pay my rent in Istanbul. What can marriage give me, what I don’t already have?”
“Are women like that everywhere in Turkey, or is it just Istanbul?” I asked her.
“Well, I am from Izmir, and women from Izmir are supposed to be extra modern. In fact, if you tell someone from Istanbul you are from Izmir, they turn up their nose like this.” She showed me.
“Have you heard of the common saying in Istanbul?”
“No, which one exactly?”
“If you are married to a man who works in Istanbul, there is 50% chance he will be unfaithful. If he works in Istanbul and is well traveled, there is a 75% chance he will be unfaithful. If he works in Istanbul and is well traveled and in tourism, there is a 100% chance he will be unfaithful.”
She ended on a sweet note. “You should try the Tavuk Gögsü,” she said. “It actually has chicken in it. People don’t believe it but taste it. It is my favorite dessert. Chicken in a custard.”
The hamam was not top of my list. But it would feature in my top 5 things to do in Turkey. I was a bit shy, to begin with; it’s a communal bath after all. You have to go full monty in front of other women. But the lady purging my grime was such comfort and made me feel totally at ease. Also, she put more effort into it that the price warranted. Her pampering of me was almost motherly.
Two hours of absolute bliss. Her name was Fethiye.
I was at Eyüp waiting for a bus.
I knew only one way to get back to Sultanahmet via Eminönü. I’d already let one bus pass me by, alarmed at how crowded it was. I was getting very worried. I had to be back on time to my B&B to pack up and rush to catch my flight back home.
Fahre was standing at the bus stop with me. It was just the two of us. Red striped sweater. Cute. I’d lost my heart quite a few times in Istanbul, I realized then.
“Which bus are you waiting for?” he asked me.
“99A to Eminönü, And you?” I asked.
“I need to go to Sultanahmet,” he replied.
”Me too,” I replied, trying to keep the panic out of my voice. “But how does one get there directly? I just know the 99A.”
“One can take a bus to Beyazit square. Sultanahmet is close by. You can walk.”
“Are you here for business or as a tourist?” he asked.
“Tourist actually. Today is my last day.” I grew wistful as I said that.
A very crowded bus came by after five minutes. He nodded to me. This was it.
I got in hanging at the door like in Mumbai buses. Hanging on for dear life. At least, this one had a door to hang on to, unlike in Mumbai.
But luckily for me, Fahre was the perfect gentleman. I got escorted in, directed to an empty seat before anyone else could sit on it, got dropped at Beyazit square.
“You get down here,” Fahre said. “That’s the way you should take to reach Sultanahmet, behind the blue building.” He pointed.
An angel. A very cute one.
Here are other places you could visit from Istanbul.
Anadolu Kavagi. It’s the last stop on the Asian side of the Bosporus Strait. A 20 TRL ferry ride will get you there, leaving you to roam around for three hours and brings you back by 3 PM. You can walk to the castle on top, which although a good exercise, does not offer much to see. It was nice to sit at the Yosun restaurant by the sea though and have some yummy Calamari and tea. The Asian side is greener, less ‘developed’ and you can eye-spy the Black Sea.
There is an odd little toy display on the way to the castle. “For the past eight years, I make these toys. No selling. No photographs please,” the owner says as he chats up curious visitors.
Büyükada is the largest of the nine Princes’ Islands in the Sea of Marmara, near Istanbul, with an area of about 2 square miles. During the summer months, the Princes’ Islands are popular destinations for day trips from Istanbul. They are just a short ferry ride from Istanbul, with ferries departing from Bostancı, Kartal, and Maltepe on the Asian side, and from Kabataş on the European side. During the Byzantine period, princes were exiled on the islands, and later members of the Ottoman sultans family were exiled here too, giving the islands their present name.
It was a Saturday when I went. The ferry would have almost toppled over with the number of jostling visitors. And it was almost like a carnival on the island itself. Pop up stores, Mado ice cream, cycling teens, screaming kids. If you want to do just one Bosphorus ride, do this one and get to the Prince’s Islands. Enjoy the fat, white, screeching seagulls flying along.
Eyüp or Eyüpsultan is a district of Istanbul extending from the Golden Horn all the way to the shore of the Black Sea. The Eyüp Sultan Mosque is one of the most important mosques in Turkey.
I had been toying between going to Eyüp or Ortaköy (to have the original Kumpir). Finally, just because I knew the bus number, I opted for the former. And I wasn’t disappointed. Serene and residential, it’s a great peek into local life. No tourists. This is a conservative neighborhood though, so dress appropriately.
At Istanbul, the favorite part of my day was sitting on the terrace of my guest house with a glass of Turkish tea and a book of Turkish stories. Why? The view was to die for.
It was right by the Bosphorus and I saw it morning and night. Why was it so important? Bosphorus, the strait that connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara was after all the ancient passageway for Greece, Rome , the Byzantines, and later the Ottoman Empire. It carried with it a lot of history, a lot many stories. The terrace gave a very nice view of it, and I was grateful. It was especially magical in the evenings, at dusk.
Imagine now. First, the Lighthouse lights up at a distance; a single golden flicker over the darkening waters. This is then followed by the turning up of tiny yellow dots, like a string of fairy lights, one after the other, across the horizon. The yachts sail across languidly. The night tram buzzes past in a flurry, carrying a stream of lights along with it. And gradually, almost like magic, the whole of the Bosphorus is alight. Afire.
Just how many mosques were there in Istanbul? Everywhere I looked, slender spires extended into the sky. Every few hours, Muezzins called out in symphonic unison. The domes, the spires, azaan on a cloudy day, a dreamy concoction.
Then they were calling out at every entrance. Those pesky shopkeepers. I cannot get them off my head.
“Pretty lady, are you from India?”
“Let me show you around the mosque for free.”
“Here, here beautiful lady. Why don’t you marry me?”
The attention was at once gratifying and irritating.
“These are the heirs of Alexander and Constantine and Socrates! And they’re no better than children!”
When everyone asked me later, how was Turkey, I told them everything you could imagine and more. There’s something very magical about those huge domes, the gangly spires, the expansive ceilings, the vastness, the Bosphorus at night. The many, many evil eyes. In every street, on every corner, circling wrists, dangling from ears, hanging on windows and doors. Everything is different. Exotic.
Sigh! Now all I hold are snippets of memories. Like Mehmet of Tulip Guest House told me once:
Merhaba, may you take many sweet memories from here.