French writer Alphonse de Lamartine famously said, “If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul.” Actually the statement applies equally well to much of Turkey, a country spread across the divide between Asia and Europe, combining the best of both worlds. There’s a lot in Turkey that can delight the traveller. First-time visitors would do well to cover as many sights as their itinerary allows. But if you’re pressed for time, visiting these three regions of Turkey would give you more than a sense of what the country is all about.
History in Cappadocia
The Cappadocia region is definitely among the most magical landscapes in the world, where volcanic eruptions and erosions over millions of years have left behind rocks and stones shaped like spindly stems that rise like mushrooms out of the earth. Even the name given of these structures—fairy chimneys—has a magical ring to it. The arid, beige landscape is bizarrely reminiscent of Tatooine, the fictional desert planet from Star Wars (minus its two suns, of course) and one wouldn’t have been surprised to see Anakin Skywalker ambling around!
Just a 15-minute walk from the centre of Göreme town here is the Göreme Open Air Museum, a UNESCO World Heritage site that transports you back in time. In the early days of Christianity, the site became a refuge for Christian monks fleeing Roman persecution. They arrived in Cappadocia and lived and worshipped in secret—in caves carved into the fairy chimneys. Scores of monasteries and churches are placed side by side here, with beautiful frescoes that still retain their freshness. You can also have an authentic cave experience by opting to stay in a cave hotel with choices ranging from the ultra-luxury to budget. If you like active holidays, Cappadocia offers some of the most scenic trails for a bike ride or hike through these unusual surroundings. But the best way to view Cappadocia is certainly from the air, in a hot air balloon. The rides are scheduled at dawn, with spectacular views of the unique Mars-like landscape below, a stunning sunrise above and hundreds of colourful balloons in between.
Coffee in Antalya
Part of the Turkish Riviera, Antalya is a beach-lover’s paradise, with 300 glorious days of sunshine in a year. The spectacular pine-clad Taurus Mountains sweep down to the sea and tourists throng to view the waterfalls that make beautiful rainbows as they tumble from the cliff into the sparkling blue Mediterranean.
There is a lot to do in and around Antalya. For instance, you could unwind with a game of golf at one of the many championship golf courses here. I enjoyed my morning playing 18 holes at the scenic Titanic Deluxe Golf Belek Course, which is flanked by the ocean and Besgoz River. Some 18km east are the ancient cities of Aspendos and Perge, where you can walk through the remains of Roman colonnaded streets, agora, aqueducts and theatres that seem to litter Europe. Stop by little villages on the way, to pluck fresh oranges and have juice or buy locally-made Turkish scarves.
The historical old town of Kaleici is a must-do as well. Surrounded by medieval walls, the town offers beautiful views of the harbor, and makes for an excellent shopping destination, with its quaint shops selling lamps, pottery and lots of evil-eye products. A boat cruise through the harbour is also worth taking. And when you’re in need of refueling, stop at one of the several pretty cafes, offering Turkey’s choicest teas and coffees. An old Turkish proverb describes Turkish coffee as, “Black as hell, strong as death, sweet as love.” Brewed in a very distinctive way, a small cup is stronger than your average espresso. To top it all, a local fortune-teller would tell you what your future holds by looking at the remnants of the coffee in your cup, once you’ve drained it!
Cruising in Istanbul
Byzantium-Constantinople-Istanbul: the changing names of this great city remind one of its fascinating heritage spanning 13 successive civilisations. Once the capital of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, the city dates back to some 3,000 years. From a Roman-era hippodrome to Egyptian obelisks, the relics of the old empires are in evidence everywhere, especially in the Old City.
The magnificent Hagia Sophia is an architectural marvel where one can observe a historical synthesis of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. Built as an Orthodox Christian cathedral in the 6th century (532–537) under the direction of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I, it was repurposed as a mosque, after the Turkish conquest, in 1453 by Mehmed II, with the addition of a wooden minaret. In 1934, Turkish President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk secularised the building, and it was made into a museum. Art historians consider the building’s beautiful mosaics to be the main source of knowledge about the state of mosaic art at the time.
The famous blue hand-painted tiles from Turkey give the Sultan Ahmed Mosque its popular name, the Blue Mosque. A major attraction in Turkey, this mosque, in the Sultanahmet area, was built in the 1600s, and continues to be an active mosque with prayers offered five times a day.
Not far from the mosque are the lanes of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, which reminds you of an Aladdin movie. From Turkish carpets, scarves and shawls, to sweets, dry fruit and coloured glass lamps; from gems and jewellery, to pottery and souvenirs, this colourful bazaar has everything on sale.
My favourite memories from Istanbul, though, are that of the panoramic views from the medieval Galata Tower, and of the cruise down the Bosporous strait which divides the city into two parts, one in Europe and the other in Asia. There’s even a swimming pool located bang in the middle of the strait, so you can start a lap in Europe and finish it in Asia! No matter how you choose to spend your time, Istanbul will be unforgettable.
The author is an Olympian swimmer and Arjuna Award winner; you can read more about his travels on TravelwithRehan.com