In June 2001, my friend Kevin and I took a trip through Asia Minor, where we crossed paths with a Trojan horse, a bellydancer, the tomb of the Virgin Mary, and a flesh-eating Scottsman. Such are the wonders of Turkey.
I took an Art History class in college, and it was one of those grueling courses that, for me, almost ruined art. The professor was one of those 60s-burnout types, with long, grey hair in a ponytail, and, in what was clearly an attempt to 90s-ify his look, a bad goatee and an earring. He spoke in a flat, dispassionate monotone, accompanied by a slight lisp. Art seemed to move him very little; he spoke of the Lascaux cave paintings with as much enthusiasm as one might muster to describe Sunday’s Marmaduke comic. His style and indifference might have been excusable if he had, say, stories to tell about partying with Andy Warhol or working as a roadie for Jimi Hendrix, but he volunteered nothing of his own experience or background. Just slides of one great masterpiece after another, a parade of masterpieces, Giotto and Picasso and Cellini, described with the inflection of Ben Stein’s teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, if not the irony.
It was 75 minutes, twice per week, of utter torture. I skipped it often, and probably got my requisite B at semester’s end. There was one afternoon, however, when this professor came to life – slightly. He was showing us slides of Hagia Sophia, the Byzantine church-turned-mosque in Istanbul, and the man seemed to be consumed by it. The change of tone awoke me from my stupor, and I gazed at photos of one of the most inspiring and inspired works of architecture built by man. I could see why the old stoner liked the place, and I quietly decided that one day, if this class ever ended, I’d see it in person. Then I went back to my nap.
I did see Hagia Sophia, three years later. Rather, I saw the outside, which bore a sign informing me that the joint was closed for repairs. That was a dejecting moment, because I hadn’t thought about what else I would do in Turkey, and naturally made the mosque one of the cornerstones of my trip in 2001. (I also managed to forget to stop by Sistine Chapel in Rome, but that’s another story.)
By the end of my trip, it hardly mattered. For two weeks, I traveled through western Turkey and the Greek Islands, and that vacation remains the gold standard for me in many respects. It was a journey that kept me on the move, from one spot to the next, meeting new people and seeing amazing and different sites. It took place over 14 days in June; like many Americans, I don’t live the life that allows for a lot of extended travel time. And not to wax poetic on you, but as a trip to a Muslim country that straddles East and West, just three months before 9/11, it will always be tinted with a little sepia in my mind. Of course, before I left, I had a few reservations over flying Turkish Airlines to a nation bordering Iraq; I knew who Osama bin Laden was then, and I checked out the security warnings on the U.S. State Department page. But my friend Kevin, who traveled there with me, reassured me by stressing that it was still Eastern Europe, after all. My grandmother had nearly died just a week earlier, but pulled through (and is still living today), so I played the you-only-live-once card in my mind. In a way, it was a pre-emptive strike against the terrorists, because if I hadn’t gone then – say it with me – the terrorists would have blahblahblah blah.
My consolation prize was the Blue Mosque, which is still pretty impressive but nowhere near as old. Hagia Sophia was built for Christendom in the 6th century; the Blue Mosque (really the Sultan Ahmed Mosque) was completed in 1616. We stopped by Topkapi Palace, residence of the Ottoman sultans, although the importance of this edifice was probably lost on me at the time. (Large portions remain of the Walls of Constantinople, built in antiquity and felled by the Ottoman siege of 1453.) I stayed at Istanbul Hostel, located within a few blocks of the great mosques, and that first night I took in the view of the Bosphorous from the hostel’s outdoor café, over a couple of beers and a Dave Eggers book. I’m sure I thought of that art history teacher and chuckled.
I’ve had my share of massages, but I’ve never encountered anything quite like the majestic Cagaloglu Hamam in Istanbul. (No, this is not going where you think.) This ornate hamam (bath) was built in 1741. It features as its jewel a rotund steam room, with a perforated dome letting in specks of luxurious Turkish sun, and a circular marble slab on which guests lie to allow the intense heat to loosen up the back muscles. (No, this is not going where you think.) Fountains with refreshing cool water line the periphery. Eventually, the masseur will come around (and no, it’s not going where you think).
The masseur (men can only be massaged by men, but women may request a masseuse) scrubbed the majority of my body with what felt like steel wool. He lifted my forearm and showed me the layer of dead skin he’d just removed before rinsing it off with water. This whole time I’d been walking around in dead skin. Then the brutality began. “Massage!” the man kept exclaiming with what was surely one of the few English words he knew. Suddenly, my arms were being pushed and pulled, my neck twisted, my back pummeled, my legs rotated, and the old click-clack in the back of my sacroiliac was cracked. I thought for a moment that he might simply break my neck, but then I remembered that I hadn’t yet tipped him.
Kevin’s fate was just as uncertain. An obese, imposing man entered the room and motioned for Kevin to come into a separate room. There, he was subjected to the same treatment, only crazier. “A 300-pound man just walked on my back,” he told me after emerging from the room. Of course we felt limber and new, and proceeded to check out the Grand Bazaar, an enormous outdoor market where simply by saying “no thank you,” a vendor will cut his price by roughly 90 per cent. It was only upon returning to the hostel that I realized I’d haggled with them while having pieces of dead skin still hanging from my eyebrows.
After a couple of days in Istanbul, we caught up with a bus tour sponsored by the hostel. I’d never been on a tour, nor had I ever considered it. Tours typically mean waking up early and following a schedule, two things I do not enjoy. I have always believed that mornings hold very little value, and I base this stance on empirical evidence gathered over 34 years on this earth. Aside from the dawns I’ve encountered after a long night of drinking, I can count on one hand the number of sunrises I’ve actually enjoyed. There was one, when I was three, on a camping trip with my dad; we set the alarm to catch a pink and orange aurora. I also found in the woods that morning a plastic Star Wars cup that I took home as a souvenir. Win-win. Besides that, most of the enjoyable early mornings I remember involve Christmas presents, going to the airport to catch a flight, or realizing I have another four hours of sleep ahead of me and rolling over. So it was with some hesitation that I signed up for a tour that meant getting up early to snap pictures of what I imagined would be one God-forsaken ruin after another.
In fact, having someone plan your itinerary and actually tell you about what you’re gawking at is a great way to see a foreign land. One of the first stops we made was at the site of Troy, outside Canakkale. Istanbul, nee Constantinople was loaded with history, but here we were treading on earth so ancient that its very history was loaded with myth and romance. We visited three other incredible ancient Greek ruins: Ephesus, Aphrodisias, and Hierapolis. You would think one would get ruin fatigue, but each city was different and awe-inspiring in its own way. Hierapolis probably took the cake, as it was in its day a city of great baths. The town was situated on top of the natural site of Pamukkale, a series of hot spring pools ensconced in white terraces made of carbonate minerals (travertines) left behind from the cascading springwater. The result is a visual resembling a bizarre alien landscape in a 50s sci-fi movie. The pools themselves are a welcome respite from the blazing hot sun; the mineral-rich water soothes the skin and relaxes any traveler’s tired and sunburned feet.
There were other highlights on the guided tour, including a belly dancer entertaining us at one of the hotels, and a stop at the purported final resting place of the Virgin Mary. (She had to have died somewhere, I guess.) The tour had a light-hearted and jovial atmosphere. Most of the guests were younger and from America, Australia, or the U.K. Daytime trips to ancient cities were followed by nighttime drinking and partying, either at a bar or the pension. One evening, some tomfoolery at a hotel pool resulted in a flesh wound for Kevin, as he recounts:
I also remember one night everyone was getting thrown into the pool with our clothes on and when we went and grabbed a Scottish guy on our tour, he bit a chunk out of my shoulder (I guess there are some things I do regret on that trip).
At some point, in fact probably after the Scottish guy incident, we decided to break from the bus tour. We caught a commercial bus and made our way south, through rolling country and small towns where no one spoke a lick of English, and where pulling out a 20 million lira note in a store would elicit stares of awe, as though we had just walked off a spaceship and attempted to pay for our food with kryptonite. Eventually, we arrived at Olympos, 90 km southwest of Antalya, on the southern coast. Here lay (and lies) Kadir’s Tree Houses, a youth hostel reminiscent of the Ewok villages in Return of the Jedi. Dorms are built up in trees, with the common areas situated on terra firma. (If it’s booked, Bayram’s is a similar pension.) It’s just a short walk from one of the most breathtaking beaches you will ever encounter; in fact the walk requires that you pass some more fantastic ruins along the way, including an ancient bath and sarcophagus. Olympos is also at the foot of Mount Chimaera, a mountain perforated by small, continuously burning flames believed to be the source of the myth of the Chimera (best seen at night – both Bayram’s and Kadir’s offer guided tours). Kadir’s also offers a day trip by boat to Butterfly Island, featuring more jaw-dropping scenery and crystal clear water.
Our last stop in Turkey was the port town of Marmaris; we killed a day on the bus so we only ate and slept there before hopping the ferry to the Greek island of Rhodes. We spent a few more days in the Greek islands with our friend Kobi. But since neither country wants to be lumped together with the other, that will have to be another entry.
Here are a few quick tips:
I traveled to Turkey just after it suffered an economic collapse, which had followed years of serious inflation. Lira were on a scale of millions, and as I was backpacking, I probably got by on less than US $30 per day. The country has recovered somewhat in the past decade, even introducing new currency (shaving off a few zeros to keep it simple). Turkey is still amazingly affordable, especially compared with the EU, especially once you get outside Istanbul.
Right now, the best tickets can be found on Delta, United, Turkish Airlines and Iberia, with coach tickets in March, April, and May going for around $700-800. Prices are spiking in June slightly but figure to settle if you book in late March or April. A visa is required for citizens of the U.S., U.K., Canada, and Australia, among other countries. The cost is about US $20 and the visa may be purchased at the point of entry.
Beyond the usual harassment at ports of entry, bazaars, and the like, traveling through Turkey is largely safe and without incident. Most of the Turks I met there were extremely friendly and willing to go out of their way to help us if we needed it. However, it’s best to stay away from the border regions near Syria, Iraq, and Iran. And don’t drink the tap water.
Recommended reading: 1453, by Roger Crowley, about the Ottoman siege of Constantinople.
Oh, and don’t forget to stop by Hagia Sophia. Just make sure it’s open.