"East meets west. Old meets new. Is there anywhere in the world that offers such an evocative mix of history, religion, geographical anomalies, culinary contrasts and simply delightful people?" - Reviewed by Lisa
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Turkey: the Istanbul skyline – punctuated with domes, minarets and skyscrapers. The endless, crystal clear seas of the Turquoise Coast, the otherworldly valleys and cave dwellings of Cappadocia … this is an epic adventure of a nation.
QUICK FACTS ABOUT TURKEY
Turkey has 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, 40 national parks, 189 nature parks, 31 nature preserve areas, 80 wildlife protection areas and 109 nature monuments. Encircled by the sea on three sides, it has 8,000km of coastline and the longest beach is 18 kms. The country is also home to two of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World: the ruins of the Mausoleum of Maussollos in Halicarnassus and the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus.
Turkey covers a huge landmass. This fact generally gets written off by the visitor who regards it as a place to zip around and see the bucket list sights and worries about its proximity to Syria. In reality, it covers over 750,000 square kilometers and could more appropriately be referred to as a small continent – bigger than Texas and 3 times larger than the UK. The visitor needs to fully understand that what happens in the South is a good plane ride away from what happens in other areas.
Bordering Bulgaria and Greece to the west, Turkey has both a foot in Europe (which is very evident in Istanbul – divided as it is into two distinctly different areas by the Bosphorus) and has many customs, ways and mannerisms that are totally in keeping with European values. But Turkey also has a foot in the Greater Middle East as it borders Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia to the northeast; Syria, Iraq and Iran to the southeast.
Turkey boasts warm coastal areas flanked by the Mediterranean in the southwest, verdant hills along the Black Sea to the arid steppes of the eastern interiors and many mountain ranges that offer excellent skiing. It sounds like a cliché, but there is more than enough to offer visitors with every kind of interest.
Turkey’s Aegean and Mediterranean coastal areas enjoy a typical Mediterranean climate – hot summers, warm springs and autumns and temperate winters.
The Istanbul area finds summers warm and humid while the winters are cool and damp. Snow is common at the coastal areas, although it doesn’t stay on the ground for long and is limited to only a few days every winter.
Cappadocia brings hot dry summers, pleasant fall and spring conditions and extremely cold winters.
CULTURE AND SIGHTSEEING
Wow! Where to begin? There are guidebooks aplenty with fascinating reading about a country and people who have been around since prehistoric times. The knowledge that TripWix came away with from multiple visits to Turkey was that all these centuries of living have honed a people who are intrinsically sophisticated and open-minded.
Unimaginably beautiful places with ruins dating back thousands of years are so abundant and available for every visitor to find and relish. Find fascinating culture, history and architecture at every turn and every step throughout the Republic.
Your Turkey programme might be packed with bucket-list highlights like visiting some of the wonderfully preserved “must see” palaces and mosques in Istanbul; the Hagia Sophia built in 537 or the ancient, beautifully-restored Greek and Roman temples at Ephesus.
Alternatively, you might opt for a laid-back, Turquoise Coast Gulet cruise where you can swim ashore and take off for a hike and quite literally stumble upon ancient ruins where you’ll find absolutely no visitors. Still half buried and abandoned sites like Olympus on the south-east shores of Antalya or Knidos on the south-west Mediterranean coast abound.
You’ll be astonished at the sights available everywhere. One amusing memory was a road junction in Fethieye which simply split around a well-preserved Lycian tomb (dating back to 2000 BC). No frills and tourist barriers here – this is truly modern day living, hand-in-hand with its ancient past!
The official language of Turkey is Turkish. Despite the fact that its letters are similar to the English alphabet, the spoken language has many very strongly-accented sounds and is not the easiest to pick up. Guidebooks offer phonetic interpretations of the most commonly used words and phrases. It’s fun to try to tackle the basics like hello (merhaba), goodbye (güle güle) and the more difficult thank you (teşekkür ederim).
Religion covers a very broad spectrum in Turkey. Although the primary faith is Islam, the way it is embraced in Turkey varies dramatically from region to region. Many people on the northwestern and western coasts are liberal about the religion (being nominal Muslims sometimes to the point of being irreligious), while the folk of the central steppes are far more conservative.
As one would expect with so many centuries over which to hone religious viewpoints and with the influences of so many past inhabitants, many more religions such as Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Judaism, and Roman Catholicism are also in evidence. It’s not unusual to find a Roman Catholic church side by side with an Islamic mosque – each worshipper respecting the other.
The most noteworthy religious event in the Turkish calendar is Ramadan – a month-long period of fasting, prayer and celebration during which pious Muslims neither drink nor eat anything, even water, from sunup to sundown. The observation of Ramadan takes place throughout the country but does not affect areas where most tourists are found – plenty of restaurants, bars and shops are open throughout the day, all month.
How to categorize such a diverse nation of people – impossible! But, wherever we went, we encountered the most friendly folk. The Turkish people are proud and happy to show off their heritage, share their tasty cuisine, chat and discover more about you – the visitor – and suggest things that might interest you.
Turks, in general, have very strong nationalistic views and have the utmost respect for the founding father of the republic – Atatürk – whose face you will see emblazoned on a multitude of flags in most towns, village squares and areas of prominence.
FOOD AND DRINK
With influences from around the world, Turkish cuisine is not only highly flavourful but in most cases very healthy. A delicious combo of dishes and ingredients combines Mediterranean, Central Asian, Caucasian, and Arabic influences.
Depending on the region in which you find yourself, beef is probably the most important meat with lamb in second place. An emphasis on excellent cold and warm water fish is contingent, again, on where you happen to be eating.
Vegetables are plentiful. Turkey has to be a top gastronomic destination for vegetarians and vegans as simple products like the eggplant (aubergine) can be manifested into hundreds of different dishes, each with no bearing on the other.
Spices and herbs are abundant but fresh, local spices and aromatics have tastes unique to the area in which they are grown. A kebab from Bodrum may be more pungently seasoned with oregano – where the herb grows freely – than a kebab from Istanbul.
Mainstays on most menus are meatballs (Köfte) and kebabs whose different varieties run into multitudes (spicy, chunky, shaved, etc.) and always meze.
What is meze? It’s an array of appetizers featuring everything from locally-grown olives, cheese, pickles and a wide variety of small dishes made with fish and vegetables. Meze can easily be a whole meal unto itself.
Turkish desserts are typically sweet and nutty of the Arabic kind commonly referred to as baklava, a layered pastry of finely ground nuts and phyllo dough soaked in honey and spices which come in a myriad of guises.
And any section on food would not be complete without mentioning the famed Turkish Delight, a firm jelly made of starch and sugar. It can be simply flavoured with rosewater or lemon or have any number of nuts and spices added to it – it can even be dipped into chocolate! The variations are immense and lots of fun to try.
Raki is the national drink and often compared to Anis for its licorice flavor. In any traditional restaurant, be prepared for the offer of a bottle or at least a glass.
Wine production in Turkey is sophisticated and yields up some excellent vintage and non-vintage local wines. Very affordable in price and supremely satisfying to the palate as one grows to expect from all that is Turkish.
Turkish Coffee (kahve), served in tiny cups, is strong and tasty. It’s totally different than that cuppa Joe that most Americans or European coffee drinkers are used to.
Tea (çay) is very popular and most Turks will drink tea all day long; black tea served in small glass cups is an excellent part of any business-cinching deal.
Coastal locations are as liberal in Turkey as anywhere else in the world, but a quick tip for ladies is to pack headscarves if you plan on visiting any mosques or religious relics and to pay attention to the length of your skirt. Erring on conservative for sightseeing is the advice we offer.
The local currency is the Turkish lira. There’s no shortage of banks and exchange bureaus in the cities, but changing money may be more difficult in the smaller towns and villages. Drawing out cash from an ATM is often your best solution as well as the most favourable exchange rate.
Shopping appears to be a national pastime. Turks are born negotiators and shopping in Turkey can be as much fun as you make it. Traders can often seem pushy, but, really, they’d rather engage you in curious conversation than try to foist an unwanted purchase on you.
Banter back and forth and you’ll have lots of good-natured entertainment. The best advice is to only enter serious conversation when you’re sure you want to purchase – then expect to sit down, drink tea and negotiate. It’s all part of the experience.
There’s really not much of a language barrier as savvy salesmen are surprisingly multi-lingual (and also very up on their global football scores as well as international current affairs!) Decent deals are there to be had on leather goods, carpets, ceramics and just about anything the mind cares go to.