Know that feeling when you’re asked to describe a lovely experience, and you get all animated, excited, give out tiny details and yet there’s a lot more to share? Well, that’s Turkey for me! Here’s two cities I visited.
Sharing its borders with Asia and Europe, the city charmed me with its traditional-meets-modern personality. Having been the capital of both the Byzantine and Ottoman Empire, it experienced Christianity and Islam over different eras, something that reflects in its architecture. The best example: Ayasofya aka Hagia Sophia, a basilica-turned-mosque-turned-museum. Look up at its huge dome and you’ll see mosaics depicting Christianity co-existing with Islamic elements. The Sultan Ahmed Mosque was built (between the year 1609 to 1616) nearby. It’s popularly known as the Blue Mosque due to the exquisite blue tiles that adorn its interior. Also, do visit the Topkapi Palace (now a museum) for a look at royal outfits, decor and treasures. For a bird’s eye view of the city, head to the Galata Tower. Built in 1348, the observatory was used to watch out for fires, and as a prison by the Ottomans.
The city streets also have a lot to offer. Walk down the Istiklal Street to absorb the lifestyle and witness great impromptu street acts.
But how is travel complete without shopping? The Grand Bazaar is the place to be. This covered maze-like market has about 5000 shops, selling everything from glass lamps, teas, Turkish towels, ceramic-ware, to souvenirs, sweets and jewellery. When here, get used to some flirting by the shopkeepers, but don’t forget to bargain. Also visit the Spice Market which is a bit more pocket-friendly.
There’s traffic in Istanbul too, but the ferry is your saviour. Also, you enjoy a great view. We took one to visit Buyukada, the largest of the nine ‘Princes' Islands’ in the Sea of Marmara. Lovely view, quiet life and seaside restaurants are its USP. Apart from walking, the only way of touring the island is on a horse-drawn carriage.
When in Turkey, do watch a traditional belly dance performance, or go for a hammam bath for an exotic experience.
While Istanbul was more traditional and raw, Izmir is more modern and sexier. Situated on Turkey’s Aegean coast, it has lovely eateries, posh markets and great nightlife. For shopping, head to the Old Bazaar. Similar to Delhi’s Sarojini Nagar market, it’s your go-to destination for anything you need. For some sightseeing, Konak Square is where you should be. In its centre stands the 112-year-old Clock Tower. Relax, have chai or enjoy feeding the hundreds of pigeons here. You’d spot vendors selling cups of birdfeed. Also, do not miss a walk on the Izmir promenade along the sea, at sunset.
Around 55kms south of Izmir, is Ephesus (below), the ancient Greek-Roman city dating back to about 6,000 BC. It’s fascinating to walk past its remains — columns, ancient bath areas, beheaded statues, the Library of Celsus, and the Great Theatre, et al. Also, Virgin Mary is believed to have spent her last days in a stone house (now a chapel), about nine kms off Ephesus. A spring of salt water here is said to have curative properties.
Turkish food is flavoursome and you’re welcomed with cold veg starters, with dips, olive oil and loads of fresh bread. For main course, choose from chicken, lamb/meat and seafood, accompanied with salted rice. Veg options are dominated by aubergine. End your meal with some gooey ‘shaker para’ or their traditional baklava, and Turkish coffee. Street food options include stuffed breads, simit (right), kumru and chestnuts. Do try Raki, a Turkish, anise-flavoured alcoholic drink.
Fact file ...
Get there: There are many direct flights from Delhi to Istanbul.
Stay at: Istanbul Gonen (90 euros per night) and Izmir’s Swissôtel Büyük Efes (100 euros per night).
Visit during: April-June; September-October
Currency: Turkish Lira (about `31); Euro and dollar are also accepted
(The writer’s trip was sponsored by Turkey Tourism and Turkish Airlines)