This Turkey tastes like...chicken.


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Middle East » Turkey » Marmara » Istanbul
January 2nd 2015
Published: January 3rd 2015
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Some countries surprise you, some are anticlimatic, some surpass expectations, and sometimes for no real reason some countries are just...meh. Turkey was far from terrible, and I enjoyed each site we saw, it just never mesmerised or transfixed me, it was vanilla, it was chicken, it was that date you had that was ok but never called back for no particular reason. Don't hate me Turkey it's just better not to lead you on, it's not you it's me (OK it's a little you). Maybe Turkey was just feeling run down, it's led a busy life and been pivotal in history by being the beating heart of 3 major empires (Byzantine, Roman and Ottoman) and contains the worlds oldest city dating back 8000 years, yet it was only actually established as the country we know in 1923. It is also uniquely straddles the continents of Asia and Europe while bordering 8 countries including Syria, Iran and Iraq who make for considerably noisy neighbours. The result of all this is a melting pot of cultures, ancient remains, religious buildings and the scars of horrific wars, all set off against stunning natural surroundings. As usual time was against me so I arranged a 7 day trip with On The Go Tours that took in the highlights.

Istanbul

We began in Istanbul which immediately surprised me by not being Marrakech. Not literally of course, but I expected it to have something of the ancient world still about it, medinas, fort walls, bazaars and maybe tuk-tuks. Instead it was an ode to concrete, a heaving mass of huge grey offices or malls, dissected by traffic snarled roads ferrying its 14million residents, lorded over by gigantic cranes which backed up the claim that Turkey is 2nd only to China for construction worldwide, every second building seemed to be being built. Mcdonalds, M&S and Victoria's Secret jostled for position amid the concrete skyline, broken only by the beautiful domes and minarets of the mosques but it wasn't enough to save it. The city has changed hands from one empire to another over its history; ancient Byzantium gave way to the Romans and it was Emperor Constantine who named the city Constantinople in 330AD which also in a sweep converted the country to Christianity. Eventually the Romans were replaced by the Ottomans and Islam; the result of this is a city with Byzantine churches, Roman relics and Ottoman mosques.

A perfect example of this within one building is seen at the Hagia Sophia, originally built by the Roman emperor Justinian in 537AD as the worlds largest religious building with a 56 metre high dome, but which was then converted by Mehmet II in 1453 into a mosque. It contains doors allegedly made from the remnants of Noah's Ark, mosaics of Christian imagery, stained glass windows, pulpits, mihrabs denoting Mecca, sarcophagus, Islamic scripture and even Viking graffiti, a true melting point of religions and cultures, why can't they all just get along! It's high ceilings and wide spaces add to the impression of size and you gaze at it all from balconies on the second floor or by craning your neck from the floor to try and take it all in. Sadly as with the rest of Turkey there is also construction within and a great slew of scaffolding is currently propping up half of it, I know why it is needed but scaffolding is second only to selfie sticks on my pet hates. Some of the mosaics are crumbling and it needs a lick of paint but the overall impact is still not diminished. Considering how beautiful the inside is, the outside is actually pretty plain and leaves a lot to be desired, but luckily facing this mosque just 100m away like some kind of attention seeking sister is the stunning Blue Mosque. This was built in the 1600s and is easily the most photogenic sight in Istanbul with its soaring domes, 6 minarets and 260 windows, and is covered in the blue tiles which give it its name. However the inside for me was fairly plain, actually maybe I'm doing it a disservice as it had wonderfully ornate ceilings but they were ruined by long dangling lights, plus I am hugely biased towards Hagia Sophia. In fact if they combined the outside of the Blue mosque with the inside of the Hagia then it would surely be the best in the world.

The two are separated by an area known as the Hippodrome, which at one time hosted chariot races, obelisks and columns etc but now stands as simply a promenade/meeting place to stroll down. Just behind the Aya stands Topkapi Palace which was the Court of the Ottoman Empire and originally dates from the 1400s, it was here that sultans lived with their concubines and eunuchs while entertaining dignitaries. It was fairly uninteresting initially, all courtyards and gates with some examples of the armoury and treasures, but it did have great views of the Bosphorus strait that splits Turkey between its European and Asian side, and it also had a tooth and beard that allegedly belong to the Prophet Mohammed which was pretty surreal, although I for one won't be making any jokes or comments about it, ever. Anyway moving on...finally we visited the Basilica Cistern, which was a large subterranean structure built in 532 by Justinian. It is made from 336 columns and is aligned in wonderful symmetry and some contain Medusa heads and other such carvings. It used to be filled with 80,000 cubic metres which I assume is a lot but now just has half a metre for us tourists which you traverse across by walking on wooden platforms in semi darkness and makes for an interesting side trip. All of these sites are located within a 5 minute walk of each other and serve as the highlights of Istanbul which can be covered within half a day and all are recommended. There was also a Grand bazaar where you can buy the world but it was closed the day we were there so I couldn't haggle for fridge magnets, sorry Mum.

Gallipoli

From there we headed to Gallipoli, an infamous event during World War I that shaped not just the war but the very future of the countries that participated. In short, it was a 9 month assault that resorted in 36,000 Allied deaths and 86,000 Ottoman and was a key point during the war. In 1915 the Ottoman Empire aligned itself with the Central Powers of Germany, Austria etc and as a result the British and ANZAC(Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) forces attacked at Gallipoli. Churchill was actually in charge and deemed it a key strategic point that would allow control of the region and the Black Sea to Russia. Weather conditions on the Dardanelles meant they landed on the wrong beaches and ended up fighting tench warfare along the wrong part of coastline, facing steep cliffs and a brave enemy led by a man named Mustafa Kemal. The result was 500,000 casualties with 8700 Australian dying, 2700 NZ, 9000 French and 86,000 Ottoman. At one stage 7000 men died in an area the size of a football pitch over just 4 days, numbers and carnage on that scale are difficult to comprehend. Now it is a peaceful place known as Anzac Cove, where waves lap the thin strip of beach, green grass and trees have replaced the trenches and well maintained cemeteries filled with poignant gravestones ensure their names live on. We wandered many of these trying to take it all in and fathom the gravestones showing boys as young as 16 dying in such places far away from home for other peoples causes. There were also some trenches left and pictures of the time which gave some insight into the events, the British attacked from a different part of the peninsula and sadly we did not visit that area, but the memorials were well designed and thought provoking and fair to all sides. A huge statue of Kemal rightly looms large, a commander at the time he led the defence of his land which resulted in such a bloody stalemate, and later went on to lead the country into independence. He became known as Ataturk(Father Turk) and his name adorns stadiums, airports, bridges etc and is a hero to all in this country. It is not easy and difficult to say you enjoyed it but I am pleased to have experienced this and gained an insight, especially with the centenary next year.

Troy

After this we visited a place also renown for war but from a much earlier age, although unlike the startling realities of Gallipoli much of this is open to speculation and painful Hollywood movies. The visit itself was fairly uninspiring, Troy has stood as a city through various incarnations since 3000BC and the site now has 9 different settlements/cities there, although I must admit walking though there and staring at the various piles of half unearthed rocks was quite underwhelming and difficult to get a sense of, even the water that the city used to overlook has receded back at the rate of Prince Williams hair. It did have a big horse though. Troy is most famous from Homer's tale 'The Iliad' which tells of the 9 year war between Sparta and the Trojans, fought over the most beautiful woman in the woman Helen and contains characters such as Paris of Troy, Achilles and Zeus. Of course they ended up fooling them with the aid of a massive wooden horse, slaughtered the lot and took Helen back. Seems like a lot of effort to me, just give internet dating a go there's loads of women on there. Overall though it wasn't great, and for the record walking ruinous sites in 1 degree weather in December in the wind is not fun nor recommended. Unless you like big horses with Asian tourists leaning out of the side.

Pergamum

More ancient cities greeted us next, this one a mountainside acropolis dating back to 200BC thanks to a general of Alexander the Great. Reached via a cable car what remains was rather small but apparently well preserved and contained things like a temple, library, theatre and colonnades etc, it is also allegedly perched on the edge of a mountainside with great views across the valley. I keep saying apparently because we saw very little of this as we visited during a snowy blizzard that restricted us to about 20 feet in front of us. White buildings against a white backdrop in the middle of it snowing does not make for conducive viewing. It does make it conducive to snowball fights and selfie posing. It was a surreal yet thoroughly enjoyable experience sightseeing in the snow, especially when with nationalities such as South Africans who had never seen snow before. I highly recommend it.

Ephesus

Ephesus once stood as the capital of Roman Asia Minor with a population of 250,000 and was second only to Rome in its day. It boasted the Artemis Temple which was the largest in the world and one of the seven Wonders of the Ancient World alongside the Gardens of Babylon etc. Nowadays it is the most complete/renovated classical city in Europe, and so far they have only unearthed 18%! (MISSING)It is a large site and takes a couple of meandering hours to explore it's terraced houses, colonnaded streets, public baths, latirnes, sewage system, temples, a theatre that could hold 25,000, frescoes, mosaics and a brothel, although sadly nobody was working that day. The most impressive building was the library which once held 12,000 scrolls, it's facade resembled Petra in Jordan and was the clear highlight, although through the haircut that is time it had lost its back and sides but had everyone rushing for the selfie sticks nevertheless. The city is very well preserved and gives a good indication of what Roman life was like and is definitely worth a visit. After this we made our way to a carpet emporium where we drank the local drink Raki-a chalky white spirit that ironically puts a rug on your chest-and were treated to an in depth explanation of traditional carpet weaving and silk spinning before being offered the chance to buy some. They were all stunning but so were the price tags and despite my best efforts I couldn't contain all the women from blowing their credit cards, I am but one man.

Kusadasi

After a short ferry ride across the Bosphorus we arrived in the unremarkable but pleasant enough city of Kusadasi which was to be our base for a couple of nights. It also coincided with New Year's Eve so we headed to a place called the Old Tanneries at the Hilton hotel and partied with the locals. It was outside under a canopy with the wind and rain blowing a gale meaning everyone was in hats and gloves but the Turks love a song and dance and carried on regardless and with gusto. It's pretty difficult dancing and drinking to songs in a different language when you are the only foreigners there but I like to think we held our own. Plus there was beer. The locals didn't seem to mind us either, well that or they were just polite and only laughed behind their wine glasses. Next day we headed to Pamukkale to see the 'cotton castles' which aren't castles at all but in fact resemble the white cliffs of Dover. They are formed when warm calcium rich water flows over the edge, cooling and depositing and in the process leaving natural shelves and chalky white pools on the cliffs called travertines (yep, straight from the internet). The result is a cliff of white, wet and gooey substance which you can walk barefoot down and bathe in the thermal pools that form. However this was winter and about 2 degrees so we opted for the walk instead, my penis was already the size of a chickens as it was. A flowing mist hugged the cliffs as we walked and below lay bright green grass, while sitting imperiously above was the Roman remains of spa city called Hierapolis with the usual relics as well as thermal pools etc. I can safely say I've never seen anything like it before and made for an interesting trip.

Finally we were taken to a leather emporium because you can't have an expensive rug without a leather jacket to wear while sitting on it, or something like that. It began with a full on catwalk show where 6 models strutted their stuff in front of us which was something of a novelty and I felt like Jay-Z, I was sure that 7 foot tall Amazonian type blonde kept looking at me... Then business really picked up when the female model then grabbed my hand as well as Tamara's and led us backstage...oh my giddy aunt all my dreams were about to come true...backstage with a group of models... I might have to break the No selfie rule here. Sadly reality is never quite the same as fantasy, instead it was a room about as big as a broom cupboard and the most they would change out of was the jackets, not a leather g-string in sight. Worse, they dragged me back there to make me put a jacket on and model it on the catwalk in front of the group. I channelled my inner Zoolander and strutted the ass out of that stage, there were twirls, dance moves, pouts, blue steels and unzippings. The model said she'd never seen anything like that before and I'd prefer to think of that as a compliment. Sadly I had to turn down the contract offer as I had to get back to work, plus I don't like throwing up after every meal.

And that was the trip over with, seemingly over before it began. Aside from visiting Cappadocia I feel I saw all that I wanted as I have been to a coastal resort in Turkey before and the borderlands further east near Syria etc don't appeal to me at this time for some unfathomable reason. I did enjoy my time in Turkey and would recommend a short pacy journey around, it's placement at the crossroads of Asia and Europe makes it an interesting mix of peoples and cultures. It is also an interesting time to visit as it is currently the worlds fastest growing economy which is striving to join the EU. Its position and mix of people makes for a rare country I feel, it has 80million people, 97%!o(MISSING)f the land is on the Asian side and 99%!o(MISSING)f the people are Muslim, yet it tries to be secular and it is not fundamentalist, I could probably count on one hand the number of women I saw wearing the hijab and although the evocative call to prayer is ever present, from what I have seen and been told most only visit the mosque to pray in Ramadan and alcohol is freely available and consumed. This is slowly being challenged by the current President Erdogan who has recently been talking about banning alcohol and arrested a teenager for speaking out against him, suggesting he is wanting to limit freedom of speech. Thankfully the masses seem to be against this and do not want the country to become more Islamic or to experience a situation like some of their border countries, one can only hope this path is not followed. The tour itself was possibly a little quick and I would have like the 3 extra days that the other tour offered if time allowed, but it was well organised with a knowledgable guide and it moved at the right pace. The people on the tour were the usual mix and I enjoyed their company, especially my little clique of solo travellers who banded together. To summarise I'll say again,I quite enjoyed Turkey and would recommend a visit. It just never grabbed me by the collar and said 'isn't this amazing!!', but then maybe it's charms are more subtle, maybe I'm not subtle enough to see them, maybe the weather or tour structure had an impact. But I think deep down I am pleased to have had my taste of Turkey but feel I need a more evocative and intense flavour...next up Israel at Easter, that ought to do the trick.


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4th January 2015

Just chicken
I understand what you mean. That is how we felt about our trip to Nepal. Everyone raves about the beauty or a life changing experience. The mountains are gorgeous but overall Nepal didn't capture our hearts the way we thought it would. It was ok, we liked it, although we thought Kathmandu was completely overrated and a dust bowl full of corruption. It sounds like you saw some great things and saw some wonderful sights ...but as you say for you it was vanilla.
4th January 2015

I think that with warmer weather...
you might have enjoyed Turkey more. Israel in the spring sounds better.
11th January 2015

Turkish Chicken is the Best in the World!
I mean it! Yum. I'm very surprised to hear your reaction to Turkey. It's one of my favorite places on Earth, but in all fairness that list is rather long! I have to say that going to a country for two weeks, on a canned tour, does dish out a lot of info, take you to a lot of shopping, and the "highlights." I think one of the best reasons to visit Turkey are the people, but it's hard to talk to get to know locals when you are in a group. I also agree with Bob, the weather could definitely make a difference.
23rd February 2015

You made me wanting to come back :)
I have been to Turkey when I was still studying, with my friend, and it was our first serious trip abroad! We fell in love with Pamukalle on the spot, and Istanbul was so charming too :) I think Turkey is one of the countries I want to revisit, as my memories about people and places are rather warm :) In the world when everything is changing so quickly, it is important to try to have good memories :)

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