When I was a child I discovered a candy bar called Turkish Delight. It would become my favourite treat for some time to come. Little could I realize then, that so many years later on my first visit to the country after which the bar was named, I would come face to face with these delicious morsels again, albeit in somewhat different form, in every gift shop and bazaar where tourists gather. Nor could I have imagined that my emotions relating to my first experience in travelling around Turkey would be encapsulated in that very name.
To suggest Turkey is a land of contrasts is perhaps the most understated claim one could make about the country. Riding on a ferry over the quiet waters of the Strait of Bosphorus which divides Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, one can almost feel the invisible arm of Europe reach over to shake hands with Asia. For Istanbul is not only a city divided by this body of water, but its Eastern exposure is the gateway to the beginning of Asia, while the opposite shores of the Bosphorus represent the last outreaches of the European continent.
It is more than a symbolic division, as all of Turkey grapples with which side of this divide its future should lay. And while visitors may not immediately grasp the political undertones, old and emerging cultural beliefs are shaping entirely new attitudes that contribute to the fascination that is Turkey today.
Over the past few years Turkey has put considerable effort into trying to persuade the European Union, with its westernized thinking, to allow it to become a full-fledged member. Yet a recent survey, taken before President Obama was elected, revealed that among almost 50 countries questioned, Turkey liked the United States the least of all. It is fiercely proud of its democracy, yet has recently elected a party that some fear could take them closer to fundamental Islam. It is these seeming contradictions one comes across frequently.
In Istanbul itself, you will rarely find a woman wearing a Burka, or even a shawl, let alone the traditional dress we find featured so often in news stories about the regions nearby. Here you are more likely to find trendy fashions from the hundreds of stores along the major shopping fares with names that match those we are accustomed to at home.
From morning until closing, thousands of people who work in New Istanbul, as it is called, fill Taksim Street, the main pedestrian thoroughfare, shopping or relaxing in the cafes and coffee shops situated along the narrow passages that run into it. Whether here, or Old Istanbul where most of the major tourist attractions are located, it is a city that offers experiences you won’t find elsewhere.
Street vendor selling roasted chestnuts from hot dog-style cart.
It is a city of vibrant sights, sounds, and smells. One experiences the aroma of roasting chestnuts sold from street carts, the unique blend of spices wafting out of the restaurant kitchens that turn your head, a lineup of locals and tourists alike at food kiosks waiting for their snack or meal of Doner, thinly sliced cuts of meat from pressed beef or chicken chubs, mounted and rotated in front of what looks like a specially constructed heat lamp and then cooked until the juices flow down their sides. Passing by without buying one of this pita wrapped delicacy is almost impossible.
Shopkeepers at the Grand Bazaar, with its 4,000 shops under one roof, compete to tempt you into their place to touch, try or taste until you begin the negotiating process. Everything in the Grand Bazaar is negotiable, from a simple scarf to the most expensive jewelry.
While Istanbul, with its exceptional restaurants, rich history, and vibrant nightlife, may be an ideal place to begin a Turkish story, it truly is only the first chapter. As you move away from its biggest city, the country takes on even broader layers of character.
A recitation of the major attractions in Turkey can be found in any good travel book. But to walk through them in person is to discover a true peoples’ history. For Turkey’s history is of power and conquest, of subjugation and immense wealth, and of being conquered and finding freedom. Its past contains names people have written books and made movies about, like King Constantine, Cleopatra, Topkapi, Alexander the Great or religious icons like St. Paul and the Virgin Mary. Some even conjecture that Noah’s Ark found its resting place on the high grounds of this land.
The area around Antalya was designated by the government as the official tourist development area. In less than 15 years it has expanded from a quiet coastal region, economically driven by fishing and farming, to a hotel dotted beach front offering over 500,000 rooms. For European vacationers this region is what Mexico is for many of us, the opportunity to stay in a 4 or 5 star all inclusive property at a very reasonable price.
Scattered along this coast, from the city of Kemer, past Antalya, and on to Alanya, there are about 2.5 million permanent residents. In 2008 more than 7 million vacationers visited here to take advantage of what is fast becoming a major world destination. Construction in the area continues unabated, with golf courses and condo developments outpacing those of many of the tourist regions we more commonly visit.
Near this coastline, some of the unique historical ruins in the country have been uncovered and carefully protected for the busloads of nationalities whose digital cameras preserve today’s memories of past civilizations that built empires on the soils of this land.
Residents of Alanya Castle, perched on a mountaintop overlooking Kleopatra Beach and home of the Byzantines for several centuries, poured boiling oil on would-be attackers. Perge, the Roman city that remains as one of the best preserved Roman sites anywhere, felt the footsteps of St. Paul and the great Roman leaders of the time. These are only two of the many must-see excursions found close to the coast within easy driving distance.
While these sites pay testament to its past empires, its natural history holds equal fascination. Out of the eruption of three volcanoes a million years ago, time has carved lunar and Picasso like designs into the rocks of Cappadocia. Inland from the beach resorts, through Turkey’s most mountainous region awaits an evolutionary marvel that ended up helping early Christians escape Roman persecution.
Getting to Cappadocia by tour bus or car is worth the minor effort it takes. As the elevation increases, shepherds can be seen tending their sheep. Agriculture shifts from fruit and vegetables, to potatoes and sugar beets, then to large wheat growing tracts, similar in size to those in our mid-west.
But the real reward comes as the geographical forms that are Cappadocia start to emerge. Here centuries of rain and harsh weather took nature’s anger and molded it into an artist’s palette of unusual shape and form. And throughout history these forms became more than interesting observatories.
Skyscraper-like soft limestone rock faces made it easy for early Christians to create caves to hide in as Roman rulers began persecuting them for their beliefs. They dug underground cities down to 80 meters below the surface, housing up to 2000 believers. There are a number of these underground cities in the area, and most can be explored today.
Scattered around Cappadocia are thousands of what seem like sculptured yet unearthly formations. They are in fact lava deposits worn down by time into shapely masterpieces of impressionist art. This should be one of the natural wonders of the world. Hundreds of busloads of tourists weekly would agree, and a visit to Turkey should definitely include at least a day of exploration here.
As I relax on my way home in the comfort of our British Airways Boeing 777, I am tempted to open one of the boxes of Turkish Delight we bought as gifts for friends and relatives. It is a taste that has stuck with me for many years, and I could really appreciate just one of these treats now. But instead I recline my seat as far back as it will go and dream about the possibilities, no, the assurances that I give myself, that we will return again to go further into the antiquities and deeper into the culture that has given us so much satisfaction these past two weeks.
If You Go:
Where to Stay: Most hotels where tourists stay are situated in New Istanbul. A number of good ones like the Nippon, Crystal and Point hotels, as well as the better known Hyatt, are located in a cluster near Taksim Square.
Where to Shop: If you go nowhere else in Istanbul, a trip to the Grand Bazaar, 4000 stores gathered in one large covered area, as well as the Spice Bazaar, must be visited. Even if you purchase nothing, the experience is well worth it.
Where to Eat: In Istanbul there are hundreds of quality Kabob (Kabap) places to dine in, including many of the eateries you will inevitably run into as you shop, but a series of seafood restaurants under the Galata Bridge overlooking the water is an excellent place to spend an evening after a long day. They will parade a wide selection of fish for you to choose from. Many offer free shuttles from most hotels. Your concierge can arrange a reservation and ride for you. One of the highest rated restaurants is the Mikla, on the rooftop of the Marmara Pera Hotel. Be sure to try the lamb.