The glories of Turkey evoke a special affection that is awash with timeless traditions and the appeal of travel.
This exotic land, criss-crossed with dramatic cloud-dappled mountains, fertile valleys, uplands and plateaus, is stamped with the indelible imprint of the Romans and Ottomans and hundreds of ill-conceived wars that have kept historians busy tracking the flags that have crossed the Bosphorus.
A living museum with more antiquities than Greece, Turkey will dazzle your senses with spiraling ruined temples, medieval castles and Islamic architecture as seen in the imposing mosques of the 16th and early 17th centuries.
The lavish use of ceramics, sculpture and sacred frescoes, tucked in among vaulted ceilings, shape an exotic image of a culture and the people.
In the tidy tile-roofed villages, obedient burros clomp through teaming markets bursting with glorious produce sold by the most hospitable people this side of Ireland.
The land has not made the people rich, but has made them resourceful farmers, fishermen, weavers and marketers. Turkey is among a few, select countries that produce a surplus of crops.
Hooded women dabble in the fragrance of olive oil over crackling coals while gossiping with their neighbors. Mustachioed men sit at sidewalk cafes, puffing on crinkled cigarettes and sipping coffee with lasting power as the shoe shine man creates a lusty glaze on a pair of scruffy boots.
ISTANBUL Istanbul, (pop. 11 million) Turkey’s proud gateway, is a vibrant mix of antiquity and the dominating presence of the sea. The Bosphorus flows down from the northeast through Istanbul, separating Europe from Asia, joining the Sea of Marmara with the Black Sea and creating magnificent vistas whether you are enjoying breakfast in Asia or lunch in Europe.
The city’s ancient mosques, which seem to be floating on a pinnacled skyline, are in harmony with the rhythms of time and earth and ring out with deeply ingrained daily prayers—the pillars of Islam and the faithful Muslims.
With a Lonely Planet guide book, or The Guide Istanbul, available in Istanbul, you can dig into the city on your own. Megatrails, a highly rated tour company will lead you through the city on a custom mini-tour for independent travelers offering fascinating historic details along the way.
OLD CONSTANTINOPLE Regardless of your choice, the rich visual diary of each day’s experience will include the nine-mile-long city walls that once protected Constantinople, as the city was then known, and Sultan Ahmet’s Blue Mosque featuring classic Ottoman architecture, a great domed interior, and a sense of ordered space. Adjacent to the Blue Mosque is St. Sophia, circa A.D. 532-537, ranked among the world’s great buildings with its stunning Byzantine mosaics and stained-glass windows.
Nearby is the treasure-filled Topkapi Palace Museum, the home of the Ottoman sultans from the 15th to the 19th centuries.
Across the street and down a slippery staircase into the bowels of the city is a spine-chilling, perfectly intact, 6th century Byzantine Cistern and more than 300 massive Corinthian columns which rise from the water to a brick vaulted ceiling.
James Bond splashed thru this haunting setting a few years ago in chase of bad guys in “From Russia with Love.”
In the same neighborhood, you can get lost in the covered or Grand Bazaar where a maze of 3,500 or so shops are crammed together in a web of jewelry, copper, carpets, leather, hand-woven textiles and cafes.
Shopkeepers quip, “Come in, I show you my union badge. Better than K Mart. Be happy, say cheese… I can help you spend your last money.”
Less commercial than the Grand, the exotic Egyptian Spice Bazaar, off Eminonu Square, offers figs, dried fruit, cheese, caviar, pepper, huge sacks of inky black tea, baskets of sweets and fragrances mixed to your liking. The friendly shopkeepers love to be photographed, but be prepared to take down their address in order to send them a photo.
Another splendid attraction is the Dolmabahce Palace, built by the Sultans in the second half of the 19th century on the European side. Arrive at 9 a.m. to best experience one of Europe’s most beautiful palaces.
The small but stunning 11th century Kariye Museum, in Old Istanbul, is where you can hear groups speaking in four or five languages and marveling at 600-year-old Byzantine murals and mosaics depicting the lives of the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ and other events from the bible.
Before departing the city, pop up to the ancient Galata Tower in the Galata district. From the round tower the city seems to be laid out in a jumbled puzzle of houses, mosques, passageways, marine highways and mighty bridges connecting Europe to Asia.
Sea gulls glide gracefully in the breeze as a stream of rusty freighters chugs past, disappearing into the mist. The aroma of roasting garlic tickles your nose, while twinkling harbor lights signal the end of the day. Istanbul, a city on the move, is settling in for the night.
WHEN YOU GO
Like most large cities, Istanbul is smoggy and choked with traffic; pedestrians don’t have the right of way. In terms of large cities, Istanbul is safe and virtually graffiti free. Drink bottled water in place of tap water.
For a variety of tour packages from 1-16 days, contact Megatrails at (800) 547-1211; (212) 888-9422. The 65-acre Swissotel, near the banks of the Bosphorus, is a 5-Star beauty; (800) 637-9477; The Marmara Hotel is conveniently located downtown for business travelers.
Moderately priced accommodations are elegant and relatively abundant ranging from $30 to $170 per night. AAA-rated four and five star hotels charge between $33 and $400 per night. Pensions and one and two star hotels may be as inexpensive as $9 per night.
For information contact the Turkish Tourist Offices in Washington D.C. at (202) 429-9844; New York (212) 687-2194; Turkish Airlines at (800) 874-8875. See your travel agent.
By Richard Carroll / Photography: Donna Carroll