Today, the country of Turkey is all that remains of the once dominant Ottoman Empire. It is one of the lesser traveled countries, but it is a truly fascinating place to visit. Turkey straddles the continental border or Europe and Asia and has a very diverse culture but is a predominantly Islamic country. It is one of the cheapest countries to travel to especially in comparison to its modernness.
Pro-Tip: If your itinerary includes multiple cities in Turkey, sometimes the cost of a flight is equal to or less than the price of buses or trains, and it will get you there much quicker, saving you time and money.
Day 1-2: Inquisitive In Istanbul
When we travel we always try to find the cheapest flights and sometimes that means long lay overs. The best thing about this one was that it was in Paris (CDG). The cool thing about that is that they have PS4 systems and old school arcade games set up in the waiting area. From Paris we took the red eye to Istanbul. Arriving on zero sleep, I managed to get us to our hotel and after dealing with a minor room key mix up, we got some much needed rest.
Our first day in Turkey was a hot one. Even Jireh was finding the heat hard to handle and she’s Filipino! To be fair, she has been living in Canada for long enough to be adjusted to our colder temperatures. To be honest, she probably has forgotten what +30 C feels like.
The first stop today was none other than the famed Hagia Sophia. The name Hagia Sophia literally translates to “holy wisdom”. The current Hagia Sophia was built in the year 537 CE and took only 6 years to complete. Before that, it was built and rebuilt two other times, the first in the year 325 CE and again in the year 415 CE. It was originally built as a cathedral for the east Roman Empire in Constantinople (currently Istanbul). After the Turkish conquest in 1453, it was repurposed as a mosque. In 1934, the Turkish president made it into a museum which opened it to the public. It is a part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site called the Historic Area of Istanbul. It has also made its way on to the list of the 7 Wonders of the Medieval World.
Our next stop within Istanbul’s Historic Area was the architecturally equally impressive Blue Mosque, known to the locals as Sultan Ahmed Mosque. This mosque, as well as being as tourist attraction, is also an active mosque which means that it is closed to the public 5 times a day for 45 minutes during prayer times. In fact, half of the mosque is permanently reserved for Muslims only. Being an active mosque also means there is a strict dress code that must be adhered to. For the men a sleeved shirt with long pants, and for the women a sleeved shirt with long, loose fitting pants or skirt and also a scarf to cover the hair. Luckily, they provide appropriate garments for tourists before entering free of charge.
Scattered throughout the Historic Area of Istanbul are ruins from the Great Palace of Constantinople which was the eastern power of the Roman Empire in its hay day until it was conquered by the Ottoman Empire.
Day 3: Where East Meets West
Today our story takes you the only city in the world that straddles two continents, where Europe meets Asia in Istanbul. Today we decided to visit the Asian side of the city. The Bosphorus River serves as the line that divides the continents in the south. There is certainly no shortage of ways to get across, there are 3 bridges, 1 tunnel and many different ferry ports scattered along the river. For us the ferry was the most efficient and cost effective method as it only costs 2-4 TL which equates to about $1 CAD. There isn’t a whole lot when it comes to attractions on the Asian side of Istanbul but what it does offer is a fantastic view of the European Istanbul skyline, it’s especially nice during sunset. Along the river we came across various vendors selling snacks and a very peculiar Turkish candy I of course had to try. The Bosphorus River must also be great for fishing because almost every public area with access to the river was full of fishermen. Here we were also able to partake in the Turkish tradition of smoking Shisha with a Hooka.
Fortunately for us our trip to Turkey coincided with Ramadan. Ramadan is an Islamic tradition involving fasting which takes place on the 9th month of every year in accordance with the lunar calendar. The fasting begins after the first morning prayer before sunrise and goes until sunset everyday for the entire month. During this time there is no eating, drinking, smoking or kissing allowed. No need to worry about us though, there is plenty of restaurants and stores open to keep us fed during the day. After sunset the city lights up literally with lights and festivities, music, dancing and of course lots of food and drink. The meal after sunset is known as iftar, which literally means to break the day’s fast, not to be confused with “breakfast”.
On our way back home we came across a large white tent with a huge line of people waiting to get in. Naturally curious to see what’s going on, we went to go have a look. As it turns out they were giving away free meals for Ramadan sponsored by the government (we think, we weren’t able to get full clarification). It was a bit of a struggle communicating with the workers outside because of their lack of English, but what was clear is that they were very friendly and hospitable. We barely understood what was happening but they slid aside the barricades, ushered us inside and told us to sit down. They then brought us out a couple really good size meals with some watermelon for dessert and told us to enjoy. It was a really cool experience and the fact that it was completely free made it that much better.
On the way back to our hotel we found the square near us was now filled with lively music and entertainment. On stage they played some traditional Islamic style music which was very interesting. Certainly different from from the types of music we’re used to hearing. I recorded a little bit so you can see what I mean.
Overall, it was a pretty good day! We visited Europe and Asia, watched the sunset, got a free meal and saw a free show.
Day 4-5: The Hot Air Balloons of Cappadocia
Yesterday we arrived in the small town of Goreme in the Cappadocia region of Turkey. The Cappadocia region is famous for its uniquely dramatic landscape of volcanic rock and within the volcanic rock a network of caves which has served as home for people for over 5,000 years. To this day there are many hotels built within the volcanic rock to offer tourists a luxurious cave dwelling experience. The other thing they are famous for is of course their hot air balloons.
We were originally planning on taking a night bus/train to save money on hotels until we stumbled upon the flights. They are incredibly cheap, we paid only 70 TL per person which works out to about $20 CAD! I don’t even understand how airlines can turn profits with fares that low. It was only a one hour flight which was much more enjoyable than the 8-12 hour bus/train ride that would have cost us slightly even more.
The hot air balloon rides are crazy expensive especially in comparison to everything else in the country. We paid about $360 CAD for 2 of us for a 1 hour ride. If you compare that to the cost of our 1 hour plane ride you can understand my frustration about the price. After a lot of googling, this was still the best price we could find. The other thing that kind of sucks is that they start VERY early. The pick up from our hotel was 4:15 am! Having said all that, I can’t argue that it is an awe inspiring magical experience. It’s a nice smooth ride taking you 5,000 ft in the air giving you the opportunity to watch the sunrise over the beautiful landscape of Cappadocia complimented with hundreds of hot air balloons surrounding you. It was a truly incredible experience, if this isn’t already on your bucket list I suggest you add it.
After the balloon ride, we went to go exploring the landscape on foot. In the midst of the volcanic rock formations they have the Goreme Open Air Museum showcasing 11 ancient christian churches and monasteries carved by hand out of the volcanic rock, which still retain the paintings on the inner walls after 1,000 years. One of the other prominent structures showcased in the museum is known as the nunnery. It is a skyscraper from the Stone Age as it stands 7 storeys tall. If you plan to visit here don’t forget to check out the Tokali Church. It’s actually not in the museum, but you can use your museum ticket to enter. It is the Sistine Chapel of Goreme. The museum is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Day 6: Exploring Cappadocia
We began our day once again before the crack of dawn. We were told of an excellent viewpoint from the top of a nearby hill overlooking the town. As it turned out, it was a very easy hike only taking us about half an hour to reach the top. We arrived half an hour before sunrise, giving us plenty of time to scope out a good angle for pictures when the hot air balloons get in the air. The views as promised were nothing short of spectacular. Not quite as good as the ones we were able to get from within the balloon the day before, but at least Jireh was able to get her pictures with us in it.
After we got our pictures, we headed back to the hotel for a quick breakfast and a power nap. Next we were off to the city of Kaymakli to visit the famous underground city. It is the largest, best protected and well maintained structure of its kind. It is a vast network of tunnels with hundreds of interconnected chambers. The cave network has 8 levels, 4 of which are currently accessible to the public. Occupancy of this man-made underground city dates back to 3,000 BCE. I would compare it to an extra large ant colony made for people with each chamber having multiple different exits, both vertical and horizontal.
It’s fun to climb around in and it’s also a great way to escape the heat. The underground city is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. As for getting here the Cappadocia region is one of the places in which google maps is unfamiliar with the public transit system. Despite that, it is still relatively easy to get around by asking locals for directions. From the Goreme bus terminal, you take the bus to Nevsehir which costs 3 TL. From there you can take bus that will take you directly to the underground city, this one will cost you 5 TL.
As we are leaving Goreme today I was thinking about the juxtaposition of the peaceful tranquility of the little town/national park in comparison to the war torn city of Aleppo, Syria just 500 km away. It’s amazing how a place as beautiful as this can exist in such close proximity to such chaos and tragedy.
Day 7: Surprise Paragliding In Pamukkale
From Goreme we took an overnight bus to Pamukkale. It’s about a 10 hour commute, the seats are comfortable and snacks and beverages are included. We also saved the expense of one night in a hotel and the bus fare only cost us 70 TL or $19 CAD per person. Pretty good deal if you ask me. After arriving and getting a couple hours of sleep, we headed out for some brunch. Again pretty cheap, as we only paid 15 TL or $4 CAD per meal. As we were leaving the restaurant, we were approached by the owner who gave us a ton of information on the area including one of the area’s biggest attractions, paragliding. Surprise, surprise, it also was very cheap! The paragliding itself only costs 150 TL or $41 CAD per person, the only catch is if you want photos and videos the price is double. Paragliding wasn’t on our itinerary for Pamukkale but we thought this was a deal that we couldn’t pass up. After about 20 minutes of debating whether or not the photos and videos were necessary, we decided that they were (and by we, I mean Jireh). But just like most things in Asia, the price is always negotiable and we were able to save 50 TL or $14 CAD after some bargaining.
The flight itself was very enjoyable. I found the most exciting part of it all is the takeoff. Basically, you just run, jump off a cliff and let the parachute carry you down. It’s a nice way to see the entire area including the terraced calcite-laden hot springs, petrified waterfalls, Greco-Roman ruins of the baths, temples and theatre. Luckily for us, we timed our flight perfectly because only 15 minutes after we got back to our hotel we got hit by a huge thunder storm.
Day 8: Pamukkale, The Cotton Candy Castle
Located in the province of Denizli, Pamukkale is a surreal landscape consisting of a series of terraced basins, smoothed and rounded by calcite-laden waters. Pamukkale literally translates to cotton castle and was given the name because of the uniquely rounded calcite deposits giving the landscape the look of a giant pile of cotton. Because of its pinkish color combined with the light blue pools of water, it reminds me of cotton candy. Climbing to the top of the cliff side to the basins now has to be done in bare feet in order to help preserve its natural beauty. It’s a short hike up with photo opportunities in every direction you look.
At the top there are many Greco-Roman ruins, the best preserved of which is the Hierapolis Theatre. Built in the 2nd century BCE, it overlooks the modern town of Pamukkale. Decorated with elaborate limestone and marble carvings, it is the best preserved ancient Roman structure in Asia. The entire area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I was also able to capture a shot of Jireh getting ready in the morning… Or is that a snail? Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.
Overall, we had a fantastic trip to Turkey. We were able to see a lot of the country in a short period of time and do a lot of really cool activities and see some spectacular sights. Turkey doesn’t often come in as a favorite tourist destination, but if you visit and follow our itinerary I promise you won’t be disappointed.