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Adventures in Turkey

Exploring, shopping and ballooning in Istanbul and beyond.

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As the day warms under the midday sun, I head for the Grand Bazaar, one of the great markets in the world (comparable to those in Kashgar in Western China and Fez in Morocco). Everything imaginable is sold there—antiques, carpets (of course) and ubiquitous arrays of fake designer watches, clothes and shoes. My short cab ride from the Hagia Sophia exposes me to the anything-goes pricing of a Turkish taxi driver. Fares vary according to the mood of the drivers, so it’s best to ask the desk staff at your hotel what a ride should cost. Be sure to watch the meter, so the driver doesn’t double the fare by switching it “accidentally” to the night rate. As I get out of a taxi near the bazaar entrance I am approached by a vendor who says, “You look like a man who will buy a carpet today.” I respond, “And do I also look like I just got out of a taxi and I paid double fare?”

At the bazaar, prepare to negotiate. Be ruthless, because the sellers are. The discussions get heated and can involve creative bartering. Over the years in my travels, I have learned to play the game and have, during various negotiations for carpets or antiques, offered up my firstborn (I don’t have kids), promised my sister to a Pakistani carpet seller in Gilgit, nearly traded my wife for a dozen camels and a few rugs in Morocco (I am still paying for that one) and almost got married to a Tajik knife salesman’s mother-in-law in Kashgar.

I could spend another week exploring Istanbul, but I am also here to tour the remote Turkish side of the Aegean Sea aboard a gulet, a traditional two-masted sailboat, and visit Cappadocia, Turkey’s central volcanic plateau.

I board the gulet at Bodrum, a seaside city the New York Times has dubbed the “Saint-Tropez of Turkey” (Bill Gates reportedly has a home here). But I’m not here for loud music and boutiques, so I make a quick getaway on the boat and head south. Sailing across gorgeous, green-blue water, we cruise down the coast and a couple of days later pass very close to the Greek island of Symi. I ask the captain if we can stop to visit. Yes, we could, he says, but first we would need to dock at a Turkish port, get a permit from the Turkish Coast Guard and then, after visiting the Greek island, return to the Turkish port. What a bureaucratic mess! All due to the ongoing animosity between Turks and Greeks….

After a week of sailing, swimming and eating (Turkey is a bad place for a diet), it is time for Cappadocia, a geologic wonder of natural towers and caves with a cultural history dating back to the second millennium B.C. Cappadocia has many underground cities that have been excavated and are open to tourists. One is 18 stories deep with hidden passages and sliding rock doors that can be rolled shut to seal the cave from the outside world. The corridors are quite narrow and not for the claustrophobic, although they do provide a cool escape from the 110-degree heat up above.

The best overview of the place is by hot air balloon. Kapadokia Balloons, one of the oldest of the many companies offering rides, took me aloft at sunrise on a two-hour jaunt that felt like a journey over a lunar landscape. At times we rose to 7,000 feet; other times we glided so close to the sandstone towers they seems almost within reach.

Turkey is a wonderful and diverse country of friendly people, safe, with much history and color. It is not, however, the bargain it once was. Prices are approaching the rest of Europe and most hotel rates are set in Euros.

Image 3:  Sailing the Aegean sea aboard a gulet is a magical experience.
Image 4:  Hot-air ballooning over Cappadocia.


Turkey Tours

Geographic Expeditions:  Take in the sights of the Topkapi Palace, the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque on the 16-day Aegean Odyssey tour. It begins in Istanbul with a cruise on the Bosporus and continues with hiking in Cappadocia and Ephesus—what’s considered the Mediterranean’s best-preserved classical city—then ends with seven nights of sailing, the Greek and Turkish islands of the Aegean. From $5,795, 415.922.0448, geoex.com

Backroads: The eight-day walking and sailing trip includes explorations of underground cities, cliff-side churches and vineyards—all on foot—until it’s off to the sun-soaked Turquoise Coast. There, the group boards a ship for a voyage over aquamarine waters, stopping to swim, snorkel and kayak in hidden coves. From $4,498, 510.527.1555, backroads.com

Abercrombie & Kent:  The luxurious 14-day journey includes stays in the Ritz-Carlton and the Four Seasons hotels, private openings of the Hagia Sophia, dining amid the ruins of Ephesus while listening to the Izmir Symphony Orchestra, a cruise along the Bosporus, a hot-air ballooning excursion over Cappadocia and shopping the 4,000-shop Grand Covered Bazaar. From $8,665, 630.954.2944, abercrombiekent.com

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