Turkey With Adventures Abroad
Last October, during a respite in the Covid pandemic, Alison and I travelled to Turkey with Adventures Abroad. We had been to this wonderful country a number of times before and leapt at the chance to visit it again, particularly as the itinerary included a number of places we had not been to before, notably Cappadocia. In this post I am going to try to answer three questions that might be on the mind of even the most intrepid traveler – why Turkey, why now and why go with Adventures Abroad? If I’ve done my job properly, by the end of this post the reader will be looking up the dates for the next AA trip to Turkey.
Why Choose Turkey?
I cannot deny that Turkey has not been getting the greatest press coverage over the past few years and if you look at it strictly with an eye on the Turkish President then rightly so. But keep in mind that a certain Former Guy was in charge of the USA and fomented an attempted coup. That has not stopped people from coming to visit NYC, the Grand Canyon or Disney World, nor should it. It’s all about context and in that regard, Turkey is one of the safest and most interesting places you can possibly visit in these hectic times. Here are the reasons why Turkey should be at or near the top of your bucket list destinations. I will return to talk about your concerns about Erdogan later in this post.
- Turkey is the only country in the world that straddles two continents and as such has a unique mixture of both Occidental and Oriental influences. Perhaps the best example of this are the two great religions that have arisen in what is generally referred to as the Common Era i.e. post B.C. Christianity was the dominant religion in Turkey for about the first millennia of the Common Era and Islam for the second. There is no other place I know of where two of the greatest religious structures on earth, the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque can be viewed just by turning your head.
2. If you are a lover of history and in particular, ancient history, then Turkey must be on your radar. While it is not currently on the Adventures Abroad itinerary, Göbekli Tepe, at up to 12,000 years old is considered to be the oldest known man made structure in the world. What is on the itinerary are artifacts from the Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians and many other long gone cultures that you may have first encountered in the Bible. Even more interesting to me is the fact that Turkey encompasses the legendary lands of Lycia, Ionia, Lydia and Phrygia all of which are traversed on the Adventures Abroad tour.
Some of the best Greek and Roman archaeological sites are found in Turkey including Ephesus, Pergamon, Aspendos, Side, Didyma and Perge all of which are on the itinerary.
Oh, and how about two of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World? Although there’s not much left of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus or the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus at Bodrum, just standing on the site of these places can create a sense of awe.
3. Maybe you’re more into mythology than actual history. In that case, Turkey is the place for you. While the ruins of Troy may not live up to your expectations, just trodding the same ground as Achilles, Hector, Agamemnon, Priam and Ajax will definitely make you want to read the Iliad one more time. Looking out from the walls of Troy to the Dardanelles you can envisage Ulysses and Aeneas both leaving the burning city on their epic voyages that we now know of as The Odyssey and The Aeneid.
While looking up at Mount Olympos on the visit to Aspendos you can imagine the winged horse Pegasus and its rider Bellerophon on the way to slay the chimera that terrorized the native Lycians. Or while visiting the Museum of Anatolian Civilization in Ankara you can look upon the skull of King Midas and see that it’s not made of gold.
4. Not into history, real or imagined, then how about philosophy, mathematics and medicine? Western philosophy and the scientific method were virtually invented in the Greek settlements along the Ionian coast and only later exported to Athens. Thales of Miletus was the first person known to have used an inquiring mind to explain the world around him rather than just accepting that man’s fate was determined by the gods. At the Asclepeion of Pergamon you can follow in the footsteps of the physician and philosopher Galen whose medical theories dominated the field for over 1,300 years.
5. Maybe your bent is religious studies in which case Turkey will more than satisfy your quest for knowledge as you visit not just Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, but many more religious sites including the church where the real St. Nicholas preached and the mosque where the dervishes first whirled.
6. For many people it is the natural history of an area that is more appealing than human history and, (I’m starting to sound like a broken record) Turkey delivers here as well. It is a large country, one and a half times as large as France and like France it has an incredible variety of landscapes and seascapes. The first time I went to Turkey, just coming from Greece, I was surprised at how much forest there was, both coniferous and deciduous. I was not surprised at the stunning beauty of the Ionian and Mediterranean coastline which is justly world famous. One of the highlights of the itinerary is a day spent on the water in a traditional Turkish gulet.
And then there is Cappadocia which is a landscape that almost defies belief. Having the opportunity to view it from above in a hot air balloon will, without exaggeration, create memories that will last a lifetime.
7. The food – I guarantee that you will not be disappointed by the cuisine in Turkey, whether you are someone like me who loves meat, vegetables, seafood, pasta, desserts etc. or are vegetarian or vegan.
Some of the things I just could not get enough of were the many types of bread, the yogurt, especially topped with Turkish honey, various cheeses and the seemingly endless ways in which the Turks prepare lamb. And something I never thought I would be writing – the lentil soup, which is ubiquitous in Turkey, is actually really tasty. Finally, yes Turkish delight is delightful and not like anything you could possibly get back home.
In the upcoming posts I will highlight some of the most memorable meals and dishes that Alison and I enjoyed on this recent trip.
The one thing I have not included as a reason to visit Turkey, but which is much ballyhooed in some quarters, is going to a bazaar, particularly the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. To be honest, I can’t stand the place. It is way too crowded, too smoky and too touristy. The constant haranguing by vendors if you even so much as cast a sidelong glance at some of the mostly junk they are hawking is more than tedious. Now if you can find a legitimate market in a smaller town or city where the locals really do shop that is a different story. These are colourful and photogenic to the extreme.
One place I do recommend shopping at is a genuine Turkish carpet emporium. When I say genuine, I mean one that has been licensed by the Turkish government and produces hand made carpets without employing unfair labour practices. On every trip to Turkey we buy at least one carpet. They aren’t cheap and you really do have to bargain hard (which I leave to Alison), but they become instant family heirlooms that will last hundreds of years. Although Adventures Abroad has a policy of not taking its customers to places to buy souvenirs and such, the guides will make sure you get to a non-ripoff place if you ask. I’ll elaborate further on this when we get to the place where we bought this trip’s carpet.
So that’s a very short and nowhere near comprehensive list of reasons to visit Turkey. Now I’ll try to answer some of the questions you might have that are causing hesitation about going.
But what About …
- Is Turkey a police state and Erdogan a dictator? Despite what you might read in the North American press Turkey is not a dictatorship or a police state. Not that President Erdogan wouldn’t like it to be, just as Trump would love to be lifetime leader of his country. The fact is that both of these politicians have a solid base that is made of of largely rural and lesser educated voters many of whom revel in their religiosity. Unlike Trump, Erdogan actually got 52.59 % of the vote in the last election with the main opposition party getting 30.64%. Also unlike the US, Turkish voter turnout was over 86%. So he is a duly elected President whose popularity is rapidly waning as the Turkish economy tanks. Given that his base is not in the urban areas you will hear plenty of grousing about Erdogan in Istanbul and many of the areas of western Turkey that are included on the Adventures Abroad itinerary. People do speak freely about their political beliefs and I could see no sign that the internet is censored like it is in real police states like China and Cuba. You will see a large police presence in the Sultanahmet area of Istanbul, but I have never felt threatened by it, more the opposite.
- Turkey is a Muslim country, will I feel unwelcome as a Christian or an atheist? Technically Turkey is a secular state with no official religion, but the reality is that those that are religious are overwhelmingly Muslim. There’s the catch. In places like Istanbul, probably less than half the population actually practice their religion. In my visits there I’ve met more non-believers than the faithful. So no, Turkey is a long way from being like Saudi Arabia or Iran. The one thing you will rapidly get tired of is the five times daily call to prayer which is blasted from loudspeakers rather than done orally by a muezzin as it was meant to be. The first few times you hear it sounds exotic, but it gets tiresome very quickly. Also, pretty well everyone seems to just ignore it.
- I like to have a cocktail before dinner and wine with my meals. Will that be an issue in Turkey? The first time I went to Turkey you could get a large selection of imported wines. The second time I went these had pretty well all disappeared and were replaced by awful tasting Turkish wines. I am happy to report that in this most recent visit the Turkish wine industry has vastly matured and while your not going to get the equivalent of a chablis or a nice red burgundy, there are some very decent local varietals available. In terms of hard liquor, most of the hotels that AA uses have lounges and you can buy gin, vodka etc. at any of the tobacco shops or larger grocery chains. So despite the proscription against alcohol in Islam, it is not an issue in Turkey.
- Ok, the elephant in the room. What about Covid? I am writing this as the Canadian government is in a complete panic about the Omicron variant and essentially telling everyone to hide under their beds. Other countries are realizing that people cannot live the rest of their lives as we have over the past two years without having serious mental and physical health issues. Turkey is one of those. As of January, 2022 Turkey has a vaccination rate almost on a par with United States and it is expected to surpass it soon because there is no huge anti-vaxxer movement there. To be sure there are anti-vaxxers everywhere, but they don’t get the tolerance that we seem to afford them in North America.
- To travel on any AA tour you must be fully vaccinated as will be the guides and any service providers. This is also a requirement for entry into Turkey so pretty well everyone you are going to run into at the tourism hot spots is going to be vaccinated. Masks are required at indoor venues as they are on the AA bus. In other words, as a Canadian or American you won’t notice much difference in the Covid protocols in place in Turkey from those back home. In fact, compared to many American states I visited in December, the Turkish protocols are much stricter.
- There is one huge upside to travelling to Turkey sooner rather than later. The fact is you might have some of the top tourist attractions almost all to your small AA group. Here is a photo of Alison and me at the Library of Celsus in Ephesus, one of the most popular sites not just in Turkey, but in the world. Pre-Covid we would be sharing this space with hundreds of other tourists.
At the Library of Celsus
Why Choose Adventures Abroad?
Ok, I think I’ve covered why you need to visit Turkey and why 2022 might be a good time to do it. The next question is why go with Adventures Abroad as opposed to the many other companies that offer a Turkey itinerary. That one is easy to answer in only two words – Yasemin Reis.
Yasemin has been leading AA tours to Turkey for over two decades and her knowledge of the many, many historic and archaeological sites that you will visit on this tour is encyclopedic. Our tour was the first she had been tapped to lead since Covid and she was overly apologetic about her English which she thought was a bit rusty. Not so. The quality of the tour leaders that Adventures Abroad uses is outstanding and Yasemin definitely lives up to that high standard.
Another reason I recommend AA is their selection of hotels which are almost uniformly excellent. I will go into much more detail about the best ones in posts to follow, but here’s an example. This was the view from our room at the Manastir Hotel in Bodrum.
Well those are my reasons for visiting Turkey with Adventures Abroad sooner rather than later. In the next post I’ll write about the protocols on arriving, getting into Istanbul and the really great hotel in the Sultanahmet that we stayed at both before, during and after the tour.