Adventures in Turkey
Exploring, shopping and ballooning in Istanbul and beyond.
The cry of the muezzin startles me. It is 4:30 in the morning and my mind is still heavy with jet lag. Within seconds other muezzins from minarets start their calls and I remember I am in Istanbul, one of my favorite cities in the world. The prayers, propelled by big sets of speakers, echo strangely over the city and pull me from my bed.
I decide to go out for a walk and scout for photographs. Istanbul is a safe, hospitable city. My hotel is in the ancient neighborhood of Sultan Ahmed, where most foreigners stay. At 5 a.m. on this June day, the air is comfortable. Later, temperatures will climb to 100.
Visitors to Istanbul are struck by the abundance of cats in the city. At times it seems they outnumber people. Today is no different. Just outside my hotel I see a couple of kittens playing and then more cats appear. They seem to be everywhere! The taxi drivers outside the hotel have built a small shelter from an old cardboard box for the new kittens and are feeding them milk.
Just around the corner is the Hagia Sophia, one of Istanbul’s most famous landmarks. Now a museum, this former church was built in the sixth century by Justinian during the glory of Eastern Rome, later called the Byzantine Empire. The city fell to the Ottomans in 1453, and a century later Sultan Ahmed 1 commissioned the construction of the Blue Mosque, in 1609. The mosque’s architect, Mehmed Aga, wanted to build a bigger dome than the Hagia Sophia’s but his attempts failed, so instead he made the mosque about the same size by adding half domes and half a dozen minarets. The morning light on the Blue Mosque is stunning.
I walk down to the banks of the Bosporus, gazing at ships of all sizes slowly navigating the passage to the Black Sea. This is the only way to the Black Sea, and every vessel small and large heading to distant ports in Russia and Romania passes by. Many years ago I sailed this strait as well, to Romania, and the view of this city from the water remains etched in my mind.
After my breakfast of yogurt, dried fruits, nuts and a strong double Turkish coffee at a rooftop restaurant, it is 10 o’clock and the museums are open. I return to the Hagia Sophia and enter amid a stream of other visitors from all corners of the globe. Around me, languages collide in a Tower of Babel moment. Standing on the upper balcony beneath the massive dome, I gaze at the restored frescoes on the basilica’s walls and try to imagine the history this building has withstood and the river of humanity that has flowed through these corridors over the millennia.
Very near the Hagia Sophia and about the same age is the Basilica Cistern, a cathedral-size underground water chamber. It is a remarkable sight, filled with columns, lit by soft, warm light and serenaded by Sufi music. James Bond fans may recall that part of the movie From Russia with Love was filmed here. Toward the northwest corner are two columns with huge medusa heads, one that is inverted. Historians still don’t know why they were placed here. The heads remind me of the carved faces on the Bayon temple in Cambodia.
In the 25 years since my last visit to Istanbul, the city has grown dramatically. But even with a population of 20 million, it has not lost its romance. The pudding shop across from the Blue Mosque is still around. This is where young travelers in the 1960s would meet, leave messages for each other and organize overland trips to India and Afghanistan.
Also, my grandfather’s favorite pastry shop is still around—Haci Bekir, with the wonderful lokum, or “Turkish delight.” I go in for a treat and when I tell the clerks that my grandfather shopped here in the 1920s, they start giving me sample after sample. By the time I make it out the door, I’ve eaten the equivalent of a box.
Image 2: Roof top restaurant in Istanbul with view of the Blue Mosque.
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.
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