Always been captivated by the allure of Greece? Skip it, go to Turkey, and experience everything you imagine Greece will be, just better and more of it.
Far fewer tourists go to Turkey than Greece, so locals dealing with tourists aren’t tired of you, and it is still possible to have ruins all to yourself. Like Greece, you can relax on the beach, but in Turkey you can also relax on a blue cruise or in a hammam. Turkey has unique shopping, as it was the crossroads of the world, and you can even buy almost-antiques. In Turkey there is an otherworldliness you can experience nowhere else on earth … underground cities, a hillside of cascading white rock pools, and flames that spontaneously ignite from the ground. Not to mention the Turkish sense of hospitality which is also otherworldly. The only thing you can’t get in Turkey that you can get in Greece? Pork.
Relaxing: blue cruises and hammams
A good introduction to Turkey is on a “blue cruise” on the turquoise coast, i.e. Turkey’s southern coast. An ideal trip is about four days, and a good base is the town of Fethiye. From here you can go north to Marmarais, or go southeast to Andriace harbour, from which you can bus inland to Olympos to see the chimera flames (see below). Relax aboard, and tell your captain whether you feel like snorkelling, sunning, cliff diving or flying high above a beach like Ōlüdeniz, which is often cited as one of the top five beaches in the world.
A Turkish hammam is the ultimate in relaxation. It is easy to spot recent partakers on the street as they are scrubbed pink like a baby and have trouble keeping their eyes open. Wrapped in a pestemal (a thin cotton towel), you first sweat in a sauna or steambath for a while. An attendant then brings you to a warm marble plinth where s/he will lie you down and scrub you with olive oil soap that will make you look like you are covered in whipped cream, and exfoliate your skin with a kese mit. Once you get over the shock of how much dead skin you were walking around with, you’ll relax into the massage. It is a sort of combination of Thai and Swedish — your knots are worked out and your arms and legs bent and stretched. You are doused with cold water on occasion (but it feels good), and will probably receive a slap on the ass. And you will love the entire experience. Ask your hotel for advice about where to go (say you want an authentic experience) and when to go (since many hammams have separate hours for men, women, and couples).
The Crossroads of the World
Don’t forget to pick up some nazar boncugu, blue and white glass amulets meant to ward off the evil eye. You will see them everywhere in Turkey – hanging in restaurants, hotels, taxis, even in airplanes, and personal ones on necklaces, key chains, cell phones and baby carriages.
Turkish Otherworldliness: Cappadoccia, Pamukkale, Olympos ….
Turkey has many sites that provoke a sense of wonder. Cappadoccia, in the middle of the country has underground cities, several of which you can explore. About 2000 years ago, early Christians carved tunnels and caves into the soft tufa rock, eventually forming a labyrinth of cities, going down some 13 stories underground. People lived in the cities for months at a time when needed, figuring out how to have fresh air intake and how to stay hidden by diffusing the smoke of cooking fires. Cities have churches, schools, morgues, kitchens, barns, bedrooms and more. Mysteriously, the doors – a big stone wheel rolled across the entrance from inside – are from an area 400 km away, and are too big to fit inside the tunnels. Scientists aren’t sure how they could have gotten there. The reverse of an underground city, a castle made of a hill of rock, can also be explored. Climb around like a little kid, but watch out for booby traps!
The tufa rock has also been formed by wind and water into strange phallic shaped towers, called fairy chimneys in Turkish. People have carved rooms into them, and several have been turned into hotels so you can sleep in a cave. In the Göreme open air museum, you can wander through the caves and fairy chimneys, and see some of the earliest Christian churches in the world. While expensive by Turkish standards, you can also take a hot air balloon ride to see the fairy chimneys from above. The pilots are so skilled that in the right wind conditions they can lower the balloon so you can pick an apricot off a tree, and then sail up into the sky again. Göreme is a good town in which to base yourself for all of these activities.
Pamukkale — “cotton castle” — is another Turkish wonder. Half of a large otherwise brown hill is covered in cascading pools of bright white stone, that look almost like ice. You can walk up the hill in your bare feet (the stone is both smooth and grippy at the same time), and see the pools up close. The waters have been used since biblical times and are said to be healing. Walk 500 m away from the tour buses, and you’ll find the almost empty ruins of a Roman stadium of the ancient city of Hierapolis. They are in excellent shape (better than most you’ll find in Greece) and you’ll find them almost to yourself. On the way over, keep your eye out for a small cave in a small indentation that is fenced off. There are mysterious gases coming from it that kill anyone who enters it, except, according to rumour, eunuchs. Some German tourists tried it about 20 years ago and died (I assume they were not eunuchs, so perhaps the stories are true).
Olympus is a backpacker haven, where most accommodation is in little tree houses in an orange grove, with chickens and goats snacking underneath. There are good ruins nearby, again almost empty of tourists, and a gravel beach. At night you can hike up the mountain, with a flashlight, to a spot where every few feet flames — the chimera — spontaneously come out of the earth. It is worth the climb. Again, scientists are not entirely sure how or why. Can you imagine how frightened the goat-herd was who first discovered them?!
Turks are lovely and generous people. I was there for my honeymoon and when people found out, they were thrilled that we had chosen their country for such a special trip. Many insisted on giving us presents — a bottle of wine from our favourite hotel, many drinks and desserts at restaurants, spices, tiles, even a gorgeous Persian shawl (thank you Hamit Balkir, owner of Motif Collection, Kabasakal Caddesi no. 3, Istanbul!)
We found Turks always interested in explaining something about their gorgeous country, its history, culture, politics, and, especially food (a Cappadoccian shopkeeper insisted we sample the lunch he was eating when we wandered into his shop – and we happily discovered pide, “pizza … with cheese!”, as he comically explained).
In most eateries, Turks want to separate the hospitality from the unfortunate necessity of a customer paying for food. So, you will have to ask for the bill, and counter service means ordering, eating, and then returning to the counter to pay.
Turks also love kids, so if you are travelling with little ones, Turkey is a good place to go.
However …. Like anywhere, there are still scams to be avoided in Turkey. Taxi drivers from the Istanbul airport like to move decimal points on the fare, counting on tourists to still be confused by the Turkish lira (your hotel will help ensure you pay the correct amount). Eating and shopping in the Grand Bazaar will result in serious overcharging. As a rule, do not eat in the bazaar (but the street food outside in wonderful).
Very rarely, some locals will take advantage of the fact that you know of the Turkish sense of hospitality – they’ll invite you in for tea, and then charge you for it. It won’t be expensive, but it feels bad to be scammed, especially under these circumstances. And carpet sellers are everywhere (just smile and keep walking if you’re truly not interested, but take the opportunity to learn about carpets and have a cup of tea if you have time, you might even buy a beauty!).
Turkey is a marvelous country. It has all the things you imagine are great about Greece, just more and better.
Please let me know about your tips about travel in Turkey!
For lots of details on how to travel in Turkey, see my field notes on Turkey which includes recommendations on what to see and do, where to eat and stay, and how to get there. Here’s why I love Turkey: 14 things you’ll get addicted to in Turkey (for Matador Network).