One of the first things that stands out when arriving in Turkiye is the sheer number of mosques. As you drive from Istanbul airport into the city, you pass a large bowl-shaped valley almost completely covered in low-level residential blocks. Each neighbourhood has its own mosque; this is the same throughout the country.
Sites like Haghia Sophia and the Blue Mosque are to be marvelled at, but some of the smaller mosques are beautifully decorated or built in an ornate style. Some of the early mosques have wonderful stone and brickwork.
In my day-to-day work, I plan itineraries in countries where too much of the same can become overbearing, be it churches in Armenia, temples in China or madrassas in Uzbekistan. Variety is what most travellers really want; they want UNESCO sites, a smattering of museums, villages, beautiful countryside, bazaars and, above all, good hotels and food. When I started to plan my trip I was conscious of this and tried not to include too many ancient archaeological sites: Roman, Lycian, Greek, Persian.
It is a quest to seek out the most interesting places and sites that can be found. Turkiye has a diverse range of clientele ranging from those who wish to enjoy the vibrant nightlife and music to those that choose to cruise the azure blue waters in their chartered gulets or deluxe yachts. Hidden between the large, deluxe hotels you will find some wonderful boutique hotels to be discovered.
Set high on a hilltop lies Pergamon, a favourite of mine. With an acropolis to retreat to in times of invasion and an asclepion (healing temple) at your doorstep, one can imagine people running hither and thither to escape the enemy or walking sedately to seek a cure. The tasteful renovation, the erection of fallen pillars and arches placed back on Capitols, create just enough of an image to really feel the history Pergamon holds.
From the hype, could anything trump Ephesus? As you enter Ephesus there is a columned road and an amphitheatre, but as the road snakes around the corner and up the valley you are greeted with a plethora of sites lying in wait, ready to be explored. From the old market (agora) square and the gates of Hadrian, Augustus and Hercules to the library and a house with exquisite mosaic floors, Ephesus is a cultural site to behold.
Being a UNESCO site, Ephesus attracts floods of visitors. The guides, accompanied by their “flocks”, were providing information. As I stood there absorbing the wonders around me, I overheard one guide say to his group,
“You are here as visitors and there are many of you, but imagine that in a different era. Just like today, these streets too would have been thronging with people.”
That is true, I thought. It is certainly one way to look at the situation.
As you journey to Sirence, you travel through a narrow valley dotted with farmsteads. Stone houses with courtyard gardens, narrow stone floored streets and a church make this an attractive place to visit. On the outskirts of the village you will find apricots, cherries and black mulberry – key ingredients that go into making what the village is known for: wine. Sirence can be very busy with daytrippers, so let’s do it differently. Arrive later in the afternoon when most people have left, spend the night in a small, comfortable hotel made up of several old houses with peaceful gardens, go for an evening stroll and explore the next day before everybody descends. Nearby is Seluk, a small town with a good museum displaying artefacts from Ephesus, the impressive Isa Bey Camii (mosque) and the remains of the aqueduct.
You cannot help but be impressed by Pamukkale. The vast, natural deposit of calcium tumbles off the hillside forming a curved white wall of horizontal pools with vertical sides. Warm, clear water trickles down creating and moulding new pools that can take years to create. Hierapolis is perched atop the hill. It is a wonderful contrast of pagan, Roman, Jewish and Christian influences that has evolved over time. The museum here has some splendid friezes and sarcophagi. Why not hire a buggy and explore the areas of the site slightly further afield?
Letoon and Xanthos
Two sites, Letoon (a UNESCO designated site) and Xanthos are small but charming. The site at Letoon is still being excavated so there is still a lot yet to reveal. Standing at the top of the amphitheatre you can imagine the gladiators being released from their holding rooms below for their fight to the death. Crowds cheering and perhaps jeering the winners and losers. Xanthos also has a small amphitheatre, but is perhaps best known for its pillar tombs; tombs erected at the top of stone pillars where the rulers of the Lycians were put to show the continuation of their rule.
To break up your journey, stay in or near the port town of Kas. The main street climbs up and away from the port. Adjacent to the many boats moored here are also a large number of restaurants that snake back, lining the narrow streets. Seafood is in abundance and the smells waft through the air as you walk by. It has a relaxed but lively feel and is the perfect place to enjoy Turkiye’s delicious cuisine and relax with a coffee, or perhaps a raki (an aniseed drink).
A little further along the coast you will find Myra. The real gems here are the carved rock tombs that dot the cliff face. You can imagine the funeral processions slowly making their way up the steps carved into the rock, carrying the deceased before placing them into their final resting place.
There are hotels that stand out and one such hotel is the Ruin Adalia Hotel in Antalya. It has its own underground museum with glass panels through which you can view the archaeological finds at street level. Originally it was an Ottoman house. Buildings that surround the courtyard have carved jamba balconies. The old part of Antalya is a warren of small streets; some houses have been turned into restaurants whilst others are now shops offering a variety of crafted goods from lace to pottery to unusual decorative items.
Without a doubt, Perge stands out in my mind as being as representative of a Roman city as one can be in today’s age. The site looks like a crucifix from above and is home to two grand gates, one Greek and one Roman. A long colonnaded street leads to a shrine dedicated to the nymphs and is where water to the site came from. Adjacent to the colonnaded road are a large number of beautiful mosaics. Imagine walking, perhaps arm in arm with a loved one, whilst carts and chariots passed by on the stone flagged road, made all the more real by seeing the rutted lines created by them. Hundreds of years of following the same route. Climb the nearby hill at the end of the site for a spectacular view over the site.
The town of Konya is a refreshing change. As trams run along the streets, this very open city is a delight to walk around. It is known for its Whirling Dervishes, the spinning of the priests that take them into a trance. The Mevlana Museum dates back to the 13th century and contains a number of tombs decorated by very large turbans, including that of the great Sufi poet Rumi.
My visit concluded with the iconic landscape of Cappadocia. Known for its cave houses, many of which are now hotels, it does not disappoint. The views around Cappadocia are incredible and might be best appreciated from the heights of a hot air balloon. The outdoor museum of Goreme has a collection of wonderful cave churches, many with fine frescoes and Karanlik Kilise, or Dark Church, is simply outstanding. Walk to the top of the castle, a pock-marked array of caves, for incredible, panoramic views.
Two hotels I would recommend, albeit at the higher end of the price spectrum. The Museum Hotel gives the feeling of being in a Turkish country house, but with fantastic views and a hot spring, outdoor pool that can be used year round. The Argo Hotel has its own extensive gardens, a wine cellar and offers cooking classes. The food is excellent and the cave rooms range from simply charming to much larger suites with their own dressing rooms and kitchen.
My visit to the south coast of Turkiye and the ancient archaeological sites was a delight. My next visit, Eastern Turkiye.