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Turkey Istanbul and some Sights of Western Anatolia


100+ Posts
By Dennis Switzer from Alberta, Canada, Fall 2008
Over 17 days in September of 2008 Dennis and his daughter visited Istanbul, the Turquoise Coast, Pamukkale and Selcuk.

This trip report was originally published on SlowTrav.


In the months leading up to our arrival in Istanbul, my daughter and I familiarized ourselves with the sights and customs of Turkey. We were limited to 17 days so a comprehensive tour of the country was out of the question. Our first decision was to save the fairy towers of Cappadocia for another visit. We would concentrate on a rough square of Istanbul, Çirali, Oludeniz, Selçuk, Istanbul.

We found the Lonely Planet guides of Turkey and of Istanbul very helpful. The websites, Turkey Travel Planner and My Merhaba, and Slow Travel colleagues were valuable resources.

Turkey’s long distance bus system is well-regarded. However, with our time constraints we decided to take low cost plane trips between Istanbul and Antalya and Izmir and Istanbul with a car rental in between. Passage on Pegasus Air proved as inexpensive as published bus fares and saved us 12 to 14 hours travel time. The car rental was reasonable, €173 all inclusive, for a week. Petrol was another thing, ringing in at around 3YTL/ litre. All these arrangements were made by Internet prior to leaving home.

After 12 hours in the air and waiting at the Frankfurt airport, we were relieved and thankful we had arranged for the hotel staff to pick us up at the airport. For first time visitors to Istanbul I recommend this approach. Tension drained from my shoulders when I saw the neatly printed sign with our name on it.

Our hotel, the Hotel Peninsula, is located on a pedestrianized street about a block (and about €400!) from the Four Seasons Hotel. I have completed a full review of the hotel so I will only say that we recommend it highly as excellent value for money. It is a five to ten minute walk to the major sites of the Sultanahemet area: Aya Sofya, the Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern, Topkapi Palace, and Hippodrome Square.

We were fortunate to visit Istanbul for four days during Ramadan and then return for three days for Eid (the holiday following Ramadan.). A festive air prevailed throughout the city. In the evening, families strolled through the parks and grounds surrounding the Blue Mosque and the Hippodrome. Temporary food stalls along the street provided everything from snacks to full meals. Although many individuals we spoke with, adhered to the daytime fast, we were able to eat where, when and what we wanted.

Istanbul is the cleanest city I’ve visited in Europe. Graffiti on walls and buildings is at a minimum and the public transit system (tram, buses, dolmus’, Metro and ferries) is clean and efficient.

In our seven days we saw a lot. Yet, we also missed a lot. Guide books provide ample expositions of the sites. I only offer some hopefully helpful hints for visitors. Primary among them is: arrive early or late to the major sites to miss the crowds. Prioritize your time. At the Topkapi Palace, is your main interest the harem complex or the treasures or the holy relics? Visit your interest first before tides of organized tours swamp you.

Although the Blue Mosque is magnificent, we preferred the New Mosque adjacent to the Spice Bazaar. The Blue Mosque had more the feel of a tourist attraction than a serene place of worship.

Aya Sofya’s mosaics are up the ramp to the left of the entrance. We arrived at opening and went directly to them and were rewarded with an unimpeded view. We were able to contemplate them in silence for a few minutes before crowds started to form. The massive “temporary” works rising to the dome’s apex have been there for decades. Repairs and refurbishing continue throughout the year.

For lovers of mosaics a visit to the Chora Museum (aka Kariye Camii Sok) is a must. One is able to get to the museum by public transportation and a short walk but a taxi ride is about 10 to 12 YTL from Galata Bridge. The church is small and I can almost guarantee that it will be crowded whenever you visit but it is worth it. The mosaics are magnificent! To properly view them, bring pocket binoculars.

I was going to give the Basilica Cistern a pass until my daughter recommended a visit. I’m glad I heeded her advice. I went early and avoided the crowd. Lighting, gentle classical music and solitude combined to create a serene setting, so different from the hustle above on the streets.

A visit to the Grand Bazaar is a must but only to experience the patter of the merchants, not to buy anything. We found the streets surrounding the Bazaar to have reasonable prices and merchants willing to bargain realistically. For a truly exciting shopping experience inquire at your hotel where and when local street markets occur.

A note on shopping. It will appear to you that everyone or everyone’s brother, cousin, father or friend has a carpet shop in Istanbul and indeed throughout the country. You will be approached; take it in good humour and keep walking. If you stop, be prepared for a loooong chat where each one of your arguments regarding your non-interest will be countered. I thought I had the perfect rejoinder to the inevitable “Well, what do you want? I can get it for you.” “Another wife.” With only the slightest hesitation and smile, the response came: “Well, my mother is a widow.” Then we both had a good laugh, shook hands and I was on my way. I did find the constant need to bargain for everything wearying. Whatever the posted or stated price of the article, start negotiations at a third of the price. Consider yourself lucky to walk away with the article at 2/3 the original asking price. Generally food at markets and in stores is not negotiable but I found that by having a questioning look on my face and by motioning to a lady Turk shopper at my side if she thought the price OK, would sometimes get me a reduction. Also you can negotiate lower prices at restaurants, particularly, the fish restaurants under Galata Bridge where competition is fierce – and prices totally unreasonable unless one bargains.

Istanbul offers a wide array of food, from simple fish and kőfte stands near the ferry terminals to fine hotel dining. We found that lokanti restaurants (cafeterias) offered good value for money. One has the added bonus that one need only point to what one would like. A filling, tasty meal with beverage can be had for around 10 YTL. We found the Can Restaurant a door down from the Pudding Shop mentioned in many guides offered good value. Fish sandwiches (two fish fillets with onions and lettuce on a fresh bun) from street vendors are 3YTL. We followed a Turkish friend’s advice and stayed away from the stuffed mussels also on offer by street vendors. Our hotel (and all those I researched) included breakfast in the room’s price. A Turkish breakfast consists of: hot hard boiled eggs, freshly baked bread and buns, olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, jams, yogurt with a variety of compotes, cookies and sweet rolls and coffee or tea. This was true for all the places we stayed in Turkey.

Our flight south to Antalya started from Sabiha Gőkçen Airport, on the Asian side outside of Istanbul. Any money saved by booking a cheaper flight from this airport would be wiped out by the approximately €60 taxi ride to the airport. Havas offers a bus shuttle for 10 YTL that takes about an hour. It departs its Taskim stop near the Turkish airlines office every hour on the hour. We found security check-in at airports to be less onerous than in North America.
The Turquoise Coast

Our car was waiting for us at the Antalya Airport. The highways are well-marked and one need only keep in mind the major town in the direction one wishes to go to remain on course. We used the map provided by the Turkish Tourism department and found it adequate. I would agree with the guide books’ recommendation that driving in Istanbul and at night anywhere is not a wise practice. However, if one drives defensively and alertly one should not encounter any difficulty. Be aware that drivers may decide to back up without warning on a major highway to get to an off ramp they missed; stop signs and red lights are only a suggestion not an order; double, and sometimes triple parking is an accepted practice. It the latter case, long toots on one’s horn will bring the other cars’ drivers.

Our first stop was the village of Çircali. The owner of the Canada Hotel had a meal ready for us when we arrived a couple of hours later than promised. I have posted a review of this accommodation.

Çicali has three major attractions: an undeveloped, protected turtle-nesting beach, the ruins of a Greco-Roman city called Olympos, and the fires of the Chimaera.

Olympos has yet to be excavated. For this reason, I had the fantasy feeling of being in an Indiana Jones movie as we explored the trails through the site. We entered the site from the beach; there was no one to collect entrance fees. That is not the case if one chooses to visit from the village of Olympos. Early morning is a great time to visit.

The Chimaera of myth lives on a mountain about 4 kms from Çircali. Gases escaping from the rock spontaneously ignite, providing a great night time show. Entrance to the trail is 2.5YTL and the climb takes about 20 minutes. The trail is wide, and apart from the last 50 metres or so easily navigated. There are no lights on the trail so flashlights are necessary. Hotels will provide them. Take time to sit with lights off and be prepared to see more stars than you thought possible.

After leaving Çircali, we took the D400 highway along the coast towards Oludeniz. In Demre, we visited Santa’s (St. Nicholas’) church. Medieval Italian plunderers carried his remains off to Bari. This fact doesn’t deter the scores of Russian tour buses that descend on the town. Souvenirs can be purchased and meals paid for in rubles! Nearby, in the ancient city of Myra, Lycian tombs and a large Roman theatre are worth a visit. Be prepared to see Russian women posing a la Vogue or Elle among the statuary. With their new found freedom and wealth, Russians have yet, it seems to me, wear neither freedom or wealth comfortably. I found them loud and rude.

At Oludeniz we stayed in a pleasant stone complex off the main road, near the start of the Lycian Long Distance Trail. The Sultan Motel was quiet and away from the larger all-inclusive places near the beach and along the main street. The considerable natural beauty of the area was diminished by the numbers of package holidayers from Britain. Here, the accepted currency was the British pound and restaurants served “gozleme” made by wrapping bread around a cheese stick and washed down with Bass ale.

In hindsight, we would have stayed in Kaş, a town we visited earlier in the day. It appeared more laid back. There are many small deserted beaches all along the highway where one can stop for a walk, dip or picnic.

With limited time, we chose to take an all day cruise of Oludeniz’ bay. The first price asked was 30 YTL for the cruise with a fish lunch provided. After negotiation, we boarded after paying 10 YTL each. Competition among the touts is fierce. Why such a low price? Tourists are not to bring food or drink on board. We did bring a couple of beers and 2 litres of water in our day pack. For many others the “cheap” cruise proved not to be so with 7YTL beers and small 4YTL bottles of water. Few people got off at the six stops around the bay. We did and had beaches to ourselves in some cases. One stop was Butterfly Valley. It is a pleasant place and worth a visit. Since in was September, there were few butterflies. I believe springtime would be a great time to visit. There would be an abundance of flowers and butterflies and the waterfall would be in full roar.

Travellers who had visited the travertine cliffs previously lamented their present state. The springs had diminished; no longer could you frolic in the pools; the color was “off.” However, we found them still an impressive sight, especially so against the backdrop of a late season thunderstorm.

We stayed overnight at the Artemis Yoruk Hotel. A simple, singly-occupied, en-suite double room cost €17/night with breakfast. The owners were welcoming and the rooms looked out on the courtyard swimming pool. It is within easy walking distance of a park at the base of the cliff and the walking path up the hill.

With Ephesus yet to come and many ancient cities behind us, we were “ruined out” so we opted to visit the ancient thermal pool rather than tour the extensive Greco-Roman city of Hierapolis. A couple we met opted for the ruins and were impressed with them. As for the pool, it is a little kitchy but pleasant. The water is tepid rather than hot. There are individual keyed lockers for valuables and change rooms in the pool area. One can view the pool but an additional charge is levied if one wants to jump in.

A pleasant three-hour drive brought us to Selçuk. It was Saturday and the town market was in full swing. There is an extensive variety of produce and prepared foods as well as dry goods and tourist tat.

We stayed at the budget UrkMez Hotel for €11/night. I had a triple en-suite room to myself and my daughter had a double for the same price. The rooms are plain but the windows are double glazed to keep street noise at a minimum. The hotel is on a pedestrianized street so there is no motor traffic (other than the occasional rogue motorcyclist!). The owners are extremely friendly and helpful.

We woke early to beat the crowds at Ephesus. Our host informed us it was already too late the cruise ships will have had lined up their patrons already. He recommended we visit at about 4:30pm to avoid crowds. Avoid the crowds? We were the crowd! We have pictures of us alone in front of the library, expounding vaguely remembered Shakespeare in the theatre and walking alone along the Via Curetes. There is an extra charge to visit the covered houses excavations. We thought it worth it; but then we were the only ones there and were able to take as long as we wished reading the helpful signs and viewing the areas close up. In summer, with crowds, the experience might not be as comfortable. We made our way to the exit as the sun set and the lights came on along the path. An added bonus is merchants are more prepared to bargain to make the last sale of the day. Fifteen YTL tour books become 5YTL books; 20YTL shirts become two for 12YTL.

My daughter introduced me to geocaching and all along our route we stopped to do this hi-tech treasure hunting but here we discovered the most scenic cache of all. For those unfamiliar with geocaching, it is a modern treasure hunt. Individuals hide caches then post co-ordinates on a web site (listed at the end of the report). Others hunt them out using a handheld GPS, take and leave mementos and record their names. (Guards at the Topkapi Palace must wonder at the special interest tourists show in a particular tree in the first courtyard.) The cache at Selçuk is on the summit of the hills backing Ephesus. A hike in from the road to Mary’s Home and affords a spectacular view of the whole Ephesus site and the surrounding plain to the sea.

Selçuk’s museum is worth a visit. Although it is small, treasures such as the Artemis statues, altar friezes and other statuary from Ephesus provide a good introduction to the city. When we were there a special exhibit concerning gladiators was very informative.

The ruins of St. John’s basilica are also inside the town. The massive complex was constructed in the 6th century over the place of St. John’s martyrdom. Above it, a massive castle keeps watch. It is closed for restoration and no date was given for its reopening. It was here we were approached twice regarding buying “ancient coins.” They are, both fake and overpriced, or, if real, illegal to purchase and take out of Turkey. Either way the tourist loses.

About 10 kms from Selçuk centre is the alleged last home of Mary, Jesus’ mother. Entrusted to John’s care, she is believed to have accompanied him to Ephesus. It is now a place of pilgrimage and once past the souvenir stand, the grounds have a calming mystical aura, even as crowds mill about.

Almost the same distance the other way from Selçuk is the hill town of Şirince. It is still referred to as Greek town. Because of a treaty in the early 20th century, residents with Greek heritage in Turkey were uprooted and resettled in Greece. The same occurred to Turks resident in Greece. Louis de Bernieres’ novel, Birds without Wings, provides a fictionalized account of this dislocation. Here my daughter found the bazaar and a jewellery shop offered the best value in cotton goods and silver. Şirince is also famous for the production of fruit wines. Name the fruit and they’ll have a wine. Wine shops abound and offer tastings. The wines range from off-dry to very sweet with an alcohol content of around 10% and cost about 10YTL a bottle.

From Seçuk to the Izmir airport it was a quick hour’s drive. To drop off the car we just drove to the departures door, parked and phoned the number provided and an agent came out and signed off on the car. From there it was back to Istanbul on another Pegasus flight.
Concluding Remarks

We only scratched the surface in our whirlwind tour of Western Turkey and Istanbul. Two weeks could have been filled in Istanbul alone.

Safety was not an issue at anytime. My daughter went out at night and felt safe in all the tourist parts of the cities and towns we visited. Normal precautions are warranted regarding pickpockets and scam artists.

Although Turkey is a Muslim country, there is a strict separation of church and state. We found urban Turks were very comfortable with this. They remarked that present pushes for greater involvement of religious practices in daily life were coming from more conservative citizens in rural areas. Alcohol is readily available in stores and many restaurants. Imported spirits and wine are very expensive. Local wines are not yet of very high quality. Raki is the drink of choice for Turks. I found Efes dark to be a pleasant beer.

We found that all the hoteliers and restaurant personnel treated us as honoured guests. One day on the street I was approached by a waiter we had the night before. He greeted me and again thanked me for visiting his restaurant and was off with no prospect of further business. Another refused a tip saying it was his job.

The Turkish Government knows the value of its historical resources and prices them accordingly. Minor attractions have entrance fees of 5YTL while major ones assess a 15 to 20YTL tariff.


Artemis Yoruk Hotel Pamukkale
Canada Hotel Çircali
Hotel Peninsula Istanbul
Istanbul City Guide
Turkey Travel Planner
Urkmez Hotel Selçuk

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