Time-travelling in Turkey
Turkey is a land built on time, from the ancient Greek ruins of Ephesus to the lavish Ottomans and the legacy of Ataturk. Dawn Jorgensen goes from 550BC to 2015 in 7 days.
Semsa Denizsel is a pioneer of the new Turkish food movement, something she confidently demonstrates at her restaurant Kantin in the upmarket Nisantasi district of Istanbul. Gathered here for dinner at a table brimming with freshly baked breads, cured meats, hand-sourced cheeses and Mediterranean fair, we were eating generous portions of goodness as she told us about her farm-to-table philosophy.
It was our first night on tour, a group of just on 30 travellers who would explore Turkey together, and we couldn’t have been off to a better start. We came from at least 10 countries, varied ages and different interests, but we had one thing in common: We were about to get an insider perspective of Turkey with Trafalgar Tours.
Istanbul’s history stretches back two millennia. The Topkapi Palace guards the treasures of a bygone era and the Bosphorus, the strait that divides Turkey between two continents, makes for incredible river cruises. We did one, sipping on bubbly as we looked towards the crossroads of civilisation and the very bridge which connects east to west, Asia to Europe.
The minarets of Instanbul’s great mosques pierce the skyline everywhere, with rolling domes dominating the cityscape. A highlight of the tour, and something worth your time, is the renowned 1616 Sultan Ahmed Mosque, fondly known as the Blue Mosque. It’s named after the colour of its interior tiles and fascinating mixture of Byzantine and Islamic architecture.
Across from the Blue Mosque and offering the best views towards it is the Hippodrome of Constantinople, which once held the political and sporting focus of the era with the open-air arena still shows traces of old horseracing tracks. While walking it look out for the The Kaiser Wilhelm German Fountain, an octagonal style feature constructed by the German government in 1900, as well as the Serpent Column and Walled Obelisk.
Nearby is the magical sunken palace of the Basilica Cistern in Sultanahmet Square, once the water source for the entire city. Also the Hagia Sophia, an architectural beauty and important monument both for the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires that has seen a history that took it from church to mosque and now museum. Known in particular for its massive dome, which stands tall enough to hold the Statue of Liberty, remarkable frescos, mosaics and bold marble arches. Here, I took the tour director’s advice, stuck my finger in the Weeping Column in the northern isle and made a wish. It would later come true.
Shop ‘till you drop – Turkey style.
No visit to Istanbul is complete without a shopping expedition to the expansive Grand Bazaar. And when you’re ready for a break, go to the old Egyptian Spice Bazaar, or Misir Carsisi. It’s just a short distance away and, lit by Turkish lamps, is both atmospheric and aromatic. We drank freshly squeezed pomegranate juice and snacked on mouth-watering Turkish street food: borek, a Middle-Eastern pie made of phyllo pastry, and dolma, a stuffed vegetable dish.
For weary shoppers’ bodies, booking a hammam or Turkish Bath is a must. I have never been scrubbed or soaked so clean – this ritual of health and wellness leaves no room for modesty.
Refreshed and relaxed we headed to the Dardanelles on the west end of the Sea of Marmara, a narrow strip of water that has been of great strategic significance since ancient times. Here, you find the Gallipoli Peninsular that saw one of the most disastrous campaigns of World War I in 1915. To commemorate the centenary, we visited Anzac Cove for a moving walk through the cemeteries with a Battlefields expert. Touched by the significance of the location and the memory of the hundreds of thousands of lost lives, we quietly crossed to the picturesque town of Cannakale by ferry, where we spent the night.
Channelling some Brad Pitt.
Izmir is Turkey’s main Mediterranean port and the Turkish headquarters for NATO; it is also the third largest city in the country. From here we visited Troy, where Homer’s Iliad was lived out 3000 years ago. Discovered and excavated by German historian and archaeologist Heinrich Schlieman, the remains offer a good idea of ancient living, while the replica Trojan Horse is a fun reminder of the legend, more recently depicted in the movie Troy, with Brad Pitt playing Achilles. Alas, he was nowhere to be seen.
The site of Ephesus, about 16km outside of Izmir, impresses as one of the best-preserved ancient classical cities with its ruins well intact. Around the end of the first century BC, Ephesus had a population of over 300 000 people and was one of the main ports on the Aegean Coast. Then the sea receded across the Menderes River plain, spelling disaster for the city. It was soon abandoned.
The exodus meant that it was left largely untouched and today you can experience the magnificence of the Library of Celsus, Arcadian Way, with its columns that once led down to the sea, and the Lower Agora with its 25 000-seat theatre carved into the rock.
But it’s the resident cats that have made the ancient ruins their home that will steal your heart. Most are up for a head scratch, a tummy rub and a quick photo. And with Ephesus as a backdrop, they’re some of the most photogenic felines in the world
Another culinary highlight of our trip was the Be My Guest-experience that we had in Demircidere, a tiny village just outside of Izmir. Here split into groups of four, we were taken to private homes and hosted in a traditional Turkish style. The Granny of the family, despite being bent with age, took great pride in preparing the food. I didn’t understand a word, yet the joy of the moment became our common language.
Returning to Istanbul and almost on my way back home, I couldn’t help but reflect on the Turkish nation with fondness. There’s a sense of ownership of language and culture, a deeply embedded pride among the Turks. Here is a Muslim country with Raki, an anise flavoured alcoholic beverage as it’s national drink. Turkish delight is much more than a sweet treat, it’s a conviction, and their can sit proudly with the world’s best.
I left feeling teased by Turkey’s offerings, wanting to return for more, and enriched by the unique insider experiences and the new friends I shared it with, including the wonderful Semsa of Kantin Restaurant.
Turkey with Trafalgar – the details.
Trafalgar breaks down barriers and offers hidden journeys and personal insight into the destination through their tour directors and local specialists.
You’ll dine with local families in their homes, learn to cook regional dishes, and share a glass or two with winemakers at their vineyards, giving you a deeper understanding of the Turkish lifestyle and history.
Turkish Airlines has daily direct flights into Istanbul from Cape Town and Johannesburg. The airline serves tasty Mediterranean-style food, offers good on-board entertainment and even welcomes you on board with a sweet treat of Turkish delight. It’s a lovely touch. http://www.turkishairlines.com/
To book a Trafalgar holiday, contact your ASATA travel agent or call Trafalgar on (011) 280 8400. For more information, go to www.trafalgar.com You can also follow them at Trafalgar Travel on Facebook and @TrafalgarSA on Twitter.
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