So, it had arrived. Our final European destination. As sad as I was that this half of the epic journey was nearly over, I was really excited to finish it with a big cultural shift. So we put a big exclamation mark to our European adventure by ending in Turkey.
I wasn’t too sure what to expect from Turkey. Similar to Morocco? With all the atrocities happening in nearby countries, and my Dad sending several txts confirming just how close to those borders ill be getting, there was a little apprehension… but predominantly excitement!
We wanted a change in cultural scene, and couldn’t have made a better choice for our starting point, than Selçuk. Flying into Izmir airport, we caught a 1.5 hour train with a load of locals out to the incredibly beautiful town of Selçuk. A tourist town due to the historical site of Ephesus nearby, there was plenty to cater to us westerners, but without losing any of it’s Turkish identity.
Being the history nut I am, I was so impressed to visit the Basilica of Saint John. This is a really interesting site with loads of information boards scattered around. Plus, the 360 view from up there is quite stunning. A highlight for me was seeing where St John lived, died and wrote the gospel! One TripAdvisor review stated “for tourists with no religious orientations, the rubble may not be of too much interest.” I completely disagree. I’m not religious, but i’m intrigued but history that shapes the world – both good and bad – and that is quite an important happening in our past time. It is also fascinating to see the scale of church that once stood there. A definite must-see people!
Continuing with getting my history fix, we went to visit Ephesus – an ancient Greek city which came under the control of the Roman Republic in 129 BC. Let me start by saying, wow. What an incredible site. It is huge! And the ruins left behind are in such great condition; roads, theatres, baths and houses with intact mosaic floors.
It is a big day though. I highly recommend taking lot’s of water (especially if it is as hot as when we were there!) and some snacks for energy. Also, once again Rick Steves Audio Europe App has a great walking guide for the Ephesus site. Use that if you don’t want to invest in the costly tour guide.
Selçuk is also where my obsession with Turkish Chai began. It doesn’t taste like Chai tea, as you and I know it (the cinnamony kind). Chai simply means tea and it is available absolutely everywhere. It’s cheap too. Nice when you just want to chill out somewhere and people watch.
Kuşadası is a beautiful coastal city. We stayed in a great hotel called the Baris Suite Hotel. Equipped with a sea view and only about ten minutes to a hive of activity on the seafront, it was a value for money, really nice and chilled out place to stay.
There’s quite a few things to see here such as Ladies Beach, but I would recommend it more if you are looking for a quiet couple of days to recoup. Also, you must eat at Bul Bul restaurant. We ate there both nights because it is really cheap and so very, very good.
After much researching, we decided the best way to see the beautiful town of Cappadocia, was to hire a car. For us, it was more cost effective than an organised tour and, as you know by now, we like the freedom that comes with driving ourselves around.
Arriving in the evening, driving into the small town of Goreme was breathtaking. Due to eruptions of three volcanoes yonks ago, the landscape is made up of volcanic ash, basalt and lava. It is very easily carved so communities built their homes into the rocks and underground. So cool! Goreme is full of hotels in such rock caves, which are all lit up beautifully at night.
After getting a tour route map from our hotel, we started with our DIY tour at the Open Air Museum – chapels and living quarters, most dating to around the 11th century,built into the rocks. Lots to see (even if it did get a bit samey) but it was a struggle against all the tour groups! Keep calm, be patient and don’t lose your cool…personal experience.
Next, we drove to an amazing look out point. Here is a fantastic view of the landscape of Cappadocia, with what looked like two huge cones with large rocks teetering on them. Then it was onto the famous “Fairy Chimneys” – a valley full of tall rock formations, sculpted by wind and water, that echo storybook homes of fairies. Such a unique sight.
I also really loved the Vanessa Ceramics Factory. The area is quite well known for it’s beautiful ceramic work. We were also really lucky because, while we weren’t with a big tour group, the manager there took us on a private guide through all stages of the artistry – from creating the clay pots, bowls, vases, to painting them, to putting them in the oven! It was very cool to see.
That’s also where we met a litter of stray puppies and they’re very skinny looking Mother. So we got them a feast from the nearest shop and played with them for an unreasonable amount of time. Who could resist!
Having a car, we managed to explore every corner of Cappadocia, and the drives themselves were beautiful. However, the highlight for us (as I’m sure is the case for most people) was getting up at 5am in the freezing cold, to go for a dawn hot air balloon ride.
While costs can get quite expensive, we happened to be visiting just outside of tourist season and got a great deal of $110 per person, for a one hour ride (plus a light brekky and transport).
Now, I’m not afraid of heights, but the thought of standing in a wicker basket, 3000ft in the air should make anyone nervous. But once up there, squeezed in the a Japanese tour group, it is remarkably peaceful. I didn’t once feel unsafe, even seeing other balloons bouncing off each other. I could also put this down to being completely awestruck by what I was seeing. I’ll let my photos speak for themselves.
By now, I was craving a good, proper cup of coffee and had yet to find one in Turkey. The traditional Turkish coffee with the grinds at the bottom of the cup wasn’t really my cup of tea (yes, I hear the jokes too). So when was passed a little cafe called Cafe Safak while walking around Goreme, that claimed “the best coffee this side of Australia,” I knew I was in luck. They even served Flat Whites! Best coffee I’d had in a couple of weeks. Oh, the relief.
After a couple of weeks of rurality, I was itching to get back into a bit of city life. So we headed to Istanbul – formerly Constantinople i.e. centre of the Ottoman empire, one of the longest running and strongest political and military states in history. Yeah, I was excited.
Driving into Istanbul, I was in awe of just how big a city it was – fast paced and a little crazy. I felt like I was in London again! We stayed right on the edge of Taksim square as well, meaning we were right in the thick of it. Suited me perfectly.
Our first day we walked over to Sultanahmet side, which is the old part of the city. We bought a Museum Pass, which, for 85 Turkish Lira, we could see 12 different tourist attractions within 72 hours. It really was the way to go as you not only saved money, but time as well – as you got to jump to the head of the line, VIP styles.
To start with, we visited the Hagia Sophia, Archaeology Museum and the Blue Mosque. The architecture of the two mosques was a refreshing change on the historical buildings we had been seeing through most of Europe. However, and I can only put this down to all the amazing cathedrals we had seen in Europe, but we just weren’t that blown away by the Blue Mosque (don’t get angry!) You couldn’t help but appreciate the place, and the domed roofs from the inside were just beautiful, but… we weren’t blown away.
The archaeology museum was also good, but by this time we had also seen hundreds of centuries-old pots, weapons, mosaics etc so we were not overwhelmingly impressed by the collection. We also visited the Tokapi Palace, which is definitely worth every penny. A great historic overview of not only the palace and who lived in it, but also what influenced the changes on the Ottoman Empire – from cuisine to dress clothes.
Naturally, the next stop for us was the Grand Bazaar market – “one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 covered streets and over 3,000 shops” – Wikipedia.
When you enter through one of the numerous archways, you have to stand there for a second, don’t panic, take a breath and psych yourself up. This place is huge. A labyrinth of brightly lit shops selling everything from tacky souvenirs, to beautiful handmade jewellery, to fresh tea leaves. It is incredibly overwhelming, and you must be prepared to be “hassled,” but nothing that doesn’t come with the territory of touristy markets. We actually loved it.
While we may not have been completely bowled over by the ‘tourist attractions’ on show in Istanbul, I adored walking around the city – both old and new – and simply observing the way of life there. One of my favourite spots, somewhere that I have no doubt will always stand out in my memory, was the Golden Horn bridge. The bridge itself was pretty cool and you can get a nice view of both sides of the city from it. But it was the buzzing life it held! Fisherman for as far as the eye could see lined the whole bridge, catching wee little fish which I can only presume they were supplying to the fish markets near by. If you walk beneath the bridge, you’ll find hub of seafood restaurants. So grab a beer, take a seat and watch out for the flying hooks from above! It’s great people watching territory.
Hungry? If you’re looking for a cheap, but delicious, eat, visit my second favourite spot! On the Karaköy side of the bridge, follow the road down to the harbour front and you will come across one of the most entertaining fish markets I’ve ever seen. Filled with yelling men in gumboots, fish and water everywhere, but some really good looking produce. Here we sat down in a busy little “restaurant” and ordered a fish sandwich – you can imagine how fresh it was. If you wanted to eat on the run, there are loads of fish sandwich stands, grilling delicious white fish which they couple with salad and chuck into a fresh bread roll.
For any Kiwi or Aussie visiting this side of the world, going to Gallipoli is almost considered a right of passage. Whether it’s for the dawn service, which is growing in popularity every year, or simply just to see it, most of us will not pass on the opportunity. Nor should we.
Gallipoli is a good five hour drive from Istanbul – so while we wanted to try and do it ourselves, we soon realised it would be more cost effective to do it with a tour group. As you can imagine, the options were endless, but we were very happy with our choice of Crowded House Tours. We were picked up from our hotel, given breakfast and lunch on the way, then supplied a fully-guided tour of the main points of interest with one of the most knowledgeable tour guides I’ve ever seen. He knew more about Australia and New Zealand’s history in the war than any of us! He was passionate, informative and really made the tour for me.
The site itself was incredibly humbling. The stories behind that ditch, this beach, that hill were devastatingly harrowing. The more we saw and listened, the more obvious how much of a suicide mission the whole thing really was. The area that eventually reduced me to tears was the Chunuk Bair Memorial Site for the lost New Zealand soldiers. Here, one of three key mountain peaks was taken by the Kiwis. It was the only success for the Allies of the campaign, however, was lost only a couple of days later when Ottoman troops, led by Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk), recaptured it, at the expense of many lives. More than 90 per cent of the 760 New Zealand men who reached the summit of Chunuk Bair were killed or wounded.
One thing I came away with however, was the solidarity the Turkish feel with New Zealanders and Australians. While the history between the countries is bloody, they too believe it was a pointless campaign and sympathise with our countries’ loss. Atatürk’s – the founder of Turkey as we know it – quote about the ANZACs really quite moved me:
“Those heroes that shed their blood
And lost their lives.
You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country.
Therefore, rest in peace.
There is no difference between the Johnnies
And the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side
Here in this country of ours,
You, the mothers,
Who sent their sons from far away countries
Wipe away your tears,
Your sons are now lying in our bosom
And are in peace
After having lost their lives on this land they have
Become our sons as well”.
Top tips to seeing Turkey:
1. Depend on Domus – especially for Ephesus!
Getting around Turkey is actually very easy. There are Domus (like mini-vans) available to take you everywhere. In Selçuk there is a Domus depot full of vans that can take you to Ephesus. Don’t fall for the taxi’s spiel about needing to walk miles, and they will drop you at one end and pick you up at another. A Domus is so much cheaper, and you can walk through the site either way. We actually walked all the way to the other side and started from there. It’s definitely worth saving the money.
2. Book you’re hot air balloon in Cappadocia
A lot of people come to Cappadocia from Istanbul and are told to book their hot air balloon ride in the big city. Do not do that. We met loads of people who did that and paid way more than they should have. And experienced lot’s of problems like being told to be up at 4am not 5am, minivans not showing up etc. Your accommodation in Cappadocia will help with booking a balloon and you won’t be overcharged that way as there isn’t a middle-man fee.
3. Where to stay in Istanbul
We did a lot of research around this and settled on the ‘new’ side of the city. 1. it was more cost effective, 2. it was out of all the touristy rubbish, 3. Taksim is a really cool area! My favourite are was Karaköy. It is lined with quirky little shops, cafes and restaurants. It has a great vibe, but we read it didn’t! Lies! If I ever go back, I will look to stay here.
4. Blue Mosque etiquette
Obviously, seeing the Blue Mosque is a necessity. You’d be daft not to. Just remember you need to wear covered clothing – trousers covering the knees, shoulders covered and girls need to wear a headscarf. If you don’t have one, they let you borrow one. Also, make sure you check the times that the actual inside is open! We were rushed through because it was nearly prayer time. Some people didn’t make it and had to come back for the afternoon session.
5. See it? Like it? Buy it.
This is mainly directed to the Grand Bazaar market, but Istanbul is huge with loads of similar looking shops. If you see something you like, buy it right there and then. I missed out on quite a few things because I couldn’t for the life of me find the right shop again!
So the time had come. Our European tour had come to an end. It really did fly by, but looking back at all my posts, we really did do a heck of a lot. While I think I left my heart in Europe somewhere (probably Italy, with all that pesto pasta) we were definitely amped for a change in scenery and culture. So what better way to drastically shake things up by making our next stop, the barley-touched-by-tourists land of Burma.