By the time April arrives, I’m more than ready for an escape after the long winter in Boston. Normally, my focus is towards the South Pacific: New Zealand, Australia, Cook Islands, Fiji, Tahiti….so many good choices, along with the promise of sunshine, friendly people and (if I’m lucky) no internet for at least a few days. The long haul flights don’t matter -flying 18+ hours over multiple flights is no big thing when I dream about the amazing places I will visit. This year though, I wanted it to be easier and more exotic than usual, especially after the huge snows we had. I decided to head east and settled on a trip to Turkey. It was a completely new experience for me – only one flight from Boston to Istanbul, and a ‘short’ one at that – less than 10 hours! Turkey is the perfect vacation destination and 10 days was enough time to visit three distinctly different areas. The regional flights in Turkey are frequent and short, so it’s easy to hop from place to place.
I left after work one evening in early April and landed the next day in Istanbul, where there were leaves on the trees and the tulips were in full bloom. After all the snow in Boston, I’d almost forgotten how lovely it was to be around things that bloom! I spent 4 nights in the Sultanahmet neighborhood of Istanbul and promptly fell in love with the city. Even though I walked approximately 43 miles per day (!), every step was worth it and I would have done more. Worlds collide in Istanbul in the best way – it is the crossroads where continents, hemispheres, religion, cuisine, culture and history all intersect and coexist in harmony. I was captivated.
I spent my first full day in Istanbul with a great private guide, and my hotel’s convenient location meant we could walk to each major site with no need for a vehicle. We started our day at the Blue Mosque – built 400 years ago and famous not only for its six minarets but also for the incredible blue tile mosaics on the interior walls. All I wanted to do was sit on the floor and gaze up at the intricately-painted, high-domed ceilings, the stained glass windows, and the tiled walls. From there, we walked across the old Roman Hippodrome where chariot races were frequently held in front of 100,000 spectators nearly 2000 years ago. By mid-morning, my mind was completely boggled by the history and scale of it all, and I could hardly wait to see more.
We spent hours exploring Topkapi Palace, where the historic and cultural significance of the palace that housed the emperors of the Ottoman Empire for over 400 years was eclipsed only by the exceptional views of our surroundings. It was from the hilltop on which the palace is perched that I was able to finally get my bearings on the geography of the area. Suddenly the major landmarks of the Golden Horn, the Galata Tower and Sultan Ahmed Mosque made sense and I could see how the whole city fit together. I had a panoramic view over Istanbul with the Bosphorus Strait in front of me dividing Europe on my left from Asia on my right.
After a delicious lunch of adana kebab, gozleme and fresh pomegranate juice at a local café, we finished our tour at Hagia Sophia. I had to pinch myself as we approached the entrance – Hagia Sophia is one of the most significant architectural sites in the world, and it encapsulates all of the diversity of Istanbul. It was built as an Orthodox cathedral, then converted to a Roman Catholic church, then a mosque, and finally a museum. The tile mosaics were not removed over the centuries, the way many others were – they were simply plastered over, and now there is a huge restoration project underway to uncover the original mosaics in certain areas. The marble steps are worn shiny, with rounded edges due to so many centuries of use. It was cool, quiet, and peaceful inside. We visited at the very end of the day, when most people were leaving. I couldn’t have imagined this in my wildest dreams, but suddenly I looked around, and I was the only one standing on the main floor! It was completely silent, not a footstep or a whisper to be heard, and I could look around and take photos to my heart’s content. Standing in the center of the floor under the enormous soaring domed ceiling made me feel like I was the size of an ant. I could never duplicate the serenity and magic of having the entire place to myself.
After seeing the major sites, I spent the next three days wandering and exploring on my own. The Grand Bazaar is not to be missed, but maybe even more fun is exploring all the little alleys, side streets, and shops surrounding it. I was welcomed into various shops with a cup of hot tea and invited to watch people wiring lamps, weaving carpets, or making food. Bargaining is always fun, and it doesn’t take long to get back in practice! I ate my way through every neighborhood – luckily the meze portions are always small, like tapas, so I could try absolutely everything – and didn’t taste anything I didn’t like. The tulip festival was just beginning, so a walk through Gülhane Park was spectacular and full of color (and many local dogs to play with). I climbed the Galata Tower for awesome views over the city, and then walked all the way back to my hotel – I definitely earned my dessert of baklava and a Turkish coffee at Hafiz Mustafa that day! By the time my stay in Istanbul was over I was already wondering how and when I could return; in those four days, Istanbul rapidly climbed my list of favorite cities in the world.
I continued on to Izmir by air, and spent a few nights in Kusadasi so that I could explore the ancient city of Ephesus. After loving Istanbul so much, anything less than a hotel perched on the edge of the Aegean Sea and a day trip to Ephesus would have been a letdown – luckily, I was not. The water was crystal clear and the sky intensely blue each day, not a cloud to be found. I picked out a fish at the local fish market and the fish monger brought it to a cafe next door where it was cooked for me on the spot – a lunchtime feast. I took my time walking back to my hotel and got ‘home’ just in time to watch the sun sink into the Aegean Sea – spectacular!
A visit to Ephesus is not to be missed, and I was stunned by how well preserved the ancient city is, even though the excavation and restoration are only about 20% complete. The site is intact enough that it was easy to imagine living there so many centuries ago. Marble was the building material of choice and it was clear, looking down from the top of the city, that it was originally located on the harbor’s edge. I loved seeing how the city was engineered and constructed, with terra cotta sewer and water pipes throughout, deep grooves etched into the marble streets to keep residents from slipping, stones carved with Lego-like bumps on the joining edges so they would fit together perfectly and add strength to large buildings, and keystones so carefully cut and tightly fitted that many arches are still standing thousands of years later. After spending hours exploring Ephesus, we visited the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It was interesting to stand and look at the ruins of this Roman temple, and to see directly behind it a Christian church (the Basilica of St. John) and a Muslim mosque (Isa Bey Mosque).
I finished my trip with a few days in Antalya on the Mediterranean Sea. This was purely R&R, and days were spent wandering the tiny narrow cobblestoned streets of the Old Town and feasting on local kebab and seafood. The beautiful waterfalls just outside of town are worth visiting, and on my last evening I had a glass of wine in a café situated on top of the ancient city walls built by the Romans – a unique and perfect finish to my trip, and I knew exactly where in the world I was. As the sun set, I was already plotting how soon I could return to Turkey – I can’t wait!